Bertha Rogers's Beowulf
On Good Reviewing
On Bad Reviewing
~ . ~ . ~
Bertha Rogers's Beowulf, Translation and Art
Birch Brook Press,
POB 81, Delhi, NY 13753, 129 pp, $20 paper,
The Clear-Cut Dragon
Having not had a significant, new translation of "Beowulf" in years, one has to wonder at the serendipity of two new translations appearing in the same year. While Seamus Heaney's version, commissioned by the editors of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, has the advantage of high finance and hype, Bertha Rogers's version does just as fine a job of rendering the old English poem readable and relevant.
I have to confess that as a teacher of British Literature, I found the version of Beowulf which appeared in the high school textbooks both tedious and unmellifluous. Still, I dragged my unwilling students through a variety of lessons designed to help them appreciate the exploits of the warrior Beowulf, the world he inhabited, and the type of verse employed by the original speakers/transcribers of the poem. After reading the full tale, as told by Bertha Rogers, I am somewhat embarrassed by my previous lack of sympathy for the tale. What I thought to be a one-dimensional irrelevancy actually addresses the contemporary world.
Ours is a time short on heroes but long on the brag. Our popular culture celebrates thugs and losers, street punks and geeks who dominate through intimidation. We expect nothing from our politicians except rhetoric. We honor the CEO who runs his company successfully while running his employees into the ground. Beowulf, the warrior from the land of the Geats, travels to the land of the Danes to save them from the dreaded monster Grendel. Unlike our contemporary idols, Beowulf sacrifices himself on the altar of selflessness. Yes, Beowulf is boastful and proud, but he delivers, killing not only Grendel, but Grendel's mother, and finally, after long years as a just king, he also takes on the dragon which threatens his native land and which ultimately kills him. Beowulf is the heroic model. Knowing what has to be done, he does it, without whining, and he takes his just rewards--gold and honor and land and praise.
Rogers has done an admirable job of bringing Beowulf to life--this despite the rigors of trying to subdue the cadences and structures of a poem designed to be spoken into a literate whole. In her introduction, Rogers notes that she has "attempted to retain [the poem's] poetry and music through the use of alliteration, compound metaphors, and internal rhyme. . ." As the poem is presented in the book, it does not at first appear to be poetry. In fact, the set-up of the book in paragraphs and sections suggests prose. Rogers's translation, however, is pure poetry.
The first section of the poem, 'Prologue: The History of the Spear-Danes,' demands our attention: 'LISTEN! WE KNOW the glory of the Spear-Danes.' The capital letters (used throughout the text at the beginning of each section) shout out as the scops must have as they began to retell the exploits of the warrior. Despite the prose-y look of the page, lines such as 'His heart companions lifted his corpse to the sea's current; he lofty Scylding king. . .' demonstrate the translator's ability to use metaphor and alliteration while at the same time producing a musical line.
As is the case with many poems, this one is best read aloud or at least with a strongly attuned internal ear. Otherwise, the reader will miss the rhythm in lines such as 'Fierce and greedy [Grendel] snatched up thirty draught-sleeping thanes; he went home, slaughter proud, in the dark.' Or '[Grendel] made Heorot, beautiful hall, his nest, night after fainting night. . . '
Rogers is quite capable of bringing the never-never land of Beowulf to life. Some of her best imagery describes the warriors. 'Their chain mail clattering, their battle dress bright in the sun . . .' is how we first meet Beowulf and his men as they reach the land of the Danes. Later, as they approach Hrothgar, Rogers paints this picture: 'Their chain mail, hand linked, flamed like rings of fire in the light. . .' This is a world alternately bright or dark with nothing in between. In the section 'Beowulf Kills Grendel', Beowulf lies down knowing, '. . . the monster plotted war against the cliff hall from the sun's rising until the darkness dropped down to hide them and the shadow shapes came slinking, slithering beneath the clouds.' Once Grendel has been vanquished, ' . . . the sun delivered the fullness of morning to that glad palace.'
