Book Review

The Example of Seamus Heaney

Air from another life and time and place . . .
—Seamus Heaney, “A Kite for Aibhín”

I am grateful for the example of Seamus Heaney, both man and poet, fully engaged in his time and his art with its visions of timelessness. He was never distracted by trends and trivialities. If the world seemed, implausibly, a better place when he lived, at least we now have his living work, its humane erudition, vitality and growth. Heaney said that Robert Frost inhabited the world at body heat. He could have been talking of himself. The biographer R. F. Foster refers to Heaney’s “overpowering but benign authority,” and anyone who knew him remembers an affable presence. His was an earthly civility. A farmer’s son, he led the life of a privileged intellectual and writer, “always politic / And shy of condescension” (as he put it in a great poem, “Casualty”). He worked hard, and the result of the labor was not just his productivity, but also his ability to change.

The voice with its guttural muse was there from the start, but he rarely stalled in his development and rarely fell into self-parody. His few lapses do not matter. What matters is the way he took on the world, becoming for good reasons a poet with a planetary following. He grew by diligent absorption, harnessing (as he might have put it) multiple languages and traditions—not only Irish and Anglo-Saxon, not only Yeats, Wordsworth and Frost, not only Dante, whom he called his favorite poet, but also a varied bench of modern Italian, French, Polish, Romanian and Russian poets. He was something of a classicist, who made fascinating versions of Sophocles, Ovid and Virgil. Now that we have his translations brought together in one volume, we can see that this activity was not a casual occupier of time between his own books, but a driver of germination, a way of thriving.[1] He was not a purist about anything—some of his translations are so free they become nearly original poems, just as his original poems converse with his translations—yet his freedom was accompanied by rigor. I might not love everything in this new book equally, but that does not prevent me from thinking it an essential contribution to any understanding of Heaney’s work. And more than that: a way of bringing worlds to bear.

There are many kinds of translators, even many kinds of translator poets. Heaney’s kind could be merely competent on occasion, but when he found a personal impulse behind the work, when it took on a special necessity related to his own needs as artist and person, he excelled. There are just over a hundred texts represented here, from Irish 4-liners to the sweep and vigor of his Beowulf. Of the 14 languages represented, he was fluent in few, often working from trots or literal versions offered by his friends. He naturally preferred working from a point of intimacy with the original text, as he could clearly do with Irish and Latin. His three Cantos of Dante’s Inferno are very much worth reading in relation to the Dantean movements of Station Island. But set beside them his masterful versions of Virgil, and it’s clear where his confidence lay, as well as his personal engagement.

Like both Virgil and Dante, Heaney was a poet who found it necessary to integrate the personal and the public—or, if you like, the political. His best version of Dante is “Ugolino,” the poem concluding Field Work, which was written “in the context of the ‘dirty protests’ in the Maze prison.” I’m quoting here from Heaney’s interviews with Dennis O’Driscoll, Stepping Stones, an indispensable guide for readers of his work. The influence of Dante allows Heaney to reflect Irish political events of his own time without being tarred and feathered by them, and to elevate griefs over grievances. It’s in “Ugolino” that “hunger killed where grief had only wounded.” That kind of urgency elevates the task of translation and gives it the flavor of original creation.

The editor of this volume, Marco Sonzogni, is also a man of the world, born in Italy, educated there and in Ireland and New Zealand, where he currently lives and teaches. His annotations at the back of the book constitute nearly a variorum edition, though it took me a while to figure out his organizing system, which somewhat jumbles chronological and thematic categories. It’s a small complaint to make about such an important and satisfying book. And it leaves the texts on the page unencumbered with apparatus, so one can read the book simply as a collection of poetry from many times and places, all filtered through Heaney’s sensibility. One finds Heaney translating “The Names of the Hare” from Middle English simply because he loved the poem and had spent an afternoon observing hares in the English countryside. It’s a list poem, delighting in hare character:

The creep-along, the sitter-still,
the pintail, the ring-the-hill,
the sudden start,
the shake-the-heart,
the belly-white,
the lambs-in-flight.

The gobshite, the gum-sucker,
the scare-the-man, the faith-breaker,
the snuff-the-ground, the baldy skull
(his chief name is scoundrel).

Language play and nature love combine even more spectacularly than they do in the litany of trees in Heaney’s Sweeney Astray.

