Does the New Translation of Virgil Sound Too Much Like Heaney?

Brooke Clark reviews Seamus Heaney’s Aeneid Book VI

Seamus Heaney at a turf bog in Bellaghy, 1986. Photo by Bobbie Hanvey. 

Seamus Heaney at a turf bog in Bellaghy, 1986. Photo by Bobbie Hanvey. 


SEAMUS HEANEY’S TRANSLATION of Book VI of Virgil’s Aeneid arrives already weighted with significance: the voice of his era’s most distinguished and universally admired poet returns from beyond the grave to tell the famous story of Aeneas’s descent into the Underworld. I have no idea whether Heaney knew, or suspected, that death might intervene between his completion (or near-completion?) of this work and its publication, but it turns out to be an eerily fitting envoi. Seeing the book clearly, however, requires freeing it from the significance laid over it by circumstance, and considering only the words on the page.

Those familiar with Heaney’s Human Chain (2010) won’t find this book a surprise: Book VI of the Aeneid seemed almost to brood over that collection, which included several references to Virgil, a free rendering of 20-odd lines of Book VI (“The Riverbank Field”) and, most notably, “Route 110.” That poem is a series of 12 linked lyrics written in three-line stanzas, which are the controlling form of Human Chain and seem to invoke Virgil’s great pupil, Dante. “Route 110” opens with the poet buying a copy of Aeneid VI in a used bookstore and then narrates events that echo different elements of Virgil’s poem, culminating in the birth of a grand-daughter, just as Aeneid VI culminates in Aeneas’ vision of souls waiting to be re-born.

 Heaney identifies “Route 110” as his starting point in a brief introduction to this translation. In somewhat circular fashion, his re-reading of Virgil inspired “Route 110,” and the writing of “Route 110” inspired him to tackle a full translation of Aeneid VI. It’s unsurprising that this translation has its immediate roots in a lyric poem; Heaney’s project fits with several recent books, including Christopher Logue’s War Music and Alice Oswald’s Memorial, which attempt to repackage ancient epics in a style closer to the mainstream of contemporary poetry— in the style of lyric poetry. Virgil is an ideal choice for this sort of contemporizing treatment, as he is perhaps the ancient epic poet who writes in something closest to the lyric voice. The Aeneid is not lyric poetry, but with its pathos and melancholy, and its focus on the intense emotional experiences of a single, central hero, it has certain lyric affinities, and these are particularly noticeable in Book VI, especially in the culminating meeting between Aeneas and the spirit of his father, Anchises.

Lyric poems, being short, can stand a lot more verbal embroidery: they are intended to be read slowly, with the reader taking time to tease out meanings of lines or follow the delicate branching of the poet’s thought. Epic tends to have a swifter movement: Homer occasionally stops his narrative with epic similes (which seem like his most “poetic” effect to contemporary readers), but he mostly lets the shaping of the words to the metre and the movement of the lines themselves supply the poetry. Virgil straddles these tendencies—his verse proceeds at a slightly statelier pace than Homer’s, and while much of it is characterized by the epic tendency to move forward, there are lapidary blocks of lines that seem as if they were composed to stand still and be admired.

I’m trying to see Heaney’s side of the argument, as he clearly shows more sympathy for the latter aspect of Virgil’s style. Here is the opening in the original:

Sic fatur lacrimans classique immittit habenas,
et tandem Euboicis Cumarum adlabitur oris.
obvertunt pelage proras, tum dente tenaci
ancora fundabat navis, et litora curvae
praetexunt puppes.

And here is Heaney’s version:

In tears as he speaks, Aeneas loosens out sail
And gives the whole fleet its head, so now at last
They ride ashore on the waves at Euboean Cumae.
There they turn round the ships to face out to sea.
Anchors bite deep, craft are held fast, curved
Sterns cushion on sand, prows frill the beach. 

