The Heaneid

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Aeneid Book VI: A New Translation
by Seamus Heaney
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 112 pgs., $23

The great Seamus Heaney has left us, and left behind, as his final work, a complete translation of Aeneid 6, published with facing Latin text by FSG earlier this year. As a posthumous work, it’s almost too apt, and proclaims afresh Heaney’s ability to address us from beyond the grave. Anyone hoping for a rewriting or an updating of Virgil, a la Robert Lowell or Christopher Logue, will be disappointed–this is a translation good and proper. Heaney himself is refreshingly (or disingenuously) modest about his aims. In his introductory note he calls the translation “classics homework,” speaks warmly of his high school Latin teacher, Father McGlinchey, and nudges us toward his sequence “Route 110” from 2010’s Human Chain. So it’s a personal project: an homage to a beloved educator; an attempt, as a Grand Old Man of Letters, to bring his literary life full circle; and (as he writes in the note) a thanksgiving for a granddaughter born in 2006. All very touching, and assured (or calculated) to melt even the sternest critical heart. I certainly don’t want to rain on his Parade of Heroes. De mortuis nil nisi bonum!

Well, except that Letters is a long game, and it’s the one he’s playing. Here in the short run there are two or three ways this sort of thing gets received. The first is sheer joy at hearing the beloved voice one more time. “Pitch perfect!” the devotees cry. After all, it sounds good and has obvious virtues, and this is Seamus Heaney fergodsakes, so it must be pitch perfect. Next, the translation-marms have at it–the professor wrinkling his nose at every minor deviation, the poet wondering who’s to blame for a clunky line, the poet-translator telling herself, “I could do better.” Then there’s the one this work really deserves–sustained consideration within the context of the Laureate’s oeuvre. That is, not to ask, “Is it good?” or “Is it Virgil?” but “What was he up to?” and “How is it working?”

Me, I’m a casual fan of Famous Seamus, but an inveterate idolator of Virgil. So I, alas, have to hold my nose and play translation marm. Ask me: Is it good? Sure! Is it great? Who knows! Is it Virgil? … Err, sort of? Is it definitive? No way! (No such thing.) It interests us as a meeting of two illustrious poetic minds in a sustained conversation, each reflecting and throwing light onto the other. That makes it a valuable addition both to Heaney’s oeuvre and to the distinguished translations of Virgil we have in English.

Let’s look at a passage. The Golden Bough is among the most famous symbols in literature, but we won’t let it hide behind its notoriety. Here’s the Sibyl describing the bough to Aeneas in Heaney’s translation:

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 pathless Shadowy valleys. No one is ever allowed Down to earth’s hidden places unless he has first Plucked this sprout of fledged gold from its tree And handed it over to fair Proserpina To whom it belongs, by decree, her own special gift. And when it is plucked, a second one grows every time In its place golden again, emanating That same sheen and shimmer. Therefore look up And search deep, and as soon as you find it Take hold of it boldly and duly. If fate has called you, The bough will come away in your hand. Otherwise, no strength you muster will break it, Nor the hardest forged blade lop it off.

“Look up / And search deep,” Heaney’s Sybil says, rendering both meanings of the Latin adverb alte. Heart mysteries here. The Aeneid is a book of doublenesses, of arms and the man, Iliad and Odyssey in one. In Book 4, Aeneas is compared to a tree whose roots descend into the underworld so that its crown can reach the sky; in Book 6 the epic justifies the simile. If the whole poem is a great basilica, Book 6 is the sanctum sanctorum, the labyrinthine basement going down and down towards some Orphic promise, some deep alchemical center where living and dead interpenetrate, the future is present, fully-formed, inside the past, and the past will be born again from the future. It’s a mise-en-abyme, a grandly cyclical feedback loop, and it demands its own symbol as entry fee: the Golden Bough, the dead metal leafing from the living branch.

No secret why all this appeals to Seamus Heaney–it’s exciting as hell!–though as it turns out he’s more drawn to one side of the symbolic coin. Wherever he can get his hands dirty with the earthy, organic elements of Virgil’s book, Antaeus-like he thrives; but in the skiey, rhetorical, visionary parts, he’s less at home. His roots go down better than his crown goes up. Consider the passage above. Elsewhere Heaney contrasts Latinate with Anglo-Saxon diction to suggest the dual nature of the Bough. Aeneas prays, “Lead on to the grove where that opulent bough / Overshadows the rich forest floor.” Two different types of richness, two different types of diction. Virgil is forever juxtaposing organic and metallic words to describe the Bough: auricomos fetus, he says, “gold-leaved sapling,” and simili frondescit virga metallo, “the branch leafs with the self-same metal.” Heaney’s passage is fluent and reads well, but tends too much toward the Anglo-Saxon and organic. The strangeness of the Latin Virgil uses to describe the Bough resists his versioning.

