A Ship of Death

Heaney presents a short section from his much admired ‘Beowulf’, the anonymous epic of the first millennium written in Anglo-Saxon/ Old English which he is translating over time and will publish in its entirety in 1999. The poet remains faithful to the original text using his creative talent and rich store of vocabulary to create a version that is both intellectually competent and pleasing to the ear.

Scyld was still a strong man when his time came

and he crossed over into Our Lord’s keeping.

His warrior band did what he bade them

when he laid down the law among the Danes:

they shouldered him out to the sea’s flood,

the chief they revered who had long ruled them.

A ring-necked prow rode in the harbour,

clad with ice, its cables tightening.

They stretched their beloved lord in the boat,

laid out amidships by the mast

the great ring-giver. Far-fetched treasures

were piled upon him, and precious gear.

I never heard before of a ship so well furbished

with battle-tackle, bladed weapons

and coats of mail. The treasure was massed

on top of him: it would travel far

on out into the sway of ocean.

They decked his body no less bountifully

with offerings than those first ones did

who cast him away when he was a child

and launched him out alone over the waves.

And they set a gold standard up

high above his head and let him drift

to wind and tide, bewailing him

and mourning their loss. No man can tell,

no wise man in the hall or weathered veteran

knows for certain who salvaged that load.

Beowulf, ll. 26-52

  • Scyld: Shield Sheafson, legendary king of the Danes in Norse mythology;
  • time: euphemism for moment of death;
  • Our Lord: the so-called VikingAge was a period of considerable religious change in present-day Scandinavia The Vikings came into contact with Christianity through their raids in Britain, Ireland and Normandy and when they settled in lands with a Christian population, they adopted Christianity quite quickly;
  • bade: past tense of ‘bid’;
  • lay down the law: both issue instructions without brooking opposition and setting them down as a record;
  • shoulder: carry on the shoulders;
  • flood: flow;
  • revere: hold in high esteem;
  • prow: bow, leading end of a ship; here metonymy for longship;
  • ring-necked: Viking images show the ‘swan’s-neck’ prow shape of Viking long-ships;
  • rode: floated;
  • clad: archaic past participle of ‘clothe’;
  • cable: hemp cordage;
  • ring-giver: saga kings were generous to those who served, rescued, or impressed them; rings have an element of ‘forever’ about them;
  • far-fetched: both fabulous and brought from afar;
  • furbished: equipped, appointed;
  • battle-tackle: Heaney finds an assonance to describe the paraphernalia and weaponry associated with warriors;
  • sway: gentle, rhythmical movement;
  • deck: adorn festively;
  • bounty: generous offerings;
  • cast: commit;
  • standard: ceremonial flag;
  • drift to: be carried as the currents wish;
  • bewail: express grief, lament;
  • mourn: feel grief;
  • hall: reference to the ‘mead hall’ the principal fortress and protection of saga kings where their faithful collected, decisions were made and banquets took place with lashings of alcohol (mead);
  • salvage: maritime term for ‘recover an abandoned ship and with it its contents’;
  • Even when translating the works of others Heaney is a meticulous craftsman using combinations of vowel and consonant to form a poem that is something to be listened to.
  • the music of the poem: fourteen assonant strands are woven into the text; Heaney places them grouped within specific areas to create internal rhymes , or reprises them at intervals or threads them through the text;
  • syllables without highlight are largely the unstressed sound as in common, little [ə]

  • alliterative effects allow pulses or beats, soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies; this is sonic engineering of the first order;
  • a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;

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