© 2023 WYPR
WYPR 88.1 FM Baltimore WYPF 88.1 FM Frederick WYPO 106.9 FM Ocean City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Seamus Heaney's Translation Of 'The Aeneid' Gets Posthumous Publication


The Irish poet Seamus Heaney died a few years ago. He left behind an unpublished translation of a section of the Roman epic "The Aeneid." He chose the part that describes the hero going to the underworld to visit his dead father. Heaney wrote in the translator's note that he was consumed with this story after his own father died. Now, the book is coming out, and our poetry reviewer Tess Taylor joined me to talk about it.

TESS TAYLOR, BYLINE: He'd been working on it for five years, and the book ends up in his computer in a draft marked final. And his daughter, Catherine, finds it and brings it forward for publication. And what's amazing about it is, you know, Heaney couldn't have known that this was going to be a valediction or a grand farewell. But in a way, it's - Heaney is going down into that underworld to meet his father, but it's as if he's also leaving us a message that says, you know, I have entered the tradition and I'm going to live on.

SHAPIRO: But here's what just kills me about this, though. I mean, literally I'm getting goosebumps thinking about it. Seamus Heaney's daughter finds this manuscript that connects her to her father. Her father wrote this manuscript in a way memorializing his father who had died. And the manuscript itself translates this thousands of years old story about this great adventure going into the underworld to meet his deceased father. It is just this sequence of parents and children and loss and connection and love and longing.

TAYLOR: It's both beautiful and uncanny. And it's like a letter to the past and a letter to the future all at once. And so what I love about this translation is that it's extremely cinematic. I mean, it's bright and clear.

SHAPIRO: Oh, my God, yes.

TAYLOR: I think that, you know, any Hollywood producer could pick this up and just sort of wish that their script writers would write something as bright and clear and engaging as this. It's very...


TAYLOR: It's very exciting and alive.

SHAPIRO: This one phrase - I love it. (Reading) The iron cells of the Furies, death-dealing war and fanatical violence, her viper tresses astream in a bloodstained tangle of ribbons.

TAYLOR: Oh, yes. And...

SHAPIRO: I mean, come on.

TAYLOR: So there's the part where they're going to drug the three-headed dog.

SHAPIRO: Cerberus, yes, I underlined this.

TAYLOR: They're going to drug the three-headed dog that guards the gates of hell. And it says (reading) growling from three gullets, his brute bulk couched in the cave, facing down all comers. But the Sibyl, seeing snake-hackles bristle on his necks, flings him a dumpling of soporific honey and heavily drugged grain. The ravenous triple maw yawns open, snaffles the sop.

SHAPIRO: Snaffles the sop, I love that, snaffles the sop.

TAYLOR: I know, snaffles the sop it has been thrown.

SHAPIRO: You can imagine the dog snaffling up the sop.

TAYLOR: Yes, and then (reading) the enormous flanks go slack.

So, you know, there they are. They're drugging the dog to get by the gates of hell. And it's just, like, whoa, you are - it's, you know - it's kind of funny. I mean, I just want to tell you, this version of book six of "The Aeneid" is, like, a page-turner.

SHAPIRO: You spoke with Seamus Heaney's daughter, who was the key figure in making this document public. What did she make of all of this?

TAYLOR: I had wanted to call her to find out if this was a case where the Heaney estate knew that there was another manuscript in the offing, if there were other papers that were being collected. And, no, this is - this is the offering. This in the posthumous offering that Seamus Heaney's estate has and that was in his computer. It's clear that this was this touchstone of a poem that he'd been thinking about and coming back to and returning to his entire life. And she said it felt to her uncanny and also even cosmic.

SHAPIRO: That's Tess Taylor talking with us about Seamus Heaney's translation of "The Aeneid." And she has a new collection of her own poems out called "Work And Days." What a pleasure to talk to you, thank you so much.

TAYLOR: Ari, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.