The poet Richard Wilbur expresses in his poem Beowulf one of many sorrows expressed by the original Beowulf poem:
“Such gifts as are the hero’s hard reward …
These things he stowed beneath his parting sail,
And wept that he could share them with no son” (Wilbur 67).
The hero’s lament of not having an heir is but one of many dozens of sorrows in this poetic classic, which balance with numerous joys expressed on alternate pages. This essay expresses but a selection of joys and sorrows from among the almost countless number existing in the poem.
Beowulf both begins and ends on the sorrowful occasion of a death, Danish king Scyld Scefing’s in the opening lines, and our hero’s in the closing lines. This fact is important in some critics’ classification of the poem as an elegy rather than an epic: “It is an heroic-elegaic poem; and in a sense all its first 3136 lines are the prelude to a dirge: [Then the Geatish people made ready no mean pyre on the earth]: one of the most moving ever written” (Tolkien 38).
Hrothgar, Scyld’s great grandson, introduces the first full measure of joy into the poem by (1) being a king “beloved by his people; and (2) with his construction of a huge and splendid hall called Heorot, where he can “share out among young and old all God Had given him…” In the hall “each new day” there was “heard happy laughter loud in the hall, the thrum of the harp, melodious chant, clear song of the scop.” And even a deeper, spiritual joy was available in the hall as listeners learned “how the Almighty had made the earth, this bright shining plain which the waters surround.” As a result of the hall, “the brave warriors lived in ...
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...elly” – a positive. Beowulf’s demise, the chastising of the cowardly fighters, the prophecy that the Geatas will be the object of hostility from various kingdoms, the mourning – can all this sorrow possibly be balanced by:
They said he was, of the kings of this world,
the kindest to his men, the most courteous man,
the best to his people, and most eager for fame.
This famous, enduring poem is thus seen as a balance of joys and sorrows from beginning to end.
Chickering, Howell D.. Beowulf A dual-Language Edition. New York: Anchor Books, 1977.
Tolkien, J.R.R.. “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.” In TheBeowulf Poet, edited byDonald K. fry. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968.
Wilbur, Richard. “Beowulf.” In TheBeowulf Poet, edited byDonald K. fry. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968.
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