One way to study Wilbur’s “Beowulf” is by comparing the poet’s time with that of the epic hero’s period. Wilbur published “Beowulf” in 1950, just a few years after the end of World War II. During the war, he served as an Army cryptographer and soldier. His infantry division fought in Europe, and Wilbur was in active combat in bloody campaigns for three years. It is interesting to note that he has written few poems directly about the war, although he has said that the experience of battle caused him to become serious about writing poetry.
Americans in 1950 wanted to put the war behind them. Many people had lived through World War I (1914–1918), the Great Depression (from 1929 into the late 1930s), and World War II (1939–1945). Many young couples, including Wilbur and his wife, were having families. America was victorious and prosperous, helping to finance the rebuilding of Europe and Japan after the war. However, tensions arose between the United States and the communist Soviet Union, the two dominant world powers, causing the Cold War, which lasted nearly fifty years.
The epic Beowulf takes place during a period in Europe known as the Migration Age. After the World War II. According to critic Rodney Edgecombe, Wilbur takes the repetition of language that is common in epic poetry and conceives of it as the failure of language to capture inscrutable ideas. This view reflects the disorder and lack of harmony in modern...
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“Beowulf” consists of seven six-line stanzas. Each stanza describes one part of the narrative, following chronological order. The tone is formal, in keeping with the account of a hero. However, Wilbur is not writing a story so much as a character study of Beowulf, or of all heroes. The most dramatic event—the battle with the monster—takes only two lines of the poem. The stanzas reveal the atmosphere of the hero’s experience, but they do not provide much detail about the actual adventures.
The rhyme scheme is the same for each stanza. Using the letters a, b, and c to denote the end rhyme of each line, the rhyme scheme is a, b, b, c, a, c. For example, in the last stanza the final words of each line are king, one, done, land, ring, and understand. This consistent pattern of rhyming helps create the formal effect of the poem. It also makes some language in the poem sound inevitable. For instance, in the fifth stanza the last line ends in “cold,” rhyming with the fourth line’s “old.”
The meter, or rhythm, of the poem is not quite as consistent as the rhyme scheme. A line of poetry can be divided into feet. Each foot has a pattern of light and heavy stresses, according to the way the words are read. In “Beowulf,” most of the lines are iambic pentameter; each foot has one light stress followed by a heavy stress, and there are five feet in each line. Line 17 is iambic pentameter: The_ he_ ro_, to_ his_ bat_ tle_ rec_ on_...
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Topics for Further Study
Explore how the rhymed lines affect the feeling of the poem. Read “Beowulf” aloud and determine how the rhyme scheme helps to create a certain atmosphere in the poem. Describe the atmosphere and explain how the rhyme contributes to it.
Research the sixth century A.D. in Europe, the period of history in which Beowulf would have existed. How did people live? What weapons and methods were used in war? Why do you think this was a time of upheaval?
Beasts and monsters have appeared in legends and literature throughout human existence. Is there any scientific basis for the idea of a monster? Trace the sources of such creatures as trolls, ogres, and dragons and try to determine how these monsters originated.
Richard Wilbur wrote a short poem, retelling the epic of Beowulf from his own point of view. Choose a novel or movie that has made an impression on you. Write a poem in which you retell the story in your own way.
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A Conversation with Poet Laureate Richard Wilbur is an interview with the poet by Grace Cavalieri, the host of the national radio series “The Poet and the Poem.” This videotape is available in libraries or from the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.
The videotape Richard Wilbur, produced by Lannan Foundation in Los Angeles, CA, includes a reading by the poet at the University of Southern California in 1990, as well as an interview with Wilbur by poet David St. John.
A 1997 audio recording of “Beowulf,” translated by Francis B. Gummere and narrated by George Guidall, is available from Recorded Books Productions in New York.
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What Do I Read Next?
Richard Wilbur has translated poems and plays from the French, Russian, Spanish, and Italian. His translations of Old English include parts of the epic Beowulf. One Russian poet whose work Wilbur has translated into English is Joseph Brodsky, and Brodsky, in turn, has translated Wilbur’s work into Russian. These two poets are similar in their use of rhyme and meter—aspects of poetry that are difficult to translate. Wilbur’s translation of Brodsky’s “The Funeral of Bob” appears in both New and Collected Poems and Brodsky’s A Part of Speech.
Robert Frost (1874–1963) was a major influence on Wilbur. Like Wilbur, Frost was from a New England family and drew inspiration from that area of the country. The poets share an attention to detail in nature and the use of formal rhyme and meter. Frost has many books; one to start with is his Selected Poems.
Another poet who has retold a well-known narrative in a shorter poem is Denise Levertov (1923–1998), whose “A Tree Telling of Orpheus” describes a scene from the ancient Greek myth. Orpheus played such enchanting music on his lyre that, according to the legend, trees pulled up their roots in order to follow him and listen. In this poem, one of the trees tells what happened. “A Tree Telling of Orpheus” appears in Levertov’s Relearning the Alphabet, first published by New Directions in 1966.
Wilbur also wrote books for children,...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Bender, Todd K., et al., Modernism in Literature, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1977, p. 246.
Bennett, Joseph, Hudson Review 4, Spring 1951, pp. 131–145.
Bly, Robert, ed., The Best American Poetry 1999, Scribner, 1999, p. 213.
Bogan, Louise, Achievement in American Poetry 1900–1950, Henry Regnery, 1951.
Bradley, Sculley, Richmond Croom Beatty, and E. Hudson Long, eds., American Tradition in Literature, W. W. Norton and Co., Inc., 1967, pp. 1659–1660.
Crossley-Holland, Kevin and Bruce Mitchell, Beowulf, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1968.
Deutsch, Babette, New York Times Book Review, February 11, 1951, p. 12.
Edgecombe, Rodney Stenning, A Reader’s Guide to the Poetry of Richard Wilbur, University of Alabama Press, 1995.
Evans, Harold, The American Century, Alfred A. Knopf, 1998.
Hill, Donald, Richard Wilbur, Twayne Publishers, 1967.
Hollander, John, ed., The Best American Poetry 1998, Scribner, 1998, p. 324.
Jarrell, Randall, The Third Book of Criticism Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1965.
McMichael, George, ed., Anthology of American Literature, Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1974, p. 1678.
Michelson, Bruce, Wilbur’s Poetry: Music in a Scattering Time, University of Massachusetts Press,...
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