translated by Frederick Rebsamen
this lesson of anguish—old in winters
I warn you by this. It is wondrous to see
how almighty God in his endless wisdom
grants unto man a mind to rule with
kingdom and meadhall to keep until death.
At times the Measurer maker of us all
brings moments of pleasure to those proud man-thoughts
gives to that war king worldly power-goods
hall and homeland to hold for his own
renders him ruler of regions of the earth
a broad kingdom—he cannot forsee
in his own unwisdom an end to such wealth.
He dwells in happiness no hindrance bothers him
no illness or age or evil reckoning
darkens his mind no deep serpent thoughts
edge-hate in his heart—but all thisloan-world
bends to his will welcomes him with gold
till high thron-ethoughts throng into his mind
gather in his head. Then the guardian sleeps
the soul’s warden—it slumbers too long
while a silent slayer slips close to him
shoots from his bow baleful arrows.
Deep into his heart hard under shield-guard
strikes the arrowhead—no armor withstands
that quiet marksman cold mind-killer.
What he long has held too little contents him
greed grapples him he gives no longer
gold-patterened rings reckons no ending
of borrowed treasure-years bright earth-fortune
granted by God the great Measurer.
The last of splendor slips into darkness
the loaned king-body cracks upon the pyre
swirls away in smoke—soon another one
steps to the gift-throne shares his goldhoard
turns that treachery to trust and reward.
Guard against life-bale beloved Beowulf
best of warriors win for your soul
eternal counsel—care not for pride
great shield-champion! The glory of your strength
lasts for a while but not long after
sickness or spear-point will sever you from life
or the fire’s embrace or the flood’s welling
or the file-hard sword or the flight of a spear
or bane-bearing age—the brightness of your eye
will dim and darken. Destiny is waiting
and death will take you down into the earth.
This is one of my favorite passages of Beowulf, in which the Danish king Hrothgar joyfully meets Beowulf after Beowulf’s victory over the troll-wife. But rather than delivering the effusive praise one might expect, Hrothgar warns Beowulf with ‘bountiful words’ against the entrapment of pride. I highly recommend Rebsamen’s vigorous translation of this anonymous Anglo-Saxon poem. ‘Each one among us shall mark the end of this worldly life. Let him who may earn deeds of glory before death takes him—after life-days honor-fame is best.’