Today, at 11.30 a.m., in a beautiful church in a suburb of Dublin, the funeral Mass of one of our most dearly beloved citizens will take place. Later this evening, he will be brought for burial to his birthplace, far in the north of my small country – a town in Derry, called Bellaghy.
He is Seamus Heaney, and I can hardly believe we’ve lost him.
I think I am among good company when I say that my first real introduction to the power of poetry came at school, when we studied Heaney’s ‘Mid-Term Break’. This poem, taken from his first collection Death of A Naturalist (1966), made a massive impression on me, and I think it’s fair to say on most of my peers, too. Telling the true story of the death of a young child from the point of view of his older sibling, it is a slender piece of writing, one that slips between you and your soul and twists, slightly, revealing to you your own fragility. I wept the first time I read it, and even though a great many years have passed since then, the poem’s power is undimmed.
This gentle evisceration was what made Heaney’s work so powerful, to me. His poems looked so delicate on the page, strung together like lacework, but the reading of them went straight to the heart. The images he could create would sometimes take a line or two to fully develop inside your mind – you’d have read past the hook of a particular stanza before the impact would hit you – and then you’d have to re-read, awed by the newness, almost frightened by the sense of unfolding inside your own head. Heaney understood people, and he understood thought, and he understood emotion. He wove his poetry out of all these things, and he added the uniqueness of his own intellect, too. His work is unlike that of any other writer.
There are few poets whose work I love. Poetry very rarely speaks to me: I am a harsh and demanding reader of that particular genre. So much of it seems contrived, or fake, or ‘for the sake of it’, that when I read a poem which rings a bell inside me, I know I’ve found a treasure. Emily Dickinson’s work does this for me, as does Sylvia Plath’s, and I also love the work of Medbh McGuckian and Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin. Seamus Heaney, however, was always top of the pile. His work shaped my introduction to great literature as a child at school, and his work helped to forge me as a medievalist, much later in life, through his translation (or, perhaps more accurately, ‘modernisation’) of the Old English epic poem ‘Beowulf.’ His version of this poem still stands as one of my most dearly loved pieces of writing, despite the issues it has from the point of view of accuracy. In a way, it doesn’t even matter that Heaney doesn’t keep to the exact sense of the Old English, and that he brings in words that are not there in the original, and that he is, or was, not a scholar of Old English. Perhaps one might even say ‘that is the point.’ Heaney brought life to this ancient poem. He woke the sword’s song, and he mapped out the whale-road, and he showed us the battle-lightning. He breathed humanity into Grendel. He made a powerful political statement through his word choices. He made the poem relevant to his own age, and that is worth more, to me, than dryly sticking to the exact sense of the Old English. There are those who hate Heaney’s ‘Beowulf’, and there are those who love it. I love it.
On Friday, when the news of Heaney’s death broke, I sat at my computer and wept. I read the news articles over and over, hoping that it would all be a mistake; I read the words of those who loved him, who knew him, and realised that while I did not know him, I loved him. I think our whole country did. The six o’clock news broadcast on the day of his death was extended in order for us to start coming to terms with our grief, and his funeral will be broadcast on live television. The president of my country, himself an acclaimed poet, was among the first to eulogise our fallen hero, and to speak of the depth of regard in which he was held. His face has been all over the newspapers. People from all over the country, and from all walks of life, have been talking of their sorrow, and how awful it is that he was taken from us so suddenly. He has been taken from us – from Ireland, both north and south – and we shall miss him like no other.
Of course, my thoughts are with his wife Marie and their children, and the rest of his family; the country’s loss is, naturally, secondary to theirs in every way. In a very real sense, though, Heaney’s death has torn a hole right through the heart of Irish intellectual and cultural life, and it is a hole that can never be repaired.
I don’t think there’s a more appropriate way to honour Seamus Heaney than by reproducing his own words. Here is a section of the end of his ‘Beowulf’, after the mighty king has fallen, and his men are left to mourn:
Then twelve warriors rode around the tomb,
Chieftains’ sons, champions in battle,
all of them distraught, chanting in dirges,
mourning his loss as a man and a king.
They extolled his heroic nature and exploits
and gave thanks for his greatness…
So the Geat people, his hearth-companions,
sorrowed for the lord who had been laid low.
They said that of all the kings upon the earth
he was the man most gracious and fair-minded,
kindest to his people and keenest to win fame.
Heaney may not have been, like Beowulf, a man ‘keen to win fame’ through his good deeds and wisdom (he was both good and wise merely because it came naturally to him, not because he wished to be praised for it), but he was gracious and fair-minded, kindest to his people, and he was a great man. I am sorrowful at his passing, and long will I remember him.