Seamus Heaney Aeneid Book VI Colloquium University of Geneva

It was a great experience in late May being able to attend a two-day ‘live’ colloquium on  Seamus Heaney’s translation of Virgil’s Aeneid Book VI, first published in 2016. Organised by Rachel Falconer, Damien Nelis and Stephen Harrison, and hosted by the University of Geneva, it was an international gathering, bringing together classicists and Heaney scholars from throughout Europe and the United States. Each contributor was asked to provide their personal response to a particular episode in the text they had opted for, usually of between fifty and seventy lines.

In preparing my own section (lines 140-203), where at one point Aeneas alludes  to how he carried his father away from burning Troy, I recalled where and when I first encountered that image. It was many decades ago in my final year in Tortworth primary school. It was a Friday afternoon in winter, with the light in the ‘big room’ growing dim. Mr Hodges, the headmaster, has us sitting on the floor in a semi- circle around him and is telling us the story of the Wooden Horse and how it led to Troy’s fall. Though firmly on the side of the Greeks, and full of admiration for their cunning plan, a picture that stayed with me was that of the Trojan hero, Aeneas, making his way through the streets, with his father on his back,  holding his little son’s hand. My immediate thought was that, given his size and weight, I wouldn’t fancy having to carry my father anywhere on my shoulders, least of all a burning city.

In the first year in grammar school our set reader for English was Rex Warner’s Greeks and Trojans, and Troy stayed with me through subsequent years and beyond. Aged thirteen, I remember taking out a substantial loan from my father to buy a fat volume of Greek myths I’d spotted in the local bookshop. Its glossy cover illustration, depicting Ajax bearing the dead Achilles from the battlefield, sits in my desk drawer still. I remember copying and enlarging in size a picture of Achilles staring regretfully at the stricken body of a woman whom he had just killed, Penthesilea, the Amazon Queen. And, aged fourteen, I had a piece published in the school magazine about the German businessman, Heinrich Schliemann, and his determination to prove that Homer’s tales of the Trojan War were not mere myth. I recall being thrilled by black-and-white pictures of his excavations and of the treasures he had discovered, including what he declared was the death-mask of Agamemnon and Helen’s jewels. Around that time Latin lessons began, reaching their climax in the lower sixth, in which Aeneid Book I was our ‘O’ level set text. A line that especially struck a chord was when Aeneas tells his storm-warn companions, ‘perhaps one day you will enjoy looking back even on what you now endure’ (trans. W.F. Jackson Knight 1968).

Decades later here I am, holding forth on a turning-point in Aeneas’ story when finally he has reached Italy to fulfil the mission the Gods determined for him. On arriving at Cumae, he seeks out the Sibyl, priestess to the god Apollo, and requests her help in enabling him to descend into the land of the dead, a journey undertaken by Orpheus, Theseus, Hercules before him. The Sibyl’s initial response is to spell out the folly of embarking on so perilous a project, yet Aeneas is resolute in his willingness to confront whatever risk arises. Placed emphatically at the start of line 149 in Heaney’s translation, the adverb, ‘Especially’, alerts us to Aeneas’ motive for this undertaking, the desire to be reunited with Anchises, his late father:

‘No ordeal, O Sibyl, no new
Test can dismay me, for I have foreseen,
And foresuffered all. But one thing I pray for
vouchsafe me one look,
One face-to-face meeting with my dear father (ll. 146-153).

Absent from Heaney’s two earlier published versions of this passage – in Translation XXII (1989) and Seeing Things (1991) – ‘vouchsafe’ signals Aeneas’ attempt to extract a binding promise from the Sibyl. Chosen for its archaic resonance, its formality contrasts with the simpler lexis in Aeneas’ moving plea on line 153, for that ‘one look/ One face-to face-meeting’ with Anchises.

Another aspect of Heaney’s practice, alongside his imagery and lexis, that deserves attention is his attentiveness to ‘the inner melody’ of the verse. The lines above  demonstrate the frequency with which he makes certain consonants (‘n’, ‘d’, ‘l’, ‘s’,  and ‘f’) and vowels (‘əʊ’ in ‘no’; ‘ɔː’ in ‘ordeal’/ ‘for’/ ‘foreseen’ ; ‘eɪ’ in ‘dismay’/’pray’/ ‘-safe’/ ‘face’) recur.

While Aeneas refers twice to his father’s dependency on him (‘I bore him through the flames’, ‘In the thick of fighting/ I saved him’), he balances these remarks with instances where his father seemed the embodiment of steadfastness and fortitude: ‘he was at my side / On all my sea-crossings, battling tempests and tides (ll.157-8).

Where in the 2016 text, Aeneas talks of his father as ‘A man in old age, not meant for duress’), emphasising the deleterious effects time has had on him, I prefer the more resilient image that Heaney employs in Seeing Things: ‘A man in old age, worn out, yet holding out always.  

