In one of those engagingly innocent-seeming anecdotes Seamus Heaney so skilfully used in both his poems and his prose, he relates (in an essay on Patrick Kavanagh from 1985) that one of his aunts ‘planted a chestnut in a jam jar’ in the year of his birth. In due course the seedling was planted out and grew to a fine height. Heaney says that ‘over the years I came to identify my own life with the life of the chestnut tree.’ When the aunt’s house was sold the chestnut tree was cut down. ‘Then, all of a sudden, a couple of years ago, I began to think of the space where the tree had been or would have been. In my mind’s eye I saw it as a kind of luminous emptiness, a warp and waver of light.’ That story is the Heaneyesque in miniature. It’s all so throwaway, so casually unassertive and domestic. And then it isn’t. For an Irish poet to identify his own life with that of a chestnut tree necessarily recalls the great blast of beauty at the end of Yeats’s ‘Among School Children’:
O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?
And for any poet to identify his own life with that of a tree carries a wider association too. The ‘Life of Virgil’ ascribed to the grammarian Aelius Donatus records that Virgil’s mother dreamed she gave birth to a laurel tree. Shortly afterwards she was unexpectedly delivered of her son, outside and in a ditch. On the spot where she gave birth there sprang up a poplar tree, which came to be called the ‘tree of Virgil, and prayers for childbirth and safe delivery are still offered with the greatest reverence there by pregnant women and new mothers’. Heaney quietly equates an axed chestnut tree and a tale about his aunt with the unexpressed suggestion that he might be a Yeatsian sport of that greatest of great rooted blossomers, Virgil.
Heaney was not in any simple sense a ‘Virgilian’ poet, or at least he was not the kind of poet who would make such a grand claim for himself other than obliquely. But the sixth book of Virgil’s Aeneid in particular – in which Aeneas culls the golden bough, descends to the underworld, sees the spirits of the unburied trapped on the wrong side of the river Acheron, meets fallen comrades, passes over the river to be told about the punishments of the damned, and then receives from his father a vision of souls recycled by imbibing the waters of Lethe and a roll-call of future Roman heroes – mattered more to his later writing than any other single text. The reason is not hard to find. The 901 lines of the sixth book of the Aeneid are extraordinary. In them Virgil not only in effect invented Dante and his imaginary descent to the underworld, he evoked more aspects of death and of life than any poet has done before or since in a similar compass. The casual ubiquity and overwhelming force of death is registered in the great anonymous waves of souls waiting on the wrong side of the waters of hell (‘There they stood, those souls,/Begging to be the first allowed across, stretching out/Arms that hankered towards the farther shore’). Death is reimagined as a release in the athletic delight of the Elysian fields and in the ‘hovering multitude’ of souls that gather by Lethe in order to forget their former lives and be reborn. In the concluding catalogue of Roman heroes, all of whom are yet to be born but all of whom for readers of the poem are already dead, death becomes a source of fame, and poetry is implicitly identified with a power to make and immortalise nations. And death is registered too as a thing you can witness and survive through the extraordinary glitter of the golden bough (‘like mistletoe shining in cold winter woods’), which Aeneas plucks and which enables him to reascend alive from the underworld.
Heaney’s earlier verse, which tends to be much more edgy about imperial rule than his later writing, touches only indirectly on Aeneid VI, which is at best a presence akin to the absent chestnut tree, a ‘luminous emptiness’ in the Irish landscape. ‘Bog Oak’ from Wintering Out (1972) presents the Irish landscape as one from which groves where a golden bough might grow have been uprooted – ‘The softening ruts/lead back to no/“oak groves”, no/cutters of mistletoe/in the green clearings’ – before it goes on to imagine Edmund Spenser dreaming of suppressing the Irish. From the mid-1980s, however, Aeneid VI began to seep towards the centre of Heaney’s writing, though in forms more associated with political unease than imperial triumph. In an essay on translation from 1986 Heaney said of the rising interest in Eastern European poets that English writers ‘have been encouraged to concede that the locus of greatness is shifting away from their language’ and that ‘wraiths from beyond have begun to move in the Elysian background.’ These wraiths are not the spirits of imperial heroes revealed to Aeneas by his father at the end of Book VI. They are rather the multitudes that stand on the wrong side of the Styx longing for passage across at the start of his journey through the underworld. It’s as though Heaney wants to imagine that these homeless and nameless spirits would take over the centres of empire and power, and drive away the imperial heroes with which Book VI concludes. A few years later Heaney associated the golden bough itself with awkward political accommodations. He described the SDLP politician John Hume as an Aeneas seeking to bridge worlds: ‘Neither his long record of political probity nor his large peace-seeking purpose was sufficient to constitute the political equivalent of a golden bough that would guarantee him a safe return from the underground of secret talks into the daylight of the old banal repetitions.’
