Writing in 1887 of the proposal to establish an Anglo-Saxon-based school of English at Oxford, the moral philosopher Thomas Case protested that ‘an English School will grow up, nourishing our language not from the humanity of the Greeks and Romans, but from the savagery of the Goths and Anglo-Saxons. We are about to reverse the Renaissance.’ Not for the first time, an Oxford don had mistaken his university for the spiritual heart of humanity. A century later, a move against Old English in Oxford provoked one apocalyptically minded medievalist to warn of the ‘worldwide demoralisation’ that would inevitably ensue.
Far from barbarously undermining liberal civilisation, pre-modern literary studies at Oxford lent it a new lease of life. What was needed, as an increasingly godless century wore on, was a set of myths and archetypes which might recall us to the neglected questions of good and evil, hierarchy and tradition, and provide an alternative symbolic universe to the levelling technological present. The result was the fiction of the Anglo-Saxonist J.R.R. Tolkien and the medievalist C.S. Lewis, both of whom raided the heroic resources of early literature for contemporary ideological ends. The blend of whimsy, escapism, reaction, regression and erudition was quintessentially Oxfordian.
Anglo-Saxon, as Cambridge calls the stuff, or Old English, as Oxford prefers to label it (the choice of name is itself politically significant), has for long been a cockpit of ideological contentions over national origins, pedigrees and continuities. Seamus Heaney, for example, refers casually to Beowulf as being ‘in English’, as though there were some unbroken thread from the speech of Hrothgar to the idiom of William Hague. Oxford’s dilemma was that you needed a philologically based English school if you were to have something substantial to examine, this being seen as the mark of a kosher academic subject; but since much of the influential work in this area was German, this also meant throwing in your hand with a bunch of Teutonic barbarians who, come 1914, were marauding at the gate in a more than merely intellectual sense. The Oxford English professor Sir Walter Ralegh, with a fine flash of the humanism to which he was devoted, remarked that he ‘should like to get up a team of 100 Professors and challenge 100 Boche professors. Their deaths would be a benefit to the human race.’ Only Oxford professors, it appeared, were to be granted the dignity of the upper case.
Yet it helped, in battling the Boche, to know that you hailed from an ancient race with bluff, manly vowels and a handy way with a sword, and this gave the Anglo-Saxonists a belated boost at their most perilous historical hour. Perhaps some of the Germans’ own uncouth virility could be hijacked for the struggle against their dominion. Not long afterwards, by the time an English school at Cambridge was up and running, this view of English and Englishness had evolved into a full-dress cultural ideology in the hands of F.R. Leavis and his collaborators. Unlike Oxford, Cambridge had sought to solve the Anglo-Saxon problem by ensconcing it in a separate faculty from English. Spiritually, however, what would eventually become known as Cambridge English adopted just the opposite strategy, boldly redefining the essence of English language and literature in vaguely Anglo-Saxonist terms. If the subject itself was academically sequestered, its colonising spirit was everywhere apparent. Authentic English was gnarled, racy, muscular, robust, richly specified and concretely realised, and the literary canon would be drastically reconstructed as one continuous laying bare of its nerve and sinew. In the process, poetry, that most cissy of all activities, would be repossessed for the male species. Unlike cerebral, anaemic languages such as French, English words had the good fortune sensuously to enact their own meanings, so that the archetypal English poem sounded rather like the rumbling of a sack of potatoes being emptied. Not even the thinnest blade could be slid between signifier and signified. What Freud had seen as a characteristic mark of schizophrenia – the confusion of words and things – was raised to a sign of ethnic distinction. For this quasi-sacramental poetics, ‘Où sont les neiges d’antan?’ palely alluded to something, whereas ‘mossed cottages trees’ was a matter of real presence. Once again, in the long history of English nationalism, Englishness was everything that the abstract, frivolous, revolutionary French were not.
There is a geographical as well as a theological poetics at work here. Roughly speaking, the nearer you approach the Arctic Circle, the more authentic your language grows. Northern poems – from Beowulf and Ted Hughes’s The Hawk in the Rain to Seamus Heaney’s Death of a Naturalist – are craggy and brawny, whereas southern ones are more devious and deliquescent. The Northern Irish poet Tom Paulin, with his penchant for words which sound like the squelching of a leaky boot, raises this doctrine to the point of self-parody. In poetry like Heaney’s, you can hear the pluck and slop of brackish water as the signs button down snugly on their referents, whereas Donald Davie’s words stand at a chaster distance from his meanings. This, needless to say, is linguistic nonsense. Basil Bunting’s words are no closer to his material objects than Thomas Hardy’s, for all that the former came from the North-East and the latter from the South-West. The relationship between language and the world is not a spatial one, any more than the relation between a spade and the act of digging with it. The celebrated ‘materiality’ of a poet like Heaney is really a linguistic trompe l’oeil, a psychological rather than ontological affair, a matter of association rather than incarnation. The density of his discourse does not ‘embody’ material process, as we post-Romantics are prone to think; it is just that the one phenomenon brings the other to mind. Poetry is a sort of trick, whereby an awareness of the textures of signs puts us in mind of the textures of actual things. But the relation between the two remains quite as arbitrary as in any other use of language; it is just that some poetry tries to ‘iconicise’ that relation, make it appear somehow inevitable. This – what Paul de Man referred to as the ‘phenomenalisation of language’ – is the mark of ideology, and it is ironic that poets should typically regard themselves as the antidote to ideologists, giving us the feel and pith of things rather than the delusory abstraction. It is hard to imagine, however, that de Man is bedside reading for the theory-allergic Heaney.
