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Seamus Heaney and Medieval Poetry

Seamus Heaney and Medieval Poetry

Conor McCarthy
Copyright Date: 2008
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 208
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7722/j.ctt820f8
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  • Book Info
    Seamus Heaney and Medieval Poetry
    Book Description:

    Seamus Heaney's engagement with medieval literature constitutes a significant body of work by a major poet that extends across four decades, including a landmark translation of 'Beowulf'. This book, the first to look exclusively at this engagement, examines both Heaney's direct translations and his adaptation of medieval material in his original poems. Each of the four chapters focuses substantially on a single major text: 'Sweeney Astray' (1983), 'Station Island' (1984), 'Beowulf' (1999) and 'The Testament of Cresseid' (2004). The discussion examines Heaney's translation practice in relation to source texts from a variety of languages (Irish, Italian, Old English, and Middle Scots) from across the medieval period, and also in relation to Heaney's own broader body of work. It suggests that Heaney's translations and adaptations give a contemporary voice to medieval texts, bringing the past to bear upon contemporary concerns both personal and political. CONOR MCCARTHY gained his PhD from Trinity College Dublin.

    eISBN: 978-1-84615-605-2
    Subjects: History, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgements
    (pp. vii-viii)
    Conor McCarthy
  4. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. viii-viii)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-12)

    It’s unlikely to be news to the general reader that Seamus Heaney is a distinguished translator of medieval poetry, for subsequent to its publication in 1999, Heaney’s translation of the Old English poem Beowulf provoked extensive comment, garnered substantial sales, and won the Whitbread Prize.¹ Important as the Beowulf translation is, however, it is not the full extent of Heaney’s engagement with medieval poetry. In 1983, Heaney published a translation of the medieval Irish Buile Suibhne,² and he has held an extensive dialogue with Dante’s Commedia involving translation, adaptation, and allusion across three books in particular: Field Work, Station Island...

  6. 1 Sweeney Astray
    (pp. 13-52)

    Sweeney Astray is Seamus Heaney’s translation of the medieval Irish text Buile Suibhne, ‘The Madness of Suibhne,’ a tale in verse and prose that describes how Suibhne (Sweeney), an Ulster king, clashes with a local cleric, Rónán, and having been cursed by the cleric, goes mad during the battle of Magh Rath (modernised to Moira in Heaney’s version) in the year 637. Believing himself to have been transformed into a bird, Suibhne retreats into the wilderness where he lives a life of hardship, wandering from place to place, and reciting poetry that describes his suffering. Attempts by those close to...

  7. 2 Station Island
    (pp. 53-85)

    The ‘Station Island’ sequence that forms the heart of the collection that bears its name is Seamus Heaney’s most extensive adaptation of Dante, a reworking of the Commedia in a contemporary Irish context, where a pilgrimage by the poet to Lough Derg, the Station Island of the title, leads to encounters with a number of ghostly interlocutors, some of whom are literary predecessors, others figures from Heaney’s life. While this sequence forms the heart of the discussion here, it is none the less necessary to note that Heaney’s engagement with Dante extends well beyond this single, albeit substantial, work, and...

  8. 3 Beowulf
    (pp. 86-126)

    Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, published in 1999, was his first full-length translation of a substantial medieval text since Sweeney Astray, and, like Sweeney Astray, it was a long time coming. The commission to translate the poem came in the early 1980s from the editors of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, and a portion of Heaney’s early work on the translation appeared as ‘The Ship of Death’ in his 1987 collection, The Haw Lantern. By this time, however, the translation project had been put to one side – Heaney comments in a 1988 interview that ‘The Ship of Death’...

  9. 4 The Testament of Cresseid
    (pp. 127-163)

    Willy Maley, writing in this instance on Joyce, argues that ‘there is evidence in recent years of a growing interest in Scottish and Irish relations on a range of fronts – historical, political, cultural – that promises to undo the double bind implicit in traditional Anglo-Scottish and Anglo-Irish perspectives.’¹ An interest in historical links may be ascribed in part to a recent interest in Scottish history in itself, and in part to a new attitude evident in British history that takes account of a four-nation perspective. This is an attitude pioneered by historians like J. G. A. Pocock² and Hugh...

  10. Conclusion
    (pp. 164-172)

    Seamus Heaney’s responses to medieval literature take place in the context of an ongoing engagement with medieval material by twentieth-century predecessors and contemporary writers. Several of the texts discussed above have been a rich source of literary inspiration for previous twentieth-century writers. Certainly Buile Suibhne has been a source of inspiration for a long list of twentieth-century Irish writers, both before and after Heaney, although Heaney’s is the first full-length English translation for generations. Dante has exerted a substantial influence on Englishlanguage poetry from Chaucer to the present; Heaney’s own essay ‘Envies and Identifications’ mentions Yeats, Eliot, and Kinsella as...

  11. Bibliography
    (pp. 173-186)
  12. Index
    (pp. 187-196)
  13. Back Matter
    (pp. 197-197)