Seamus Heaney Reads His Exquisite Translation of Beowulf and His Memorable 1995 Nobel Lecture


We were among mil­lions deeply sad­dened to learn today that Sea­mus Heaney had passed away at age 74. Called the great­est Irish poet since Yeats, Heaney was not only a nation­al trea­sure to his home coun­try but to the glob­al poet­ry com­mu­ni­ty. The 1995 Nobel lau­re­ate worked in a rich bardic tra­di­tion that mined myth­ic lan­guage and imagery, Celtic and oth­er­wise, to get at primeval human ver­i­ties that tran­scend cul­ture and nation.

One promi­nent theme in Heaney’s work—connected to the Irish strug­gle, but acces­si­ble to anyone—is the per­sis­tence of trib­al­ism and its dam­ag­ing effects on future gen­er­a­tions. In one of his dark­er poems, “Pun­ish­ment,” one I’ve often taught to under­grad­u­ates, Heaney’s speak­er impli­cates him­self in the exe­cu­tion of a woman found buried in a bog many cen­turies lat­er. In the last two stan­zas, the speak­er betrays empa­thy clothed in help­less recog­ni­tion of the trib­al vio­lence and hypocrisy at the heart of all sys­tems of jus­tice.

I who have stood dumb
when your betray­ing sis­ters,
cauled in tar,
wept by the rail­ings,

who would con­nive
in civ­i­lized out­rage
yet under­stand the exact
and trib­al, inti­mate revenge.

The theme of trib­al vio­lence and its con­se­quences is cen­tral to the Old Eng­lish poem Beowulf, which Heaney famous­ly trans­lat­ed into a rich new idiom suit­ed for a post-colo­nial age but still con­so­nant with the dis­tinc­tive poet­ic rhythms of its lan­guage. You can hear Heaney read his trans­la­tion of Beowulf online. Above, we have the Pro­logue. (Apolo­gies in advance for the irri­tat­ing ad that pre­cedes it.) The remain­der of the read­ing appears on YouTube — lis­ten to Part 1 and Part 2Plus find more of Heaney’s work at the Poet­ry Foun­da­tion.

Final­ly, you can also lis­ten to his Nobel lec­ture deliv­ered on 7 Decem­ber 1995. It was post­ed on YouTube today, and we thought it worth your while. It’s pre­sent­ed in full below.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Rare 1930s Audio: W.B. Yeats Reads Four of His Poems

Hear James Joyce Read From his Epic Ulysses, 1924

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (5)
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  • pfiddle says:

    Won­der­ful — and very time­ly as we (Water­ford Liv­ing His­to­ry Soci­ety) are prac­tis­ing Beowulf as a per­for­mance piece- where can I get more of Heaney’s read­ing?

  • Glenribbeen says:

    Is the audio-ver­sion any­where where a reg­is­tered stu­dent might gain access?

  • ronan connolly says:

    I would ques­tion the line ‘great­est Irish poet since Yeats’

    Sure­ly it’s time to at least con­sid­er if he was THE great­est Irish poet. I think he was, but I’m biased. I’m from Der­ry, went to his school, and his poems speak to me in a much more direct and vis­cer­al way than Yeats. Maybe if I came from Sli­go, such a beau­ti­ful place, I might think differently.…but I doubt that.

    Heaney lived his life as the tow­er­ing fig­ure of a nation­al poet, with grace and humil­i­ty that us less­er mor­tals strug­gle to muster. He was a gift from the ancient and mod­ern gods to the world.

  • Susanne lorraine harford says:

    Sad­ly,, your Sea­mus Heaney ren­di­tion of Beowulf does no longer work, and I’m real­ly won­der­ing and hop­ing you can re-install this won­der­ful resource you have giv­en to all of us?
    thank you and peace, Susanne

  • John Hamilton Tarpley says:

    Such a love­ly man and mar­velous poet. God bless his soul.

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