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The Letters of Seamus Heaney: ‘Flying kites in the imagination’

These magical communications often contain a word or phrase that later make their way into art

The Letters of Seamus Heaney
Author: Seamus Heaney
ISBN-13: 9780571341085
Publisher: Faber
Guideline Price: £40.00

After his picture was taken as a young man Seamus Heaney worried that “my expression moves from disdain to inane with little between”. Heaney became a public poet early and was conscious of the image he created, and which was projected upon him. He fretted over his appearance and complained of his role as a mascot for Irish literature, “the rooted native in his green glades”, a Ted Hughes of the colonies.

Heaney was right to be anxious. The metropolitan circuits of London, Oxford and Harvard are etched deeply into this edition of his letters and, in the selection assembled by Christopher Reid, give an impression of Heaney astray from the complexities of his suggestive art.

One curious note suggests that Heaney rarely reflected on the personal impact of the Troubles on him in his letters, which reminded me of Medbh McGuckian’s epigraph to Captain Lavender, a quote from Pablo Picasso: “I have not painted war ... but I have no doubt that the war is in ... these paintings I have done.” The same holds for much of this correspondence, which is watermarked by an experience and idea of the North that dips deep into the violence of language, history and place, into Sweeney, Beowulf and the bleak margins that curve from Aarhus to Lough Beg.

Heaney’s great social gift was familiarity, as when The Chieftains stripped down to their pale bellies to sunbathe and drink whiskey in the back yard of his Berkeley rental. Over time this brought its own burdens of obligation, if not of intimacy. He was a frequent correspondent, lamenting all the while that he had become a man of letters, literally. There is real openness and warmth with artists, poets and scholars such as Barrie Cooke, Dennis O’Driscoll and Bernard O’Donoghue, and measured bonhomie with others, in particular the literary circle that remained in Belfast long after he left.


There is occasional snappishness too, and the odd aside of the kind we might all regret. The letters move at a clip from the mid-1960s until the 1970s, when they begin to fill out and expand before they diminish in volume again towards the end of Heaney’s life. They contain no correspondence with Heaney’s immediate family and have some other quirks, such as the gap that emerges around the time of his award of the Nobel Prize, which is represented by a brief letter and a scatter of postcards. There may be difficulty in publishing correspondence to many figures who are still alive only 10 years after Heaney’s death, but the effect is of a chorus gathered to sing and stilled before crescendo.

Not that Heaney ever stayed still for long. Were the letters to be drawn out in a map of friendships, contacts, queries, lectures, academic appointments, part-time and visiting, readings and, later, charity dinners (“I’m even going to California in March,” he complained to David Hammond, his old friend and musician, “to do a frigging Field Day benefit”), the continents of Europe and America would be as one, Heaney scribbling notes in Aer Lingus lounges, hotel rooms and even once on the bumpy descent from Dublin to Shannon so he could catch the post before the connecting flight to Boston.

It is fascinating to see how one place leads to another, Heaney’s veneration for Czeslaw Milosz leading to a deep feeling for Polish poetry that registers in Heaney’s work and in his many letters to Polish writers and translators. Greece is there deeply too, both as the place where he learned that he had won the Nobel and as the source of one of the letters’ best jokes, when Seamus Deane quipped that James Simmons was working on a version of Euripides, the Cully Bacchae.

Heaney’s exhausting itinerary could obscure one of the letters’ revelations, which is to set Glanmore Cottage in Co Wicklow firmly at the psychic core of his writing life. It is a place intimately connected with the poet’s establishment as a writer capable of supporting his family through the practice of his art, a refuge and a lair, and a place to summon the solitary meeting of pen with silence.

The letters bring home the uncertainty of uprooting a family in precarious financial circumstances to a rented house and new schools, the responsibility of which Heaney felt keenly (the “f***ing money-fears are so cruel”, he wrote to Seamus Deane, fears easy to forget when we know only the smiling public man). Marie Heaney flits in and out of these letters as a first reader and a constant friend, a loved presence like the children, who Heaney would often stop a letter to humour and play with (much amused as he was later when one of his sons played in a band called The Revenants, which was its own poetic justice).

