Thomas Meyer’s Beowulf

Beowulf: A Translation

by Thomas Meyer

Edited by David Hadbawnik

with a Preface by David Hadbawnik, an Introduction by Daniel C. Remein, and an Interview with Thomas Meyer

Brooklyn, NY: punctum books, 2012. 312 pages. ISBN-13: 978-0615612652. OPEN-ACCESS e-book + $15.00 [€14.00] in print.

Published: 2012-08-25

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“Thomas Meyer’s modernist reworking of Beowulf is a wonder.” ~John Ashbery

 “Tom Meyer’s Beowulf reenacts the dark grandeur of a poem that is as much a story of vengeance as it is of courage and loyalty. Meyer brings the poem’s alliterative, inflected line in concert with post-Poundian lineation to give the reader a vivid sense of our oldest poem’s modernity. This is a major accomplishment.” ~Michael Davidson

 “Meyer’s work is amazing and richly satisfying, a full-scale collaboration between an ancient poem and a modern poet. Its diversity of tone is dazzling, from stately to swinging, from philosophically abstract to savagely concrete, from conversationally discursive to gnomic, haunting, chthonic — yet every line feels honestly rooted in the original text, the echo of an generous, open-hearted, and lovingly close reading of the poem.” ~Roy Liuzza

See reviews of Thomas Meyer’s Beowulf: Make Magazine, thecohort@marco, Nomadics, The Medieval Review, H_NGM_N, and Glasgow Review of Books.

Many modern Beowulf translations, while excellent in their own ways, suffer from what Kathleen Biddick might call “melancholy” for an oral and aural way of poetic making. By and large, they tend to preserve certain familiar features of Anglo-Saxon verse as it has been constructed by editors, philologists, and translators: the emphasis on caesura and alliteration, with diction and syntax smoothed out for readability. The problem with, and the paradox of this desired outcome, especially as it concerns Anglo-Saxon poetry, is that we are left with a document that translates an entire organizing principle based on oral transmission (and perhaps composition) into a visual, textual realm of writing and reading. The sense of loss or nostalgia for the old form seems a necessary and ever-present shadow over modern Beowulfs.

What happens, however, when a contemporary poet, quite simply, doesn’t bother with any such nostalgia? When the entire organizational apparatus of the poem—instead of being uneasily approximated in modern verse form—is itself translated into a modern organizing principle, i.e., the visual text? This is the approach that poet Thomas Meyer takes; as he writes,

[I]nstead of the text’s orality, perhaps perversely I went for the visual. Deciding to use page layout (recto/ verso) as a unit. Every translation I’d read felt impenetrable to me with its block after block of nearly uniform lines. Among other quirky decisions made in order to open up the text, the project wound up being a kind of typological specimen book for long American poems extant circa 1965. Having variously the “look” of Pound’s Cantos, Williams’ Paterson, or Olson or Zukofsky, occasionally late Eliot, even David Jones.

A glance anywhere in Meyer’s text demonstrates the stunning results. One place he turns it to especially good effect is the fight with Grendel in Fit 11, transforming the famously hyper-condensed syntax of the scene from a discouraging challenge for the translator into a visually pleasing strength:

The eyes of Hygelac’s kin watched the wicked raider
execute his quick attack:
without delay,
snatching his first chance,
a sleeping warrior,
he tore him in two,
chomped muscle, sucked veins’
gushing blood,
gulped down his morsel, the dead man,
chunk by chunk,
hands, feet & all.

& then

footstephandclawfiendreachmanbedquicktrick
beastarmpainclampnewnotknownheartrunflesho
feargetawaygonowrunrun

never before had
sinherd feared anything so.

Here the reader is confronted with the words themselves running together, as if in panic, in much the same way that the original passage seems in such a rush to tell the story of the battle that bodies become confused. This is just one example of the adventurous and provocative angle on Beowulf to which Meyer introduces us. His Beowulf—completed in 1972 but never before published—is sure to stretch readers’ ideas about what is possible in terms of translating Anglo-Saxon poetry, as well as provide new insights on the poem itself.

