Beowulf: An Anglo-Saxon Epic Poem

Beowulf: An Anglo-Saxon Epic Poem
Author: Poetry
Title: Beowulf: An Anglo-Saxon Epic Poem
Release Date: 2005-07-19
Type book: Text
Copyright Status: Public domain in the USA.
Date added: 25 March 2019
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Entered according to Act of Congress, in the year 1892, by
in the Office of the Librarian of Congress, at Washington.
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The present work is a modest effort to reproduce approximately, in modernmeasures, the venerable epic, Beowulf. Approximately, I repeat; for a veryclose reproduction of Anglo-Saxon verse would, to a large extent, be prose toa modern ear.

The Heyne-Socin text and glossary have been closely followed. Occasionallya deviation has been made, but always for what seemed good and sufficientreason. The translator does not aim to be an editor. Once in a while, however,he has added a conjecture of his own to the emendations quoted fromthe criticisms of other students of the poem.

This work is addressed to two classes of readers. From both of these alikethe translator begs sympathy and co-operation. The Anglo-Saxon scholar hehopes to please by adhering faithfully to the original. The student of Englishliterature he aims to interest by giving him, in modern garb, the most ancientepic of our race. This is a bold and venturesome undertaking; and yet theremust be some students of the Teutonic past willing to follow even a daringguide, if they may read in modern phrases of the sorrows of Hrothgar, of theprowess of Beowulf, and of the feelings that stirred the hearts of our forefathersin their primeval homes.

In order to please the larger class of readers, a regular cadence has beenused, a measure which, while retaining the essential characteristics of the original,permits the reader to see ahead of him in reading.

Perhaps every Anglo-Saxon scholar has his own theory as to how Beowulfshould be translated. Some have given us prose versions of what we believeto be a great poem. Is it any reflection on our honored Kemble and Arnoldto say that their translations fail to show a layman that Beowulf is justly calledour first epic? Of those translators who have used verse, several have written[viii]from what would seem a mistaken point of view. Is it proper, for instance,that the grave and solemn speeches of Beowulf and Hrothgar be put in balladmeasures, tripping lightly and airily along? Or, again, is it fitting that therough martial music of Anglo-Saxon verse be interpreted to us in the smoothmeasures of modern blank verse? Do we hear what has been beautifully called“the clanging tread of a warrior in mail”?

Of all English translations of Beowulf, that of Professor Garnett alonegives any adequate idea of the chief characteristics of this great Teutonicepic.

The measure used in the present translation is believed to be as near areproduction of the original as modern English affords. The cadences closelyresemble those used by Browning in some of his most striking poems. Thefour stresses of the Anglo-Saxon verse are retained, and as much thesis andanacrusis is allowed as is consistent with a regular cadence. Alliteration hasbeen used to a large extent; but it was thought that modern ears would hardlytolerate it on every line. End-rhyme has been used occasionally; internalrhyme, sporadically. Both have some warrant in Anglo-Saxon poetry. (Forend-rhyme, see 53, 54; for internal rhyme, 21, 40.)

What Gummere1 calls the “rime-giver” has been studiously kept; viz., thefirst accented syllable in the second half-verse always carries the alliteration;and the last accented syllable alliterates only sporadically. Alternate alliterationis occasionally used as in the original. (See 61, 5.)

No two accented syllables have been brought together, except occasionallyafter a csural pause. (See 19 and 12 1.)Or, scientifically speaking, Sievers’sC type has been avoided as not consonant with the plan of translation. Severalof his types, however, constantly occur; e.g. A and a variant(/ x | / x) (/ x x | / x);B and a variant (x / | x / ) (x x / | x / ); a variant of D (/ x | / x x);E (/ x x | / ). Anacrusis gives further variety to the types used in the translation.

The parallelisms of the original have been faithfully preserved. (E.g., 16and 17: “Lord” and “Wielder of Glory”; 30, 31, 32; 12 and 13;27 and 28; 5 and 6.) Occasionally, some loss has been sustained; but,on the other hand, a gain has here and there been made.

The effort has been made to give a decided flavor of archaism to the translation.All words not in keeping with the spirit of the poem have been[ix]avoided. Again, though many archaic words have been used, there are none,it is believed, which are not found in standard modern poetry.

With these preliminary remarks, it will not be amiss to give an outline ofthe story of the poem.


