Who Owns Beowulf?

Being a big fan of Ralph Waldo Emerson Poet in Residence Seamus Heaney, I spent much of the past three weeks hopping from lectures and readings by him to discussions about him. It was wonderful to hear him read aloud some of those poems I had only rehearsed in my head, but it was as wonderful to hear lines from his new translation of Beowulf. His wry running commentary--that the genre demanded the heroic "Charlton Heston or Clint Eastwood bit" or that he pictured the monster Grendel as a sort of "reeking dog-breath in the dark"--helped to underscore that Heaney was coming at the old staple of high school English classes from a refreshing new angle.

But Beowulf of all poems, does not seem in desperate need of another translation, Originally written sometime between the eighth and 10th centuries, it has been exhaustively redone into prose, verse, literal verse, alliterative verse and "modern" alliterative verse, in dozens of different languages.

Heaney, however, wanted to have another go at the 3,182-line epic, but not only as a sort of "prescribed" poetic exercise for himself. His return to the Anglo-Saxon (or so-called "Old English") text was also an act of cultural reclamation. In his own words, he wanted "to subvert all notions of the English language as a racial possession."

When translating the poem's "pre-chivalric diction," then, Heaney tried to leave his "Ulster fingerprints" on it, to reintroduce Beowulf in the formal, but simple, idiom of his father's relatives. "Scullions," according to Heaney, had just as much right to Beowulf as the Early English Text Society. After all, the geographically-defined "England" does not exclusively own what is called the English language. Though he is considered an Irish poet, Heaney's medium is exactly that language which is not contained by national boundaries.

The Irish poet's project to revive Anglo-Saxon for today's audiences, however, is not just another indulgence of "ethnic swank," he says. Because, 0 as he argued in one of the Wednesday "Talking Shop" discussions, "The English tongue is something that's grown beyond the nation." English speakers who are not English nationals can claim the poem as part of their linguistic genealogy as legitimately as those who carry English passports, he argued.


Though the Irish and the English have historically fought bloody battles over every sort of territory, Heaney's move is not one that furthers that conflict. His reclamation of Beowulf does not violently uproot the epic poem from its English context and encourage ethnic possessiveness. In fact, it bridges at least one gap between the two parties.

Heaney, in declaring that "we're all together in this language," extends the Good Friday Agreement-the political end of hostilities between the Irish and English peoples--into a literary and cultural realm. This new translation of Beowulf, then, is more of a gesture of commonality than an aggressive assertion of distinction or superiority. As much as their violent history has pulled them apart, the English and the Irish do at least speak the same language. This helps explain why Heaney did not necessarily resent his inclusion is an anthology of "English" literature compiled by Faber and Faber, Co. Though he did write a poem that asserted his passport was definitely green (the color of the Irish passport), Heaney did not think the book's editors intended to commandeer his writing: "I don't think they were Tally-Ho imperialists out to appropriate wee Seamus," he said.

Indeed, if Beowulf belongs to all English speakers, Heaney's writing also belongs to all English-speakers. Heaney's cultural reclamation has done more than recycle the same problem of exclusive ownership. Foregrounding the Irish perspective in English literature was not an aggressive repossession, but an invitation for others to try to crack the monopoly. Thankfully, Heaney keeps from falling into the same old trap: His cultural reclamation stakes out land for more than just one ethnic group, marking it off emphatically as a public space.

Jia-Rui Chong '99 is a history and literature concentrator in Kirkland House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.