Anglo-Saxon with an Irish attitude

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The Independent Culture

"THAT WAS one good king." By line 11 in Seamus Heaney's wonderful new translation of Beowulf (Faber, £14.99), you know that the Nobel laureate from Co. Derry will banish - for generations, if not for ever - the Anglo- Saxon epic's evil fame as a thorny torment for undergraduates. These 3,182 muscular yet uncanny lines must count as the last great work of English poetry from the second millennium. So the year 2000 all-but-dawns with a reclamation from the pedants of a poem composed long before the year 1000.

"THAT WAS one good king." By line 11 in Seamus Heaney's wonderful new translation of Beowulf (Faber, £14.99), you know that the Nobel laureate from Co. Derry will banish - for generations, if not for ever - the Anglo- Saxon epic's evil fame as a thorny torment for undergraduates. These 3,182 muscular yet uncanny lines must count as the last great work of English poetry from the second millennium. So the year 2000 all-but-dawns with a reclamation from the pedants of a poem composed long before the year 1000.

Via the medium of an iron-bolted, four-stress verse that often swoops into a plangent sadness, we meet the stoic warrior hero of "Geatland" (south Sweden), the spineless Danish court, the monster Grendel and his aquatic mum ("that swamp-thing from hell") and, at last, the fire-belching dragon, Beowulf's nemesis, coiled round his hoard of fatal gold. Heaney resurrects them all in a language that will surely lure readers - not to mention computer-gamers - who know this savagely beautiful world only in pastiche form. (Modern Beowulf studies, remember, date from a 1935 essay by J R R Tolkien.)

Heaney consciously pours a lot of his Irish self - and of his subtle quarrel with the idea of a "Celtic/Saxon antithesis" - into this deep foundation of EngLit. The massive delicacy sounds like him, in every resonant line. So some experts will not enjoy this alien raid on their heartland. Curled, dragon-style, around their hidden treasure, they may resent its exposure. A grouchy review in the current TLS hints at the scholarly fire- storms to come. Fans of fine verse and scary monsters can ignore them. This is one great poet.

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