When Virgil died at Brindisium in 19 bc, on his way back to Rome from Greece, he left the Aeneid unfinished. When Seamus Heaney died in Dublin in 2013, his translation of Book VI was also unfinished, but like the whole of the original, his 1,222 lines were found to be in a publishable condition (‘final’, he wrote on the last draft, which allows for it not being ‘complete’).
The coincidence is touching. So too is the fact that this book is concerned with news from the afterlife. Aeneas descends into the underworld to visit his father, Anchises, and receives there a history lesson that leads beyond the founding of Rome to the glories and struggles that lie in the future. Heaney’s version is also a kind of gift from beyond the grave. It is impossible to read it without feeling once more the sadness of his passing, as well as gratitude for this unexpected bonus.
Occasionally the unfinishedness shows. In the crucial encounter with Dido, for instance, where Aeneas discovers that the heartbreak caused by his abandonment of her has not been softened by time (and will not be in the near future, either, since it anticipates future wars between Rome and Carthage), the conversation ends with Dido sweeping off through the Fields of Mourning to rejoin the shade of her husband Sychaeus. ‘Is there someone you are trying to avoid?’ Aeneas asks in Heaney’s account — which sounds puzzled to the point of seeming obtuse. Compare this to the two other leading contemporary translators of the poem. Robert Fitzgerald (1983) has: ‘Am I someone to flee from?’ and Robert Fagles (2006) has: ‘Don’t withdraw from my sight.’ Both may sound a touch wooden, but both make better sense.
Then there’s the question of rhythm. Fitzgerald and Fagles shrink the hexameters of the original into pretty regular iambic pentameters; this is sensible enough, since it makes them sound natural, and brings them into line with most long classic English narrative poems. Heaney, on the other hand, goes for something that hovers between pentameters and hexameters. In its irregularity, this misses the Virgilian ‘ocean-roll’ that was praised by Tennyson, and makes us doubt that we are hearing ‘the stateliest measure/ Ever moulded by the lips of man’. At the same time, it produces a feeling of flexibility and a kind of wakefulness. We are kept more nearly on our tiptoes by Heaney in this book than we are by Fitzgerald or Fagles.
Something of the same goes for Heaney’s language. While Virgil himself generally preferred plain to ‘poetic’ speech, and Heaney is famous for (among other things) a Hopkinsian density of sense impression, it’s not surprising to find passages that base their value as translation on diction of this energetic sort. In particular, there is a tendency to use alliteration as a way of generating excitement: about the Golden Bough, for instance, which appears ‘green-leafed yet refulgent with gold/ Like mistletoe shining in cold winter woods,/Gripping its tree but not grafted, always in leaf’; or about Cerberus, ‘his brute bulk couched/ In the cave, facing down all comers’. These and other such passages have a certain authority, of course. But after a while the treatment feels repetitive, and more appropriate to Beowulf (where it fitted and worked brilliantly) than the Aeneid.
That said, everyone who cares about Heaney and/or Virgil will want to own this book. Heaney himself, in a ‘Translator’s Note’ that he prepared for a limited-edition publication, describes it as a piece of ‘classics homework’ — a tribute to his Latin teacher at school, and also a kind of elegy for his father. In its best passages, there is just this sense of intimate involvement. And also a sense of rising drama, as we follow Aeneas from his landing place at Cumae, through the encounter with the Sibyl, into the underworld, past horrific scenes of punishment and woe, until we reach the Groves of the Fortunate Ones, and arrive with Anchises.
It’s an encounter — in any translation — made all the more touching by reason of its long delay, and by its containing a large element of disappointment, as well as relief, delight and instruction. Disappointment, because although Aeneas can see and hear his father, he cannot touch him:
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.
For many readers — and, Heaney suggests, for himself as well — this is the heart of the poem. He catches the sense of settlement in the rhythm as well as the disturbance. More important, he brings the greatest aspect of the Aeneid into the sharpest possible focus. Which is to say: he makes impossible things seem human, and history seem personal.
Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £12.49. Tel: 08430 600033. Andrew Motion was poet laureate from 1999 to 2009. His most recent collection is Peace Talks.