A Final Foray – Seamus Heaney on Virgil’s Aeneid

Tros Anchisiade, facilis descensus Averno:
noctes atque dies patet atri ianua Ditis;
sed revocare gradum superasque evadere ad auras,
hoc opus, hic labor est.

‘Trojan, son of Anchises,
It is easy to descend into Avernus.
Death’s dark door stands open day and night.
But to retrace your steps and get back to upper air,
That is the task, that is the undertaking’
– Seamus Heaney, Aeneid Book VI.

Comprising 901 lines in dactylic ‘heroic’ hexameter, the sixth book of Virgil’s Aeneid is a story that has captivated and inspired countless people since its publication in 19 BCE; among them poet, translator and Nobel laureate, Seamus Heaney. His interest in Aeneas’ chthonic descent having initially been piqued by a Latin teacher at St Columb’s College, Heaney found himself gravitating towards Book VI in the years thereafter, beginning to translate passages in the 1980s and still finalising his full, 1222-line translation right up to the summer of his death in 2013. In June of that year, after studying his work as part of my English course, I was lucky enough to see Seamus Heaney in-person at York Festival of Ideas, where he read a selection of his poetry aloud; so when I saw that the next LSA CA virtual book club meeting would be on this translation I could not wait to dive into it. Published posthumously in 2016, Seamus Heaney’s complete rendering is both true to the original Latin and something entirely unique and personal to its translator, carrying us away one last time into Virgil’s fabled land of shades and shadows as Aeneas, with the assistance of the Sibyl, delves through ‘death’s dark door’ to talk to the spirit of his father and discover the true significance of his journey to Italy.

‘There’s one Virgilian journey that has indeed been a constant presence, and that is Aeneas’ venture into the underworld. The motifs in Book VI have been in my head for years – the golden bough, Charon’s barge, the quest to meet the shade of the father’ – Seamus Heaney, Stepping Stones (2008).

I thought Virgil was in excellent hands with Seamus Heaney; his poetic voice is utterly spellbinding, almost cinematic, and the warmth and enthusiasm he felt for this part of Aeneas’ journey glinted on every page. In his brief ‘translator’s note’, Heaney speaks of honouring two ‘supervisors’ when undertaking this translation: the ‘inner literalist’ taught by Father McGlinchey, together with the poet he has become, who has ‘things other than literal accuracy’ to consider. I thought he carried this off beautifully. I really enjoyed the way he incorporated aspects of Virgil’s style where possible, e.g. his repetition of Virgil’s use of alliteration in vatemque virumque ‘soldier and soothsayer’ (556); and Heaney’s translation has really captured that this poem was composed to be performed, echoing Virgil’s use of sound effects with ‘the batter of bronze and the clatter | Of horses hoofs’ (801-2), the ‘grinding scrunch and screech | Of hinges’ (778-9) and ‘the fling and scringe and drag | Of iron chains’ (755-6). I particularly loved how the alliterative rhythm of the opening lines manoeuvre us into his meter, ‘Anchors bite deep, craft are held fast, curved | Sterns cushion on sand’ (5-6), lapping at our ears like the splash of waves against the Trojan ships.

It is thought that when listening to Virgil, many Romans may have ‘paid more attention to the sound and beauty of the language than to what was being said’ (James J. O’Hara, Cambridge Companion to Virgil, page 373) and Heaney’s language took my breath away; playing on our imagination and seizing our attention with unique, eye-catching words – Cerberus ‘snaffles the sop’ he has been thrown (564), the ‘surly’ ferryman is bearded with ‘unclean white shag’ (397), a monstrous Hydra lurks with ‘fifty gaping mouth-holes’ (783) and the Golden Bough is ‘green-leafed yet refulgent with gold’ (274). Even in this Seamus Heaney stays close to Virgil’s style, who is thought to have used ‘the juxtaposition of evocative foreign words with very ordinary native ones to emotive effect’ (Victoria Moul, Cambridge Companion to Virgil, page 350); and interestingly the Latin refulsit ‘it gleams/glitters/shines’, which Heaney has translated as ‘refulgent’ (see above), can also be translated as ‘it stands out’, so it is fitting that Seamus Heaney has made it the most striking word in the line. I also thought there was an interesting familiarity to this translation; at times it feels as though Heaney is telling us a story about a friend of his, for example, rather than ‘devout,’ Aeneas is ‘devoted as ever’ (12), emphasizing how far back he and this text go and putting me at ease from the very first page.

One of the most beautiful aspects of this translation is the way Seamus Heaney has sprinkled his own poetic language and identity onto the text. We can spot the earthy fingerprints of his early work in the echoing ‘crack’ of axes on ‘holm oaks’ (245) and the ‘yellowy berries’ of the golden bough ‘in sprays curled round the bole’ (277). These passages really took me back to studying poems like ‘Death of a Naturalist’ in senior school and what I love is that every word is representative of Virgil’s Latin; Charon is ‘Old but still a god, and a god in old age | Is green and hardy’ (402-3), iam senior, sed cruda deo viridisque senectus, literally ‘now older, but a god in ripe and green old age’, and having finally made it across the Styx, Aeneas and the Sibyl land up to their knees in ‘grey-green sedge’ (557), glaucaque… in ulua, literally ‘grey-green reeds’. In his ‘translator’s note’ Seamus Heaney talks about the need to use language that is ‘decorous enough for Virgil but not so antique as to sound out of tune with a more contemporary idiom’ and I think the way he has included himself in this translation alongside Virgil, capturing the original through his own distinctive voice, is just phenomenal and made me think so much more about the relationship between a text and its translator.

