Humble artist possessed of candid and hauntingly lyrical epic vision
Loss of this poet will be felt throughout Ireland and far beyond
There was never anything patrician or remote about Heaney. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
This is a moment of profound communal grief, a cold knife thrust into the hearts of us all.
The loss of Seamus Heaney will be felt throughout the country and far beyond; his words and the images he created, the past he immortalised, the present he helped explain, the sensations he articulated, the human experiences he captured in time will endure as long as poetry is read.
It has been many, many years, probably not since the death of Tolstoy at a railway station master’s hut, has the announcement of a death of a writer caused such a cohesive, collective and universal sorrow.
Heaney’s many admirers will recall that day in October 1995 when the news came from Stockholm that the farmer’s son from Co Derry had won the Nobel Prize for Literature. The celebrations had already begun while Seamus Heaney, fittingly, oblivious to all the fuss, was contentedly wandering through Greece, Homer’s landscape, the birthplace of poetry.
Today it is sadly different, the joy is over; the man is gone but his generous voice remains. The greatness of his art lies in his understanding of the heroic ever pulsing within the commonplace. Heaney was wonderfully ordinary, he was also heroic and his hauntingly lyrical, deceptively candid vision was epic.
In touch with natural world
Eulogies will be written, academic assessments added to the extensive material already published. In a career spanning almost 50 years, since the publication of his outstanding debut collection, Death of a Naturalist in 1966, Heaney has been recognised as an artist who celebrated the beauty of the natural world around him while being ever alert to the human labour which helped shape that kingdom.
As the first-born of nine children he knew early the close intimacy of mother and child – his poems recalling his childhood experiences of daily farm life are among the most miraculous he ever wrote.
His parents have a powerful presence throughout his work. Heaney, the poet, the teacher, the husband and father, always remained a loving son.
Drawn away from his apparent destiny, a life on the land, by his love of literature, his curiosity, Heaney the clever scholarship boy with a talent for Latin sought a vocation elsewhere which would eventually include posts at Oxford and Harvard, high honours and international fame. Yet he never forgot that Mossbawn farm was the cradle of his art.
So many images, so many memories, so many great poems and major collections. What does it take to make a great poet? Heaney made it look easy, because his poetic response was so instinctive, that surefooted balance of formal eloquence and the colloquial “Travelling south at dawn, going full out/ Through high-up stone-wall country, the rock still/ cold,/ Rainwater gleaming here and there ahead,/ I took a turn and met the fox stock-still/ face-to-face in the middle of the road./Wildness tore through me as he dipped and wheeled/ In a level-running tawny breakaway./ O neat head, fabled brush and astonished eye . . . /Let rebirth come through water, through desire . . . ” (From Crossings, Seeing Things, 1991).
He gave so much; we took it all, always wanting more. Heaney was a robust man with worker’s hands but he paid for his kindness, his willingness to help, to share. He was far bigger than the Nobel Prize which he more than honoured, as he did Ireland. The warning sign came with that first dramatic illness, a stroke some years ago.
It left him weakened and suddenly vulnerable but he kept his door open. It was his way and we continued demanding like greedy children, public appearances, readings, proud of our great man, revered yet also lovable in a way that Yeats was not. Even now, there was never anything patrician or remote about Heaney, long-established as the most widely read poet in the English speaking world.
In 1996 he had stood in a pool of light on the darkened stage of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, reading from his ninth collection, The Spirit Level, and recalled his friend Joseph Brodsky. A few months earlier, in January, the day after the Russian poet’s death, Seamus Heaney had phoned me and said “55, too young to go, but his heart gave up and he was a fierce man”.
Heaney was 74 – still too soon to go but he was worn out by giving and not even his indomitable wife Marie, a brave she-wolf, could protect him from his own generosity.
It is not quite nine months since he bade farewell to his friend and poet Dennis O’Driscoll, another abrupt leave-taking. I remember watching Seamus Heaney sitting in a small church in Co Leitrim in 2006, along with Michael Longley and Brian Friel, at the funeral service of John McGahern. Each parting hurt Heaney; he possessed rare empathy. His elegy for McGahern, Quitting Time (From District and Circle, 2006) evokes a farmer at day’s end: “The song of a tubular steel gate in the dark/ As he pulls it to and starts his uphill trek” is an eloquent farewell.
