Heaney’s Aeneid: Book VI

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Book VI of The Aeneid is a tough one for non-classicists to love.   The central theme of the book — about 900 lines of Latin dactylic hexameter, the epic verse — is the imperial destiny of Rome. At first glance, Vergil lets his poetic license run freely in defense of empire. The prophecy of the dead Anchises, when he meets his son Aeneas in the underworld, is often taken to be representative:
Tu regere imperio populos, Romane, memento
(hae tibi erunt artes), pacique imponere morem,
Parcere subiectis et debellare superbos
Translated here by Seamus Heaney:
…But you, Roman,
Remember: to you will fall the exercise of power
Over the nations, and these will be your gifts —
To impose peace and justify your sway,
Spare those you conquer, crush those who overbear.
This may be the first time Aeneas is called Romanus, indicating the city his descendants were to found. Vergil casts his eye all the way to praise Augustus, in whose circle he was living and whose favor, we must suppose, he wished to obtain. In our post-colonial age we cannot help but see a more complicated story, find a different reading experience in these lines than did the generations of Victorian school boys who were raised on visions of a civilizing empire. But more of that in a moment.

The sixth book of the 12-book Latin epic on the founding of Rome sits right on the cusp between its so-called “Trojan” and “Roman” halves, sometimes also called its “Odyssey” and “Iliad” halves.  The first half features many of its most famous images:  the Trojan horse, the flight of Aeneas and his family with other refugees from burning Troy, the doomed love story of Aeneas and Dido queen of Carthage. These books echo the wanderings of Odysseus as he makes his way back to his home of Ithaca, except here Aeneas, propelled by the gods, is seeking a new home for his defeated people.

After Book VI we see Aeneas and his wandering band of Trojans make land in Italy, setting the stage for war with the land of Latium, where he finds, Lavinia, the woman fated to become Aeneas’ wife (after he kills Turnus, his Italian rival). These books, again an echo of Vergil’s Homeric model in the Iliad, describe the events which Aeneas endured in order to fulfill his destiny.

This is not the first time Seamus Heaney, who died in 2013 after an illustrious career, including the Nobel Prize in 1995, has tackled this book. In 2010, in a poem sequence called “Route 110,” Heaney used the underworld journey as a counterpoint to autobiography. A bus journey becomes his underworld, and Heaney brings out the father-son story embedded in Book VI reflected in his own life.

The book proper is divided into roughly three pieces. First is the journey to the lair of the Sibyl at Cumae on the Italian coast, the prophet possessed by the god Apollo who will tell Aeneas’ fate; the second section deals with the burial rites for Aeneas’s comrade Misenus, who had challenged the gods to a musical contest and was drowned by Triton in anger (“Triton … inter saxa virum spumosa immerserat unda”/Triton was shaken with envy … and surged up/And drowned him in a sudden backwash of foam”). The final, longest section is the tour through the underworld where Sibyl acts as guide and where, at its climax, Aeneas meets his father, whose burial closed Book V.

In a short preface, Heaney writes that he treated book VI separately out of a somewhat Roman sense of obligation:  ”The translation is more like “classics homework, the result of a lifelong desire to honour the memory of my Latin teacher at St. Columb’s College, father Michael McGlinchey.” This is not false modesty; even a workable translation of Vergil is no mean feat, but once Vergil’s style is grasped, some rough translation is not that difficult, which is one reason the text has long been used for students (cultural training for imperial administration was, of course, another). Heaney marked the draft that forms the basis for this text as “final;” as Catherine Heaney and Matthew Hollis, who brought the translation to publication, the text is as Heaney intended it, barring final revisions prior to publication.

Unlike his translation of Beowulf, Heaney tries no pyrotechnics with the Aeneid. There are few opportunities to do so in any event. The book has set pieces, but they are written as long evocations of Roman glory, and there is only so much poetic license to be taken. Heaney himself alludes to the effect reading it has for aspiring translators; aside from some notable passages early on, “[b]y the time the story reaches its climax of Anchises’ vision of a glorious Roman race who will issue from Aeneas’ marriage with Lavinia, the translator is likely to have moved from inspiration to grim determination: the roll call of generals and imperial heroes … make this part of the poem something of a test for reader and translator alike.”