The magical letters contain a word or phrase that emerges from immediate consciousness into forms that later make their way into art. There is a wonderful letter to Michael Longley written shortly after the birth of Heaney’s daughter Catherine that is possessed of a joyful lack of gravity, Heaney “flying kites in the imagination” at “the idea of the idea of freedom”. The motif returns decades later in his poem for his granddaughter, A Kite for Aibhin, which is a dance of affection in the “blue heavenly air”. That Heaney poem takes its formal cue from the Italian poet Giovanni Pascoli’s L’Aquilone, which suggests in turn the synchronicity between Heaney’s interest in versions and translations and the many roles he assumed in his artistic life.

The votive theatre between Heaney and Hughes is played to its full potential in this edition. The chaotic practice of Field Day is less well realised, in particular the dramas that attended Heaney’s ties to Brian Friel and to Deane, dramas played out in other archives whose presence is silent in the notes. From the beginning Heaney found in Friel a fellow mind, and in Deane an intellect of European standing. The proximity between them generated innovation, anxiety and controversy, due in part to the blind spots they shared from their old boys’ world of St Columb’s.

Field Day’s liberating idea was that some future Ireland might be imagined in a fifth province, a territory that Friel summoned to Heaney’s amazement in the play Translations. Heaney was long fascinated with the breakwaters of language in the North, the soft vowel meadow of Anahorish brooked by a gravelly Broagh. Place was language to Heaney as much as it was memory, and it was this that gave the poetry a transparency that wore so thin with age it became transcendent.

His model for this, as with much else, was his reading of William Wordsworth, whose Prelude spoke to Heaney his whole life, and whose early home Racedown was a kindred spirit of Glanmore. Heaney often gestured to Wordsworth in his poems but the letters show a further depth, the luminosity of Heaney’s late landscapes sharing something of Wordsworth’s immanent sense of place, the flatlands of Lough Neagh a lake district made again. This panorama of riverbank and field is there at the beginning and there at the end, and is always a point of departure.

In the early letters the journey is towards the landmarks of any writer’s career, of publication, an audience and recognition. Age and illness give the later letters a texture they share with the last poems; the poet become a ghost of himself. Still he kept his humour. In the hospital preparing for a pacemaker the surgeon asked Heaney had he any questions. Do you come here often, Heaney joked, to which the surgeon replied, only after a few drinks. Then, Heaney wrote, “I knew he was the man for the job”.

Towards the end, Heaney came to believe in “not so much an afterlife as an after-image of life”, the late work like the late letters, watercolours drawn in the clear flow of the Moyola, the bog meadows of Bellaghy, Charon’s barge an eel boat crewed by familiar faces. “I am like somebody on the threshold of a newness”, he wrote in his first recovery, which is how Colin Davidson’s late painting caught him, lit by fragility.

Imagined as a portrait, The Letters of Seamus Heaney resembles one of Davidson’s preparatory sketches, the outline in place, the interior drawn in shades of light and dark in varying degrees of depth and balance, chiaroscuro. “I’ve always loved that statement that Constable made somewhere about old muddy banks and puddles and sheughs – not his word – having made a painter of him”, Heaney wrote to Basil Blackshaw. The letters are of a like transformation, Heaney’s impressions of life as it passed the tributaries of a literary landscape that he set in brightness, echoing.

Further reading

The Letters of Seamus Heaney add to what we know of the poet’s life and work from decades of critical work, and from the publication of Dennis O’Driscoll’s Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney (Faber, 2008). Stepping Stones is a life in all but name, and as the poet wished to see it. It details the contexts of Heaney’s writing and like the letters gives a good sense of his voice and cadence. It marks the boundaries of Heaney’s reticence too and we await the biographies to come for more accounts of the life from diverse perspectives. Heaney the writer was also Heaney the reader, and Marco Sonzogni’s recent edition of The Translations of Seamus Heaney (Faber, 2022) is enjoyable and surprising. Toby Faber’s Faber & Faber: the Untold Story of a Great Publishing House (Faber, 2019) gives a fascinating insight into the people and stories that attend the London press that published Heaney all his life, in particular of Charles Monteith, Ulsterman manqué and Heaney’s influential editor.