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In praise of Famous Seamus

Few contemporary poets 'did English' with such clarity and simplicity as Heaney.

David Bowden

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So. Seamus Heaney is gone. That prodigious pen now rests snugly beyond the reach of finger and thumb. Even in a year when we have lost several great writers, some tragically young, his passing at 74 still feels particularly brutal, like the end of an era. Few other contemporary poets’ passing will dominate the headlines and blogosphere quite as much as that of ‘Famous Seamus’. To adapt another phrase, from the title of his final collection, he leaves a huge chink in the human chain.

Heaney’s extraordinary achievement as a poet was his ability, during a period when the notion of poetry as a serious public platform had become almost laughable, to find a way of speaking to a modern audience in a voice which managed to be clear and simple, yet not simplistic. He favoured straightforward, conventional forms – the four-line verse quatrain, for instance, often with light, unobtrusive rhyme schemes – which gave his poetry a ready accessibility for those (let’s face it, most of us) with only a rudimentary grasp of form and structure. Similarly, his gentle, lilting metre possessed an intimate, conversational quality stripped of extravagant vocabulary or artificial constructions: his poems read more naturally than a thousand angry, shouty blogs.

Nonetheless, in spite of the simplicity, he could still contrive to make words sing and dance, as he covered topics from breathless accounts of furtive love (‘Twice Shy’) to the blood-soaked history of Ireland. It is not for nothing that the poem for which he is most famous – ‘Digging’ – compares the act of writing, with complete sincerity, to the back-breaking manual labour of his father’s farm life and the brutal precision of a firearm. Heaney’s poems may appear to us as delightfully honed and lightly polished artefacts but, as explained in books such as Stepping Stones and Finders Keepers, they were also the end products of a lifetime’s worth of excavation and graft into the roots, development and possibilities of the English language as a tool for connection.

His greatest single achievement, perhaps, was his modern verse translation of Beowulf, which found a way of creating a version of the rough-hewn Old English epic fit for a twenty-first-century reader, while maintaining its pre-modern difficulty and barbaric otherness. As the critic Terry Eagleton observed at the time, it was a preposterous goal from the outset and, rather like the hero’s own monster-slaying mission, an act of breath-taking hubris, yet it seemed ideally suited to Heaney’s own distinct fascination with subtlety and savagery.

The groundwork for his poetic achievement can be traced back to the early days of Heaney’s career in the controversial poems of North, which sought to reflect upon the early days of ‘the Troubles’. Never comfortable as a political poet – a struggle I wrote about in greater depth here – Heaney, like Yeats before him, retreated from the seemingly unpalatable divisions of the present into the mysticism and romanticism of a shared, distant past. The fetishism of the local and the cautious, conciliatory rhetoric of the cultural diplomat never quite left his work, and has been subject to some deserving criticism.

Yet, for any shortcomings, real or not, in his political poems, what stands out is his deeply held humanism: a sincere hope for the best of human thought and culture to root out the bad. In North’s famous ‘The Tollund Man’, Heaney draws an allusion between the excavated remains of an Iron Age man murdered in a fertility rite and the executions of late-Sixties Belfast. The gloomy ‘take home’ message is one of the inescapable cycles of man’s inhumanity to man; the contemporary political struggle of the period simply denounced as primeval barbarism.

Yet the other allusion being drawn is to Rilke’s sonnet ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo’, which famously eulogises the life-changing, inspiring power of art to speak universally through the ages. Heaney may be looking towards a mystical, pre-modern past as a way out of a present malaise, but he still carefully finds a glimmer of hope in the more recent Western civilisation. It is the sort of subtle yet complex move which Heaney, wearing a lot of learning extremely lightly, often deploys so beautifully; and one which he would continue to make in his Virgil-infused late poems in District in Circle and Human Chain.

‘Doing English’ was Heaney’s own alternative title for his public pronouncements for his lectures at Oxford and Harvard. Born into poor, rural Northern Irish Catholic stock in 1939, and offered a way out through a classical education at St Columb’s in Derry – the kind of rigorous, democratic education which is readily dismissed as impossible or undesirable today – few could claim to have ‘done English’ better than Heaney. Spending a few minutes in his company, such as in this fine interview he gave to Paris Review, is enough to make you mourn for the agile and deeply humane mind we have lost.

Yet while we can spare a thought for the loss of Heaney the man, it is better that we should take the opportunity to be thankful for the incredible gift he has left us with. You – requiring no particular expertise or formal training – can walk into any bookshop today and pick up Opened Ground (his collected poems) or Beowulf and find yourself confronted by poems which gently tug on your sleeve, take you out of your own individual experience and drag you into the rough and tumble of what it means to be human. Few others, dead or alive, can have made literary greatness seem so modest and everyday an endeavour as he. Earth receive an honoured guest: Seamus Heaney is laid to rest.

David Bowden is a columnist for spiked.

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