The meeting with Dido may be an exception. Aeneas abandoned Dido in Africa back in Book IV, after which she commits suicide; her shade in some sense haunts the poem. They meet again in the underworld. Dido says nothing, but Aeneas exclaims:
…tibi causa fui? Per sidera iuro
Per superos, et si qua fides tellure sub ima est
Invitus, regina, tuo de litore cessi.

Was I, O was I to blame
For your death? I swear by the stars, by the powers
Above and by any truth that may be under earth,
I embarked from your shore, my queen, unwillingly.
Whether we believe Aeneas’ defense that he was driven from Carthage by the gods, or whether it was special pleading by a callous and ambitious man, says a lot of how we view the poem as a whole. Another recent translation covering the first six books tries a different tack with this scene:
“Fuck! Why?
I swear
by the starsby the gods
and whatever honor
I have, I never
Meant to hurt you
The gods want what they want.
Heaney’s is the more literal here, and the clearest. But this second version (translated by David Hadbawnik) has more contemporary punch.

Which brings us back to that imperial complication. Recent scholars have changed the view of the poem, and have argued Vergil may in fact be more ambivalent toward empire than traditionally supposed. There is Dido, first of all, whose story shows us that the advent of Rome causes personal and national grief. Anchises recounts Rome’s future by showing his son the shades of his descendants, including good men cut down in their youth and wars bringing ruin. And the Sibyl, too, even as she prophesies Rome’s success, gives witness to its dark side. Roma may indeed be Victrix, but “non et venisse volent. Bella, horrida bella … cerno” (“But the day is one you will rue. I see wars/Atrocious wars…”)

In retrospect, it is hard not to see the conflicted vision of imperial glory reflected in the poem. Perhaps, even if unwittingly, those Victorians were right to focus on the Aeneid after all.

Love and Work: Anthony Powell’s ‘O, How the Wheel Becomes It!’ and ‘Venusberg’


Love and work are the subjects the British novelist Anthony Powell covers in O, How the Wheel Becomes It! and Venusberg two slim novels, recently reissued by University of Chicago Press, which bracket his monumental 12-volume Dance to the Music of Time, written over the course of almost 15 years, from 1957 to 1971. Still relatively lesser known in the United States, the Dance series is one of the great achievements of 20th-century literature, and perhaps the greatest portrayal of (mostly upper-class) British life from approximately the 1920s through the 1960s.

In his introduction to Venusberg, which Powell published in 1932 when he was only 27, Levi Stahl astutely notes the differences between Powell and the author whom he is often thought to resemble, Evelyn Waugh. Both wrote about the educated upper classes and had enormous skill at skewering their pretensions and obsessions.  But where Waugh was highly self-conscious of his status as an outsider and desperately wanted to be included among his subjects even as he savaged them, Powell developed a different style.  He writes more as an insider but one removed from the social whirl by almost incomprehensibly sensitive social antennae.  “Waugh’s books are arguably funnier (though some sections of Dance hold their own), but they also have an angry, cruel, even nihilistic strain. Waugh’s satire is scorching, leaving little behind but blasted ground. Powell, on the other hand, while refusing novelistic happy endings, presents a more hopeful outlook: his early novels tend to include at least one character who yearns, if fitfully, to live a life with meaning.”

The Brit abroad novel in this era of Brick Lane and a multiethnic Britain may seem the most tiresome of tropes.  Moreover in this era of YouTube, cell phones, and Snapchat, the possibility of real strangeness or feelings of isolation in foreign travel are almost impossible to recover, in addition to the sometimes unpleasant colonial overtones some such novels evoke. In Venusberg, however, the charm and humor of such a setting comes through, even as Powell searches after deeper themes. Venusberg is the name of a hapless Baltic town to which the main character, a writer named Lushington, goes purportedly on assignment.  In fact, he is running from a woman, Lucy, whom he loves but who loves another.  Lushington’s fellow travelers are refugees from their own sort of romance, homes, and countries they left or were forced to leave (or as is the case with a mother and daughter traveling together, a Habsburg Empire that is no more.)

