Dudes Without Heirs

“Translations of Beowulf are often judged by their first word. “Hwæt,” that enigmatic monosyllable, became a stately “behold” or “lo” in older versions of the epic. Modern poets have used their choice here as a calling card, announcing their intentions with more or less boldness. They have transformed “hwæt” into a firm “listen,” a laid-back “hey,” or a cheery “right!” A little over twenty years ago, Seamus Heaney gave the Old English tale an Irish lilt by beginning it with “so.” In her new rendering of the poem, Maria Dahvana Headley goes him one better and lobs the poem into contemporary slang like a ping pong ball into a red Solo cup: “Bro.””

The New York Review of Books, December 2020