The answering voice: Irish poets rewrite the classics

Translating Ovid, Virgil, Homer and Sophocles has accompanied Irish literature’s shift to an increasingly global outlook

Most readers will have noticed the multiplication of new versions of Greek tragedy on the Irish stage in the past few decades. Most will have heard of Seamus Heaney's line "And hope and history rhyme", which is from The Cure at Troy, his version of Sophocles's Philoctetes, being used by politicians such as Bill Clinton, Mary Robinson and Gerry Adams to promote the peace process in Northern Ireland. Many will have also seen or read about productions, for instance, of Brendan Kennelly's Antigone, Medea and The Trojan Women, of Marina Carr's acclaimed By the Bog of Cats, on one of its many runs at the Abbey Theatre since 1998, of her more recent Hecuba, or of Frank McGuinness's Electra, Hecuba and Oedipus. The revival of Greek tragedy in contemporary Ireland, of which those plays are but a few examples, is well known and well documented, but it is also only one aspect of a much more complex, diverse and, arguably, fascinating development in Irish writing in the past 30 years.

Novelists, and certainly poets, too, have engaged over and over with classical sources, and continue to do so. Last year alone saw the publication of Colm Tóibín's House of Names, his retelling of Aeschylus's Oresteia, and of Alan McMonagle's debut novel, Ithaca, loosely inspired, as its title suggests, by the Odyssey. As for poetry, 2017 also saw the publication of Peter Fallon's Deeds and Their Days: After Hesiod and of Metamorphic: 21st Century Poets Respond to Ovid, a new anthology edited by Nessa O'Mahony and Paul Munden that includes many Irish poets among its 100 contributors, and, this coming week, of Theo Dorgan's Orpheus.

The revival seems to have begun north of the Border, in re-examinations of the Troubles. Greek tragedy was a useful tool to discuss violence

Among the many poets in Ireland who have engaged with the classics over the years, most have reappropriated canonical writers such as Ovid, Virgil, Homer and Sophocles, although some have also tackled less popular sources, whether Hesiod, Sappho, Martial, Latin love elegists or Greek lyric poets – and all have done so in many forms. Those classical poems and versions touch on issues as varied as violence and conflict, grief, sexuality, exile and home, the representation of women, domesticity and art. Why, in the scope of three decades, have the classics become such a steady and enduring source of poetic inspiration?

There is no one answer, and similar trends can be observed in other predominantly anglophone cultures. But the recent Irish classical revival seems to have begun roughly in the 1970s and 1980s, north of the Border, in the re-examination of the Troubles within the framework of Sophocles's Antigone by Conor Cruise O'Brien and, later, Tom Paulin, and all over the island on stage. Greek tragedy was a useful tool to discuss violence and debate conflicting paradigms. The popularity of the material also meant that soon it would also diversify and expand into other genres, most notably poetry.


To some extent the revival can be seen as a vogue among poets, a fashion fuelled by the popularity and visibility of Heaney and Michael Longley, two of its main proponents. In the late 1980s and early 1990s both were instrumental in bringing the classical revival from the Irish stage into poetry, when they contributed, respectively, The Cure at Troy and versions from the Iliad (including the famous Ceasefire) to the literature of the Troubles and of the peace process. In those years both also rediscovered the classical authors they had loved at school, and began personal explorations of Latin and Greek literatures that have since shaped their work.

After Seeing Things, which appeared in 1991, Heaney returned to Virgil, and often to Book Six of the Aeneid, again and again up to his untimely death, in 2013, when he was still putting the final touches to his version of the latter, published posthumously in 2016. As for Longley, Homer's epics, and certainly the Iliad, have become recurring presences in his collections, resurfacing in his poetic reflections on warfare, both the Troubles and the two World Wars, and more recently in The Stairwell, as powerful narratives to evoke his lost brother.

The two poets have been joined by younger colleagues in their sustained exploration of classical sources, among them Peter Fallon, author notably of the acclaimed Georgics of Virgil, from 2004, in addition to his version, last year, of Hesiod, and Peter McDonald, whose classical work includes versions of some of the most canonical writers, such as Virgil, in Pastorals, and Homer, in Torchlight, as well as less popular ones, such as Pindar, in The House of Clay, and The Homeric Hymns.

Poems respond to each other, either in sympathy or in contrast, and form an intricate network of correspondences and differences

Many more have rewritten classics more sporadically, thereby adding to a growing conversation about the creative uses of classical sources on the island. This conversation, in part fuelled by commissions (such as Michael Hoffman and James Lasdun's After Ovid: New Metamorphoses), is one of the most fascinating aspects of the classical revival: poems respond to each other, either in sympathy or in contrast, and form an intricate network of correspondences and differences, enriching our reading of contemporary Irish poetry.

Derek Mahon's Homeric poems of the new millennium, for example, in which Odysseus explores his relationship with home, owe something to Longley's rewritings of similar material 10 years before, in Gorse Fires. Eavan Boland's The Journey allows us to read Heaney's many rewritings of Virgil's Aeneid VI – those evoking his relationship with his father in particular – in a new light. Mahon also quotes her poem in Sappho in 'Judith's Room', which touches on the classics and feminism. Boland's multiple versions of the myth of Ceres and Persephone in the 1990s, including the well-known Pomegranate, form a counterpart to Longley's own take on the Metamorphoses in The Ghost Orchid, which mainly focuses on eroticism and sexualised female bodies.

Fashions tend to die down, however, and emerging poets seem less interested in taking part in this rewriting of classical sources. Metamorphic, O'Mahony and Munden's new anthology, might spark new vocations; it is too soon to tell. But whether or not its heyday is behind us, the classical revival remains a significant development in Irish poetry in the past 30 years. As well as revealing a new network of connections between poets, it has accompanied a transition in Irish literature from a postcolonial to a European and increasingly global outlook.

The classical revival has stressed the existence of a shared cultural and literary heritage with Britain as well as other (non-anglophone) nations and, crucially, encouraged the practice of translation among poets, many of whom have since published versions of mostly European work. Whether or not young poets directly follow in the footsteps of Heaney and Longley’s generation, they will have gained an openness to what is foreign and other, which can only contribute to the vitality of the genre in our global world.

Dr Florence Impens is a Leverhulme early-career fellow at the University of Manchester and the author of Classical Presences in Irish Poetry after 1960: The Answering Voice (Palgrave Macmillan)