Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.
– from Digging, 1966
And he did. From 1965, when Death of a Naturalist, the collection that contained Digging, to his death on 30 August 2013 Seamus Heaney dug with his pen into the rich loam of experience, history and memory to bring forth great poems, just as his father and grandfather before him had dug with a spade for potatoes and peat.
Heaney was born in 1939 near Castledawson in Co Derry, a remote corner of a remote part of Northern Ireland.
I come from scraggy farm and moss,
Old patchworks that the pitch and toss
Of history have left dishevelled ….
– from A Peacock’s Feather
He was the eldest of nine children, and grew up immersed in the calendar of the farming year and the rituals of rural Catholic life. In his address on winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995 he said:
In the nineteen forties, when I was the eldest child of an ever-growing family in rural Co. Derry, we crowded together in the three rooms of a traditional thatched farmstead and lived a kind of den-life which was more or less emotionally and intellectually proofed against the outside world. It was an intimate, physical, creaturely existence in which the night sounds of the horse in the stable beyond one bedroom wall mingled with the sounds of adult conversation from the kitchen beyond the other. We took in everything that was going on, of course – rain in the trees, mice on the ceiling, a steam train rumbling along the railway line one field back from the house – but we took it in as if we were in the doze of hibernation.
In 2010, in an interview for The NewsHouse (below), Heaney spoke of ‘a first life far from books, far from literature which was in a far-off time, really’. Though mid-way through the 20th century, the life he knew as a child was one unchanged in most respects since medieval times. In his poems, repeatedly, he tried to make sense of that experience. Notably, in the poem Alphabets written in 1984, Heaney recalled how the process of learning – to write and to read – began what he described in his Nobel speech as ‘a journey into the wideness of the world’:
A shadow his father makes with joined hands
And thumbs and fingers nibbles on the wall
Like a rabbit’s head. He understands
He will understand more when he goes to school.
There he draws smoke with chalk the whole first week,
Then draws the forked stick that they call a Y.
This is writing. A swan’s neck and swan’s back
Make the 2 he can see now as well as say.
Two rafters and a cross-tie on the slate
Are the letter some call ah, some call ay.
There are charts, there are headlines, there is a right
Way to hold the pen and a wrong way.
First it is ‘copying out,’ and then ‘English,’
Marked correct with a little leaning hoe.
Smells of inkwells rise in the classroom hush.
A globe in the window tilts like a coloured O.
Declensions sang on air like a hosanna
As, column after stratified column,
Book One of Elementa Latina,
Marbled and minatory, rose up in him.
For he was fostered next in a stricter school
Named for the patron saint of the oak wood
Where classes switched to the pealing of a bell
And he left the Latin forum for the shade
Of new calligraphy that felt like home.
The letters of this alphabet were trees.
The capitals were orchards in full bloom,
The lines of script like briars coiled in ditches.
Here in her snooded garment and bare feet,
All ringleted in assonance and woodnotes,
The poet’s dream stole over him like sunlight
And passed into the tenebrous thickets.
He learns this other writing. He is the scribe
Who drove a team of quills on his white field.
Round his cell door the blackbirds dart and dab.
Then self-denial, fasting, the pure cold.
By rules that hardened the farther they reached north
He bends to his desk and begins again.
Christ’s sickle has been in the undergrowth.
The script grows bare and Merovingian.
The globe has spun. He stands in a wooden O.
He alludes to Shakespeare. He alludes to Graves.
Time has bulldozed the school and school window.
Balers drop bales like printouts where stooked sheaves
Made lambdas on the stubble once at harvest
And the delta face of each potato pit
Was patted straight and moulded against frost.
All gone, with the omega that kept
Watch above each door, the good-luck horseshoe.
Yet shape-note language, absolute on air
As Constantine’s sky-lettered IN HOC SIGNO
Can still command him; or the necromancer
Who would hang from the domed ceiling of his house
A figure of the world with colours in it
So that the figure of the universe
And ‘not just single things’ would meet his sight
When he walked abroad. As from his small window
The astronaut sees all that he has sprung from,
The risen, aqueous, singular, lucent O
Like a magnified and buoyant ovum –
Or like my own wide pre-reflective stare
All agog at the plasterer on his ladder
Skimming our gable and writing our name there
With his trowel point, letter by strange letter.
