‘It seems almost miraculous to be able to publish a new work by Seamus Heaney after his passing, as if even now he were capable of offering his readers a gift…’ – Matthew Hollis, poetry editor, Faber & Faber
Seamus Heaney’s new translation of the Aeneid, Book VI, is a miracle to hold and to read. Published posthumously, the text incorporates a typescript that Heaney marked as ‘final’ in July 2013 with late revisions found among his documents, and includes a Translator’s Note prepared as early as 2010. In Faber’s elegant presentation, Heaney’s Note prefaces the text, and a brief editorial comment by Catherine Heaney (the poet’s daughter) and Matthew Hollis serves as an epigraph. Though it is likely that the translation ‘would have received further revision’ if Heaney were alive, the poem — at once a rough-cut gem and a key to much of the poet’s later work — is an exquisite experience.
Reviewing Heaney’s Human Chain in 2010, Colm Toibin called Virgil’s Aeneid the ‘presiding spirit’ of the new collection. Although Heaney previously revealed, in an interview with Dennis O’Driscoll, that Aeneas’ search for his father in the underworld ‘had been in his head for years’, it was in Human Chain where Heaney first published ‘Route 110’ (written in 2007), a twelve-part autobiographical rendering of the Aeneid VI. ‘Elated and inspired’ by that poem, Heaney went on to begin a fuller translation of Book VI, brief fragments of which were then published in Modern Poetry in Translation in 2009. When news broke of the complete volume’s forthcoming publication in 2016, Catherine called the Aeneid a ‘touchstone’ to which her father ‘would return time and again throughout his life’. It is apt that this poem’s publication has also become a way for us to mark her father’s passing.
Heaney’s translation is really a last letter, completed both ‘for the sake of the little one’ born in late 2006, and ‘for the one who sighed for his favourite Virgil in that 1950s classroom’. As he explains in the Translator’s Note, the former is his first granddaughter Anna Rose Heaney, for whom he had also composed ‘Route 110’. The latter refers to his old Latin teacher, Father Michael McGlinchey, who could not help but pass on his love of Aeneid VI to the boys although they had been set Aeneid IX for the A Levels. We find, in these two dedications, the tokens by which Heaney inhabits the characters of Aeneid VI. He is at once Aeneas, a brave student at the Sibyl’s feet, as well as his father Anchises, who longs ‘to call the roll of [his] descendants’ (967). For a work decades in the making, Heaney’s later years have given him the loves and losses required to fully grasp their respective voices.
If the Aeneid VI is a tribute, it is also a formidable test. Heaney’s translation has English in its veins, and a battle between languages underscores the text. Instead of the dactylic hexameter of Virgil’s original, we hear the Old English alliterative rhythms of Beowulf, coupled with the iambic pentameter of Heaney’s best-known work. This is especially so in lines like ‘His hands, the hands of a father, failed him’ (52), or ‘Death’s dark door stands open day and night’ (175), which Frederick Ahl’s more formally faithful translation renders ‘All nights, all days too, dark Dis’s portals lie open’ (127). Heaney’s decision to wrestle the Aeneid’s heroic step and tone into an earthier language belies an impulse to make the text not only comprehensible but identifiable. In his Translator’s Note, he speaks of honouring two ‘supervisors’: the ‘inner literalist’ taught by Father Michael, and his own mind and ear as a poet, whose preoccupations are ‘the voice and its pacing’ rather than formal or literal fidelity. The result is a poem that, in Heaney’s choice idiom, captures both the definition and depth of the original.
In a sense, the two tongues of Heaney’s Aeneid VI are themselves tributes to Father Michael and Anna Rose. What the text retains of Virgil’s Latin, in its solemnity and muscled grace, points to the memory of Heaney’s austere teacher at St Columb’s College. On the other hand, the simplicity and movement of Heaney’s English – in a rhythm he once said he could ‘count on the steering wheel’ – suggests itself as a wry nod to his granddaughter. Stillness and movement, age and youth, text and life: these are the very opposites that underwrite Aeneas’ search. At the same time, the poem’s bilingual tension distinguishes Aeneid VI from many of Heaney’s other prominent translations. Sweeney Astray (1983), Beowulf (1999) and The Testament of Cresseid (2009) move within distinctly Northern traditions from Gaelic, Old English, and Middle Scots respectively to Modern English. While Heaney’s adaptations of Sophocles’ Philoctetes (The Cure at Troy, 1990) and Antigone (The Burial at Thebes, 2004) also borrow from the Classical corpus, neither has the intimate shine of Aeneid VI’s close personal connection.
A second battle within the text is not linguistic but ideological. Heaney writes that while Aeneid VI begins ‘alive with poetic and narrative energy’, the section detailing Anchises’ vision of Aeneas’ future Roman offspring requires a ‘grim determination’ on the translator’s part. One guesses that the true test here is less poetic than historical; in addition to the challenges of the text, it is easy to imagine Heaney bristling at Virgil’s ‘roll call of generals and imperial heroes’. Passages like the end of Anchises’ vision, where ill-fated Marcellus, ‘unbeaten in the battle’, is described as one who ‘cannot strike | Fate’s cruel fetters off’ (1193-1198), suggest that the poet who wrote eloquently against the ‘decisive operations of merciless power’ was deeply sensitive to the ironies of bringing the text from one imperial language into another — especially given the close historical connection between the Classics and Empire.
In its arresting beauty, thus, the translation can be read as a statement of Heaney’s abiding belief that ‘defiance is … part of the lyric job’. As a labour of love and gratitude, it is a gesture towards redeeming the violent histories of both languages, as well as the political exigencies surrounding the Aeneid’s genesis, through excavating and re-presenting what Heaney elsewhere called the ‘solitudes and distresses’ of the text. One of the poem’s most moving passages is lines 916-944, where Anchises sees his long-awaited son ‘wading through the grass’ towards him:
To think of the lands and the outlying seas
You have crossed, my son, to receive this welcome.
The sense of fundamental reconciliation is palpable, yet tempered by the knowledge that this is an incomplete reunion: Aeneas tries to embrace his father thrice, but the latter ‘escapes | like a breeze between his hands’ (943-944). That moment contains the gulf of the classroom between young Heaney and Father Michael, as well as the barrier of age between an older Heaney and Anna Rose, but also Heaney’s thwarted hopes for communal reconciliation in Ireland, and the gnawing distance from his own father that emerged in poems like ‘Digging’, ‘Follower’, and ‘An August Night’.
Heaney’s translation closes as it opens: ‘sterns cushion on sand’ (1222) as Aeneas, reunited with his men, docks at the port of Caietae. Compared to the questing hero whose ‘anchors bite deep’ (5) at the start of Aeneid VI, this Aeneas is older and warier, having seen through his father’s eyes into the future. It is a picture of Heaney himself who, to the end, spurned the gate of ‘easy passage | to true visions’ (1213-1214) in favour of another, ‘luminous’ gate opening to ‘the sky above’ (1214-1215). Fittingly, Aeneid VI leaves us with a sense of the moral courage, personal warmth, and poetic ingenuity that defined Heaney’s career, and a prescient reminder of the poetics that we need all the more today.
‘Aeneid: Book VI’ is published on 7th March by Faber & Faber, RRP £14.99.