Back to the Light: Seamus Heaney’s Virgilian Quest

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

To borrow Aeneas’s words from the underworld, Seamus Heaney’s posthumous Aeneid Book VI comes to us as though from a “mad desire / To get back to the light.” When Heaney died in 2013, he had not quite finished with Virgil, leaving behind a complete but unpublished draft of the book that had stayed with him since late childhood. Throughout his career, he had turned to the motifs of Book Six for extreme occasions: to scrutinize the role of poetry during the Northern Irish Troubles (“Station Island,” 1984), to elegize his father (“The Golden Bough,” Seeing Things, 1991), and to celebrate his granddaughter’s breaking “earthlight” (“Route 110,” Human Chain, 2010). It is tempting, then, to welcome the complete Book Six as the finale of a grand design, an impulse the plot supports in its antique version of manifest destiny: Anchises’ prophecy that his son’s descendants will found the Roman Empire. But this rendition of Book Six is too understated, too distrustful of what Heaney criticized as its “imperial certitude,” to be read as an inevitable culmination of a life and work. Even so, Book Six offers a satisfying contemplation of a much-missed poet’s legacy. Heaney fortifies its familial, homespun qualities and channels its mournful energies into what has become, in retrospect, the nearest thing to a self-elegy that his poetic temperament permitted.

From the start, Book Six’s soundscape is pure Heaney; he tunes the line to his signature frequency of straightforwardness and suggestiveness. “In tears as he speaks, Aeneas loosens out sail” hits almost as exact a note as that masterful “So” beginning his Beowulf translation. The Anglo-Saxon assonance and medial caesura dramatize the barbarous warrior culture of Aeneas’s world, offsetting the heroic Latin of the original. The Trojan conquest, Heaney reminds us at the level of the line, was messy and brutal. Frequent internal rhymes play out the battling Germanic and Latinate influences on English, as in, “Through horizonless surge, a south wind / Hurled me and burled me.” “Hurl” is Germanic while “burl” is Latinate, linking the barbaric and heroic through sound. (Heaney’s early work often used this method to show the entwined English, Irish, and Scottish traditions in Northern Ireland by meditating on the Anglicization of local place names.) The blended lines create a timbre that is at once down to earth and elevated, pitched half a register up towards the heroic and otherworldly.

Book Six also strains upwards structurally, through Aeneas’s emergence from the underworld. The narrative and emotional center of Virgil’s twelve-part work, Book Six feels like a satisfying summary of Heaney’s oeuvre because, put simply, it is the foundational myth of the poetic journey. Virgil’s version of the poet Orpheus’s descent into the underworld, and his ill-fated turn to look back at Eurydice, haunted Heaney’s imagination of lyric poetry. His retrospective honeymoon poem, “The Underground,” reimagines the myth in a London station, recast with a poet too determined to make the oncoming train to turn around, “tensed” like Orpheus’s lyre strings and “all attention / For your step following and damned if I look back.” The gesture of turning is woven into Heaney’s concept of lyric poetry from the beginning: his early poetry’s fusion of the land and the line celebrates that “verses” aligns with the Latin versus, for the turning of a plough at the head of the field. The Orphic turn recurs in his elegies (most memorably, 1979’s “Casualty,” where the motif of turning signals the poet’s tentativeness about elegizing an acquaintance, Louis O’Neill, who was shot dead while breaking an Irish Republican Army curfew). Heaney’s katabasis in “Station Island” (named for the site of St. Patrick’s Purgatory) occasions an extended elegy meditating on the Troubles: the poet confronts shades of recent and historic Irish dead before emerging with renewed faith in his poetic vocation. Heaney’s forebears Thomas Hardy, W.B. Yeats, and T.S. Eliot also undertook journeys to the underworld, descending into a place of darkness to consort with familiar ghosts before returning with psychically sustaining knowledge to the world above.

The story readers tend to tell about Heaney’s career trajectory is similar: his work begins beneath the ground (typified in one of his earliest and most frequently anthologized poems, “Digging”) and moves into the levity of the upper air (recorded in his epitaph taken from his Nobel speech, “Walk on air against your better judgement”). The Cumaean Sybil’s words to Aeneas as he prepares to reunite with his father in the underworld are a précis of this pilgrimage, borrowing language readers will recognize from Heaney’s poetry: “Death’s dark door stands open day and night. / But to retrace your steps and get back to upper air, / That is the task, that is the undertaking.” Evoked here is Heaney’s second book, Door into the Dark (1969), which celebrates unexplored creative territory but also intimates the darkness of the political climate ahead.

