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.
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.
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.