Beowulf in World Lit 1

M. Wendy Hennequin

Tennessee State University


Though I specialize in Old English, I have few opportunities to teach it. Tennessee State University has little call for courses in pre-modern literature; we have relatively few English majors, and current major requirements demand only one course in British Literature before 1800 and one course in Shakespeare. 1 "Literature of Medieval England" and "Chaucer" courses have each been taught only once during my seven years here, so my opportunities to teach Old English texts have come in my World Literature I courses. I teach Beowulf in this course as part of the epic tradition, but my knowledge of Old English allows me to discuss some details of poetics with my students, an opportunity I don't have with many texts in this class. I have found that my students can understand and appreciate the basic poetic techniques of Beowulf, but only when I first demonstrate them in modern rather than Old English poetry.

World Literature I fulfills the undergraduate general education literature requirement; it is also required for English majors. As such, World Literature I runs every semester, often filling two sections of 20-30 students each. I typically have a few English majors in each section, but most students come from other majors and range from sophomore to senior level. Academic abilities and experience also vary widely; Tennessee State admits students with at least 19 ACT or 900 SAT score,2 but students with higher scores choose the university for its affordability, its location, or its status as a Historically Black College / University. Many students are first-generation college. Most have not taken a college-level literature course before, but all have completed the freshmen composition sequence. In many ways, then, my students typify U.S. college students. Their literary knowledge is also typical, focused mostly on American and modern texts, with perhaps a Shakespeare play and an Austen or Dickens novel. If they have encountered Old English literature at all, they've read only translations, usually excerpts.

The World Literature I course officially covers literature “through the Renaissance (approximately 1650)."3 All sections must use the Longman Anthology of World Literature, Volumes A, B, and C,4 but instructors choose the individual reading assignments from the textbook. My syllabus concentrates on epics, romance, and religious documents, with some drama. I begin with Gilgamesh and finish with Paradise Lost; we encounter the Sullivan and Murphy poetic translation of Beowulf in the sixth week of the term.5

Because of their chronological range, most of the World Literature I texts are poetic, and most are necessarily presented in translation. During the first week, I discuss some of the problems of translation: mistranslation, loss of nuanced meanings and connotations, words without equivalents, the influence of translators' biases and choices, and lack of cultural context. I also remind the students that many, if not most, of our texts are poetry rather than prose, so that (except for Paradise Lost and Othello, which we read in the original) we also lose the conventions, subtleties, and beauty of the poetry through translation.

Because of these translation issues, it is difficult to study specific compositional elements of poetry in World Literature I. I do cover the larger elements of poetics, such as epic similes and formulae, which translation conveys somewhat successfully. While I also present basic technical terms for the meters used in various works, it is largely useless to discuss the workings of sound and meter in languages which no one in the room, myself included, can read or speak (Babylonian, for example). Because I can read and understand Old English poetry, however, I include much more detail on the poetics—how the poetry works as poetry—when we discuss Beowulf.

My process for teaching the poetics of Beowulf has evolved over the years. Originally, I planned to teach this lesson basically as it had been taught to me as an undergraduate: first, state that the poetry of Beowulf has four strong beats per line, divided by a caesura, and linked by alliteration; then, define those technical terms. But as I came to know my students, I realized that with their limited literary backgrounds, they would need lots of explanations and examples to make sense of the poetic terminology. I then remembered that my own undergraduate instruction had not completely taught me how Old English poetry worked, especially regarding the crucial interdependence of alliteration and stress; more importantly, that instruction did not convey the sound or feel of Old English poetry. I then added a recitation of the first eleven lines of Beowulf in Old English to my introductory lesson, to convey the sound and feeling of the poetry before presenting and defining any literary terms. I handed out copies of the Old English text and proceeded to perform the lines in a somewhat dramatic manner.

The students were generally impressed by this recitation—they almost always applauded—but when I asked them, "What's different about this poetry from the poetry you're used to? What do you hear, and what don't you hear?" they were perplexed. They remained perplexed even after I had provided the terms and definitions. My students could not hear the sounds of the poetry in Old English, nor find the alliterative patterns in the written text. Their difficulties stemmed from lack of practice and lack of experience. Like most American students, they were unused to finding poetic patterns aurally, except in popular music. Their poetic experiences, both formal and informal, had prepared them to listen for a regular rhythm, not an irregular (though patterned) meter. The strangeness of the Old English language kept my students from registering the lack of rhyme. And despite their familiarity with Dr. Seuss books, few of my students had been taught that alliteration was a feature of poetry and did not recognize it when they heard it. Nor did the students recognize the alliteration or lack of rhyme in the handout with the Old English quotation; again, the foreignness of the language simply confused them.

I was frustrated by the gap between the lesson's goals and my student's abilities, so during my third semester of World Literature I, I began the class on Beowulf's poetic form by reciting for them the beginning of Beowulf in Old English, followed by one of my own poems, which I had written in Old English form:

    Once were these walls—   well I remember—
    Carved with serpents, covered with gold,
    Shining and splendid. Steadfast and strong,
    They bravely stood, when the sea-riders,
    Ship-warriors, the shore invaded,
    And conquered the sand.
    ("Guthrinc's Lament" 1-6)
To my surprise, the students immediately heard and understood the alliteration and the cadence of the meter of these Modern English lines. They realized that the poetry did not rhyme and were able to identify and discuss those poetic features. Where before the students had lost the focus on the poetic elements in the foreignness of the words, they clearly heard and saw the Old English poetics when they were presented in a Modern English text.

