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Aloof epic: “Lake Avernus: Aeneas and the Cumaean Sibyl”, c.1814-15, by J.M.W. Turner

The late Seamus Heaney’s translation of Aeneid VI is a haunting gift from beyond the grave, a typescript marked “final” brought to light, like the souls of the Underworld whose “mad desire/To get back to the light” is finally heeded. Heaney started work on it 30 years ago following the death of his father, and in a sense his translation was his katabasis, his descent to the Elysian Fields for one final meeting with his father’s spirit.

It’s often said that Book VI offers a cure to nostalgia. Aeneas’s Underworld encounters with the shades of his loved ones bring more pain than resolution, while the procession of august Romans who are yet to be brings hope. In Book VI lies affirmation of the life quest, though Heaney reserves his pathos for Aeneas in his tearful moments of self-sacrifice: his final address to Dido, the lover he left, who “showed no sign of having heard, no more/Than if her features had been carved in flint/Or Parian marble”; his too-short encounter with Deiphobus, the mutilated son of Priam, his “face in shreds”; his failed attempts to embrace his father’s ghost — “Three times he tried.” Heaney’s description of the procession of future Romans is suitably more official, almost corporate: “this clan”, “Marcellus, head and shoulders above the rest”, “What presence he has.”

The publication of a classical text in translation — one twelfth of one at that — may be a rare thing, but the choice of poem could hardly be more traditional. It has been more than 80 years since Theodor Haecker named Virgil “Father of the West”, but this new translation does much to perpetuate that status. Its lexis is so contemporary that one finds oneself questioning what Virgil’s role in Western civilisation is today, not least because it was the compatibility between the English language and Virgil’s verse that informed Haecker’s view.

Writing in 1934, the German critic wondered whether the reason that English translates Virgil so well is that “no Englishman, just as no Roman, with the one exception of Catiline, was ever cynical towards the res publica, and because, moreover, England is an empire?” In his sorrow for the fall of the Holy Roman Empire and rise of German cynicism towards the state Haecker was prone to exaggerate, but he was not wrong to say that Virgil’s popularity has owed much historically to the pride of imperialists. In 2016, however, the cynicism is ours; imperialism has become distasteful. We consider ourselves so far above the Augustan propaganda of Book VI with its promises of a new Saturnalian Age that we are only comfortable when laughing it off. We seek from Virgil something more than the explication of an empire that will never be surpassed.

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