Aeneid Book VI

By Virgil, Seamus Heaney

596 ratings - 4.35* vote

A masterpiece from one of the greatest poets of the centuryIn a momentous publication, Seamus Heaney's translation of Book VI of the Aeneid, Virgil's epic poem composed sometime between 29 and 19 BC, follows the hero, Aeneas, on his descent into the underworld. In Stepping Stones, a book of interviews conducted by Dennis O'Driscoll, Heaney acknowledged the significance of A masterpiece from one of the greatest poets of the centuryIn a momentous publication, Seamus Heaney's

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Book details

Hardcover, 112 pages
May 3rd 2016 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux

(first published -19)

Original Title
Aeneis VI
ISBN
0374104190 (ISBN13: 9780374104191)
Edition Language
English

Community Reviews

Roger Brunyate

 
A very personal take on epic

When reviewing Seamus Heaney's translation of Beowulf (2000), I came upon this later translation of an ancient text, published posthumously in 2016. It makes a very interesting comparison to the earlier volume, showing greater freedom and flair in its poetry, but less successful as a standalone book. Unlike the Beowulf, it was not a commission but a labor of love, arising from the confluence of three elements: his gratitude to his old Latin teacher, his need to come to terms with the death of his father, and his thoughts on the imminent birth of his granddaughter. While this personal element is never overt in the translation, the poet's identification with the material, as so often with Heaney, is the key to its truth.

 
1. The Story, illustrated. The Aeneid, written by Virgil [Publius Vergilius Maro] early in the reign of the Emperor Augustus (27 BC to 14 AD) was an attempt to create an origin story for the Roman people. Aeneas, one of the sons of King Priam of Troy, escapes from the burning city with his father Anchises and his young son Ascanius. His travels take him to Carthage, where he falls in love with Queen Dido, until he is summoned by a higher destiny to Italy. After pausing in Sicily to celebrate the funeral rites of his father Anchises, Aeneas makes landfall on the Italian mainland at the start of Book VI. The burning questions in his mind are: What is my destiny? Why am I here?


Entrance to the cave of the Sibyl at Cumae

To answer this, he consults the Sibyl, or prophetess of Apollo, at Cumae, begging her to take him to the underworld, where he may consult his father's spirit. The Sibyl warns him that it is easy to go down the the underworld (facilis descensus Averno) but difficult to return. Nevertheless, she agrees to take him if he will first seek out the sacred Golden Bough, and make the appropriate prayers and sacrifices.


Turner: Aeneas and the Sibyl at Lake Avernus

The Sibyl takes him to Lake Avernus, so called because no birds fly over its sinister waters. Suddenly, in a passage of great drama, she is possessed by the power of the spirits. Sending all his retinue away, she hurries the hero underground, where he sees the throng of the dead awaiting permission to cross the River Styx.


Crespi: The Cumean Sibyl, Aeneas, and Charon

Charon, the surly ferryman, at first refuses to carry living passengers, but relents when the Sibyl shows him the Golden Bough. At each stage of his journey, Aeneas recognizes figures from history, mythology, or his own life, and enquires after their fates. Among the suicides, he sees Queen Dido and attempts to apologize, but she refuses to hear his explanations.


Jan Brueghel the Elder: Aeneas in the Underworld

Aeneas is forbidden to enter Tartarus, the place of the worst punishments, but the Sibyl gives him a small sample of what she knows, torments familiar from Greek mythology, only with slightly different names. As Heaney puts it:
            If I had a thousand tongues,
If I had a hundred mouths and an iron voice,
I could neither spell out the foul catalogue
Of those crimes nor name their punishments.

Manfredi: Aeneas and the Spirit of Anchises

Finally Aeneas comes to the Groves of the Fortunate, and is reunited with his father, who is looking at a line of souls waiting to reenter the world above. This doctrine of reincarnation seems unique to Virgil, but it is a convenient device for Anchises to show his son the future of his race, which is beset with difficulties and setbacks, but includes the foundation of Rome, the giving of the laws, and the creation of a second Golden Age under the Emperor Augustus, to whom the whole epic is implicitly dedicated.

