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Seamus Heaney, by Fintan O’Toole: His death 10 years ago was ‘the end of a great eloquence’

Benign but not bland, temperate but not soft, the late poet is irreplaceable as a public figure

Seamus Heaney photographed by Bobbie Hanvey. Photograph courtesy of Bobbie Hanvey Photographic Archives/John J Burns Library/Boston College

It is impossible to read last words without reading into them, whether they were intended or not, premonitions of finality. Ten days before his death, on August 30th, 2013, Seamus Heaney put the finishing touches to a poem commissioned by the National Gallery of Ireland, responding to one of its paintings, Gustave Caillebotte’s Banks of a Canal.

Looking at that painting now, the eye is drawn towards the bend in the canal, where the water disappears quite suddenly from view and all the lines converge on a slowly darkening sky. If you want to look at it that way, it is an image of the visible world melting away into the blue-grey beyond, the here and now taking its last leave.

"Say ‘canal’ and there’s that final vowel Towing silence with it, slowing time To a walking pace, a path, a whitewashed...

Posted by National Gallery of Ireland on Monday, June 8, 2020

Writing about the painting, Heaney did indeed play with the sense of an ending: “Say ‘canal’ and there’s that final vowel/ Towing silence with it, slowing time/ To a walking pace, a path, a whitewashed gleam/ Of dwellings at the skyline./ World stands still ...” All those long “a” and “l” sounds have the lulling pull of a drawn-out departure.

A week earlier he had finished a poem for his little granddaughter Síofra, in which he is holding her hands as she takes her first steps and imagining her as a grown woman: “I saw you years from now/ (More years than I’ll be allowed)”. Cradled within those brackets, his own coming death sits comfortably and almost casually.

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Just as the canal in the Caillebotte poem is “towing silence with it”, this poem concludes on the word “silently”. The end of a great eloquence, the silencing of a voice of incomparable richness, the approach of “that final vowel” is – at least in hindsight – being intimated.

Heaney and Michael Longley were sitting in a cafe in Lisdoonvarna, gossiping and twinkling with mischievous delight in each other’s company, like a pair of adolescents discovering love for the first time

Another poem he wrote that summer could be read, if we are so minded, as a meeting with all the departed loved ones who are anticipating his arrival among them. Walking through a ploughed field reminds him of a demobbed soldier, most probably his uncle Mick Joyce, appearing from nowhere in the field behind Heaney’s childhood home, Mossbawn.

In the poem the soldier is not a frightening figure but a gentle guide who moves to “take me by a hand to lead me back/ Through the same old gate into the yard/ Where everyone has suddenly appeared,/ All standing waiting.”

There is no rational reason to think of these poems as eerie portents. Heaney was well that summer, seemingly recovered from the stroke that had laid him low in 2006 and left him, as they might say in his native Ulster, shook.

He had written after the stroke one of the great poems of ageing and infirmity, In the Attic, where the climb up to his study in the loft of his house in Sandymount makes him an unsteady cabin boy ascending to the crow’s nest, and the astonishing faculty of memory that makes his work so magical “bottoms out/ Into the irretrievable”.

Seamus Heaney, our dad the poet, by Catherine, Chris and Mick HeaneyOpens in new window ]

But by 2013 he did not seem infirm either of body or of mind. I met him for the last time, 10 days before his death, in a cafe in Lisdoonvarna, in Co Clare, where he was doing a reading for the Merriman Summer School with his old friend and poetic comrade Michael Longley. The two of them were sitting at a table, gossiping and twinkling with mischievous delight in each other’s company, like a pair of adolescents discovering love for the first time. (Longley would later memorialise the occasion almost in these terms: “I blew a kiss across the stage to you/ When we read our poems in Lisdoonvarna…”)

Before that, I had met him on March 20th, when he came to the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin to launch a book I had put together, A History of Ireland in 100 Objects. No one knew then, of course, that it would be his final formal public speech.

And there was nothing consciously valedictory about it. Heaney was, as always, beautifully contemplative – but he was also feisty and, in his own graceful way, furious.

On the one hand he presented himself as a living link with the deep past, remarking that “it surely says something about the Ireland I grew up in that I feel closer to the first exhibit, from 7,000 years ago, than I do to a couple at the end of the book.” He was still, at some level, the farm boy who relished the simple, practical implements that had changed little between the Mesolithic era and the 1940s.

But there was nothing sweetly nostalgic in this connection to the past. Part of the reason why Heaney is so irreplaceable as a public figure was that he could be benign without being bland, temperate without going soft.

