Faber’s publication of Heaney’s translation of Book VI of the Aeneid pays testament to the enduring poetic prowess of its translator. His posthumous connection with Virgil seems particularly apt for a writer whose poetry has been defined by tradition, mythology and politics. One of the most far-reaching and influential poets of the 20th Century, Heaney’s work is popular amongst scholars and hobbyists alike. According to the BBC, in the United Kingdom in 2007, Heaney’s poetry collections made up two thirds of all those written by a living poet. Who better, then, to write a translation of Virgil—arguably the west’s greatest poetic ancestor? With its roots tangled deep in Augustan politics, its honouring of Homeric tradition and its beauteous reimagining of ancient myth, Book VI of the Aeneid is abundant with the characteristics we have come to appreciate in Heaney’s oeuvre.
Virgil, high brow Roman poet and Augustan advocate (if we are of the optimistic European school of thought), is made accessible through Heaney’s modern translation. Written in verse, Heaney revised his version of Book VI over a period of more than twenty years. A lifelong desire to spend time recreating the famous katabasis of Aeneas characterises Heaney’s introductory note. It serves as a sort of tribute to his 1957 Latin teacher, whose favourite book was VI, and who thus constantly lamented having to teach IX to his A-Level students. And, indeed, Aeneas’ journey into the underworld is a particularly poignant final work for Heaney—and for us—with its detailed depiction of the afterlife and catalogue of heroic successors, the book comes across as a truly lovely final farewell to us from Heaney.
While Heaney’s verse does not quite live up to the seamless flow of David West’s prose translation, his language is rich and evocative and does well to respect the ancient poetry of Virgil. His translation is playful, reminding us through carefully chosen lexis of its roots in Latin. I found myself smiling as I moved through the book’s lines, finding words which brought our ancestral language to life: ‘soporific’, ‘spectral’ somnolently’… the list goes on. In his translator’s note, he himself endearingly describes his version as ‘classics homework’. He most certainly deserves an A+.
Book VI, as Heaney himself points out in our fragment of his postscript, is a tricky one. With its somewhat sycophantic and certainly alienating (for a modern audience) catalogue of Roman heroes, its final verses can be clunky. Likewise, while its regular tangents into myth and aetiology are not uncharacteristic of the Aeneid on the whole, they are particularly frequent in Book VI, which, in Heaney’s translation, can make reading (of course, epic poetry is best read aloud) somewhat halting. Book IV or X may have been a more obvious choice, with their timeless narratives of Dido, then Pallas and Turnus, but this makes Heaney’s choice all the more touching. His version of Book VI is a passion project, and gives us insight into the mind of the author and his personal interest in classics, his nostalgia about school and his appreciation of the afterlife depicted by Virgil. We can only count ourselves lucky to have been gifted this posthumous work by one of the greatest poets of all time.
By Lauren Hepburn
Aeneid Book VI by Seamus Heaney, Faber, £14.99