Aeneas in tears

The Cumaean Sibyl, by Elihu Vedder, 1876

The Aeneid: A New Translation

Shadi Bartsch, Profile Books Ltd., 2020, 400 pages [Book VI only for this review]

Aeneid Book VI

Seamus Heaney, Faber and Faber, 2016, 53 pages

LESLEY SAUNDERS compares two notable translations of The Aeneid’s pivotal Book VI

It feels peculiarly apt, and particularly poignant, to be reading Book VI of the Aeneid now, as the death toll from the Covid-19 pandemic surpasses two million (in January 2021). The image of Aeneas trying in vain to embrace the shade of his father seems uncannily to foreshadow the thousands of people over the past year who have not been able to hold the hands of their dying relatives:


ter conatus ibi collo dare bracchia circum,

ter frustra comprensa manus effugit imago,

par levibus ventis volucrique simillima somno.

(lines 700 – 702, echoing exactly lines 792 – 794 of Aeneid Book II, when Aeneas tried to embrace the ghost of his wife Creusa as he escaped the burning city of Troy)


     …                               Three times he tried

to wrap his arms around his father’s neck; three times

his hands passed through the insubstantial shade, as if

it were the merest breeze, a fleeting dream.


Three times he tried to reach arms round that neck.

Three times the form, reached for in vain, escaped

Like a breeze between his hands, a dream on wings.

Clearly the two English versions are translations of the same original: on the basis of a mere three lines, could you say which you prefer, and why?

More broadly, supposing your bookshelves are already creaking with translations, in prose and poetry, of the Aeneid, how do you decide whether to try and squeeze in another one? Including Bartsch’s, six well-received English translations of the whole Aeneid (others are by Stanley Lombardo 2005, Frederick Ahl 2007, Robert Fagles 2008, Sarah Ruden 2009 and David Ferry 2017) have been published this century. This is not to mention the John Dryden, the C. Day Lewis, the Jackson Knight, the Robert Fitzgerald, the Allen Mandelbaum, of previous centuries. What makes a particular translation the one you end up keeping, the one you always take down from the shelf?

It is a truism – also true – that translation is always an act of interpretation; there can be no ‘carrying-across’ from one language to another without some additional baggage being smuggled or declared. Importation of cultural assumptions and/or of cultural critique is unavoidable in the case of Aeneid Book VI. The book encapsulates the whole epic, of which it is the centre and pivot. It is an encounter with both past and future, with ancestors and descendants; it is where the old world of Ilium meets the new world of Italia; it is a hymn to sorrow and the knowledge of loss; an extended meditation on the phrase sunt lacrimae rerum that appeared in Aeneid Book I; a vivid evocation of the wasteful horrors of war; a humane plea for compassion towards the dead and defeated; a nation’s foundational narrative; a triumphalist exposition of Rome’s destiny as a colonial power; a paean to the glorious achievements of Augustus Imperator; a moment of crisis in the arduous journey of a reluctant hero who must be persuaded of the rightness of his mission; a re-telling of the mythic descent into, and return from, the underworld in order to bring back more-than-ordinary knowledge.

The Golden Bough, by J. M. W. Turner

In a perceptive monograph, Evelyn W. Adkins contrasts the choice of vocabulary and its effect on the tone of voice in different translations – chosen from across five centuries – of the Aeneid by Gavin Douglas, Thomas Phaer, John Dryden, C. Day Lewis, Robert Fitzgerald, Allen Mandelbaum and Stanley Lombardo. Adkins is particularly interested in how translators see their own political concerns reflected in Book VI; as she shows, the translators’ emphases on the book’s complex and ambivalent themes may fall very differently depending on the way they translate specific phrases, with the effect of giving the text greater militaristic force, for example – or of stressing the literary linkage and lineage of the Aeneid from Homer to Dante.

I had already decided before reading Adkins to take a comparative look at Bartsch’s and Heaney’s translations of Book VI because they are each prefaced by thoughtful notes about their interpretative decisions. Heaney’s rationale is less explicit and systematic, more of a poet’s apologia, than Bartsch’s deliberative investigation, but both translators being conscious of the need to say something about the why and how, the personal investment each of them has made because of the lasting influence Virgil has had on them and their sensibilities.

Both bring autobiography to bear on their reasons; in her Translator’s Note, Bartsch writes that a large part of her motivation was:

… all translators bring a certain world view with them, and to date this view has mostly been a male, European-American point of view. Perhaps, then, it is not insignificant that I grew up as a foreigner in other people’s countries (including Indonesia, Iran and the Fiji Islands as well as Europe) … And I am a woman in a discipline that was still marked by gender imbalance when I was doing my studies.

