Heaney reconciled in himself two traditions often seen as being in irreconcilable conflict
Great poets, supposedly, should be mad and bad: tormented, tempestuous and at least a little demented. Seamus Heaney was none of these things. He exuded sanity, on the page and in person. He was calm, restrained, centred. And this was not a mere matter of personality. There was more than enough madness and badness around him, in Ireland and in the world. He knew that quiet decency and careful, meticulous words posed a more profound challenge to his times than any wildness ever could. His gift, as an artist and as a public figure, was an immense, unwavering, implacable civility.
It was easy to be a little sceptical about Seamus Heaney. Long before he won the Nobel prize, he was Famous Seamus, the superstar bard whose lulling, lyrical voice and memories of an archaic rustic world appealed to those who would otherwise never dream of opening a book of contemporary poetry. His popularity sat uneasily with those who see poetry as the proper pursuit of an especially brilliant and soulful elite. He was also, in the words of WB Yeats, his great predecessor as Irish national poet, a "smiling public man" whose geniality contrasted with the rough awkwardness of so many writers. Yet scepticism could not long survive any sustained contact with the man or his work. Heaney was a great artist and an exemplary public intellectual. He was also, in the troubled history of these islands, a great reconciler.
Heaney was a mesmerising performer and the initial appeal of his poetry had much to do with an apparent nostalgia for a lost world of rural simplicities. While so much poetry was veering into anarchic free expression or recondite word games, he used largely traditional forms to explore largely traditional subjects: nature, childhood, memory, love. If you knew your Wordsworth, you could feel secure with Heaney's subject matter. If you recognised a sonnet or a villanelle, you would have a fair idea of the forms he was using.
His chosen terrain was the firm ground of real and recognisable places, especially the County Derry landscape of his childhood. He provided a refuge from the dissonance and dislocation of a globalised, postmodern existence. But if he had done no more than that he would have been what he never was – a minor poet.
Heaney's greatness lay in his negotiation of that very childhood landscape that might have induced cosy nostalgia. His natural lyric gift, the extraordinary eloquence of a man who spoke, even in ordinary conversation, in complete and beautiful sentences, had to find its voice in bitterly contested territory. As he put it in a talk for the BBC in 1978: "The lines of sectarian antagonism and affiliation followed the boundaries of the land. In the names of its fields and townlands, in their mixture of Scots and Irish and English etymologies, this side of the country was redolent of the histories of its owners." From the start, Heaney's landscape contained not just fields and trees and farmhouses, but politics, history and culture.
That history was rancid with fear and bigotry. It found its expression too often in hateful cliches and toxic rhetoric. To write stringent, thoughtful poetry in that context was itself a political act. Heaney recalled that he and his comrades in the extraordinary flowering of poetry in Ulster in the 1960s, "assumed that the tolerances and subtleties of their art were precisely what they had to set against the repetitive intolerance of public life". For too long that seemed a hopeless conceit: Heaney knew very well that poems were no shield against bullets and bombs. Yet he persisted in tolerance and subtlety – each poem was an act of faith in the ultimate efficacy of those civilised values.
He could keep that faith in his writing because he reconciled in himself two traditions often seen as being in irreconcilable conflict. He was proudly and passionately Irish and he occupied a place in Irish life that went back, through Yeats, to the tradition of the Gaelic bards. But he loved, intimately and faithfully, the English poets, from Beowulf to the Elizabethans to Wordsworth to Gerard Manley Hopkins to Ted Hughes. In his great generosity of spirit, he helped his fellow Irish citizens to live with complexity and contradiction and gave back to the English their own poetic tradition, recharged with a sense of public importance. He made it matter.
Sonnet 3 from Clearances
In Memoriam M.K.H., 1911-1984
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.