The long boat trip gives Powell the opportunity to indulge his finely tuned sensibilities to differences in class, wealth, and station, and to develop what Stahl describes as “his remarkable talent for grotesquerie,” though one leavened by a humane sympathy. Thus his protagonist finds among the passengers a disaffected (and possibly fraudulent) count and others thrown about by the disaster of post-World War I Europe.  Included among these is Ortrud Mavrin, a married Austrian woman with whom he begins an affair. Inevitably, Lushington befriends her husband, an older professor, with some comic results. Once in Venusberg, he becomes entangled with a member of the British diplomatic delegation, da Costa, who is his rival for his Lucy’s affections. Other figures include the valet Pope, possibly fake Russian aristocrats, and various nobles, soldiers, businessmen, and bureaucrats who operate in a semi-totalitarian political environment.

The love story that is the moving plot of the novel focuses on whether Lushington will continue to pursue his indifferent object of affection at home, or follow Mavrin, the European lady of mysterious background. This is perhaps a metaphor for British writers seduced by European modernism (which Powell by and large was not), or more generally the exoticism the Continent held for many British.  Venusberg is, in legend, a place of seduction that captivates its admirers who must tear themselves away to return home, and the tension in the novel is how, or whether, Powell will have Lushington make the break.

Wheel, the first novel Powell published after completing Dance, has a decidedly smaller geographical ambit, but a much longer temporal one. Powell excels at the long arc; what makes Dance most compelling is the realistic way Powell describes aging and the passing of years, with all the sexual, professional, and social triumphs and disappointments those years offer. Powell makes us feel both weighted with the passage of time and also satisfaction at the unfolding of full adult lives, which I think is perhaps Powell’s real lasting literary gift.

Wheel follows a writer and critic named G.F.H. Shadbold and the petty and at times absurd world of literary culture. Powell knew this world well, and his send-up of literary pretension is classic.  Shadbold is haunted and embarrassed by the memory of a half-forgotten novel of a dead man whom we would now term a “frenemy,” a schoolmate turned stockbroker named Cedric Winterwade. Shadbold has himself becomes something of a middling literary figure, with early promise but who chose instead a more certain if unimaginative career; after “the slimmest of slim volumes of verse,” and some indifferently-received novels, Shadbold settled into something like literary respectability.
Notwithstanding the comparative leanness of his output Shadbold was not to be dismissed as a lightweight, a mere hack. He has worked hard reviewing other people’s books up hill and down dale, tirelessly displayed himself on the media and elsewhere…[and] also always prepared to offer views on marginally political subjects for which he was less accredited by instinct.
Shadbold married a writer of potboiler detective novels, who is much more successful than he. However, Winterwade comes to dominate his thoughts.  Shadbold learns Winterwade kept a diary in which it is revealed he was the more prodigious lover when they were younger men together, including having an affair with a woman Shadbold himself desired. This revelation raises old feelings of sexual jealousy, even after a remove of years, especially when the woman, Isolde, comes back late in Shadbold’s life; in the process, he learns Winterwade was in some respects a better man than he. Moreover, Winterwade’s literary fortunes are rising on the basis of that one novel, decades after his death. Winterwade retains the promise of young man cut down before his prime, while Shadbold must struggle with the realities of a writing life that has its share of grubbiness and self-promotion. Isolde pleads with Shadbold to help resuscitate Winterwade’s reputation.

Stahl is right that neither of these books is likely to eclipse the magnificent work that is Dance. However Venusberg is valuable because we see Powell working out perspectives that would later form the basis of Dance in the form of the novels’ narrator, Nick Jenkins.  But it is the work of a young man and some of the dialogue and scenes, while surely sharp at the time, do not carry the same resonance today. But for those not yet ready to tackle Dance, Wheel is a work of the mature Powell, very sensitive to those unforeseen changes in fortune or circumstance that occur throughout life and which give the book its title.