Aeneid Book VI by Seamus Heaney review – a pitch-perfect translation

Seamus Heaney’s rendering of Virgil brings the ancient world to life with plain language and striking juxtapositions

Seamus Heaney and Virgil go back a long way. In his poem Route 110, from Human Chain (2010), Heaney reminisces about being in an Irish bookshop where a woman sells his younger self a “used copy of Aeneid VI” in a “deckle-edged brown paper bag”. In the foreword to his own posthumously published translation of Book VI, he explains – joking and serious – that his Latin master cherished Book VI and that he now feels he is doing his Latin homework partly in homage to the late Father Michael McGlinchey of St Columb’s College. He also wryly explains that now, no longer a schoolboy, he is burdened by approaching his task as a poet. A burden for him, a blessing for us: every page is a testament to the poet Heaney was.

There are two things this book requires. First, it is best read aloud – it comes thrillingly to life – it sounds tremendous. Second, it repays close reading. Studying it is to listen in on a poet with perfect pitch. Getting the diction right – so that the ancient is neither modern nor archaic – is the challenge. And Heaney shows that plain words are stormproofed. It is about more than George Orwell’s tired prescription: “Never use a long word where a short one will do.” It is about how plain language, like plain speaking, has integrity. And it is weight-bearing. It carries. When he introduces uncommon, eye-catching (sometimes longer) words – scaresome, asperging, hotbloods – they stand out but work harder against their plain backgrounds. Take the sighting of the golden bough. The word “refulgent” is strikingly charged, surrounded by “clear”, “green-leafed” and “cold”. Refulgent breaks Orwell’s rule and stands out like the golden branch itself. Or consider the description of Aeneas’s father, Anchises: “A man in old age, worn out, not meant for duress.” “Duress” is the pleasing surprise here (so much better than everyday “hardship”) seizing attention while “old age” and “worn out” do their unobtrusive work.

When Aeneas meets Anchises in the land of the dead, earthly duress has been replaced by the administrative duties of the afterlife. He is “Fatherly and intent” and hard at work: “Surveying and reviewing souls consigned there.” There is so much negotiation in Virgil, so much red tape involved in getting into the underworld and it continues once there – praying to gods equivalent to form-filling. Charon is the ultimate obstructive adjudicator. In Heaney’s words, he is unprepossessing (“His chin is bearded with unclean white shag”), an old tramp with a terrible old boat, a “rusted craft”.

It is moving – in a painfully obvious way – to picture Heaney translating this, thinking about Virgil’s words, before his own death. It is a book about the impossibility of which we all dream – a reunion with people loved and lost. Describing the meeting between Aeneas and his father, he is careful to ensure nothing distracts from the moment of their embrace, until the heart-rending resolution: “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.”

He is undeceived about the difficulty of translating the heroic roll call that concludes the book: “The translator is likely to have moved from inspiration to grim determination,” he admits. Throughout, there is crowd control involved in the translation (“Here a hovering multitude, innumerable/ Nations and gathered clans”). But he never loses himself. We are reminded (as Father Michael McGlinchey would have agreed) that Seamus Heaney’s place is at the top of the class.


Then when they came to the fuming gorge at Avernus
They swept up through clear air and back down
To their chosen perch, a tree that was two trees
In one, green-leafed yet refulgent with gold.
Like mistletoe shining in cold winter woods,
Gripping its tree but not grafted, always in leaf,
Its yellowy berries in sprays curled round the bole –
Those flickering gold tendrils lit up the dark
Overhang of the oak and chimed in the breeze.
There and then Aeneas took hold of the bough
And although it resisted greedily tore it off,
Then carried it back to the Sibyl’s cavern.

Aeneid Book VI is this week’s Book of the Week on Radio 4, read by Ian McKellen. The book is published by Faber (£14.99). Click here to order a copy for £11.99


Kate Kellaway

The GuardianTramp

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