Book review: Aeneid Book VI by Seamus Heaney

March 24, 2016
Faber, £14.99

Although primarily lauded for his original poems, the late Seamus Heaney—Nobel Prize winner, Oxford and Harvard professor, globally beloved poet—was also an enormously accomplished translator, particularly from ancient languages. Among his considerable achievements were a fresh and lyrical new version of Beowulf, and a rich interpretation of Robert Henryson’s The Testament of Cresseid.

Three years after his death, Faber and Heaney’s daughter Catherine are publishing his final translation: the haunting Book VI of Virgil’s Aeneid, the middle episode in which Aeneas journeys to the underworld in search of the shade of his dead father. It is a text that Heaney had been working on since the 1980s, becoming especially fascinated with it after the death of his own father, and allowing it to infuse his work across the decades. Heaney continued working on his translation until his final days.

It’s immediately obvious that the voice here belongs completely to Heaney, and it’s a shock and a joy to hear him again. In the texture of the work is a combination of sharp, concise plot and dialogue, mixed with earthy and musical poetic diction: “Now surf keeps me dandled,/ The shore winds loll me and roll me,” lilts Palinurus the navigator.

The storytelling is clean and pacy. Heaney knows how to distil an ancient text into something that feels both new and old, always clear and immediate, drawing out the compelling plot while keeping poetry entwined through its heart. It couldn’t be a more perfect final word.