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Descent into Darkness

Magdalena Kay

Aeneid Book VI, trans Seamus Heaney, Faber, 53 pp, €19.99, ISBN: 978-0571327317

Seamus Heaney has long been one acquainted with the night. He does not, however, cut a particularly lugubrious figure. Everyone has an anecdote that highlights his sociability and love of merry-making; photographs of a smiling Heaney abound. This is no pessimist or black-garbed man of mystery. Heaney has consistently valued and celebrated the bright, the open, the glimmering side of life and, indeed, of human belief: he defends his religious faith by stating that it is good for a young poet “to see the whole cosmos ashimmer with God”. This is a beautiful way of putting it, and nobody could gainsay such a statement. It is tempting to see Heaney as a poet of light, a poet of the above-ground world.

If this and only this were true, he would be a likeable yet two-dimensional poet – a bard of greeting cards and celebratory toasts, as it were. But there is a deep, dark backdrop for all the gleams and glimmers, and any assessment of Heaney’s last poems must pay due deference to its power and ubiquity. Heaney’s final, posthumously published volume of poetry, a translation of Book VI of the Aeneid by Virgil, is the story of Aeneas’s journey to the underworld to meet the shade of his father.

This interest in katabasis, bordering on obsession, has to do with Heaney’s coming of age during the Troubles, with his rural childhood – where one could not avoid coming face to face with the stark biology of animal life – and with his questioning of the early Catholicism that nourished his cosmic vision. There are also the life-altering events of his parents’ deaths, which haunt his work from the mid-80s onward. As Heaney grew older, his interest in the final judgment increased, and his urge to tirelessly imagine and reimagine the crossing from death to life intensified. Let us make no mistake, though: in his first published volume (Death of a Naturalist), written when he was a mere twentysomething, death is already a constant presence within life. The title of his second volume, Door into the Dark, needs no explanation. Two volumes later, in the famous North, once the violence of the Troubles had fully captured his imaginative conscience and he was searching for images adequate to this tragic predicament, he found himself quoting a graffito from Ballymurphy: “Is there a life before death?” If we can pry it loose from its political context, the question echoes throughout Heaney’s oeuvre. How much of life are we given before death takes it away? Can we call it life if it is constantly shadowed by the fear of death, or the deaths of loved ones? Can we separate the realms of death and life so neatly?

Perhaps not. A poem from the next volume, the extraordinary “Badgers”, has its speaker wondering if the murdered dead come back to visit us in the realm of the living. The homely animal takes on the weight of his human fear that death may well re-enter life, while life may be held cheaply by those who view death as a political weapon or a means of absolution. “How perilous is it to choose / not to love the life we’re shown?” Heaney consistently tries to understand the psychology of violence, the psychology of those who choose death over love of “the life we’re shown”, throughout his work. He is never smug in his own position. Nor does he ever sound assured of his own place in the living world: visions of final crossings, last looks, external and internal judgments, and afterlives are common in his work from a young age; certainly, well before his stroke in 2006. The “positive” side of Heaney’s oeuvre is often celebrated, and rightly so, for one of his greatest poetic achievements is his creation of an affirmative, delicate, deeply human voice that is capable of complex processes of thinking and feeling yet never seems beyond us. One can sympathise with such a voice. Many do. Yet sympathy is sometimes lost when a lyric voice wanders too far into the terrain of darkness. In his essay “Joy or Night”, Heaney compares the stark atheistic vision of Philip Larkin’s “Aubade” with the harrowing yet humane one of WB Yeats’s “The Cold Heaven”. Although he recognises Larkin’s achievement, he casts his lot with a different sort of poetry, one that seeks to go beyond the dark side of life, or to fight it by means of its own fragile beauty. Heaney opts for celebration over resignation.

Must they be opposites? In the pedestrian world of biological fact, yes; in poetry, not necessarily. Some of Heaney’s most compelling poems are those in which death is an almost-palpable presence. Not in the abstract, but as a force within life, compelling us to look at others’ lives, or even our own, in ways that may be surprising. Sometimes, indeed, death is not so much tragedy as drama, and startles one into new thoughts:

… for a second
I’ve a bird’s eye view of myself,
A shadow on raked gravel
In front of my house of life.