But that’s a small objection to a big work. Obviously Heaney brings formidable strengths to his Aeneid, chief among them aural richness and verbal range. (It hardly matters that the latter isn’t an especially Virgilian virtue; in translation, you make up ground wherever you can.) There are rich sounds throughout, but I’ll only point to a couple. Take this description of tree-felling for the burial of Aeneas’ comrade Misenus:

Holm oaks echo the crack of their axes, spruce trees Get felled, they hammer in wedges, split open Beams of the ash and the tougher cross-grain of oak. Big rowan trees crash and roll from the hilltop down.

Pure Heaney, this; it’s the sort of thing you would expect him to hit out of the park, and he gleefully obliges. He’s also great with the torments of Hell, “the savage / Application of the lash, the fling and scringe and drag / Of iron chains;” and, a little further on, the Fury Tisiphone’s “whiplash / lapped and lithe.” If there’s any single phrase this translation has lodged ineluctably in my head, it’s “fling and scringe and drag,” not least because “scringe” was new to me–what a word!

Heaney uses the instrument of English to play a wider range of notes than Virgil has at his disposal. Anglo-Saxonisms (one could say Heaneyisms) abound: “scaresome cavern,” “outlander groom,” Charon’s “unclean white shag” of a beard, “slithery” mud, “slobbered corpses.” In the encounter with Cerberus, the Sybil sees the dog’s “snake-hackles” rise and flings “a dumpling of soporific honey,” at which the “hellmouth watchdog” yawns with “ravenous triple maw” and “snaffles the sop.” For each occasional misstep–leaves that “go frolicking off” (for ludibria, playthings of the wind) and “arms that hankered for the farther shore” (“hankered” seems too casual for the sonorous ripae ulterioris amore)–there are real triumphs. I love the “payout of thread” that guided Theseus, the “hard-wrought poor” of the upper world, the “mighty waterways” of the lower, and “the sluggish drag of the body” (for tarda corpora, merely “slow” or “sluggish bodies” in Latin).

In meter and lineation, on the other hand, Heaney seems relatively unschooled by the Virgilian bello stilo from which Dante learned so much. Metrically, Heaney’s lines tend to vary from between four to seven beats. No doubt he’s trying for a loose equivalent to Virgil’s hexameters, which range from thirteen to seventeen syllables–except that where Virgil is chiseled and lapidary, Heaney’s rhythms feel opportunistic, improvisational. In addition, I’m not convinced that Heaney is hearing Virgil’s lines as lines, maybe because when he’s translating he’s hunting for the main verb, as he explains in his note. It’s surprising how often, if Virgil’s line is self-contained and aphoristic, Heaney enjambs; or, if Virgil enjambs significantly, Heaney end-stops. Unlike Virgil, Heaney is always ending sections in the middle of lines. The book’s most famous aphoristic one-liner (tu regere imperio populos, Romane, memento), Heaney gives in three lines of English, none especially snappy: “But you, Roman, / Remember: to you will fall the exercise of power / Over the nations.” More significantly, when Aeneas breaks the Bough, Heaney smoothes over Virgil’s surprising enjambment:

corripit Aeneas extemplo avidusque refringit cunctantem, et vatis portat sub tecta Sibyllae.

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.

The classicist R.A.B. Brooks says that Virgil “has no intention of fulfilling the comfortable expectations which he himself creates,” and this is a prime example. The shock falls strongly on cunctantem, “resisting;” Milton would have known what to do (“Thus they relate, / Erring”), but Heaney’s offering (“And although it resisted”) is weak beer, too smooth to jar. In general, Heaney’s rhythms are well-calibrated and his lines plausible enough, but I’m not persuaded his ear is as tuned to Virgil’s characteristic effects as to his own.

It comes down to this: as translator, Heaney is good at the earthy and atmospheric, not so good at the aureate and sublime. Or: Heaney is good at intensities, especially of sound and diction, both in catching Virgil’s and adding new ones, but less good at picking up on Virgil’s orchestral arrangements, whether on the line level, or in the book as a whole. These two points come to nearly the same thing, since the tones Virgil strikes–earthy and elevated, melancholy and triumphant–are notes in the score, most meaningful in contrast to each other. The Golden Bough is the symbol of their coherence. Heaney loves the symbol, but only resonates with half of it.

