Just as Heaney’s readers thought that the outlines of his achievement had begun to settle into posterity, the poet delivered an unexpected, magnificent gift in the form of a translation of Book VI of Virgil’s Aeneid. Shortly before his death in August 2013, he had completed a fair copy of the text, written in honor of his early Latin teacher at St Columb’s in Derry, Father Michael McGlinchey. Its posthumous appearance now seems even necessary, not accidental, given that Book VI relates Aeneas’s journey to the Underworld, where he meets the shades of the dead, including his father.
Virgil has been a key part of Heaney’s heritage since he studied him for his A-Level examinations, and his last full collection of short poems, Human Chain (2010), contains a Virgilian excursion into his early years, including a beautiful vignette memory of buying a secondhand copy of Aeneid VI in a bookshop in Derry. Hailed in the “Bann Valley Eclogue” as “my hedge-schoolmaster” Virgil is also a major presence in the 2001 collection Electric Light, with its playful translations and reworkings of the pastoral convention. More generally, the figure of Virgil haunts Dante’s otherworldly Divine Comedy, which has been a benchmark reference for Heaney for many years. The book-length engagement with Virgil’s Book of the Dead therefore seems entirely fitting—even marvelous, as the translator himself has now the status of a shade.
Heaney’s work has always been grounded in an Ulster vernacular, as it reaches for Parnassian refinements. But one detects very little local texture of this kind in the idiom: one instance is the word “scaresome,” from “A Personal Helicon,” which puts in a reappearance in line 14. Instead, there is a clean fluidity in the language, without any distractions from the archaic or demotic. The poet has the confidence to rely on an unadorned diction and trust that this plain craft will float on the broad currents of Virgil’s narrative.
The original six-foot classical hexameter relied on dactylic measures, with [End Page 141] stressed alternating with two unstressed syllables (remember Malachi Mulligan in Ulysses, “two dactyls”?). This pattern often translates into English as an anapestic pattern, where the stress comes after the two slacks, as in Yeats’s poem “The White Birds.” Heaney is certainly not trying to program his language into these kind of strictures, but there are subtle visitations of these quantities in the early part of his Aeneid VI, as in these lines, where the Sibyl directs Aeneas about finding the golden bough:
Hid in the thick of a tree is a golden bough,Gold to the tips of its leaves and the base of its stem,Sacred (tradition declares) to the queen of that place.It is safe there, roofed in by forests, in the pathlessShadowy valleys. No one is ever allowedDown to earth’s hidden places unless he has firstPlucked this sprout of fledged gold from its treeAnd handed it over to fair ProsperpinaTo whom it belongs, by decree, her own special gift.
In adopting this expansive line from Virgil, Heaney is closer in his practice to Robert Fagles than he is to Robert Fitzgerald, whom he succeeded as Boylston Professor at Harvard. (Fitzgerald’s Aeneid uses a shorter line loosely based on ten-syllable blank verse, the commonest narrative measure in English.) Because English—unlike Latin—is not an inflected language, a translator may need extra turns of phrase to clarify relations in a sentence; this explains why Heaney, like Fagles, needs more lines than the original, in this case 1,222 to Virgil’s 901. As he says of himself in the introduction, he is an “inner literalist who still hunts for the main verb of a sentence and still, to the best of his ability, disentangles the subordinate clauses.” We can appreciate this challenge where Virgil describes the Fields of Mourning, which Heaney renders as:
On these plains, hidden on shadowy paths,Secluded and embowered in myrtle groves,Are...