Words may not be things, but the poet, like the small child making its first sounds, is one who invests them as though they were. There is thus something regressively infantile as well as dauntingly mature about poetry, rather as the grandeur of the imagination is embarrassingly close to libidinal fantasy. Does language transport the writer to the heart of reality, or does messing about with the stuff substitute for that reality like a child’s Plasticine? How can the erotic mouth-music of the babbling toddler become somehow cognitive?
If the poem salvages the use-value of words from their tarnished exchange-value, then it becomes an organic society all in itself. It is thus not surprising that the Cambridge English version of language should go hand-in-hand with a nostalgia for a non-alienated community, in which objects had yet to lapse into the degraded condition of commodities. Hence, perhaps, the rural-born Heaney’s affection for Beowulf’s burnished helmets and four-square, honest-to-goodness idiom, its Ulster-like bluffness and blood-spattered benches. He likes the poem’s blend of directness, ornateness and obliquity, unsurprisingly for an Ulsterman who is given to verbal opulence and is notoriously elusive in some of his opinions. He is also attracted to the way it floats somewhere between formulaic oral tradition and self-conscious artistry, a metaphor for his own in-betweenness as an intellectual sprung from the common people.
In terms of Irish stereotypes, Beowulf seems like a Gaelic rather than Celtic piece of art – canny, virile and earth-bound rather than dreamy, spiritual and involuted. Heaney evidently began translating the piece at the same time as he was first exposed to the ‘unmoored speech’ of contemporary American poetry, and saw in it a kind of ‘aural antidote’ to that verse – a way of ensuring, as he puts it in his extravagantly figurative prose, that ‘my linguistic anchor would stay lodged on the Anglo-Saxon sea-floor.’ But it would be more accurate to see the materialist, melancholic Beowulf as an extraordinary fusion of both registers, which brings us closer to the source of its fascination for our leading English-language poet.
Within Heaney’s writing, the civic and the chthonic have always slogged it out, and this magnificent translation is no exception. Scattered among Beowulf’s desolate moors and marshes are a few besieged centres of human culture, ceremony and solidarity – the lords’ lighted halls which hold out against the encroaching dark. Torn between light and darkness, air and earth, Heaney himself is an enlightened cosmopolitan liberal born into an Ulster whose allegiances are to some degree cultic, parochial, pre-modern. Unlike most liberal intellectuals, however, he is aware that the tug of roots and communal loyalties cannot be briskly disowned as so much surplus historical baggage. Even so, there has been a ferocious tension between the elemental and the educated in his work. If he is allured by the bleak seascapes of the Norsemen, he is even more seduced by the mellow Hellenistic warmth of more southerly Europe. There is a similar tension between the Derry nationalist, culturally alien to literary London, and the Heaney who can sometimes sound, politically speaking, like he might have been raised in Dorking.
Beowulf, a poem both subtle and savage, is thus an obvious target for his talents, which are in any case so formidable that he needs a big-time author (Sophocles, Virgil, Dante) who will give him a run for his money. In his introduction, in a typical piece of lushly over-fanciful Heaneyspeak, he writes of the poem as having its keel ‘deeply set in the element of sensation while the mind’s lookout sways metrically and far-sightedly in the element of pure comprehension – which is to say that the elevation of Beowulf is always, paradoxically, buoyantly down-to-earth’. The dragon of the text he sees as having both a ‘foundedness’ and a ‘lambency’ about him, ‘at once a stratum of the earth and a streamer in the air’. This great coiled beast, in short, turns out to be none other than a certain Nobel Prize-winning Irish poet, who has spent a lifetime struggling to reconcile the earth of local affinities with the air of uncommitted freedom, the foundedness of Armagh with the lambency of Athens.
What reconciles these things for Heaney is the redressing activity of poetry itself, an occupation as utopian in form as it is demystified in content. But Beowulf allows him to relish a more precise kind of resolution, since it accommodates conflicting realities, pagan and Christian, within a single order. It is written by a Christian poet about the pre-Christian past of his people, and thus combines historical detachment and imaginative inwardness. Like Heaney and Northern Ireland, the Beowulf poet metaphorically connives in these tribal warrings while being spiritually out of joint with them, holding his own people critically at arm’s length. If he is a bit of a historical revisionist, chiding his forebears for their barbaric ways, he is also one of the gang. Like Northern Ireland, this is a community caught up in a cycle of violence, bound by its death-dealing codes of honour and loyalty; but as a poem written near the millennium it also has a broader political resonance. ‘A world is passing away,’ Heaney writes of these bickering Danes, ‘the Swedes and others are massing on the borders to attack and there is no lord or hero to rally the defence.’ The poem, like the millennium, closes on a note of sombre foreboding.
