The Golden Bough


                       (Aeneid, Book VI, lines 98-148)

Seamus Heaney tops and tails Seeing Things with his own versions of passages from classical masterpieces, the first snippet borrowed from the pre-Christian classical mythology of Virgil and ending with a Dante passage from the Christian era. In both cases the narrative is not Heaney’s as such, but he employs all his compositional skills to produce a polished translation.

In conversation with DOD (p319) Heaney explained how the collection’s texts linked up:  the relation­ship between individual poems in the different sections has some­ thing of the splish-splash, one-after-anotherness of stones skittering and frittering across water. Thus the collection’s themes, motifs, moods and key words pop up at intervals just as a flat stone rebounds across the water’s surface.

The Aenied bookend is significant within the context of the collection. Heaney will rework in Seeing Things many of the challenges Aeneas is faced with: the poet’s love for his deceased father, Patrick Heaney leads to a similar quest for a face-to-face meeting with his father’s shadow and introduce an elegiac tone; Heaney will ponder the post mortem destination of the dead from both Catholic and mythological angles exploring truths and mysteries; he will look up and search deep as he revisits primary experiences to ‘credit marvels’ he did not recognize when he first met them.

Heaney will not waver in his poetic quest; he will refer repeatedly to the limits that life and poetry have thrown up; he will identify hidden places; words like roof, limit and face to face will recur and resonate. Indeed, Virgil provides an immediate introduction to the Squarings section, not least the point at which poems reach the interface of life and death, certainty and doubt.

Aeneas is faced with the actions of the priestess in her holy place (shrine) that preceded her pronouncements: a ritualistic mumbo-jumbo (sayings where clear truths and mysteries/ Were inextricably twined) of ambiguous language (fearful equivocal words) and convulsive contortions controllable only by a divine: Apollo … reined in her spasms.

Only when normality is restored (her fit passed away and the mad mouthings stopped) can Aeneas petition (pray) the Sybil: his status (heroic), fearlessness (No ordeal  I cannot cope with) and his determination to overcome personal grief (I have foreseen and foresuffered all) work in his favour

Word of mouth (they say) has drawn him to this dark location (King of the Underworld’s gateway) where one the rivers of Hades emerges

The object of Aeneas’ petition will provide one of the corner stones of the collection: one look, one face-to-face meeting with my dear father. Heaney’s own father died in October 1986 and will be remembered in Seeing Things. To achieve his aim Aeneas, still undead and undamned, requires the access code to the Underworld: Teach me the way and open the holy doors wide

Aeneas, son, was dutiful (carried him on these shoulders) in battle and on his travels (at my side then through all my sea­ journeys); the aged father ever purposeful: worn out yet holding out always.

In fulfillment of a pledge (his father … half-prayed and. half-ordered me), Aeneas places himself at the mercy of the Sybil whose god-given power can make it happen. There are precedents: Orpheus was offered the opportunity to retrieve the shade of a wife (Eurydice) through his faith In the loudly plucked strings of his Thracian lyre. Other heroes and divines followed the same route to the land of the dead. His credentials are peerless: of highest birth, a descendant of Jove 

His petition is interrupted: the Sybil acknowledges his status (blood relation of gods) and noble background (Trojan, son of Anchises).  She warns that access from Avernus is easy via Pluto’s ever open door; the return journey to upper air is the real challenge, successfully met by very few well qualified petitioners (sons of gods … or exalted to heaven  In a blaze of heroic glory)

She sets out in graphic terms the ordeals that lie in wait but, recognizing the depth of emotion involved (if love torments you so much) and Aeneas’ determination to surpass himself  (if you will go beyond the limit), she reveals the way to proceed : find the hidden bough made of gold …sacred to underworld Juno … roofed in by a grove

The bough is the passport to the earth’s hidden places a token to be handed on to fair Proserpina, to whom it belongs; no damage will be done to the tree: A second one always grows in its place, golden again And the foliage growing on it has the same metal sheen.

First find it (look up and search deep); once found do not waver: Take hold of it boldly and duly.

