Friday, 6 September 2013

Seamus Heaney full face

A week ago I turned on the TV, anxious for the latest news about Syria. Instead, I heard Seamus Heaney had died. In the week since, I have thought hard about whether to write about his work. In my teaching, reading and writing very few poets have meant as much as Heaney has. Certainly no living poet comes close. But now what, as a friend asked a couple of days ago, is there to add? Much that has appeared in print so far has been heartfelt, mourning the loss of a great poet and a benign and humble man who lived a private life in public. Some of it, though, has been too self-regarding: ‘me and my friend Seamus’ has become a tedious trope.

I have noted a tendency for people to adopt a Heaneyesque turn of phrase. Matthew Hollis, for instance, poet and poetry editor at Faber, described him in the Guardian as ‘a man of hearthside … showing countless readers what was possible in language, encouraging us to dig a little deeper, to break the skin of our consciousness and our articulacy.’ Had Hollis just been re-reading ‘The Tollund Man in Springtime’?

                        ... a spade-plate slid and soughed and plied
            At my buried ear, and the levered sod
            Got lifted up; then once I felt the air
I was like turned turf in the breath of God ….

Heaney himself sometimes wrote for the Guardian. In 2007, he described his own first close encounter with a photograph of the head of the Tollund Man:

No representation of the human face, before or since, not Veronica’s napkin or Rembrandt’s self-portraits, has had such a profound effect on me. No better example exists of how flesh and blood life can be transformed into the otherness of an image with the power, in Yeats’s words, “to engross the present and dominate memory.”  (Guardian Review, 24.11.07, p.6).

I remember discussing with the students I was then teaching how Yeats’s explanation of the power of an image ‘to engross the present and dominate memory’ gave an accurate and precise account of Heaney’s own poetry. A powerful demonstration too – ‘to engross’ suggests not only ‘to captivate’ but also ‘to add together, to give greater weight’. Such concentration of meaning in a single word (which itself seems to expand as you say it) is evident everywhere you look in Heaney’s writing.

Actually, the whole paragraph encapsulates Heaney the individual as well as the scholar and poet. It begins rhetorically, withholding the object of the first sentence (the poet himself) until the very end. Three negatives – No … not … [n]or – introduce an explosively positive affirmation. There is a glancing nod towards his Catholic childhood (Veronica’s napkin) while his reference to Rembrandt’s self-portraits reminds us of Heaney’s own unflinching self-scrutiny. It reminds us too that he admires this in other poets. Writing in the Irish Times in 1978 about Robert Lowell’s last volume of poems, Day by Day, and just after Lowell’s death, Heaney concluded:

His death makes us read this book with a new tenderness towards the fulfilments and sufferings of the life that lies behind it, and with renewed gratitude for the art that he could not and would not separate from that life. It is not as braced and profiled as, say, Life Studies; rather the profile has turned to us, full face, close, kindly, anxious, testing – a husband’s face, a father’s, a child’s, a patient’s, above all a poet’s.

Surely one could, with absolute accuracy, say precisely the same about Heaney and his own final volume, Human Chain?

 There’s more to mention about Heaney’s encounter with the image of the Tollund man. That anaphoric opening of the second sentence –  ‘No better example’ – introduces an assertion of the two-way commerce between life and the image of life: flesh and blood into art and vice versa. The dead head is nevertheless alive as an image that moves and troubles us now. But Heaney isn’t claiming this insight for himself. More and more in the latter part of his career, he shared with his readers the words of other poets, making us aware through translation and quotation of what others had already spoken that he wanted us to hear for ourselves. And in quoting here from Yeats, one Irishman coming after another, he reminds us of his own debts and inheritances.

While I was still watching the news last Friday evening, an email arrived from a good friend. It was the first of several messages  from pupils, students and colleagues, each one wanting to tell me how much reading and reflecting on Heaney’s poetry has meant to them. This first message read:

It's pleasing, at least, that [Heaney’s death] is making headlines …. I hope the focus remains on his extraordinary contribution as an original poet, and a champion of old poetic texts, not on the minor excursions into Irish politics.

Our times together reading, discussing and studying his poetry remain amongst my strongest and fondest memories of our adventures in literature.