That association between the Aeneid and political unease grew out of Station Island (1984), in which Heaney first seriously engaged with the descent to the underworld and its literary implications. In the title poem of that collection he related how the spirits of dead priests, dead friends, victims of the Troubles and finally James Joyce, appeared from the pilgrimage site of St Patrick’s Purgatory on Station Island to inform and rebuke him. Heaney implicitly presented himself as kin to Dante or Aeneas, or to T.S. Eliot in Dantesque prophetic mode: a poet who could absorb and transform voices from his own and from the literary past. But he combined that self-aggrandisement with a powerful dose of guilt. The imperial poets Dante and Virgil were unsettling doubles for a poet who had lived through the Troubles, and had seen friends and family killed by imperial rule. The dead cousin Colum McCartney who appears to Heaney in the eighth section of ‘Station Island’ makes the charge directly:
You confused evasion and artistic tact.
The Protestant who shot me through the head
I accuse directly, but indirectly, you …
for the way you whitewashed ugliness and drew
the lovely blinds of the Purgatorio
and saccharined my death with morning dew.
The traveller in the underworld runs the risk of becoming a fellow-traveller, who is drawn away from honest engagement with Irish politics by a misplaced desire to beautify death, and to insinuate himself into a larger tradition of poetic authority.
The death of Heaney’s father in 1986 brought with it significant changes in his attitudes to Virgil. The political edges are smoothed over, and Book VI in particular tends to be presented as more like a family drama than a political one. The ghost of Aeneas’s father, Anchises, flickers through Seeing Things (1991), and Heaney’s poetic responses to the Aeneid from the later 1980s onwards tend to be welded to the detail of domestic life. His final collection of verse, New Selected Poems 1988-2013, was carefully crafted in order to make it appear that Aeneid VI was central to his literary experience. The selection begins with a literal translation of the golden bough episode that had first appeared in Seeing Things. Close to its end is the sequence ‘Route 110’, which draws artfully wry parallels between Heaney’s own life and the events of Aeneid VI. The parallels begin with the young poet buying a copy of the poem at a secondhand bookshop from a sibylline bookseller. The book itself then becomes a golden bough that can guide the poet and draw him home. The Elysian fields are reimagined as ‘Not unlike a sports day in Bellaghy’, and Aeneas’ mutilated friend Deiphobus becomes ‘Mr Lavery, blown up in his own pub’. In the final poem in the sequence the birth of Heaney’s granddaughter becomes a domestic substitute for the rebirth of souls after they have supped on Lethe. A poetic birth, and an Irish birth, replaces Virgil’s catalogue of Roman heroes. ‘Route 110’ first appeared in Human Chain (2010), as did ‘The Riverbank Field’, which works a very similar kind of domestication on Aeneid VI. The passage describing the souls being bathed in Lethe is translated and transposed from the underworld to Moyola in County Londonderry:
Ask me to translate what Loeb gives as
‘In a retired vale … a sequestered grove’
And I’ll confound the Lethe in Moyola …
Moths then on evening water
It would have to be, not bees in sunlight,
Midge veils instead of lily beds; but stet
To all the rest.
‘The Riverbank Field’ exploits the wider tendency among 20th-century poets to recuperate epic in the register of the humdrum, a tendency Heaney once neatly characterised by saying, ‘if Philip Larkin had ever composed his version of The Divine Comedy he would probably have discovered himself not in a dark wood but a railway tunnel halfway on a journey down England.’ That domestication of epic, in which allusions to heroic fictions at once give sanction to and emphasise the small scale of an individual life, was vital for Heaney’s later work. It enabled what might be called postcolonial parallax, in which a master text of a dominant civilisation is deliberately transformed from the ostentatiously low perspective of an unheroic life. Midges replace bees, the birth of a granddaughter replaces a series of Roman heroes. That translation of epic into the details of an Irish life allowed Heaney to have it both ways: to be modest and midgily Irish, while also reminding his readers that Virgil lay weightily beneath the Nobel Laureate’s descriptions of his own experiences. Heaney owed that ‘mythic method’ of course substantially to Joyce, who, he suggests in the final essay in The Redress of Poetry, sought ‘to marginalise the imperium which had marginalised him by replacing the Anglocentric Protestant tradition with a newly forged apparatus of Homeric correspondences, Dantesque scholasticism and a more or less Mediterranean, European, classically endorsed worldview’. Joyce, who offers the final word to Heaney in ‘Station Island’ (‘You’ve listened long enough. Now strike your note’), enabled Heaney to use Virgil in two ways: as a bridge to a wider tradition of Western verse, and as a means of rejoicing in the particularity of his Irishness.
