When I bought this translation of Aeneid VI and read Heaney’s introduction, I thought it would be a fitting review on the blog for Father’s Day. In the introduction to the translation, Heaney says that he gravitated towards this book of the Aeneid when his own father who passed away shortly before he began his translation. The Aeneid is full of father and son relationships and Heaney recognizes that Aeneid VI in particular highlights the special relationship between Vergil’s hero and his father Anchises.
As Troy is burning because of the Greek treachery of the horse, Aeneas manages to escape the city while carrying his elderly father on his back. Aeneas could have easily left the old man behind, but he would never have considered abandoning his parent. As Aeneas is sailing the Mediterranean in search of a new home, Anchises eventually succumbs to a peaceful and natural death. In Book VI, Aeneas tells the priestess of Apollo that his greatest wish is to see his father and have one more conversation with him.
In these shadowy marshes the Aceron floods
To the surface, vouchsafe me one look,
One face-to-face meeting with my dear father
Point out the road, open the holy doors wide.
On these shoulders I bore him through flames
And a thousand enemy spears. In the thick of fighting
I saved him and he was at my side then
On all my sea-crossings, battling tempests and tides
A man in old age, worn out, not meant for duress.
Most men would not have dared to venture into the land of the dead to have a last conversation, but Aeneas is no ordinary man and the relationship with his father was no ordinary relationship. Aeneas must first visit the Sibyl of Cumae, the priestess of Apollo, to get instructions on how to approach and gain access to the land of the dead. Aeneas knows that this undertaking is dangerous and that very few men or heroes have succeeded in traveling down to the underworld and then regaining access to the land of the living.
Aeneas sees awful things on his journey to the nether regions. He witnesses countless souls standing on the banks of the river Styx trying to gain passage on Charon’s boat to bring them across to their final, peaceful resting places. He also witnesses the souls of men being tortured and punished in Tartarus; these men were horrible and wicked in their earthly lives and the Sybil tells him that the punishments being doled are fitting for their crimes. But witnessing all of this sorrow and horror is worth it to Aeneas just to have that one final conversation with his father.
When Aeneas finally sees Anchises, his father is in the Elysian Fields, the place where good and kind and blessed souls wander in peace. Anchises’ role, like that of any good father, becomes that of mentor, of cheerleader, of counselor to his son who still has many challenges in front of him. Anchises shows Aeneas that the result of his efforts and tribulations will be a progeny which the entire world will celebrate and revere. It is Anchises’ encouraging words that Aeneas uses as inspiration to embark on the second half of his journey, on the part of the story to which Vergil refers as arma.
Seamus Heaney’s translation of Aeneid VI is poetic and beautiful. It adheres to the spirit of the original Latin while rendering Vergil’s words into a graceful and elegant story in English. For those who have wanted to read Vergil’s epic poem but find the idea of reading all twelve books too daunting, Heaney’s translation of Aeneid VI serves as the perfect introduction to this Latin classic.