New poems and article: ‘Poems for the Women of Beowulf’ in postmedieval

‘Hwaet’ by Laura Varnam

HWAET everyone! I am delighted to share the open access link to my new poems and creative-critical article in the journal postmedieval: ‘Poems for the Women of Beowulf: A ‘Contemporary Medieval’ Project’. Available here.

The piece focuses on seven new poems from my collection (including ‘Hwaet’, above) and discusses how I came to begin my project (as a result of my teaching!), as well as situating my feminist adaptation in the context of modern translations/revoicings (such as Maria Dahvana Headley’s). Here’s the abstract:

I open the article by declaring that: Beowulf is a poem that gets into your bones. If you’re not careful, it changes you: both as a reader and a writer.’

It has changed me, that’s for sure, and I’m still finding new ways of adapting, rewriting, and translating the poem. I suggest in my article that my poems have become a form of intimate close reading of the original and that’s certainly how I’ve come to feel about the word ‘hwaet’ which has so many possible translations and functions. Listen! Behold! Heaney’s ‘So.’ Headley’s ‘Bro’. Thomas Meyer’s ‘HEY now hear’.

And this morning I made a new-to-me discovery while reading a super little edition of David Wright’s 1957 prose translation that I picked up last week in a charity shop for a mere £1!

Cover art by Michael Leonard. (Isn’t it incredible!)

Wright opens his translation: ‘HEAR! We know of the bygone glory of the Danish kings, and the heroic exploits of those princes.’

The Old English is ‘Hwaet! We Gar-Dena [we of the Spear-Danes] in geardagum [in former days], þeodcyninga [of the kings of that people] þrym gefrunon [their glory we have heard], hu þa aeþelingas [how the princes] ellen [courageous deeds] fremedon [performed].’

So my working literal translation would be: Hwaet! We have heard of the Spear-Danes in former days, of the glory of the kings of that people, how the princes performed courageous deeds.

I was intrigued that Wright opens with ‘HEAR!’ and then has ‘we know’ of the Danish kings rather than ‘we have heard’. I wondered if he wasn’t keen to have hear/heard in close proximity, but personally, I rather like that echo! But then I thought there’s a difference between ‘we know’ and ‘we have heard’ and I prefer the latter because it situates us within a listening community who have heard tales of the Danes, which admits more ambiguity and mystery than ‘we know’ does.

But then I suddenly thought, does ‘gefrunon’ definitely mean ‘heard of’? When I looked up the verb, it turns out that ‘gefrignan’ means ‘learn by asking, obtain knowledge of, hear of’. Now this fascinated me because you could then translate ‘we have learnt by asking of the Danes’. It’s a little awkward but it’s active and implies that the audience has interrogated the poet to find out more!

This then made me think of the Old English Maxims, which opens as follows (translation by Tom Shippey):

Frige mec frodum wordum. Ne laet þinne ferþ onhaelne, / degol þaet þu deopest cunne. Nelle ic þe min dyrne gesecgan, / gif þu me þinne hygecraeft hylest ond þine heortan geþohtas. / Gleawe men sceolon gieddum wrixlan.

Question me with wise words. But do not let your opinion remain hidden, or what you know most profoundly stay obscure. I will not tell you my secret knowledge if you hide the strength of your mind from me, and the thoughts of your heart. Men of perception ought to exchange their sayings.

[or, that last sentence, ‘wise men must exchange riddles/tales/stories‘. The noun ‘giedd’ in Old English is especially multiple in its meanings!]

Suddenly, I’m rethinking what we ‘have heard’ of the Danes! Perhaps the poet is reminding us that what we ‘know’ comes from what we have heard as a result of asking questions of the wise poet? I think this is a really powerful idea in Beowulf because knowledge / lack of knowledge is a key preoccupation in the poem. The poet frequently uses the words ‘cuþ’ and ‘uncuþ’ (known and unknown) when thinking about the monsters and the borderlands which are ‘known’ in the sense of mapped, recognised, and understood.

Translating- close readingBeowulf always pays off, even when you’ve been reading (and teaching) the poem for over fifteen years as I have! My sense of that opening has shifted again this morning, thanks to David Wright’s edition, and I’ve already got another poem ‘brewing’ on the question of where knowledge comes from in poetry!


If you’d like to read my article (which includes more discussions of the possible meanings of HWAET), check out this open access web link: here. You can read more of my Beowulf poems via the links on my Beowulf page here (and in the post directly below!). I have three more poems from my collection coming out in literary journals later this month and in the autumn, so keep your eyes peeled!

Huge thanks to everyone at postmedieval– the editors and peer reviewers- for their support, invaluable feedback, and generosity. Thanks to everyone who has read, retweeted, and got in touch about my work- it’s lovely to hear from readers and to see what strikes a chord!- and I’m looking forward to more discussions with colleagues about revoicing medieval texts over the coming academic year.

Back cover illustration by Michael Leonard.
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