I remember reading Beowulf in high school, or at least parts of it, but didn’t remember much about it. After just finishing it, I have to say that hanging out in mead-halls and fighting monsters doesn’t seem to be a bad way to live life. I probably read this too fast and should have read more of the commentary that came with it. While the translation by Seamus Heaney was good and easy to understand I sometimes thought something got lost. I can’t really point to anything in particular – just a gut feeling. The edition I had was illustrated with beautiful photographs of weapons, landscapes, paintings of monsters and other items that gave additional insight to the poem.
There’s a quote by G. K. Chesterton that I’ve always enjoyed that says:
I don’t deny…that there should be priests to remind men that they will one day die. I only say that at certain strange epochs it is necessary to have another kind of priests, called poets, actually to remind men that they are not dead yet.
I think the author of Beowulf could have been both priest and poet. The poem blends perfectly God’s Providence with Man’s might -or perhaps I could say man’s “free will” but that could be stretching it – and who wants to get all theological about a story with monsters, anyway? And while death lurks around every corner, the warriors face it head on and won’t go down without a fight.
I think the next epic poem I read might be Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. But I’ll read it a little slower – I’ll take it a pilgrim at a time.
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Over a year ago, when I put together my list of short stories for my 2013 Deal Me In Project, I picked a few stories from a collection that I have called Stories and Poems for Extremely Intelligent Children of All Ages. In glancing through the table of contents, I discovered “The Bell Tower” and “The Portent” by Herman Melville. At that time, I had not read much by Melville so I thought I’d choose both of these for my project. I read “The Bell Tower” earlier this year and have been looking forward to “The Portent”.
So this week, I chose the Ten of Spades which corresponded to this remaining Melville story. Much to my surprise and my literary chagrin, I find the story in my book and discover that it is actually a poem – a very short poem. In scanning through the table of contents, I had simply assumed that Melville only wrote prose. Obviously, I was wrong. I have nothing against poetry, I’m just not quite as into it as I am prose. I debated about choosing another story to replace this poem but decided I would just go with it.
Another confession: I didn’t know what the word “portent” meant so I looked it up. It means “omen”. The poem itself appears to stand as a warning. The speaker of the poem directs their words to the Shenandoah river. I immediately think American Civil War when I think of the Shenandoah. As I read further, a name jumps out several times – a name that gives no doubt to the Civil War backdrop of the poem. In speaking to the famous river, the poet refers to a dead body saying:
So your future veils its face,/Shenandoah!
As I did a little research, I found that Melville wrote a number of poems about the American Civil War. If they are as good as this one, they could be worth reading.
Even though this wasn’t what I was expecting when I chose the title, I’m glad I read it. Feel free to read the poem yourself. It’s takes approximately 20 seconds to read. You can find it here.