The fact that Heaney’s last published poem should be a translation of Aeneid VI therefore feels almost premeditatedly right. The shadow of that work had always been there, wavering and bending with each light cast on the poet by the world outside, and growing to a substantial presence in his last selection of verse. Finally it is identified with his substance, as though the ur-text for Dante and for T.S. Eliot becomes Heaney’s end text. This is certainly the story Heaney himself wanted to present. His introduction to the translation elides the space between his childhood and his old age in order to make Aeneid VI appear to be the constant theme of his life. He thanks his Latin teacher, Father McGlinchey, for encouraging him to read Book VI by ‘forever sighing’ over the A Level set book being Aeneid IX rather than Aeneid VI, and then goes on to describe the ‘mythic method’ of alluding to Aeneid VI that he used in ‘Route 110’. The translation will no doubt come to be seen as a climactic marker of Heaney’s Virgilian and laureate status, but there is a cost to regarding it in this way. Heaney’s later domesticated responses to the Aeneid are far more controlled and less emotionally interesting than his earlier and more conflicted treatments of the poem, and this translation, the conscious product of a grand old man of Irish letters, is a little too self-consciously an attempt to unite a diverse and often improvisatory literary career.
But it is a beautiful piece of work, partly, perhaps, because in it Heaney takes for granted his earlier, more conflicted responses, rather than directly imposing them on the poem. The guilt of a survivor, of a hero who can slip between the worlds of darkness and light and leave his dead friends behind, of a mortal who tries to embrace his dead father three times and fails, the uneasy allure of imperial futures, the uncomfortable co-option of the power of a poet of empire to a landscape that had been the victim of empire – Heaney had already been through these responses to the Aeneid before he wrote this translation, and they leave only faint traces on it. There are occasional echoes of wider literary or political histories. So when Aeneas says ‘O Sybil, no new/Test can dismay me, for I have foreseen/And foresuffered all’ he provides a reminder that Virgil was entangled with Dante and T.S. Eliot in Heaney’s earlier writing by that unmissable echo of Eliot’s ‘And I Tiresias have foresuffered all/Enacted on this same divan or bed;/I who have sat by Thebes below the wall/And walked among the lowest of the dead.’ There is also a ghostly acknowledgment of Heaney’s earlier associations between the underworld and the Troubles, when the mutilated Deiphobus asks Aeneas ‘What destiny hounds you/Down to these sunless, poor abodes, this land/Of troubles?’
Heaney describes the translation with false modesty as ‘neither a “version” nor a crib: it is more like classics homework’. That description very deliberately does it injustice. It is a version of determined verbal richness, and it is particularly strong where Virgil allows Heaney to entangle Yeatsian sensuous artistry into organic forms:
Hid in the thick of a tree is a golden bough,
Gold to the tips of its leaves and the base o its stem,
Sacred (tradition declares) to the queen of that place.
It is ‘a tree that was two trees/In one, green-leafed yet refulgent with gold’, in which the bough has berries and bole entangled in a positively Yeatsian fusion: ‘Gripping its tree but not grafted, always in leaf,/Its yellowy berries in sprays curled round the bole’. And when trees are split by the Trojans in order to construct a funeral pyre we’re treated to the full Heaneyesque of thunking phonic labour:
Holm oaks echo the crack of their axes, spruce trees
Get felled, they hammer in wedges, split open
Beams of the ash and the tougher cross-grain of oak.
The great energy of these lines is enough to make you forget that as a translation it is not quite right. Virgil describes the oak as ‘fissile’, splittable, relatively weak when those purposeful imperial axes hit it; Heaney has to build additional resistance into the labour with the ‘tougher cross-grain of oak’ because for him making and building have to be hard. That is typical of this translation. Virgil was a master at using a very simple verb or noun in ways that were entirely unsimple in effect. Heaney always ups the verbal voltage at these moments. So the shade of Deiphobus, whose form ‘mutilated in every part, his face/In shreds’ Aeneas encounters on the fields of the warriors, and who had married Helen after the death of Paris, describes his wounds as ‘love bites she left me in remembrance/Of that last night’. This elaborates the dry statement by Virgil’s Deiphobus that ‘she left me these monuments (or reminders)’ (‘illa haec monumenta reliquit’). Heaney’s Palinurus, left drowned on the shore and so condemned to remain on the wrong side of the Styx, says ‘now surf keeps me dandled,/The shore winds loll me and roll me.’ Virgil’s language here – literally ‘now the wave has me and the winds turn me on the shore’ (‘nunc me fluctus habet versantque in litore venti’) – is flagged much too overtly as simple and childlike by the metaphors of ‘dandled’ and ‘loll’ and ‘roll’.
