Beowulf: A Dramatic Translation
Excerpt: Beowulf's funeral

 

The poem that begins with a funeral ends with a funeral, a treasure-heaped burial and the obsequies of men. Yet the scene is bleaker here, fused into a holocaust that obliterates a nation as well as a man. Most ominous is the “slow burn” induced by the dying wind. In Viking cremations, the wind was a hoped-for blessing to speed the hero toward his glorious Afterlife; in Christian iconography, wind embodies the Holy Spirit. Its absence on both counts is suggestive, as is the gruesome vision of Beowulf’s heart, burning Hell-hot in the coals. The rape of the Geats is graphically predicted, even as the strength of walls is mocked again. Yet Beowulf’s followers are blind to the truth of their plight. Like the boys who fought as true believers in the last Battle of Berlin, the Geats praise their hero in the smoldering twilight of the pyre, as “Heaven swallowed the smoke.”

XLIII.
Then the nation of the Geats
began to build
a pyre more splendid
than any on the earth.
Nor was it poorly made!
But hung around with helmets,
decked with shields, bright iron shirts,
as Beowulf had commanded them to do.
In the midst of all that finery
they laid the prince most famed,
and the heroes mourned their king,
the lord they loved.

Then the warriors began
to wake upon the mound
the mightiest death-fire
men had ever built.
Up rose the smoke,
black above flame—
xxsxa shadow
xsxxweaving
xsxxthrough their wails!


And then the wind
that whirled
around the fire
died.
The ash-heap
sputtered
and smoked,
until at last
it broke
the bone-house
of Beowulf,
burned
to the heart.

With grieving minds
and spirits wracked
with utter sorrow
they lamented
the death of their lord.
A woman keened
and sang her song of grief.
Her hair was bound
above her head.
Her song was weighted with despair.
Over and over
she spoke of fear,
of dread invasions,
piles of butchered men,
the brutality of soldiers—
shame and rape
and slavery in foreign lands.
Heaven swallowed the smoke!


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