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2 - Edwin Morgan's Translations of Anglo-Saxon Poetry: Turning Eald into New in English and Scots

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 September 2018

Hugh Magennis
Affiliation:
Queen's University Belfast
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Summary

IN A RECENT survey of verse translations of Beowulf I highlighted that by the Scottish poet Edwin Morgan, published in 1952, as one of the most significant of the very many produced since the initial recovery of the Old English poem in the nineteenth century. Morgan was the first translator who set out to render Beowulf in an authentically modern poetic idiom, in a version written specifically for readers of poetry. Previous verse translations, produced primarily for popular audiences or for students, had generally adopted some kind of archaising register and, with the exception of the startling attempt by William Morris, were the work of uninspired versifiers. By contrast, Morgan's translation used the medium of living poetry in a sophisticated way and in doing so succeeded in conveying, as never before, an enabling sense of the power and artistry of the original poem.

Morgan produced his Beowulf translation early in a career that would prove to be a long and highly distinguished one, to the extent that in 2004 he was honoured as the official national poet of Scotland, the ‘Scots Makar’. He died in 2010 at the age of ninety. Morgan's literary output is recognised as endlessly varied in form and content but also as highly crafted, a characteristic evident in his experimental as well as his more conventional work and apparent not least in his translations and appropriations, including his Beowulf.

By 1952, when he published his Beowulf, Morgan was a lecturer in English at the University of Glasgow, where he had also graduated in 1947, his studies having been interrupted by the Second World War. As an undergraduate he had developed an interest in Old English under the guidance of Ritchie Girvan. Morgan would spend his whole academic career in the department at Glasgow and he remained connected to it to the end of his life. Though he was far from parochial in taste and experience, Glasgow was very much Morgan's base, and Glasgow's literary scene provided the context in which he worked.

Beowulf was not the only Old English poem translated by Morgan, nor indeed was Morgan the only Scottish poet to engage with Old English poetry in that postwar period that saw the publication of his Beowulf.

Type
Chapter
Information
Translating Early Medieval Poetry
Transformation, Reception, Interpretation
, pp. 29 - 45
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2017

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