“Frill” is lovely for Virgil’s “praetexunt,” which means something along the lines of “edge” or “form a border to.” There is nothing in the Latin about sterns “cushioning on sand,” though, and this tendency to elaborate on Virgil is characteristic of Heaney’s approach. Here is part of the meeting between Aeneas and the ghost of the Trojan warrior Deiphobus, who married Helen after the death of Paris:

ad quae Priamides: “nihil o tibi, amice, relictum;
omnia Deiphobo solvisti et funeris umbris.
sed me fata mea et scelus exitiale Lacenae
his mersere malis; illa haec monimenta reliquit.
namque ut supremam falsa inter gaudia noctem
egerimus, nosti; et nimium meminisse necesse est. 

And here is Heaney:

                                    Priam’s son replied:
‘And you, my friend, you left no thing undone.
You paid the right attention to Deiphobus,
Dead man and shade. It was my destiny
And the criminal, widowing schemes of my lady
Of Sparta wrecked and ruined me. What you see
Are the love bites she left me in remembrance
Of that last night, of all our city’s nights
The most jubilant and most deluded. But this you know
Too well already, for how could you forget? 

The expansion, in this case, is obvious on the page, as six lines turn into 10. Differences between Latin and English make some expansion unavoidable, but a lot of it is due to elaboration on Heaney’s part: using two essentially synonymous words for one word in Virgil—“wrecked and ruined” for “mersere,” “criminal, widowing” for “exitiale”—and the search for more “colourful” language—“love-bites” for “monimenta,” which may not mean much more than “marks” here. There are examples of this process throughout the poem: “you the unbowed, the unbroken” for Virgil’s “invicte,” “of some foaming, lathering warhorse” for Virgil’s “spumantis equis,”  “to stake and stand our ground” for Virgil’s “consistere terra,” and so on.

 Phrases like “wrecked and ruined” and “stake and stand” also demonstrate Heaney’s fondness for alliteration, which is particularly marked in this translation. Here are a few lines from the scene with Charon and Cerberus:

But in the end it is a safe crossing, and he lands
Soldier and soothsayer on slithery mud, knee-deep
In gray-green sedge.

                                    Here Cerberus keeps watch,
Growling from three gullets, his brute bulk couched
In the cave, facing down all comers.

Virgil has some heavily alliterated lines in Aeneid VI—“neu patriae validas viscera vertite viris” (833) is one outstanding example—but at times Heaney deploys it so frequently that it begins to sound as though he is translating Latin into Anglo-Saxon. He certainly creates some striking effects. But there’s a density to Heaney’s language, particularly in the first two thirds of the book, that is more in keeping with the style of contemporary lyric than with Virgil’s epic tone. His tendencies towards embroidery and alliteration can give the lines a clotted feel that works against the forward impulse of narrative verse.


IF ONE WERE to translate a single book of the Aeneid, either the sack of Troy in Book II or the affair with Dido in Book IV would seem easier and more obvious choices. Book VI contains the famous story of the golden bough, of course, and Aeneas’ journey to the Underworld, which is closely modelled on Book XI of the Odyssey, but it doesn’t exactly end with a bang. In the final third of the book, Anchises explains the transmigration of souls from the Underworld into new bodies in the world of the living, and then points out the various founders and heroes of Roman history as they parade before Aeneas awaiting their turn to be born, including Augustus, who was emperor when Virgil wrote the Aeneid. This is intractable material for the translator, and even for the most devoted reader. It’s here, though, that we see Virgil’s conception of himself as a public poet, using the mythological setting of his poem to prophesy history as he already knew it had occurred, and to stamp a divine inevitability on the unprecedented expansion of the Roman Empire under Augustus.

The poet as mouthpiece-for- regime is about as far as one can get from Heaney’s lyric voice, and so we might expect him to struggle in these passages. He himself writes in his introduction that “the roll call of generals and imperial heroes, the allusions to variously famous or obscure historical victories and defeats make this part of the poem something of a test for reader and translator alike.” And yet these passages at the end turn out to be among the finest in the book. Here is the meeting of Aeneas and Anchises:

But seeing Aeneas come wading through the grass
Towards him, he reached his two hands out
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.
And am I now allowed to see your face,
My son, and hear you talk, and talk to you myself?
This is what I imagined and looked forward to

As I counted the days; and my trust was not misplaced.
To think of the lands and the outlying seas
You have crossed, my son, to receive this welcome.
And after such dangers! I was afraid that Africa
Might be your undoing.’ 

