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The Guardian view on Seamus Heaney: Virgilian farewell | Editorial

The poet’s last work before his death in 2013 was a translation of the Virgil’s Aeneid, Book VI. And the Nobel prizewinner left us both an eloquent farewell – and a poem for our times

When Seamus Heaney died in 2013, his last words, to his wife, were Noli timere– be not afeard. He sent them in a text message to his wife. This simple gesture – the ringing phrase of St Jerome’s Vulgate Bible transformed into a tender comfort to the woman he loved – seems completely characteristic of the poet. The mythical mapped on to the personal; the poetry of ages traced on to the human trials of life, illness and death. There was, too, a hint of humour: the poet’s daughter Catherine has recounted how her father, who studied Latin at school and university, would trade quips in the language with his family (the exclamation “holy smoke” became sanctus fumus).

At the time of his death, Heaney was working on a translation of the sixth book of Virgil’s Aeneid, which Faber & Faber is now publishing: BBC Radio 4 listeners have been treated to Sir Ian McKellen’s imposing readings of it through the week. In his introduction, Heaney wrote of the endeavour, playfully, as “classics homework” – the long-nurtured desire to honour the memory of his boyhood Latin teacher who taught him not this section of Virgil’s great epic but the ninth book, and who would occasionally exclaim, “Och boys, I wish it were Book VI.”

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