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 vanished 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:

      þēr wæs swelcrā felā
in þām eorðhūsǣ  ǣrġistrēonā,
swē hīo on ġeārdagum  gumænā nāthwelċ,
eorminlāfǣ  æðilan cynnæs,
þanchycgændi  þēr gihȳddǣ,
dīorǣ māðmas.  Allǣ hīo dēaþ fornam
ǣrran mēlum,  ond se ān þā gēn
līodā duguðǣ  se þēr lengist hwearf,
weard winigēomor,  wēndǣ þæs ylcan,
þæt hē lȳtil fæc  longġistrēonā
brūcan mōstī.  Beorh allgearu 
wunudǣ on wongǣ,  wæterȳðum neah
nīowi bi næssǣ  nearucræftum fæst. 
þēr on innan bær  eorlgistrēonā
hringā hirdi,  handwiorðnǣ dǣl,
fǣttan goldæs,  fēaw wordā cwæþ:

Hald þū nū, hrūsǣ, nū hæliþ ni mōstun,
eorlā ǣhti. Hwæt! Hit ǣr on þē
gōdǣ biġeātun; gūðdēaþ fornam,
feorhbealu frœ̄cni fȳrā ġihwelċnǣ,
līodā mīnrā,  þārā þi þis līf ofġeaf,
ġisēgun selidrēamas. Nāh hwā sweord weġǣ
oþþe forþ berǣ fǣtid wēġǣ,
drynċfæt dīori: duguþ ellor scōc.
Sċeal se heardā helm hyrstidgoldǣ
fǣtum bifallæn: feormiænd swefaþ,
þā þe beadugrīman bīowan sċeoldun,
ġē swelċǣ sīo heripād, sīo æt hildi ġibād
ofer bordā ġibræc bitī īsernā,
brosnaþ æfter beornǣ. Ni mæġ byrnan hring
æfter wīġfruman wīdǣ fēran,
hæliðum bi halfǣ; næs hearpan wyn,
gomæn glīwbēamæs, nē gōd heafuc
ġeond sæl swingiþ, nē se swiftā mearh
burhstedi bēatiþ. Bealucwealm hafaþ
felā feorhcynnā forþ onsendid!

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