Most of these heightenings are pleasurable reminders that we are reading a work by a poet and not just a workaday translation by a hack. But cumulatively they work a sea change on Virgil’s style. They make him sound not just like Heaney – artfully imaged, engrained in the thick textures of the natural world – but also like Virgil’s more graphic epic successors Statius and Lucan, who used a heightened intensity of style to distinguish their works from the vocabulary and manner of their master. Statius and Lucan had an immense influence on Dante, who had in turn a powerful influence on Heaney and on his view of Virgil. This line of transmission results in a translation of Virgil in which the techniques of his successors are read back into the source. A wound will always bring on a flourish: ‘Application of the lash, the fling and scringe and drag/Of iron chains’. An opportunity for an aural effect will never be foregone: ‘Next comes a grinding scrunch and screech/Of hinges as the dread doors open.’
This thickening of the linguistic texture can become almost literally a drag on the action. Anchises sees his son ‘come wading through the grass’ of the Elysian fields, as though the keeper of the Elysian lawnmower had left it slumbering for too long in its pavilion. What Virgil wrote was only that Anchises ‘saw him coming towards him through the grass’ (‘tendentem adversum per gramina vidit’). Heaney cannot resist bringing adverse resistance to the word ‘adversum’. There are slightly too many of these thickenings of texture, which are designed to give Virgil an organic richness and depth but sometimes seem like Heaney trademarks stamped over the face of the original.
The real quality of the translation lies in less conspicuous areas. Line lengths vary around the twelve syllable mark, and usually each line contains five main stresses; but every so often Heaney introduces a straight pentameter line. Often these deliberately reverberate with the energy of Milton or of Dryden. So the spirits of the Greeks retreat when they see Aeneas ‘advance in dazzling armour through the gloom’. Generally Heaney reserves regular pentameters to mark heroic violence, as in the description of Salmoneus’ punishment for mimicking Jove – ‘and blasted Salmoneus headlong down’ – which has a distant flavour of Milton (‘him the Almighty Power/Hurld headlong flaming from th’ Ethereal Skie’). Those metrical effects indirectly carry us back to the edgier Virgil of Heaney’s earlier writing, in which the Aeneid was used both to situate Heaney within the English poetic tradition and to push the centre of that poetic tradition in a new direction. This is because very often these ‘heroic’ lines are used to evoke a rugged force which is at odds with the dreamlike marvels of the book as a whole. They seem to embody a very English poetic idiom that does not quite belong within such a sensuous and magical version of the Aeneid – one that often seems to have sailed off with Yeats towards Byzantium. A slip in rhythmic gears can evoke the mismatch between the heavy old world of heroism and the spirits of the underworld. So, when Aeneas tries to embrace Anchises, two pentameter lines are used to describe his corporeal hugging. These are followed by a sudden rhythmic collapse as the solid body turns to air:
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.
At that moment the old idiom of English heroic verse seems to be melting in the face of wonder.
‘By the time the story reaches its climax in Anchises’ vision of a glorious Roman race who will issue from Aeneas’ marriage with Lavinia,’ Heaney writes in his introduction, ‘the translator is likely to have moved from inspiration to grim determination.’ The prophecy of Roman heroes at the end of Book VI was always at odds with Heaney’s deliberately off-centre and counter-imperial view of the Aeneid. In ‘Route 110’ he had attempted to substitute for it a celebration of the birth of his granddaughter, ‘a thank-offering for one/Whose long wait on the shaded bank has ended’. Heaney’s executors note that he continued to tinker with his translation of this final section of Book VI until very late in his life, but despite his labours the visions of Roman imperial heroes seem to vanish like a breeze between his hands. In these final lines it is indeed as though classics homework is being diligently performed, in which Heaney can’t bring himself to energise Anchises’ advice to his imperial son:
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.
There may be anti-imperial anti-artistry here, and perhaps ‘to you will fall the exercise of power’ and ‘justify your sway’ are designed to make it sound as though the Roman Empire was acquired in a fit of absent-mindedness and could only be defended by spin-doctors. But this final section of the book is marred by plain weariness and lack of sympathy for its visionary content.
Listen to Seamus Perry and Mark Ford discuss Seamus Heaney in their Close Readings series on the LRB Podcast.