“The Blackbird of Glanmore” is a poem of parallels and contrasts, oppositions and recognitions. Those of us still in the house of life might, at times, become suddenly aware of our own mortality. This may be very different from the recognition of another’s mortality – for example, as when a child realises his parents will not live forever. The grief of such realisation is different from the fascination of imagining our own demise: “It’s you, blackbird, I love”, the poet confesses to this harbinger of doom.

In our imaginations, we can play out various afterlives. We can reincarnate those who are gone, tell them our current affairs, and ask their opinions. In real life, we cannot. The absolute nature of this inability is itself painful; no wonder so many are drawn to tales of haunting, of revenants, of momentary crossings to and from the other side. The great epic poets knew this well. Even the epics themselves occupy a liminal space between fact and fantasy: The Aeneid is not only a fantastical story but also a political one that celebrates the founding of the Roman empire. Its outrageous elements – gods commingling with mortals, episodes of divine possession, monsters of all shapes and sizes, rivers of fire, branches of gold on an ordinary tree – have become such a recognised part of our cultural tradition that their very outrageousness may surprise us upon a rereading. Heaney has chosen to translate one of the most extravagant tales of all: Book VI, the story of an underworld descent.

It had gripped Heaney’s imagination for decades. There are mentions of golden boughs, underworld journeys, and Elysian fields throughout his oeuvre; Charon the boatman makes frequent appearances, albeit in disguise. Listing them all would be tedious. Suffice it to say that its events have acquired layers of personal significance for Heaney, particularly after his father’s death. In the autumns of 1984 and 1986, his mother and father died, and the space they left behind was, to paraphrase his luminous “Clearances”, emptied into him to keep. Nothing can fill such a space. But there are plenty of ways to imagine it.

The Aeneid features a hero, Aeneas, who is renowned for his sense of duty and honour. Yet his emotions are human. His devotion to his father, Anchises, is an especially moving feature of this epic, one that surely attracted Heaney. His love for both parents permeates his work. Meanwhile, the talkative Anchises (quite different from the reticent Patrick Heaney) is in many ways the most interesting figure in Book VI. Does Heaney wish that his own father had spoken more, or that he could have had the same glorious vision of the future, of his children’s children and their accomplishments, that Anchises is given?

There is more to wonder about. Nearly every reviewer mentions the deaths of Heaney’s parents as a link to Book VI, in which Aeneas is able to meet with the dead, even to plan his future by conversing with them. But such singular deaths are here situated within a larger story. Book VI does not focus upon Aeneas’s grief, and is not primarily a poem of mourning. Indeed, this seems to be one of its most problematic features. Instead of dwelling on the pathos of death, it dramatises the journey that Aeneas takes, first onto the shore of Latium, then to find the golden bough, and most strikingly, down and through the various realms of the world below. It ends with a long list of the descendants of Anchises and their destinies. Aeneas’s reascent to the daylight realm is quick and straightforward. The reader is left with a sense of glory and drama to come. This is, of course, in keeping with the patriotic, pro-imperial tenor of the poem. The Aeneid is more political than personal.

To readers of Heaney, this is a disappointment. Heaney is a famously (some might say notoriously) anti-imperial poet, one who seeks to give voice to the dispossessed and to redress historical wrongs. He is also a movingly personal poet. In his cursory translator’s note, he apologises for this final section of Book VI, calling it “a test” that “had to be gone through with”. On the one hand, this is a potentially humorous embellishment of his initial self-deprecating claim that this translation is more like “classics homework” than a literary “version” of the original. On the other hand, it signals his foreknowledge of current debates over its merits: many reviewers note a diminishment of energy in the last 200 patriotic lines. Perhaps we should not expect an enmeshment of author and translator – the differences between Virgil and Heaney, and their respective poetic projects, are salient. Translation need not entail perfect identification with a text. One can translate, and indeed admire, texts that differ from what we write ourselves. Heaney’s “homework” is well done to the end. If the patriotism of the Aeneid is a problem for modern-day readers, it may be because the lyric is better suited to our tastes than the epic. Heaney is a master of the lyric. But we cannot expect him to make the Aeneid into a fundamentally different type of poem.