A more familiar Middle English poem, “I sing of a maiden,” is beautifully rendered, though in this case one could argue that translation is hardly required. For most of us, the translations from the Irish like “Summer” or the Scots Gaelic of Sorley MacLean will be more illuminating. In one brilliant gesture, Heaney combines excerpts from Ovid with outtakes from Brian Merriman’s eighteenth-century Irish-language masterpiece, The Midnight Court. Both texts involve battles between the sexes, and both are punchy with life. Here are just a few lines from the Merriman, in which a man is put on trial by women:

Observe him closely, Madam Judge.
From head to toe, he’s your average
Passable male—no paragon
But nothing a woman wouldn’t take on.
Unshapely, yes, and off the plumb,
But with all his kit of tools about him.
A shade whey-faced and pale and wan,
But what about it? There’s bone and brawn.
For it’s him and his likes with their humps and stoops
Can shoulder doors and flutter the coops;
As long as a man is randy and game,
Who gives a damn if he’s bandy or lame?

In several of these texts, Heaney proves partial to rebel artists, nowhere more so than in his book-length Sweeney Astray. Here the cursed poet Sweeney sings one of his hymns to the natural world:

I prefer the scurry
and song of blackbirds
to the usual blather
of men and women.

I prefer the squeal of badgers
in their sett
to the hullabaloo
of the morning hunt.

I prefer the re-
echoing belling of a stag
among the peaks
to that terrible horn.

All his life Heaney wrestled with the poet’s responsibility, and in his translations he finds a heroic freedom of a kind more cautiously sought in his original poems.

There are good versions, it seems to me, from Russian, like Pushkin’s “The Civil Power,” which might have intrigued Heaney as he tried to find his own pathways between public and private utterance. Two versions of Joseph Brodsky, worthy of being set alongside those by Anthony Hecht and Richard Wilbur, also arise from this negotiated stance, as well as his friendship with the exiled Russian poet. For me it was more unexpected and even more welcome to find two Romanian poets I knew nothing about: Marin Sorescu and Ana Blandiana. In this haiku by Sorescu, Heaney would have found a meeting of his interests in nature and literary form: “Overhead, the traditional lines / Of cranes: / Sonnets for countrymen.” And here is one of Blandiana’s opening stanzas:

The song isn’t mine,
It just passes through me sometimes,
Uncomprehended, untamed,
Lightly dressed in my name;
The way the gods in the old days
Would pass among people
Dressed in a cloud.

This state of anonymity is familiar, surely, to both poet and translator.

Turning to a poet I know more intimately, if that’s the right word, I’m struck by how good Heaney’s versions of Cavafy are. He had no Greek, and in his classical translations worked from the Loeb and other editions, but for modern Greek he had friends like Dimitri Hadzi and Stratis Haviaras to guide him. The latter had published his own translation of Cavafy in 2007 with a foreword by Heaney, who considered the possibility of doing the whole corpus collaboratively. He left it at six poems, all of them as well done as any versions we have—as graceful in their way as the few Cavafy translations left us by James Merrill. His version of “Dionysos in Procession”—the “Retinue” or “Procession of Dionysos” would be more accurate—even rhymes like the original. In “The First Step,” you can find hints of what attracted Heaney to this great Greek poet: “If you’ve come this far, it means you must belong / by natural right in the city of ideas. / And to be admitted there as a citizen / is no easy or no ordinary thing.” His versions of the Italian poet Giovanni Pascoli (1855–1912) seem encounters with a kindred spirit. One lovely sequence given here, “The Last Walk,” was edited by Sonzogni just before Heaney’s death. Another poem, “The Kite,” also provides the basis for the final poem in Human Chain, Heaney’s last collection. It’s a conversation of shared affinities.

Without having seen them staged, as they have been with some success, I can only judge his two versions of Sophocles as reading texts. They are very good. Just look at this vivid opening chorus from Philoctetes, which Heaney calls The Cure at Troy:

Heroes. Victims. Gods and human beings.
All throwing shapes, every one of them
Convinced he’s in the right, all of them glad
To repeat themselves and their every last mistake,
No matter what.

People so deep into
Their own self-pity self-pity buoys them up.
People so staunch and true, they’re fixated,
Shining with self-regard like polished stones.
And their whole life spent admiring themselves
For their own long-suffering.

Licking their wounds
And flashing them around like decorations.
I hate it, I always hated it, and I am
A part of it myself.

And a part of you,
For my part is the chorus, and the chorus
Is more or less a borderline between
The you and the me and the it of it.

I’d keep quoting if I had space. Those fixated stones allude to Yeats, of course, whose “Easter, 1916” is a monumental public poem, and whose shade would haunt any Irish poet rendering Sophocles into English. Heaney’s translations are often allusive, threaded with personal subtexts. A climactic chorus of The Cure at Troy, often quoted by Joe Biden, is the one where “hope and history rhyme.”

