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Monday, May 25, 2009

Memorial Day: The Lay of the Last Survivor

On Saturday, we went to Miss Em's graduation. We will spare you the video of the graduation speech delivered by our own Miss Em. Sunday, we recovered from the long drive. Today, I was planning to write yet once more on the Edmund Andrews saga, which gets curious-er and curious-er. Then I remembered that it is Memorial Day. Today, if any day, we should count our blessings and remember.

Even though I don't teach too much "war literature," I am lucky enough to have repeatedly taught two of the greatest masterpieces of the genre: The Iliad and Beowulf. Both poems are about mortality and the meaning of life. Both are also about memory.

Below is a brief excerpt from Beowulf (translation by Alan Sullivan and Timothy Murphy, 2002). Like most poems that purportedly glorify war, this is also an anti-war poem. Beowulf explores the threats to peace that come both from without us and from within us. This poignant moment is a flashback. A nameless man laments the death of his community as he buries their treasures.

Hold now, Earth what men may not,
the hoard of the heroes, earth-gotten wealth
when it first was won. War-death has felled them,
An evil befalling each of my people.
The long-house is mirthless when men are lifeless.
I have none to wear sword, none to bear wine
or polish the precious vessels and plates.
Gone are the brothers who braved many battles.
From the hard helmet the hand-wrought gilding
drops in the dust. Asleep are the smiths
who knew how to burnish the war-chief's mask
or mend the mail-shirts mangled in battle.
Shields and mail-shirts molder with warriors
and follow no foes to faraway fields.
No harp rejoices to herald the heroes,
no hand-fed hawk swoops through the hall,
no stallion stamps in the keep's courtyard.
Death has undone many kindreds of men.


Duchesse said...

Frugal, Beowulf runs like a river through my life. Do you also like Seamus Heaney's translation? This is a powerful section, thank you.

And on another note, hope for a bight future, congratulations to your Miss Em! I would love to know what she said.

clairz said...

Thank you for posting this. And thank you for posting it now.

Suzy said...

*shakes head* I'm ashamed to admit that I read this as a senior in high school yet remember absolutely nothing about it other that something about a sea monster and having to memorize some passage about the 'nature of nobility'. I had no idea it was about war/anti-war. Poetry itself usually throws me off and I'm not sure why..maybe how all the words are broken up and all the fancy language.The only poetry I've ever read and liked/understood were The Road Less Traveled and a few by Emily Dickinson. A few years ago I decided to become 'enlightened' and read a few 'classics' between all the romance and mystery I usually read. I got bogged down in Shakespeare and found myself reading the same lines over and over(I think MacBeth is my favorite of his)so I tried some more 'modern' classics(ok I consider A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Chaim Potok classics!)Those I could relate to. Maybe I just need some practice! It's nice seeing people's responses to the literary things you post - the enthusiasm will hopefully be catching! WEll some is already caught I guess but they at least get me to thinking! I also like how you say what the passage means before posting it LOL! :-) I need all the help I can get!

Midlife, menopause, mistakes and random stuff... said...

Congratulations to Miss Em!!
The world really never changes does it Frugal Scholar? Only the faces and names change. Human nature stays much the same wich is a true double edged sword, no?

Steady On
Reggie Girl

Frugal Scholar said...

@Duchesse-this is embarrassing--but I never read Beowulf in college or grad school. Finally, I taught it so I could "learn" it. I am not expert enough to comment on Heaney's translation. People who are expert are very evasive when asked! I do know that it is a pita to teach with it (I teach it in a sophomore course and it is in the Norton Anthology) because the language is very dense. I miss the old Donaldson prose translation.

Frugal Scholar said...

@clairz--Thanks. Hope to see you again.

Frugal Scholar said...

@Suzy--Try it again! Honestly, most of my students don't listen to anything I say. And I think most of these works are wasted on high school students anyway. Maybe I should start posting some of my thoughts on literature. At least someone would pay attention.

Frugal Scholar said...

@Reggie--So true, so sad.

Suzy said...

OK I'm gonna try it again since I know now that it has deeper meaing than some guy fighting a sea monster! I found it at the library then realized it was a free public domain download so also have it my ereader. Gosh I didn't realize it was a poem! The book we read was thicker than The Old Man and the Sea (what's with all the water themed books??)Sure keep posting on literature! I found some of those children's books at the library too and spent last night reading through some of them!