That is absolutely gorgeous and perfectly right. The diction is clean and direct, with no unnecessary embellishment, and the propulsive rhythm carries the reader through the passage. It captures all the pathos of the moment, but effortlessly, so that we feel the emotion through the lines rather than feeling as if the lines are pushing their effect on us.

And Heaney achieves that level of clarity and beauty repeatedly in the final third of his translation. Consider this:

This is he whose coming you’ve heard foretold
So often: Augustus Caesar, child of the divine one,
Who will establish in Latium, in Saturn’s old domain,
A second golden age. He will advance his empire
Beyond the Garamants and the Indians
To lands unseen beneath our constellations
Beyond the sun’s path through the zodiac,
Away where sky-braced Atlas pivots on his shoulder
The firmament, inlaid with glittering stars.

Or this:

Others, I have no doubt, with a more delicate touch
Will beat bronze into breathing likenesses,
Conjure living features out of marble,
Argue cases more effectively, and with their compass
Plot the heavens’ orbit and predict
The rising of the constellations. But you, Roman,
Remember: to you will fall the exercise of power
Over the nations, and these will be your gifts –
To impose peace and justify your sway,
Spare those you conquer, crush those who overbear.  

Again, these lines move forward with a powerful clarity and a firm iambic pulse; there are no extraneous expansions, no striving for poetic effect, just forceful verse that carries the poet’s sense directly to the reader. Even the alliteration of “b” in the second line is justified in the way it brings out the repetitive hammering the words describe.


ANY REVIEW OF a translation has to consider the relationship between the new version and the original, and so I have come at this book as a reader of the Aeneid, looking at Heaney’s version to see how closely it accords with my idea of what Virgil’s poetry is “like.” But perhaps I’m being unfair to Heaney’s conception. I don’t think this translation is an attempt to bring the contemporary reader as close as possible to experiencing what it’s like to read Virgil in Latin; rather, I think it’s an attempt to transform one book of the Aeneid into a Seamus Heaney poem, with spades swapped out for spears. (Tellingly, the name “Virgil” doesn’t even appear on the cover of the Faber edition.)

Viewed from this angle, elements which are strikingly un-Virgilian seem right by virtue of being appropriate for Heaney. Consider some of the word choices: Aeneas is “geared out,” Charon’s beard is “unclean white shag,” Cerberus “snaffles” the sop, Deiphobus falls on a pile of “slobbered corpses,” and we have “the fling and scringe and drag / Of iron chains,” the “scrunch and screech” of hinges, the “lowest sump” of hell and a vulture that “puddles” Tityos’ entrails. None of this diction is Virgilian, but it is very much Heaney’s, and it shows how he has absorbed the Latin and made it his own, where a more faithful translator (but weaker poet) might be satisfied with obvious dictionary choices.

Heaney’s Aeneid VI, then, is not an attempt to replicate the style of Virgil. Rather, it represents one aspect of Heaney’s relationship to Latin literature generally and to Virgil in particular, and is part of an ongoing dialogue between two great poets. Reading this book, we feel that Aeneid VI is a literary touchstone Heaney has carried with him and thought about for a long time, and that this translation represents a synthesis of that material with his own idea of poetry, and his approach to writing it. Heaney’s decision to translate the Aeneid, and his attempt to transform it into his own voice, show that Latin remained, for him, a living tradition and one of the wellsprings of his own poetry. We should be grateful for this translation, because the classics are most alive when our best poets engage with them. As Wilamowitz said, “To make the ancients speak, we must feed them with our own blood.”

BROOKE CLARK is a Contributing Editor at Partisan and editor of the epigrams website The Asses of Parnassus, his work has appeared in Arion, Literary ImaginationAble MuseThe Rotary DialLight and other publications.

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