Heaney’s poems, allusive and rich in their references to other times and other writers, are themselves adventures in literature.  I’m unsure, though, about the ‘minor excursions into Irish politics’. For Heaney, the impact in 1969 of ‘the original heraldic murderous encounter between Protestant yeoman and Catholic rebel’ was a watershed:

From that moment the problems of poetry moved from being simply a matter of achieving the satisfactory verbal icon to being a search for images and symbols adequate to our predicament …. I felt it imperative to discover a field of force in which, without abandoning fidelity to the processes and experience of poetry as I have outlined them, it would be possible to encompass the perspectives of a humane reason and at the same time to grant the religious intensity of the violence its deplorable authenticity and complexity. ('Feeling into Verse')

This balancing act became a burden. In ‘Weighing In’, a poem written at a time when the Irish Troubles seemed more intractable than ever, he confessed:

Two sides to every question, yes, yes, yes …
But every now and then, just weighing in
Is what it must come down to ….

He condemned himself for having once ‘held back when I should have drawn blood’, concluding that his hesitation betrayed

A deep mistaken chivalry, old friend.
At this stage only foul play cleans the slate.

But here Heaney was, for once, wrong. His chivalry was not mistaken. As the playwright Frank McGuinness has said, ‘During the darkest days of the Northern Ireland conflict he was our conscience: a conscience that was accurate and precise in what it articulated’. 

 As with his conscience, so with his poetry.  Heaney was, to use a phrase from the Anglo-Saxon poem 'Deor', a leoðcræftig monn, which phrase he himself rendered as ‘master of verse-craft’. Indeed, now he has, like Yeats in Auden’s memorable words, ‘become his admirers’, it seems to me his own words are his best memorial:

Full face, foursquare, eyelevel, carved in stone.

Adrian Barlow

[illustration: a page from Guardian, 31.8.13,  plus copies of Heaney’s first and last collections of poetry.

[references: quotations from Matthew Hollis and Frank McGuinness are taken from the Guardian, cited above .‘The Tollund Man in Springtime’ is in Heaney’s collection District and Circle (2006); ‘Weighing In’ is in The Spirit Level (1996) and the line ‘Full face, foursquare …’ opens the poem ‘The Pattern’ in Human Chain (2010). The essays ‘Full Face’ (about Robert Lowell) and ‘Feeling into Words’ are to be found in Heaney’s Preoccupations, Faber, 1984 edition.

I have written about Heaney before:


  1. I'm glad you wrote this and expected you would. I'd like to use it in the classroom if I may. I'm also using The Guardian Obituary, which I find good reading with my students. I asked the class if they'd heard about Heaney's demise. Four of them had, those who hadn't were genuinely moved. One girl asked if he'd had a stroke. It gives so much more poignancy to the poems we're studying. Kay has posted a link to Heaney reading two poems from Human Chain. His passing is obviously a break in the human chain, a pull on the kite string of grief.

  2. Many thanks, Garry. This is the first time (though perhaps not unexpectedly) that I have had messages from readers saying they were expecting me to write about a particular subject. I can't think of another poet, writing in English, whose death in recent years has occasioned such an unequivocal sense of loss with a correspondingly unequivocal sense of gratitude for their life and work.


  3. Adrian
    It’s taken me a while to decide what to say about your very thoughtful – and refreshingly different - piece upon Seamus Heaney’s death.

    The number of us taking your English Literature classes that chose to write substantial pieces spurred by Heaney’s poetry – and in my case his poetry criticism – is on its own an indicator of the impact his writing had on us. I was struck by the variety of subjects we found to write about. Every essay seemed to have found a very personal pathway into one or more poems, as if it was a matter of individual conscience first, and shared experience secondly.

    I was able to pick an argument with him, but my abiding memory of this one-sided encounter on paper is of my sheer delight that this great poet had recognised a late Philip Larkin poem for the extraordinary work that it is, when the poem in question had barely been commented on elsewhere.

    In your blog piece, you argue that key poems can be read in the context of the history of Irish conflict that marked a good portion of Heaney’s life. Your argument is hard to resist, and it’s clear Heaney did not ignore the history being made around him, and the effects he saw on the people of Ireland. However, I believe that the compulsion to confront the times he lived in was borne primarily from a social conscience, not a political one. I had the “….no glass of ours, was ever raised to toast the Queen….” line in mind when I originally said to you that I feared too much reading into the few political excursions, when the poetry is overwhelming of the universal experiences of life (and death).

    This theme of Heaney’s deeply personal poetry is one you identify, and I think will be the abiding response from the widest readership. The poems find pathos, empathy with their subjects, occasional melancholy in his own history, but always strike with a beautifully light touch that could wring a smile (at least from me) at any moment.

    In a private email to you, I quoted from “The Birch Grove”, a poem that is very funny and, of course, faultlessly crafted.
    There is great irony, too, in the way he finishes the poem with the lines:
    ‘“If art teaches us anything”, he said, trumping life
    With a quote, “it’s that the human condition is private”.’

    This from a master of the written word who made the most personal, private experiences open to all through his poetry.