Lighting the path back

For many twentieth-century predecessors and contemporaries of Seamus Heaney, the game of “Choose your Latin poet” was not one in which Virgil always came out on top. Ezra Pound repudiated Virgil (or Virgil in Latin) in favor of Ovid; TS Eliot preferred to admire Virgil from a distance, and by way of Dante; While WH Auden was happy to declare “No, Virgil no”: “Behind your verse so masterfully made / We hear the weeping of a Muse betrayed.”

Such exercise of taste has its Irish dimensions. Cecil Day-Lewis was an Anglo-Irish writer (with a tension-bearing hyphen in the “Anglo-Irish”), and it is apt that his fine version of the Aeneid (1952) was so much “Anglo-”, and so little “Irish”, in its effect. Louis MacNeice, who served his time as a professional classicist, plumped for Horace over Virgil and maintained that “Roman roads are a tedium”, since he preferred “the boreens of a country / Rome never bothered her ponderous head about”. Later, Michael Longley (no mean Latinist) eschewed Virgil’s epic altogether in favor of the Greek of Homer. Heaney’s home ground in Co Derry could have been at the end of one of MacNeice’s “boreens”, and there, by a riverbank, it was Virgil who was to serve as his attendant poetic spirit. What exactly the Roman poet of Lethe was doing by the River Moyola it took Heaney decades to discover, work throughand turn to his advantage.

His Virgilian affinity was not always predictable, but it was definite and far-reaching. Rachel Falconer has produced a detailed and useful survey of Heaney’s dealings with Virgil – at least, those of the later Heaney, for she considers little before the mid-1990s and concentrates especially on his work from Electric Light (2001) and after. Heaney was instinctively suspicious of Virgil as the epic poet of the emperor Augustus, and read him instead as a poet of mythic, profoundly familial belonging and imagination: a son of Mantua rather than Rome. This was the Virgil who enabled Heaney’s major late achievement, the sequence “Route 101” and some related poems in his final collection, Human Chain (2010). Falconer’s treatment of that work tests and bears out its importance, but she goes further, suggesting that “[Virgil’s] poetry generates newness – new energy, new artistic form, new ways of thinking.” That may be totally too front-facing, and its forward thrust feels wrong for the backward pull of Heaney’s most profoundly Virgilian work.

Whatever else Virgil did for Heaney, he did not make things imaginatively new. Falconer writes of translation as “a means of forwarding the deep past into the present”, claiming that classical myth is a journey into “something beyond your already known artistic, emotional or intellectual territory”. Yet Heaney’s engagements with Virgil did not work in quite this way, and Falconer’s many accomplished and alert readings demonstrate how, on the contrary, the poet used his favored passages of Virgil to deepen and intensify his encounters with abiding, far-back and unresolved personal memory. It is as though Virgil was himself the Golden Bough, offering admission to Heaney’s own underworld of memory and association. Virgil was lighting not some forward-leading path, but the way back.

This is important for the brilliant successes in Heaney’s Virgilian poetry. Not that every encounter between Heaney and his chosen master was an unqualified triumph: no amount of close reading can turn the clunky eclogues of Electric Light Into gold, nor give the sequence “District and Circle” much artistic surprise, and Falconer’s dedicated attention can rescue neither. Heaney’s full version of Aeneid Book VI (which is not nearly so original in its metrical cast as Falconer tries to make it) suffers by comparison with the poetry of Human Chain. The dutiful translation – which is more burdened as the later part of Virgil’s text bores and alienates its translator – was the beneficiary of warm posthumous affection from Heaney’s admirers, but even so its inherent merits are modest ones.

A good thing about Falconer’s book is that it gives generous space to all of Heaney’s later engagements with Virgil, generating valuable accounts of sometimes obscure material in the process. The research is scholarly and deep, and students and critics will profit from it. The problem, though, is just how extensive Heaney’s debts to Virgil are claimed to be, making them look at once fundamental and humdrum. The sheer detail of the reading, too, makes the lack of any comparison with other Irish poets’ Virgilian forays problematic. Undoubtedly, Falconer’s book would be better for some judicious editing: a whole chapter on Orpheus and Ovid is interesting without being obviously to the point. On a smaller scale, it’s unhelpful to be told so often (wrongly) that Heaney’s twelve-line verse units in sequences such as “Squarings” and “Route 101” are in Dantean terza rima; And few readers will want to spend much time weighing up the consequence of identifying, for example, Ted Hughes with Virgil’s Palinurus.

Falconer’s appropriation for her title of that quintessentially Heaney-esque phrase, “the good of poetry”, begs a number of questions. Admittedly, these are questions that Heaney’s work tended to bypass in the first place: how does poetry’s “good” actually do any good, and for whom exactly? As Falconer puts Heaney’s position, “the good of poetry is ultimately its capacity to offer inner resilience, hope, and the memory or vision of a more just and peaceful society”. Yet it’s hard to distinguish this kind of thing, so lacking in particularity, from what Heaney called the “do-goodery of poetry and the arts in general”. He knew that any proclaimed literary “good” could be seen from two sides, as inspiration but also as cant. Falconer credits Virgil with being the enabler of Heaney’s vision of poetic “good”; but Virgil is also an unlikely most do-gooder, as his Irish admirer was well aware. The Aeneid is an imperial epic, a story of pacification through violent conquest, and not of that “peace” which Heaney was fond of citing (from Coventry Patmore by way of WB Yeats) in the formulation “The end of art is peace”.

Growth, Virgil is there in the big heart of Heaney’s poetic imagination, and readers wanting to understand this will need to take account of Falconer’s patient and revealing work. The book is a reminder that, much as he was valued for a supposed directness, Heaney was a literary poet: he knew his Latin, and could read Virgil with a strict eye. The Aeneid – and even then, it was by no means all of the Aeneid – offered him corroboration of his own mythic sense of a family past; Its imperial dimensions, like the political meanings of Heaney’s homeplace and memories, were largely sloughed off or (more grandly) transcended. What was left was the “good” of a poet’s choice that was happily vindicated, and of a remote mentor who could become suddenly and productively close.

Peter McDonald is Professor of Poetry at Christ Church, Oxford. His translation of The Homeric Hymns was published in 2016

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