A very personal take on epic
When reviewing Seamus Heaney's translation of
(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.
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 3. The Problem.
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.
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.