On disposition alone, Heaney might not have come to Hardy’s formidable conclusion in “In Tenebris II”: “If way to the better there be, it exacts a full look at the Worst.” But the political subordination of his Irish Catholic community in Northern Ireland, followed by three decades of the bloody sectarian violence of the Troubles, demanded a look at the worst. “What destiny hounds you / Down to these sunless, poor abodes, this land / Of troubles?” asks the shade of Priam’s son when he encounters Aeneas in the underworld. For Aeneas, his moment in history leaves no choice: his personal future and his nation’s future depend on his finding the shade of his father for guidance. Heaney would likewise find a guide in Virgil, whom he encountered at St. Columb’s College in Derry in the decade before the city became the locus of the Northern Irish Civil Rights Movement. The encounter was both grounding (he tells us in the translator’s note that his Latin teacher, Father Michael McGlinchey, “created an inner literalist” in him) and elevating, imbuing the language of his subjugated Irish Catholic background with the authority of the classical world.

During the Troubles, Heaney became the reluctant conscience of Northern Ireland, variously looked to as a voice of reason and censured for perceived failures of his community. In the 1970s and 1980s, Heaney’s poems record the struggle to maintain artistic and personal privacy against public demands. (It is overblown, but perhaps suggestive, to hear an epic-sized version of this predicament in Book Six, as Aeneas pursues his personal quest to see his father while his abandoned companions wait for him to bring news of their national future.) Heaney’s Troubles volume, North (1975), was maligned by Northern Irish critics, in part in response to his decision to leave Northern Ireland for the Republic of Ireland in 1972. Heaney scrutinized this decision in North’s “Exposure,” where he portrays himself as “an inner émigré … / escaped from the massacre.” The state of the “inner émigré” is literalized in the Greek underworld, where Musaeus tells Aeneas, “None of us has one definite home place.” The perpetual wandering of shades impedes Aeneas’s search for his father, a wonderfully rich metaphorical problem about the quest for origins that prove elusive. In a poignant line break, Heaney translates, “Elsewhere Anchises, / Fatherly and intent, was off in a deep green valley.” The isolated phrase “Elsewhere Anchises” evokes W.H. Auden’s “The Fall of Rome” (titled for an event that Aeneas’s conquest of Italy sets into motion), in which his phrase “altogether elsewhere” describes the state of the many postwar writers displaced from home.

Even after Heaney left Northern Ireland, he continued to write about it, often through the prism of translation. Translation and adaptation, particularly from the temporally distant classics, allowed Heaney to address the political situation at an angle. During a visit to Derry in 1995 during the Northern Ireland Peace Process, Bill Clinton quoted from Heaney’s The Cure at Troy: A Version of Sophocles’ Philoctetes:

History says, Don’t hope On this side of the grave, But then, once in a lifetime The longed-for tidal wave Of justice can rise up And hope and history rhyme.

Coming of age as a poet during the Troubles shaped Heaney’s style, sharpening the tact and control necessary in a divisive political climate. (This atmosphere is summarized in North’s fittingly titled poem “Whatever You Say Say Nothing.”) Reluctant like many of his fellow Northern Irish poets to confront the complex violence directly, the restraint of the “well-made poem” appealed to Heaney—an inheritance readers will feel in the formal precision of much of Book Six (in, for instance, the 5-6 beat lines that tug Virgil’s hexameter towards a meter easier on the English ear). Even as he moved somewhat away from the New Critical model through his exposure to various schools of American and Eastern European poetry, Heaney continued to value obliquity and understatement, preferences he also maintained as a translator. In addition to his version of Sophocles, Heaney broached the 1981 hunger strike by translating Ugolino’s starvation passage from the Inferno. After winning the Nobel Prize in 1995, Heaney increasingly responded to crises abroad, addressing international terrorism through the classics: his 9/11 poem “Anything Can Happen” is a version of Horace’s ode i.34, and his Burial at Thebes compares Creon’s exploits to American imperialism under the Bush administration.

