There is a memorable scene in Robert Graves’ I Cladius where the poet Virgil is summoned by Augustus to recite from the Aeneid before the imperial family.
No pressure then. But Virgil was a trained orator, acclaimed for his reading of the Eclogues in Roman theatres before an enthusiastic but critical audience.
Virgil’s habit was to release extracts from epic poems in gestation, with intervals of months and even years, a source of frustration for Augustus, because the evolving Aeneid cemented his divinity for posterity.
The provenance of the relationship between the poet and Rome’s first emperor was turbulent: post the bloody mayhem of Octavian and Mark Anthony’s proscription, which did for Cicero, the estate of Virgil’s father was confiscated.
And though he was compensated once Octavian morphed into August, Virgil didn’t forget the land confiscations in either his Bucolics or Eclogues.
Later in life, as the Aeneid found its legs gradually, and as Virgil traced the historical line from Aeneas to Augustus, (derided by Seamus Heaney for its imperial certitude), both patron and poet were singing from the same hymn sheet.
The aforementioned theatrical reading of the hexameters before the imperial family is comically imagined by Graves – the yawning of the lascivious Livilla – for plot considerations, but in reality Octavia fainted at Virgil’s mention of her recently departed son, Marcellus.
Because of his patron, Virgil adopts an axiomatic connection in the Aeneid’s dozen books between the exiled Trojans and the early Romans, and the future Roman state the descendants of Aeneas are destined to found.
Seamus Heaney relates in Stepping Stones how Father Michael McGlinchey at school first referred to book VI of the Aeneid (book IX was the set text), in which the Sibyl of Cumae, a prophetess, takes Aeneas to the Underworld to see the spirits of the dead, including his father, and the yet unborn.
Aeneid Book VI, which Heaney had more or less finished at the time of his sudden death, mirrors the poet’s life-long love affair with and passion for the ancient text, the charged yearning of Fr. McGlinchy’s lament: ‘Och boys, I wish it were Book Six.’
“That was when the seed that would grow into this golden bough was first planted,” said Catherine Heaney at the Borris Festival of Writing and Ideas in June. “I have said before that it became a kind of touchstone for him. He himself called it ‘a constant presence’ – and it was a text that he would return to time and again in his work and at pivotal moments in his life.”
How does Heaney cope with Virgil’s mellifluousness? Rather well, because he has to surmount the first and tallest hurdle, namely segueing the ancient corridor between Virgil’s time and ours’.
And thus the voice and the words are unquestionably Heaney’s: the dead Palinurus tells Aeneas-
‘Now surf keeps me dandled/The shore winds loll me and roll me.’ The choice of loll for somebody who has drowned is perfect, but only Heaney would have seen the connection. Palinurus, the trusty pilot, lolling involuntarily like a doomed ship.
In Edith Hamilton’s translation, the Sibyl warns Aeneas that the descent to the underworld is easy, but “to retrace the path, to come up to the sweet air of heaven, that is labor indeed.” Heaney eschews elaboration: “But to retrace your steps and get back to upper air/That is the task, that is the undertaking.’
Many lines which float giddily on the memory are, admittedly, buoyed by effortless metaphorical dexterity:
In one, green-leafed yet refulgent with gold.
Like mistletoe shining in cold winter woods
Gripping its tree but not grafted, always in leaf.
Heaney once wrote that what the reader experiences in translation is radically and logically different from what the native speaker experiences, “phonetics and feelings being so intimately related in the human make-up.” He had a tendency to demur at the torpor of translation.
When Robert Lowell translated Homer’s The Killing of Lykaon, he viewed his task as one voice running through multiple personalities, and Heaney was an admirer of Lowell’s version of Brunetto Latini canto in Near The Ocean.
And at a reading by 17 poets of Heaney’s poems to mark his 70th birthday in Dun Laoghaire, the most memorable was the most moving and alos the only translation, Mid-Term Break read in Lithuanian by Tomas Venclova, a reminder that tone is everything in the writing of poetry.
And so it is with this translation of Aeneid VI, the verbal texture of Heaney (read aloud ‘The ravenous triple maw /Yawns open, snaffles the sop it has been thrown/ Until next thing the enormous flanks go slack) encapsulates Heaney’s attitude to telling a story of a yearned for encounter with a departed father.
But Aeneid Book VI is ‘neither a version nor a crib’, perhaps a form of homage, having drawn on Virgil’s last work following the death of his own father in 1986, and the birth of his first grand-child.
One section of the translation, The Golden Bough, opened Seeing Things in 1991, but in the last years of his life, having cleared the pitch for five decades, Heaney set upon the translation in its entirety.
Heaney believed that the poem arrived with self-consciousness giving way to self-forgetfulness: what I admire most about his Aeneid Book IV is the realisation that only because love is strong enough is the meeting brought about between father and son, between the living and the dead.