BMCR 2024.02.20

Seamus Heaney, Virgil and the good of poetry

, Seamus Heaney, Virgil and the good of poetry. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2022. Pp. 312. ISBN 9781474454391.

Nobody who has read the poetry of Seamus Heaney would question the increasingly pervasive presence of Vergil in his oeuvre. Rachel Falconer’s impressive study, the first full-length review of the two poets’ interactions, demonstrates not only the importance of Vergil to Heaney, but, more, traces with great care the shifting form this influence took, especially over the course of Heaney’s later career. To begin where Heaney ends, his translation of book six of the Aeneid, published in 2016, three years after his death, is the capstone, as Falconer makes clear, of a decades-long interest in Vergil’s underworld. In this, of course, Heaney is guided by many other poets and writers, beginning most obviously with Dante, but continuing to Milton and on. Because of Dante Vergil becomes a guide not only to the underworld, but also to the notion that the past can be visited to proffer guidance in the present, especially by poets. Vergil’s underworld is where the ultimate translation takes place, and, as Falconer quotes Heaney in saying, “[t]he poetry is not that which is lost in translation but that which survives it” (259).

Just what survives and why is arguably the point of Falconer’s fine book. As with other, earlier poets, two main sources for Heaney and Falconer are Aeneid 6 and Georgic 4, since both focus on the crossing of thresholds and the passage from past to future, specifically in the context of poetry (largely, I would argue, thanks to the myth of Orpheus). These themes become increasingly prevalent during his last decade, especially following his stroke in 2006 and the brief hospitalization that followed, but that final period draws on interests established well before. As Falconer clearly shows, by 2008 Heaney is turning to Vergil frequently, and his major output for that year is rooted in Vergilian meditations. Vergil becomes a central interest to Heaney on his own—his book 6 translation begins this year—but Vergil also continues to offer Heaney a way of grappling with other poets, including Ted Hughes, Osip Mandelstam, John Keats, and W.B. Yeats, just to name a few. Yet the focus of Heaney’s interest in Vergil shifts over time, as Falconer demonstrates, from representing a community of poets Heaney wishes to join, and so focusing largely on memory and the past, to recognizing the staying power of Vergil’s poetry, and trying through new poems and translations to inhabit even as he expands this world, to join in Vergil’s project, and so to ensure both its and Heaney’s legacy in the future.

The nine chapters of the book pair works of Heaney’s with particular Vergilian passages or themes. They touch on the golden bough as catalyst for poetic divination, where “each poet hopes to be among the fortunate, guided and protected by the golden bough…[even if] ultimately, the quest ends in a release of the poem back into the underworld of cultural memory” (39); the way Heaney’s reading of Vergil often includes moments of threshold crossings, especially in Seeing Things; his interest in the Orpheus myth, especially in terms of loss as seen in a broader context; the dialogue with the eclogues in Electric Light and the pastoral in general in the years following 9/11; the fragility of our earth as evidenced in District and Circle; the dialogue with Aeneid 6 offered in The Riverbank Field; Vergil as bridge-builder of local cultures, whose characters are “steadfastly capable of renewal…from one reader to the next” (203); the dense Vergilian underpinnings of Heaney’s final volume, Human Chain; and the translation of Aeneid 6 that forges a link between katabasis and poetic redress.

In tracing these poetic interactions, Falconer offers wonderful, luminous readings of Heaney. To cite just one example: the adaptation of Charon’s boat in Seeing Things with Heaney’s insistence on the “shiftiness of the craft” (57) of both boat and poetry is marvelous. It is a metaphor Heaney repeats and one that captures the slipperiness of his relationship to ancient poetry. With this Falconer hits on one of the key issues with reception. She is not as interested in intertextuality, overall, as in the process and result of adaptation and reception: what happens when one poet draws on another in an entirely different context and culture. The Palinurus episode from Aeneid 6, for instance, becomes deeply entwined with Heaney’s appreciation of Hughes (and through him Keats), and Palinurus himself, Falconer argues, “comes to stand for the poetry that speaks from Keats’ ‘human shore,’ offering steadfast renewal rather than transcendent bliss” (11). The influence that fascinates Falconer lies in the establishment of Vergil as a poetic guide, a presence that urges Heaney towards certain choices, but choices that sometimes have little to do with translating precise language. Instead, the influence tracked here is situational and strategic: Vergilian scenes are evoked in an effort to show how and why Heaney chose to tell his tale the way he did.

