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,
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.