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Remembering Seamus Heaney

Remembering Seamus Heaney

I first encountered Heaney’s work in a collection called Wintering Out, in my Grandmother’s house. It is probably the first book of poetry I ever read. It was strange, reading this cryptic language. It was concerned with rural Ireland at a time when I’m sure what the countryside was. A child tries to map out geography as well as time. Ireland was at the height of the Celtic Tiger. Riverdance and the Irish football team’s success seemed to herald our arrival into a larger world. I remember Bill Clintons visit. And staying up for New Years 1995. But I grew up in the city. Heaney’s work was strange, like those long trips in the car down the country into another world. Trying to understand.

Seamus Heaney was born on April 13th 1939 in Mossbawn, Co. Derry. He was one of nine children to Margaret and Patrick Heaney. Margaret was a farmer and Patrick a cattle dealer. The house Seamus  grew up in was a one-story, thatched and white-washed house, surrounded by a bank with Alder trees. Heaney was always very conscious of the sounds of busses and traffic passing nearby. His mother would get the bus at the stop at the end of the lane, taking her the mile and a half or so into town.

A lot of his poems feature people on the road; coming and going, calling or stopping, sometimes RIC men, cyclists, local teachers or neighbours. He remembers his family being on good terms with those who lived around him. He was “eye level” with his neighbours in terms of social class.

Death Of A Naturalist

Many of Heaney’s poems are filled with memories of growing up at Mossbawn. He began writing in 1957 under the pseudonym Incertus, the Latin word for uncertain. Death Of A Naturalist, his first book, in particular has a lot of poems about his coming of age.

Digging is one of his most well-known poems. It explores three generations of Heaney’s family. Under his window, the poet hears the sound of his Father digging. In this poem time is shifting, his father is strained, working very hard.

He “bends low, and comes up twenty years away.”

Heaney talks about the tools we use, and appreciates the graft;

“By God the old man could handle a spade, just like his old man.”

“My grandfather cut more turf in a day

Than any other man at Toner’s bog.”

The poem has a meditative quality to it, varying between longer and shorter lines of iambic pentameter and tetrameter. The images grow deeper, and sensory detail like “the cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap of soggy peat” makes it feel like either the poet, or his father is digging into another world. Reader and poet are being drawn into the past as if it were a kind of Megalith.

It’s also a realisation about the kind of work Heaney is going to do:

“Between my finger and my thumb,

The squat pen rests,

Snug as a gun.”

That opening image suggests that in some way a pen can be as dangerous as any other tool. Heaney decides that he is going to dig with it.

It’s a striking poem. Like a lot of his early poems, it contains a kernel of everything he would go on to write.

That first collection features many that readers of Heaney will know from the title alone, like “Mid-Term Break,” about the death of his brother Christopher, who was tragically killed in a road accident near Heaney’s house. It is one of the poems many will have read in school as an example of the feeling poetry can convey in dealing with emotions like grief.

Others like Blackberry Picking and the title poem Death of A Naturalist are filled with beautiful sensory detail. This first collection was released to critical acclaim when it came out, and cemented Heaney as an important young poet.

A New Poetic Movement

Heaney was a member of the Belfast Group, along with other poets such as Michael Longley and Derick Mahon. Along with subsequent members, they were considered as being at the centre of a new movement of Irish writers, especially given their proximity to the conflict in Northern Ireland. That conflict would worsen in subsequent years and define an era of violence until the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.

Heaney’s work continued to grow his stature as a poet, with collections Door Into The Dark, Wintering Out and Field Work following in the next decade. These all developed and further dug into the themes explored in Death Of A Naturalist.

There was in some ways a colder reception to Heaney’s later collection North in 1975. Some critics considered the division of the book into two parts to be an unsuccessful experiment. It is possible that others had another motive for being less thrilled by the collection; Heaney had moved South, and took up residence in Co Wicklow, in some ways perhaps going against the narrative of these new writers being the literary worlds answer to “the troubles”.

Heaney was often criticised during his writing career by people who felt he should be doing more to be explicit about his politics.

At one point, a republican reprimanded Heaney, asking “when are you going to write something for us?”

Heaney replied “if I do write something, Whatever it is, It’ll be for myself.”

With that said, it’s not true to say Heaney’s writing wasn’t political, or that he never reacted to the conflict in his home. We cans see this in poems like “A constable Calls,” or even his early poem “Requiem For The Croppies”. There is in these poems and many others an assertion of the difference felt by the  community who were disenfranchised and discriminated against by the dominant power in Northern Ireland.

