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A Parable of Power

by Barrie Hardymon
Nov 19, 2007

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English students all over owe Seamus Heaney a great debt — and if you are one, you can thank him on the show today. His 2000 translation of the epic poem Beowulf changed an oblique and sometimes frustrating literary artifact into a living, heaving adventure story. (The emphasis in the new film of the epic is much less on living than on heaving.) The 1995 Nobel Laureate filled his translation with suspense and alliteration and emotion, all while maintaining what Heaney calls "the attractively direct" style of the original poem. It's impossible to read without wanting to murmur the words out loud, partly because there are so many brilliantly quotable moments, and partly because it scans so beautifully. (What's better than one poet? Two.) Heaney and the Beowulf poet really understand power, though sadly, many of the lessons they teach are not as popular as the myriad lessons on the poem itself. The poem begins, "Behavior that's admired is the path to power among people everywhere." One certainly wishes it were so.

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