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The Times Stephen Spender Prize 2011

Open, commended

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Meghan Purvis


A woman hardens her gaze at a man staring soft-eyed.
At once he needs night air, or curls his shoulders over his belly,
Struck – there was a time I could mouth her name to you
and we would nod into our cups. Now the name is unfamiliar.
I hesitate on it, tongue tasting an unfamiliar berry,

strange fruit. Let me tell the story again. Noble and terrible,
no one but her husband would dare approach her, for fear
they would be weight for a rope's end by nightfall.
How queenly is that, no matter how beautiful?
Born to be peace-weaver, then fills her country with death,

taking men's lives over nothing. But Hemming's kin put a stop to that.
You'll hear, if you wait round the table, how Modthryth calmed
once she was given to a young champion, sent away
over the whale-paths to marry. There she was good,
and known for her goodness; she was a noble wife to Offa,

the spear-brave king, who held his homeland.
From him came Eomer, Hemming's kin, grandson of Garmund –
but you don't know these names either? You knew an Offa once –
no matter. I tell these stories because they are the ones
told to me; I plant my feet in the schoolroom and sing.
wind has changed.

Translated from the Anglo-Saxon by Meghan Purvis

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Beowulf, lines 1931b–1951a

                  Mod Þryðo wæg,
fremu folces cwen, firen’ ondrysne.
Nænig þæt dorste deor geneþan
swæsra gesiða, nefne sin-frea,
þæt hire an dæges eagum starede;
ac him wæl-bende weotode tealde,
hand-gewriþene; hraþe seoþðan wæs
æfter mund-gripe mece geþinged,
þæt hit sceaden-mæl scyran moste,
cwealm-bealu cyðan. Ne bið swylc cwenlic þeaw
idese to efnanne, þeah ðe hio ænlicu sy,
þætte freoðu-webbe feores onsæce
æfter lige-torne leofne mannan.
Huru þæt onhohsnode Hemminges mæg;
ealo-drincende oðer sædan,
þæt hio leod-bealewa læs gefremede,
inwit-niða, syððan ærest wearð
gyfen gold-hroden geongum cempan,
æðelum diore, syððan hio Offan flet
ofer fealone flod be fæder lare
siðe gesohte


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