“Beowulf” appeared in Richard Wilbur’s second volume of poetry, Ceremony and Other Poems (1950), the book that established him as one of the preeminent American poets of his generation. In this poem, Wilbur retells part of an Old English epic, or long narrative poem, also called “Beowulf.” He describes the hero of the ancient poem from a mid-twentieth century point of view.
The epic “Beowulf” was written between the mid-seventh and the late tenth centuries A.D. It tells the story of a Scandinavian hero, Beowulf, who comes to save a kingdom from a monster named Grendel who attacks the castle each night. The hero fights and kills the monster; soon Grendel’s mother appears, and Beowulf must defeat her as well. The Danes give Beowulf many gifts in thanks, and he returns home, where he is king of the Geats for fifty years. He eventually dies in a battle against a dragon.
Wilbur shows Beowulf as a melancholy hero. He bravely promises to fight the monster, but he also is aware that being a hero can be a lonely job. Despite his courageous deeds, he is isolated from other people, who cannot really understand him. Even the Danes, whom he saves, are remote from him. While the epic poem celebrates the heroic ideal, Wilbur’s poem reveals the hero as a human being living in a less than perfect world.
Wilbur is often seen as a poet of affirmation, one who has a bright and witty view of the world. “Beowulf,” then, is somewhat different from the poet’s other work in its tone and subject matter, though it is similar in its formal structure and musical rhythm. The power of this poem may come from Wilbur’s exploration of a dark side of existence, in spite of his natural inclination to celebrate the details that make life worthwhile.