Next Thursday is National Poetry Day. Catherine Byron explains the enduring appeal of 'Beowulf', the poem of the last millennium.
The very survival of Beowulf, the jewel of Anglo-Saxon heroic verse, is a story worthy of its own dragon-haunted tale. It exists in a single scorched manuscript that narrowly escaped destruction in the Cottonian Library fire of 1731. And now, a millennium after it was written, it has become one of the most intriguing beneficiaries of the high-resolution digital imaging techniques developed for the space programme - thanks, by a fine irony, to the particular damage done to its vellum in that very fire.
Textual scholars anywhere in the world can now work on the enhanced pages of the Electronic Beowulf, and Beowulf studies are already humming with controversial new readings.
The most intriguing suggestion, by Professor Kevin Kiernan, chief architect of the Electronic Beowulf, is that the manuscript is not simply a scribe's copy, but a poet's working draft, a poem-in-progress. So a new translation by Seamus Heaney, one of the finest craftsmen among poets today, is a serendipitous event.
Beowulf lives on because it gives us the two classic monster types that stalk our late 20th century imagination, the android and the alien, but in a way that is subtle and "scaresome" (Heaney's word) beyond the wildest nightmares of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. Fifty years ago the dragon of Beowulf escaped from the confines of scholarship into popular imagination as Smaug, Bilbo Baggins' near-fatal opponent in J R R Tolkien's The Hobbit. These days the nearly-human Grendel, with his "hard bones and immensely strong android frame", feels uncomfortably closer to home and screen.
Heaney says he wants his translation to "give the poem a fresh chance to sweep 'in off the moors, down through the mist-bands' of Anglo-Saxon England, forward into the global village of the third millennium".
Is this a realistic ambition, and is Heaney the poet to accomplish it? Anglo-Saxon verse, with its four-square alliterative line and lapidary wordhoard, is great for poets to raid from, but hard to render in palatable form for today's readers. Tolkien, whose vital role (as Anglo-Saxon scholar as well as writer) in reclaiming Beowulf as a work of literature Heaney warmly acknowledges, said approvingly about its verse: "The lines do not go according to a tune . . . They are more masonry than music." Heaney chooses as epigraph lines from his own poem "The Settle Bed": "And now this is 'an inheritance' - Upright, rudimentary, unshiftably planked In the long ago, yet willable forward."
Has he "willed forward" his Beowulf rather than re-creating it? He admits that in the early days of tackling the translation "(what) had been so attractive in the first place, the hand-built, rock-sure feel of the thing, began to defeat me". After an interval of several years he returned to it.
"What I had always loved was a kind of foursquareness about the utterance, a feeling of living inside a constantly indicative mood." This enthusiasm will be familiar to those who have found Anglo-Saxon riddles wonderful for encouraging children's writing. It is a shame, then, that shades of Heaney's earlier unease hover over the completed translation. There is great energy and arresting imagery in his accounts of the gruesome early battles with Grendel and Grendel's mother, and he handles beautifully the two lays performed by King Hrothgar's minstrel, in which the shadow of fate begins to darken Heorot. But his decision to restore, visually, Anglo-Saxon verse's mid-line caesura to these two lays, and to introduce into them "a slight quickening of the pace and shortening of the metrical rein" raises the question: wouldn't the rhythmic feel of the rest of the translation have benefited from the same treatment? There are whole stretches that limp and drag - and many of these could have been improved by a simple switch of layout to the traditional two-part line.
What is it that has drawn Heaney to this task, and kept him at it? What pieties have prompted him? There may be a clue in the dedication - "In memory of Ted Hughes" - and in the closing pages of introduction and translation. Neither really takes fire until he reaches the final section, Beowulf's fatal combat with the dragon. Here the pulse and the language quicken and tighten; here is "the roll, the rise, the carol, the creation", the previously elusive engagement. In the time before Beowulf's death, Heaney writes, "there is already a beyond-the-grave aspect to him".
The man's final battle with his inhuman foe is the purest coming together of the profoundly elegiac mood of the two poets, Irish and Anglo-Saxon, across those 1,000 years. And Heaney's Beowulf becomes a dark and moving re-creation of a masterpiece that ends with a funeral. A barrow filled with treasure is raised to Beowulf: "They let the ground keep that ancestral treasure, gold under gravel, gone to earth".
The 'Electronic Beowulf' is published on two CD-Roms by British Library Publications and the University of Michigan Press. Further information from Dr Andrew Prescott, Department of Manuscripts, British Library, 96 Euston Road, London NW1 2DVWebsite: www.uky.edu%7EkiernaneBeowulfcontent.htm. Prose retellings of 'Beowulf' for children include versions by Robert Nye (Orion pound;4.50) and Brian Patten (Scholastic pound;1).