BMCR 2021.05.32

Seamus Heaney and the classics: Bann Valley muses

, , , Seamus Heaney and the classics: Bann Valley muses. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2019. Pp. xii, 288. ISBN 9780198805656 $90.00.

[Authors and titles are listed below.]

As a collection of papers originally given at a 2015 Oxford conference, this is the first “single volume” dedicated to Heaney’s reception of classics (1). It represents a wide range of perspectives: seven of the contributors work mainly in English literature (Corcoran, Falconer, Fowler, Lavan, Peter McDonald, O’Donoghue, Parker), seven in Classics and its receptions (Hall, Hardwick, Harrison, Macintosh, Marianne McDonald, Riley, Taplin) while Eastman and Pitman-Wallace offer the testimony of stage directors. In all, it is an impressive lineup of accomplished scholars of Heaney and/or of classical reception. Though neither the volume as a whole, nor its “brief introduction … attempts an overall assessment of the deep and extensive engagement with classical literature in Heaney’s poetry” (1), it nevertheless abundantly proves, as never before, just how extensive and abiding that engagement was on Heaney’s language, imagery, themes, and poetics. (Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.)

As Harrison and Macintosh note in their “Introduction,” the book has “two main sections” (8), on things Greek (Chapters 2-9) and Roman (Chapters 10-15)  Individual chapters appear in fairly chronological order: the enduring mythopoetic landscape of Greece forms the basis or background for Chapters 1 and 2, while later articles read Heaney alongside Hesiod, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Horace, and Virgil.

Taplin’s chapter follows the sites and scenes of the Heaneys’ travels in Greece (late 1990s) and shows their transmutation into poems such as “Sonnets from Hellas” and “Out of the Bag” (Electric Light, 2001). Heaney’s own description of a winding mountain road to Desfina—“hairpin bends looped like boustrophedon”—is taken up by Taplin as a metaphor for Heaney’s own travels, poetry, and relationship to the (Greek) past: “back and forth with the ploughshare of verse turning over the humus of humanity” (25).

Son of the primal Earth, Antaeus is the focus of Corcoran’s study, which begins with the observation that “Antaeus”—the opening poem of North (1975)—is shifted in the collection Opened Ground (1998) to its actual time of composition (1966), between selections from Death of a Naturalist (1966) and Door into the Dark (1969). The move juxtaposes the “I” of “Antaeus” with the “big-eyed Narcissus” of “Personal Helicon,” a significant juxtaposition that leads Corcoran to explore Heaney’s evolving self-understanding as a complex of Narcissus, Antaeus and Hercules—aesthetic rapture, local rootedness, Olympian ambition. Antaeus becomes for Corcoran perhaps the central figure, emblematic of Heaney’s felt need “for staying grounded” (31), personally and artistically, even as his career met with Herculean success.

More linear is Fowler’s study of Heaney as the self-proclaimed “poetic son of Hesiod,” another “farmer’s son whose life was changed by the gift of poems” (39). Other hard-scrabble poet-farmers like Les Murray and Patrick Kavanagh resonate here, but Fowler eloquently demonstrates how Hesiod grew on Heaney, evident especially in his “Sonnets from Hellas.” For both, a Muse-inspired poetry embraces private and public alike, mundane and cosmic; for both, poetry and ploughing are potent homologues, uniting hard and precise labour with devotion to ancestral ways. The importance of Hesiod for Heaney is underscored by contrast with some of his Homeric-themed poems: in the perennial “contest” between Homer and Hesiod, Heaney emphatically chooses Hesiod as the more familiar and appealing voice—farmer, prophet, advocate of peace.

Chapters 5 through 9 deal with Heaney’s reworkings of Greek tragedies. Discussing “Mycenae Lookout,” the 5-part poem written after the 1994 IRA ceasefire, Lavan concentrates on the violent language and imagery of Section 2 (“Cassandra”), with comparisons to Aeschylean translations by MacNeice, Robert Lowell, and Fagles, as well as related poems, especially “Punishment.” Among Lavan’s claims are that the voice of Cassandra should be given “equal prominence” to that of the Watchman, and that the poem as a whole differs from Aeschylus’ Oresteia in offering no “ultimate resolution” (52)—a point on which McDonald, in her reading, implicitly disagrees (139).

