Seamus Heaney’s translation of Aeneid Book VI: a fitting end to a life’s work

Heaney’s account of Aeneas’s encounters with the dead across death’s river is even more powerful for its restraint.

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Anglophone poetry has long been transfixed by the ancient epic. Christopher Logue, Derek Walcott, Simon Armitage and Alice Oswald have all produced creative reimaginings of Homer’s Iliad or Odyssey. Virgil’s Aeneid, however, a Latin attempt to match Homer’s Greek, has often been overlooked as raw material for such complete transformations. Instead, Virgil’s bucolic Georgics provide the bedrock for Carol Ann Duffy’s 2011 collection, The Bees, while his younger contemporary Ovid has become the Latin source of choice for a variety of poets from Ted Hughes to Jo Shapcott.

Yet, slowly but surely, the Aeneid is re-emerging as a text to be tampered with. Crucial to this renaissance are Seamus Heaney’s previous engagements with the Latin epic and, in particular, with Book VI, in which the Trojan hero Aeneas journeys to the underworld to meet the ghosts of family, lovers and companions past. Heaney’s entanglement with the work began as far back as in 1991 with his poem “The Golden Bough”, from Seeing Things, a response to the death of his father through the opening section of Book VI. Until recently, this entanglement was thought to have ended with “Route 110”, from his final collection, Human Chain (2010), in which an incandescent central sequence shadows episodes from Virgil’s account.

Now Heaney’s posthumous, complete translation of Aeneid Book VI has appeared. It is neither a version nor a crib, he tells us in the surviving draft of his translator’s note, but “more like classics homework”, inspired by another ghost, that of his school Latin teacher, Father Michael McGlinchey. Yet it soon becomes clear that Book VI is
not just a poignant but a fitting end to Heaney’s life’s work, concerned with excavation and exhumations of the dead, as the poet walks, living, among them in his specific, sacred “opened ground”. As he noted in “The Riverbank Field”, an earlier Virgilian poem: “Ask me to translate . . . And I’ll confound the Lethe in Moyola.”

Heaney retains that same sense of Derry earthiness in Aeneid Book VI. His Sibyl prophesies that Aeneas, who later marries the Italian princess Lavinia, will become “an outlander groom”. And his account of the funeral of Misenus, one of Aeneas’s companions, echoes that of a Celtic warrior, his bones collected “in a bronze urn”:

. . . And under a high airy hill

Aeneas reared a magnificent tomb

Hung with the dead man’s equipment . . .

Heaney is also unafraid to roll up his sleeves and get his hands dirty. Compared, for instance, to Cecil Day Lewis’s slightly fey “wan reeds on a dreary mud flat”, Heaney’s Styx is “slithery mud, knee-deep/In grey-green sedge”. He also throws in a few sharp modernisms; Helen’s monumenta, or “marks”, on her mutilated Trojan paramour Deiphobus here become “love bites”. He casts an equally unflinching eye over the visceral punishments meted out to wrongdoers in Tartarus, such as the vulture that “puddles forever with hooked beak” at Tityos’s liver as “the gnawed-at/Gut and gutstrings keep renewing”.

At the same time, Heaney’s account of Aeneas’s encounters with the dead is even more powerful for its restraint. This is most compelling as the hero’s father, Anchises, catches sight of his son, the reunion that forms the emotional heart of the work:

In eager joy, his eyes filled up with tears

And he gave a cry: “At last! Are you here at last?

I always trusted that your sense of right

Would prevail and keep you going to the end.”

As Heaney concedes, to keep going to the end of Book VI can be almost as difficult a task as descending to the underworld. Anchises shows Aeneas a seemingly endless line of Roman militarists waiting to be born – “something of a test for reader and translator alike”, as Heaney wryly writes. There is also the problem of how to follow the inspired stroke of “Route 110”, placing his newborn granddaughter among those about to enter the world, delicately undermining Virgil’s vision of a future to be peopled with male conquerors.

Yet what fascinates here is precisely the difference between previous poetic versions and this translation. For instance, in Heaney’s poem “The Golden Bough”, the plucked branch grows back with “the same metal sheen”. In Aeneid VI, it is “golden again, emanating/That same sheen and shimmer”. Throughout, Heaney’s exquisite line placement never misses a beat, turning on its head the usual hierarchy of translation, with the creative version at the top and the literal at the bottom. “Homework”, it may be, but always poetry as taut, as elegant and as lucid as Virgil’s.

In this masterly and near-flawless transformation of Virgil’s original, Heaney could be characterised as Orpheus, the bard whose verse ensures safe passage back from the underworld; one of “those who were dedicated poets/And made songs fit for ­Apollo”. Unfortunately for us, Heaney could not cheat death, so we might settle instead for his typically unassuming vision of Charon, the ferryman who, in the original Latin meaning of translation, carries us all across:

Old but still a god, and in a god old age

Is green and hardy. 

Josephine Balmer’s books include Classical Woman Poets (Bloodaxe)

Aeneid Book VI by Virgil, translated by Seamus Heaney, is published by Faber & Faber (64pp, £14.99)

This article appears in the 31 March 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The terror trail