Fits of imagination
A review of Thomas Meyer’s ‘Beowulf’
In being caught between two times, that of composition and circulation, Thomas Meyer’s translation finds itself in harmony with its source text. Meyer translated Beowulf in the 1970s, after completing a 1969 senior thesis at Bard translating the rest of the surviving Anglo-Saxon poetic corpus. Our introduction to Meyer’s electric translation, however, is more recent, as it was released by punctum books, an open-access and print-on-demand publisher, only in 2012. Meyer’s source, Beowulf, survives in only one fragile, burnt manuscript, copied about a thousand years ago, but the poem was composed earlier, though scholars continue to debate how much earlier (possible dates for various portions and composition circumstances range from the seventh to the tenth centuries). This poem’s delayed debut does not diminish its freshness or its power to surprise with a new perspective on a familiar friend. Better still, Meyer connects Beowulf to a history of avant-garde mid-century poetry, especially an inheritance of Poundian Imagism and modernist experiments in long-form poems. Meyer thus also — unintentionally, perhaps — opens up Beowulf to resonances both contemporary and surprisingly medieval. Meyer designates his translation as “commentary,” but “collaboration” might be a better term for the interplay between the Anglo-Saxon original and Meyer’s present-day English version.
By making the poem larger and longer, more about expanses of space and time that need more pauses and divisions to be felt, Meyer also ultimately makes the poem more intimate, more about a specific time and space with its own emotions that must be observed in detail. In the interview published as an appendix in this volume, David Hadbawnik quotes Meyer claiming that “Instead of the text’s orality, perhaps perversely I went for the visual,” identifying the look of the poem as “a kind of typological specimen book for long American poems extant circa 1965” (264). Yet the oral becomes starkly visible on the page in Meyer’s text. In an oral culture, as depicted in Beowulf, your spoken word is everything because there is nothing else. When Beowulf introduces himself in Heorot, the mead-hall in which most of the first third of the poem takes place, Meyer gives his first words an entire page:
followed by a full page of white space (61). Once Beowulf has the opportunity to address the king himself, Meyer condenses his speech into a column running down the page, a few words per line. He stands upon his reputation and oral self-presentation.
Meyer’s willingness to play with line lengths substitutes his own chosen breaks for the caesura of the original long alliterative lines, with four stresses and three alliterations in specific set patterns. The effect of the visual layout — always thoughtful, never quirky or affected — stresses the poem’s essential orality. The plain, white space opens up the impact of the spoken oaths, boasts, songs of valor, and tense exchanges among the characters, emerging as deeply-freighted units of meaning from existential emptiness. When Beowulf responds to Unferth’s challenge about his past deeds, Meyer’s variation of line length draws attention to the alliteration. One can clearly hear the crisp note of scorn running through Beowulf’s retort to the unfriendly man, doubting that Beowulf really has accomplished so much. Beowulf declares:
Grendel’s evil gyre could have never spun
so much humiliation or
so much horror
in your king’s Heorot if your heart & mind were
as hard in battle
as you claim. (79)
Meyer uses alliteration enthusiastically but sparingly, relying upon line spacing to prevent the alliteration and parallel clauses from becoming repetitive and dull. Beowulf explains how he killed Grendel, ripping off his arm:
I’d meant to
wrap my arms around him, bind him
to death’s bed
with a bear’s,
a beewolf’s hug
but his body slipped my grip:
God’s will he
jerked free. (101)
Meyer’s alliteration, assonance, and Anglo-Saxon diction — which emphasizes compounds, kennings, and Germanic vocabulary — keep the feel of the poem close to the original Beowulf, but not slavishly so.
Meyer’s most drastic intervention may be his division of the poem into two sections, “Oversea” and “Homeland.” The emphasis on away versus home sensitizes the reader to time and space, natural landscape versus human-forged structures. The barrow where a dragon slumbers, guarding treasure, eerily collapses these divisions. Resting on a forgotten golden hoard from a died-out civilization, the dragon slept “wallowing / in pagan gold / 300 winters. // His earth encrusted hide / remained as evil / as ever” (186). The menace of the three monsters — Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon — comes from their sullying of the lines between civilization and its wild outside, destroying the raw material of creation itself. The mere over Grendel and his mother’s lair has become corrupted by their evil, as Hrothgar explains:
keeps that spot.
Black water spouts
lift off the lake
& lap the clouds
Wind surges into
deadly storms until
all air grows dark.
The skies wail.” (125)
Meyer beautifully sketches the contrast between the natural, dangerous, even malevolent environment and the man-made world of golden rings, shields, weapons, mead, and poetry.
Meyer’s divisions into two sections slow down the poem. In addition to the splitting between “Oversea” and “Homeland,” Meyer further divides the “Oversea” section into twenty-six “fits.” (Meyer wittily names the first introductory section of Beowulf “Forefit.”) These divisions are reminiscent of the second-most famous anonymous English poem from the Middle Ages, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which is broken into “fitts.” In contrast, “Homeland” has no such breaks, emphasizing the (idealized) wholeness, continuity, and integrity of this space. With these continual breaks, the longer histories embedded in the poem finally have the chance to capture a casual reader’s attention as much as the stories of Beowulf battling the monsters. The monsters, of course, capture our imaginations as readers. Like so many twentieth-century readers, Meyer is alert to another source of tragedy in the poem: the sentience, the internal life of the three monsters Beowulf defeats. Grendel in particular, the outcast antihero, has garnered modern empathy, and Meyer voices Grendel’s death agonies in a Joycean stream-of-consciousness. Beowulf grapples with Grendel, and Meyer imagines the desperate thoughts of the monster:
Meyer lets us glimpse Beowulf from the perspective of Grendel’s desperation. Yet Meyer’s translation, perhaps most importantly, allows the larger tragedy of Beowulf to become clear, and it is fundamentally a human tragedy. The constant intimations of danger and destruction — that the mead-hall Heorot will someday be burnt down, that the tribe of the Scyldings will not always be at peace, that Beowulf’s people are doomed to depredations and invasions after his death — gain urgency from the inset narratives about other, earlier feuds and battles. In Meyer’s translation, those narratives stand apart, visible, constantly breaking the headlong line of action and of verse. Recently, lovers of poetry and Beowulf had our own loss of the most famous of Beowulf’s recent translators, Seamus Heaney. Heaney produced what may now be the most familiar and well-known Beowulf translation for a generation of readers, a rendering sensitive to the poetry of the Anglo-Saxon original yet creating something new from it. Yet as Meyer’s translation reminds us, this poem that has survived for so long still has so much to teach us.