Activists are like poets, Heaney says in rights lecture


HUMAN RIGHTS workers and poets “with humanist sympathies” were concerned fundamentally with the same endeavour – to bring to light violations and injustices done to human beings by others, Seamus Heaney has said.

Delivering the Irish Human Rights Commission lecture last night, the Nobel laureate said the commission was “worthy of highest praise, especially at this moment when economic downturn weighs most cruelly upon the . . . underprivileged”.

He said the contribution of human rights workers to the health of society was more obvious than that of writers.

“Their endeavours are noble and indispensable even if they cannot guarantee that the noxious conditions they are fighting won’t recur and indeed keep recurring.”

However, the uniting principles of all those involved in human rights protection were set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the articles of which echoed “many of the great foundational texts of western civilisation . . . from Sophocles’s paean to the wonders of man in the famous chorus in his Antigone, through Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, right up to the American Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man”.

Equally influential in the formation of human consciousness had been the “imaginative work of individual creative writers”. He pointed to such works as Shakespeare’s King Learand Dante’s Inferno. Right to the present “the work of writers has been crucial in keeping alive conscience and the spirit of freedom”.

Quoting Keats, he said human rights advocates, like poets, “are to be distinguished from mere dreamers because they are ‘Those whom the miseries of the world/ Are misery and will not let them rest’.”

While acknowledging “a Molotov cocktail provides more immediate and potent resistance to the invaders of your nations or your peoples than a lyric about its landscapes”, his quote from Primo Levi’s poem Shema, he said, expressed the “need for human solidarity”: “‘Consider whether this be a man/ Who labours in the mud/ Who knows no peace/ Who fights for a crust of bread/ Who dies at a yes or a no.”

“‘Consider whether this is a woman/ Without hair or name/ With no more strength to remember/ Eyes empty and womb cold/ As a frog in winter . . .”

Heaney concluded that great artists’ capability of entering “that place of ultimate suffering and decision in his or her own being will bring readers to a realisation of that same stratum of humanity in themselves. The experience will involve a sense of common human belonging. And at that moment the art and the artist become allies in the great work of ‘saving nations and people’.”