A friend who realised his destiny in full
A gift and the fulfilment of its promise is a rare thing, but Seamus Heaney achieved it
Trio of friends: John Montague, his wife, Elizabeth Wassel, and Seamus Heaney in 2009. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
Recently I spoke in Enniskillen at the Happy Days Beckett festival, an event Seamus would have loved for its generosity of spirit. He, like myself, emerged from a riven Ulster, and the Methodist and Union Halls, Anglican cathedral, Roman Catholic church and even PSNI station of the town all turned into a vast theatre would have amused him greatly.
My talk was moderated by Seamus’s son Michael (this newspaper’s radio critic), who has inherited not just his father’s laughing eyes of a striking dark brown unusual in Ireland but also his considerable charm. He was a lively and intelligent moderator, but afterwards he expressed concern to my wife, Elizabeth, about his father, who was in hospital, just for observation since he had bruised his head in a fall. But Seamus had been looking more and more fragile lately, almost a ghost of himself, and so both Elizabeth and I were concerned.
Still, in the way of these things, we were not prepared for the blow when it arrived, and I reproach myself for my reluctance to read the signs in his very rueful last volume, Human Chain, where, again and again, he returns to the wakehouse and the graveyard: “When the funeral bell tolls / The grass is all a-tremble.”
In the fine sequence Route 110 he evokes the atmosphere of rural almost-gaiety after a funeral: “The corpse house then a house of hospitalities / Right through the small hours, the ongoing card game / Interrupted constantly by rounds / Of cigarettes on plates, biscuits, cups of tea, / The antiphonal recital of known events / And others rare, clandestine, undertoned.”
Later he writes with a kind of barely suppressed angry lyricism about, presumably, the victims of local violence: “. . .bodies / Unglorified, accounted for and bagged / Behind the grief cordons: not to be laid / In war graves with full honours, nor in a separate plot / Fired over on anniversaries / By units drilled and spruce and unreconciled.”
Seamus’s death comes, strangely enough, as we are still mourning the loss of the meticulous, industrious, eccentric and eminently generous Dennis O’Driscoll, whose series of interviews, published as Stepping Stones, are the best guide we have yet to the heart of Heaney. He was not Seamus’s Boswell, however, but more of a confidant.
While Seamus seemed to be encased in courtesy like a medieval knight, he also relished what the Scots call flytings. Hugh MacDiarmid, for example, loved Norman MacCaig, but to hear their banter you would think they were enemies. To appreciate a bullseye scored against oneself was part of the game, and Seamus, for all his gravitas, had a frisky and wry sense of humour.
Once, walking in winter after an Irish Academy of Letters meeting, I remarked on his voluminous new overcoat, with a bright scarf at the throat, “Lord, Seamus! You’re beginning to look like a bishop.” He trumped me easily: “Why stop there?” he said with a grin.
When asked to pronounce on Seamus’s death, a phrase coalesced in my mind: he did his work. That may sound like I was suggesting he wrote poems as if stoically or doggedly completing a job of work. But what I meant is that he realised his destiny. A gift and the fulfilment of its promise, the rounding out of a career, is a rare thing, but Seamus achieved it. And another phrase occurred to me, from Milton: “Nothing is here for tears, nothing to wail.”