Take this atmospheric passage, describing the volcanic Lake Avernus:

There was a cave, A deep rough-walled cleft, stone jaws agape Above a dark lake, with the lake and a grove For protection and shelter. No creature of air Could wing its way safely over that water, Such were the noxious fumes spewing up From the murky chasm into the vault of the heavens.

This is what Heaney does best: in Virgil the passage is a sort of throwaway, just part of the structure; but Heaney has sharpened the image and used rhythm and repetition to make it lyrically haunting. Now take this other passage, where Anchises points out Romulus in the crowd of shades by Lethe:

Do you see how the twin plumes wave above his head, How the Father of the gods has marked him out With his own insignia for singular majesty? Once he inaugurates the power of Rome, She in her glory will push an empire’s bounds To the ends of earth and harbour aspirations High as heaven.

Heaney uses a much more Latinate vocabulary as he tries to elevate and distinguish Anchises’ rhetoric, but it wants the thrill of elevation to come off. This speech in particular misses the energy of sterner metrical discipline and greater compression–Heaney’s method throughout is to expand on the Latin, which works well when he’s feeling it, not when he’s not.

Which, he admits in his translator’s note, is pretty much for Anchises’ whole speech:

By the time the story reaches its climax in Anchises’ vision of a glorious Roman race who will issue from Aeneas’ marriage with Lavinia, the translator is likely to have moved from inspiration to grim determination: the roll call of generals and imperial heroes, the allusions to variously famous or obscure historical victories and defeats, make this part of the poem something of a test for reader and translator alike.

This is fair enough–there’s certainly no way a modern reader could respond to the Decii and the Drusi, or Serranus sowing his furrowed fields, with the same spine-shiver as a Marcus Agrippa deep in his cups–but there’s also a deeper lack of sympathy that does affect the translation. In an unpublished fragment quoted by his editors, Heaney calls Aeneid 6 “the best of books and the worst of books.” Best because of “the twilit fetch of its language,” worst “because of its imperial certitude.” I have my doubts about that imperial certitude, and suspect that Virgil himself may have felt an ambivalence toward Augustus and his imperial project not unlike Heaney’s ambivalence toward Virgil.

For the middle two decades of his life, Virgil saw nothing but civil war. Americans may think that we invented the “Lesser of Two Evils” political conundrum, but I wonder if Virgil made a similarly disillusioned choice when he took Augustus’ side and chose peace over Republican freedom. Similarly, no one can say for sure how Virgil felt about the idealized nuggets of Romanitas in the great prophetic passages, in Books 1, 6, and 8 (prophetic to Aeneas, historical or pseudo-historical to his readers), but my guess is that he thought of them as educated Americans think of George Washington and the cherry tree, or those happy Pilgrims and Natives at Thanksgiving. What is clear is that it’s only in prophecies that Virgil puts the Imperial Horn Section in charge of the rhetorical orchestra, that no sooner do the horns leave off than dissonant notes creep in, the more powerful for the contrast, and that the present of the poem, as felt by Aeneas in his tragic journey from war to vagabondage to civil war, is a far cry from the clarity and splendor of prophecy. Whether the Virgilian Brass is genuinely patriotic and imperialistic, as Heaney thinks, or a product of post-lapsarian longing for an obviously unattainable Golden Age, as I think–for bankrupt ideals that must be clung to despite their tragic unreality–the high triumphal peals are needed as foil for the signature note to follow; which, in Book 6, is the basso profundo of mourning, the lament for Augustus’ nephew, Marcellus.

So much to show why an Aeneid which is earthy but not airy, which catches episodic intensities while missing the orchestration of the whole, is only half an Aeneid. Such a version is no golden bough, but it is a green one–of holm oak or spruce, ash or tough, cross-grained oak or big rowan tree–and a beautiful offering to the souls of the dead, and the living who remain, and the shadows of the future, still biding their time by Lethe. Yes yes, and as I said at the start, the quest for definitive translations is a mug’s game. That this one is hardly definitive does not diminish its virtues. For a fan of Virgil it will fill an enjoyable afternoon or many; for a Heaney afficionado, or anyone who loves musical, muscular English, it is a rich bequest.