Nor does he try to. Heaney’s translation is surprisingly literal. It really is not a “version” but the original thing, and this may be an issue for future interpreters: when should we simply read the poem rather than reading into it? When should we stop our literary-critical apparatus from chewing over every telling phrase and turning it into a more Heaneyesque substance than it truly is? For those who know a poet’s life and work well, the temptation to do this is nearly unstoppable. But let us remember that Heaney did not, after all, make up the poem’s substance. Indeed, precisely because he has written so many “versions” of events from the Aeneid, we should judge this “classics homework” as a stand-alone achievement. Heaney emphasises his aim to honour his classics teacher, Father Michael McGlinchey, in his translator’s note, as well as the project’s long gestation. After the birth of a granddaughter in 2006, it was conceived, although “Route 110” – a sequence of Virgilian poems from Human Chain (2010) – came first. Here we have the metaphorical “version” that we may expect of Heaney: twelve twelve-line poems (a form reminiscent of the “Squarings” sequence in Seeing Things) in conscious parallel with the events of Book VI, only in which the ending celebrates not a plethora of larger-than-life heroes but a singular newborn. Instead of Anchises’ vision and Aeneas’s ascent to the upper world, we have a humble image of adults gathered around speaking “baby talk”. Such charming details abound in Heaney’s original work. In “The Riverbank Field”, he tells us that he’ll “confound the Lethe in Moyola” when asked to translate Virgil. It is thus surprising, six years later, to find so little of the Moyola in his Lethe.

Heaney’s translation certainly contains some of the verbal exuberance that we associate with him, but some of us may wonder why there is not more. The simple answer may be that Virgil’s Latin is known for its poetic decorum, and Heaney wishes to preserve rather than challenge it. His aim is not to confound but to celebrate – more specifically, to commemorate the effect of this book on his life and work, and to do so through an act of loyalty rather than appropriation or reinvention. This volume is not so much “Heaney’s Aeneid” as an excellent contemporary rendering of the Aeneid. Yes, we may discern a few Heaneyesque phrases, knotty and thick: “The ravenous triple maw / Yawns open, snaffles the sop it has been thrown.” Reviewers wonder whether such language is legitimate in a translation of Virgil. Its darkly glorious exposition of the wrongs that have befallen others, deaths that have been suffered, and modes of punishment inflicted upon malefactors conduces one to think that Virgil himself knew how to revel in darkness. A little verbal texturing is not out of place here. There are not even as many localisms as we may expect: “a vast scaresome cavern, / The Sibyl’s deep-hidden retreat” will elicit a smile of recognition from readers familiar with Heaney’s Hibernicisms, but such turns of phrase are rare. Is this even so far from Virgil’s “horrendous” cavern? Not much. This translation makes use of Heaney’s own word-hoard, but does not run roughshod over the style of his predecessor. Literalists should bear in mind that Heaney may not always be doing his classics homework so seriously, but may sometimes – mirabile dictu – be having fun.

One of this book’s most fascinating features is the subtlety with which Heaney domesticates Virgil’s work. Casual readers may barely notice the loose pentameter rhythm, given its irregular syllable count and natural sound to an English-speaking audience, though classicists will immediately recognise its difference from Virgil’s hexameter. Conversely, readers may wonder at the oddity of Heaney’s leaps between past and present tense, particularly at the beginning of the book (“They arrived… [;] Before their eyes she grows tall”), or at the plainness of certain phrases, so definitely un-Heaneyesque: “He was praying like that.” Surely there is a more idiomatic way to put it. But perhaps for Heaney this choice is deliberate, an act of renunciation rather than aggrandisement. We may also look beyond the obvious sort of fanfare to quieter instances of poetic drama: “That is the task, that is the undertaking,” the Sibyl tells Aeneas as he learns his voyage. Such perfect balance is Virgil’s doing: “hoc opus, hic labor est”. Heaney’s phrase seems far choppier, perhaps in order to presage the difficulties to come, or to bring it into line with the alliterative melody that he employs throughout.