And yet, she writes, ‘I don’t think the Aeneid brings those biases with it’ – the epic’s superficially dominant perspectives serve in effect to ‘undermine their own authority’. This viewpoint informs her approach to the interpretative labour of line by line translation; she sees her task as not so much revisionist as expository, revelatory.

In his Translator’s Note, Heaney tells us that his translation of Book VI is:

… more like classics homework, the result of a life-long desire to honour the memory of my Latin teacher at St Columb’s College, Father Michael McGlinchey… The set text for our A level exam in 1957 was Aeneid IX but McGlinchey was forever sighing ‘Och, boys, I wish it were Book VI.’

Heaney’s acquaintance with the Aeneid might therefore seem to sit squarely within the male-dominated Eurocentric tradition that Bartsch is concerned to question and relativise. But Heaney had deeply personal reasons for embarking on the journey that echo Aeneas’ own. The poet and critic Ruth Padel (in ’Beyond the Golden Bough with Seamus Heaney’) explains that Heaney had been working on translating Book VI from the 1980s until the month before he died, the work being brought into the fullness of being by two life events – the death of his father in 1986 and the birth of his first grandchild in 2006.

So we shall want to find out whether and how these different kinds of personal engagement play out in practice in the two translations. However, I probably ought first to say a little about poetics, by which I mean the specific mix of metre plus diction plus music/sonic effects that constitutes literary form and underlies the art and craft of translation. Aaron Poochigian bewails the lack of ‘loftiness’ in modern translations (Heaney’s had not appeared at the time of writing), and fears that

…free verse is incapable of sustaining a lofty tone because irregular rhythms break the incantatory spell and prosaic expressions undercut the elevation.

So another question we might ask is: ‘how do we, with our current poetics, translate a sublime but very formal poem?’

Bartsch’s approach is to try to “create a radically different reading experience by being attentive to the pace of Vergil’s epic” (original emphasis). She says she ‘compromised between the familiarity of Shakespearian blank verse and Vergil’s [quantitative] meter by allowing six, sometimes five, beats in my iambic lines.’ Bartsch’s explanation of her method is too long even to summarise here but is worth reading for its discussion of what she calls her “conscious philosophy of translation” – which foregrounds a commitment to the audience, whether classicists or general readers.

Padel contrasts “the long English line” Heaney used in his earlier poem ‘The Golden Bough’ (a translation of lines 98 – 148 of Book VI, published in Seeing Things, 1991) to represent Virgil’s 14-syllable hexameters with the “loose pentameters, generally 11-syllable lines of blank verse, which flow beautifully” of the finished book.

So what do these metres – the beats and the flow – look and sound like? Here are the extraordinary lines that describe the approach of Aeneas and the Sibyl to the Underworld:


Ibant obscuri sola sub nocte per umbram

perque domos Ditis vacuas et inania regna,

quale per incertam lunam sub luce maligna

est iter in silvis, ubi caelum condidit umbra

Iuppiter, et rebus nox abstulit atra colorem.

(lines 268 – 272)


They went, faded figures in the lonely night,

through the lifeless, empty realm of Dis,

as if through a wood under a clouded moon’s

thin light, when Jove has plunged the sky in shadow

and black night leaches color from the world.


On they went in darkness, through the lonely

Shadowing night, a nowhere of deserted dwellings,

Dim phantasmal reaches where Pluto is king –

Like following a forest path by the hovering light

Of a moon that clouds and unclouds at Jupiter’s whim,

While the colours of the world pall in gloom.

Let’s pause to consider that pair of transferred epithets in the first line: obscuri [dark] might normally be attached to the night, not to Aeneas and his eerie priestess companion; conversely, sola [alone] might be thought to belong not to the night but to Aeneas and the sense of abandonment he is feeling. The double transference serves, by the severing of the expected attachment between descriptor and described, to generate the absence that characterises, that indeed is, the domain of the dead. A literary convention has thereby been transformed into realised experience, present emotion; the sonorous metrical requirements of the epic form have been tempered by a tender lyric intuition. (I’m quoting myself, from my Axon article ‘Present absences and absent presences’.)

