Thursday, May 04, 2006

Three Reasons Why You Should Not Read Beowulf

Patry Francis recently listed Beowulf under the heading of Great Books that I Personally Hated. I flinched when I read that, and it immediately launched this diatribe (aimed at the creators of Surveys of English Literature) in my head -- which boils down, basically, to three reasons why you should not read the poem at all.

1. People say you should read it because it is the beginning of English Literature. This is not true. It has nothing to do with the formation of English Literature. Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton never heard of it. After its rediscovery and translation in the 19th Century it had some minor influence on English poetry. Not much. There'd be a much better case for reading Virgil at the beginning of an English syllabus than for reading Beowulf.

2. People say you should read it because it tells you about the Old Germanic peoples that the English arose from. Well, sure. So does Old High German. So does Old Frisian. So does Old Norse. Why pick this one difficult, idiosyncratic poem -- which exists in only one manuscript, and is referred to by no other medieval writer -- and pretend it's the national epic of the English? I'll tell you why. Because the English dearly wanted to have a national epic, in the 19th Century, when nationalism was trendy, so they made one up. It will teach you precisely nothing about the English nation (whatever that is.)

3. People say it's a great poem. Well, it is, but it translates horribly. Its metrics are foreign and complicated, its images violently compressed, its stock of metaphors is alien to us. Its literary, legendary, and historical allusions are almost all to things we don't know about. Either you flatten it into dreadful broken-backed prose, or wrench it completely away from its poetic roots and stick it in a pot of blank verse or (even worse!) rhymed quatrains or heroic couplets, where it will die a ghastly death, or you create a brand new modern English verse-form that no one but a few scholars will have any idea how to pronounce.

Actually, of course, these are not reasons not to read Beowulf. They are just reasons not to read Beowulf in translation. If you have the time to learn Old English and find your bearings in Old Germanic culture -- it is one of the most beautiful long poems ever written. You'll be just a hop skip & jump also, then from being able to read Old Norse poetry, which is wonderful stuff too. But don't read it as English Literature. Read it as the most beautiful, intricately-wrought artifact of a dead civilization. Which is what it is. If you don't have time to learn old English, don't insult the poem by reading a translation. Just pick up a recording of it, in Old English, by someone who understands Old English metrics, and listen to the music of the words. It's like listening to the sea.

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