Pitman-Wallace and Eastman give personal accounts of the challenges of translating Heaney’s “Greek” plays onto the stage. Among many fascinating details about chorus, dance, prepping actors in their lines, Eastman focusses on how the dualities of the Chorus in Cure at Troy (e.g. ancient Greek sailors speaking a distinctly Irish English) reveal Heaney bridging theories of translation[1] and applying one of his conceptualizations of poetry as working on the “borderline… always in between” (87). For Heaney, this liminality allows “the god to speak,” and becomes (in Eastman’s persuasive argument) one ground for Heaney’s most radical intervention, his concluding fusion of chorus and Heracles: through the Herculean chorus leader, it is as if poetry itself works its quasi-divine power to overcome impasses and usher in new ways of “seeing things.”

Parker’s chapter on The Burial of Thebes gives a detailed reading of the play, in relation to its politico-cultural contexts as well as some six previous translations, from Jebb to McDonald. The title, “Speaking Truth to Power,” seems to highlight the didacticism prevalent especially in Heaney’s early versions, with their analogies between Creon and President George W. Bush—analogies which Heaney “seemed subsequently to regret” (103). Hence Parker notes in conclusion what Pitman also emphasises: Heaney did not title his play Antigone, because the tragedy embraces Creon just as much as Antigone (120 n.75; cf. Pitman 76, Hardwick 271). Such discussions draw on Heaney’s own poetics, and reflect how he aspired to a “poetry of redress,” a poetry that one can “credit” with the power for good, while seeking at the same time to avoid didactic “Troubles Art.”

Readers with less exposure to Heaney’s life and work might well begin with the chapter by McDonald, who, as a personal friend of Heaney and fellow translator of the Antigone, affords an insider’s view of his life and work as a whole. Homing in on his three adaptations of Greek tragedies, she compares his versions with the Greek originals, noting some striking divergences, and in several places criticizing Heaney’s version as less “succinct” (142) or soaring or more “homespun” than Sophocles’ (143). In McDonald’s words, Heaney “was a gentle man, sometimes too gentle for the raw realities and violence of Greek tragedy; it was too close to home” (121). In these terms, she contrasts the “cure” of Heaney’s version of Philoctetes with the “burial” of his Antigone (140), which better captures “the more brutal” dimension of the Greek spirit (143) as it offers no resolution or cure, “just vengeance being passed generation down generation” (146). By contrast, Parker had discerned “some ground for hope … in the person of its ‘insistently contemporary’ female protagonist and the principled stand she adopts” (120).

Virgil is understandably the dominant presence in the “Roman” chapters, but it is not only the Virgil of Aeneid 6. Casting his eye over the pastoral tradition, O’Donoghue argues that while Yeats was the immediate impetus for Heaney’s own “turn to the eclogue” around 2000 (154), the “principal, ultimate inspiration” was Virgil’s Eclogues, through David Ferry’s translation (151). O’Donoghue focusses on three poems from Electric Light (2001)—“Bann Valley Eclogue,” “Glanmore Eclogue,” and “Virgil: Eclogue IX”—as well as Heaney’s 2002 lecture “Eclogues in Extremis,” to argue that by the time he wrote “Quitting Time” (in District and Circle) Heaney had forged “a pastoral that is all its own,” with a distinctive blend of raggle-taggle “rural” simplicity, self-conscious literary sophistication, and an eye “on the public realm” (158).

The three chapters on Heaney’s use of the Aeneid criss-cross much the same ground. The elements of Aeneas’ katabasisthat Heaney himself highlighted as having “been in my head for years—the golden bough, Charon’s barge, the quest to meet the shade of the father” are to the fore in all three, with differences in selection , emphasis and arrangement. Heaney’s rendering of placidas domos (Aeneid 6.705) as “haunts” launches McDonald’s meditations on how Virgilian words and themes pervade Seeing Things and Human Chain. In this prolongued encounter with Virgil, it is not only the ancient writer who is translated. Heaney too is transformed, “carried over,” as it were, from a characteristically Wordworthian poetry of elegiac retropective to a more Yeatsian, visionary mode.

