Some Penguin Classics in their very natures embody the dichotomy of their colophon. Here indeed we have a creature of opposites – a bird, but fitted out like a seal, feathered, but flightless, comical on land, bullet-sleek in the pitch-black water: two natures, two elements fused into one. This is also Horace’s problematic call to all literature, to instruct and delight, to instruct in delighting and delight in instructing.
This has been the dichotomy of Penguin Classics from the very beginning, and that split is perhaps given no starker form than that most dreaded of all concessions: a verse epic rendered in prose. One of Penguin’s latest publicity tag-lines for its Classics line is some elegant – “The Best Books Ever Written” – that it can almost mislead you into thinking the company has followed a hard-line purist stance from the start, but such is hardly the case. It was a prose version of the Iliad, after all, that jump-started the whole modern idea of the paperback ‘classic’ volume.
The temptations are obvious in both directions. Prose versions of epic poems are infinitely more accessible to wee, sleekit, tim’rous cowrin’ students, who usually so unreconstructedly stupid and arrogant that literally anything in the whole world not directly connected to themselves frightens and irritates them. The stacked-verse poetry they know comes in Hallmark cards and is nice and short – it doesn’t fill whole books, as epic poems have an annoying tendency to do. Give a student the Aeneid and he’ll stare at it in slack-jawed horror. Give that same student the Aeneid in nice comfortable paragraphs and chapters and he’s a bit more likely to attempt to read it. Books, after all, have nice comfortable paragraphs and chapters – and Penguin Classics, after all, have always been at least partly designed with students in mind.
Take Beowulf. In its original 8th-century Old English form, it’s utterly incomprehensible – not just to students, but to most everybody. In a line-by-line word-by-word translation of that Old English (like the magnificent version done by the mighty Howell Chickering in 1977), students can at least recognize the words – but it’s still mighty trying to the patience. The old Anglo-Saxon alliterative line – BRAK-BRAK-BRAK-BRAK/BRAK-BRAK-BRAK-BRAK – deeply terrifies beginners accustomed to iambic pentameter, and then there are all the bits where the anonymous author is trying his best to be clever, coming up with fanciful nicknames for everything from ship-prows to shoe-straps without telling anybody what the hell he’s doing … first-year newbies have been known to faint.
Enter David Wright’s 1957 Penguin Classic prose translation of Beowulf. Wright’s Introduction is crystal-clear and just the slightest bit argumentative, as befits an inherently controversial performance. “Old English prose,” he tells us, “is lucid and straightforward; but Old English verse is quite another kettle of fish.” He decides that he cannot soar to the heights of the Beowulf poet (he asserts that those heights can’t be reached in modern English), but he insists his version is not simply a trot for students – that instead it strikes a middle tone, which he adamantly defends:
The argument against the middle style is that it seems colourless. With this I do not entirely agree; in any case, better no colours than faked ones. When the leaves are off a great oak it is still possible to see the nobility and spread of its branches. It is not necessary to trick them out with imitation foliage.
And his prose Beowulf will certainly keep the reader reading – it almost entirely strips the work of strangeness, allowing the substance of the words and the essence of the story to come through. His version of the famous elegiac “Survivor’s Lament” goes like this:
Earth, hold what men could not, the wealth of princes. For heroes won it for you long ago. The holocaust of battle has claimed every mortal soul of my race who shared the delights of the banqueting hall. I have none to wield the sword, none to polish the jewelled cup. Gone are the brave. They sleep who should burnish casques. Armour that stood up to the battering of swords in conflict, among the thunder of shields, moulders away like the soldier. Nor shall the corselet travel hither and yon on the back of a hero by the side of fighting men. There is no sweet sound from the harp. No delights of music, no good hawk swooping through the hall. no swift horse stamping in the castle yard. Death has swept away nearly every thing that lives.
That’s straightforward enough, and therein lies perhaps a small problem, since ‘straightforward’ is something the Beowulf poet virtually never was. “The trouble is that Beowulf is so rich in meaning,” the aforementioned Chickering wrote, “that no single translation, however excellent, can make all or even most of its poetry come across.” The main strength of the Wright prose version is also its main weakness: it doesn’t try to make any of the poetry come across; it concedes the fight from the outset. Naturally, there were bound to be those who found this disappointing.
One such must have been Michael Alexander, whose verse version of the poem joined the Penguin Classics in 1973 and whose Introduction features this little shot across the bow: “Just as some modern readers will find this version too slavish, there will be others more learned than myself who may find it too free. I would ask them, as scholars, to consider whether a literal prose version of a verse epic is, properly, a translation.”
Here’s his “Survivor’s Lament”:
Hold ground, the gold of the earls!
Men could not. Cowards they were not
who took it from thee once, but war-death took them,
that stops life, struck them, spared not one
man of my people, passed on now.
They have had their hall-joys. I have not with me
a man able to unsheathe this …
who shall polish the plated vessel,
this treasured cup? The company is elsewhere.
This hardened helmet healed with gold,
shall lose its shell. They sleep now
whose work was to burnish the battle-masks;
so with the cuirass that in the crash took
bite of iron among breaking shields:
it moulders with the man. This mail-shirt travelled far,
hung from a shoulder that shouldered warriors:
it shall not jingle again.
There’s no joy from harp-play,
glee-wood’s gladness, no good hawk
swings through the hall now, no swift horse
tramps at the threshold. Terrible slaughter
has carried into darkness many kindreds of mankind.
There will obviously be those among you who prefer any verse to any prose. I’m not one of that number – for a very long time, I’ve been explaining and defending the often deceptively unassuming poetry that can be woven into prose translations by conscientious, learned craftsmen. I hold those translations no less automatically heartfelt and worthy than their verse counterparts. I think Wright’s prose version of Beowulf is very, very strong – but even if I didn’t: plated vessel? Healed with gold? The hilarious “it shall not jingle again”? Surely better any kind of prose version to a verse rendition that makes the audience giggle when they should be awestruck?
But whichever your pleasure, prose or verse, the long roll of Penguin Classics has you covered. Both versions come with a treasure from the Sutton Hoo hoard pictured on the cover, and both come with genealogies, maps, glossaries – all the secondary critical apparatus you need to get the gist of Beowulf. And Chickering – and the great, challenging, question-posing Seamus Heaney translation – await those who want to go on from there.