Translation, in its etymological roots, is a carrying over, a bearing across. Three years after the death of Seamus Heaney, his translation of Virgil’s Aeneid Book VI appeared this spring in this slender volume. The book, in its posthumous publication and focus on the underworld, is itself a portage across the River Styx, a retrieval from the land of the dead and the colloquially "dead" language of Virgilian Latin. As in his acclaimed translation of Beowulf (2000), an international bestseller, Heaney's take on the heart of this Roman epic performs a literary resurrection of sorts, bringing Virgil's poem—and his own voice—vividly alive.
Heaney infuses the 901 lines at the Aeneid's center with his inimitable blend of Hiberno-English, Ulster Scots, and Gaelic, producing a lucid verse story both timely and archetypal. Indeed, Book VI is the midpoint of Virgil's epic, its dramatic hinge: Aeneas pauses in his imperial quest to search the underworld for the shade of his father, visit with comrades lost in the cataclysm at Troy, and encounter Dido, the Carthaginian queen, whom he loved but was forced to abandon. Here the Roman hero appears fully human, shaped by his filial, fraternal, and erotic loves: a man distinct from his mythic destiny. This homelier version of Aeneas might have appealed to Heaney in his later decades, hounded as he was by fame and habitually drawn to native places and family.
But Book VI is also about the grand cycle of death and rebirth, which piqued Heaney's interest after his father's demise and again, touchingly, after the arrival of his first granddaughter. Virgil qualifies the finality of death with a pagan paradigm of reincarnation: Fortunate souls, whose "seeds of life are strong sparks out of fire," are allowed to resume a second life in new bodies. Heaney's translation celebrates these spirits' buoyancy as they "go once more / To dwell beneath the sky's dome and start again / To long for the old life of flesh and blood." Though mortality is unavoidable, the well-behaved in Virgil's underworld can eventually leave, freshly laundered by the river Lethe, amnesiac and ready for another go.
Heaney's translation also underscores Virgil's clear-eyed view of empire. Though the poem praised Augustus (and, reportedly, was preserved by him, despite Virgil's deathbed wish that the unrevised Aeneid be burned), it is not an apologia for totalitarianism. In the figure of Aeneas, Virgil explores the cost of rule on those who govern as well as on those who submit to supererogatory powers, worldly or divine. In a commentary left tantalizingly incomplete at the time of his death, Heaney noted that "for the contemporary reader, it is the best of books and the worst of books. Best because of its mythopoeic visions, the twilit fetch of its language. . . . Worst because of its imperial certitude, its celebration of Rome's manifest destiny."
At key moments, Heaney puts a mute in Virgil's imperial trumpet, one the Roman poet (given his allegiances) may have felt obliged to sound. For instance, when Aeneas' father describes Romans' legacy vis-à-vis their Hellenistic counterparts, the Greeks who "beat bronze into breathing likenesses / . . . Argue cases more effectively, and with their compass / Plot the heavens' orbit," Heaney lets the language for Rome fall comparatively flat. Romans, in his translation, are told "To impose peace and justify your sway, / Spare those you conquer, crush those who overbear."
Heaney's lines—particularly his choice of "sway" and "crush"—seem more apt for a lunchroom bully than an empire spanning continents. In his version of Anchises' prophecy, it is as honorable to be an artist, skilled in oratory and sculpture, as it is to be an imperial gunslinger exacting tribute.
Throughout his career, Heaney claimed a place for poetry apart from politics, while recognizing history's influence on a poet's imagination. As the son of a farmer who witnessed civil war and as someone who came of age during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, Heaney's life (and poetic temperament) shared strong parallels with Virgil's own. Indeed, Heaney credited Virgil's Eclogues for suggesting "an effective way for a poet to answer whatever the world was hurling at him," and in Virgil's Aeneid he found tropes—the search for the ghostly father; the passport of the golden bough; the portents in Venus' doves; and the prophecy-frothing Sibyl—that allowed him to reframe some of his own experiences.
Like centuries of poets before him, Heaney learned what a verse line can convey while on the errands of Virgil's demanding syntax as a schoolboy. In his foreword, he credits Fr. Michael McGlinchey's sixth-form classroom for instilling "an inner literalist who still hunts for the main verb." Indeed, Heaney's oeuvre, from early to late, evinces his training in the narrative compression, symbolic imagery, and portmanteau coinages found in Virgilian Latin, which, like Dante's Italian, educated its readers in their own tongue. Scenes from Book VI appear obliquely in several of Heaney's collections and directly in the poem "Route 110" in The Human Chain (2010), in which he mimics the descent to the underworld with vignettes patterned after Aeneas' encounters. Reciprocally, the Stygian marsh in Heaney's translation resembles, in its flora and fauna, its ghosts and voluble artifacts, a peaty bog in Derry.
To sense what Heaney gives back to Virgil as a translator, we need only look at the opening passage. Here, Heaney counterpoints the melancholic mourning of Aeneas, who has lost his beloved helmsman, to the Trojan fleet's near-libidinal joy in claiming Italia as their own. In the lines' muscularity, the reader feels the energies of empire.
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. Now a band of young hotbloods vaults quickly out On to the shore of Italia, some after flint For the seedling fire it hides in its veins.
In comparison, consider lines from this same passage by Robert Fagles, whose translation of the Aeneid has reigned, almost unchallenged, since it appeared in 2006:
So as he speaks in tears Aeneas gives the ships free rein and at last they glide onto Euboean Cumae's beaches. Swinging their prows around to face the sea, they moor the fleet with the anchors' biting grip . . .
While Fagles's translation is perfectly serviceable, Heaney's rendering bristles with narrative particularity, each word a tile in a bright mosaic, a note in a discernible melody. "The experiment of poetry," Heaney once observed, "happens when the poem carries you beyond where you could have reasonably expected to go." Heaney's translation thoroughly enlivens the underworld of Virgil's imagination, proving it to have been a defining ancestor of his own, and one that carries its readers pleasingly beyond where we might otherwise expect to go.
Heather Treseler is a poet and essayist in Boston.