 
2. Heaney's Translation. Like his edition of Beowulf, Heaney's poem is printed with the original text on facing pages, but there is a significant difference in how the two volumes appear. The Beowulf translation matched the Anglo-Saxon original virtually line for line, so that both pages were full. Here, however, the left-hand pages with the Latin text are typically only about three-quarters as long as the English ones on the right, leaving white space at the bottom. In all, there are 1222 lines in Heaney's translation, as opposed to 901 lines in the Virgil. Partly, this is the result of the syntactical differences between Latin and English. Latin is a heavily-inflected language, where word-endings indicate their function in the whole. English, by contrast, relies on prepositions and word order, making it looser and less compressed. But this also speaks to the delightful freedom that Heaney allowed himself, writing for his own pleasure at the end of his life. As an example, here is the end of Aeneas' first request to the Sibyl:
        "foliis tantum ne carmina manda,
ne turbata volent rapidis ludibria ventis;
ipsa canas oro." finem dedit ore loquendi.
Two sentences in three lines, the first not even complete. An excruciatingly literal translation, with the implied pronouns and prepositions in brackets, might read:
[on] leaves however not songs send / lest disturbed [they] fly rapid playthings [of] winds; / yourself sing [I] pray. End [he] gave [by] mouth speaking.
Heaney, thank goodness, is hardly bound by the Latin forms at all, but he captures the sense in a passage that seems light as the breezes of which they speak:
"Yet one thing I ask of you: not to inscribe
Your visions in verse on the leaves
In case they go frolicking off
In the wind. Chant them yourself, I beseech you."
So saying, Aeneas fell silent.
From this, it will be seen that Heaney makes no attempt to follow the rhythmic structure of the Latin, not even to the degree he did with Beowulf. Virgil wrote in dactlyic hexameters, a rhythm that goes, in its simplest form:
– u u | – u u | – u u | – u u | – u u | – –
(although in any of the first four feet, the long-short-short pattern [– u u] may be compressed into two longs [– –]). This makes for long lines and a rhythm that does not easily fit the native English cadence. Some earlier translations have attempted to match the Latin meter, but they look wordy on the page and sound archaic to the ear. Nonetheless, there are some very effective moments when Heaney follows the original almost exactly. One such is when Aeneas attempts to embrace his father but finds nothing but empty air. Three times he tries, three lines in Latin, but how powerful they are!
ter conatus ibi collo dare bracchia circum,
ter frustra comprensa manus effugit imago,
par levibus ventis volucrique simillima somno.
 
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.
Almost as recompense for this failure, the text continues immediately with Aeneas' vision of the souls awaiting their chance of rebirth. Heaney has no special tricks up his sleeve, but he doesn't need them; all he needs do is to follow Virgil's radiant pastoral line by line. Sometimes the poet's greatest genius is to keep his genius in check:
Meanwhile, at the far end of a valley, Aeneas saw
A remote grove, bushy rustling thickets,
And the river Lethe somnolently flowing,
Lapping those peaceful haunts along its banks.
Here a hovering multitude, innumerable
Nations and gathered clans, kept the fields
Humming with life, like bees in meadows
On a clear summer day alighting on pied flowers
And wafting in mazy swarms around white lilies.
 
3. The Problem. The last quarter of the book, which now begins, is programatically the most important, for in it Anchises foretells everything that Augustus most wants to hear: the epic history of Rome culminating in his own enlightened rule. But for the translator and reader, less so. As Heaney remarks in his brief Translator's Note:
By the time the story reaches its climax in Anchises' vision of a glorious Roman race who will issue from Aeneas' marriage with Lavinia, the translator is likely to have moved from inspiration to grim determination: the roll call of general and imperial heroes, the allusions to variously famous or obscure historical victories and defeats, make this part of the poem something of a test for reader and translator alike. But for the sake of the little one whose "earthlight" broke in late 2006 [his granddaughter and dedicatee], and the one who sighed for his favourite Virgil in the 1950s classroom [his old teacher], it had to be gone through with.
Still, you can't blame the translator for the intractability of some of his material. But it points to another problem that might have been corrected if the poet himself had been able to see the book through to publication: there is no contextual information, and no notes. Even before Anchises launches into his dynastic recitation, the book has been filled with mythological references, most of which will probably not be known to the average reader. That leaves two options: read right through the text and let the names wash over you as pure sound, or find an annotated edition that will give you the explanations that you need. I would advise both solutions, first one and then the other.

I am sure there are many annotated editions that I have not seen, but in my local bookstore I found two, both translating the entire epic. One is the Barnes and Noble edition whose notes are compact but definitely helpful; the big downside is that the translation, by Christopher Pearse Cranch, dates from 1872! The other is the 2006 version by Robert Fagles. While not quite of Heaney's standard, the translation seems pretty good. But the upside here is that it is a really beautifully produced edition, with copious notes, an extensive glossary of proper names, and a superb introduction by Bernard Knox. I would not want to give up this slim volume by Seamus Heaney, but if you wanted a complete annotated edition, the Fagles is what I would recommend.