Falconer also credits Virgil with a transformation of Heaney’s work, but articulates it as a shift from gravitas to light, katabasis to rebirth. Falconer explores each of Heaney’s motifs in turn (bough, barge, father’s shade, soul-haunted riverbank), first in relation to Virgil’s Aeneid and Heaney’s translation, then in an array of poems from “Digging” to Seeing Things (1991) and District and Circle (2006). Ultimately, the Virgilian katabasis of “The Riverbank Field” and “Route 110” and other poems in Human Chain (2010) yields to something new—an airiness, light, breath of hope, and affirmation of life renewed.  Falconer therefore “ventures” that the encounter with Aeneid 6 “produced a new kind of poetry” in Heaney (194), and that Human Chain as a whole “enlarges the vision of katabatic literature, one of the world’s most ancient and enduring genres” (184).

Riley expresses a similar complex of themes by pairing katabasis with nostos. In her more chronological exploration of Heaney’s oeuvre, Heaney’s association of the two concepts was a life-long preoccupation: from early, programmatic poems like “Digging” through selections from many published volumes, and on to later poems such as “In a Field” (2013) and “Banks of a Canal” (2014), the “excavation” of the past (both literally and through poetic memory) was for Heaney at once metaphoric katabasis and a needful step towards nostos and renewal of the present. These great themes of descent and homecoming, Riley argues in conclusion, are recapitulated even in Heaney’s final words (noli timere!): “With this electronic viaticum, declaring a readiness to cross, Heaney’s progress from ‘Incertus’ to the benign, confident rebel against limit, the vatic Bard of Overlife was also complete” (222).

After these three rather intense chapters, the two more philological studies of Hall and Harrison offer a welcome change of pace. Studying the annotations that Heaney as a student made to his prose translation of Aeneid 7-12 (by J.W. Mackail), Hall points out very precise parallels with later published poems. Among her striking claims is that the young Heaney identified more with Turnus and other Italian characters than the conquering Aeneas whose destiny as imperial colonist left Heaney cold. Though some of her links seem rather tenuous (e.g. “Messapus, tamer of horses” ~ Heaney’s father, driving the horse-plough in “Follower”, 227), Hall tends to preface her suggestions with the modest “perhaps” (e.g. 228), and her main conclusion remains striking and innovative: “Virgil’s evocation of the plural, tribal, indigenous culture of pre-Roman, pre-colonial Italy… was later to inform his thinking about the plural, multilingual island of Ireland and its experience of invasion, occupation, and the struggle to forge a new, cohesive identity in the wake of colonial trauma” (225). Little wonder then that the poet of Mantua would become the “poet of Mossbawn,” or that Heaney would call Virgil his “hedge-schoolmaster” (241).

Studying “Heaney’s micro-strategies of translation,” Harrison offers a precise evaluation of Heaney’s versions of two Horatian odes and representative passages from Aeneid VI. In Harrison’s analysis, Heaney’s “inner literalist” (254) tends to stay close to the given Latin, though the later translations can reveal greater confidence in creative adaptations. In all, Heaney’s translations very successfully navigate between the divergent, even incompatible demands of literal faithfulness and appealing readability, between meaning and feel, domestication and “foreignization”: he is a “close translator of Latin poetry” who can also  “communicate with a contemporary readership.” Indeed, Harrison’s Heaney can even speak to specialized scholars, for some of his versions divine nuances in the original Latin that had eluded Virgilian scholarship.

In her Epilogue, Hardwick maps out what she calls Heaney’s “Classical Ground”—“a material and metaphoric field that includes diverse tones, textures, and places as well as being a site from which poets, readers, and critics can probe Heaney’s explorations of personal and cultural memory” (263). This ground is bound up with his self-conscious use of a “middle voice” that (analogous to the Greek grammatical voice) has elements of both action and passivity, as well as a certain “coding” of expectations for informed readers. Such themes form the background for Hardwick’s extended interpretation of “Requiem for the Croppies” as a reworking of the Demeter-Persephone myth, and a “reverse katabasis.” This strikes me as somewhat strained, and I would have welcomed more explicit articulation of what constitutes Heaney’s Classical ground, as opposed to his Anglo-Saxon, Medieval, or Modernist grounds: is the phrase Hardwick’s own coded reference to Goethe’s Klassiche Boden, for instance?

