The Closing Caesura
Beowulf is an epic tale consistent with Anglo-Saxon poetry in its economy of expression and direct, unornamented style. What is written, as well as what is not written, strike readers with great curiosity, an invitation to interpretation. For example, Beowulf expresses the deaths of Grendel and Beowulf strictly through each character’s actions or words, leaving readers without access to the final innermost thoughts and sensations of the two opposing characters. “Death of Man” is a poem that explores simultaneously the psyches of Grendel and Beowulf as they are dying, and in a sense, it represents the death of all men, both good and evil. “Death of Man” relates to Beowulf through its form, character analyses, and its theme of balance in the ongoing war between good and evil, both within and surrounding man.
The form of “Death of Man” contributes to the poem’s meaning. This form is evocative of Anglo-Saxon poetry like Beowulf, in which alliteration was the primary literary device, and a caesura divided the rhythmic accents, falling roughly in the center of each line. The caesura in this poem does the same, but it also serves as a gap between the perceptions of Beowulf and Grendel. Therefore, one can read the poem as two separate poems, or one can read the poem across the caesura. The verses on the left side of the caesura portray Beowulf’s stream of consciousness as he is dying, and the verses on the right, Grendel’s. When one reads across the caesura, the thoughts on the opposing sides often contradict, and this contradiction can perhaps represent the war between good and evil within all men, even as they are dying. The caesura narrows verse by verse, until it is nearly gone at the end of what one might call a stanza. The closing gap represents the union of humanity through process of dying, culminating in the very end of the poem, where there is no caesura, and the words fall between the columns of Beowulf and Grendel, suggesting that each character arrives at an understanding so similar to the other that their thoughts can ultimately be expressed with the same words. The form of “Death of Man” clearly develops from Beowulf’s form as an Anglo-Saxon epic poem.
The first stanza of the poem deals with each character’s realization of his impending death, as well as the meaning of death. Beowulf realizes that God’s will, which is now his own death, can easily shatter “titled weaponry,” an allusion to Nagling, his cherished sword. However, Beowulf is not in a melodramatic state of anguish at this “shattering.” In his dying scene, Beowulf remarks that he has “sold his life well,” perhaps referring to the fact that he has given his life for the safety of his people, in exchange for the life of the dragon. A good man willingly traded his life for the life of an evil monster, and so the transaction was transcendental—a sacrificial trade. He then realizes that he will follow all of humanity to death, the fate to which all lives ultimately arrive, whether one is a baneful “brother” like Cain or a benign “brother” like Abel. He recognizes his death as a timely calling from God, one that he accepts.
Meanwhile, Grendel sensationally reacts to the realization of his own death, viewing it as untimely, and as yet another trap of the Scop designed to strike him, the “walker of the rim,” the walker, and at times the embodiment, of the caesura. He is confused by the change in his perception of the world, and what once seemed like an eternal prison of cycles now resonates with his coming death. Until now, death was for the weak men whom he killed as they tried to resist him for glorious fame. Grendel laughs, perhaps in a prideful fit of ironic nihilism, at the thought of suffering the same banal fate as all of blind humanity.
As a whole, the first part of the poem emphasizes the difference between Beowulf’s and Grendel’s perception of death. The first line notes that the process of dying and then death itself can erode and even eliminate the caesura that separates goodness from evil, Beowulf from Grendel, in this poem. The next line suggests that this particular battle in the war between good and evil even “tolls” eternity itself, an ambiguous thought. Perhaps the “transaction” of Beowulf trading of his own life in exchange for the dragon’s is so “transcendental” that eternity, or time itself, which is indifferent to humans, begins to bellow with the greatness of this self-sacrifice. Yet adhering also to the theme of business transactions, a toll is also a charge, and so this battle even gains value in endless eternity, rippling it for a time.
The next stanza serves as each character’s final reflection upon life. Beowulf thinks of himself as a second Abel, which stems from the comparison between Cain and Abel, and Beowulf and Grendel. Abel suggests a stronger version of the word able here. Beowulf then remembers and reviews his efforts as a warrior of God and an agent of good. He finally relinquishes his identity as a warrior in an effort to join God, and to cultivate his spirit.
