21 June 2011

Whatever Fitts

Before I give you the first part of my Beowulf translation, let's talk about why it is poetry. There's no rhyme here, no definite number of syllables per line, but this is not free verse. It has a very strict form.

First, if you look at any line you should see a pause near the centre that divides it into two halves. Sometimes a period divides the line, sometimes a comma, and sometimes the two halves are just two different phrases. We can be fairly relaxed about what creates the pause.

Next, read a line aloud slowly, with expression, remembering to pause where you should. You should notice that there are two stresses in each half line, making four in all. The third stress alliterates with the first one or the second or both. That means that the stressed syllables begin with the same sound. (One note: the Old English thought that any vowel alliterated with any other, so an e could be paired with an a, e, i, o, or u, for example. This makes life much easier).

Have a look at the first sentence of the poem to see how this works.

NOW. Spear-carrying Danes in days long past,
and their nobles too, we know their fame,
and how they earned honour through deeds.
  • Line 1, the pause is between "Danes" and "in." The third stress in the line ("days") alliterates with the second "Danes." Ignore the NOW. That's a call for attention, like beginning a rap with "Yo!" Think of it as being outside the line.
  • Line 2, the pause is between "too" and "we," just at the comma. The third stress ("know") alliterates with the first ("nobles").
  • Line 3, the pause is between "earned" and "honour." No, it is not as clear as the others. The third stress ("honour") alliterates with the second ("earned") by the rule that all vowels alliterate with each other.
There are more rules, of course, controlling where the unaccented syllables can go and how many are allowed. The curious can look up "Sievers' Types" for more information. I do my best to follow all the rules, but bend them when I have no choice.
The first section of the poem tells the history of the Danish royal family, with emphasis on their heroic founder. Since his name is Scild Scefing, I should mention that it is pronounced "Shild Shefing." ("Sc" is "Sh"). Heaney translated the name into its English equivalent, "Shield Sheafson."

The "Beowulf" in line 18 is not the Beowulf of the title, but another with the same name. 

Here, then is Fitt 1, as best as I can do it.


NOW. Spear-carrying Danes in days long past,  1
and their nobles too, we know their fame,
and how they earned honour through deeds.
Many times Scyld matched against foes
of many tribes tore up mead-benches,
overawed earls, after he was found
an orphan alone; later joy found him.
Under the sky he grew great and world-honoured
till every neighbour nearby or distant
over the whale-road offered submission    10
and gave him gifts. How good a king!

After, he was blessed, for an heir was born,
a son in the yard, sent down by God
to cheer the folk. He had felt the pain
all had endured without a lord
so long a time; the Lord to repay them,
Miracle Maker, marked him for fame.
Beowulf was renowned—the name was spread
of Scyld’s offspring through all the North.
So a youth should act: earn through good deeds,   20
and finest gifts for his father’s supporters,
allies for his old age, anchored to guard him,
willing comrades when war has come
standing at his shoulder. Sterling behaviour
is, for most peoples, the path to success.

Scyld fared once more at the fated hour
setting off in his prime, safe in God’s care.
They bore him off to the ocean waves,
as he had bidden them, his best comrades,
while he could muster words, their admired friend,   30
beloved lord, long the ruler.

Riding in the harbour, a ring-prowed ship,
ice-slicked and ready, right for a hero.
They laid him down, their dear ruler,
the ring-sharer in the ship’s centre,
the mighty one by the mast. Much was the wealth there,
fineries and armour fetched from great distance.
I have never heard of handsomer keels
with bright weapons and battle-wear,
broadswords and byrnies. On his breast there lay   40
many treasures to travel with him
over the ocean’s flood, float beyond sight.
These final gifts furnished by the thanes
were less in no way than the wealth once left
long before by the men who let him drift
lost on the waves, a lonely child.

But when they stood a standard of gold
high over head, handed him to the sea,
hove him over reeds, their hearts were sore,
their minds mourning. Men can never     50
confidently say—counsellors in halls,
heroes under heaven—whose hands took that cargo.

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