Providence will have the last word: If fate has called you, The bough will come away easily. If not, try as you may (no matter how much strength you muster) you will not succeed: you never will manage to quell it or cut it down with the toughest of blades

  • Sibyl of Cumae: TheCumaean Sibyl (coming via Latin from the ancient Greek word sibylla, meaning prophetess) was the priestess presiding over the Apollonian oracle at Cumae, a Greek settlement located near Naples, Italy; the location is not far from Lake Avernus legendary site of the entrance to the Underworld;
  • equivocal: ambiguous, evasive;
  • sayings: pithy comments offering advice/ wisdom;
  • inextricable: impossible to separate;
  • head: freedom of action;
  • spasm: convulsive movement;
  • fit: sudden attack of convulsions;
  • fore-: (prefix) in advance
  • King of the Underworld: Hades, who lent his name to it;
  • Acheron: one of the rivers of Hades
  • thick of battle: the most active, turbulent part;
  • hold out: resist, survive difficult circumstances;
  • petition: appeal to a deity;
  • Vestal: relating to Roman goddess Vesta, chaste pure;
  • Hecate: goddess of dark places, ghosts and witchcraft;
  • Avernus: lake near Naples regarded by Virgil as the entrance to the underworld (‘where no birds sing’);
  • Orpheus: poet who went to the underworld and secured the release of his wife Eurydice but by looking back failed to obey the condition set and lost her;
  • shade: reference the ghosts of the dead people inhabiting the underworld;
  • Thrace; ancient country to the north and east of modern Greece;
  • lyre: U-shaped stringed instrument of ancient Greece;
  • Pollux: twin brother of Castor in Greek mythology;
  • Theseus: legendary hero of Athens, son of Poseidon, who slew the Cretan minotaur;
  • Hercules: hero of exceptional strength who performed 12 challenges (‘labours’);
  • Jove: alternative name for Jupiter; chief Roman God equivalent to Greek Zeus;
  • blood relation: person related by birth rather than marriage;
  • Trojan: native of or related to Troy scene of legendary ten-year siege by a coalition of Greeks, described in Homer’sIliad
  • Anchises: father of the Trojan hero Aeneas;
  • Pluto: god of the Underworld in Greek mythology;
  • Jupiter: alternative name for Jove;
  • Cocytus: Underworld ‘river of wailing’, flowing into the Acheron;
  • Stygian: relating to the Styx, one of the nine rivers in the Underworld, over which Charon ferried the souls  of the dead
  • murk: thick, dark mist making visibility difficult;
  • Tartarus: particularly unpleasant part of the underworld where the most wicked suffered punishment for their misdeeds;
  • Juno: wife of Jupiter; chief goddess;
  • fledged: relating to young birds preparing for flight and the period leading up to this moment;
  • Proserpina: Roman name for Persephone, a goddess, daughter of Jupiter and Demeter (the Roman and Greek gods mated widely)
  • decree: official order with the force of law;
  • boldly: confidently and with courage;
  • duly: as may be predicted;
  • fate: things that happen that are outside a person’s control as if predetermined by a supernatural power
  • muster: gather, summon
  • quell: succeed with physical force;
  • blade: (synecdoche) sword


  • NC (163): In ‘The Golden Bough’, Aeneas is told by the Sibyl how he, still living, may exceptionally penetrate hell in order to meet the ghost of his dead father; and in ‘The Crossing’ Charon, the boatman of the river Acheron, is unwilling to ferry the still living Dante across the river of hell. Virgil, however advises the poet that this is because he is not damned – he will remain uncontaminated by his descent. Both Virgil and Dante attest, therefore, from their classical and Christian perspectives, that, if a relationship with the dead induces anxiety, nevertheless poetry is the place where it becomes possible;
  • This is a version translated from the Latin; Heaney has recast the meaning of the original into an English form that resembles poetry; he does so with great skill. The stylistic devices chosen to carry the narrative forward are Virgil’s and not strictly Heaney’s. Therefore the comments that follow are restricted to the sounds and ecchoes of the words.
  • 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: fourteen 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:;


  • 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;
  • for example, the first sentence of The Golden Bough assembles sibilant variations [s] [z] [sh]: bi labial nasal [m] alveolar nasal [n]; bilabial, alveolar and velar plosives [b], [t/d], [g/k] and labio-dental fricative [v];
  • a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;