Six years later, I continue to use this lesson plan successfully with some adjustments. I still begin with the recitation of the first lines of Beowulf in Old English, without first introducing the poetic terms, and again ask what the students do and don't hear. I normally get the same perplexed responses as before, but I then recite the same lines from my own poetic translation of Beowulf:6

    Much have we heard  	   of the might of the Spear-Danes,
    And of their folk-rulers in former days,
    How famed princes practiced courage!
    Oft, Scyld Scefing from scores of foemen,
    From many tribes, took mead-benches,
    Frightened their earls-- after first he was
    Found with nothing. He knew comfort for it,
    Flourished under heaven, fame-honor found,
    Until every border-sitter, circling tribe,
    Over the whale's highway had to obey him,
    Give gold-tribute. That was a good king.
    (Beowulf 1-11)
I recite my own translation, instead of Sullivan and Murphy's in the Longman, both out of personal preference, and because, as Sullivan explains elsewhere, their translation does not strictly adhere to the techniques of Old English poetry but rather adapts the poetic rules to work better in Modern English.7 Though I have tried to follow Old English poetic conventions more exactly than Sullivan and Murphy, my translation too is imperfect; sometimes, I have sacrificed alliteration and meter to meaning, and certainly, some readers would argue with my choices. Yet this translation serves my purposes: as with "Guthrinc's Lament," my students can hear the meter, alliteration, and absence of rhyme in pseudo-Old English poetry. After this auditory introduction, I project the original and translated texts on a screen and only then define crucial poetic terms, including alliteration, stress, caesura, kenning, and variation, reinforcing the terms—and the poetics of Beowulf—by referencing the occurrences of these features both in the original and in my translation. By unmasking the language and showing Beowulf's poetic form in a somewhat familiar, less intimidating guise, I can present Old English poetry to my students in a way that they not only understand, but can, to a certain extent, appreciate as poetry.

These techniques of demonstrating Old English poetics through Modern English could easily be incorporated into other classrooms. Frederick Rebsamen's translation, like my own, tries to adhere to the poetic techniques of Old English verse and is widely available.8 But whatever the path, showing the workings of Beowulf's poetics to students who are majors and non-majors alike is crucial. Our students' conceptions and experiences of poetry are often limited and very modern. Even if they do not enroll in more literature classes for the remainder of their undergraduate careers, a demonstration that includes Modern English verse in Old English form will help to expand their working definitions of poetry both chronologically and compositionally. Furthermore, our survey courses often constitute our only opportunity to introduce our students to Old English poetry, to recruit them as English majors, and/or to engage them in the material so that they might even enroll in our more advanced medieval literature courses. My original mistake was introducing a bewildering text in an unfamiliar language, unrecognizable as poetry, and expecting my students, with their limited literary training, to make intellectual and technical connections; such a traditional approach will not bring students like mine deeply into the material. We cannot possibly broaden our students' literary horizons nor instill a love of Old English literature unless we demonstrate directly, whenever possible, how these unfamiliar poetics feel, sound, and work. We must begin where our students are beginning, in Modern English, and work backwards towards Beowulf, giving the students the terms and tools they need as we go. Only then can we hope to introduce our students to the beauty and power of Beowulf's poetry.


Works Cited


_____. "Freshmen under 21."

_____. "Tennessee State University: Undergraduate Catalog." edited by Tennessee State University. Nashville, Tennessee, 2011-13.

"Beowulf." Translated by Alan Sullivan and Timothy Murphy. In The Longman Anthology of World Literature, Volume B: The Medieval Era, edited by David Damrosch, David L. Pike, April Alliston, Marshall Brown, Page duBois, Sabry Hafez, Ursula K. Heise, et al., 587-652. New York: Pearson Longman, 2008.

Rebsamen, Frederick. "Introduction." In Beowulf: An Updated Verse Translation. Perennial Classics, ix-xxiii. New York: HarperCollins, 2004.

Sullivan, Alan. "Translator's Introduction." In Beowulf, edited by Sarah Anderson, xvii-xxiii. New York: Pearson Longman, 2004. Tennessee State University. "Freshmen over 21."

1. Tennessee State University, "Tennessee State University: Undergraduate Catalog," ed. Tennessee State University (Nashville, Tennessee, 2011-13), 123.

2. "Freshmen under 21,"; "Freshmen over 21."

3. "Tennessee State University: Undergraduate Catalog," 131.

4. By university policy, textbooks for general education courses are chosen by committee, and all sections of that course are required to use the same textbook(s).

5. "Beowulf," in The Longman Anthology of World Literature, Volume B: The Medieval Era, ed. David Damrosch, et al.(New York: Pearson Longman, 2008).

6. I now use my Beowulf translation in place of my original piece, "Guthrinc's Lament," as it is more relevant to the course material. Occasionally, however, I will add some lines of "Guthrinc's Lament" to the lesson to reinforce the auditory elements of the poetry and / or to help students apply the poetic terminology which now occurs later in the lesson.

7. "Translator's Introduction," in Beowulf, ed. Sarah Anderson (New York: Pearson Longman, 2004), xviii-xix.

8. Frederick Rebsamen, "Introduction," in Beowulf: An Updated Verse Translation, Perennial Classics (New York: HarperCollins, 2004).