A tribute to Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney (1939-2013) Credit: Burns Library, Boston College

Seamus Heaney (1939-2013)
Credit: Burns Library, Boston College

Good Samaritan Sister, Joan Sexton reflects on the legacy of Irish poet, Seamus Heaney, who died in August this year.

BY Joan Sexton SGS*

A son of Northern Ireland, Seamus Heaney is acclaimed as Ireland’s second greatest poet after William Butler Yeats. Born on a farm at Castledawson in Derry on April 13, 1939, he was educated at Catholic schools and completed a Teacher’s Certificate at St Joseph’s College in Belfast. His first teaching position, 1962, was at St Thomas Secondary Intermediate School in Belfast.

Though he cherished the rural scene of his native country, Heaney very early chose to exchange the shovel of his farming background for a pen as his poem “Digging” states:

The cold smell of potato mould, the quelsh and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Though 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. (Open Ground, 1999)

After teaching for a number of years, Heaney eventually devoted himself to the task of full-time writing and lecturing, including at Oxford and Harvard. I think he is a great poet. He combined so effortlessly his craftsmanship with words, his style and technique of poetry, and above all, his naturalness and attention to detail. Death of a Naturalist, his first book of poems, published in 1966, was followed by over 16 books of poetry, seven books of prose and one drama, The Cure at Troy.

Heaney acknowledges his early sense of crafting words came from an “unconscious bedding of many poets, prayers, and ordinary things encountered in growing up”. The result of his love of Gerard Manly Hopkins’ work was the enkindling of his own desire to write. I think it is this love of Hopkins which I share with him, that first attracted me to his poetry. Some of his early writing iterated the ricochetting consonants typical of Hopkins:

Startling thatch watches and sudden swallow
Straight breaks to mud-rest, hoare-rest rafter. (“October Thought”)

Before long this gave way to the development of his own sense of the power of words, although Yeats, Eliott, Hughes, Auden, Larkin, Milosz and many other sources from classical times, influenced this direction.

It is this sense of developing his own craft with words and forms of expression that has endeared his poems to me. The subject matter of his poems encompasses such a wide spectrum of human experiences that I can delight in responding eagerly to them. So often I find that his words express so succinctly my own thoughts or feelings. However, Heaney’s love of nature is the key to his poetry:

big soft buffetings
catch the heart off guard and blow it open (“Postscript”, The Spirit Level, 1996)

Heaney’s view of creation as I have experienced it in his poetry, is a wholeness, a mystery that absorbed him with an ever-increasing fire. He found exhilaration in all aspects of the natural world with an acute appreciation of human nature.

For a Northern Ireland poet, the political scene could not be off his agenda. Having Irish grandparents I admire Heaney’s ability to write of “The Troubles” that so belligerently engulfed that crippled country. I love the poem “The Other Side” which expresses Heaney’s stance. The poem recalls a Presbyterian neighbour of his family’s farm who often calls to visit and his hope that such visits might not cause a rift between the families. Later, in the 1980s, he wrote “The Terminus”, describing the horror that had overtaken the land.

To his skill with words, Heaney brought the strength of poetic forms, enabling him to be true to what he called “the grain of things”. In “Squarings” his three line stanzas consolidate new horizons he had employed previously in stand alone poems such as “A Pillowed Head”, describing the birth of his daughter:

In your cut-off white cotton gown
You were more bride than earth-mother
Up on the stirrup-rigged bed
…And then later on I had half-fainted
When the little slapped palpable girl
Was handed to me. (Seeing Things, 1991)

These poems illustrate his ingenuity in responding to his desire to create new forms of writing.  In “Crossings” (Seeing Things, 1991) Heaney combines the three-line stanzas with blank verse.

The seven sonnets in “Glanmore Revisited” are among my favourites, especially the second section of “The Cot” evoking his memories,

Which must be more than keepsakes, even though
The child’s cot’s back in place where Catherine
Woke in the dawn and answered doodle doo
To the rooster in the farm across the road
And is the same cot I myself slept in
When the whole world was a farm that eked and crowed. (Seeing Things, 1991)

His poem, “Out of this World”, dedicated to the memory of Czeslaw Milosz is elegiac in form,

Like everybody else, I bowed my head
during the consecration of bread and wine,
believing (whatever it means) that a change occurred.
…And yet I cannot
disavow words like ‘thanksgiving’ or ‘host’
or Communion bread
They have an undying
tremor and draw, like well water far down. (District and Circle, 2006)

These lines fill me with awe. Heaney’s courage to pen such words in poetry speak to me of his profound faith and his sense of personal freedom in what he wrote.

As Enda McDonagh wrote in The Tablet recently, Heaney’s frequent references to religious themes places him as a poet of Catholic imagination. There are so many references to both the Old and New Testaments in his poems that speak so powerfully of his deep faith. In the poem “Seeing Things” (Seeing Things, 1991), he describes the baptism of Jesus he saw carved on the façade of a cathedral, while the sonnet “The Skylight” recounts the miracle Jesus performed on the man let down through the roof of a dwelling.

Heaney expressed his own sentiments in his Nobel Lecture in 1995, “Crediting Poetry”, where he poses his own spirituality,

Had I not been awake, I would have missed it
a wind that rose and whirled until the roof
patterned with quick leaves off the sycamore…
It came and went so unexpectedly
And almost it seemed dangerously. (District and Circle, 2006)

In 2012, Heaney was awarded the Lifetime Recognition Award from the Griffin Trust for Excellence in Poetry. Heaney died in Dublin on August 31, 2013. I and the world mourn the passing of this man and poet.

* Good Samaritan Sister, Joan Sexton OAM, served for many years as an educator in secondary schools in Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland. She also held leadership and administration roles at secondary and tertiary levels. Now 85, Joan lives in Sydney and offers pastoral care to some of her sisters in nearby aged care facilities. Joan has always had a great love of literature and is an active member of a local book reading group.

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The Good Oil, November 19, 2013. If you would like to republish this article, please contact the editor.

3 Responses to “A tribute to Seamus Heaney”

  1. Joan, I know the poetry of Seamus Heaney only cursorily. Your delight in his poetry which you convey in this article has whetted my appetite for more.
    Thanks so much. Marie.

  2. Pam says:

    My favourite Heaney poem is St Kevin and the Blackbird, in The Spirit Level.
    “And then there was St Kevin and the blackbird.
    The saint is kneeling, arms stretched out, inside
    His cell, but the cell is narrow, so
    One turned up palm is out the window, stiff
    As a crossbeam, when a blackbird lands
    And lays in it and settles down to nest…

  3. Joseph Quigley says:

    I’m a child migrant from Belfast, Northern Ireland. I was educated by Australian Jesuits in early 1950s. I fortunate to have an English Literature teacher who said: “Every time the English language is becoming moribund along comes an Irish writer to revive it.” Seamus Heaney was such a writer. He was more than a poet, as his Nobel Lecture illustrates. He was a thoroughly decent human being; a wordsmith par excellence; and a prophet who read the signs of the time through the spectacles of history and with the heart of a lover.
    Like Horace he has created a memorial more lasting than bronze.

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