Seamus Heaney in his attic study in his home in Sandymount, Dublin. Photograph: Bobbie Hanvey, courtesy of the National Library of Ireland

In those final months of his life Heaney was acutely aware that Ireland was then still experiencing the trauma of the banking and property crash, and he wanted to make clear in that speech his (perfectly poised) anger at the reduction of Irishness to an enormous financial debt.

He suggested that contemplating these objects that had survived from our history might “open up a new way of thinking about ourselves and the country we live in”.

“It reminds us that we are not simply a credit rating or an economy but a history and a culture, a human population rather than a statistical phenomenon. It is significant, for example, that when we think of things preserved from the past, we often use the expression ‘handed down’ – ‘handed down’ instead of the more abstract ‘inherited’. ‘Inherited’ is slightly legalistic whereas ‘handed down’ presupposes the physical handover of a gift; it situates the exchange in a social context, implies a kind of handshake.

“And it is that sensation of human contact, of a covenant with the past, of an at-homeness experienced in silence and stillness, it is that combination of distance and familiarity which can give us some sense of belonging with those who have gone before. So it might be said that if we have inherited a debt, we have also been handed down a treasury.”

Seamus Heaney: ‘If I described myself as an Ulsterman I’d have thought I was selling a bit of my birthright’Opens in new window ]

That same image had been present in the title poem of his final collection, Human Chain, where the rough, rustic memory of passing bags of grain on to a trailer slips gently into a foretelling of his own death. The relief of letting go of the heavy sack becomes “A letting go which will not come again./ Or, it will, once. And for all.”

Yet, listening to him at the National Museum, the approach of this moment of letting go still seemed abstract and distant. It did not seem then that Heaney would so soon belong “with those who have gone before”, that he too would recede so suddenly into the past, that his own work would now be “handed down” as a gift from the dead to the living, a handshake between what is irretrievably lost and what goes on giving delight and comfort.

Again, it is only in sad retrospect that the sharply political message of that speech would seem like a last testament to what he stood for in Ireland as a moral and cultural counterweight to the narrow-minded hubris and vulgarity that had brought the country so low. But, if there had to be a final political statement, this was indeed an apt summary of his public ethic of care, connection and depth.

Seamus Heaney pictured around the time of the publication of Death of a Naturalist in 1966.

These intimations of a coming end have to be placed in the context of a life that always seem to be lived in the awareness of death – not as a morbid obsession but as a matter of fact. Even when he was young Heaney often wrote about death and the dead. He was such a frequent traveller into their underworld that he must have had a rake of air miles.

He couldn’t think of his honeymoon in London with his beloved Marie without becoming Orpheus venturing down into Hades to try to retrieve his dead wife, Eurydice. He couldn’t think of the inspector on the bus route he regularly took from Belfast to Co Derry without making him into Charon, the mythological ferryman who carried the dead across the Styx to the afterlife.

Heaney’s last words, texted to his wife, Marie, 15 minutes before his death on a hospital trolley, were ‘Noli timere.’ Do not be afraid

He couldn’t encounter a busker at the entrance to a London Underground station without making him, too, a Charon who had to be paid before the traveller could descend into the depths. Or, as in the same poem, District and Circle, he could not see people lying on the grass to sun themselves in a London park without imagining them as the dead about to be resurrected on the Last Day. Or, yet again in that poem, when he catches a glimpse of his own face mirrored in the window of the tube train, what he sees is the face of his dead father.

It is perhaps one of the most Irish things about him, this almost companionable familiarity with the dead. In Funeral Rites he evoked the Irish matter-of-factness of seeing people laid out in their own homes, “their dough-white hands/ shackled in rosary beads”, and of “stepping in to lift the coffins/ of dead relations”.

But he went beyond this sense of the ordinariness of mortality to create an art in which the barrier between the dead and the living is thin and porous, easily evaded by following the pathways opened up through memory. He would have mocked at the metaphor and shrugged it off as overly mystical, but there is something shamanistic in his uncanny communion with the deceased.

That summer of 2013 he was also finishing his version of a mythic text that had long haunted him, Book 6 of Virgil’s Aeneid. Here, too, the hero wants to descend into the world of the dead so that he can meet his deceased father one last time.

The Sibyl who guards the entrance to the underworld warns him: “Death’s dark door stands open day and night/ But to retrace your steps and get back to upper air,/ That is the task, that is the undertaking.” Heaney himself went, again and again, through that door into the dark, and the poignancy of reading this sequence, knowing how soon after writing it he would die, is that this time he would not get back to upper air.

