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Seamus Heaney . . . in the great Irish tradition

No one has been more deserving of the Nobel Prize than Seamus Heaney who won in 1995. In the history of modern Irish poetry, only one other poet rivals him, the previous great Nobel laureate, William Butler Yeats.

When a poet receives the Nobel Prize, attention must be paid. And no one has been more deserving than Seamus Heaney who won in 1995.   In the history of modern Irish poetry, only one other poet rivals him, the previous great Nobel laureate, William Butler Yeats. I can’t help but notice the connection that joins them: Yeats died in January of 1939, and Heaney was born three months later.

* * *

Seamus Heaney. Winner of the Nobel Prize.

* * *

Heaney was Irish through and through, and when Penguin Books included him in an anthology of British poets, he quickly responded:

“Be advised my passport’s green.
No glass of ours was ever raised
to toast the Queen.”

* * *

Heaney was born in Northern Ireland and grew up on a farm where his father, like his father before him, worked the land and dealt in cattle. Though Seamus would ultimately become a distinguished professor at two of the most lauded universities in the world, he never forgot nor lost respect for his rural upbringing. Here is one of his finest poems, “Digging.”

Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

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 on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

* * *

At the age of twelve Heaney won a scholarship to a Catholic boarding school in the city of Derry, and this first departure from home became permanent. He called it a removal from “the earth of farm labor to the heaven of education.” He studied Latin, Irish and Anglo-Saxon, and his world thereafter was poetry.

Heaney embraced the classics and narratives involving the Trojan Wars and its associated mythology attracted him and other Irish poets. This especially as there was a perceived reflection of the continuing conflict, the “Troubles,” in Northern Ireland. Here is one of Heaney’s pieces which he called “The Cure at Troy.” It was recited in part by Lin-Manuel Miranda at Joe Biden’s inauguration.

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 and endured.

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 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.
It means once in a lifetime
That justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme.

* * *

Plaque at a sorrel tree planted by Heaney in Washington. St. Patrick supposedly used the triple heart-shaped leaflets of the sorrel as a reference to trinity.

* * *

Heaney had a distinguished career as a university professor, for a time at Oxford University and most particularly at Harvard where he was a Professor for sixteen years and a Poet-in-Residence for eighteen. His devoted fans at that university became known as Heaneyboppers.

Here is a formal poem called a Villanelle he composed for Harvard’s 350th anniversary.

A spirit moved. John Harvard walked the yard,
The atom lay unsplit, the west unwon,
The books stood open and the gates unbarred.

The maps dreamt on like moondust. Nothing stirred.
The future was a verb in hibernation.
A spirit moved, John Harvard walked the yard.

Before the classic style, before the clapboard,
All through the small hours of an origin,
The books stood open and the gate unbarred.

Night passage of a migratory bird.
Wingflap. Gownflap. Like a homing pigeon
A spirit moved, John Harvard walked the yard.

Was that his soul (look) sped to its reward
By grace or works? A shooting star? An omen?
The books stood open and the gate unbarred.

Begin again where frosts and tests were hard.
Find yourself or founder. Here, imagine
A spirit moves, John Harvard walks the yard,
The books stand open and the gates unbarred.

* * *

At Harvard Heaney lived in residential Adams House because “The arts and Bohemia were represented there. It was a desired address.”  (As your columnist had discovered some years previous.) His living quarters have now become the Heaney Suite, a space dedicated to study and poetry readings.

* * *

Heaney’s widow, Marie, visiting the Heaney Suite at Harvard.

* * *

Heaney won fame as a translator, and nowhere more impressively than in his version of the great Old English (Anglo-Saxon) poem “Beowulf.” His translation may not be as exacting as some others, but the resulting poem is wonderfully rhythmic and colorful. Poet Laureate Andrew Motion said that Heaney had “made a masterpiece out of a masterpiece.” What a great stroke of theatre when his opening sentence is just one word, but one that advises us that a storyteller is about to begin.

The Spear-Danes in days gone by
And the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns.
There was Shield Sheafson, scourge of many tribes,
A wrecker of mead-benches, rampaging among foes.
This terror of the hall-troops had come far.
A foundling to start with, he would flourish later on
As his powers waxed and his worth was proved.
In the end each clan on the outlying coasts
Beyond the whale-road had to yield to him
And begin to pay tribute. That was one good king.

* * *

A sonnet by Heaney was named Ireland’s best-loved poem of the past century.

When all the others were away at Mass
I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.
They broke the silence, let fall one by one
Like solder weeping off the soldering iron:
Cold comforts set between us, things to share
Gleaming in a bucket of clean water.
And again let fall. Little pleasant splashes
From each other’s work would bring us to our senses.

So while the parish priest at her bedside
Went hammer and tongs at the prayers for the dying
And some were responding and some crying
I remembered her head bent towards my head,
Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives –
Never closer the whole rest of our lives.

And my favorite Seamus Heaney poem? It’s an engaging lyric called “Scaffolding.” Very much a poem to keep nearby.

Masons, when they start upon a building,
Are careful to test out the scaffolding;

Make sure that planks won’t slip at busy points,
Secure all ladders, tighten bolted joints.

And yet all this comes down when the job’s done
Showing off walls of sure and solid stone.

So if, my dear, there sometimes seem to be
Old bridges breaking between you and me

Never fear. We may let the scaffolds fall
Confident that we have built our wall.

* * *

VIDEO.  Seamus Heaney presents his poem, “St. Kevin and the Blackbird” and then chats with Charlie Rose on PBS. As an added extra, Liam Neeson offers a tribute to Heaney and the Irish countryside they both loved.



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