I spent quite some time with this portrait of Seamus Heaney, when I was in Dublin in August 2017.
It is a tender and sensitive photograph that captures the humility and openness of the man, whilst the lack of a direct gaze also conserves a private internal world that is his alone, and which we are not able to fully enter. It is such a distinctive quality of the portrait (currently on display at the National Gallery Ireland) that Heaney is both at the centre of the image and absent from it; a quality that can also be found in Heaney’s literary work.
I first encountered Heaney the poet (like so many other young souls) in the dreaded A.Q.A. G.C.S.E. anthology. I was an early fan of poetry, but the A.Q.A. anthology was so very hard to love; its shape, layout and organisation solicited hostility no matter how much graffiti or comic annotation you added for a personal touch.
Seamus Heaney was not one of my set poets, but during a moment of adrenaline fuelled madness, I found myself writing about him in my English Literature exam. That was the first time that I read ‘Digging’, and despite being in the middle of an exam, the poem’s speaker felt like someone I could recognise…
By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.
As the daughter of an Irish immigrant, it was a voice that sounded familiar, and it was the first time I had read something that articulated the feelings I had about the living presence of the past in my own family. It was the best possible Heaney poem I could have started with.
It wasn’t until Beowulf in my first year of university that I felt that same spark from Heaney’s poetry. This time it was the energy of Heaney’s translation that caught my imagination…
So times were pleasant for the people there
until finally one, a fiend out of hell,
began to work his evil in the world.
Grendel was the name of this grim demon
haunting the marches, marauding round the heath
and the desolate fens; he had dwelt for a time
in misery among the banished monsters,
Cain’s clan, whom the Creator had outlawed
and condemned as outcasts. For the killing of Abel the Eternal Lord
had exacted a price:
Cain got no good from committing that murder
because the Almighty made him anathema
and out of the curse of his exile there sprang
ogres and elves and evil phantoms
and the giants too who strove with God
time and again until He gave them their reward.
(Heaney, Seamus: Beowulf, (London: Faber and Faber, 2000), p. 6).
This rich tapestry of interwoven Norse, early English, and Christian narrative both amused and delighted me. I fell in love with the almost casual blend of the real, the mythological and the theological, and I became fascinated by the cultural contradictions that are somehow sewn together through storytelling. Heaney’s translation also introduced me to a world of Old and early English Literature, as well as the Norse myths and sagas that I have cherished and enjoyed ever since.
My enjoyment of Beowulf led me to read North in the same year, and this time it was Heaney’s contemplation of the relationships between Northern European histories, cultures, and peoples that caught my interest. The borders in the collection’s poems: historical, psychological, political, emotional, religious and geographical, are both starkly present and at times elusive with the locus of the collection allowing for Irish experience and memory to be examined from a set of shifting perspectives.
(Heaney, Seamus: ‘North’ from North (London: Faber and Faber, 1975), pp. 10-11).
North was published in 1975 and yet the scope of this volume of poetry is still growing and maturing as time goes on and new changes emerge. This attests to Heaney’s ability to offer up his subject to the reader, whilst also allowing the words a certain life of their own. This lightness of touch allows his poetic subjects to breathe, and it is a quality that undermines the possessiveness inherent in any reader’s act of interpretation; a quality that is to be highly valued when the Irish landscape and experience are the subject of any literary work.
Heaney was still working at the time of his death in 2013, and for me, his passing was somehow unexpected, even though he was not a young man. Perhaps the surprise of his death was a result of the sense of life that Heaney as a man and poet was able to transmit, as well as the apparent energy of his infectious laughter; captured so well in this photograph…
(Photo Credit: Condé Nast, Poetry Ireland Review 113, Ed. Vona Groarke).
Years on from my first encounter with Heaney the poet, I am happy to say that there is still much of his work left for me to read and discover, and like many others, I am glad to have come to value Heaney as a man, a poet, a translator, and as a gateway to a richer understanding of both the familiar and the new.
A tribute in words
My small tribute will
not be of gold,
which has no worth here.
My treasure or token
will be of words only
to wish you on your way.
to give you thanks and to name you
the weaver of words,
the ward of words; of language;
I name you the watcher of waves,
and as time passes
I offer only one hope,
that you travel well on your road.
(J.H.B., September, 2013),