Seamus Heaney - Aeneid Book VI
And now to continue, as enjoined to often,
‘In my own words’.
Not so much ‘Englishing’ Virgil’s Aeneid as casting it in a quartzy Scots vernacular, the makar Gavin Douglas engrafted onto his verse its own self-justification:
Quhy suld I than, with dull forehede and vane,
With ruide engine and barrand emptive brane,
With bad harsk speche and lewit barbour tong,
Presume to write quhar the sueit bell is rong,
Or contirfait sa precious wourdis deir?
Na, na, nocht sua, bot knele quhen I thame heir.
For quhat compair betuix midday and nycht,
Or quhat compare betuix myrknes and lycht,
Or quhat compare is betuix blak and quhyte,
Far gretar diference betuix my blunt endyte
And thi scharp sugarat sang Virgiliane,
Sa wyslie wrocht with nevir ane word in vane;
My waverand wit, my cunnying feble at all,
My mynd mysty, thir ma nocht myss ane fall.
Virgil is noontide sunlight, warmth, clarity of line; Douglas fends off scholarly carping by his admission that his own language must be a brangling charivari by comparison. Latinity gives place to a thorny demotic, and the poetry is none the worse for that. A familiar narrative of the periphery claiming cultural energy from the centre, at a historical moment - the early modern period - when the classical patrimony was up for grabs. Here Douglas the northman is making his own bid for ownership of the European tradition, against its ‘sudron’ confiscation. His address is thrawn and argumentative, his Prologues are exercises in flyting - he gleefully scourges William Caxton’s translation of the epic - and the whole is an extraordinary, Dr Moreau-style melding of text and commentary, which felicitously enacts its own mongrel hybridity. (Dryden’s rendering stands alongside it as appropriately decorous: Augustan neo-classicism at its zenith, a model of bienséance.) The Bishop of Dunkeld was the consummate zoon politikon, and the appeal to him of a translation of a poem explicitly concerned with the forging of nations, with political destiny and the travails and triumphs of the hero, seems obvious. Caxton - for all his inadequacies as a translator -
..schrynkis nocht siclyke thingis to tell
As nocht war fabill bot the passage to hell,
Bot trastis weill, quha that ilke saxt buke knew,
Virgill tharin ane hie philosophour hym schew,
And under the clowdis of dyrk poecy
Hyd lyis that mony notabill history..
That ‘ilke saxt buke’ is the matter of Seamus Heaney’s last published work, who - as Douglas’s Aeneas, ‘..in vision thydder went/By art magike, socery or enchantment’, down among the shades, given sanction by its “mythopoeic visions, the twilit fetch of its language, the pathos of the many encounters it allows the living Aeneas with his familiar dead.” The density of the Book VI, image and incident imbricated tightly, its living impacted poetry, all lend it the colour and vividness of a Book of Hours; and Heaney’s control, his ‘command’ - in the word he used of Lowell’s poetic authority - compound the mournful beauty of the episode. Heaney had mined the text at intervals through his career, finding in its mythic orchestrations a tool-kit of imagery and rhetorical postures. In Station Island he converses both familiarly and awkwardly with his dead, in a pendant to Dante’s descent into Hell which, in turn, had its imaginative seed in Book VI. A number of poems in Heaney’s last collection Human Chain are marginal glosses on Virgil’s descensus averno, eyed asquint through personal reminiscence: ‘The Riverbank Field’ and, most notably, ‘Route 110’ make tactful borrowings from the source text, not allusions - they are insertions, flagged as such - and it’s in the interface between myth and memory that the poems take fire. The topoi and imagery of Heaney’s gleanings serve to make explicit how the closed ultimacies of a known, inhabited text put a spin on experience: it’s really a kind of augmented reality. ‘Translation’ is to be taken as a ‘carrying over’ in a literal sense, from one reach of solid ground, across a floodtide of uncertainty, to another. ‘No doubting..’:
..the solid ground
Of the riverbank field, twilit and a-hover
With midge-drifts, as if we had commingled
Among shades and shadows stirring on the brink
And stood there waiting, watching,
Needy and ever needier for translation.
