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Winter 2001

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Nobel winner Heaney gives Steloff Lecture

     Seamus Heaney, the distinguished poet, author, and translator, delivered the Steloff Lecture in October to a packed house in Bernhard Theater. Many disappointed fans were turned away because the theater’s 345 seats could not accommodate all the invited guests and members of the Skidmore community eager to hear the Nobel Prize–winning Irishman read from his work. At President Jamienne S. Studley’s suggestion, Heaney regaled those stranded in the lobby with an abbreviated poetry reading of their own before making his way to the Bernhard lectern.

Poet Seamus Heaney at his Steloff appearance on campus

     Earlier in the day, Heaney participated in a panel discussion on “Poetry, Reading, Tradition” with members of the English department, which gave students and faculty an opportunity to carry on a dialogue with him in a less formal venue.

     Like the other distinguished Steloff lecturers who preceded him—from Granville Hicks in 1968 to Janet Malcolm in 1999—Heaney was awarded an honorary degree before his reading. The citation by English professor and poet Barry Goldensohn read in part, “The list of Nobel laureates makes one envy Ireland. Shaw, Yeats, and Beckett make up a company proper to you. … And so, Seamus Heaney, extraordinary poet, for your many gifts and achievements, Skidmore College is proud to confer on you the degree of honorary doctor of letters.”

     Heaney, most recently acclaimed for his translation of Beowulf, which became a best-seller in the United States and England, began the evening by reading several lines of the epic poem in its original Anglo-Saxon. “His intonations make you want to read his translation,” observed Skidmore News reviewer Holli Leber ’02, but she added that “the absence of his voice will leave much to be desired.” A London Times reviewer, however, encouraged readers by noting that Heaney “tears back the thickets of scholarship which have bound this cornerstone of English literary tradition and frees a living voice from the snares of pedantry.”

     When first tackling the assignment from the editors of The Norton Anthology of English Literature to translate the poem, Heaney found the going tough: “The whole attempt to turn it into modern English seemed like trying to bring down a megalith with a toy hammer.” Then, he writes in the Beowulf introduction, “I noticed that without a conscious intent on my part certain lines in the first poem [“Digging”] in my first book [Death of a Naturalist (1966)], conformed to the requirements of Anglo-Saxon metrics. These lines were made up of two balancing halves, each half containing two stressed syllables—“the spade sinks into gravelly ground: / My father, digging. I look down”—and in the case of the second line, there was alliteration linking “digging” and “down” across the caesura. Part of me, in other words, had been writing Anglo-Saxon from the start.”

     Following his Beowulf recitation, Heaney read poems yet to be published about his childhood and ended the evening with a work titled “Audenesque.” Later, Leber approached Heaney, asking him if he had ever wanted to give up writing. “No,” he said emphatically. “My fear is that it would give me up.”

     Heaney, whose best known books include North (1976), Station Island (1984), The Haw Lantern (1987), and The Spirit Level (1996), was born in Northern Ireland in 1939, was educated at a Catholic school, and did his undergraduate work at Queen’s University, Belfast. Since 1996, he has been Emerson Poet-in-Residence at Harvard University, residing there for six weeks every other autumn. Previously, he was Boylston Professor of Poetry and Rhetoric at Harvard and a professor of poetry at Oxford University.

     The annual Steloff Lecture was established in 1967 by Frances Steloff, a native of Saratoga Springs who became a well-known patron of writers and founded the Gotham Book Mart in New York City. She endowed the lecture series as a way to bring outstanding literary and artistic talent to Skidmore College. —ACH

Beowulf’s beginning

So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by
And the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns.

There was Shield Sheafson, scourge of many tribes,
A wrecker of mead-benches, rampaging among foes.
This terror of the hall-troops had come far.
A foundling to start with, he would flourish later on
As his powers waxed and his worth was proved.
In the end each clan on the outlying coasts
Beyond the whale-road had to yield to him
And begin to pay tribute. That was one good king.

Hwæt we Gar-Dena in gear-dagum
peod-cyninga prym gefrunon,
hu ða æpelingas ellen fremedon.

Oft Scyld Scefing sceapena preatum,
monegum mægpum meodo-setla ofteah;
egsode Eorle, syððan ærest wearð
feasceaft funden; he pæs frofre gebad:
weox under wolcnum, weorð-myndum pah,
oðpæt him æghwylc para ymb-sittendra
ofer hron-rade hyran scolde,
gomban gyldan: pæt wæs god cyning!

Reprinted from Beowulf: A New Verse Translation by Seamus Heaney. © 2000 by Seamus Heaney. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Co. Inc.


© 2001 Skidmore College