 
4. Footnote: Route 110. A translator is always at the mercy of his materials, and is writing for an audience that may be different from his own. So, as I did with Beowulf, I would like to end by allowing Heaney his own voice. In his introduction, he tells us of a poem sequence he published in his final collection. Called "Route 110," the bus route from Belfast to his home in County Derry, it uses the episodes of Book VI as landmarks for a journey to celebrate the birth of his granddaughter.
It was a matter, in other words, of a relatively simple "mythic method" being employed over the twelve sections. The focus this time, however, was not the meeting of the son with the father, but the vision of future Roman generations with which Book VI ends, specifically the moment on the river Lethe where we are shown the souls of those about to be reborn and return to life on earth. "Route 110" also ends with a birth.
Here, then, are the two closing poems of that sequence:
Those evenings when we'd just wait and watch
And fish. Then the evening the otter's head
Appeared in the flow, or was it only

A surface-ruck and gleam we took for
An otter's head? No doubting, all the same,
The gleam, a turnover warp in the black

Quick water. Or doubting the solid ground
Of the riverbank field, twilit and a-hover
With midge-drifts, as if we had commingled

Among shades and shadows stirring on the brink
And stood there waiting, watching,
Needy and ever needier for translation.

 

And now the age of births. As when once
At dawn from the foot of our back garden
The last to leave came with fresh-plucked flowers

To quell whatever smells of drink and smoke
Would linger on where mother and child were due
Later that morning from the nursing home,

So now, as a thank-offering for one
Whose long wait on the shaded bank has ended,
I arrive with my bunch of stalks and silvered heads

Like tapers that won't dim
As her earthlight breaks and we gather round
Talking baby talk.

Gary

Seamus Heaney's new translation of Book VI of Virgil's Aeneid, composed sometime between 29 and 19 BC, retells the story of Aeneas' descent into the underworld (Dis), down to "Death's deepest regions," in search of his dear father's spirit. Although I'm not qualified to comment on the quality of Heaney's translation of the epic poem from Latin into English compared to earlier translations by Fagles, Fitzgerald, Dryden, and Ahl, et al., other than to say I'm sure it was no easy feat, his finished rendition is something quite enjoyable to read. Should you read it? Of course. It is not only a classic, pre-dating both the Christian concept of Hell and Dante's Inferno, but Aeneas' archetypal descent into the underworld is a journey you'll not soon forget.

Laura

From BBC Radio 4 - Book of the Week:
Seamus Heaney was working on a translation of book VI of Virgil's Aeneid in the last months of his life .

Ian McKellen reads the poet's posthumously published final work in which Aeneas travels into the underworld to meet the spirit of his father. It's a story that had 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.

Given the themes of the posthumously released Book VI, there is added poignancy in this final gift to his readers - a work which marks the end of Heaney's poetic journey.

Then as her fit passed away and her raving went quiet,
Heroic Aeneas began: 'No ordeal, O Sibyl, no new
Test can dismay me, for I have foreseen
And foresuffered all. But one thing I pray for
Especially: since here the gate opens, they say,
To the King of the Underworld's realms, and here
In these shadowy marshes the Acheron floods
To the surface, vouchsafe me one look,
One face-to-face meeting with my dear father.


http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b072j0mn

Bettie

BOTW

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b072j0mn

Description: Seamus Heaney was working on a translation of book VI of Virgil's Aeneid in the last months of his life .

Ian McKellen reads the poet's posthumously published final work in which Aeneas travels into the underworld to meet the spirit of his father. It's a story that had 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.

Given the themes of the posthumously released Book VI, there is added poignancy in this final gift to his readers - a work which marks the end of Heaney's poetic journey.


Then as her fit passed away and her raving went quiet,
Heroic Aeneas began: 'No ordeal, O Sibyl, no new
Test can dismay me, for I have foreseen
And foresuffered all. But one thing I pray for
Especially: since here the gate opens, they say,
To the King of the Underworld's realms, and here
In these shadowy marshes the Acheron floods
To the surface, vouchsafe me one look,
One face-to-face meeting with my dear father.

Aeneid Book VI by Seamus Heaney review – a pitch-perfect translation

Keith Currie

The Gate of Horn
An illustration of a bough rendered in gold adorns the cover of this slim volume and just like the bough the content shines with a brilliance, as of gold.

I have read Aeneid Book VI dozens of times, both in Latin and in various English translations; I am familiar with the entire Latin text, aware of the difficulties at specific points in rendering Virgil’s language into felicitous English and in carrying across the Roman poet’s emotional intensity into another language – an impossible task – or so I might have said before encountering this, the best translation of the Book I have ever read. What a wonderful irony that Heaney’s last gift to the public is a book about the afterlife published after his death.

I recall some years ago remarking to Heaney about his apparent empathy with Virgil – his response simply a smile. The cause of empathy is obvious: both from farming stock, both from a Celtic background (Virgil’s homeland Cisalpine Gaul). A Heaney version of the Georgics? Now, there’s a thought. We may actually have it, lying as a foundation beneath so many of his own poems.

Some have commented on the brevity of this volume and its cost per page. I found I wanted to read it slowly, savouring how Heaney had worked this phrase, rendered that idea. Even the few misspellings, Parathous for Pirithous, Carthiginian for Carthaginian added to the charm; after all Virgil himself died with the Aeneid lacking its final polish, studded with incomplete lines and occasional inconsistency of narrative.

