We Will Not See His Like Again

Seamus, his wife Marie, and their children, circa late 70s. Photo: Hanvey
Seamus, his wife Marie, and their children, circa late 70s. Photo: Hanvey

By Patricia Harty and Adam Farley

October / November 2013

Remembering Seamus Heaney.

Lightenings viii
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 marvelous as he had known it.

—One of Heaney’s poems cited by the Nobel Prize Committee in 1995.

Seamus Heaney, 74, died on Friday, August 30, 2013 at the Blackrock Clinic in Dublin after a brief illness.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny said his death was a “great sorrow to Ireland,” and that perhaps only Heaney himself could describe the import of his own death to the nation. “For us, Seamus Heaney was the keeper of language, our codes, our essence as a people.”

Ireland’s President Michael D. Higgins, said “Generations of Irish people will have been familiar with Seamus’ poems. Scholars all over the world will have gained from the depth of the critical essays, and so many rights organizations will want to thank him for all the solidarity he gave to the struggles within the republic of conscience.”

Heaney was awarded the 1995 Nobel Prize in Literature, “for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past.” All of Ireland was proud. It wasn’t that there hadn’t been Irish writers who had taken the prize before – W.B. Yeats, G.B. Shaw, and Samuel Beckett had all been honored – but the confirmation of Heaney was different. At that time, institutions such as the New York Times still referred to Shaw as British. Yeats was constantly labeled as Anglo-Irish and Beckett was placed outside the realm of Ireland. But no such claim could be made of Heaney, as both the work and person were unmistakably Irish.

Born on April 13, 1939, the first of Margaret and Patrick Heaney’s nine children, at the family farm in Mossbawn, County Derry, the poet remembered his upbringing in his Nobel acceptance speech:

“In the 1940s, when I was the eldest child of an ever-growing family in rural County 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 mingles with the sounds of adult conversation from the kitchen beyond the other….”

After attending the local school at Anahorish, Heaney studied at Queens University in Belfast – his father referred to him as a “scholarship boy” – and graduated with a degree in English in 1961. He earned a teaching certificate at St. Joseph’s College in Belfast the following year, and went on to lecture in English at the same school. It was during this time that he began to write, publishing in school magazines under the pseudonym Incertus.

In the mid-1960s, Heaney published Eleven Poems. He married Marie Devlin in 1965, and a year later became a lecturer in modern English literature at Queens University, the same year that Faber and Faber published his collection Death of a Naturalist, which won the E.C. Gregory Award, the Cholmondeley Award, the Somerset Maugham Award, and the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize.

During this period Heaney and his wife had two sons, Michael (1965) and Christopher (1968).

Heaney struggled long and hard with the complexity of the situation in Northern Ireland at the time, and eventually decided to leave his home. “What I was longing for was not quite stability but an active escape from the quicksand of relativism, a way of crediting poetry without anxiety or apology,” he said.

In 1969, his second of ten volumes of poems, Door into the Dark, was published, and in 1970 Heaney and his family moved to Berkeley, California, where he was a guest lecturer at the University of California. He returned to the North in 1971, but a year later resigned his position at Queens University and moved to the Irish Republic.

“So It was that I found myself in the mid-1970s in another small house, this time in County Wicklow, south of Dublin, with a young family of my own,” Heaney said.

In 1972, Heaney published Wintering Out, and the following year his daughter, Catherine Ann, was born. During this period, Heaney won many awards, gave readings in England and the U.S., and edited two poetry anthologies. He began teaching at Dublin’s Carysfort College in 1975, and six years later took the position of visiting professor at Harvard University. Three more collections of his work were published during this time – Field Work, Selected Poems, and Preoccupations: Selected Prose.

By 1984, Heaney’s Station Island had been published, and he had been elected the Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard.
The deaths of his parents – his mother in 1984 and his father in 1987 – had great influence on Heaney’s work, and were reflected in The Haw Lantern (1987) and Seeing Things (1991). His series of sonnets titled Clearances were written as a memorial to his mother.

Although Heaney had not lived in Northern Ireland for some years, there was always been a link between his writings and the tragic situation that played itself out there. It seems only fitting that lines from his 1990 play, The Cure at Troy, which in an act of artistic bravery premiered in the heart of Derry, should come to embody the hope of a nation in the wake of the IRA and loyalist cease-fires in 1994:

“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.”

In recent decades, those lines became some of the most frequently quoted by politicians hoping to affect change. Bill Clinton famously uttered them during his 1995 address to the people of Derry, in the midst of the peace process.

In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Heaney spoke of “poetry’s power to do the thing which always is and always will be to poetry’s credit: the power to persuade that vulnerable part of our consciousness of its rightness in spite of the evidence of wrongness around it, the power to remind us that we are hunters and gatherers of values, that our very solitudes and distresses are creditable, in so far as they, too, are an earnest of our veritable human being.”

Heaney continued to write prolifically, turning, in later years, more and more to classicism, spirituality, and returning to the mysteries of modern life as manifestations of ancient tropes.

If he was not a household name before, his 2000 translation of Beowulf became a rapid bestseller and brought him further acclaim. After Beowulf, Heaney began translating in earnest, publishing seven more translations, including Sophocles’s Antigone.

His 2006 release District and Circle won the T.S. Eliot Prize, the most prestigious prize in the U.K., and Colm Toibin wrote for the Guardian that Heaney’s volume, Human Chain (2010), was “his best single volume for many years.”

“He appealed not just to the critics and fellow poets but to the man in the street,” his fellow poet Michael Longley told RTE.

In recent years, Heaney made the business of loss as much his subject as memory, aging, or the pastoral, and his elegies became more of a focal point in his last two collections. As NYU Professor Gregory Londe eulogized, “It’s a strange comfort when someone dies who has taught you so much about how to mourn.”

“With his brilliant mind and extravagant heart, he was, himself, a healing well. And for a while, he saved us,” says Loretta Brennan Glucksman, founder of Glucksman Ireland House at NYU and a friend of the poet.

Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore echoed that sentiment with perfect simplicity: “He explained us to ourselves,” he said.

Heaney is survived by his wife Marie, herself an accomplished writer, and their children: Christopher, Michael, and Catherine Ann. The funeral mass was held at Church of the Sacred Heart in Donnybrook, Dublin on September 2. He was buried in Bellaghy, County Derry, next to his younger brother Christopher, whose death at only three years-of-age inspired one of Heaney’s most famous poems, “Mid-Term Break.”

Seamus Heaney’s final words, sent in a text message from his hospital bed to Marie just minutes before he died, were: “Noli timere,” a Latin phrase that translates to “Do not be afraid.” – P.H. and A.F.

In His Own Words
In April 1996, six months after Seamus Heaney was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, Patricia Harty interviewed the poet:

What does it mean to call yourself a poet?

I think that if you call yourself a poet it means that you live by it, so to speak, and for it, in a very serious way. There’s a phrase of Ted Hughes, which I like very much. He said that the true poem emerges from the place of ultimate suffering and decision in us, and I think if you call yourself a poet, you publicly consecrate yourself to living somehow by the places of suffering and decision.

Click here to read the entire interview with Seamus Heaney

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