Heaney’s Virgil Is Our Virgil

The posthumous publication of Aeneid VI is a katabasis for Heaney's father

Daisy Dunn

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.

We find it, perhaps, in Aeneas’s virtues, which are under particular scrutiny in Book VI as the good souls line up in anticipation of reincarnation, “the roll of my descendants”. The hero’s intense familial piety and humility were what enabled Haecker to understand the possibility of Christianity in a pagan world. Dante, Spenser and Milton all took their cue from Virgil. Aeneas’s selflessness and sense of purpose appealed particularly to T.S. Eliot, who spoke wistfully in a 1944 address to the Virgil Society of the epic’s “central European values”, and the threat which the Second World War posed to them.

As he watched the “progressive mutilation and disfigurement” of Europe, Eliot came to see Virgil as a unifying figure: “As Aeneas is to Rome, so ancient Rome is to Europe.” For Eliot, as for Heaney, Virgil was an anchor with the past that could not be obliterated. Virgil’s epic was important because it was fruitful and authoritative evidence that “Europe is a whole”. Europe could be broken, but its literature would still hold it together, since it leaked from the common fount of Greece and Rome that found the most perfect unity in the Aeneid. As such, the Aeneid gave us what Eliot called “our standard of the classic”.

The Aeneid is unlikely to be invoked by the Remain campaign this summer (though it wouldn’t be their most desperate argument, I’m sure), and its status as a classic today must depend upon less idealistic arguments, such as its absorption of earlier cultures and its stylistic conservatism.

The hexameters and epithets which endow it with the majesty of the Homeric epics are, nonetheless, the very things which modern translators struggle to emulate. Heaney’s translation has the weight but not the tightness of the original, often spilling one line of Latin (a far more economical language than English) into three of English; Latinists may be frustrated, but Heaney had no intention of making a crib.

His translation conveys an awareness and respect of the Aeneid’s status as a classic, but also of the troubling passages which put the book at risk of being rejected as outmoded. He echoes the strange aloofness of epic direct speech (“Wherefore have pity, O most gracious one” the Sibyl of Cumae bids Aeneas), and juxtaposes it with striking informalities, which place this Aeneid firmly in the present. Some of these are more successful than others. “Band of young hotbloods” is a lively rendering of iuvenum manus . . . ardens (“blazing band of young men”), but when Aeneas bids the Sibyl “not to inscribe/Your visions in verse on the leaves/In case they go frolicking off/In the wind”, the more traditional “flutter” might have been better. While “go frolicking off” captures the mockery the wind could make of the priestess’s visions, it also animalises the leaves, which owe their power to the Sibyl and divine Apollo.

Heaney’s Aeneid VI, however, ought to be read aloud rather than picked over like the “classics homework” he imagined. Translation is a subjective art, but Heaney rose to the translator’s challenge of maintaining a 360-degree view of his verse while playing with the minutiae. His Virgil is our Virgil: much assailed but still talking, a shape-shifting Father of the West.

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