We wercynn scopes thrym gefrunon, hu se bard ellen fremede!

by Greg Mayer

Ireland provided a large share of the great literature in English of the late 19th and 20th centuries– Joyce, Yeats, Beckett, Shaw, Wilde, O’Casey, Synge– a share out of proportion to it’s size. Last week, one of its most recent bright literary lights, Seamus Heaney (1939-2013), died in Dublin at the age of 74.

Seamus Heaney in 1970 (New York Times).

Seamus Heaney in 1970 (New York Times).

Heaney was born in Northern Ireland, spent much time in the United States (where he was a professor at Harvard), and came to settle in Dublin. He has been called the greatest Irish poet since Yeats, and tributes have rolled in from far and wide, some in verse. Though a Catholic and an Irish nationalist whose work often dealt with “the troubles“, he was criticized by some Republicans for being insufficiently political. He was much too aware of moral ambiguity to toe a party line; he once criticized political poetry as worthy of “the ministry of truth”.

Although I studied many Irish writers as a student, Heaney was too fresh to have made the curriculum at that time. I came to know his work primarily through his much acclaimed verse translation of Beowulf, long a favorite of mine. On the day I heard of his death, I took out my copy and read several passages, including that on the death of Beowulf after a glorious life.  In his translation Heaney included many hibernicisms, derived from both Celtic and older English sources, to help convey his interpretation of the poem.

The title of this post is my tribute to Heaney, a paraphrase in Old English of the first few lines of Beowulf (made with the help of this and this); a fairly literal translation to modern English is

We the human race of the poet’s glory have heard,

How that bard great deeds did!

Less literally, “We have all heard of the poet’s glory, and of his great accomplishments!” Like Heaney, I have included in my version a Celtic word, “bard”, to accompany the Anglo-Saxon “scop”. Readers who know Old English better than me are welcome to comment or improve on mine.


  1. Dominic
    Posted September 4, 2013 at 8:52 am | Permalink

    I think there was a lot of intercultural bardic discourse between Celtic & Germanic/Norse worlds. How much influence there was from the cCeltic side on Beowulf might depend on your views of when it was composed. I studied Old English only for one semester as light relief from Old Norse, under Professor Richard North – he has written a long book on the origins of Beowulf

  2. worried secularist
    Posted September 4, 2013 at 9:09 am | Permalink

    Heaney was a great favourite of mine, in particular North and Beowulf, which I reread as soon as I heard of his death. It’s quite fun th attempt to parse the Old English on facing pages, as well.

    A magnificent work, which retains all the strangeness of its early Nordic roots, quite despite its evoking the hand of God.


  3. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted September 4, 2013 at 9:16 am | Permalink

    … great literature in English… it’s size


    • Posted September 4, 2013 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

      The translation is grammatically correct, but:

      (1) bard was borrowed into English half a millennium after the composition Beowulf. In Old English, it would have been inconveniently homophonous with beard ‘beard’ (the Anglo-Saxons would probably have understood is as ‘beard’ pronounced with a Northumbrian accent).

      (2) It doesn’t scan like an acceptable piece of Anglo-Saxon verse, and there’s no alliteration at all!

      • Posted September 4, 2013 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

        (1) Yes, bard was not in English at the time of Beowulf, but it (or a close cognate) would have been in the various Celtic languages in Britain and Ireland then.

        (2)Failure to scan and alliterate– guilty! It was hard enough to try and get the translation and grammar 😉


        • Posted September 5, 2013 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

          It can be done, though I’m not sure if the Beowulf poet would have liked it:

          We Scotlandes in scopcræfte
          woruldfruman weorc gefrunon,
          hu se ferswyrhta folcum leoþ sceop.

          (more or less: “Lo, we heard of the work of Ireland’s most famous one in the bardic craft — how the verse-maker created poems for the people”)

  4. barryleder
    Posted September 4, 2013 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

    What a nice tribute. The Irish playwrights have been my favorite for years. Even the new ones.

  5. Steve Kerouac
    Posted September 4, 2013 at 7:58 pm | Permalink

    “Readers who know Old English better than me are welcome to comment or improve on mine.” That should be “I” not “me”. There is a joke to be made here juxtaposing Old English and the error, but I can’t come up with it right now!

  6. Posted September 5, 2013 at 9:03 pm | Permalink

    Some of Ireland’s poets & playwrights are Anglo-Irish: Shaw, Yeats, O’Casey, Jemas Stephens (“The Aran Islands,” “The Crock of Gold”) Wilde,Jonothan Swift — the greatest satirist in the English language. Because it is Ireland, Tngland’s first colony, it is relevant that these persons were reared as Anglicans. Others, like Heaney and Brendan Behan – fine poet and fine playwright – & Joyce were Celts, and were raised as Catholics. Bram Stoker was Irish, but I am not sure if he was Anglo-Irish Lady Gregory, Irish playwright was a cofounder of the Abbey Theatre as was Michael Macliammor (I think I misspelled his name. Ireland has produced more English language literary greats that England, Scotland & Wales combined. (Some times some Irish would like to claim Dylan Thomas I have noticed!) There is an old saying, that “Ireland makes all things Irish,” and so it proved with the Anglo-Irish who became fierce defenders of Gaelic and or Irish traditions. And these people are not half the total of Irish poets & playwrights.

  7. Posted September 5, 2013 at 9:12 pm | Permalink

    There are many different Irish accents — and Heaney’s was one of the Belfast versions. It is instructive to listen to him read his own poems, some of the vowels show the influence of the Scots-Irish Presbyterians whom England imported to replace native Celts who resisted English rule. American media posit the conflicts as between Prostestants & Catholice — a divide & conquer device of the Brits to enable them to control the North. The Republic of Ireland’s constitution specifies freedom of religion (or no religion) though the Catholic Bishops still have control over laws regarding divorce, contraception & abortion. That will change, has started changing.

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