A servant of the language
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”.