VIRGIL’S Aeneid is a long-cherished epic poem that tells of Aeneas, a Trojan hero, escaping from the ruins of Troy following the Trojan War. His fate is tied in with the founding of Rome, and he is destined by the gods to travel to Italy where he is to become the ancestor of the Roman people. Only published after Virgil’s death, it is a work that has taken a central place in school Latin lessons ever since: the first time many come across it. The poem has naturally lent itself to numerous renderings, adaptations, and translations over the last two millennia.

Every new translation of a classic like the Aeneid raises a set of fundamental questions: does the translation do the text justice? Does the language capture the essence of the original Latin? What does this translation bring to the work that wasn’t present before? Virgil’s translators are usually classical scholars, with thorough knowledge of and fluency in the original language. A high bar is set for new contributors to the field.

Yet Virgil enthusiasts need not worry. Heaney’s posthumously published translation of Book VI is poetry in the hands of a deft poet. His command of language is immediately palpable, in phrases such as ‘dappling shadows,’ ‘dread jambs,’ and ‘razor-backed ridges.’ In the translator's note, he reveals that the translation is the 'result of a lifelong desire' to honour his Latin teacher, who always expressed his longing to teach Book VI rather than Book IX, the latter a set text for Heaney’s A level exam.

Book VI is arguably the most enchanting book of the Aeneid, haunting in its depth and engaging in its universal themes. It takes Aeneas down to the underworld, whereupon he meets various characters from both his past and his future; his late father Anchises whose embrace ‘escaped like a breeze between his hands, a dream on wings’; former lover Dido, with her ‘fiery spirit and…fierce gaze’; and lost helmsman Palinurus, whose unburied state leads him to lament ‘surf keeps me dandled, the shore winds loll me and roll me’; are among those whose death Aeneas has to come to terms with before the course of the second half of the Aeneid, the journey to founding Rome, can be undertaken. Book VI is a poignant exploration of loss, death, and rebirth: all the more so when we consider that Heaney’s connection with the passage intensified after the death of his father. ‘Fatherly and intent… in eager joy,’ Anchises greets his son; a scene that becomes all the more poignant when imagining Heaney associating this with his own father.

Heaney has a knack for rendering seemingly awkward text into a form accessible to modern readers. An example is found towards the end of Book VI, when Virgil recites a list of prominent Romans preparing for their entrance to the world of the living. This passage can jar with modern audiences, interrupting the flow of Virgil’s narrative. Yet Heaney’s translation remains clear and engaging, a testament to his reputation as one of the greatest poets of our time.

Heaney rejects the redundant grandiloquence adopted by so many translators. He instead brings a refreshingly simple, intelligible, and unusually elegant perspective. Virgil’s admirers will find much to compliment in this new rendition. Those new to Virgil are in for a treat; this translation is a wonderful introduction to a beloved text.

Annie Clay