Seamus Heaney has died.
He was Ireland’s first Nobel-laureate poet since W. B. Yeats, but I — being a medievalist at heart, rather than a modernist — remember him with gratitude for his translation of Beowulf, which did so much to bring new readers to a work I’ve always loved.
For every reader, I think, there are some books that aren’t just books, they’re part of the permanent furniture of the reader’s mind; Beowulf was one of those for me. I liked the brightly colored world of Middle English poetry well enough, but the sepia monochrome of the northern thing, with its occasional smear of red and flash of gold, was the landscape that I really loved. It always disappointed me when modern readers would see it only as a primitive tale of monster-fighting — almost as much as it would disappoint me when critics failed to appreciate the monster-fights as much as they should have. (Those are some damn fine monster-fights.) Heaney’s translation may not have been scrupulously accurate; no poetic translation is ever going to be, and only a silly person would use a poetic translation as a crib sheet. But it did much to convey the mood and the feel of the work, and showed the reading public why Beowulf is a major work of world literature and not just an interesting historical artifact.
And for that, as I said, I am grateful.
A recording of Heaney reading from his translations at the opening of the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists Conference, at University College Dublin.