Heaney And The bog

Nowadays, it is often poems from that 1975 collection North which are seen as part of his most vital work. The book is an archaeological dig into the roots of violence and intergenerational conflict. Heaney was inspired by an archaeological survey of so-called bog bodies of Northern Europe. He would have read with great excitement, The Bog People: Iron Age Man Preserved by P.V Glob. In his own words, “it was like opening a gate.” In Stepping Stones with Dennis O Driscoll,  he admits: “even if there had been no Northern Troubles, no mankilling in parishes, I would still have felt at home with that ‘”peat-brown head”- an utterly familiar countryman’s face.”

Notice here how Heaney seems to bristle a bit at the inadequacy of the word “troubles,” and even in the interview feels the need to say what happened.

Heaney’s delving into the relationship between myth, archaeology and the present had begun with  poems like The Tollund Man; which opening with the line:

“Someday I will Go to Aarhus.

To see his peat-brown head.”

The reader can almost see the Tollund Man, the bog-preserved corpse of a man who died in the 5th century BC, coming across the expanse of time and space to visit Heaney, just as much as the other way round.

In North, Heaney delved further into this strange and familiar past.

Punishment is deals with violence and ritual sacrifice. Not so much of the kind which is done in the name of ancient deities, but that which is carried out under the guise of being for the good of the community. Heaney is struck by the body of the Windeby Girl, found in 1952 in Germany, who seems to have been ritually killed.

“I can feel the tug

Of the halter at the nape

Of her neck, the wind

On her naked front”

Heaney considers that she may have been killed for adultery, or for loving the wrong person. whatever the case, it is clear to him that she was a scapegoat.

It’s very easy when we look into the past to imagine ourselves living in tribal conflicts and historical events, of course being the ones to cry out and protest against what’s happening. We wonder how did the people of a certain era think the way they did, or allow evils to happen without raising their voice? Surely we would speak out against it?

Heaney notes the power of ritual, and of a herd mentality, it’s power to silence and to enforce:

I almost love you

But would have cast, I know

The stones of silence.”

It’s a self-admonishment, but it’s honest. He talks about “conniving in civilised outrage,” pretending as we so often do to be shocked at violence and feeling the need to denounce it in some genteel way, but lying to ourselves and pretending not to know and understand “the exact and tribal, intimate revenge”.

Heaney And The Nobel Prize

Heaney’s poetry collections continued to show no signs of diminished poetic vision in subsequent years, and they would come to be his main output throughout his life without any real sense of a lull. He published a book of his criticism on poetry in 1988. Government of the Tongue gave insight into Heaney’s thoughts on other writers such as Patrick Kavanagh and Yeats.

He was also worked in translation, with his rendition of Beowulf in particular receiving praise. The Aeneid Book VI, published posthumously in 2016, provides a window into what Heaney may have been working on in translation, and the influence of the classics on his own work.

In 1995, Heaney was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature for “works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth”. It recognised Heaney in the pantheon of great Irish writers, and the contributions of his work internationally.

Collections of his work would follow with Electric Light, District And Circle, and other books all the way up until Human Chain in 2010.


The Last Book

I remember when Human Chain came out, myself and one of my friends had bought it at the same time. It was exciting to have a new Heaney book come out in real time, since his last would have released before either of us started reading poetry.

On discussing the new volume with him, I remember saying, “I feel like this might be his last book.” It seems like an odd statement to make, because as far as many would have known Heaney was not in bad health. It did not really mean that I thought he was ill, only there was a sense of closure.

The poems in Human Chain were coming full circle with the concerns of his earlier work; family, memory, and a sense of wonder. The writing seemed burned onto the page with a directness that reminded me of Ted Hughes’s Birthday Letters.

In particular the poem Had I Not Been Awake is filled with urgency, covering something momentous that has happened to Heaney, the arrival of something: life is so short and we make it shorter by getting caught sleep-walking through it. Poetry offers the chance to slow down and listen. The poem notes how we can take things for granted… how they can “lapse ordinary.” He describes (life and poetry I think) as a whirlwind:

“Had I not been awake I would have missed to,

A wind that rose and whirled- “

Heaney notes that he has lost the ability to see these things as ordinary, and to take them for granted. It’s as if they are becoming stronger and more impactful, more startling.

In Album, the poet imagines and remembers his parents, their love “proved by steady gazing, not at each other but in the same direction.”

Almost all of Heaney’s work is concerned with memory and reflection, but Human Chain felt written with a sense of urgency and potency. It added a final piece without which his work would feel unfinished. This chain linked all the way back to his first poems.

I was ultimately saddened to learn the passing comment to my friend had been correct, when Heany passed away on the 30th August 2013, after a short illness. This year marks ten years since his death

Even now, there are more Heaney treasures yet to come to light. As mentioned, his translation of the Aeneid was published posthumously in 2016. And his correspondence with friend and fellow poet Ted Hughes has never been published but would undoubtedly contain material of great interest to the reading world.

For those interested in Heaney’s work, you can see a fantastic exhibition covering all of Heaney’s life at the Listen Now, Again, exhibition ran by the National Library Of Ireland.












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