I think this might be another example of what David Wharton calls the productive ambiguity of Virgil’s poetry. As Wharton writes of ‘Sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt’, “the line is sufficiently communicative at the level of implication without submitting to a definitive explicature… it disrupts the flow of our reading and draws us into explicit contemplation…”

How do the two translators address this grammatical ambiguity, and the way it opens up a psychological space? It is interesting in this context that Bartsch quotes Kate Kellaway in her praise for Heaney’s demonstration that “plain words are storm-proofed”. Whilst ‘plainness’ is a significant and valuable quality of Bartsch’s own translation, including in this instance, I’m not sure it accurately captures what Heaney accomplishes in, for example “the shadowing night”, “a nowhere of deserted dwellings” and a moon that “clouds and unclouds at Jupiter’s whim” – each of them an insight into, rather than a surface rendition of, the Latin words.

Book VI reaches its climax (in lines 757 – 859) with the parade of military heroes who will make prophecy come true and bring Rome’s great destiny to fruition. This is where we might expect Bartsch’s translation to bear the marks of her interpretative inclination not to “soften… features of antiquity that are unpleasant to us today”, perhaps even somehow to offer an alternative to the hegemonic / colonial perspective. Both translators have good reason to be suspicious of triumphalist narratives, but contrast Bartsch’s translation of lines 841 – 846, in which what she actually does is make good her intention to “maintain the tempo of the Latin”, so as to “reproduce… the excitement and immediacy of the poem”:

… Who’d omit great Cato, or you, Cossus?

Or the Gracchi and two Scipios, Libya’s

ruin, thunderbolts of war; Fabricius,

powerful though poor, Serranus sowing furrows?

You Fabii, why hurry? Maximus,

you’ll be the only one to save our land by lagging.

with Heaney’s:

Next, great Cato, you, who could not sing your praise

Or, Cossus, yours? Or the family of the Gracchi;

Or those two Scipios, two warrior thunderbolts

Who will strike down bellicose Carthage; or Fabricius,

The indomitable and frugal; or you, Serranus,

Sowing your furrowed fields? Nor is there a quick

Or easy way to scan the long line of the Fabii,

Down to the greatest, Fabius Maximus,

He who’ll contrive to stall and thereby save our state.

With these lines, which sound to my ear a bit too much like a translation, Heaney seems rather to have lost patience. In his Note, he says that this part of the poem is “something of a test for reader and translator alike”; indeed, by this point, “the translator is likely to have moved from inspiration to grim determination”. And it shows: the prolixity of Heaney’s version here (nine lines to Virgil’s, and Bartsch’s, six) does little to help our understanding of who these generals and heroes were or what they actually did. The play of words in “scan….  the long line” is entirely Heaney’s and feels more gratuitous than witty.

Nonetheless, it is to the parallel lives of man and epic hero that we owe Heaney’s determination (grim or otherwise) to finish this book, “for the sake of the little one whose ‘earthlight broke’ in late 2006”. And, even though he did not live to see it published, what an accomplishment it turned out to be! For what Heaney brought to this labour of love and duty was a lifetime of writing poetry himself. His gift for translation reveals itself through specific features which – for the sake of brevity – I’ll characterise with minimal explanation:

fluency: a feel for how one line (of thought), one fleeting image, one big idea (what James Rother calls a poet’s ‘rhythmus mentis’) links with the next – as Heaney’s translations of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, of Buile Suibhne and of Beowulf had already attested …

lexis: a generosity of vocabulary, which happily draws now and again on unusual words: for example, “a vast scaresome cavern” (“scaresomely” also occurs in ‘Seeing Things’); ”an outlander groom”; “snaffles the sop it has been thrown; “slobbered corpses”; plus turns of phrase that sound like Irish English: for example, “a mad moment came”; “’Out from here’, the seeress is shouting”.

‘music’: one word we use for this in poetry is ‘prosody’, which John Colapinto says “comes from the ancient Greek: pros, meaning “toward”, and ody, meaning “song”. We speak toward song”. It is an instinct for the subtle relationship between vowels and consonants, stressed and unstressed syllables, soft and loud, high and low – everything that one might call the ‘mouth-feel’ of a given language, which becomes manifest when you read the text aloud. Try this:

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 yet 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.

(Heaney, lines 271 – 279)

Neither ‘plain’ nor ‘lofty’ but tuned to an inner humanity, Heaney’s singular and expressive gift rescues the golden bough from cliché, makes it – as it was for Aeneas – a thing of wonder, an emanation of the soulfulness of the living world.

But I can’t finish without acknowledging that Bartsch gives us something special too, a vigorous, deeply-felt and genuinely exciting version of the whole story. And so both books are here on my shelf to stay.