Death for Heaney had struck early; one of his first poems, Mid-Term Break recalls a younger brother who was hit by a car near the family home. “Whispers informed strangers I was the eldest,/Away at school, as my mother held my hand/In hers and coughed out angry tearless sighs.”
Many artists regard themselves as members of the elect, but Heaney was different. He looked to language as sound and meaning. His was a musician’s engagement; there was an ancient, strongly tribal purity at work.
The first time I saw him he was giving a lecture on The Rape of the Lock. The poet as teacher, fellow conspirator, and in his gentle persuasive, lilting tones, a tense Georgian tea party became the siege of Troy. He was a wonderful reader of his work and a singular speaker, an interpreter of narrative and emotion, memory. Heaney graced any subject.
Arriving at his house for an interview, I was told by him to sit and eat before the questioning began. He couldn’t find any biscuits and instead made a plate of sandwiches, a countryman’s sandwich stuffed with ham and cheese and enough butter to grease a channel swimmer.
We were in Sandymount but it could have been a Co Derry farm house kitchen. He came to my house when my daughter was born and sat on the sofa in the yellow room, saying of Frodo, “that dog is sizing me up”.
Everyone will have their personal stories; the memories that will help staunch the wound. But in tandem with the private man, the friend, is the public figure, the witness who looked to the centre, not the surface. He had questioned the easy rhetoric of much of the poetry being written in the US when he had first arrived there. It was a brave thing to do, but then this amiable charming character was also independently minded, brave and deliberate.
No less a poet than the great Robert Lowell recognised exactly how major an artist Heaney was and would become. And now the full weight of Heaney’s achievement resounds; he was a poet who gave poetry to everyone, from poets, academics and critics to people who rarely read poetry. Heaney is truly a universal poet without ever having played to the gallery or compromised his art.
But the signs were always there as was the irony. Heaney had been born in April, 1939, within weeks of the death of Yeats. Heaney had also shared a birthday, April 13th, with Samuel Beckett – and the three were all Nobel laureates.
Heaney, unlike so many Irish poets, was never oppressed by the towering presence of Yeats, and had only begun to read him in his 30s. Very much a Wordsworthian, Heaney was influenced by Patrick Kavanagh, a fellow artist of place and one who also grasped the consummate sophistication of apparent simplicity.
Always central to Heaney were the sprung rhythms of Hopkins and sensibility of Robert Frost, as well as the feel for the natural world shared by John Clare and Thomas Hardy.
He looked to his peers such as Ted Hughes and identified a soul mate in the Polish poet of mixed Lithuanian stock, Czeslaw Milosz, who had grown up in Vilnius where so many nationalities festered. In common with Milosz’s awareness of racial tensions, Heaney, a working-class Catholic from a rural background, had studied at the Protestant Queen’s University in Belfast and had also absorbed the crossfire of cultures.
The most unfair criticism aimed at Heaney was that by leaving the North in 1970 he had failed in his responsibility as a poet. He had always confronted the political, but his anger was muted and subtle, not strident. He shared his rage with Virgil and Ovid.
Often when an artist dies, critics take stock. In Heaney’s case it is different, the work has been continuous; there were no lulls. It has been organic, like a mighty tree, an image at which he would smile, his brown eyes disappearing.
Composing his human and humane work and also translating, reinvigorating classical Greek tragedies and the eighth century Anglo Saxon epic Beowulf in a muscular Whitbread prize-wining translation, he served literature.
His fourth collection, North (1975) is a seminal work, as is Seeing Things, The Spirit Level, and the wonderful District and Circle (2006). When Human Chain (2010), including the Route 110 sequence, drawing on the Aeneid, appeared, a first response was the absolute supremacy, a poet in his 12th collection still aspiring to and achieving astonishing heights.
Yet there was also a theme of mortality running through it, a life nearing its course, a race run, which makes the book both inspiring and unsettling. It is a life’s work in that it reflects a life and is a wondrous leave-taking.
The loss of Seamus Heaney, on all levels, the personal to the public, the man and the artist, the truth teller and the great, kindly teacher is monumental. But then so too is the work, some consolation at a time of real pain, a voice has been silenced, but it is not silent. His song will continue to be sung.