Heaney’s translation becomes more compelling every time I read it; an element I found especially intriguing was the Sibyl. During our virtual book club meeting on 5th May we had a really interesting discussion about her role in Book VI and, although the priestess of Apollo largely serves as a plot device to steer Aeneas through the ‘lonely | Shadowing night’ (357-58), I think her character really comes to life through Heaney’s words. When she has warned Aeneas of the challenges he will face if he descends to the underworld and finds him still determined, she says: ‘Still, if love so torments you, | If your need to be ferried twice across the Styx | And twice to explore that deep dark abyss | Is so overwhelming, if you will and must go | That far, understand what else you must do’ (182-86). In Seamus Heaney’s previous translation of this passage in ‘Seeing Things’, the last line is translated as: ‘Understand what you must do beforehand’, accipe quae peragenda prius, literally ‘You must understand what else (has to be) accomplished first’. But I think the loss of the Latin prius ‘first/beforehand’ in Heaney’s new rendering puts more emphasis on the imperative accipe ‘you must understand’, giving her a more commanding voice. I also think Heaney’s use of enjambment here, the way the previous line spills over into the next in ‘if you will and must go | That far’, catches the eye and adds more weight to the Sibyl’s words compared to the end-stopped Latin, where the clause is contained within one line (captured by Heaney in his previous translation: ‘… if you will go beyond the limit, | Understand what you must do beforehand’).

This determination in the Sibyl’s voice is felt throughout Heaney’s translation; I think the way he has tightened the Golden Bough passage (140-203) since his 1991 translation in ‘Seeing Things’ intensifies its lines, e.g. compare his earlier ‘This is the real task and the real undertaking’ to ‘That is the task, that is the undertaking’ (177). Aeneas’ voice too has become strikingly more urgent, take his pleas to the Sibyl to allow him to descend into the underworld: ‘… vouchsafe me one look, | One face-to-face meeting with my dear father’ (152-53); the addition of the more demanding ‘vouchsafe me’ making Aeneas’ words sound more earnest than Heaney’s earlier ‘I pray’. This urgency is further echoed in Heaney’s descriptive language, e.g. the use of the word ‘bite’ (5) for Virgil’s dente tenaci, rather than ‘teeth holding fast’, and his interpretation of Latin adlabitur as ‘ride’ (3), rather than ‘glide’, driving the narrative forwards and emphasizing the journey that must be made.

I am in awe of how much thought Seamus Heaney has put into Virgil’s language and his representation of it. One of my favourite passages occurs earlier in the text, when Aeneas pauses to admire the mythological scenes, sculpted by Daedalus, on the doors of the temple to Apollo. But one scene is missing. Virgil tells us that Daedalus tried twice to model the tragic flight of his son, Icarus, but ‘twice | His hands, the hands of a father, failed him’ (51-52). Seamus Heaney encapsulates the horror of a father trying to depict the death of his son by expanding and emphasizing Virgil’s bis patriae cecidere manus with the repetition of manus ‘hands’ and adding even more gravity to Virgil’s patriae ‘belonging to a father’ with the addition of the indefinite article, universalising his agony. I also think the way Seamus Heaney has translated cecidere as ‘failed him’, rather than ‘fell’, highlights just how defeated Daedalus feels in this moment, even his gift is not untouched by his grief.

The relationship between parents and children is a central preoccupation of the Aeneid, ‘since the pietas [piety] of its hero encompasses the emotions felt towards parents as well as duty to the gods’ (Colin Burrow, Cambridge Companion to Virgil, page 111) and I thought Seamus Heaney captured this idea wonderfully. One of the most prominent passages is the moment Aeneas is finally reunited with the shade of his father: ‘And as he spoke he wept. | Three times he tried to reach arms round that neck. | Three times the form, reached for in vain, escaped | Like a breeze between his hands, a dream on wings’ (941-44). I really like how Seamus Heaney has managed to get the same effect as Virgil’s levibus ventis ‘light winds’ with the word ‘breeze’ and I think ‘a dream on wings’ captures the spirit of the Latin volucrique… somno brilliantly. I also love the way Heaney’s use of enjambment in the last two lines creates a sense that the clause is reaching desperately over line-end, echoing Aeneas’ outstretched arms grasping at the empty air.