Heaney’s version of Antigone, called The Burial at Thebes, is just as good. Sonzogni’s notes explain that Heaney accepted the invitation from the Abbey Theatre to translate the play partly because Yeats hadn’t “put his trademark on this one,” and partly because it spoke to the historical moment, in which the Bush administration was using a Creon-like either-or argument to justify its invasion of Iraq. Antigone’s resistance, her act of conscience, is associated with her “wildness,” so she is also something of a rebel-hero, like Sweeney, or like any person who does not bend to the official line. Here the Chorus asks, “Among the many wonders of the world / Where is the equal of this creature, man?” (Hamlet, anyone?) And goes on to say,

The wind is no more swift or mysterious
Than his mind and words; he has mastered thinking,
Roofed his house against hail and rain
And worked out laws for living together.

Home-maker, thought-taker, measure of all things,
He can heal with herbs and read the heavens.
Nothing seems beyond him, except death.
Death he can defy but not defeat.

You can hear a four-beat accentual meter underpinning Heaney’s lines, an Anglo-Saxon echo. He had abandoned his Dante because he couldn’t get the hang of the voice, and here the voice is more familiar to him, even if the original language is more distant.

So it seems natural now to turn to Heaney’s best-selling Beowulf, published in 1999, a few years before his Antigone. Here the first word is the storyteller’s “So,” in medias res, an ingenious adaptation of the original Hwæt. When Heaney’s version was first taking the world by storm, I was placed in the awkward position of having two friends, Timothy Murphy and Alan Sullivan, publishing their own strict and accurate translation. There is room for both. What Heaney gets is the drive and humanity of the storytelling voice. His introduction (not reproduced in the book under review) sets the work in context and adds that unlike my two friends he was “reluctant to force an artificial shape or an unusual word choice just for the sake of correctness.” Thus, the spirits of his rebel artists, his Sweeney-like figures, liberate him to make a living work in his own terms. It is wonderful.

Like his translation from the Middle Scots of Robert Henryson, his work on Beowulf only took off when he discovered a voice and its relation to the language of his own upbringing.

What happened was that I found in the glossary to C. L. Wrenn’s edition of the poem the Old English word meaning “to suffer,” the word þolian; and although at first it looked completely strange with its thorn symbol instead of the familiar th, I gradually realized that it was not strange at all, for it was the word that older and less educated people would have used in the country where I grew up. “They’ll just have to learn to thole,” my aunt would say about some family who had suffered an unforeseen bereavement. And now suddenly here was “thole” in the official textual world, mediated through the apparatus of a scholarly edition, a little bleeper to remind me that my aunt’s language was not just a self-enclosed family possession but an historical heritage, one that involved the journey þolian had made north into Scotland and then across into Ulster with the planters and then across from the planters to the locals who had originally spoken Irish and then farther across again when the Scots Irish emigrated to the American South in the eighteenth century. When I read in John Crowe Ransom the line “Sweet ladies, long may ye bloom, and toughly I hope ye may thole,” my heart lifted again, the world widened, something was furthered. . . . What I was experiencing as I kept meeting up with thole on its multicultural odyssey was the feeling which Osip Mandelstam once defined as a “nostalgia for world culture.”

A word had made possible a world.

Heaney’s Beowulf is alliterative, but less strictly so than the Murphy-Sullivan translation. Only a pedant would object, given the shear vitality of the writing. I could quote from any page to give examples of comic flytings or battles or funerals, but instead I’ll just offer this brief, lovely passage about sailing:

Right away the mast was rigged with its sea-shawl;
sail-ropes were tightened, timbers drummed
and stiff winds kept the wave-crosser
skimming ahead; as she heaved forward,
her foamy neck was fleet and buoyant,
a lapped prow loping over currents,
until finally the Geats caught sight of coastline
and familiar cliffs. The keel reared up,
wind lifted it home, it hit on the land.

Only last month one of my neighbors, an Irish ex-war correspondent, was telling me how much he enjoyed listening over and over to Heaney’s recording of Beowulf. And this in Tasmania—the work really gets around!

As an Irish Catholic of his generation, Heaney would have felt that Latin was as much his birthright as English and Irish. The world now knows that, in August 2013, as he was being wheeled to emergency surgery, he texted two Latin words to his wife: noli timere, “don’t be afraid.” R. F. Foster reminds us that Heaney “died on his way into the operating theatre. . . .” He was seventy-four. His finished translation of Virgil’s Aeneid Book VI was discovered posthumously. Sonzogni’s notes to the present volume inform us that Heaney had called it “classics homework,” done “to honour the memory of Father Michael McGlinchey, his Latin teacher at St Columb’s College. While the set text for the A-level exam in 1957 was Aeneid IX, SH recalls, McGlinchey wished it were Book VI. For this reason, over the years SH ‘gravitated towards that part of the poem,’ taking ‘special note of it’ after the death of his father, ‘since the story it tells is that of Aeneas’ journey to meet the shade of his father Anchises in the land of the dead.’”