The bloodiness of Book Six evokes the intercommunal terrorism of the Troubles and the international terrorism of our current era. As recently as the 1990s, Aeneas’s encounter with Priam’s mutilated son in the underworld would have stirred images of the Irish Republican Army’s “punishment” victims; now, the passage evokes images of recent victims of global terrorism: “his face / In shreds—his face and his two hands— / Ears torn from his head, and his nostrils. (A low dishonourable wounding, this.)”

But Book Six’s focus on blood sacrifice, ritual punishment, and proper burial specifically conjures the travails of twentieth-century Ireland. These motifs recur throughout Heaney’s Troubles poetry, especially his volume North, which created an extended myth for the violence through the intersections of the blood rhetoric of Irish Catholic nationalism, the tit-for-tat revenge killings of the Troubles, and Iron Age sacrificial victims preserved in bogs across Northern Europe. In the controversial poem “Punishment,” for instance, Heaney finds an analogue to the IRA’s shaving and tarring of young Catholic women who fraternized with British soldiers in an Iron Age bog body thought to have been tortured and killed in punishment for adultery. The motif of punishment is rampant in Book Six, often described in anachronistically Catholic terms (as when the Sybil explains the necessity of “exacting / Confession from those self-deceiving souls”). Heaney also draws out the Catholic resonances in Anchises’s recitation of the family lineage in Italy: “And point by point he then outlines the doctrine.” It is typical of Heaney to revisit the Troubles through Virgil, not Dante (who had already filtered Virgil through Christianity), finding a more suitable correlative at two removes.

Losses in the Catholic community are also echoed in Book Six’s fixation on burial rites. The lengthy descriptions of suffering shades who were not given a proper burial fuse two sets of traditions: those of war poetry (specifically, Eliot’s “Burial of the Dead” in The Waste Land, one influence on Heaney’s own mythic method) and those of Catholicism. The Trojans’ mourning of the drowned Misenus seems to blend classical, Catholic, and even pagan Irish ritual:

Some heated

Water in bubbling vats above open fires, washed And anointed the corpse, then raised the lament. Next, when the weeping was over, they laid him out On the ritual couch, his remains swathed in purple, Familiar robes of the dead…

Finally, we see the Trojans “sprinkling / Clean water for purification.” Later, when the Sybil tells Aeneas that “sad news, alas, / Awaits: the body of one of your friends / Lies emptied of life,” Heaney evokes the drowned neighbor recalled in his translator’s note, and metonymically, the many wakes of the Troubles. The Sybil’s “sad news” transports Heaney’s readers back to North’s poem “Funeral Rites,” with its “news… / of each neighborly murder.”

Heaney’s revisiting of his familial and communal dead, as well as his earlier poetry, works well with the retrospective nature of Book Six. Even the future-oriented roll call of Trojan descendants comes from the dead father that Aeneas has spent the book trying to reclaim. And we leave Aeneas where he began Book Six, with the ships anchored at Cumae: the book sets up a future it is not ready to deliver.

The retrospective quality of Book Six reaches its full intensity in the Irish context. The golden bough that grants its holder access to the underworld reappears in Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium.” The “golden bough” where Yeats’s golden form will sing “Of what is past, passing, or to come” has the same basic function as Virgil’s: it reorganizes time so that the present, past, and future cohere. The living can know the dead again; together, they can know the future. (Yeats’s self-elegy also has the flavor of Anchises’ roll call of descendants: “Irish poets, learn your trade, / Sing whatever is well made” is a dying command that Heaney took up but did not repeat for others.)

Heaney’s final work makes it tempting to read his journey as a Virgilian career, beginning with pastoral lyric and ending with epic. His career was not, of course, that simple. At the end of this epic chapter, Heaney lands on one of his favorite images for lyric poetry: “Anchors are cast from the prow; sterns cushion on sand.” The anchor recurs in Heaney’s work as a balance point between the grounded and the marvelous, a communion between the ordinary and the visionary. For instance, “Lightenings viii” (Seeing Things, 1991) tells a story from the medieval Irish annals in which a flying ship catches its dragging anchor on a church altar. A crewman crawls down the bowline to the unknown world below and, aided by earthbound monks, releases the anchor so the ship can sail on. The crewman then climbs back into his flying ship, “out of the marvellous as he had known it.” When a great poet dies, readers yearn for a marvellous finale, like the story we tell about Eliot’s Four Quartets or Yeats’s legacy-shaping self-elegy. Book Six is not that work, but it is an anchor.