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The Times Stephen Spender Prize 2011

Open, first prize

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Meghan Purvis

The Collar

Eagles hunt high. Their feathers glint gold against the sun,
mica among the loam-specks of crows a sky-current below.
They hunt by sight – a rabbit tensing to the ground, grass tenting
over a field-mouse’s flight – or light against a gold collar,

a signal-fire gone wild to an empty sky. Coast closer.
The collar sits on Hygelac still, prideful where he clasped it
that dark morning, waves pushing him towards Frisia.
He fell under his shield, and his people’s flag covers them both.

A hand covers the collar and the eagle loses interest,
Franks come for golden carrion once the bravery of battle is gone.
Hygelac’s men sleep with him still, downed scarecrows
guarding a field of corpses. The wind has changed.

Translated from the Anglo-Saxon by Meghan Purvis

The original poem may not display properly in older browsers or on computers running non-unicode-compliant operating systems. To view an image file of the poem, click here (opens in new window).

Beowulf, lines 1197–1214a

Nænigne ic under swegle selran hyrde
hord-maððum hæleþa, syþðan Hama ætwæg
to þære byrhtan byrig Brosinga mene,
sigle ond sinc-fæt; searoniðas fleah
Eormenrices, geceas ecne ræd.
þone hring hæfde Higelac Geata,
nefa Swertinges, nyhstan siðe,
siðþan he under segne sinc ealgode,
wæl-reaf werede; hyne wyrd fornam,
syþðan he for wlenco wean ahsode,
fæhðe to Frysum. He þa frætwe wæg,
eorclan-stanas ofer yða ful,
rice þeoden; he under rande gecranc.
Gehwearf þa in Francna fæþm feorh cyninges,
breost-gewædu ond se beah somod;
wyrsan wig-frecan wæl reafedon
æfter guð-sceare, Geata leode,
hrea-wic heoldon.


Translation commentary

I translated Beowulf because I was intrigued by a poem so closely tied to the idea of Englishness (it is, after all, the first epic poem in our language), but so different from what we think of as our English world. The world of Beowulf is violent, feudal, and supernatural, but it is also a world deeply concerned with very modern questions: do we evaluate a person’s actions by words or by deeds? How do we value the ties that connect us? Is it possible to admire a hero while questioning his heroics? Even the act of this translation itself – translating Old English into modern English – echoes that tension between simultaneous closeness and distance.

As you can imagine, this tension made for interesting work. I chose to translate Beowulf from Old English poetry to modern English poetry, translating it into a modern poetic idiom, as an attempt to produce an ancient English story told in a modern English manner. I have retained some alliterative aspects of the original – which I would argue is still a popular modern poetic technique – but for the most part have deliberately translated the poetry using modern metres and styles. I have also tried to express the myriad ways of reading and understanding Beowulf – whether reading it as a hero worshipper, or as a modern woman uncomfortable with the extremely limited female presence in the poem – by using many different characters and voices instead of translating with the omnipotent voice of a narrator. The narrative is split up into separate poems that, read together as a collection, tell the story of Beowulf.

Meghan Purvis