The dramatic climax of the poem comes when Aeneas meets his dead father and tries to embrace him: “Three times he reached arms round that neck./ Three times the form, reached for in vain, escaped/ Like a breeze between his hands, a dream on wings.”

Seamus Heaney at Bellaghy bog in 1986, wearing his father's coat, hat and walking stick. Photograph: Bobbie Hanvey Photographic Archives/John J Burns Library/Boston College

The dead cannot really be held between our hands – hence the great sense of loss that Ireland felt when the news of Heaney’s own departure broke that morning, the knowledge that, as one letter-writer, Frank Munnelly, put it in The Irish Times: “As a nation, we are a man down.” Even those who had read little of his poetry knew that Heaney’s presence was irreplaceable, that the kind of grace he embodied would no longer be available to us in the flesh.

But if the dead cannot be embraced, neither are they to be feared. As his son Mick revealed at his father’s funeral, Heaney’s last words, texted to Marie 15 minutes before his death on a hospital trolley on the way into theatre at Blackrock Clinic, were “Noli timere.” Do not be afraid.

It was perhaps a kind of reply to another Latin phrase he would have known very well, from the Catholic Church’s old Office for the Dead and from the medieval poets he loved: Timor mortis conturbat me – fear of death distresses me. Fear of death did not distress him.

But if Heaney was our greatest elegist, he was also our greatest, and most benign, necromancer. He summoned the departed, not as only as ghosts to haunt us but also as carriers of life and love

This refusal of dread was never, in Heaney’s art, a making light of death. It was, rather, a knowledge that if the dead cannot be embraced physically, they can still be embraced imaginatively. If you know the right words – and no one ever knew them better – you can call them back from oblivion.

“Death” is there in the very title of his first book, Death of a Naturalist. One of its most famous poems, Mid-Term Break, describes his arrival home from boarding school in Derry for the wake of his four-year-old brother, Christopher, killed by a bus on the road outside Mossbawn.

It has that austere, deceptively calm memory of going upstairs to see the corpse laid out: “Wearing a poppy bruise on his left temple,/ He lay in the four-foot box as in his cot.” The restraint of the lines and the intimate exactitude of the imagery make it possible for us, too, the readers, to approach the dead body with sorrow but without horror.

The cot and the coffin, birth and death, are fused. It is as if the child can be somehow reborn through memory.

How I learned to love Seamus Heaney’s poetryOpens in new window ]

Later, when he contemplated the bog bodies that so fascinated him, he brought these ancient cadavers back to life: “Who will say ‘corpse’/ to his vivid cast?/ Who will say ‘body’/ To his opaque repose?”

With a different kind of death – the kind that became all too familiar in what he called the “old man-killing parishes” of the Troubles – he could imagine himself, in The Strand at Lough Beg, embracing the corpse of his murdered cousin Colum McCartney: “I lift you under the arms and lay you flat./ With rushes that shoot green again, I plait/ Green scapulars to wear over your shroud.”

But if Heaney was our greatest elegist, he was also our greatest, and most benign, necromancer. He summoned the departed, not as only as ghosts to haunt us but also as carriers of life and love.

He evoked, in his great poem Sunlight, written in memory of his aunt Mary, “a sunlit absence”. It is, of course, an oxymoron, and perhaps a conscious play on one of the best-known poetic uses of that figure of speech, John Milton’s “darkness visible”.

Seamus, Catherine, Mick, Marie and Chris Heaney in the 1970s. Photograph: Bobbie Hanvey/National Library of Ireland

That in turn might be the best two-word summary of Heaney’s art. He is not a poet of sweetness and light. He is, rather, one who makes the dark perceptible, tangible, even audible. His aim, as he defined it early on in Personal Helicon, was “to set the darkness echoing”.

His spirit animals were the bats that, as he alluded to them in Station Island, fill the gloom of the night with “echo-soundings, searches, probes, allurements” and the eel that creates “elver-gleams in the dark of the whole sea”.

That includes the darkness of death itself. His work does not deny it but does refuse to be defeated by it. He does not, to use a phrase from his astonishing poem Two Lorries, “sweet-talk darkness”. Rather he gives it a voice.

And because that voice takes on his own warm, compassionate and courageous resonance, it is always a great consolation to hear it. Even in the knowledge of his untimely passing there is the strange pleasure of an Irish wake, where, as he has it Route 110, the house of the dead is also “a house of hospitalities”. So long as humans have to deal with and defy death, they will linger in Heaney’s hospitable house.

Fintan O’Toole is working on the official biography of Seamus Heaney