Remembering Seamus Heaney

In recent years, Seamus Heaney, the Irish poet and Nobel laureate who died on Friday in Dublin, was perhaps best known to the broad academic public as the translator of a hugely successful version of Beowulf, making it freshly accessible even as he unapologetically added his Northern Irish inflections to its retelling. Earlier, Heaney was famous for his iconic poem “Digging,” in which he set forth his own separation from, but continuity with, his rural ancestors in County Derry:

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

Characteristically, the push and pull of the consonants and vowels deliciously replicate the process they are describing. Digging was a metaphor that served Heaney well when he went on to write his “bog” poems in the late 1960s and through the 70s, as the “troubles” in Northern Ireland between Catholics of nationalist sympathy and Protestant loyalists escalated. His finding an imaginative relationship between the atrocities of the conflict and the simultaneous discoveries of sacrificial bog bodies from ancient times in Denmark and at other European sites inspired the memorable poems of North (1975), though they did not always sit well with fellow Northern Irish writers, who at the time accused Heaney of being a mythologizer of violence.

While keenly aware of the injustices suffered by Catholics in Northern Ireland, Heaney was always proud of the good relations his own Catholic farming family had with Protestant neighbors. His political involvement was confined to peaceful protest marches of the period, originating in the example of Martin Luther King Jr.’s activities in the American South, and in his professional life Heaney refused to write anthems for his tribe when asked to do so.

Nevertheless, Heaney did insist on digging deep into the Ulster soil, not only to retrieve the buried bog bodies from times past but also to affirm that there had been successive peoples in this small place and that one should not just see the divisions of the present conflict as the entire story: “Each layer they strip / Seems camped on before” (“Bogland”). His narrow focus broadened the needed conversation.

North established Heaney as a major Irish poet, and Robert Lowell, then living in Ireland, crowned him as W.B. Yeats’s successor. To the outsider, it would appear that from then on Heaney advanced from success to success, not only as a poet commended by Helen Vendler for the masterful variety of his technique but also as an academic exponent of the works of great writers of the past in his lectures as professor of poetry at Oxford and as Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard.

Indeed, Heaney himself often used the term “famous Seamus” in his self-deprecatory repartee. But while well aware of his own talents, and of the kinds of criticism that should—and should not—be attended to, Heaney remained a very modest man, always thoughtful and helpful in dealing with others, and a perfectionist in the art of the common touch. To his credit, “Seamus” never seemed quite as famous in person as he did on the page or in the paper.

One of the most appealing qualities about Heaney is the degree of self-questioning that prevails throughout his work. Always inclining toward doing what in Ireland is called “the decent thing,” he had to force himself to move beyond such tempting restrictions. In “Station Island,” for example, Heaney goes on imaginative retreat to Lough Derg, a pilgrimage island in Ulster famous since the days of St. Patrick. There he re-examines his artistic, political, and religious commitments, to emerge as a re-creator of his own independent soul in the manner that James Joyce had long ago advocated: “it’s time to swim / out on your own and fill the element / with signatures on your own frequency” (“Station Island” XII).

From my perspective, however, Heaney’s prose in Finders Keepers (2002) is almost as satisfying as his poetry. One of the essays, “Joy or Night: Last Things in the Poetry of W.B. Yeats and Philip Larkin”—the first of his lectures at Oxford—best presents his own complex attitude to the inevitable that he has now experienced. Here he sets the positive, if sometimes foolish and fantastic, metaphysical optimism of Yeats in contrast with the downbeat cosmic expectations of Larkin.

Yet Heaney again and again acknowledges that he is hugely impressed by the technical qualities of Larkin’s famous poem on death, “Aubade,” praising in detail its many verbal felicities before discounting its life-denying conclusion. Heaney is almost overwhelmed by Larkin’s verbal and imaginative seductions: “no matter how much or how little readers may at the outset be in sympathy with these views, they still arrive at the poem’s conclusion … like unwary surfers hung over a great emptiness, transported further into the void than they might have expected to go.”

In other words, Heaney implicitly acknowledges that the poem reached precisely into his own fears about death. But then Heaney does the same thing in reverse with the force of his own prose on the courage of Yeats’s resistant stance. Thus, just as Larkin takes away too much without our quite noticing it until the end, so too perhaps Heaney restores more than can be thoughtfully accepted.

On a more domestic occasion, however, in what may be Heaney’s most moving poem, he first recalls a time when he and his mother stayed at home preparing the potatoes while the rest of the family was away at Mass. Now, at her deathbed, when the priest “Went hammer and tongs at the prayers for the dying,” he “remembered her head bent towards my head, / Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives— / Never closer the whole rest of our lives.”

It reminds me now too of one of the few occasions on which I met Heaney decades ago: He said he hoped his lecture would pay for the double-glazing he was planning for his house. Modestly, Seamus Heaney let more light into our lives, and kept out some of its ambient noise.

Kieran Quinlan is a professor of English at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. He is completing a book on Seamus Heaney and the decline of Irish Catholicism.

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