The Bough That Does Not Graft

Review: Seamus Heaney, trans., ‘Aeneid Book VI’

Seamus Heaney
Seamus Heaney / Wikimedia Commons
August 7, 2016

What is it about a writer’s final posthumous work that so haunts us? Perhaps because it offers one last glimpse of mastery, or helps unify the writer’s oeuvre, or offers the gift of a parting embrace, we grant such a work special significance. But are we obliged to read such works differently than those that kindled our desire and affection when the writer was living? When the dead speak, should we judge what they say, or simply be grateful that they have spoken?

When Seamus Heaney died in 2013, he left behind a Nobel Prize-winning body of lyric poems, essays, and translations. Readers mourned the loss of his consonant-crusted music, his unflinching self-scrutiny, his evocative landscapes, and his deft handling of the religious and political conflict in Northern Ireland.

Readers also mourned his geniality: by all accounts, Seamus Heaney was a good man, which makes criticizing his final work, a translation of Virgil’s Aeneid Book VI, feel a bit mean-hearted. But the book is not without its flaws, including a tendency to impose the muscular, consonantal style of Heaney’s Beowulf upon Virgil’s decorous and measured language, and an occasional lack of emotional force.

Nor is it without merit: readers who long for Heaney’s particular music will find much to cherish. In the end, one is grateful for this last encounter with Heaney, but saddened that we embrace air, not flesh, just as Aeneas fails to grasp the ghost of his father Anchises: "Three times he tried to reach arms round that neck. / Three times the form, reached for in vain, escaped / Like a breeze between his hands, a dream on wings."

Virgil’s Aeneid recounts the epic journey of Aeneas, a Trojan hero and son of Venus, from the fall of Troy to his conquest of the Rutulian tribes in Latium (Italy), which serves as a foundation myth of the Roman Empire. Aeneid Book VI begins with the Trojans’ landing at Cumae in Latium; follows Aeneas and the Sibyl, a priestess of Apollo, through the underworld, where Aeneas encounters mythical creatures like Cerberus and Charon, as well as ghosts from his life, including his jilted lover Dido, the queen of Carthage, and his father Anchises; and culminates in a roll call of the spirits of Aeneas’s future descendants, who await their birth as the future rulers and heroes of Rome. It is easy to see why, in his translator’s note, Heaney admits that this book had attracted him since high school: a youthful imagination would be charmed by the poem’s resonant mythological imagery, its moving dramatic encounters between Aeneas and the souls of the dead, and its complex cosmology, including a creation story in which we learn that "a nurturing inner spirit / Works to sustain sky, earth, the fields of ocean, / The moon’s bright disc and Titan’s star, the sun."

Fired by that early love, Heaney has wrought many treasures from Aeneid Book VI. Heaney’s blank verse line fits well with the grace we expect from Virgil, and which we hear, for instance, in Aeneas’s petition to Apollo to "Grant what I ask (no more in the end than my fate / Has assigned): home ground for my people / In Latium, refuge for our wandering gods / And all Troy ever held sacred." Heaney’s rural roots enrich the imagery, as when he describes the souls of the dead waiting to cross the river Styx into the underworld:

Continuous as the streaming leaves nipped off
By first frost in the autumn woods, or flocks of birds
Blown inland from the stormy ocean, when the year
Turns cold and drives them to migrate
To countries in the sun.

And Heaney lends genuine warmth to Virgil’s lengthy speeches, most poignantly when the ghost of Anchises greets Aeneas: "At last! Are you here at last? / I always trusted that your sense of right / Would prevail and keep you going to the end. And am I now allowed to see your face, / My son, and hear you talk, and talk to you myself?"

Often, however, Heaney’s poetic style is at odds with Virgil’s. Heaney’s sounds are drawn to alliteration as to a magnet; his diction runs deeply Anglo-Saxon; and his rhythms clump with the stresses of Beowulf. Thus, when he describes the Trojan fleet—"Anchors bite deep, craft are held fast, curved / Sterns cushion on sand, prows frill the beach"— we can’t help but see dragon-prowed longships rather than triremes. And when he describes the Fury Tisiphone, readers might be forgiven for picturing Grendel’s terrifying mother (not Angelina Jolie): "Vengeful Tisiphone keeps bearing down, a whiplash / Lapped and lithe in her right hand, in her left / A flail of writing snakes, scourging the guilty."

This poetic conflict keeps an uneasy truce throughout, and one senses Heaney wants to vent his guttural song, as when we encounter Cerberus "(g)rowling from three gullets, his brute bulk couched / In the cave, facing down all comers." As a translator, Heaney has always been more interpretive performer than rigorous scholar, so while his translations often exhibit the rough beauty of his own poems, they also deny the reader the salient features of the original. For example, Heaney offers a gorgeous description of the golden bough, the magical token that will grant Aeneas access to the underworld:

Like mistletoe shining in cold winter woods,
Gripping its tree but not grafted, always in leaf,
Its yellowy berries in sprays curled round the bole—
Those flickering gold tendrils lit up the dark
Overhand of the oak and chimed in the breeze.

But when the Sibyl first tells Aeneas of the golden bough, she says that it is "Sacred (tradition declares) to the queen of that place," a translation that completely omits Virgil’s subtle allusion to Iunoni infernae or Juno of the underworld, another name for Proserpina and a tacit reminder that the world of the dead follows its own laws.

Heaney’s infidelities are often artistic choices, but they occasionally reveal unease with the poem, especially the final third, when the display of Roman rulers reads like a paean to manifest destiny. As a Catholic who immigrated to the Republic of Ireland to escape the Troubles, Heaney has always borne England’s history of conquest uncomfortably alongside his love of the English language. Thus, he says of Romulus: "Once he inaugurates the power of Rome, / She in her glory will push an empire’s bounds / To the ends of earth and harbor aspirations / High as heaven." In the original, Virgil claims that Rome’s aspirations imperium terris, animos aequabit Olympos, or, if my schoolboy Latin is right, ‘will make earthly dominion equal with the powers of Olympus’; Heaney’s choice of "heaven," however, suggests imperial ambitions are like the tower of Babel, and destined for a corresponding fall.

Ultimately, Aeneid Book VI suffers from being only Book VI. While it is unreasonable to fault Heaney for not having translated the entire poem, some of the dramatic exchanges lack emotional heft without the epic sweep of Aeneas’s life. Certainly a reader may establish context with other translations (an outstanding recent one being Sarah Ruden’s), but Heaney’s voice is so distinct that his Aeneid Book VI simply fails to graft. Lacking Heaney’s rendering of the loss of Aeneas’s wife Creusa during the devastation of Troy, one finds Aeneas disingenuous when speaking to the ghost of his jilted lover Dido, queen of Carthage:

Was I, O was I to blame
For your death? I swear by the stars, by the powers
Above and by any truth there may be under earth,
I embarked from your shore, my queen, unwillingly.
Orders from the gods, which compel me now,
To travel among shades in this mouldering world…

Aeneid Book VI offers us one last chance to hear Heaney’s particular music, played on the instrument of Virgil’s narrative. It is not a virtuoso performance, like Christopher Logue’s War Music, nor is it a faithful rendering in English of the poetic style of Virgil, that ‘fountain of speech,’ as Dante named him. If, like Orpheus, Heaney has failed to return from the dead with the prize he sought, we can still praise him for the journey. But well he might have heeded the very warning the Sibyl offered Aeneas: "It is easy to descend into Avernus. / 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."

Published under: Book reviews