The Riverbank Field

after Aeneid vi, 704-I5, 748-5I

Heaney dips into literature, tracking back to Classical author Virgil of around 30 BC. References to his Aenied vi much cherished by Heaney from his Sixth Form studies onwards will provide him with some opportunity to show-case his own translation skills.

The poem is far from a literary exercise however setting the poet firmly in his mid-Ulster landscape around Castledawson. His local Riverbank Field alongside the Moyola is deemed every bit as perfect as Virgil’s paradise.

Scholarly translation (what Loeb gives) depicts Virgil’s Elysium alone. Heaney will create a watery fusion of classical mythology and mid-Ulster fact (I’ll confound the Lethe in Moyola). His Aeneas-like perambulation selects familiar place-names (Back Park Grove Hill Long Rigs) and Virgil’s domos placidas are to be found (by happy chance) within the village limits of Castledawson (Upper Broagh).

The Moyola scene within Heaney’s mind’s eye exudes all the serenity of the Elysian Fields adapted only to meet Irish circumstances (mothsnot bees in sunlight midge veils instead of lily-beds).

Beyond that no difference (stet): Moyola’s riverain trees bear a lustrous argent (willow leaves Elysian-silver), its rich swards flourish (fully fledged) and  betray no sign of presence (unimprinted) human or otherworldly (passing spirit troops) – Virgil’s privileged shades to whom reincarnation has been promised  explained by the poet both in Latin and in translation.

Perhaps a touch basfully Heaney suggests he has been pushed (as enjoined to often) into a bit of his own translation work (in my own words) acknowledged as ll. 748-51.

The spirit-troops (presences), having served, pet treadmill-like, an allotted period (rolled time’s wheel a thousand years) are called (summoned) to drink Lethe water that will erase previous experience (memories of this underworld shed) and, raising them from spirit to soul open their way back to the world above (dwell in flesh and blood) and the heavens beyond (dome of the sky).

  • HR Fairclough’s translation helps clarify Heaney’s references, compare versions and approaches to translation:Meanwhile, in a retired vale, Aeneas sees a sequestered grove and rustling forest thickets, and the river Lethe drifting past those peaceful homes. About it hovered peoples and tribes unnumbered; even as when, in the meadows, in cloudless summertime, bees light on many-hued blossoms and stream round lustrous lilies and all the fields murmur with the humming. Aeneas is startled by the sudden sight and, knowing not, asks the cause – what is that river yonder, and who are the men thronging the banks in such a host? Then said father Anchises: “Spirits they are, to whom second bodies are owed by Fate, and at the water of Lethe’s stream they drink the soothing draught and long forgetfulness…. Then we are sent to spacious Elysium, a few of us to possess the blissful fields. All these that you see, when they have rolled time’s wheel through a thousand years, the god summons a vast throng to Lethe’s river, so that, their memories effaced, they may once more revisit the vault above and conceive the desire of return to the body.”
  • Heaney dips into Classical Virgil’s Aenied (Book VI crops up regularly in the collection). Dante was known to recycle texts from Virgil in his own work. For example, in the Divine Comedy Dante sees the shade of Aeneas among other Roman worthies in the section of Limbo reserved for ‘virtuous pagans’;
  • The HR Loeb Classical Library is a series of books which, through original text and English translation, gives access to all that is important in Greek and Latin literature: epic and lyric poetry; tragedy and comedy, history, travel, philosophy, and oratory, the great medical writers and mathematicians;
  • retired: peaceful and secluded:
  • sequestered: tucked, hidden away;
  • confound: the Latin con ‘together’ and fundere ‘to pour’ are the key to the idea of watery association;
  • Lethe: Greek mythological river in Hades to drink the water of which made dead souls forget their previous experiences;
  • Moyola: Heaney’s local river; other proper nouns are references to the locality;
  • moth: drab coloured flying insect; largely nocturnal;
  • midge: minute fly that swarms and breeds around water;
  • veil: fine material half concealing a face;
  • bed: watery area where lilies grow in abundance;
  • stet: printing instruction to leave the original;
  • fledged: said of young birds developed sufficiently to fly;
  • print: footprint:
  • conjure: cause to appear as if by magic;
  • spirit: supernatural being;
  • enjoin: urge, instruct;
  • shed: cast off, discard;
  • dome: towering space as of a cathedral rotunda;
  • 8 triplets; 24 lines of poetry, largely of 10 syllables; 3 complete sentences; free verse; enjambed lines add a dynamic to the ebb and flow of the rhythm;
  • alliterative sibilants frequent in the central section: leaves/ Elysian-silvered, the grass so fully fledged … passing spirit-troops;
  • Confound: the Latin derivation (con: with, together; fundere to flow) makes it the perfect vehicle for fusing two rivers, two environments,  the first classical and mythological, the second very real;
  • Midge-veils: these minute two-winged flies congregate in their millions at certain times of year; their fragility, constant movement and gathering just above water-level permit the analogy drawn;
  • As Human Chain repeatedly indicates, the past is quite as demanding as the here and now, offering both a challenge and a sustaining presence. “The Riverbank Field”, written after passages from the Aeneid Book VI (in which Aeneas visits the underworld), addresses that challenge. As at school, the poem conspicuously “shows the working” of itself. Lethe becomes Heaney’s native Moyola, complete with native insects, moths and midges for Virgil’s bees, and after that there is a congruence of places in “the willow leaves/ Elysian-silvered”. Sean O’Brien in the Independent of September 3, 1020
  • In the sixth book of the Aeneid, Virgil brings Aeneas to the shade of his father Anchises in the Elysian Fields. One of the mysteries disclosed by the ghost to his living son is that of the return of souls into new bodily incarnations, and their drinking of forgetfulness from the River Lethe. Anchises’ reply makes it clear that, if they are to return to earth, the souls of the dead must be “immemores” – without memory. It is an episode which Seamus Heaney takes up (“In my own words”) as the conclusion of his poem “The Riverbank Field”: Peter McDonald  in the Sunday Times, Oct 13 2010
  • Interviewed by Denis O’Driscoll, in Stepping Stones (2008), Heaney spoke of a lifelong involvement with the Aeneid, and of how “The motifs of Book VI have been in my head for years – the golden bough, Charon’s barge, the quest to meet the shade of the father”. Human Chain draws much of its strength from this deep engagement with the Virgilian underworld and its secrets. The book may take bearings from literature, but it is far from being a literary exercise, still less an attempt at broadly conceived translation. Instead, Heaney allows questions of death and rebirth, forgetting and memory, and parents and children to set an agenda which the poems themselves both address and transform. Peter McDonald  (id.)
  • Heaney is a meticulous craftsman using combinations of vowel and consonant to form a poem that is something to be listened to.
  • the music of the poem: fifteen assonant strands are woven into the text; Heaney places them grouped within specific areas to create internal rhymes , or reprises them at intervals or threads them through the text;
  • syllables without highlight are largely the unstressed sound as in common, little [ə]

  • alliterative effects allow pulses or beats, soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies; this is sonic engineering of the first order;
  • a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;

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