Listen to this article
Something strange happens when a poet dies. The loss is felt profoundly, at deep levels close to the centre of our being, or of being itself. Seamus Heaney experienced that when his friend, inspiration and brother poet Ted Hughes died in 1998. Delivering the funeral oration at a small Devon church, he said: “No death in my lifetime has hurt poets more. He was a tower of tenderness and strength, a great arch under which the least of poetry’s children could enter and feel secure.”
He added that “Hughes was like a gable, a psychic gable that you could put your back to.” That suggests that the loss of Hughes was more to him than the loss of an individual, however beloved; something more like the grievous destruction of part of the house of language in which we all dwell.
The goatherd-poet Miguel Hernández went further still in his passionate elegy on the murder of his friend and fellow-poet Federico García Lorca at the start of the Spanish Civil War in 1936. “A poet dies and creation feels wounded, hurt to death in its entrails.” He goes on to imagine a “cosmic shivering of fear” shuddering through the mountains. The language may sound portentous but Hernández was articulating a loss and calamity that would reverberate throughout the war-divided country and for decades.
The death of Lorca, who had been deeply critical of Catholic bigotry, represented the death of a liberal, open-minded Spain, tolerant of sexual and racial differences that would not revive again until after the death of Franco. Hernández himself would die, in terrible conditions, of tuberculosis in one of Franco’s gaols in 1942, at the age of 32.
Now the world of poetry and the wider world has to come to terms with the death of Seamus Heaney himself. Through no particular desire or grandiosity of his own, Heaney, like, Lorca, came to represent something more than poetry itself. Heaney became the voice, or the conscience, of the northern Irish Troubles.
Crucial times in the history of peoples and nations often seem to bring forth their defining poet. The Chilean poet Pablo Neruda became something like a demiurge for his entire country. That is partly why his death in 1973, in obscure circumstances just after the killing of his friend Salvador Allende in a military coup led by Augusto Pinochet, still casts a black shadow over Chilean history. The Irish poet whom Heaney most admired, WB Yeats, not only forged his own distinctive poetic voice and identity – part-seer, part-love-lyricist – but also helped to forge the cultural identity of the new Irish Republic itself.
But, though Heaney never stinted in his praise for Yeats at a time when the older Nobel laureate’s high-flown language was going out of fashion, he has always struck me as a very different kind of poet. Where Yeats was lofty, grandiloquent, often arrogant, Heaney was always grounded, humble, patient, slow. This made him the perfect poet for the agonisingly long-drawn-out peace process in Northern Ireland.
Heaney knew, and never forgot, the importance of belonging. He never forgot the farm in Mossbawn, County Derry (or Londonderry), where he grew up, as a northern Irish Catholic on a divided island, and whose boggy, peaty landscape and flora and fauna provided the bedrock of his poetry’s imagery. He also knew about the tribal aspects of belonging and the excruciating dilemmas they might pose.
Heaney seems to me, above all, a poet of scruple, of the careful weighing of one thing, one set of values, one act of violence, against another. Such scrupulousness is rare in poets and might seem almost antipoetic if what you want from poetry is enflamed rhetoric. Enflamed rhetoric was not what Heaney offered, partly no doubt because he felt more than enough of it was spewing from the mouths of people such as Ian Paisley or those on the far reaches of Irish Republicanism.
Heaney’s carefulness and scrupulousness make the eruption of violence into his poetry all the more telling. For all that Heaney does not glorify violence, he does not avoid it either. The unblinking contemplation of violence, both of the present and the distant past, makes his 1975 book North especially strong. His reanimation of an ancient victim of some tribal sanction, in “Punishment”, and connection of the exhumed body of a young woman killed millennia earlier with tarred and feathered Republican “traitors” is shocking in its vividness and its eroticism (“the wind on/ her naked front/ ... blows her nipples to amber beads.” Like Yeats, Heaney does not shy away from the violence of male lust and possession.
In the end, though, Heaney will be remembered for the warmth of his love. The warmth and the love extend from that long-dead adulteress through the (few) beautiful love poems to his wife and ultimately beyond to his vision of a shining space of remembrance that poetry creates and preserves, even after the death of the poet.
More columns at www.ft.com/eyres