Heaney’s Aeneid VI is itself a masterpiece, as well as homage to a masterpiece.

Steve

I've not read the Aeneid, so I figured Heaney's translation of Book VI could work as a placeholder until I revisit my guilt stack of books that I've not read (but should). In addition, Heaney, in his Translator's Note, mentions his attraction to this particular book being rooted (partially) in his own father's demise. As one who recently lost a father, I could relate. As others have noted, the book is about Aeneas' descent into the underworld, where he meets his father, Anchises. The descent is remarkable (for me) in how close it resembles Dante's descent. (Now I know why Dante had Virgil along for the "Inferno" ride!) Though a much briefer sample size, Virgil's imagination when it comes to snapping nasty things was every bit as rich as Dante's. Anyway, after the moving meeting between father and son, the book's final 10 pages or so are devoted to the "future glory of the Trojan race" (i.e. Rome). Given this 93 page "book" has only 50 in English, that's a considerable bite. Heaney himself says in his note that this part of the translation moved him from the book's initial inspiration (father and son reunion) to the simply grim determination to finish (the boring catalogue of "greatness"). Whatever. At 50 pages, it is what it is. A quick read that has some good moments of weird and moving. I believe this one of the last projects Heaney worked on. I can't help but wonder if he sensed his mortality closing in. Below is a link to a reading by Edna O'Brien of the pivotal lines. It may whet your appetite. It should. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AXY2W...

Dominique

*4.5 stars

This was amazing. Seriously, if you read any poetry this year, make sure you pick this up. At £14.99 it's probably too expensive for what is only 50 pages (just over 1000 lines) of poetry (but it has a nice, sophisticated-looking cover at least? It's slightly cheaper on Amazon though). I dearly, dearly wish he'd translated the whole of Aeneid, because it would have been (although a mammoth job -- but wasn't Beowulf I suppose?) absolutely magnificent. I really want to read the rest of the Aeneid now, but I'm not sure that any other translations would ever come close to Heaney's....

It was everything that I imagined and wanted from classical literature that I didn't really get from the fairly plain style of the modern prose translations that I read of the Odyssey and the Iliad (some advice: if you're thinking about reading anything of the classics, be very very careful about what translation you get). Heaney's style is so subtly beautiful and evocative and lends itself so easily to the epic voice. Even though Beowulf was also great, I think, content-wise, I MUCH prefer greek mythology because I find this narrative is so much more fast-paced and exciting (also, there are lots of ladies! Woohoo!). The way that Heaney depicted the Underworld was so fantastically vivid in my mind that I was honestly pretty mind-blown. Have you ever read something so wonderfully ingenious that you just sit there, in awe, unable to even go on with the narrative because you're so stunned by how beautiful it is? That's what this is. And we all know how incredibly rarely I say things that, so consider this review very high praise indeed. I docked half a star simply because of how short it was -- again I lament, if only he'd translated the whole thing! -- but honestly if you're into greek mythology/classics, or quite like the idea of *getting into* greek mythology (who wouldn't??), this is exactly the kind of volume you'll want to read. Scrap the other poems, I can legit imagine this being studied in classrooms in 25 years' time. THIS is the kind of quality stuff you wanna read about the ancient world. Trust me.

Michael Cayley

Book VI of Virgil's Aeneid describes Aeneas's arrival in Latium and his visit to the underworld. The Book, partly inspired by Homer as so much of the Aeneid is, is full of mythic resonances and in turn inspired many later writers, among them Dante and the T S Eliot of The Waste Land. Most of the concluding part, though, will be problematic to many modern readers: it is an assertion of Rome's imperial destiny and a glorification of the regime of Augustus. Heaney's rendering is masterly: he found a style which conveys epic grandeur without pomposity, and his ear for the sound of words is evident throughout. There is judicious but not overdone use of alliteration and assonance, a close attention to the pattern of vowel sounds, and a strong sense of rhythm and pacing - all things that exist in the original Latin: Heaney managed to match the music of Virgil's verse. Thoroughly recommended.

Jane

Brilliant version of Book 6 of the Aeneid: Aeneas's journey to the Underworld. Masterful; I can see a poet's hand here. Vivid. Heaney even makes the boring last section interesting where Anchises enumerates the Roman heroes-to-be to his son and speaks of Rome's "Manifest Destiny" to rule a large Empire.

Heartily recommended, even for those who may have read other translations.

Jen Hoskins

I am an absolute novice with the classics. I can barely keep Aeneas and Odysseus straight in my head, let alone remember who played for what team at Troy. So when I say I found Heaney’s translation riveting—the human and the immediate lying alongside the ancient and alienating—then you should be convinced.You can skim the bit about Roman genealogy though. It’s what Heaney expected anyway.

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