Sep 4, 2013

Genius lost and discovered: Seamus Heaney

"'Xxx' is dead." I dread such words usually. Too seldom do they speak of the passing of a Ceausescu or an Idi Amin, too often of some friend or family member or colleague who will in fact be missed, and if not by me so very much, then at least by some whose happiness is important to me.

Or Xxx is another who reminds me of my deep ignorance of the breadth of Western Culture. Thus it was with Seamus Heaney, who died last week. "Who was that?" I asked.

The usual exclamations of astonishment ensued. An Irishman. A poet. Aren't they all in their cups? And a translator. That inspired only a little more interest. Then I saw a tweet from Jost Zetzsche which mentioned Beowulf.

Seamus Heaney

The appreciation of his work Jost shared told of the inspiration this translation had given to a young boy, and I was hooked. Hard.

I have never been able to find much enthusiasm for this Anglo-Saxon classic. Too f-ing obscure in its stilted translations, with my command of older English forms barely managing Chaucer in the original and probably missing half of that.

Could this man in fact have raised this dead text to a living thing to capture the imagination of young boys and grown men? Such word-sorcery is too rare and always to be celebrated.

So. I downloaded the in fact monolingual bilingual Kindle version from and sailed to the land of the Shieldings, watched Beowulf's struggles with Grendel and his monstrous mother with tense fascination before the best part of the tale, as old Beowulf, a tired king of 50 years' reign bade farewell to his cowardly chosen guard and faced the ravaging dragon alone, meeting his doom with but one loyal man at his side.

And as I read on to the funereal mourning and the keening voices in Heaney's voice, which spoke of the hero lost and the dark days ahead, I felt that the world was indeed a little darker for the loss of the Bard who gave a hero's tale new life to last another thousand years and inspire new generations to stand firm against the wyrm.


  1. Hi Kevin,

    Seamus Heaney translated and published much more than just Beowulf. This was also not the first time he breathed to an old text. His first translation was Buile Shuibhne (Sweeney's Astray) is an old Irish book.

    Maybe you should start digging here, it could be interesting,


    1. I've since seen a few other examples of his work and like it all. It's a bit embarrassing to have overlooked a writer that good for so long, but there's only so much time in the day, and I can always look forward to the certainty of many more good discoveries. What appealed to me particularly with Beowulf was that I am familiar with most of the story and had a translation of it already that I hated. That other work made it quickly clear how good Heaney was. I had planned to show some contrasting examples in this post, but the differences were so big and Heaney's text so good that any passage would do well enough. One thing that did surprise me was the third trial he faced: that is omitted from every retelling I have read so far. But I enjoyed that part most, not the least because its influence on another popular author and scholar of Beowulf is clear.

  2. Have a look at this: Rhymin' Simon on Famous Seamus.


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