The beauty of this translation is not just in Seamus Heaney’s words and meter, but his personal journey with the text. Catherine Heaney called it a ‘touchstone’ to which her father returned time and again, referencing, quoting, translating and paying homage to it throughout his life. But it took on a special significance for him following the death of his father in 1986, ‘since the story it tells is that of Aeneas’ journey to meet the shade of his father Anchises in the land of the dead.’ Heaney recalls the moment when Aeneas tries in vain to embrace the shade of Anchises in the closing lines of ‘Album’ (Human Chain, 2010) ‘just as a moment back a son’s three tries | At an embrace in Elysium’, also paying tribute to his father with his 1991 translation of the Golden Bough; and I think this idea guided him as he wrote this translation. When I saw Seamus Heaney at the Festival of Ideas I bought a signed copy of his collection ‘Death of a Naturalist’ (1966) and in some ways I also think Heaney’s exploration of his relationship with his father that emerged in poems like ‘Digging’ and ‘Follower’ is paralleled in Aeneas’ journey; it is a quest for both Aeneas and Heaney to find a father, Aeneas finally finding Anchises in the Elysian fields, Heaney finding his father through his translation and in the process giving his children a way to connect with their own father following his death.

The reunion between father and son is brief. Soon Anchises begins to direct Aeneas on what is to be the future glory of the Roman race. This part of the poem is described by Heaney, in his opening notes, as ‘something of a test for reader and translator alike’; admitting that at this point ‘the translator is likely to have moved from inspiration to grim determination,’ as he trudges through the succession of ‘future Roman generals and imperial heroes’, alongside the ‘allusions to variously famous or obscure historical victories and defeats.’ But though his heart is elsewhere Seamus Heaney navigates the sprawling landscape of Rome’s future history with the same enthralling lyricism as he does the rest of the text. He parallels the tragic beauty of Virgil’s description of Augustus’ nephew and prospective heir, Marcellus, who is arrayed in ‘glittering arms’ (1171), his brow wreathed with ‘dolorous shadow’ (1177) and he captures the slow march of the Latin when Anchises bewails his untimely death: ‘Do not, O my son, | Seek foreknowledge of the heavy sorrow | Your people will endure’ (1179-81), together with the raw emotion sown into the line: ‘O son of pity! Alas that you cannot strike | Fate’s cruel fetters off! For you are to be Marcellus…’ (1197-98) – which, according to Aelius Donatus’ fourth century CE ‘Life of Virgil’, caused Marcellus’ mother Octavia to faint upon hearing it for the first time.

Heaney’s translation closes as it opens, ‘sterns cushion on sand’ (1222) stant litore puppes, literally ‘sterns stand on shore’, as the Trojan ships dock at the port of Caietae. This is one of my favourite aspects to Heaney’s translation because, as well as capturing the Latin and bringing the text to a poetic close, it draws a comparison between Aeneas at the beginning and end of the book, emphasising how far he has come since those opening lines and reinforcing the idea that we have reached a turning point in the poem. At the beginning of this book Aeneas enters the underworld having arrived on the shores of Italy battered and worn, doubting his mission, and at the end he emerges through the ivory gate of false dreams, his mind ‘fired’ with ‘promise of future glory’ (1208). Book VI bridges the first (more Odyssean) part of the Aeneid and the second (more Iliadic) part; and for this reason I also think that Book VI, even though it is one chapter in a 12-book poem, is the most self-contained and perfect as a standalone translation. As he moves through the underworld Aeneas must look backwards, coming face to face with everything he has lost (in his encounters with Dido, the dead Trojan and Greek heroes, the shade of his father), but at the same time he must look to the future (the dynasty he will found in Italy). So even if you have not read the Aeneid in its entirety, Book VI gives a brilliant flavour of it and after reading Heaney’s translation I cannot wait to read the whole poem again.

‘All the great myths are consistent with what you need. You need a sense of moving on, crossing something – into the dark… into the unknown. The great mythical stories of the afterworld are stories which stay with you and which ease you towards the end, towards a destination and a transition’ – Seamus Heaney.

As I read Seamus Heaney’s ‘final’ foray into Book VI it was amazing to look back, knowing that at the time I saw him at York Festival of Ideas it would have been nearing completion. There is a really touching part in the ‘note on the text’ comparing his translation to the ‘Aeneid’s own halted composition’ and although Seamus Heaney was not able to see it through to publication, I think there is a sense of closure. His translation marks the end of a lifetime of fascination and engagement with Book VI, that began when Father Michael McGlinchey introduced it to him at St Columb’s College all those years ago, and it is poignant that his last work is a text that has gripped his imagination for so long. Moreover, the way Seamus Heaney has sown his presence into this translation, the alliterative rhythms and enjambment of Beowulf and the iambic pentameter of his early poetry, among other Heaneyisms, makes it a testament to his poetic legacy. It has been wonderful to read one of my favourite ancient texts through the voice of one of my favourite modern poets, I have learnt so much from reading and reviewing Heaney’s translation and I cannot wait to return to it in the future, as I start my classics degree and continue to learn more about Virgil and the Latin language, because I know there are so many more beautiful and interesting elements just waiting to be discovered.


Lorna Lee is an undergraduate in Classical Studies at the Open University and a Classics Ambassador for the Lytham St Annes Classical Association. She writes and posts about the ancient world on her social media channels as @unexpectedlearningjourney.