Some time ago I realized that when I read Old English (or Latin) verse out loud, I read as though I didn’t really know the meaning of what I was saying. I knew how to sound out the words and I even could offer a translation, but I didn’t actually sound like I meant it. I set myself the vague goal of someday really getting to know the first twelve lines of Beowulf so that I could say them with real understanding, conversational, the way I would read a passage from Shakespeare, or Yeats, or even Chaucer, not the largely bombastic declamation that often afflicts renditions of Beowulf. Remember: Beowulf is known to us not because rough, mead-swilling warriors enjoyed it, but because Medieval Catholic monks thought the poem was worth preserving.
I suppose the seed was planted back when a mutual acquaintance got me together with David Ley for a brief bit of tutoring for his role as Hrothgar in Blake William Turner’s Beowulf the King. But I have to thank writer and fellow erstwhile Old English scholar Angie Abdou for really spurring me to get down to brass tacks and conduct the experiment.
So, here it is — Beowulf 1-12 as though I know what I’m saying:
And here is the text, punctuated as I think it should be:
Hwæt. We Gardena, in geardagum
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.
Oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum,
monegum mægþum, meodosetla ofteah,
egsode eorlas. Syððan ærest wearð
feasceaft funden, he þæs frofre gebad:
weox under wolcnum, weorðmyndum þah,
oðþæt him æghwylc þara ymbsittendra
ofer hronrade hyran scolde,
gomban gyldan. þæt wæs god cyning!