Comfort is best found in Seamus Heaney's poems
We will always have the great poet. We have lost an exemplary man
Like all great poets, Seamus Heaney was an alchemist.
He turned our disgrace into grace, our petty hatreds into epic generosity, our dull clichés into questioning eloquence, the leaden metal of brutal inevitability into the gold of pure possibility.
He lacked the arrogance to tell us who we are – much more importantly, he told us what we are. He reminded us that Ireland is a culture before it is an economy. And in the extraordinary way he bore himself, the dignity and decency and the mellow delight that shone from him, he gave us self-respect.
In The Tempest, Miranda exclaims “O brave new world, / That has such people in it.”
Seamus Heaney made us gasp in wonder that, for all its follies and terrors, Irish culture had such a person in it.
He was out and about again this spring and summer, reading, opening, presiding, blessing. After he suffered a stroke in 2006, he had cut down on his public engagements, resisting the incessant clamour for his presence. But this year he seemed happy to be a public man again.
He had something to convey – especially, it seemed, to his fellow citizens. It was what his whole life as a poet had articulated with such astounding eloquence. In a speech at the National Museum in March he put it directly: “We are not simply a credit rating or an economy but a history and a culture, a human population rather than a statistical phenomenon.”
No one did so much to make us feel like creatures of a long-working imagination rather than figments of a short-term market.
Great poets speak for themselves but they also create the voices through which something beyond themselves finds articulation. What Heaney articulated, above all, was the way in which – in the words of his friend Brian Friel – confusion need not be an ignoble condition. He grew up in a literally divided landscape – “the lines of sectarian antagonism and affiliation”, he wrote, “followed the boundaries of the land” — and lived through the hopes and horrors of the Troubles.
He was drawn to both Irish and English poetic traditions. He also lived through the death of the ancient rural world into which he was born and the emergence of a globalised modern Ireland. He struggled with contradictions, paradoxes, conflicting impulses.
His genius lay in his ability to hover between them, to give each side of a political or emotional equation its full weight and proper due without becoming the prisoner of either. WB Yeats, the poet whose influence he both absorbed and transcended, wrote in a time of Irish violence that “we are closed in and the key is turned/ On our uncertainty” .
Heaney told us that, though we are indeed fated to uncertainty, it need not necessarily be a locked room in which we play out the same scenarios of doom over and over. Uncertainty may simply be the human condition. Heaney humanised uncertainty, made ambiguity rich with possibilities. As he put it in the beautifully homely metaphor of Terminus:
“Two buckets were easier carried than one.
I grew up in between.”
He was not, in that sense, a national poet. He knew too much about the dangers of tribalism and the foolishness of slogans to ever want to be a spokesman for the collective. He would have agreed with Yeats’s dictum that “We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.”
In Heaney’s The Flight Path, an IRA sympathiser has his demands for political commitment refused: