So begins Seamus Heaney’s translation of ‘Beowulf’. I know it didn’t come easy to him. The morning after he had been awarded the Whitbread Prize for the work I found myself having breakfast at the Savoy with him and his wife Marie. I’d asked some time before whether I could borrow some of the manuscript pages for a literary exhibition at the British Library. I was a curator there at that time and for a special limited edition of his book had helped get a facsimile image from the original thousand year old manuscript, next to which I now wanted to show his drafts. He tossed an envelope across the table and it landed near me, somewhere between the butter and the jam.
‘What’ s that, Seamus?’ asked Marie.
‘Oh, just a poem I wrote.’
He was a generous man. The nine frantically worked A4 attempts to get the opening of the translation right were later given by him to the library.
Heaney’s verse formed part of my personal life. I learned to love him in Grammar School and later appreciated his criticism as a postgraduate. My brother read ‘Honeymoon Flight’ at my wedding; at the funeral of her grandfather in Limerick my wife read ‘Postscript’, in which a drive through County Clare catches the heart off guard and blows it open. I met Heaney a number of times in my professional career and I fear the archivists at the National Library of Ireland, where he donated a tranche of papers, will despair of my various requests to him. Most he took on in good humour, some he sensibly declined. The last time we met was at a reading here at the Bodleian in 2007 to launch the first number of Andrew McNeillie’s ‘Archipelago’ magazine whose archive we collect (allowing us to count some Heaney manuscripts and letters among our holdings). We recorded the event and he can be heard here reading two poems.
On another occasion, he visited me at the British Library where I took him into the ‘Select’ strong room to show him the complete multi-volume draft of Finnegans Wake, surely one of the most complicated literary manuscripts I have come across. He was impressed; but what he really wanted to see again was a sixteenth-century illustrated manuscript of Robert Henryson’s versions of Aesop’s Fables. He had spied the manuscript by this Scots makar in the same exhibition to which he had lent the Beowulf pages and was particularly taken by the ‘jaunty, canty’ rendering of ‘The Taill of the Cok and the Jasp’. It came as a sweet shock to see acknowledgment in the introduction to his subsequent translation of the Fables that the viewing had got his project going.
The first time I spoke to Seamus Heaney he was calling from a pay phone at Heathrow just before embarking for Ireland. He was enthusiastically anxious that I should know where he had left ‘a little something’ for the permanent exhibition in the brand new British Library at St Pancras. I rushed across to Hazlitt’s hotel in Soho. Inside a manila envelope was his Glanmore Sonnet VII, his lovely poetic broadcast of the shipping forecast, its working manuscript showing us something between the marvellous and the actual, as liminal as the coastlines he once knew.
Dr Christopher Fletcher is Keeper of Special Collections at the Bodleian Library