In all, this volume is rich in detail and methodological approaches, highly recommended for readers of Heaney and of the Classics.

One possible shortcoming is the Indices. The “Index of Works of Seamus Heaney Cited” is the most complete but the 10 brief entries in the “Index of Classical Works Cited” miss much.[2] The one-page “General Index” is also too sparing. It misses Robert Fitzgerald (Heaney’s “Harvard Nestor,” 15, 18), Joyce (40, 205), Ovid (29, 31-32, 181), among many others, and its included entries can miss significant discussions.[3] Fuller indices would obviously help readers to navigate overlap between chapters, and aid further research.

The Index does reference Father Michael McGlinchey—the Latin teacher in St Columb’s College in whose praise Heaney himself “couldn’t say enough”: he “first tuned my ear and temperament to Virgil.” (Heaney “regretted not studying ancient Greek at school,” as Taplin relates: 14 n.3.) Without Virgil, Latin, and teachers like Fr McGlinchey, Heaney would not have developed into the poet he became, or even a poet at all. We should remember this, and thank the contributors and editors of the volume for showing in such rich and varied ways how rich and varied a reception the Classics found in Heaney’s work.

There are a very few typos in this otherwise meticulous volume. I am happy to pass on to editors the dozen or so minor mistakes that I noticed.

Authors and titles

1. Introduction (Stephen Harrison and Fiona Macintosh)
2. Boustrophedon between Hellas and Home (Oliver Taplin)
3. Antaeus on the Move (Neil Corcoran)
4. Heaney and Hesiod (Rowena Fowler)
5. ‘Mycenae Lookout’ and the Example of Aeschylus (Rosie Lavan)
6. A Door into the Dark: Staging the Burial at Thebes (Lucy Pitman-Wallace)
7. Ancient Greek Sailors with Twentieth-Century Metaphors (and Pan-Chronic Trousers): Directing Seamus Heaney’s The Cure at Troy (Helen Eastman)
8. Speaking Truth to Power: Seamus Heaney’s The Burial at Thebes and the Poetry of Redress (Michael Parker)
9. Seamus Heaney: An Irish Poet Mines the Classics (Marianne McDonald)
10. Heaney, Yeats, and the Language of Pastoral (Bernard O’Donoghue)
11. ‘Weird Brightness’ and the Riverbank: Seamus Heaney, Virgil, and the Need for Translation (Peter McDonald)
12. Heaney and Virgil’s Underworld Journey (Rachel Falconer)
13. ‘The Forewarned Journey Back’: Katabasis as Nostos in the Poetry of Seamus Heaney (Kathleen Riley)
14. Paving and Pencilling: Heaney’s Inscriptions in J.W. Mackail’s Translation of the Aeneid (Edith Hall)
15. Heaney as Translator: Horace and Virgil (Stephen Harrison)
16. Epilogue: Heaney’s ‘Classical Ground’ (Lorna Hardwick)


[1] Venuti’s “foreignization” (in The Translator’s Invisibility, 1995) vs Bassnett’s “acculturation” (in e.g. Translation Studies, 1980).

[2] For example, Homer on pp. 15, 38, 48, 78 (in “Damson”), 175 n.30 (in “The City”), and elsewhere; or Virgil’s Georgics on 198-200; or Tacitus on 32-3, 60, and 238.

[3] For “classical education, of SH,” for instance, one should look also to pp. 121-3, 154, 244, as well as passages on Heaney’s knowledge of Latin (34-35, 137, 181, 189, 216, 221, 256). Heaney’s Virgil is shadowed by associations with Dante (for whom, cf. 36, 123, 137, 181, 189, 216, 221, 253, 256) and T.S. Eliot (cf. 28, 93-4, 216, 221).