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June 13, 2008 / Brittany Hendrick

Because Seamus Heaney says ‘so.’ Hwæt what!

The original plan was to read my Norton Anthology English Literature book in its entirety — or at least until I hit the contemporary stuff, most of which I don’t care about. I’ve read a lot in my lifetime, but it’s shameful how much I haven’t read. And since I have some excellent books laying about, I should put them to use. Of course, the real challenge would be to plow through the American literature anthology — I am not a fan and prefer British literature — but I can’t bring myself to it yet. My plan was to read for enjoyment… something I hadn’t been able to do in recent years.

So far, I’ve read the first section containing the historical overviews of the Anglo-Saxon and Medieval periods…!!!!

To put that in Brit-Lit years, I haven’t made much progress.

I got sidetracked. Naturally, I’d read this text for class in the past — but I had to adhere to a professor’s schedule. This time, on my own schedule, my focus unexpectedly narrowed on something apart from canonized authors and historical markers such as 1066 (I may or may not compulsively exclaim “Battle of Hastings!” when I come across that number; same with 1215: “Magna Carta!”  Yeah, as if you don’t.).

This time, the brief explanations on “Old English and Middle English prosody” particularly interested me. The book gives more attention to Middle English as far as pronunciations, grammatical rules and even a few verb conjugations. On the Old English, all we get are a few pronunciations, some of which I was already familiar with (runic symbols), thanks to a Medieval Literature class I’d taken — oh man, 10 years ago — taught by the venerable Dr. Fletcher.

For some reason Dr. Fletcher started the semester with The Dream of the Rood and Beowulf, which are not Medieval but rather Anglo-Saxon. But there was already an entire course on Geoffrey Chaucer alone (coincidentally, taught by Mrs. Dr. Fletcher); and the miracle plays, L’Morte d’Arthur and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight can only take up so much space during the rest of the semester, after Canterbury Tales.

I am thankful for that anachronistic filler, though: I’d acquired a newfound appreciation for Beowulf. The mere watered-down excerpt of the poem that was presented to me in high school was poorly taught. I got nothing out of it. I hated it. But Dr. Fletcher demonstrated Beowulf beyond “this is one of the oldest known pieces of British literature, by an anonymous author.  Go.”

First, Dr. Fletcher had us read the entire poem (translated). Second, we were given a handout of the first page or so of the poem in Old English. Third, Dr. Fletcher recited the Old English to us. I can still hear his voice intoning that controlled gibberish. Yet it sounded really nice and impressed upon me.

Thinking about Dr. Fletcher’s influence on my affection for Beowulf reminded me that Irish poet Seamus Heaney published a bilingual version in Old English and Modern English (it is most likely Heaney’s version you’ll see anthologized). So I got the bright(?) idea to read the bilingual Beowulf instead of what is provided in the anthology.

I’m not expecting to become some Old English expert, but I’m curious to see how much Old English carried over to Modern English. I’m curious about the poem’s prosody; I’m curious about how it would sound — and would it eventually make sense to me?

Besides, it seems almost wrong to read Beowulf without exploring its original language. Also, I’d always enjoyed learning different languages, having studied Spanish (a ton), Italian (moderate) and Latin (one semester). Although I’m not fluent in any one, I was always able to pick them up easily. And even though most of my vocabulary has disintegrated, I can at least pronounce these languages correctly. I can learn to pronounce another. The most compelling reason of all, on why I want to tackle this undertaking, is because I am bored and my brain needs something new other than work-related operations.

I already knew the Norton anthology was light on explaining Old English, but surely Heaney’s version would offer greater insight on pronunciations, I thought. Not so.  Heaney’s introduction does not lend ANY tools to help the reader understand Old English. Well, that’s awfully selfish of you, Meany Heaney (or Norton, also publisher of this book). What’s the point of including the Old English if you don’t tell us how to read it, man!

I need an alphabet and phonetics, people!

So I took to the Internets to find out how to pronounce these words correctly. And I had to visit several websites. One site contradicted the Norton textbook on the pronunciation of “sc”, so I had to corroborate with another site to prove Norton (and me) right. Another website was a bit too complex with its overview — I am neither a linguist nor phonologist and don’t know those fields’ terminology and symbology, and those are not what I’m out to learn right now, which would take me on yet ANOTHER tangent — so I had to find a simpler website that contained just the facts. Furthermore, I had to track down a runic alphabet, because I’d forgotten how to pronounce ƿ (wynn). I didn’t think this would turn into a full-on research project.

You’d think I’d finally be prepared to commence reading Beowulf. But I encountered another detour: the very first word of the poem — even before I’ve technically started reading it. The first couple lines of Beowulf cropped up several times, across practically every website I visited. So I’d already become very familiar with the primary word/sentence, “Hƿæt” or “Hwæt”, and its various translations, which Heaney assigns as “So.”




What the hell kind of beginning is that? That doesn’t sound very poetic. I feel it should be followed with “like”: “So, like, there was this Danish king, okay…”  I doubt the Anglo-Saxon peoples intended for Beowulf to start with a word translated down to “so.” Of all the meanings Heaney has to chose from, for “Hwæt”, and the best word he comes up with is “So”?!

As seen in other authors’ translations, which I’m sure were researched just as thoroughly, “hwæt” means “listen!” or “lo!” or “hark!” Any one of those words sounds like a more believable way for Beowulf to begin — recognizably imperative, with an exclamation mark. Heaney actually argues his use of the word “So” in his book’s introduction (I won’t get into that). I get it, he has some gobbledygook basis. But I am still not sold on his diction; it’s disruptive. At least make it exclamatory!

This mini outrage reminded me of another fascinating fact Dr. Fletcher said about Beowulf: he claimed that someone published a literary work (can’t remember if it was a book or journal piece) about the first word. At the time, I thought that was crazy talk — how is it possible to discuss one word at such length– and to be published?  Now I see that it IS possible. Only, I’m going to cease discussing it.

So much for reading for enjoyment.


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