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Important Quotations Explained

So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by
and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
. . .
There was Shield Sheafson, scourge of many tribes,
a wrecker of mead-benches, rampaging among foes.
. . .
A foundling to start with, he would flourish later on
. . .
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.

These lines, which open the poem, establish the highly stylized nature of Seamus Heaney’s translation and set forth some of the poem’s central ideas. Heaney’s choice to translate the first word of the poem as “So” has been much remarked upon. It had previously been translated into such poetic-sounding invocations as “Hark” and “Lo” or, more casually, “Listen.” In his introduction, Heaney explains his choice by pointing out that “so,” in the speech of his Ulster relatives, “operates as an expression which obliterates all previous discourse and narrative, and at the same time functions as an exclamation calling for immediate attention.” From the outset, then, the poem whips us into its world while maintaining an inviting, conversational tone.

Heaney’s translation re-creates many of the conventions of Anglo-Saxon poetry. He breaks his lines into two halves with a strong caesura, or pause, wherever possible (lines 4, 5, and 11, for example). Second, he uses alliteration, or repetition of consonant sounds, across the caesura to bind the two half-lines together through sound (“foundling . . . flourish”). He also replicates the Beowulf poet’s extensive use of multiple names or phrases for a single person, group, or idea; thus Shield Sheafson, in the space of two lines, is referred to as “scourge of many tribes” and “wrecker of mead-benches.” Finally, the compound word “whale-road,” used here to refer to the sea, is one of the most famous examples of the Anglo-Saxon rhetorical figure called the kenning, which replaces a noun with a metaphorical description of the noun.

In addition to these stylistic features, the opening lines also introduce a number of thematic ideas that prove important throughout the poem. The poet’s presentation of the ancestor Shield Sheafson as the model of heroism is representative of the poem’s obsession with patriarchal history. Characters are constantly defined in terms of their fathers and ancestors. This passage also emphasizes heroic action itself as a cultural value—even a fatherless individual can make a name for himself if he behaves like a hero. Thus, the orphan Shield Sheafson earned an immutable reputation as “one good king” by the end of his life. The great force of reputation will also continue to be an important theme. By establishing fame in his lifetime, an individual can hope to be remembered by subsequent generations—the only consolation that death affords.