Earth and air were equally complicit in this translation’s origin. As a Catholic nationalist student in Belfast, Heaney informs us, he felt dispossessed of his own language, until the tentacular roots of certain words, the complex crossings between the Irish and Scots Gaelic uisce and the English ‘whiskey’ (in an extra twist, Heaney spells the word in Hiberno-English style), made him imagine a kind of ‘riverrun of Finnegans Wakespeak pouring out of the cleft rock of some prepolitical, prelapsarian, urphilological Big Rock Candy Mountain’. It is a typically brash, subtle Heaney trope, but one rather more slippery than he suspects. This epiphanic moment hoists him out of earth into air, out of his sullen politico-linguistic resentment into a ‘sweetening’ awareness of verbal hybridity. The polarities of Irish and English, Celtic and Saxon, are momentarily collapsed, in what Heaney, borrowing a phrase from his poetic compatriot John Montague, describes as an escape from the ‘partitioned intellect’ into some larger-spirited, unsectarian country of the mind.
It seems a pity to sour this eirenic liberal pluralism. But the ‘partitioned intellect’ in Ireland is not in fact one which sees Irish and British culture as rigidly adversarial. On the contrary, it is one which sees them as intimately interwoven. It is liberal Unionism, not nationalism, which holds to a unity of Irish and British culture in order to rationalise British rule of part of the island. Cultural hybridity is here in the service of political division. Heaney rather typically fails to notice this, intent as he is on his own spiritual liberation. Even so, it was this revelation that made him see Beowulf as part of his own ‘voice-right’, and recognise as a politically aggrieved late adolescent that he was born into its language and its language was born into him. Translating the poem is thus the final, triumphant reversal of his cultural dispossession. Just as this most ‘authentic’ of artworks is also profoundly alien – we have no idea who wrote it, or exactly when or where – so Heaney’s own idiom can be seen as both askew to metropolitan English and somehow closer to the bone of the language. Much the same is true of the poet who, so he tells us, first formed his ear, Gerard Manley Hopkins.
The erstwhile outsider, then, has now placed himself boldly at the fons et origo, claiming the tongue as always-already his own from the outset. It is hard to know quite how Beowulf is the origin of Arthur Hugh Clough or Simon Armitage, but in any case Heaney has dug down with his pen to ‘the first stratum of the language’ and appropriated his birthright. As Harold Bloom might less decorously put it, the belated bastard offspring has now installed himself as the founding patriarch. It might be argued that Heaney’s anxious need for this move to be legitimated is a sign of the cultural colonisation it aims to overcome. Yet, having reversed his cultural dispossession, he then reverses the reversal. In searching for the pitch or enabling note of the work, he finds it in the weighty, ‘big-voiced’ utterance of some family relatives. Having kicked free of Ulster soil into the upper air, he now has the confidence to touch down on it again.
The result is a marvellously sturdy, intricate reinvention, which betrays its author’s poetic dabs less in its earthiness than in its airiness. It is the canny colloquialisms (‘in fine fettle’, ‘under a cloud’, ‘blather’, ‘big talk’, ‘gave as good as I got’) which are most Heaneyesque, not the smell of the soil. If the stark subject-matter is redolent of North, the treatment has the mild touch of insouciance of a more recent collection like Seeing Things. This poet is so superbly in command that he can risk threadbare, throwaway, matter-of-fact phrases like ‘of no small importance’ or ‘the best part of a day’. He has a casual way with the alliterative pattern of the original, which helps to strip its craft of portentous self-consciousness and frees up its syntax to move more nimbly. Lines like ‘He is hasped and hooped and hirpling with pain, limping and looped with it’, which the young Heaney might well have written in earnest, are really an ironic Post-Modern quotation, a self-parodic hint of the racket the whole poem might make if you bound yourself too grimly to its form.
The epic poem, as Marx once observed, requires historical conditions which the steam-engine and the telegraph put paid to. Mechanically-reproduced commodities have lost the aura of ancient objects, just as the self-conscious fictions of modernity have lost what Heaney calls the ‘hand-built, rock-sure feel’ of a poem like this. But modern objects, typified for Georg Lukács by Charles Bovary’s extraordinarily convoluted, visually unrepresentable hat, have also shed what seems to us the unalienated candour of material things in Beowulf, which exist more as narrative elements than as literary enigmas. In any case, we no longer believe in heroism, or that the world itself is story-shaped, and we ask of literature a phenomenological inwardness which is of fairly recent historical vintage. All of this is a signal misfortune for Seamus Heaney, an artist so exquisitely gifted and imaginatively capacious that only a work of such mighty scale would answer to his abilities.