Virgil’s Aeneid, Book VI: Heaney, Mandelbaum and the Refugee Crisis


I sit in Seattle coffee shops in the morning, order a latte, and read Heaney’s new translation of Book VI of The Aeneid of Virgil. And every morning it amazes and terrifies me. Rather than go on about Heaney’s gifts as a writer, I thought it would be easier to do a comparison of a few lines so you can see what you think.  So here are Mandelbaum (who’s translations I have loved for many years) and Heaney together. Twelve great lines.

Both of these translators bring to mind the words recently spoken by Pope Francis in condemning the Western response to the refugee crisis: “O Cross of Christ, today too we see you in the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas which have become insatiable cemeteries, reflections of our indifferent and anesthetized conscience.”


Before the entrance, at the jaws of Orcus,
both Grief and goading Cares have set their couches;
there pale Diseases dwell, and sad Old Age,
and Fear and Hunger, that worst counsellor,
and ugly Poverty–shapes terrible
to see – and Death and Trials; Death’s brother, Sleep,
and all the evil Pleasures of the mind;
and War, whose fruits are death; and facing these,
the Furies’ iron chambers; and mad Strife,
her serpent hair bound up with bloody garlands.


In front of the house of the dead,
Between its dread jambs, is a courtyard where pain
And self-wounding thoughts have ensconced themselves.
Here too are pallid diseases, the sorrows of age,
Hunger that drives men to crime, agonies of the mind,
Poverty that demeans–all of these haunting nightmares
Have their beds in the niches. Death too, and sleep,
The brother of death, and terror, and guilty pleasures
That memory battens on. Also close by that doorway:
The iron cells of the Furies, death-dealing War
And fanatical Violence, her viper-tresses astream
In a bloodstained tangle of ribbons.

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