New Seamus Heaney translation to be published next year

Nobel laureate began work on a version of the Aeneid’s Book VI, which describes the hero’s journey to the underworld, after the death of his own father in 1986

Seamus Heaney’s translation of the Aeneid’s Book VI – a version of Aeneas’s journey to the underworld which the Nobel laureate began after the death of his own father in 1986 – is due to be published next year, according to the poet’s family.

Heaney died in August 2013, aged 74, leaving behind him acclaimed poetry collections from District and Circle to Human Chain, and translations of works including Beowulf and The Testament of Cresseid. His family and his UK publisher Faber & Faber revealed this morning that the surprise new work will surface in March 2016.

Heaney’s daughter Catherine Heaney said the text was “a touchstone” for her father, “and one to which he would return time and time again throughout his life”.

In his last collection of poems, 2010’s Human Chain, Heaney describes his encounter with Virgil’s text after finding a secondhand copy of the Aeneid in Belfast. Writing in the Guardian, Colm Tóibín called Route 110, the “most ambitious poem in the book”, and “ingenious and moving”.

The book sees Virgil tell of Aeneas’s journey to the underworld. The hero meets a sibyl, who tells him he must find the fabled “golden bough” before Charon will ferry him across the river Styx to meet his father. In a fragment of Heaney’s translation published in 2009, the sibyl warns of “wars, / Atrocious wars, and the Tiber surging with blood”, but tells the hero to persevere:

But whatever disasters befall, do not flinch.
Go all the bolder to face them, follow your fate
To the limit ...

According to Charlotte Higgins, the Guardian’s chief culture writer and author of three books about the ancient world, Book VI is filled with a “plangent tone”.

“It is about lost chances, failed love and grief,” Higgins explained, “set among gloomy groves, shadowed valleys and Stygian wastes.”

In a 2008 interview with Dennis O’Driscoll, Heaney said that Aeneas’s venture into the underworld had been a “constant presence” for him.

“The motifs of Book VI have been in my head for years – the golden bough, Charon’s barge, the quest to meet the shade of the father,” said Heaney, who won the Nobel prize for literature in 1995, cited for his “works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past”.

Catherine Heaney said that her father’s translation of Book VI was “the result of work and revisions carried out by him over many years – from the 1980s to the month before his death – and the decision to publish it was one our family took after long and careful consideration”.

“However, given its theme of Aeneas’s search for his father in the afterlife, it would be hard to think of a more poignant way for us to mark the end of our father’s own poetic journey,” she said.

Faber said that Heaney began “focusing with systematic concentration upon the task of completing a translation” of the book when he became a grandfather in 2007, telling O’Driscoll: “I like that book of the Aeneid so much I’m inclined to translate it as a separate unit.”

Poetry editor Matthew Hollis said the publisher was proceeding with publication of the translation with “deep respect and care ... respect, because a posthumous publication requires it; care, because, at his death, the author was still in a period of reflection. But the typescript that he left behind had, in the view of his editor and his family, reached a level of completion that suggested it would not be inappropriate to share with a wider readership.”

Hollis added: “It seems almost miraculous that it is possible to publish a substantial new work by Seamus Heaney now, as if, even after his passing, he were capable of offering his readers a gift. That the gift should be Book VI of the Aeneid only adds to the potency of his remarkable translation.”

The book will be published in the US by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, with a limited-edition run featuring art by Jan Hendrix due from the Bonnefant Press of Banholt.


Alison Flood

The GuardianTramp

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