Aeneid Book VI

Seamus Heaney


Heaney, Seamus. Aeneid Book VI. London, EN: Faber & Faber, 2016. Paperback: 9780571327331.


“The sixth book of Virgil’s Aeneid, in which Aeneas travels into the underworld to meet the spirit of his father, is a story that captivated Seamus Heaney from his schooldays. But the work took on a special significance for him after the death of his own father, becoming a touchstone to which he would return as an adult. His noble and moving translation of Book VI bears the fruit of a lifetime’s concentration upon it: he began translating passages in the 1980s, and was finalising the work right up to the summer of his death. It was, he said, 'a constant presence', infusing and inspiring his original verse, culminating in its impact with his final collection, Human Chain. It seems almnost miraculous to be able to publish a new work by Seamus Heaney after his passing, as if even now he were capable of offering his readers a gift. That the gift should be Book VI of the Aeneid only adds to the poignancy of a work that marks the end of Seamus Heaney’s poetic journey.”


“This translation of Aenid VI is neither a ‘version’ nor a crib: it is more like classics homework, the result of a lifelong desire to honour the memory of my Latin teacher at St Columb’s College, Father Michael McGlinchey” (vii)

“Michael McGlinchey created 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, although usually nowadays with the help of a crib from the Loeb Library or the old Penguin Classics” (ix)

“In which grand design / You too would figure significantly, / Icarus, had sorrow allowed it. Twice / Dedalus tried to model your fall in gold, twice / His hands, the hands of a father, failed him” (5)

“At Cumae, behind the broad cliff, an enormous cave / Has been quarried: a hundred entrances, a hundred / Wide-open mouths lead in, and out of them scramble / A hundred echoing voices, the Sibyl’s responses” (5)

“Pray, / For until you have prayed, the jaws of this cavern / Won’t echo or open” (6)

“Then of their own accord / Those hundred vast tunnel-mouths gape and give vent / To the prophetess’s responses” (7)

“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” (9)

“Chaos and Phlegethon, O you hushed / Nocturnal expanses, let assent be forthcoming / As I tell what’s been given to tell, let assent be divine / As I unveil things profoundly beyond us, / Mysteries and truths buried under the earth” (16)

“Right in the middle / Stands an elm, copious, darkly aflutter, old branches / Spread wide like arms, and here, it is said, / False dreams come to roost, clinging together / On the undersides of the leaves” (17)

“Old but still a god, and in a god old age / Is green and hardy” (18)

“You have not been called to the bank. / Banish the thought that praying can ever affect / The edicts of gods. Your plight is a hard one, / But hear and remember my words: they should be / A comfort” (22)

“Orders from the gods, which compel me now / To travel among shades in this mouldering world, / This bottomless pit of night, dictated / Obedience then as well” (26)

“To begin at the beginning: a nurturing inner spirit / Works to sustain sky, earth, the fields of ocean, / The moon’s bright disc and Titan’s star, the sun; / And mind, operative in every part, imbues / The massive whole, blending with world’s body” (39)

“There are two gates of Sleep, one of which, they say, / Is made of horn and offers easy passage / To true visions; the other has a luminous, dense / Ivory sheen, but through it, to the sky above, / The spirits of the dead send up false dreams” (48)

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