Heaney as Historian: His Poetic Technique in Translating “Beowulf”

Throughout the class’ examination of Heaney’s original poetry, we have oftentimes mentioned how connected he is to the history of Ireland in a physical context, namely the soil.  Considering this fixation on the organic development of Ireland and Irish culture, I found myself thinking about Heaney’s coveted translation of Beowulf.  While his work with the poem has earned much acclaim as an engaging and accurate translation into modern English, one must puzzle over what this says about Heaney as a poet, as well as an Irishman.

While Heaney is a native of Northern Ireland, as well as a born Catholic, his translation of a traditional English epic poem that is classic to the English archives of literature encourages further criticism to follow his history of teetering between political views and alliances with Irish and English conflicts.  In an interview with the New York Times, Heaney himself admits, “Part of me had been writing Anglo-Saxon from the start.”  Heaney’s ability to maintain a reputation as a talented and skilled writer despite the political complications regarding his career is nothing short of incredible.

To illustrate the skill with which Heaney takes history and reforms it for modern society, below are hyperlinks to two youtube videos that read Heaney’s translation of  Beowulf aloud in the tradition of the bard performing his art, bringing to life the lyrics that Heaney so carefully deduced to be the most accurate way of giving this classic piece new life.

Heaney’s “Beowulf” Performed Part 1

Heaney’s “Beowulf” Performed Part 2

New York Times’ “A Better Beowulf”

Yeat’s is a SMASH Hit: “Never give all the Heart” in Song

I was considerably moved by Yeats’ “Never give all the Heart”, particularly the imagery regarding the speaker as he attempts to play his beloved’s heart like a musical instrument: “For they, for all smooth lips can say, / Have given their hearts up to the play. / And who could play it well enough / If deaf and dumb and blind with love?” This image of the heart being an instrument is a theme that occurs often in poetry, but the connection that Yeats makes with the evocation of human emotion through melody is particularly unique.  Instead of the heart being a tool, in his piece it is a foreign object to the speaker, who is incapable of working his beloved’s heart properly because he is so consumed with love for her.

Yeats’ ultimate message in this poem, I find, is that he is heartbroken upon discovering that Maud Gonne mothered two children with another man, while he has been pursuing her for so long, his love unrequited.  However he keeps the subject of the poem general, as if he is writing an advice column to all men, explaining that to give your whole heart to a woman is to doom yourself to disappointment and pain.  He claims that love for a woman fades easily between people and things, and that their hearts are incapable of being tied down to a single person or circumstance.

After reading this piece I found a song entitled “Never Give All the Heart” performed on the t.v. show SMASH.  Here I’ve attached a Youtube link as well as a link to the written lyrics of the song:

Never Give All the Heart- SMASH Performance

Never Give All the Heart Lyrics

What I find particularly interesting about the song is not just that it so idolizes Yeats’ work, but that it completely reverses the gender roles of the original piece.  Where Yeats warns men that women will only hurt them, the performer of the song, Katherine McPhee, sings that Yeats’ writing is so effective, and that it resonates with so many people, that it is the reason why she cannot find a man who will commit to her.  Ironically enough, where Yeats indirectly plays the victim of unrequited love, McPhee instead names him to be a keen observer, as well as a proponent of her inability to find someone willing to give her all of his heart.  So, essentially, the it is Yeats’ fault for being so capable of articulating the truth about love, this otherwise intangible emotion, and his understanding of how it works is the reason why people so fear it.  I thought this was a very unique modern take on his work, and it impresses me that his work can be so appreciated and discussed even in modern media.