‘Aeneid Book VI’ by Virgil – Translated by Seamus Heaney


‘Aeneid Book VI’ by Virgil    (Somewhere between 29 BC and 19 BC)    94 pages     Translated by Seamus Heaney



‘Aeneid – Book VI’, this translation of the Roman poet Virgil, is the last work of the late Irish poet Seamus Heaney who died in 2013.

Most of the mythology that I have read before have been translations of the Greek, so this Roman work by Virgil was new to me.  I was amazed though how closely it followed the Greek stories.  Aeneas and his surviving band of Trojans who suffered their terrible defeat from the Spartans at the battle of Troy have landed their boat on the Italian coast.

Aeneas discovers that his father Anchises has died.  Aeneas asks the Sibyl if he can cross the river Styx to talk to his father one last time.  The Sibyl tells him that it is easy to descend into the Underworld land of the dead, “but to retrace your steps and get back to upper air, that is the task, that is the undertaking.  Only a few have prevailed.”

Aeneas must descend to death’s deepest reaches to see and talk to his father.  The ferryman Charon navigates his barge through the waters of the river Styx to take him there.   Along the way we are given a guided tour of Hades.  First we meet those who have not yet been buried – the shades – who are not allowed on Charon’s barge.

“Not until bones have found a last resting place will shades be let across these gurgling currents, their doom instead to wander and haunt about the banks for a hundred years.” 

Later Aeneas does meet his father who gives him plenty of pompous advice.

“So now I will instruct you in what is to be,

The future glory of the Trojan race,

Descendants due to be born in Italia,

Souls who will in time make our name illustrious –

I speak of them to reveal your destiny to you.”

So, according to Virgil, the glory of Rome was due to the descendants of this scraggly band of survivors led by Aeneas who escaped the far-off battle of Troy.  This is preposterous, but aren’t myths usually preposterous?

Those of you who have read Seamus Heaney’s translations of ‘Beowulf’ and ‘The Burial at Thebes’ know how sensitive and intelligent a translator he was.  Of course this Book VI of the Aeneid is mainly concerned with a trip through Hell visiting the dead and learning about posterity.  Thus this is a melancholy austere work.  It is somber  and  not particularly fun, but if you are the type who enjoys reading the ancient myths in close to their original form, you will want to read this stately poetic book.

Journey of Aeneas

Journey of Aeneas



Grade:   A-


4 responses to this post.

  1. I just reviewed this too. I decided to review it for Father’s Day because there are so many father/son relationships in this epic. And the reason Aeneas risks this dangerous trip is to have one last conversation with his father. It’s really a fantastic translation!


    • Hi Melissa,
      Reading your review, I realized that I had forgotten about Heaney’s excursion into Greek mythology in ‘The Burial at Thebes’. That was also a fine book done in Heaney’s elegant style which is much different from more confessional poets.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I love The Aeneid! I’ve taught it so many times in Latin so no longer read English translations, but you can’t go wrong with Seamus Heaney. My own feeling is that it can’t properly be understood without the rest of the poem, but I do understand what Heaney felt facing death. Margaret Drabble wrote a great novel, The Seven Sisters, in which a group of women take a Virgil adult ed class and then travel to Italy.


    • Hi Kat,
      To only read Book VI is definitely an easy way into the Aeneid. Not having read the other Books, I don’t know what is left out. I knew you were a real Virgil fan from before so consider myself fortunate to be able to read just the Book VI translated by Heaney.
      I have always been a Greek snob over the Romans, but this year has been different with this book and the Cicero trilogy by Robert Harris.

      I did not realize you were such a Latin teacher. 🙂


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