Thomas Meyer was born on Saint Valentine’s Day and has always lived where there are cows and there is rain: for many years in the Yorkshire Dales, but now and more recently above a vineyard in North Carolina, at the southernmost end of the Appalachians, on the western slope of Happy Hill at Skywinding Farm. After graduating from Bard College, he joined Jonathan Williams in forty years of domestic partnership and advocacy of the Jargon Society. His recent books include At Dusk Iridescent (A Gathering of Poems, 1972-97), Coromandel, and a translation of the daode jing.

David Hadbawnik is a PhD student at University at Buffalo, SUNY, focusing on poetics and medieval studies. In 2011 he co-edited (with Sean Reynolds) Jack Spicer’s Beowulf, a selection of Spicer’s previously unpublished translations of the Old English poem, in CUNY’s “Lost and Found” series. His book Field Work: Notes, Songs, Poems 1997-2010, was also published in 2011 by BlazeVOX Books.

Daniel C. Remein holds an MFA in poetry from the University of Pittsburgh and is a PhD candidate in English at New York University where is working on his dissertation, tentatively titled “Wonder and Ornamentality: A Medieval/Modern Poetics.” His poems appear in numerous journals including Sentence, Sidebrow, Holly White, Lit, and Shampoo; critical essays have appeared in Literature Compass, postmedieval, and Glossator. Remein is a member of the BABEL Working Group, co-founder of the Organism for Poetic Research, and edits the journal Whiskey & Fox.

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  1. […] Thomas Meyer’s Beowulf saved 691 days ago. […]

  2. […] Thomas Meyer’s Beowulf (2012, but written in the 1970s) has garnered praise from academic circles, including a positive review in the October 2013 issue of Speculum, and from poetry circles, with comments on and excerpts from the text appearing in Jacket2. Yet one review calls it an “adaptation” and another takes issue with Meyer’s “capricious and arbitrary” poetic license. More recently, as Jonathan Hsy and Candace Barrington relate in a forthcoming article, Patience Agbabi’s The Canterbury Copy (2014) “troubles standard distinctions between appropriation, translation, and interpretation.” Nevertheless, they also argue that, by reworking The Canterbury Tales with immigrant-pilgrims drawn from her own experience in London, Agbabi’s approach forces the reader to confront anew some of the language and translation problems of the original poem. This suggests that an overemphasis on the categories of translation vs. adaptation, academic vs. creative, might provide barriers to interacting with and thinking about medieval poems. This panel will ask critical questions around these barriers: What makes something a translation, something else not? Why do we care, and what does that caring mean? How can we think beyond such categories to arrive at deeper truths that medievalist reworkings might disclose? […]

10 Comments


  1. Jim Strachan, 2 years ago Reply

    Has this book ever been published or is it still in the publishing queue? There is not date or other information.
    Love your books!


  2. Eileen Joy, 2 years ago Reply

    Hi Jim: Thomas Meyer’s “Beowulf” should be out by September; keep checking this page. Best, Eileen


  3. Robin Clarke, 2 years ago Reply

    This looks to be fabulous! Can’t wait.


  4. Jim Strachan, 2 years ago Reply

    Many thanks (and thank you Eileen) to all of you for all your hard work making this book a reality a month before I was expecting it!
    And thank you Thomas Meyer for your Anglo Saxon translations of 40 years ago.
    The pdf is beautiful, so I expect the printed book to be even more so…I also believe in the book as object of tactile experience.
    My order is on its way.


  5. Gordana Vukovic, 2 years ago Reply

    Thank you for the opportunity of free download! A reader from a medium developed (or non-developed) country :)


  6. Eileen Joy, 2 years ago Reply

    And many thanks to our readers in return! And Jim: I think you really will love the print version as well.


  7. Thomas Meyer, 2 years ago Reply

    Eileen, David, and Daniel: Thank you! For all tour good work, care, and attentions. Fabulous results. That this translation sees the light of day is a happy surprise made so much more so by the fulsome glory of it realization.


  8. Eileen Joy, 2 years ago Reply

    Thank YOU, Tom! It was a pleasure to work on this book and with your gorgeous lines of poetry. I actually just released last week [yet another] corrected version, so when I see you in Boston, I’ll give you another [better] print copy!


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