I just learned that Seamus Heaney died today. I realize that much of Heaney’s acclaim and fame is as a contemporary poetry, as one of the most important Irish poets since W. B. Yeats — and rightfully so — but he’s also near and dear to the medievalist’s heart for his translations of medieval poetry. On that score, he’s most known for his Beowulf, of course, which has allowed us medievalists the rare opportunity to teach a New York Times best-seller. But his Beowulf wasn’t just popular; it was beautiful and as moving for the modern general reader as for the studied medievalist. (Indeed, a friend of mine, who regularly claims she hates poetry, is a fan of his Beowulf, and wrote on Facebook: “I actually said out loud ‘oh no,’ when I heard on NPR this morning. I don’t usually do that for poets.”) As many of my medievalist friends on Facebook have been noting, in many different ways, he realized that fidelity to the past and attentiveness to the present are not mutually exclusive positions. Here are his words from part of the funeral of Beowulf, which now seem fitting for Heaney himself:
They extolled his heroic nature and exploits
And gave thanks for his greatness; which was the proper thing,
for a man should praise a prince whom he holds dear
and cherish his memory when that moment comes
when he has to be convoyed from his bodily home.
But Beowulf isn’t the only medieval work Heaney translated. More recently, he produced a volume of the work of the late medieval Scottish poet, Robert Henryson. And one of my favorite of his translations has always been his “Pangur Bán,” a 9th century Irish poem that has been translated again and again by many a modern Irish poet. In fact, in his translator’s notes on the poem (which you can read here), Heaney talks about how it’s one of the canonical poems upon which Irish poets try their hand as part of their work to have “learned the trade.” And of course it is, because it’s a poem about writing — and what poet doesn’t like a meta-poem? — and it also might suggest a translator, or at the very least an interpreter, of ancient texts (although the speaker could also be a scribe who copies texts). So any translation of it adds another layer to the textual community across the centuries. Heaney’s translation seems to be acutely aware of that connection across time, that mirroring, mise-en-abyme effect. It’s that meaningful connection with the past that I want my students who study medieval literature to have for themselves, so I have sometimes started off the semester of a medieval lit class with Heaney’s “Pangur Bán.” Strangely, Heaney says he might not have tried his hand at it if he hadn’t been commissioned to for Poetry magazine, which surprises me a little, because it seems so suited to him. Certainly, now, the final couplet — “Day and night, my own hard work / Solves the cruxes, makes a mark” — seems a fitting epitaph for his work as both a poet and a translator, solving the cruxes of medieval Irish, English, and Scottish poetry and life in Northern Ireland alike, and certainly making a mark.
But enough from me. Let me leave you with “Pangur Bán,” as translated by Seamus Heaney (although I can’t get the formatting right — either I lose the spaces between the stanzas or I lose the way Heaney indented the final two lines of each stanza):
From the ninth-century Irish poem
Pangur Bán and I at work,
Adepts, equals, cat and clerk:
His whole instinct is to hunt,
Mine to free the meaning pent.
More than loud acclaim, I love
Books, silence, thought, my alcove.
Happy for me, Pangur Bán
Child-plays round some mouse’s den.
Truth to tell, just being here,
Housed alone, housed together,
Adds up to its own reward:
Concentration, stealthy art.
Next thing an unwary mouse
Bares his flank: Pangur pounces.
Next thing lines that held and held
Meaning back begin to yield.
All the while, his round bright eye
Fixes on the wall, while I
Focus my less piercing gaze
On the challenge of the page.
With his unsheathed, perfect nails
Pangur springs, exults and kills.
When the longed-for, difficult
Answers come, I too exult.
So it goes. To each his own.
No vying. No vexation.
Taking pleasure, taking pains,
Kindred spirits, veterans.
Day and night, soft purr, soft pad,
Pangur Bán has learned his trade.
Day and night, my own hard work
Solves the cruxes, makes a mark.