Heaney’s previous efforts have included “works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past,” for which he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995. Here he effects an impressive translation of a pair of works in an unstrained style that belies the difficulty of his achievement in maintaining, for the most part, the rhyming couplets of the classical Latin and romantic Gaelic originals. This slim collection includes an abridged version of 18th-century Irish poet Merriman’s Cúirt an Mheán Oiche (The Midnight Court) sandwiched between Books X and XI of Ovid’s Metamorphoses (which relate the tales of Orpheus’s loss of Eurydice and his later slaying by a berserk band of maenads). There’s a clear continuity of theme connecting these disparate poems: they both describe mortals pleading before an otherworldly tribunal, and they both feature a male hero who is savaged by a horde of irate females for preferring the company of men. In Merriman’s self-deprecating, amusing, and often bawdy poem, the hero (“your average, passable male”) is abducted in sleep and taken before a court of women who accuse him (and all Ireland’s “recalcitrant, male-bonded men” of that “spunkless generation”) of leaving their women “unused, unsoothed, disconsolate.” Only waking spares him the judgment of torture the court decrees. In the case of Ovid’s hero, however, Orpheus is cruelly flayed and dismembered by a band of “crazed Ciconian women” who see his turning to boys for pleasure after the death of Eurydice and his failure to win her release from Hades as evidence of his misogyny.
Once again, Ireland’s preeminent poet balances colloquialism and lyricism with deceptive ease.