The Translations of Seamus Heaney by Marco Sonzogni - review by Sean O’Brien

Sean O’Brien

Orpheus in Ireland

The Translations of Seamus Heaney


Faber & Faber 704pp £35

Since Seamus Heaney’s death in 2013, the map of contemporary poetry appears to have undergone significant changes. It remains to be seen which of them will endure, but one thing we might regret is the fact that some younger poets, often so caught up in the work of their peers and the immediate priorities of the po-biz, are not engaging with poetic tradition. Hence, perhaps, the apparent displacement of craft by opinion. While Heaney maintained a thorough engagement with an art as old as language, he also kept an open mind, and it’s worth wondering which new poets he would have thought to encourage.

The Translations of Seamus Heaney is evidence of Heaney’s long commitment to reading the past as well as the present. The earliest piece here was in progress before the publication of his first collection, Death of a Naturalist, in 1966, and he was still working on translations in the months before his death. The book opens with translations of Horace, Dante and Baudelaire. We are ‘braced’, as Heaney might have put it, by the challenge of high seriousness.

Heaney and Rilke might seem an unlikely pairing, but the result is fascinating. In his translation of ‘The Apple Orchard’, he suggests that we have ‘stored within ourselves a something which/From feeling and from feeling recollected,/From new hope and half-forgotten joys/And from an inner dark infused with these,/Issues

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