Of course, the giving of golden gifts and the singing of praises notwithstanding, all will not be well in Heorot, and Beowulf will be forced to proved himself again as he kills 'Grendel's mother, monster woman. . .' After that exploit, the hero returns to his native land where he becomes a good king until a dragon threatens the Geats. At that moment, Beowulf speaks his '. . . battle boast a final time: 'I took my fill of fighting when I was young. Still I long, old folk warden, to find a last glory trial if he who is a pestilence dares leave his barrow home.' The good king, a brave and noble warrior to the end, dies from wounds inflicted by the dragon. His final words, addressed to Wiglaf, bespeak the melancholy tone of the end of the poem. 'You are the last of our kin, our tribe, . . . fate has taken all my family tree, earls in glory. I must follow.'
Beowulf, as Rogers states in her introduction, is as much about the ending of one world order as it is about the adventures of its title character. When Beowulf dies, we realize that his world of valor and honor dies too. In that moment, the contemporary reader can find the greatest relevance of the old epic. We are an interior lot, given to self-analysis and expecting much for the little we do. In Beowulf we see a man who lived by a code that allowed only two options--live bravely or die. That world no longer exists, but we are richer for having had two new translations of the epic to remind us that such a world once did.
Rogers's is an excellent and readable retelling of the ancient tale. The decision to set the poem into a prose-seeming format was a wise one, adding to the accessibility of the verse. Her art adds to the attractiveness of the volume making it a wise choice for readers interested in both great poetry and in a wonderful adventure story.
(Barbara M. Simon edits the Maryland Poetry Review.)
~ . ~
On Good Reviewing
First: Don't beat about the bush. A chapbook, zine or broadside is a poetic cowpie, rhinoceros beetle, svelte eland or rose. Do not delay things with Old Testament 'in-the-beginning' geneses. Get to the New Testament crux quickly.
Second: Judge. What then was all that K-12/17 (18...) education for? Draw crisp inferences from what you've read. The words met in poems, stories and essays are either bassackwards or they are lovely paeans to Mnemosyne and her nine yakking daughters.
Third: Fight for the Western canon. Its jewels may be on scraps of paper (Dickinson) or under continuous revision (Whitman). Feel the shield of Achilles nudge your shoulder, the charred remains of Beowulf warm your feet, as Jane Eyre wanders the moor looking for love.
Fourth: Use critical tools. Track persona, tone and voice for poetry, donneé, character and plot for fiction, a logical development of idea for essay. The rest? In this country of "Mr. Flood's Party," literature is expected to 1) make the common idiom sing, 2) hallow the place, 3) have breadth of view for a vast and varied land, and 4) praise the body and spirit of human existence--period.
Fifth: Note irritants. When verse (here, the basic subject) grinds an axe or ideology (political correctness, social engineering), condemn it. Lambaste all anomie with a knotty one from the self-chopped woodpile you keep high and ready-to-hand.
Sixth: Extol nuance. Most poetry today is composed in free verse, so replace discussions of rhyme, form, and iamb with close observations of pitch, stress, and juncture. Note how lines rise and fall, what line-lengths are doing, what their juxtapositions strive for, all within our lexicon and its 400+ tropes.
Apply the abovementioned in reviews and you will sleep soundly: "From my mother's sleep I fell into the State…"; "(ponder, darling, these busted statues…)"; "Once I am sure there's nothing going on…".
Smooth Sailing on Academic Journal Seas
I should mention the bees in the back yard
Best first toss in sundry Europeans with scarves.
Jeez, the whole tree hums even a hundred feet away
Cite the article on chaos in Atlantic, received today.
Bally clouds of motion, closer, yet indistinct
Dante, Ovid interrupt: Do recap what they think.
Thousands slide from bloom to bloom
-- None in their teeming crash --
But I must be more rechauffé.
(Give CUM* and Harvard class).
(Tim Scannell writes frequently for the magazine. He lives in Washington State.)
