We have awaited with great anticipation the posthumous release of Heaney’s translation of the Aeneid since its publication was announced last Autumn. Publius Vergilius Maro aka Virgil was a Roman poet who wrote his 12-book epic The Aeneid between 29BC and 19BC. It was the legendary story of Aeneas, the mythical Trojan progenitor of the Roman race, and his journey from Troy to Italy. The Aeneid was regarded as the national epic of Ancient Rome and Virgil as one of the greatest poets of the classical era. Countless translations of his work have been published over the centuries but this latest one is a bit special.
Seamus Heaney, the Irish poet whose translation of the Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf is regarded as one of the best and most inventive Modern English versions ever published, is responsible for the latest translation . Heaney died in 2013 having worked on his translation of the Aeneid for over 30 years, finishing it just one month before his death.
The Guardian published a review of the what they describe as a “pitch perfect translation”. Reviewer Kate Hallaway wrote that the book “is best read aloud – it comes thrillingly to life – it sounds tremendous.” This perhaps reflects both the oral tradition from which the Aeneid emerged and also the kind of poetry to which Heaney devoted his literary career. You can hear a reading by Andrew O’Hagan and another by Simon Armitage in the videos below.
This is the last work of Seamus Heaney which he worked on right up to his death. He began translating the Aeneid in 1986 after his father died. The Roman epic took on a special meaning for him due to the subject matter of Aeneas travelling to the underworld to speak to his father.
Then when they came to the fuming gorge at Avernus
They swept up through clear air and back down
To their chosen perch, a tree that was two trees
In one, green-leafed yet refulgent with gold.
Like mistletoe shining in cold winter woods,
Gripping its tree but not grafted, always in leaf,
Its yellowy berries in sprays curled round the bole –
Those flickering gold tendrils lit up the dark
Overhang of the oak and chimed in the breeze.
There and then Aeneas took hold of the bough
And although it resisted greedily tore it off,
Then carried it back to the Sibyl’s cavern.