Beowulf Our Comtemporary
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The writer who should, on grounds of merit, have been made Poet Laureate has not been given the job. For political reasons he could neither be offered nor accept it. In his place, an ideologically correct poetaster has been appointed. But the unappointed poet of genius has promptly demonstrated his superior qualification for the role of national bard by translating the founding text of the indigenous verse tradition, the native primary epic. He has published a Beowulf.

I am talking, of course, about the 1890s. After Tennyson’s death in October 1892, William Morris was the outstanding candidate for the Laureateship. One of Gladstone’s cabinet ministers actually went to sound him out about the possibility of his nomination. But Morris, by this date a revolutionary Marxist, would have none of it. Instead, after a four-year pause and a change of government, Lord Salisbury appointed the loyal Conservative journalist and diligent versifier, Alfred Austin.

Before the end of 1892, Morris was already planning a translation of Beowulf. He did not wish to spend his time writing “birthday odes in honour of all the blooming little Guelfings and Battenbergs that happen to come along”. But he did, as the most distinguished poet of his era, wish to provide an attractive and accessible text of what Heaney, in his turn, describes as “one of the foundation works of poetry in English”.

The parallel with the 1990s is not, it need hardly be said, complete. Seamus Heaney was invited to translate the poem, for a new edition of the American Norton Anthology of English Literature, in “the middle years of the 1980s’, long before any question arose of finding a successor to Ted Hughes as Poet Laureate. Its appearance now is an accidental consequence of the lengthy period of “labour-intensive work, scriptorium-slow” during which, “like a sixth-former at homework,” Heaney turned the poem into modern English. Heaney’s motive, in his own account, was a stylistic wish to keep his “linguistic anchor” safely lodged “on the Anglo-Saxon sea-floor” while working in the Babel of modern America.The writer who should, on grounds of merit, have been made Poet Laureate has not been given the job. For political reasons he could neither be offered nor accept it. In his place, an ideologically correct poetaster has been appointed. But the unappointed poet of genius has promptly demonstrated his superior qualification for the role of national bard by translating the founding text of the indigenous verse tradition, the native primary epic. He has published a Beowulf.

I am talking, of course, about the 1890s. After Tennyson’s death in October 1892, William Morris was the outstanding candidate for the Laureateship. One of Gladstone’s cabinet ministers actually went to sound him out about the possibility of his nomination. But Morris, by this date a revolutionary Marxist, would have none of it. Instead, after a four-year pause and a change of government, Lord Salisbury appointed the loyal Conservative journalist and diligent versifier, Alfred Austin.

Before the end of 1892, Morris was already planning a translation of Beowulf. He did not wish to spend his time writing “birthday odes in honour of all the blooming little Guelfings and Battenbergs that happen to come along”. But he did, as the most distinguished poet of his era, wish to provide an attractive and accessible text of what Heaney, in his turn, describes as “one of the foundation works of poetry in English”.

The parallel with the 1990s is not, it need hardly be said, complete. Seamus Heaney was invited to translate the poem, for a new edition of the American Norton Anthology of English Literature, in “the middle years of the 1980s’, long before any question arose of finding a successor to Ted Hughes as Poet Laureate. Its appearance now is an accidental consequence of the lengthy period of “labour-intensive work, scriptorium-slow” during which, “like a sixth-former at homework,” Heaney turned the poem into modern English. Heaney’s motive, in his own account, was a stylistic wish to keep his “linguistic anchor” safely lodged “on the Anglo-Saxon sea-floor” while working in the Babel of modern America.


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