The soil and soul of Seamus Heaney

Human Chain, by Seamus Heaney, Faber, RRP£12.99, 96 pages

In 2006 Seamus Heaney, Nobel laureate and leading poet of the English-speaking world, suffered a stroke from which he was still recovering when he received the 2007 TS Eliot Prize for his book District and Circle. Restored to fitness, and undertaking, perhaps not entirely convincingly, to pursue a less arduous programme of engagements and travel, he has now produced Human Chain, his 12th collection of poems. One of his finest, it deservedly won the £10,000 Forward Prize on October 6.

The new book is naturally preoccupied with reflections on mortality but it is noticeable that Heaney is at least as interested in others as in himself. His parents in particular are remembered with loving respect and, while home has always been an important feature of his poetry, the new book feels like a homecoming, a renewed apprehension of the domos placidas, the peaceful homes he describes in “The Riverbank Field”, a poem prompted by Book VI of Virgil’s Aeneid (where Aeneas visits the underworld). Language and learning and the art of poetry took Heaney away from home in his youth; in age they enable his return.

Heaney was born at Mossbawn, County Derry, in 1939, the year when his great predecessor WB Yeats died. “An aged man,” Yeats wrote in “Sailing to Byzantium”, “is but a paltry thing, a tattered coat upon a stick, unless / soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing / for every tatter in its mortal dress.” Second to none in his admiration of Yeats’s poems, Heaney at 71 continues to sing but he has never been loud. His attitude is neither heroic nor self-dramatisingly aristocratic; his performance all goes into the work, and the work is intimately bound up with place, in particular his childhood home at the family farm at Mossbawn and its surroundings in rural County Derry.

This modest, hard-working Catholic background is not, perhaps, one from which Yeats would have expected a poet to emerge and be heard on the world stage. For his part, Heaney is well aware that for many in the rural community he comes from, poetry is no great matter at all – a reminder that serves as an aid to stability for the servant of an art that can produce deranged self-aggrandisement among its less wary exponents.

Readers of Heaney’s poems since his first book, Death of a Naturalist (1966), have grown familiar with his landmarks and place-names: the Moyola River, Toome, Anahorish, Derrygarve, the bogs, fields, wells and ditchbacks of the landscape, all underlying the names brought by the English and their Scots planter colonists. The place survived invasion and endured occupation, “invisible” to the outsider, “untoppled” by conquest, as Heaney wrote on seeing British armoured vehicles moving down the farm lanes in “The Toome Road” from his 1979 collection Field Work.

This home ground, site of restless childhood exploration, also encouraged a sense of language that some (though not generally speaking poets) might consider heretical. In Heaney’s poems, words are more than a conventional system of signs. Language grows out of place, and is authorised by place, by history and work and the need of the imagination for unity with these things. When he speaks of Toome in the sensuous, musical poem of that title, he finds: “My mouth holds round / the soft blastings, / Toome, Toome, as under the dislodged / slab of the tongue / I push into a souterrain ... ” The archaeological descent concludes with immersion in mud and water, where “elvers tail my hair”.

This kind of exploration, in his third and fourth books, Wintering Out (1972) and North (1975) brought Heaney to wide fame: the Bog Poems about Tollund Man and other exhumed Iron Age corpses put him firmly on the syllabus and high in the estimation of influential critics. His work became as influential on other poets as his friend Ted Hughes had been a generation previously. It was at this time that the nickname “Seamus Famous” began to make the rounds among the begrudgers: Heaney, married with a young family but taking the plunge from academic teaching into freelance writing before eventually accepting a prestigious post at Harvard, was a responsible and astute guardian of his talents, which made some resentful. For his part, Heaney remained even-handed and courteous.

A more serious matter was the disapproval directed at “Punishment”, a poem fromNorth, which juxtaposes the ancient sacrifice of a young woman, strangled and drowned in a bog, with the tarring and feathering in the 1970s of Catholic girls who fraternised with British soldiers. The poem’s seeming offence was its honesty: the poet admits that he “would connive / in civilised outrage / yet understand the exact / and tribal, intimate revenge”. At this remove in time the objection – that the poem condones barbarism – seems mistaken. Heaney is doing a subtler, more difficult, thing: acknowledging the tribal impulse while resisting it. In the words of King Lear, he elects to “Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.” In the nightmare of the Troubles, such scruple could seem too complex and might even be taken for its opposite.

Heaney is a political writer in the sense that the responsible citizen, participating in the affairs of society, is political. He comes from the Nationalist community and understands its workings and aspirations, but he has been nobody’s spokesman. Like many others of his generation, Heaney, educated at St Columb’s Academy in Derry and Queen’s University, Belfast, felt the optimism shared by the beneficiaries of the 1944 Education Act, encouraged by signs that the glum hegemony of Unionism might be loosening its grip. The disappointment of that hope, symbolised for many by the 1972 Bloody Sunday massacre, in which 13 unarmed protesters were shot dead by the British Army, set the hopes of civil society back by a generation.

