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In a momentous publication, Seamus Heaney’s translation of Book VI of the Aeneid, Virgil’s epic poem composed sometime between 29 and 19 BC, follows the hero, Aeneas, on his descent into the underworld. In Stepping Stones, a book of interviews conducted by Dennis O’Driscoll, Heaney acknowledged the importance of the poem to his writing, noting that ‘there’s one Virgilian journey that has indeed been a constant presence, and that is Aeneas’s venture into the underworld. The motifs in Book VI have been in my head for years – the golden bough, Charon’s barge, the quest to meet the shade of the father.’
In this translation, Heaney employs the same deft handling of the original combined with the immediacy of language and flawless poetic voice as was on show in his translation of Beowulf, a reimagining which, in the words of Bernard O’Donoghue, brought the ancient poem back to life in ‘a miraculous mix of the poem’s original spirit and Heaney’s voice’.
The Aeneid may come to be recognized as his finest translation of all, as well as the one most personal to him…It is Heaney’s passport to the literary future. Not that he needed one.
Virgil’s classic was a touchstone to Heaney throughout his life. It is hard to think of a more apt way to mark the end of his own poetic journey than this posthumously published translation, worked on for 30 years, featuring Aeneas’s journey into the underworld.
With characteristic brilliance, Heaney refuses to let words and images not earn their keep. Some of his felicities he achieves simply by close translation from the Latin…Others he achieves through the imagination and the ear…Heaney has left us with this wonderful new translation of a classic.
[Heaney] 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.
This Aeneid is also driven by the pitch and the rhythms of the characteristic Heaney speaking voice. The words he uses often have a pleasingly home-spun, home-grounding feel to them…He cleaves beautifully to the concreteness of things…The reader can almost smell them, transported to the world of Aeneas and to Heaneyland too.
Rare is the translation that brings over into true poetry, as this one does, the words, the tone, the music of the original…just read it, and you know you are close to the poet with whom Heaney was living these last years.
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