The Riverbank Field

Heaney dips into literature, tracking back from 14th century Dante to Classical author Virgil around 30 BC. References to the Aenied provide Heaney with the opportunity to show-case his own translation.

Heaney’s local riverbank field located firmly in County Derry is given a Virgilian mantle as the poet celebrates the similarities he perceives between his neighbourhood and Virgil’s Elysium.

After consideration of a competing translation (what Loeb gives) Heaney indicates that his poem will be a fusion: I’ll confound the Lethe in Moyola. Chosen place-names are familiar to him:  Back Park … Grove Hill … Long Rigs. Virgil’s domos placidas are to be found in real-world Upper Broagh.

The scene within his mind’s eye exudes all the serenity of the Elysian Fields where Aeneas came upon his father’s shade. Any differences between Italian and Irish worlds are down to climate: Moths/…It would have to be, not bees in sunlight/ Midge veils instead of lily-beds; beyond that no change: stet/ … the willow leaves/ Elysian-silver.

His Derry field-grass, bearing no imprint of human presence fits the scene to perfection: so fully fledged/ And unimprinted it can’t not conjure Virgil’s underworld of bodiless spirits in search of reincarnation, a legendary privilege for the chosen ones that Heaney explains both in Latin and in translation.

Heaney offers a translator’s command-performance as enjoined to often. The spirit-troops are presences who, having served their time and rolled time’s wheel a thousand years, come to the Elysian fields to drink the waters of the Lethe whereby, thanks to its magical quality, memories of this underworld are shed, and souls can return to the world above to dwell in flesh and blood/ Under the dome of the sky.

  • 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;
  • Heaney dips for the first time into Classical Virgil’s Aenied (for which he shares a life-long affection), specifically 14 or so lines from Book VI. 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”.
  • Moyola: Heaney’s local river; other proper nouns are references to the locality;
  • This translation by HR Fairclough helps clarify Heaney’s references and compare versions: 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.”
  • 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.)