Nicholas Grene
Trinity College Dublin, Ireland | Views:

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Seamus Heaney
London: Faber, 2016.
ISBN:  978-0-571-32731-7
53 pages

“For the contemporary reader, it is the best of books and the worst of books”, comments Seamus Heaney, in an Afterword for his translation of Aeneid, Book VI, left as a fragmentary draft at his death.

Best because of its mythopoeic visions, the twilit fetch of its language, the pathos of the many encounters it allows the living Aeneas with his familiar dead.  Worst because of its imperial certitude, its celebration of Rome’s manifest destiny and the catalogue of Roman heroes. (51)

He admits in the Introduction, that the concluding section of the book with its rollcall of Aeneas’ descendants and sickeningly sychophantic praise of Virgil’s patron Augustus Caesar was an unrewarding exercise “that had to be gone through with” (ix).  But having undertaken a version of lines 98-148 of “The Golden Bough” as far back as Seeing Things (1991), and used Book VI as a template for his autobiographical sequence “Route 110” published in Human Chain (2010) he determined to undertake a translation of the full book, in part “to honour the memory of my Latin teacher at St Columb’s College, Father Michael McGlinchey” (vii).

This is typical of Heaney, a man and a writer of multiple pieties: attachment to locality; familial love; loyalty in friendship; solidarity with colleagues; reverence for his poetic predecessors, whether Virgil or Dante, Wordsworth or Hopkins, Yeats or Kavanagh.  Indeed, in his life and work he gave back to that term “piety” something of its original depth and resonance.  For many generations, piety has not been a fashionable virtue.  While in Homer we may enjoy the wiles of “wily Odysseus” and even empathise at times with the moody strength of “fleet-foot Achilles”, “pius Aeneas” has put many readers off Virgil’s duty-bound hero.  Heaney avoids those sanctimonious associations by using variants on the term “devotion”: “Aeneas, devoted as ever” (l. 12), “In mourning, none louder, more devout than Aeneas” (l. 240).1 If “devout” still suggest religious faith, “devoted” shades satisfactorily into the secular.

The most basic problem for any translator of Virgil’s epic is what to do with the metre.  In “The Golden Bough”, Heaney followed the lead of the earlier Irish poet C. Day Lewis in seeking to reproduce the Virgilian hexameter.  But the hexameter, with its six-foot line of dactyls and spondees, is hard to sustain over an extended sequence, and has a way of sounding artificial or even bathetic in English, with little of the concise precision of the Latin.  The “natural” English rhythm for narrative or dramatic verse is iambic pentameter.  For Book VI, Heaney came up with a brilliant compromise: a five-beat line that approximates to Virgil’s dactyllic rhythm, but allows for a supple flexibility that the full hexameter precludes.  We can see the difference in the final lines of “The Golden Bough” contrasted with the same passage in the later version:  “If fate has called you”, the Sybil instructs Aeneas on the plucking of the sacred branch,

The bough will come away easily, of its own accord.
Otherwise, no matter how much strength you muster, you never will
Manage to quell it or cut it down with the toughest of blades.2

This becomes:

The bough will come away in your hand.
Otherwise, no strength you muster will break it,
Nor the hardest forged blade lop it off.  (ll. 201-3)

Heaney’s other great work of translation was of course his Beowulf (1999), now so widely studied by university students of English.  In it he forged a modern equivalent of the Old English line, two parallel rhythmic units bound together by intricate alliteration.  He takes this skill over into his Virgil in occasional lines: “And every dead end he himself had devised” (Dedalus on the labyrinth) (l. 46), the Fury Tisiphone with her whiplash “Lapped and lithe in her right hand, in her left / A flail of writhing snakes” (ll. 775-6).  But often, also, the alliteration crosses from one line to another, enhancing the onward movement: the horribly mutilated Deiphobus in the underworld, “his face/ In shreds – his face and his two hands — / Ears torn from his head” (ll. 665-7).

Everywhere in his Book VI, there is characteristic Heaney vocabulary, the animated language that produces his own rich effects of tone and texture.  But often what looks like pure Heaney turns out to be a quite precise rendering of Virgil.  “Michael McGlinchey”, he says in the Introduction, “created an inner literalist” (p. ix) in him.  So, for example, there is the Trojan fleet landing at last in Italy:

Anchors bite deep, craft are held fast, curved
Sterns cushion on sand, prows frill the beach.  (ll. 5-6)

Who but Heaney would have risked the apparent frivolity of that “frill” for the boats lined up on the edge of the shore?  In fact it is a fairly close approximation to Virgil’s “praetexant”, with its suggestion of a woven fringe.  And Aeneas and Achates, told by the Sybil that one of their comrades had died, speculate on which one, in “the give and take of their talk” (l. 219); it is not that far from the original “vario sermone”.  Just occasionally Heaney allows himself a modern literary obeisance, as when Aeneas shrugs off the Sibyl’s warning of troubles to, “I have foreseen / And foresuffered all” (ll. 147-8), echoing Eliot’s Tiresias in The Waste Land. The translation is characteristic, too, in its preference for hard Anglo-Saxon words, monosyllabic verbs and nouns, making feeling and movement concrete.  Sometimes these are specifically Irish usages, as in “scringe” = “to make a harsh or creaking or grinding sound” — Aeneas hears from within the torture-chamber of hell, “the fling and scringe and drag / Of iron chains” (ll. 775-6) — but not in most other cases, such as the “scrunch and screech / Of hinges” (ll. 778-9).  The preference for such Germanic over Latinate forms even when translating Virgil helps to remind us that, proudly Irish poet that he was, Heaney could also write deeply English English poetry.  Not for nothing Heaney dedicated Beowulf to the memory of his close friend Ted Hughes.

In their “Note on the Text”, Matthew Hollis of Faber and Heaney’s daughter Catherine tell of the draft manuscript of Book VI that Heaney left at his death marked “Final”.  There is an obvious poignancy in this last work of dazzling beauty coming to us from beyond the grave, Aeneas’ descent into the underworld a fitting memory of the dead.  But it must bring home again what we all felt on 30 August 2013.  This was not a great career coming, honour-laden, properly to its close.  This was the tragic loss of a great poet at the very height of his powers.

  1. The line numbers here are those of Heaney’s version, which do not follow those in the original. []
  2. Seamus Heaney, Seeing Things (London: Faber, 1991), p. 3. []