The late Nobel laureate’s wonderful, unflagging translation even brings to vigorous life the less appealing part of the poem, writes Bernard O’Donoghue.
Seamus Heaney was always a generous venerator of his literary predecessors and guides. For much of his career the most dominant of these predecessor works was Book VI of Virgil’s Aeneid, particularly after he began his visionary volume Seeing Things in 1991 with The Golden Bough, translating the passage early in the book when the Cumaean Sybil tells Aeneas how he can find the token that will give him passage to the afterlife, where he will meet his father, Anchises.
Heaney occasionally let fall his wish to translate the whole of Book VI, but with his death, in 2013, the possibility seemed to have gone. But now, wonderfully, his daughter, Catherine, and Matthew Hollis at Faber and Faber have overseen his full version, a miraculous return from the literary afterlife and a brilliant capstone to the imposing edifice of his writing.
One of the most important poems in Heaney’s last, affecting volume, Human Chain, was the sequence Route 110, named after the bus between Belfast and “Cookstown via Toome and Magherafelt”.
The sequence was made up of 12 of the 12-line poems that Heaney specialised in after their invention in Seeing Things, often using the form for his most personal poems. Route 110 begins by describing how Heaney as a teenage student bought a used copy of Book VI of The Aeneid, and the sequence is full of allusions to Virgil’s poem: the shopkeeper is the Sybil who hands over the book as Virgil’s Sybil instructs Aeneas; the pet shop in the second poem is “silent now as birdless Lake Avernus”, recalling one of Virgil’s most familiar images. The boy hurries past the booths of Smithfield Market, past the suits and overcoats that swayed on their hangers “like their owners’ shades close-packed on Charon’s barge”.
This is a mid-month reminder that on July 28 we will continue with our summer tradition of a “free-for-all” with everyone bringing a favourite poem or two. This year we will focus – although not exclusively – on poetry from, or about, Ireland or Irish poets. Post your favourite poem(s) for reading and discussion on the CONTACT US page, or email it to me directly.