Through the Ivory Gate

January 10, 2017

Seamus Heaney introduced his translation of Beowulf with these words: "When I was an undergraduate at Queen's University, Belfast, I studied Beowulf and other Anglo-Saxon poems and developed not only a feel for the language but a fondness for the melancholy and fortitude that characterized the poetry." [1] His introduction to Book VI of Virgil's [2] Aeneid begins in both a parallel and yet a very different fashion: "This translation of Aeneid VI is neither a 'version' nor a crib: it is more like classics homework, the result of a lifelong desire to honour the memory of my Latin teacher at St. Columb's College, Father Michael McGlinchey." [3]

I am certain the poet needed little encouragement. Heaney descended into the Underworld time and time again from the very beginning of his writing career. Many of his own poems confront the dead who passed through and out of his life, just as Aeneas eternally confronts those in his regnum inferni. In Station Island, Heaney came close to employing Dante as his own Virgil. The Aeneid was standard fare for a Latin student of Heaney's generation. In Father McGlinchey's class he was set, as I was set in Mr. Clegg's, passages to translate as part of the pedagogy. Now Heaney's translation of Book VI, the narrative of Aeneas's descent into the Underworld, has been published posthumously in its own slim volume.

The whole Aeneid as we have it from Virgil is also a posthumous work, one which the poet is reported to have left unfinished and wanted destroyed at his own death. Caesar Augustus's refusal to honor the dying poet's wish has come to be considered one of the great editorial victories over authorial authority, and a boon to European culture.

But, I'm sorry to say, as a separate book, hardly more than a chapbook, Heaney's Aeneid Book VI is an exploitation of the poet's name. The text is so evidently, first, a fragment, and, second, an exercise in "classics homework," that presenting it as a complete artifact makes little sense outside the larger context of Heaney's œuvre. There are so many fine translations by distinguished poets around, and at least one more coming soon, that this publication fills no need, except in the currency of Heaney's reputation.

The publishers recognize this; the presentation makes that clear. The cover reads, Aeneid Book VI / Seamus Heaney. Usually translators complain that their own names have been left off the book jacket. Here, it is the original poet who has been omitted. Farrar, Straus & Giroux presents us with Heaney's Book VI. But another omission seems to have been Heaney's own: it would be hard to find language more antithetical to the best of the Irish poet's sinewy Celto-Saxon than Virgil's discursive Latin dactyls, so it's notable but not surprising that, in his introduction, Heaney did not express a "feel" for Virgil's Latin.

In flashes of Book VI you can hear authentic Heaney:

Anchors bite deep, craft are held fast, curved
Sterns cushion on sand, prows frill the beach. [4]

But these passages are more frequent near the beginning of the book. The more it goes along, the less Heaney there seems to be. Sometimes the Latin sounds more Heaneyesque in its sonority than the equivalent English: "gemuit sub pondere cumba / sutilis et multam accepit rimosa paludem." (ll 413-414) [5] There are other places where the English rhetoric reads so awkwardly that the attentive reader will suspect it to be an early draft: "River Styx with its nine loops binds and bounds them. // Not far from here the fields called the Fields of Mourning …" [6] There is nothing in the Latin to justify the jingly "binds and bounds" or the clumsy repetition of "fields." Shortly after these lines, Heaney throws in an embarrassingly gratuitous phrase, "And bade your last farewell," in Aeneas's appeal to Dido. It's not the only occasion where elements like this occur. The more I read, the more convinced I have become that the poet planned on revision, if he intended publication, or if death had not taken him to the "dim phantasmal reaches where Pluto is king." [7]

In one passage. Aeneas has been told that he must find a golden bough growing on a green tree before he can be admitted to the Underworld. Two doves, implicitly sent by his divine mother Venus, flutter to his attention and lead him to the golden bough. In the original Latin:

inde ubi venere ad fauces grave olentis Averni,
tollunt se celeres liquidumque per aëra lapsae
sedibus optatis geminae super arbore sidunt,
discolor unde auri per ramos aura refulsit.
(ll 201-204)