~ . ~
On Bad Reviewing
All but the first of the six tenets in Tim Scannell's piece on good reviewing are stated affirmatively. The negative first one bears repeating: Don't beat about the bush. We respectfully co-opt and adapt it to our use here:
Don't beat about the burning bush.
The excerpt below is from a review (commissioned from a highly credentialed reviewer) of the new collection by a prominent American poet. A rather lengthy digression in an otherwise diffuse piece, the review has not appeared in the magazine, nor will it, except in this abbreviated, albeit intact form, and for the present limited purpose.
We have taken to referring to this review privately as "The Anxiety of No...Influence." If the reviewer had a grizzly bone to pick with Harold Bloom, he might properly have published an essay in which he confronted Bloom's literary theories directly. Certainly many others have. If he had a grade to dispute, he might have dropped by during posted hours to defend his paper--or to tell Bloom off to his face.
Instead, he co-opts a review assignment to a personal agenda writ beyond its margins, and attacks [Poet], who is a stranger to him, bears no objective resemblance to Bloom (save an element of notoriety and influence), and countenances none of his attacker's reprimands, imputations and rhetorical guesswork inasmuch as he is out of frame of the self-scheduled mirror debate.
It is of small lasting concern to [Poet] to be burned in Bloom's effigy. However, it is of large concern to editors that criticism they commission not be delivered in uneditable condition, and of concern to all writers of criticism that our ink, sometimes poisonous, not hasten lip to parchment by a tincture of martyrdom.
Excerpt from "The Anxiety of No...Influence":
The lack of convincing grounds on which to make, as it were, a fully persuasive poetic case, also mars one of the two satires which punctuate [Book Title]. In the first, titled [Poem Title] (and subtitled for a famous critic)[,] [Poet] pillories an apparently vain and sanctimonious literary figure who thinks that the crowds at masses have gathered to honor him. The object of [Poet's] withering scorn vaguely suggests the academic critic, Harold Bloom. (Bloom's excessive admiration of Old Testament prophets has certainly misled him into adopting a Moses-on-the-Mountaintop persona at times.) Unfortunately, [Poet's] satire, cast again in an entirely allegorical mode, veers away from any scenario directly applicable to literature. By the [nth] stanza, the [Highly-Positioned Roman Catholic Clergy Member] is chastised for ignoring the suffering of the lower clergy and the laity, for example:
[Quoted lines deleted.]
But how can we map this denunciation onto the situation of an academic critic, let's say, who has convinced himself that his literary theories are holy writ and has spent too much time among the musty shelves of a university library? Are we take [sic] the sobbing chorister and the beggars who appear in [Line Indicated] as stand-ins for writers wronged by the famous critic? Or are they readers duped by the critic's holier-than-thou opinions? Both possibilities seem overwrought and morally inaccurate. [Huh?] Surely the suffering of beggars and unhappy children is far greater than that of any writer, no matter how unfairly his work has been reviewed. As an adult with a roof over his head and in nominal control of his life, even the least successful published writer can't pretend to be as bad off as a beggar or a mistreated child. Nor can a reader, somehow bamboozled by a critic into believing that Danielle Steel's [sic] Vietnam is as good a novel as Tolstoy's War and Peace (to reduce [Poet's] apparent argument to its baldest consequences), be said to endure life-threatening privation or abuse, even by the most fanatic [sic] partisan of art.
More seriously, [Poet] finally suggests that the famous critic, in his monstrous vanity and self-importance, has forgotten the spirit of literature, its animating force and raison d'être: [Quoted lines deleted.] The poem's final judgment leaves the reader profoundly uneasy, however. [Poet's] satiric terminology begs the larger issue which [Poet's] satire has itself raised. If a critic should not imagine himself as a priest sent to convert the heathen, hasn't the poem[,] when it equates the resurrection of Christ with true aesthetic achievement[,] unwittingly accepted the critic's wrong-headed, religiously-inspired self-presentation? In other words, if you don't think a critic should envision himself as a prophet, you shouldn't equate the Holy Ghost and literary excellence, yourself.
~ . ~ . ~