The Volta: Friday Feature

Beowulf: A Translation by Thomas Meyer. Punctum Books, 2012.

cover of Beowulf

Reviewed April 1, 2013 by Patrick James Dunagan.

Other than silence, one frequent response from peers to my reporting the news of Thomas Meyer’s translation of Beowulf is something along the lines of “didn’t Seamus Heaney already do that?” But no, the rather ubiquitous and infamous Irish poet hasn’t already done this. Meyer’s take (completed long ago in his youth) is unique; a complete re-envisioning of what’s in the Beowulf translator’s toolbox. It stands distinctly apart from Heaney’s—whose version Meyer refers to as “somehow pedestrian, at the same time somehow overbearing.” At any rate, there’s definitely plenty of room on the shelf.

Beowulf has received several variant re-visits and readings over the years, from John Gardner’s Grendel to Joseph Campbell’s exegetical over-castings of the “hero’s journey.” Most readers are no doubt familiar with the poem, whether through Heaney’s recent popular translation, all of the numerous and various versions read in high schools, or even the beginnings of Jack Spicer’s own version in CUNY’s indispensable Lost and Found chapbook sets; yet, without significant pre-existing knowledge in Old English studies, it can be hopelessly difficult to follow. For those who have never encountered Beowulf: for shame, as the old saying goes, you’d better get busy.

This edition will help you out. Meyer’s translation is superbly easy-going and chock full of identifiable nods to a wide swath of Modernist poetic conceptions and references. Here, he traces direct lines from the Old English text through to Twentieth-century poets, with a healthy dose of Poundian, Olsonian, and Zukofskyian echoes. Inclusion of supplementary materials frames the text in numerous ways, situating this translation within the extensive and ongoing field of Beowulf Studies. Introducing the contextual grounds of how this publication thankfully came to be shepherded along, editor and poet David Hadbawnik offers a preface, as well as an interview with Meyer as an appendix. The book also features a useful and lengthy introduction by Daniel C. Remein that elucidates the history of the text and its surrounding scholarship. Additionally, there’s a helpful bibliography, as well as Meyer’s very hip to the scene Glossary and Notes.

Meyer began translating Old English for his 1969 senior thesis project at Bard College. As he explains in his interview with Hadbawnik:

The faculty had approved me for doing a creative project, a bunch of poems. But in his wisdom Robert Kelly took me aside and said, “Look, you’re going to write the poems anyway, why not use this opportunity to learn something you might not otherwise?” I’d had a Chaucer course and eventually did a paper on “The Franklin’s Tale,” all of which fascinated me. Old English seemed like the natural next step…

In tandem with Meyer’s developing interest in translating Old English came the opportunity of living abroad in England with Jonathan Williams. The two younger poets spent time visiting with Basil Bunting and discussing, among other things, matters of translation. As Meyer describes it, their conversations were wholly fruitful and engaged, including, for example, inquiries as to whether or not “it [is] even possible to create a kind of rhetorical equivalent in modern English of Old English poetic diction without slipping into some sort of pre-Raphaelite, William Morris affectation?” Meyer explains that “Bunting thought Coverdale’s and Tyndale’s translations of the Bible was the place to look; that the King James Version watered down their strengths.”

He goes on to say of Bunting, “The Book of Kells he would point to as a visual representation of what he was after aurally.” (For more on this aspect of Bunting’s own practice, interested readers should turn to Basil Bunting on Poetry, specifically the opening lectures “The Codex” and “Thumps.”) The older poet’s enthusiasm for probing the workings of language in poetry both in his talk and writing proved essential for Meyer.

Because of these discussions, translating Beowulf suddenly stared me square in the face. Something of a mess as far as “long poem” is concerned, but a real gymnasium for trying out the possibilities of a poetic language. That was my real concern. [Emphasis added]

The interesting struggle with translation for Meyer was his desire to utilize as much of the current poetic means available to him as possible. Not in order to modernize the guts of the poem itself, but to enhance for a twentieth-first century audience what was already there. In his Introduction, Remein points to one such passage, I quote in length for full clarity:

An instance of what at first may seem more conventional typography in Meyer’s translation—Hrothgar’s description of the path to the lake of Grendel’s mother—instead witnesses the capacity for Beowulf (in Old English and its translation) to appear in terms of an attention to concrete elements on the minutest and subtlest of levels:

… I’m told two things

can be seen to prowl the nearby

borderlands, a male & female,

who dwell in swamps on

[page break]

“dark land

riddled with

wolfhills, windy

cliffs, risky

swamptrails where

upland streams


through cragfog

flow on underground.

Not far,

a few miles from here,

a firmly rooted wood’s

frost crusted branches


shadows upon a lake

where each night sees

strange wonders:


flare above

unplumbed fathoms.”

Here, the short lines of the couplets and single lines do appear as the list of landmarks in a textual map, or, in modern terms, a set of directions (the capacity for Beowulf to provide textual maps translated into driving directions.) In doing so, the concrete lines construct a slim column of text around which the passage to the lake and the lake itself coagulate together as a site charged with the energy of vertical movement—the lines connecting fire and water and atmosphere form exactly the single frightening mass the Old English poem offers.

In other words, this is indeed a rather lovely translation that is rooted in Meyer’s exquisite manner of detailed perception, not only to the language but to things particular to specific landscape as well. As he mentions in the interview with Hadbawnik:

My own work at the time was definitely involved with “early Anglo-Saxon lore,” plants, local legends, Englishness. What nineteenth-century vicars wrote diaries about, or someone up at the manor collected, birds’ eggs, bezoars, or household tales. After all, that’s where I was living. The English Countryside.

Meyer pours the intensity of these interests into his Beowulf and they are well-matched. The already heavily physical Old English of the original is brought further along into our current tongue. As Meyer says, “One of the most profound effects Anglo-Saxon had on me from the beginning and to this day, as I’ve said, is avoiding the Latinate.” Climbing and bounding about within Meyer’s translation returns a total sense of the world as given in the poem. Yes, Beowulf is here still the great hero of the Danes. Yes, he battles Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon but he and his exploits are not where the most interesting focus falls here. More than any individual characteristics of the tale, anything the landscape itself is central to Meyer’s version, which opens up the tale with a nice loud “HEY now hear.” Enough said. Listen up.


A Note Concerning Thomas Meyer’s Beowulf:

This is an open access publication, which means it’s available for free download; however, there is also an option to purchase a physical copy of the book, and I would urge anyone who's interested in Tom's work, Old English poetry, or supporting independent publishers to buy a copy.

– David Hadbawnik

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Patrick James Dunagan lives in San Francisco and works in Gleeson library at the University of San Francisco. His most recent book is There Are People Who Think That Painters Shouldn’t Talk: A GUSTONBOOK (Post Apollo, 2011).