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SeamusSeamus Heaney used to say that his love of Virgil began with the wistfulness of his Latin teacher, who wished they could have read Book VI of the Aeneid, instead of the mandatory Book IX…

The notion of poetry to make a teacher sigh – this led the young Seamus to read Virgil, to find more and more ties to the ancient poet, to translate his works, to rework them into his own poems, to weave a golden web of inspiration, echoes and shared themes across the millennia.But Book VI of the Aeneid remained a special favourite of Heaney’s, and he began translating it in the Eighties – beginning with the Golden Bough, not long after his father’s death.

For several reasons, I was present one day in 2011, when the possibility of a new translation was discussed – because, it was remarked, the first one was truer to Virgil than it was to Seamus… The next year, when Heaney visited Mantua again, I reminded him of the conversation, and he said it was an idea he still liked very much…

And now Book VI is out – published posthumously. Heaney was completing it when he died. And thanks to BBC Radio 4 you can hear it read by Ian McKellen in five episodes, beginning here.

I remember that day, nearly five years ago, when I sat at lunch with this wonderful clutch of Irish poets, discussing the new translation…. I was working as Heaney’s interpreter and guide in Mantua, back then – lost in hero-worship and quite dazed by the wonder of it all. When it is published, I thought, I’ll have been present at the project’s birth…

And now here it is – but little I thought it would be a posthumous book. It’s a matter for melancholy to me – and of gratitude for the way I was privileged to see it begin.

 

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