A servant of the language
The late Dennis O’Driscoll once said that Seamus Heaney’s “achievement as a person is almost as impressive as his achievement as a poet”. The truth of those words will resonate in the days of mourning that will now follow the Nobel Laureate’s death. The role he played as an authoritative voice and an ever-generous and luminous presence in literary communities on both sides of the Atlantic will be remembered with gratitude and a sense of how lucky we have been. His loss, deeply sorrowful to his loved ones, is also a national one.
Heaney’s humanity, humility and generosity of spirit were qualities that conferred honour on his art, and poetry in general has been a beneficiary of the whole breadth of his achievement. The solidity of that achievement is perfectly summed up in a handful of words from the Nobel citation that praised his work for its “lyrical beauty and ethical depth”: two qualities he sustained throughout a lifetime of writing much of this and the last century’s most profound and memorable poetry.
From the beginning Heaney’s guttural muse was attuned to “the music of what happens” and that debut collection of 1965, Death of a Naturalist, established a singular talent that was immediately recognised and assured his future status as a major poet. In three lines he declared his vocation and set his course.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.
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That course may have begun with the local and the bucolic but his visionary capacity as a poet and his gifts as an architect of language took him on a trajectory that placed him among the exemplary poets of our age, particularly within the European tradition.
His poems were rightly acknowledged for their music, their sound and rhythms but also for their insights, and for bringing us into the necessary trance that our lives require.
Heaney once said that as a young poet his discovery of Kavanagh was a revelation that excited him because he found in the poems “details of a life which I knew intimately”. For his many readers that note of intimate recognition, finding the familiar, the everyday of their own lives reflected in poems of “lyrical beauty” made him one of our most beloved poets.
He indeed knew that true poetry comes “out of the marvellous”, and in many of his poems the marvellous was to be found in the “mythic surroundings of childhood”.
He also knew the importance of place and his own places – Anahorish, Casteldawson, Moyola, Toome, Glanmore, Sandymount Strand – entered into the realm of language and the lives of his readers. Those evocative celebrations of County Derry farm-life and its rituals, his reminiscence of school days and his own wedding day, were themes that struck a chord and made him a poet with whom readers would form a quite special attachment and strong devotion to.
But beyond the communal and personal past, he knew as well that a poet has other responsibilities: in explaining that famous reference of his to “the redress of poetry” he spoke of “the need for poets to align themselves with those who have been wronged, to repair and compensate for injustices suffered”. In his extraordinary mid-career shift in tone and theme he produced potent and imaginatively daring poems that, in the light of that comment, seemed to be addressed to his country and the wider community: poem such as “From the Republic of Conscience”, “From the Frontier of Writing”, “Parable Island” and “The Mud Vision”.
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As a poet coming into maturity in the political and violent maelstrom of the post-1969 situation in Northern Ireland, and long before his elevation to Nobel status, he was very much in the public eye and burdened by expectations of public duty. He remained loyal to his own aesthetic values and engaged with the North on his own terms, as his poems - especially his elegies - dealing with tragedies of the conflict demonstrate. His decision to move South may have surprised many, annoyed some, but instinct told him that the perspective of distance, his act of inner exile, was what his work required.
His most recent poems, in Human Chain, were written in the shadow of mortality; a book full of haunting melodies of loss and the gravity of separation. And now his loss to Irish and international poetry will be immense.
In a 1978 review in this newspaper Heaney noted that the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam “served the people by serving their language”. Essentially, that is what he too has done in poetry of utter magnificence that will stand as his enduring legacy. In this time of grief we should remember his affirming remark about poetry, that it is “on the side of life” and what he called “the mass and majesty of the world”.