There is a third point of contact between the two poets that does not follow the usual path: the influence of the Eclogues. Heaney’s engagement with the pastoral genre is ongoing, but his engagement with Vergil’s Eclogues seems focused on two quite different things: resistance in Ireland and a search for origins. Those difficult poems have certainly had their moments of reception, but Heaney’s interest is complicated, as it ties into his interests in Aeneid 6 even as it enables him to articulate more clearly what he sees as Vergil’s strengths. Heaney is, as Falconer shows, fascinated by the pastoral poems largely because they speak of their staying power, with “staying” being taken in two senses, both resisting power and enduring suffering (118). In this context the themes of the Eclogues mesh tightly with his appreciation of Ireland’s political strife, both present and past. There are passages Falconer demonstrates that show how Heaney draws on Vergil’s Eclogues and life story, fictionalized as it may be, to “structure and fortify his own life history” (122). For Heaney, Vergil is the “poetic exemplar for a pluralistic Europe” (123). But in addition to the thematic power Heaney finds in the Eclogues, he also turns to them because of their role as Vergil’s founding poems. What Heaney searches for in Aeneid 6 he finds, in a way, in the poetic origin that the Eclogues represent. The two are tied together in his mind and works.

Some readings I disagree with: Heaney describes reaching for a carriage strap on a train which Falconer likens to Aeneas’ “clutch for the bough” (140). Yet in the Aeneid the bough resists before breaking free, and there is no sense of that with the strap, it is just there to help: the narrator is steadied by the strap from “planted ball of heel to heel of hand/ As sweet traction and heavy down-slump stay me” (cited on p. 140). There is little bough-like about this episode except the reach, especially when we consider that Aeneas’ capture of the bough is both tenuous and indeterminate. Likewise, Heaney’s backward glance to the earlier poet, to his own earlier life, to the moment when he first encountered Vergil at school is likened to Orpheus’ backward glance at Eurydice and Aeneas’ backward glance at Troy, one that “brings him to a new understanding of loss” (211), an interpretation I find debatable, especially as Falconer continues, “For the poet in the present, the lapse of time has sealed off the lost first world, putting it beyond recovery, but it simultaneously discovers a closeness in his parents that had been unavailable to the boy at the time” (211). Yet surely the lesson to be learned from both Vergil and Heaney is that the first world is not sealed off. As distant as it may be, and as painful as that distance may be, it continues to offer lessons to the future. The past cannot be corrected or changed but it can surely effect change through memory.

The complication with a book of this kind is that it suggests the presence of a clear path between contemporary and ancient poets, even as that path is shown throughout to be cluttered if not diverted by other poets and other voices. There are spots in the present volume where this becomes evident and Dante in particular often seems to be interfering with Falconer if not Heaney in their readings of Vergil. At one place the transmigration of souls is described as “purgatorial suffering” (156): even if the word weren’t loaded with later connotations, the cluster of waiting souls that greets Aeneas in the underworld is not actively atoning, it is just waiting. And the strength of this book also points to a weakness. Falconer’s readings are subtle and nuanced, and the echoes she tracks and discerns are largely persuasive. Yet that very close reading makes us realize how little of Vergil really gets played out by Heaney. The treatment of pastoral notwithstanding, the reduction of the Aeneid to book 6 is lamentable. We can blame Dante in part for this, but we owe it to ourselves to remember that Aeneid 6 is not a synecdoche of the Aeneid. It is arguably the most important book when seen from the long perspective of reception, but it is just one of many, and one that was not written to be read at a remove from the rest of the poem. In fact, one could well argue that precisely because it supplies the bass line to the rest of the epic composition, and so supplies the harmonies and underwrites the overtones, it needs to be read alongside the epic’s other books, characters, and events. I grant that literary history would dispute this assertion, that book 6 is the book with influence, yet I think the point still needs to be made. The Vergil of reception is not the Vergil of Latin poetry. As Heaney himself said: “When poets turn to great masters of the past, they turn to an image of their own creation” (cited on p. 7).

Falconer’s larger point, one that lies behind her choice of title and its emphasis on the good of poetry, gestures in this grander direction. In the concluding pages she summarizes that “Virgil’s poetry, in general, offers Heaney the means of transforming the sense of an ending into a fresh departure in his own late poems” (263). The conversation between the poets is inclusive of its readers and enabling for Heaney: by going so far back, by recognizing the length of Vergil’s shadow, Heaney is able to imagine casting one of his own, one that will extend far into the future, but also one that, as Heaney himself puts it, demonstrates how “human beings, given the right conditions, have an immense and heartbreaking capacity for dignified endurance; and furthermore to witness such endurance helps the rest of us endure” (cited on p. 12).