The Latin exhibits a complex of sound patterns. There's what you might call anti-alliteration, in which the noun fauces leaps out in the middle of the first line here by its hard separation from the elisions around it. A near-rhyme cascades from Averni to aëra through arbore to aura, among other liquid and sibilant effects. This is the kind of density that you'd think would appeal most temptingly to the mature Heaney, but this is how he translated it:

Then when they came to the fuming gorge at Avernus
They swept through clear air and back down
To their chosen perch, a tree that was two trees
In one, green-leafed yet refulgent with gold. [8]

There is nothing to object to here, but nothing to write home about either. Sarah Ruden, in her recent translation of the Aeneid, tried for bolder effects:

But when they reached Avernus' reeking throat,
They shot up, then soared down through limpid air,
Then perched on what Aeneas sought, the contrast
Of flashing gold among the tree's green branches … [9]

Faux is literally the throat, the gullet, but it has a legitimate meaning that had long since passed beyond metaphor in Virgil's time as "gorge," just as the English word has. In this sense, Heaney is perfectly proper in rendering it. Ruden went further, risked reanimating the image, and sounds more like Heaney here than Heaney himself.

Unlike the compressive Ruden, Robert Fagles is a recent translator who reached for a very different line that approximates Virgil's long hexameters, another conscious rhythmic choice that respects the sound of the original:

and once they reached the foul-smelling gorge of Avernus,
up they veered, quickly, then slipped down through the clear air
to settle atop the longed-for goal, the twofold tree, its green
a foil for the breath of gold that glows along its branch. [10]

Most interesting, however, is Heaney's divergent reading of optatis. Grammatically, the word does indeed go with sedibus, "perches," and we can imagine the birds themselves seeking out a particular branch. But the literary figure is one every Latin student learns early, the "transferred epithet," whereby the attribute of one noun is attached to another, here creating a kind of double wordplay, which Ruden and Fagles correctly picked up on: although the birds have been consciously leading Aeneas along, the important branch is the golden bough that is wished for by Aeneas, not by the birds. Heaney, with his flaccid "chosen," lost this.

Aeneid Book VI reads like a competent version for an advanced Latin class. Father McGlinchey could be rightly proud of his literary pupil, but this specific result lacks the verve and commitment that animated Heaney's Sweeney and Beowulf.

Nevertheless, I have written before that each translation is its own reading. Therefore, for those who care most about Heaney's reading as well as his writing, the exercise is not pointless. As part of the Great Conversation of writer to writer resounding through millennia, it has its own significant value. I just wish it had been marketed to the literary world in a less cynical fashion, one that honored and illuminated Virgil as much as I'm sure Heaney would have wished.

[1] Seamus Heaney, Beowulf: A New Verse translation, (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2001), p. xxii. Return to Text

[2] The reader will note the spelling "Virgil" of the name of the poet Publius Vergilius Maro. This has become conventional, but not universal, in naming the poet in English. Sarah Ruden, whose translation I have reviewed before, preferred "Vergil." In that review, I used her spelling. Here, I use Heaney's. What fun! Return to Text

[3] Seamus Heaney, Aeneid Book VI, (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016), p.vii. Return to Text

[4] " … tum dente tenaci / ancorat fundabat navis, et litora curvae praetexunt puppes." Ibid., (ll 3-5), p. 3. Return to Text

[5] "Under that weight the boat's plied timbers groan / And thick marsh water oozes through the leaks." Ibid., p. 43. Return to Text

[6] " … et noviens Styx interfusa coercet. / Nec procul hinc partem fusi monstrantur in omnem / Lugentes Campi … " Ibid., (ll 439-441), p. 47. Return to Text

[7] Ibid., p. 29. Return to Text

[8] Ibid., p. 23. Return to Text

[9] Vergil, The Aeneid, trans. Sarah Ruden (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), p. 195. Return to Text

[10] Virgil, The Aeneid, trans. Robert Fagles (New York: Penguin, 2008), p. 189. Return to Text