In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, delivered in Stockholm in 1995, Heaney recalled his first encounter with European languages via the radio in the kitchen of his home during wartime. Overhearing fragments of foreign sentences, he said, as the dial was moved from one accustomed station to another, ‘I had already begun a journey into the wideness of the world. This in turn became a journey into the wideness of language, a journey where each point of arrival – whether in one’s poetry or one’s life – turned out to be a stepping stone rather than a destination, and it is that journey which has brought me now to this honoured spot.’
The characteristic mode of Heaney’s poetry – its insistent recounting and reflection on experience – was singled out by his friend and fellow poet Lachlan Mackinnon in a tribute in the Telegraph:
“Hwaet” is the first word of Beowulf, which Heaney translated to wide acclaim in 1999. It is a notorious stumbling block for translators, like the first sentence of Proust’s A la recherche. “Wait”, it suggests, but it also means something like “Listen”. Heaney’s ingenious solution is “So”. The word gathers to it everything that has gone before, but also implies that there is much to come. It marks the beginning of reflection. It represents the characteristic mode of Heaney’s poems, to recount and reflect on experience.
Writing for two decades against the backdrop of bombings and shootings, riots and brutality, internment and hunger strikes in Northern Ireland, Heaney’s poetry often spoke explicitly about the Troubles and the divided society into which he had been born. In Funeral Rights (from the collection North, 1975) he wrote:
Now as news come in
of each neighbourly murder
we pine for ceremony,
the temperate footsteps
of a cortege, winding past
each blinded home.
Heaney never always sought the wider view, contextualised by history and the general human situation. Arguably, his outlook was summed up best in this passage from his Nobel speech:
The external reality and inner dynamic of happenings in Northern Ireland between 1968 and 1974 were symptomatic of change, violent change admittedly, but change nevertheless, and for the minority living there, change had been long overdue. It should have come early, as the result of the ferment of protest on the streets in the late sixties, but that was not to be and the eggs of danger which were always incubating got hatched out very quickly. While the Christian moralist in oneself was impelled to deplore the atrocious nature of the IRA’s campaign of bombings and killings, and the “mere Irish” in oneself was appalled by the ruthlessness of the British Army on occasions like Bloody Sunday in Derry in 1972, the minority citizen in oneself, the one who had grown up conscious that his group was distrusted and discriminated against in all kinds of official and unofficial ways, this citizen’s perception was at one with the poetic truth of the situation in recognizing that if life in Northern Ireland were ever really to flourish, change had to take place. But that citizen’s perception was also at one with the truth in recognizing that the very brutality of the means by which the IRA were pursuing change was destructive of the trust upon which new possibilities would have to be based.
The most arresting moment in Heaney’s Nobel speech came when he recalled, in his words, ‘one of the most harrowing moments in the whole history of the harrowing of the heart in Northern Ireland’, when a minibus full of workers being driven home one January evening in 1976 was held up by armed and masked men and the occupants of the van ordered at gunpoint to line up at the side of the road:
Then one of the masked executioners said to them, “Any Catholics among you, step out here”. As it happened, this particular group, with one exception, were all Protestants, so the presumption must have been that the masked men were Protestant paramilitaries about to carry out a tit-for-tat sectarian killing of the Catholic as the odd man out, the one who would have been presumed to be in sympathy with the IRA and all its actions. It was a terrible moment for him, caught between dread and witness, but he did make a motion to step forward. Then, the story goes, in that split second of decision, and in the relative cover of the winter evening darkness, he felt the hand of the Protestant worker next to him take his hand and squeeze it in a signal that said no, don’t move, we’ll not betray you, nobody need know what faith or party you belong to. All in vain, however, for the man stepped out of the line; but instead of finding a gun at his temple, he was thrown backward and away as the gunmen opened fire on those remaining in the line, for these were not Protestant terrorists, but members, presumably, of the Provisional IRA.
It is difficult at times to repress the thought that history is about as instructive as an abattoir; that Tacitus was right and that peace is merely the desolation left behind after the decisive operations of merciless power.
But, on another occasion, reflecting on the 1994 IRA ceasefire, he said:
I do believe, whatever happens, a corner was turned historically in 1994. We’ve passed from the atrocious to the messy, but the messy is a perfectly okay place to live.