Derided as a Fenian by some Ulster Protestants when he moved his family to the Republic of Ireland in the 1970s, Heaney later found himself on a train seated opposite Danny Morrison, the IRA/Sinn Féin leader who coined the phrase “the Armalite and the ballot box”. “The Flight Path”, from Heaney’s 1996 collection The Spirit Level, presents this exchange: “‘When, for fuck’s sake, are you going to write / Something for us?’ ‘If I do write something, / Whatever it is, I’ll be writing for myself.’/ And that was that. Or words to that effect.” In a poem, “The Harvest Bow”, from the 1979 collection Field Work, the contemplation of a “throw-away love knot of straw”, pinned up on the kitchen dresser, invokes the proposal: “The end of art is peace.” This is, like the close of Larkin’s “An Arundel Tomb”, the voicing of an “almost-instinct almost true”, an aspiration that outlives its many disappointments.

Heaney’s poetic eminence was accompanied by a widening of his frame of poetic reference. His early love was for Wordsworth and other English poets, and the growing authority of his poetry tells the story of his own poetic self-education, in Irish and in the European tradition from the classics through Dante to modern eastern European poets such as Czeslaw Milosz and Zbigniew Herbert. Also in Field Work we find the grim and terrible “Ugolino”, a translation from Dante’s Inferno, where Duke Ugolino, imprisoned and starved by a bishop, is found in the ice-swamp at the bottom of hell with his teeth clamped in his tormentor’s skull. The analogy with sectarian atrocities and revenges is clear: as WH Auden puts it: “Those to whom evil is done / Do evil in return.”

In view of such acts, what can poetry contribute? The difficult answer is that it can be itself – in Robert Frost’s phrase, “a momentary stay against confusion”, serving language and seeking not to lose sight of the world’s gifts. In prose, the lectures, essays and newspaper articles gathered in Finders Keepers (2002), Heaney returns repeatedly to the theme, commending the necessary autonomy of an art that, nonetheless, arises in the midst of everyday life.

This grounded, particular quality exists in balance with the visionary dimension apparent in poems such as the book-length Station Island (1984), “The Disappearing Island” and “The Mud Vision” from The Haw Lantern (1986), which could hardly have been predicted but could not have been written by anyone else. Alongside this ambitious work, Heaney maintained the importance of noticing the tiny particular, such as the rowan tree “like a lipsticked girl”, and of keeping faith with the truths of home. The sequence “Clearances” poignantly recalls folding washing and peeling spuds with his late mother, “Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives – / Never closer the whole of our lives.”

In Human Chain, a book in praise of the humane bonds of family, friendship and work, Heaney’s parents first appear in a strikingly blended mode, part formal, part intimately affectionate, transfigured both by death and their son’s art. “Who is this coming to the ash-pit,” Heaney asks, echoing Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, “walking tall as if in a procession, / bearing in front of her a slender pan ... ?” His father is seen at work among the cattle dealers, his attention drawn from his son to the urgent business of the ordinary day, “so that his eyes leave mine and I know / the pain of loss before I know the term.” It is hard to think of another contemporary poet who has done such honour to his or her parents, sustaining such a balance between depth and simplicity, between grief and a love that death may claim but cannot touch.

When he won the TS Eliot Prize, Heaney was interviewed by John Humphrys, who asked why he wasn’t more angry. Weren’t poets meant to be angry? The question suggested that the interviewer was less then familiar with his subject: where there might have been anger in Heaney there is a concern with courtesy, with valuing and respecting the human despite incitements to turn away and harden the heart. Heaney lost his religious faith as a young man, but recently remarked to Dennis O’Driscoll in Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney, that “Poetry is a ratification of the human impulse towards transcendence ... to the extent that poetry is a pay-off for all the duplicities of language and disappointments of reality, it can also be said to be a form of redemption.”

Human Chain is a book of elegies, for family, friends, fellow artists, but it is also a work of affirmation. It fulfils an important part of the task Heaney undertook in his most famous early poem. “Digging”, where he compares the pen in his hand to his father’s spade, and determines to “dig with it”. The pen both links and separates father and son, the poet and his un-bookish community. A masterpiece of Heaney’s middle years, “Alphabets”, traces an awestruck progress from watching his father making animal shadow-shapes on the wall, through writing with chalk on a slate in infant school to the first handling of a pen and thence to the power to contemplate the spinning globe in its entirety. One of the best poems in Human Chain is “The Conway Stewart” about his father’s gift of a pen on the day of Heaney’s departure for boarding school in Derry. It takes time for the pen to fill, “Giving us time / To look together and away / From our parting, due that evening, / To my longhand ‘Dear’ / To them, next day.” The beginning of knowledge and study may be seen as the Fall; the perfection of art, whereby love and knowledge are held in balance, proves, in Heaney’s hands, to be a means of redemption.

Sean O’Brien is professor of creative writing at Newcastle University. His latest collection, ‘The Drowned Book’ (2007), won the Forward prize and the TS Eliot Prize for poetry

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