Hrothgar, king of the Danes, or Scyldings, builds a great mead-hall, orpalace, in which he hopes to feast his liegemen and to give them presents. Thejoy of king and retainers is, however, of short duration. Grendel, the monster,is seized with hateful jealousy. He cannot brook the sounds of joyance thatreach him down in his fen-dwelling near the hall. Oft and anon he goes tothe joyous building, bent on direful mischief. Thane after thane is ruthlesslycarried off and devoured, while no one is found strong enough and bold enoughto cope with the monster. For twelve years he persecutes Hrothgar and hisvassals.

Over sea, a day’s voyage off, Beowulf, of the Geats, nephew of Higelac,king of the Geats, hears of Grendel’s doings and of Hrothgar’s misery. Heresolves to crush the fell monster and relieve the aged king. With fourteenchosen companions, he sets sail for Dane-land. Reaching that country, he soonpersuades Hrothgar of his ability to help him. The hours that elapse beforenight are spent in beer-drinking and conversation. When Hrothgar’s bedtimecomes he leaves the hall in charge of Beowulf, telling him that never before hashe given to another the absolute wardship of his palace. All retire to rest,Beowulf, as it were, sleeping upon his arms.

Grendel comes, the great march-stepper, bearing God’s anger. He seizesand kills one of the sleeping warriors. Then he advances towards Beowulf.A fierce and desperate hand-to-hand struggle ensues. No arms are used, bothcombatants trusting to strength and hand-grip. Beowulf tears Grendel’sshoulder from its socket, and the monster retreats to his den, howling andyelling with agony and fury. The wound is fatal.

The next morning, at early dawn, warriors in numbers flock to the hallHeorot, to hear the news. Joy is boundless. Glee runs high. Hrothgar andhis retainers are lavish of gratitude and of gifts.

Grendel’s mother, however, comes the next night to avenge his death. Sheis furious and raging. While Beowulf is sleeping in a room somewhat apart[x]from the quarters of the other warriors, she seizes one of Hrothgar’s favoritecounsellors, and carries him off and devours him. Beowulf is called. Determinedto leave Heorot entirely purified, he arms himself, and goes down to lookfor the female monster. After traveling through the waters many hours, hemeets her near the sea-bottom. She drags him to her den. There he seesGrendel lying dead. After a desperate and almost fatal struggle with thewoman, he slays her, and swims upward in triumph, taking with him Grendel’shead.

Joy is renewed at Heorot. Congratulations crowd upon the victor.Hrothgar literally pours treasures into the lap of Beowulf; and it is agreedamong the vassals of the king that Beowulf will be their next liegelord.

Beowulf leaves Dane-land. Hrothgar weeps and laments at his departure.

When the hero arrives in his own land, Higelac treats him as a distinguishedguest. He is the hero of the hour.

Beowulf subsequently becomes king of his own people, the Geats. After hehas been ruling for fifty years, his own neighborhood is wofully harried by afire-spewing dragon. Beowulf determines to kill him. In the ensuing struggleboth Beowulf and the dragon are slain. The grief of the Geats is inexpressible.They determine, however, to leave nothing undone to honor the memoryof their lord. A great funeral-pyre is built, and his body is burnt. Then amemorial-barrow is made, visible from a great distance, that sailors afar maybe constantly reminded of the prowess of the national hero of Geatland.

The poem closes with a glowing tribute to his bravery, his gentleness, hisgoodness of heart, and his generosity.

It is the devout desire of this translator to hasten the day when the storyof Beowulf shall be as familiar to English-speaking peoples as that of the Iliad.Beowulf is our first great epic. It is an epitomized history of the life of theTeutonic races. It brings vividly before us our forefathers of pre-Alfredianeras, in their love of war, of sea, and of adventure.

My special thanks are due to Professors Francis A. March and James A.Harrison, for advice, sympathy, and assistance.


[1] Handbook of Poetics, page 175, 1st edition.


B. = Bugge. C. = Cosijn. Gr. = Grein. Grdvtg. = Grundtvig. H. = Heyne. H. andS. = Harrison and Sharp. H.-So. = Heyne-Socin. K.= Kemble. Kl. = Kluge. M.=Mllenhoff. R. = Rieger. S. = Sievers. Sw. = Sweet. t.B. = ten Brink. Th. = Thorpe.W. = Wlcker.


Arnold, Thomas.—Beowulf. A heroic poem of the eighth century. London, 1876.With English translation. Prose.

Botkine, L.Beowulf. Epope Anglo-Saxonne. Havre, 1877. First French translation.Passages occasionally

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