Beowulf 2231-2266: Lament of the Last Survivor (From Old English)

Beowulf finds treasure in the hoard left by a man of a vanished nation, the last survivor of a people who lived in an even earlier age before the Migration Era in which the poem is set. 

The Beowulf poet alludes to a number of legendary episodes (often from stories that are now unknown apart from their oblique mention in this poem), and generally names the participants. Sometimes that's all he does. The audience would be expected to know, for example, who Hrothmund, Heorogar and Ecgtheow were (the former two names are completely unknown outside of Beowulf, and the latter only from Scandinavian legend). 

This larger narrative context gives especial point to the fact that the man figuring this digression here is completely anonymized. With no one left to carry on the tribe’s history, the whole heroic ideal of being made immortal through imperishable fame is meaningless. His name is dead, and so too should his story be. 

And yet, the story lives in this poem. We are hearing a story we ought not to be able to hear. Invited to consider how many tribes and nations have simply disappeared and left not so much as a name, our imagination allows us to remember what we cannot remember. 

The man himself has no use for the treasures of his nation now, and so decides to bury in a hoard. With no one left to talk to, he addresses himself to the earth as it receives his tribe's now-meaningless treasure. The episode prefigures the end of the poem, where the Geatfolk bury a hoard with their slain king. 

Lament of the Last Survivor 
(Beowulf 2231-2266)
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

  That earth-house teemed with ancient treasures.  
In days long gone a forgotten man,
brooding and prudent, buried dear riches,
the heaped legacy of a highborn race,
in this undervault.  Vulturing death
had taken them all  in times gone by,
and left only one who walked there still,
the last survivor of a fallen tribe,
a friend-grieving watchman,  awaiting their fate,
hoping to relish  these rare hallgifts
in his brief last days. The barrow was ready
built on the plain  by breaking sea,
secured by hardcraft set on the headland.
That ring-keeper  carried inside
all the gold-plated  goods that he had
worth protecting.  His words were these few:
  "Hold now, O earth what heroes cannot,
the wealth of earls. Men of honor
first delved it from you.  Deathblow battle
has wrung them down, ruinous carnage
and mortal evil took every mortal
man of my clan. They quit this life
and its meadhall mirth. For me there are none
to bear a sword  or burnish the cup's
meadgold. My glory of men has left.
The hard helmet hasped in goldwork
must lose its hoop. The helm-shiner sleeps
who once burnished my battle-mask. 
The war-mantle that weathered brawls
through the burst of shields  and the bite of steel
decays with the warrior. The whorled hauberk
will wander no more on the warchief's shoulders
beside his braves.  No more brilliant harps'
tune of timber, no trained falcon
swooping the songhall, no swiftfoot horse 
pawing the courtgrounds. Plunder and slaughter
oust whole peoples out of existence."

The Original:

      þǣr wæs swylcra fela
in ðām eorðhūse     ǣrġestrēona,
swā hȳ on ġēardagum     gumena nāthwylc,
eormenlāfe     æþelan cynnes,
þanchycgende     þǣr gehȳdde,
dēore māðmas.     Ealle hīe dēað fornam
ǣrran mǣlum,     ond se ān ðā gēn
lēoda duguðe,     se ðǣr lengest hwearf,
weard winegēomor,     wēnde þæs ylcan,
þæt hē lȳtel fæc     longġestrēona
brūcan mōste.     Beorh eallġearo
wunode on wonge     wæterȳðum neah,
nīwe be næsse,     nearocræftum fæst.
Þǣr on innan bær     eorlġestrēona
hringa hyrde     hordwyrðne dǣl,
fǣttan goldes,     fēa worda cwæð:
Heald þū nū, hrūse, nū hæleþ ne mōston,
eorla ǣhte. Hwæt! Hit ǣr on þē
gōde beġeāton; gūðdēaþ fornam,
feorhbealo frēcne fȳra ġehwylcne,
lēoda mīnra,  þāra þe þis līf ofġeaf,
ġesāwon seledrēamas. Nāh hwā sweord weġe
oþþe forþ bere fǣted wǣġe,
drynċfæt dēore: duguþ ellor sceōc.
Sċeal se hearda helm hyrstedgolde
fǣtum befeallen: feormiend swefaþ,
þā þe beadogrīman bȳwan sċeoldon,
ġē swylċe sēo herepād, sīo æt hilde ġebād
ofer borda ġebræc bite īrena,
brosnaþ æfter beorne. Ne mæġ byrnan hring
æfter wīġfruman wīde fēran,
hæleðum be healfe; næs hearpan wyn,
gomen glēobēames, nē gōd hafoc
ġeond sæl swingeþ, nē se swifta mearh
burhstede bēateþ. Bealocwealm hafaþ
fela feorhcynna forþ onsended!

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