Human Chain, a book suffused with references to Virgil, is suspended between memories of his father and the arrival of his own grandchildren. The writer Andrew O’Hagan relates a journey he took with Heaney and another friend, Karl Miller, in 2010, the year Human Chain was published. They made a pilgrimage to the grave of Henry Vaughan in Wales. There Miller and Heaney spoke of their interest in the afterlife. Miller particularly wished he could see his grandmother again. Heaney replied, “For me, my father. I’d hope to see him again, all right.” The sequence entitled “Album” from Human Chain explicitly imagines trying to embrace the shade of his father, as Aeneas does in the Elysian Fields. “Route 110,” another sequence, named for a bus route in his schooldays, also alludes to Aeneid Book VI and ends with “baby talk” to a newly arrived grandchild. Heaney had spoken of a move toward simplicity in his later poems, something picked up from translations of Japanese poetry, and a resonant simplicity is a hallmark of this final collection. Yet Virgil threads through it too, part of the human chain, the profundity.

Praising Heaney’s translation of Aeneid VI in the Claremont Review of Books (Spring 2017), Dana Gioia particularly noted its “animating energy of emotional necessity.” While this version of Hell has the usual tortures, the fates of the unburied, the suicides, and the stuff that would so influence Dante, some of its most beautiful passages concern the Elysian Fields:

. . . They came into happy vistas and the green welcome
Of the Groves of the Fortunate Ones who dwell in joy.
Here a more spacious air sheds brightness
Over the land; they enjoy their own sun here
And their own stars—some at their exercises
On the grass, some competing in earnest, wrestling
On yellow sand; others are dancing dances
And singing songs, Orpheus among them
In his long musician’s robe, keeping time,
Plucking his seven notes from the seven-stringed lyre
Now with his fingers, now with an ivory plectrum.

Anchises dwells here too, “off in a deep green valley.” And here we get the climactic encounter:

. . . seeing Aeneas come wading through the grass
Towards him, he reached his two hands out
In eager joy, his eyes filled up with tears
And he gave a cry: “At last! Are you here at last?
I always trusted that your sense of right
Would prevail and keep you going to the end.
And am I now allowed to see your face,
My son, and hear you talk, and talk to you myself?”

Clearly this is more, much more, than “classics homework.” This strikes the deepest chords of both poet and translator. Aeneas replies:

“Often and often, father, you would appear to me,
Your sad shade would appear, and that kept me going
To this end. My ships are anchored in the Tuscan sea.
Let me take your hand, my father, O let me, and do not
Hold back from my embrace.” And as he spoke he wept.
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.

The father becomes a guide for the son, through the Elysian Fields, observing even those souls destined to be reincarnated—another form of human chain. Surely it is no accident that the first line of this passage echoes Dylan Thomas, who made human chains of his own:

“To begin at the beginning: a nurturing inner spirit
Works to sustain sky, earth, the fields of ocean,
The moon’s bright disc and Titan’s star, the sun;
And mind, operative in every part, imbues
The massive whole, blending with world’s body.
From which are born races of men and beasts,
Creatures that fly, and prodigies ocean breeds
Beneath the molten marble of its surface.
The seeds of life are strong sparks out of fire,
Their origin divine, so to that extent
They are immune to the heavy toll of the body,
Their quickness unaffected by the toil
Of human limbs and the mortal clothing
Of the flesh. . . .”

It’s a faithful cosmology, offering a vision of sustaining life in the face of all that destroys and tears us down. Heaney had always praised makers, not sackers or destroyers, and while Virgil turns inevitably to the praise of his emperor, Heaney’s version of the poem gives special weight to this scene between father and son.

In his conversations with O’Driscoll, Heaney noted that he enjoyed translation “because it’s a form of writing by proxy: you get the high of finishing something you don’t have to start.” But he also labored to make his translations true poems in English, as Sonzogni put it, “hoping that his English ‘could do what Yeats wanted rhythm to do in poetry: prolong the moment of contemplation.’” He’s quoting an article by Heaney there. Few poets could have put it better.

[1] THE TRANSLATIONS OF SEAMUS HEANEY, ed. by Marco Sonzogni. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $50.00.