The Washington Post

Seamus Heaney, a look back at ‘Human Chain’ and ‘Beowulf’

Seamus Heaney died today at age 74. He was considered Ireland’s foremost poet since William Butler Yeats and he won the 1995 Nobel Prize in Literature. His translation of “Beowulf” made the Old English epic poem a bestseller in 2000.

Many in the literary world are paying tribute to the famous poet including The Post’s Michael Cavna. “You could say I was inspired by all the colleagues, students and fellow writers who shared their love of his words today…”

As many reflect on Heaney’s works, here are a couple of excerpts from past Post reviews.

In “An aged poet, addressing mortality with a sure and strong voice,” Troy Jollimore reviews Heaney’s “Human Chain,” which he wrote at 71:

“Yet despite all this, Heaney still writes with the passion, freshness and vigor of a young man. “Human Chain,” which sits comfortably alongside such accomplished earlier collections as “Field Work” and “Station Island,” feels at times less like a late work than a first book by a remarkably gifted and promising young poet.

That said, “Human Chain” is also — and I mean this in the best possible sense — an old man’s book. The poems are pervaded by an awareness of mortality, of encroaching darkness. At times this awareness proves nearly too sad to bear:

Derek Hill’s saying,

The last time he sat at our table,

He could no longer bear to watch

The sun going down

And asking please to be put

With his back to the window.

Years before, Heaney, translated “Beowulf” and made it a bestseller. His translation was pitted against “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” for the 2000 Whitbread literary prize, and . Megan Rosenfeld explains this victory and the popularity of the translation in “Going gaga for the saga: Seamus Heaney translation makes ‘Beowulf’ a bestseller”. Here is Heaney’s translation of the first lines of the poem:

So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by

and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.

We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns.

There was Shield Sheafson, scourge of many tribes,

a wrecker of mead-benches, rampaging among foes.

This terror of the hall-troops had come far.

A foundling to start with, he would flourish later on

as his powers waxed and his worth was proved.

In the end each clan on the outlying coasts

beyond the whale-road had to yield to him

and begin to pay tribute. That was one good king.



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