Translation has been at the heart of Seamus Heaney's career. In his poem, "The Riverbank Field," from his latest collection, Human Chain, Heaney engages in metatranslation, "Ask me to translate what Loeb gives as / 'In a retired vale...a sequestered grove' / And I'll confound the Lethe in Moyola." Curiously, with a broad spectrum of classical works at his disposal, the poet chooses a particular moment in Virgil's Aeneid as an image for translation. What is it about this conversation between Aeneas and his dead father, Anchises, at the banks of the Lethe which makes it uniquely fitting for Heaney to explore translation? In order to fully understand Heaney's decision to translate this scene from Aeneid 6, it must be clear how Heaney perceives the classical tropes of katabasis (descent into the underworld) and nekyia (communion with the dead). Due to the particularly violent and destructive history of the 20th century from the World Wars to the Holocaust, contemporary poets tend to portray katabasis and nekyia in their works as tragic (See Falconer's Hell in Contemporary Literature). Heaney subverts this view of a tragic descent and communion with the dead in his poetry, instead opting for a journey through Hell which is more optimistic and efficacious. Heaney's rejection of the contemporary tragic katabasis and nekyia allows these classical tropes to become a metaphor for translation. I argue Heaney demonstrates how he views translation and the role of the translator through this metatranslational instance in "The Riverbank Field." For Heaney, not only can a poet descend to the underworld where spirits of the literary dead wait for translation into a new medium, but the translator actually can succeed in bringing an ancient author to a modern readership.
College and Department
BYU ScholarsArchive Citation
van Dyk, Gerrit, "Translation as Katabasis and Nekyia in Seamus Heaney's "The Riverbank Field"" (2013). Theses and Dissertations. 3473.
Seamus Heaney, translation, Aeneid, classical reception, poetry