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.