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This review is taken from PN Review 134, Volume 26 Number 6, July - August 2000.

NO MEAN MAKER SEAMUS HEANEY, Beowulf: A New Translation (Faber) £14.99

For over seven hundred and fifty years, in the wake of the Norman conquest, Beowulf was a text without readers. No complete translation of the poem into modern English existed until 1833, though a few years previously the young Tennyson had a stab at some of its lines. That one of contemporary poetry's major practitioners should have devoted so much time and energy to producing this spirited new translation is a mark of the poem's beauty and the pietas it can inspire.

What lends the Beowulf story an enduring quality is not merely its depiction of an epic, archetypal struggle between forces of good and evil, but its nagging reminders of mortality and of how 'we sing amid uncertainty' (W.B. Yeats). Alongside its confident assertions of orthodox Christian faith, such as the paean to the Creator (928), the poem is weighted by an awareness of the limitations of human knowledge and endeavour. One of the earliest instances of this comes with the account of how the dead Shield-Sheafson is launched out to sea in his shipgrave, where the poet impresses on the audience the unsureness and doubleness of their condition. In Heaney's resonant version, tolling homophones ('no', 'knows') are deployed to sound out this note of forewarning:

                  No man can tell
no wise man in hall or weathered veteran
knows for certain who salvaged that load
                                                            (51-3).

The word 'load' applies both to the body and the grave-goods, ...


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