“Laments For the Dead”

A celebration at Heorot follows Beowulf’s triumphant battle against Grendel and Hrothgar is quick to lavish the hero with treasure, weapons, and horses. It is here that the king’s poet then performs his “saga of Finn and his sons” (1067).

The particular passage I have chosen is from lines 1115-1126 and comes from a recitation by the poet in which he tells the tale of the battle of Finnsburg, a bloody feud between two clans that leaves both sides with losses. The scene I decided to shed light on depicts the Danish princess, Hildeburh’s, grief as she observes the funerals for both her son and brother.  I found that the importance of the passage lays in its use of effective language along with reference to the overall grimness and expressions of grief prevalent in Beowulf.

What struck me first with the passage upon reading was its linguistic elements: most notably the language sounds and diction. These sounds stand out as a result of the use of assonance and alliteration, both which I’ve highlighted below: 

Then Hildeburh

                  Ordered her own

son’s body

                  be burnt with Hnaef’s,

The flesh on his bones

                  to sputter and blaze

Beside his uncle’s.

                  The women wailed

and sang keens,

                  The warrior went up.

carcass flame

                   Swirled and fumed,

they stood round the burial

                   mound and howled

As heads melted,

                   crusted gashes

spattered and ran

                                bloody matter. (1115-1127)


As you can see the assonance really helps to create a subtle internal rhyme within the poem and, together with alliteration, both patterns of sounds greatly contribute to the flow and beauty of the language.

In regards to the actual content of the passage, we are given the perspective of a female, Hildeburh, who is divided in loyalty and is left to suffer losses on both sides.  The inclusion of such a poem with ill fates, recited during the king’s banquet where everyone is celebrating, seems rather ominous. Throughout Beowulf, this elegiac tone is very much present as a result of the constant allusion to the dead from the very beginning till the very end and seems to serve as a constant reminder to us of the inevitably of death.


Beowulf. Translated by Seamus Heaney. p.37-80. Greenblatt, Stephen, gen. ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Volume A The Middle Ages 9th ed. 6 vols. New York: NY, 2012. Print.

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One Response to “Laments For the Dead”

  1. Dane Thibeault says:

    In response to your evaluation of this passage of allusion within the text of Beowulf I was initially prompted to this captivating consideration: how does the perspective of Hildeburh, a female character, differ from the narration of the anonymous author? Are there any elements within Hildeburh’s recollections to suggest the gender of the author of Beowulf, whether they be differences or similarities? In other words, do the allusions within the text imply a male or a female perspective, if, in fact, they suggest a defined gender orientation to begin with? To digress, I was intrigued by your fixation of the rhythmic qualities of assonance, consistently applied throughout the duration of the poem, so as to establish verbal flow and oral appeal. However, the recognition of the fundamental importance of assonance within Beowulf leads me to consider: how would the text manifest itself, were it contrived with language more consistent with patterns of dissonance, or the contrasts of sound? Would it be deprived of its enticing oral qualities, and thus be rendered a more suitable written medium than a spoken one? Would the vivid imagery and tone developed through fluent rhythmic patterns be distorted or obscured? It is harrowing to consider just how pivotal, in fact, language is to the overall presentation of a story or concept. However, despite the evident aptitude of the language employed within Beowulf to develop significant sensual responses from the reader, one must consider an issue that Matt Gigg alludes to in his own individual analysis of the text(http://engl340.ucalgaryblogs.ca/2012/09/18/the-beowulf-dragon-comes-to-life-through-onomatopoeia/): this version of Beowulf is, in fact, a translation. Therefore, it is fascinating to contemplate how the original text would have been presented. Remember, we do, as readers, to an extent have to attribute Seamus Heaney for the exhilarating verbal qualities within his translation of the text of Beowulf, however, a final question to reflect upon may derive from this recognition: does the version of Beowulf we have evaluated and inquired into accomplish what the initial, unidentified author had aspired, or does Heaney misrepresent the text through his verbal artistry, altogether? I commend you for your meticulous attention to the details of language throughout your analysis. Well done,

    -Dane Thibeault

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