The Oldest English Epic/Chapter 1/Beowulf 20

The Oldest English Epic by Unknown, translated by Francis Barton Gummere
Beowulf: XX


Hrothgar spake, helmet-of-Scyldings:—
“Ask not of pleasure! Pain is renewed
to Danish folk. Dead is Æschere,
of Yrmenlaf the elder brother,
1325my sage adviser and stay in council,
shoulder-comrade[1] in stress of fight
when warriors clashed and we warded our heads,
hewed the helm-boars: hero famed
should be every earl as Æschere was!
1330But here in Heorot a hand hath slain him
of wandering death-sprite. I wot not whither,[2]
proud of the prey, her path she took,
fain of her fill. The feud she avenged
that yesternight, unyieldingly,
1335Grendel in grimmest grasp thou killedst,—
seeing how long these liegemen mine
he ruined and ravaged. Reft of life,
in arms he fell. Now another comes,
keen and cruel, her kin to avenge,
1340faring far in feud of blood:
so that many a thane shall think, who e’er
sorrows in soul for that sharer of rings,
this is hardest of heart-bales. The hand lies low
that once was willing each wish to please.
1345Land-dwellers here[3] and liegemen mine,
who house by those parts,[4] I have heard relate
that such a pair they have sometimes seen,
march-stalkers mighty the moorland haunting,
wandering spirits: one of them seemed,
1350so far as my folk could fairly judge,
of womankind; and one, accursed,
in man’s guise trod the misery-track
of exile, though huger than human bulk.
Grendel in days long gone they named him,
1355folk of the land; his father they knew not,
nor any brood that was born to him
of treacherous spirits. Untrod is their home;[5]
by wolf-cliffs haunt they and windy headlands,
fenways fearful, where flows the stream
1360from mountains gliding to gloom of the rocks,
underground flood.[6] Not far is it hence
in measure of miles that the mere expands,
and o’er it the frost-bound forest hanging,
sturdily rooted, shadows the wave.
1365By night is a wonder weird to see,
fire on the waters. So wise lived none
of the sons of men, to search those depths!
Nay, though the heath-rover,[7] harried by dogs,
the horn-proud hart, this holt should seek,
1370long distance driven, his dear life first
on the brink he yields ere he brave the plunge
to hide his head: ’tis no happy place!
Thence the welter of waters washes up
wan to welkin when winds bestir
1375evil storms, and air grows dusk,
and the heavens weep. Now is help once more
with thee alone! The land thou knowst not,[8]
place of fear, where thou findest out
that sin-flecked being. Seek if thou dare!
1380I will reward thee, for waging this fight,
with ancient treasure, as erst I did,
with winding gold, if thou winnest back.”

  1. Eaxl-gestealla, “shoulder-comrade,” here refers to the line of battle; but it might include the other qualities of advice and counsel. Dan Michel in his fourteenth century translation or paraphrase, Ayenbite of Inwyt, calls a councillor bezide-zittere, “beside-sitter.”
  2. He surmises presently where she is.
  3. The connection is not difficult. The words of mourning, of acute grief, are said; and according to Germanic sequence of thought, inexorable here, the next and only topic is revenge. But is it possible? Hrothgar leads up to his appeal and promise with a skilful and often effective description of the horrors which surround the monster’s home and await the attempt of an avenging foe. This account is not the thing of shreds and patches which Müllenhoff and ten Brink would make it out.
  4. Following Gering’s suggestion.
  5. R. Morris pointed out what seems an imitation of this passage in the Blickling Homilies.
  6. Compare Kubla Khan:

    “Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
    Through caverns measureless to man,
    Down to a sunless sea.”

    It is worth while to compare with this passage another deliberate nature-description in Anglo-Saxon verse, and its Latin model as well. One sees how it is modified, enlarged, and really improved. It is the opening of a little poem on Doomsday paraphrased from Latin verses attributed to Beda,—and also to Alcuin.

    Alone I sat in the shade of a grove,
    in the deeps of the holt, bedecked with shadows,
    there where the waterbrooks wavered and ran
    in the midst of the place,—so I make my song,—
    and winsome blooms there waxed and blossomed,
    all massed amid a meadow peerless.
    And the trees of the forest trembled and murmured
    for a horror of winds, and the welkin was stirred,
    and my heavy heart was harassed amain.
    Then I suddenly, sad and fearful,
    set me to sing this sorrowful verse. . . .

    This represents five lines of Latin:—

    Inter fiorigeras fecundi cespitis herbas,
    flamine ventorum resonantibus undique ramis,
    arboris umbriferae maestus sub tegmine solus
    dum sedi, subito planctu turbatus amaro,
    carmina prae tristi cecini haec lugubria mente. . . .

    It is no long stride hence to the conventional dream-poets, and such openings as are offered by the beginning of the Piers Plowman vision.

  7. Bugge has shown how popular the stag or hart was among the northern folk for names of persons and places—so Hrothgar’s own hall Heorot, or “The Hart”—and for comparisons and the like.—There is a curious note by André Chénier, made in preparation for one of his poems (Œuvres Poétiques, II, 107), about a white animal that prefers to be torn to pieces rather than soil itself by rescue in a miry swamp. But the strength of the present suggestion lies in its uncompromising contrast of terrors, one with the other.
  8. Has been emended to read: “the land now thou knowst,” that is, “I have described the place: go thither if you dare.” By the text one understands: “Here is land unknown to you and horrible. If you dare, etc.”