Which brings us to an issue that may prove the most contentious of all: the matter of Heaney’s literary echoes. As translator of the Old English Beowulf, he knows how to wield an alliterative line better than many. As translator of the Latin Aeneid, he must decide whether this technique is suitable for such a different sort of poem. And yet, its substance is, still, faithfully rendered, despite the crackle of its consonants: Aeneas asks the Sibyl “not to inscribe / Your visions in verse on the leaves / In case they go frolicking off / In the wind”. Frolicking? Virgil’s image is one of leaves whirled about by the wind. Heaney’s word choice is playful but not inaccurate. Is it worthwhile to quibble that “frolicking” does not sufficiently convey Aeneas’s anxiety, his sense that hard work awaits him? The quarrel does not seem worth it.

Should we, however, quibble with Heaney’s flights of allusive fancy? “I have foreseen / And foresuffered all,” Aeneas brags, claiming that no possible tests could distress him. In contrast, Robert Fitzgerald, a translator well respected by Heaney, has “I foresaw them all, / Went through them in my mind.” Again, Heaney is on the mark for substance, but well-read readers will balk at the implied parallel of Aeneas to TS Eliot’s Tiresias from The Waste Land, whose words are directly echoed. Fitzgerald seems to avoid this echo deliberately, while Heaney embraces it. This may be an act of provocation or, indeed, appropriation, as the Aeneid becomes a text rooted in our current times, filled with allusions to the literary past. Such “translation” accomplishes the word’s original task of conveying something across borders and boundaries. This makes it sound admirable. But is it fair? There are more subtle echoes too: “Continuous as the streaming leaves” reminds us of Wordsworth’s daffodils, continuous as the stars that shine; “Hurled me and burled me”, “loll me and roll me”, evokes DH Lawrence’s “Wild Common”; “deep-dyed taint” recalls Wilfred Owen’s truths too deep for taint in “Strange Meeting”. A purist might argue that such echoes have no place in a text that so thoroughly predates them; the translator is playing a game with us rather than actually doing his homework. Less literal-minded readers may smile. There are dozens of translations of the Aeneid. A modicum of creative licence is allowed.

We may also remember that Heaney might have polished it further had he the time: he completed the manuscript in July of 2013 and marked it “final” but Catherine Heaney (his daughter) and Matthew Hollis believe he would have continued revising if not for his death that August. There is a tragic symmetry here: just as Virgil’s original composition was cut short by his untimely death, so was Heaney’s translation. Both versions may be considered final but not fully polished – the poem is complete, but perhaps not perfect. Must we see it as a valedictory work? This may be over-reading, but it is hard not to connect Heaney’s interest in the underworld journey, and reunion with a beloved parent, with an awareness of his own mortality. The words of another poet can bear the weight of one’s own feelings. The sad beauty of Aeneas’s meeting with Anchises, in which he tries thrice to embrace a shade that “escaped / Like a breeze between his hands, a dream on wings”, accords with Heaney’s lifelong wonder at the mystery of death, its possible but not certain finality. The uncompromising fatality governing human life in the Aeneid, where the edicts of the gods are unchangeable, is offset by the unique gift of Aeneas’s journey itself. There is a golden bough to be picked; there is a way out as well as a way in. There are limits to human understanding that, paradoxically, nourish and inspire the poet’s imagination: “let assent be divine / As I unveil things profoundly beyond us, / Mysteries and truths buried under the earth”. We are listening.

1/1/2017

Magdalena Kay has written books about Seamus Heaney as well as the relationship between Irish and Polish poetry. She is currently writing a book about Philip Larkin and Charles Tomlinson entitledPoetry Against the World. She teaches British and Irish literature at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada, where she is an associate professor of English.

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