Meanwhile, Grendel first indulges in a final expression of his sarcastic, critical perception of life, religion, and human ‘goodness’. While Beowulf claims to be an agent of goodness, Grendel disparages him as a phony addicted to killing his “brothers,” yet escaping justice by playing on humanity’s blind faith, the fraud and hypocrisy of religion, as Grendel sees it. Grendel pities and nurses himself like a helpless, young animal trapped in a chaotic wilderness that unhinges him by its seeming meaninglessness, as he uses the words, “whimpered alone, wheeling in the wilderness of futility.” He personifies himself as “Heinousness.” In this stanza, the poem defines evil through its contrast to goodness; Grendel defines himself as the complete opposite of Beowulf. While Beowulf is “hilted with humility,” Grendel declares that he is “hilted with a hiemal holocaust—just for horseplay.” The word “hilt” describes the value for which each man fights. Grendel considers himself a weapon of unspeakable destruction, but only for vacuous amusement, because nothing matters to him. The word “hiemal” links this line to the last, where Grendel’s will is “wintry.” Grendel then seems to realize that he will soon die a mirror image of goodness, though he instinctively dreads death; he proclaims that his death is premature, though he then reminds himself that his death makes no difference in the chaos of the world, as he calls himself the “king of all of naught”. Then, countering Beowulf’s concern for the state his own spirit, Grendel says in a wave of “half-sincere” self-pity, that he strokes his skin, which has been fated, or has been forever scripted, to a life a violence. He is probably “half-sincere” because his credo of nihilism does not allow him to be wholly sincere. Grendel and Beowulf reflect upon their lives in the second stanza; as they peel away the layers of their lives, they prepare for death in very different ways.
The final stanza is increasingly more abstract as their physical lives dissipate. In the first line, Beowulf, who has maintained a bold identity in previous verses, now uses the first person voice for the last time. He is losing his former perspective as an earthly king, and feels that he is now becoming a follower, joining God in everlasting peace. In this first line, Beowulf, who was an orphan, uses the word “Father” twice. First, he refers to Geatland as a father, reflecting his respect for the country and its people for whom he was king. Yet his consciousness flickers with another “Father,” his own Father, whom he ultimately follows to death. This father could be a vision of his long-gone biological father, or it could be God. The next line portrays Beowulf’s final sensation of ecstasy and peace. The word “peering” then implies that he is able to see and understand with greater clarity, perhaps in the spiritual sense. The word “peer,” which is contained within “peering,” also suggests a level of unity with God and Truth, as suggested by the final verses that float below. Also note the word “purged,” which shows that Beowulf is cleansed of the human impediments, and can unite with God. When analyzing the final words in reference to Beowulf, one might note that the words are in the form of a crucifix, and they are red. Red ink is often used in Bibles to note the words spoken by Jesus. Therefore, by this time Beowulf has been summoned by the trinity, and perhaps his essence has been subsumed by the trinity, and so his final words are spoken through it.
Meanwhile, Grendel, who experiences nearly the same sensations, begins the final stanza with one last evaluation of his own miserable, pathetic life. Grendel realizes that once he dies, he will be a thoughtless corpse, and his only lasting contribution to the world will be his meaningless fossil. He has no meaningful relationships; he has long rejected the care of his mother as an empty instinct. Grendel also appears to be physically fatherless, and yet he also rejects the Fatherly presence of God. Grendel dismisses his own essence as something feckless, and his own will as something futile. In the next verse, Grendel is relieved to find that this wretched essence, this identity, is evaporating, and this motion is depicted with an ellipsis of commas. Grendel then exclaims rapturously that his existence is finally purged of the deformed spirit that has burdened it. This idea agrees with John Gardener’s existential portrayal of Grendel. He then claims that he is in a land of absolutes, where there are no caesurae, no rims for him to walk on, because there is only truth. One may wonder what relevance God, whom Grendel rejects, has in Grendel’s poem. Grendel believes that he has broken free from the colorless world for which God serves as a prison-keeper. Upon his death, Grendel believes that he is in a new and wonderful dimension represented by the color red, and that this newfound, unworldly truth is God. Yet the poem does not address what effect “truth” and “God” have upon Grendel, such as whether or not Grendel has passed a point of no return and will continue to condemn himself through his refusal to accept the duty of morality. As he escapes his tormented life, Grendel is finally free, and he finds that meaning is existent, if only for a split second.
Through form and character analyses, “Death of Man” responds to Beowulf thematically. Grendel and Beowulf, who take opposing actions, philosophies, and identities, are eventually united, as all humans are, by death. Though perhaps Beowulf and Grendel have similar sensations as they are dying, they perceive death in different ways, yet have remarkably similar thoughts at some points. Hrothgar, a voice of wisdom in Beowulf, says, “It all will end….The world turns when he spins it” (77). Even in death, the war between good and evil flares within man, who may strive his whole life to overcome evil. Perhaps, caught in the momentary confusion, suspense, and intensity of death, all people hope that goodness will preside everywhere, revealing the wholeness, spiritual truth, and moral truth that is God.