The sarcastic opening of the Sibyl’s closing speech reflects her continuing scepticism about Aeneas’ judgment in contemplating so rash an enterprise,

    ‘Still, if love so torments you,
If your need to be ferried twice  across the Styx
And twice to explore the deep dark abyss
Is so overwhelming’ (ll. 182-5; my italics)

she finally relents and informs him of the necessary rites he must perform, which centre upon a magical phenomenon, a thing of nature, yet possessing mineral attributes. In the 1991 rendering of these lines, we read how

Hidden in the thick of a tree is a bough made of gold
And its leaves and pliable twigs are made of it too (Seeing Things, p.3).

Primarily in the first of the two lines maintain a sprightly rhythm, forged from alternating strong-stressed words, highlighted in bold, and weak-stressed words in italics. What rather lets the Seeing Things description down is the flat phrasing at its close. That lapse is addressed in the altogether tighter text Heaney created in 2013, which has shorter lines, is rhythmically regular, and contains only one word , ‘golden’, which is not a monosyllable. As a result, the Sibyl’s account trips along swiftly:

Hid in the thick of a tree is a golden bough
Gold to the tips of its leaves and the base of its stem’ (ll.187-8)

The later text also works better due to additions to the alliteration (‘t’ in ‘tips’, ‘its’ and ‘stem‘ join ‘tree’ and replace the lost ‘twigs’; the ‘b’ in ‘base’ links up with ‘bough’; ‘golden’ joins ‘gold’), and, to a lesser extent, the assonance (‘tips’ along with an extra ‘its’ maintain the ‘ɪ’ sound in ‘hid[den]’/ ‘in’/ ‘thick’ and ‘is’). By introducing two further features of the bough, its ‘tips’ and ‘base’, alongside its ‘leaves’ and ‘stem’, Heaney augments our sense of its wondrous totality.[1]

For someone alive, like Aeneas, the priestess explains, access to the underworld (‘earth’s hidden places’) depends entirely on plucking this bough of ‘fledged gold’. Once that happens, a not so minor miracle occurs:

… when it is plucked, a second one grows every time
In its place, golden again, emanating
That same sheen and shimmer (ll.196-8)

The density of the alliteration (‘n’, ‘t’, ‘pl’, ‘k’, ‘s’, ‘d’, ‘g’, ‘m’, ‘ʃ’) and assonance (‘ɛ’ in ‘when’/ ‘second’/ ‘every’/ ‘emanating’; ‘ɪ’ in ‘it’/ ‘is’/ ‘In’/ ‘-ing’/ ‘shimmer’; ‘eɪ’ in ‘place’/ ‘emanating’/ ‘same’) reflects perhaps the enduring effects of his translations of Dante’s Inferno and Beowulf. A significant facet of the lines above is their focus on the radiance the bough generates, something absent from Virgil’s original. ‘Sheen’ and ‘shimmer’ illumine the self-reflexive route Heaney’s version takes when the Sibyl instructs Aeneas to

    look up
And search deep and as soon as you find it
Take hold of it boldly and duly. If fate has called you,
The bough will come away in your hand.
Otherwise, no strength you muster will break it
Nor the hardest forged blade lop it off. (ll.198-203; my emphases).

Like countless objects throughout his oeuvre – the bow in The Cure at Troy, the hazel stick in Station Island (42), his father’s ash plant and pitchfork in Seeing Things (19, 23)[2] – the bough is imbued with extraordinary properties, permitting entry to a different order of being and state of consciousness. It thus becomes for him an objective correlative for the poem itself, something to be taken hold of ‘boldly’, yet something that resists compulsion. This calls to mind a remark by one of Heaney’s favourite poets, John Keats, that ‘If poetry comes not as naturally as leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all’.[3]  Re-encountering  Virgil’s original and Heaney’s translation remind one of is the immense, enduring good of which great poetry is capable, whether ‘giving voice to the lachrimae rerum, the weight of the world’s suffering’[4] or conjuring images of the extraordinary beauty of nature, which  ‘catch the heart off guard and blow it open’ [5].


  • [1] Many translations refer only to the bough’s leaves and ‘pliant stem’ (Fairclough, Jackson Knight), ‘pliant   twigs’ (Fitzgerald), ‘sinewy stem’ (Fagles), or ‘pliant… branch’ (Ruden).
  • [2] In an earlier draft of ‘The Ash Plant’ he sent to David Hammond, Heaney likens his father’s stick to ‘a golden  bough’. In the final version published in Seeing Things, it becomes ‘like a silver bough’ (19). See Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Emory University, MS1018, Box 2, Folder 72.
  • [3] To John Taylor, 27 February 1818, in Letters of John Keats ed. Robert Gittings, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970, p.69.
  • [4] Rachel Falconer, Seamus Heaney, Virgil and the Good pf Poetry. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2022,    p.1.
  • [5] Seamus Heaney, ‘Postscript’, from The Spirit Level, London: Faber, 1996, p.70.