This has, I fear, become my poetry comfort read. I can open any page, read for a while, close it again and feel refreshed. I don’t necessarily feel the need to ‘finish it’, although I have several times. It is more the experience of being in it – as if the words were warm sunlight and the air was mainly still, there was birdsong and nothing was troublesome. Odd then, that it is concerned with Aeneas entering the underworld to speak one last time with his dead father: not even ‘the father’, but the ‘shade of the father’.
All that you need to know about the why of writing it is in Heaney’s own introduction: it was an act of love and of remembering. He describes it as “…more like classics homework, the result of a lifelong desire to honour the memory of my Latin teacher at St Columb’s College, Father Michael McGlinchey…” but that it was the arrival of his first granddaughter that finally impelled him to get to it.
Deaths dark door stands open day and night. / But to retrace your steps and get back to the upper air, / That is the task, that is the undertaking.
And beside these flowing streams and flooded wastes / A ferryman keeps watch, surly, filthy and bedraggled / Charon. His chin is bearded with unclean white shag; / The eyes stand in his head and glow; a grimy cloak / Flaps out from a knot tied at the shoulder. / All by himself he poles the boat, hoists sail / And ferries dead souls in his rusted craft, / Old but still a god…
And, on finally meeting with his father’s shade:
Three times he tried to reach his arms round that neck. / Three times the form, reached for in vain, escaped / Like a breeze between his hands…
This short book is the soft rendering of a dream, in which there is blood and death all around.