Perhaps his position was best summed up by the line from his play The Cure at Troy (1990) concerning those times when ‘hope and history rhyme’. It is a line which has been invoked frequently – during the 1990s peace process in Northern Ireland, and at other times, in other situations:
Human beings suffer,
they torture one another,
they get hurt and get hard.
No poem or play or song
can fully right a wrong
inflicted or endured.
The innocent in gaols
beat on their bars together.
A hunger-striker’s father
stands in the graveyard dumb.
The police widow in veils
faints at the funeral home.
History says, Don’t hope
on this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
the longed for tidal wave
of justice can rise up,
and hope and history rhyme.
So hope for a great sea-change
on the far side of revenge.
Believe that a further shore
is reachable from here.
Believe in miracles
and cures and healing wells.
Call the miracle self-healing:
The utter self-revealing
double-take of feeling.
If there’s fire on the mountain
Or lightning and storm
And a god speaks from the sky
That means someone is hearing
the outcry and the birth-cry
of new life at its term.
This week I watched RTE One’s brilliant documentary Seamus Heaney: Out of the Marvellous.. It’s on their iPlayer for another fortnight; a pity it can’t be available permanently.
The annals say: when the monks of Clonmacnoise
Were all at prayers inside the oratory
A ship appeared above them in the air.
The anchor dragged along behind so deep
It hooked itself into the altar rails
And then, as the big hull rocked to a standstill,
A crewman shinned and grappled down the rope
And struggled to release it. But in vain.
‘This man can’t bear our life here and will drown,’
The abbot said, ‘unless we help him.’ So
They did, the freed ship sailed, and the man climbed back
Out of the marvellous as he had known it.
– Lightenings viii, 1991
Update 7 September: there’s an excellent of appreciation of Heaney by Blake Morrison today in the Guardian Review in which he quotes Lightenings, adding:
His later poems make room for everyday miracles and otherworldly wisdom. … For Heaney, there were marvels enough in this world, and never mind the next. Ordinary objects and places – a sofa, a wireless, a satchel, a gust of wind, the sound of rain – were sanctified. His Catholicism ran deep: in his teens he made pilgrimages to Lough Derg and Lourdes, and he thought of writing as a sacred act: “When I sit opposite the desk, it’s like being an altar boy in the sacristy getting ready to go out on to the main altar.” Religion taught him reverence but the gods of the hearth were what he revered – the den-life he had known as a child. He kept coming back to it and finding new things, or seeing the same things in a new light.
Though the poet and man who (all the elegies of past days reveal) was greatly loved has gone, there is much to savour on YouTube. Here’s a selection:
Seamus Heaney’s lecture on being awarded Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995:
Melvyn Bragg and Seamus Heaney, South Bank Show 1992 (Spanish subtitles):
Making Sense of a Life: conversation with Seamus Heaney (The NewsHouse):
When all the others were away …(Clearances iii)
Digging (BBC TV)
Scaffolding: ‘there’s a lad entering the state of matrimony with great ebullience’:
Punishment: ‘the exact and tribal, intimate revenge’:
Beowulf read by Heaney (audio – complete, 2 parts):
At his funeral we learned from his son that his last words, ‘written a few minutes before he passed away’, took the form of a text message to his wife Marie. It read: ‘Noli timere. Don’t be afraid.’
In District and Circle, his 2006 collection, there is a poem that conjures a private image of the couple savouring the morning sun in the garden they have planted:
At the back of a garden, in earshot of river water,
In a corner walled off like the baths or bake-house
Of an unroofed abbey or broken-floored Roman villa,
They have planted their birch grove. Planted it recently only,
But already each morning it puts forth in the sun
Like their own long grown-up selves, the white of the bark
As suffused and cool as the white of the satin nightdress
She bends and straightens up in, pouring tea,
Sitting across from where he dandles a sandal
On his big time-keeping foot, as bare as an abbot’s.
Red brick and slate, plum tree and apple retain
Their credibility, a CD of Bach is making the rounds
Of the common or garden air. Above them a jet trail
Tapers and waves like a willow wand or a taper.
“If art teaches us anything,” he says, trumping life
With a quote, “it’s that the human condition is private.”
– The Birch Grove, from District and Circle, 2006