(‘Route 110’, XI)
This section reels off from the exchange between Aeneas and his father Anchises, where the son expresses his dismay that the souls of the dead should wish to invest themselves again with mortal flesh and willingly return to the upper air. Anchises thus describes how the spirit is barnacled with sin and decay, the ‘deep-dyed taint’, and only by means of a series of purificatory passes, a transmigratory cycle, will it finally earn its right to remain in the Elysian Fields. Heaney has been greatly preoccupied with symbolic rites of purgation; with an ethical notion of ‘redress’ and with poetry as a restorative to a world awry: “… the creative spirit remains positively recalcitrant in face of the negative evidence, reminding the indicative mood of history that it has been written in by force and written in over the good optative mood of human potential.” In Book VI of the Aeneid, the annalist in Virgil - tasked with recording imperial history, of setting forth an official founding narrative - gives way to the memorialist and metaphysician, to the optative mood of souls bereft and questing, lost lovers, comrades-in-arms and fathers.
No difficulty for anyone to wishes to plumb the underworld; the doors are wide. But the Sibyl adds the famous rider: “..facilis descensus Averno;/noctes atque dies patet atri ianua Ditis;/sed revocare gradum superasque evadere ad auras,/hoc opus, hic labor est.” (In Heaney’s plain rendering: “That is the task, that is the undertaking.” - subtly different in another version which stands as the portal to his collection Seeing Things, slackens the cadence into the rangier hexameter of “..This is the real task and the real undertaking..”; closer to spoken utterance. What the new translation gains in lapidary auctoritas, it loses in naturalness.) The necronaut must find and lay hands on the golden bough as a votive offering to Proserpina, who will thus vouchsafe his safe return to the overworld. When Heaney placed ‘The Golden Bough’ as the frontispiece to his 1991 collection, he made a gambit of this moment of heady risk, the payoff to which would be access to visions, newly in tune with his eagerness to ‘credit marvels’.
Imaginatively conferring on the dead a new field of motion and articulation, permitting us to view them on a plane of regard not previously given to us: both Dante and Virgil before him scale down ancestor worship to the small, unemphatic moments of exchange. Virgil notices the delight of Aeneas’s comrades when they see him again: “..they want/His company, the joy of keeping in step, talking,/Learning why he has come.” Old friendships are resumed, briefly, in the gloaming of the afterlife. When Aeneas comes across Dido’s ‘dimly wavering form’ - “He was like one who sees or imagines he has seen/A new moon rising up among the clouds/On the first day of the month..” [my italics] - we are caught by the fetch of a yearning dream. Aeneas speaks feelingly, but Dido doesn’t acknowledge even so much as his presence, showing “..no sign of having heard, no more/Than if her features had been carved in flint/Or Parian marble.” (Something of Paul Muldoon in that phrasal structure, there?) Heaney, in ‘Route 110’, gently retrieves the disposatio of that instant, converting it to a scene of parting from his own past, but recording guilt and shame as Virgil does not: Aeneas’s abandonment of Dido was at the unignorable bidding of the gods, Heaney’s of the woman at the dormer window somehow less exalted, more humanly culpable. But it is a private memory, pointed by the Virgilian reference, the circumstance something only to be conjectured at. The poem itself - a fugitive engram, unstable and asklent - is the moon fading into daylight, as it pools inkily into another memory of pre-Troubles RUC patrols, obscurity breached by the punctum of light-marks - her face, the brakelights of Heaney’s car, swinging lanterns - and then to the gnomic cinch (a trademark of Heaney’s): “After dances, after our holdings on/And holdings-back, the necking/And nay-saying age of impurity.”
The Joycean ‘mythic method’ so similarly employed by Michael Longley in his latest work - Homer, in his case, being the touchstone - steads Heaney in an imaginative homeostasis, as in the midst of worldly catastrophe, the soul can cling to the deliverances of poetry. Allusion to the classics has its nostalgic element, to be sure. They are articulate shadowings, and they speak to a universality of human experience. When the Sibyl asks Musaeus the whereabouts of Aeneas’s father, he replies: “..None of us has one definite homeplace./We haunt the shadowy woods, bed down on riverbanks,/On meadowland in earshot of running streams.” This ‘placeless heaven’, beyond townland and locality, where the dead consort in extraterritorial bliss, may have its political undertone. On the banks of the Lethe, “..a hovering multitude, innumerable/Nations and gathered clans” assemble in readiness to return to the world of the living, their memories wiped. The possibility of communal redemption is held out here, but at the cost of radical loss of identity - that a tribe or polity can go on, yet transfigured.
In the first of his T.S. Eliot Memorial Lectures given at the University of Kent in 1986, ‘The Government of the Tongue’, Heaney says: “Poetry is more a threshold than a path, one constantly approached and one constantly departed from, at which reader and writer undergo in their different ways the experience of being at the same time summoned and released.” A riverbank field, again: at once Lethe and Moyola and the fording-place between workaday reality and the diamond absolutes.