An extract from ‘Aeneid Book VI’ translated by Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney photographed at home in Sandymount in 2009. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

Right in the middle
Stands an elm, copious, darkly aflutter, old branches
Spread wide like arms, and here, it is said,
False dreams come to roost, clinging together
On the undersides of the leaves. At the gates,
Monstrosities brood in their pens, bewildering beasts
Of every form and description: two-natured Centaurs
And Scyllas, hundred-headed Briareus, the beast of Lerna,
Loathsome and hissing, and fire-fanged Chimaera;
Gorgons and Harpies too, and the looming menace
Of triple-framed Geryon. Faced with this rout,
Aeneas is thrown into panic, pulls out his sword,
Swings it round in defence, and had not his guide
In her wisdom forewarned him
That these were lives without substance, phantoms,
Apparitional forms, he would have charged
And tried to draw blood from shadows.
A road starts here that leads to Acheron river.
Here too is the roiling abyss, heaving with mud,
Venting a silty upsurge into Cocytus,
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 in a god old age
Is green and hardy.
Hereabouts a crowd
Came pouring to the banks, women and men,
And noble-minded heroes separated now
From their living flesh, young boys, unmarried girls,
And sons cremated before their fathers' eyes:
Continuous as the streaming leaves nipped off
By first frost in the autumn woods, or flocks of birds
Blown inland from the stormy ocean, when the year
Turns cold and drives them to migrate
To countries in the sun. There they stood, those souls,
Begging to be the first allowed across, stretching out
Arms that hankered towards the farther shore.
The stern boatman permits one group to board
And now another, but the rest he denies passage,
Driving them back, away from the sandy banks.

Aeneid Book VI is published by Faber and Faber