Seamus Heaney, who died last week, is perhaps the only poet for whom a minute's silence will ever be held at a major sporting event: 80,000 Gaelic football fans paid their tribute to him before the Kerry-Dublin semi-final in Croke Park. Their response marks Heaney as a special cultural figure, in Ireland but also elsewhere. Before him, poets were often English and upper class: after him, most of them seemed to be from Northern Ireland.
Heaney's poetry derived directly from the confluence of his rural upbringing in a mixed community of Catholics and Protestants in Bellaghy, Co. Derry and his education. Catholic and Nationalist himself, he repeatedly addressed the politics and emotions of the Troubles with sensitivity and emotion, whilst insisting on the longer, enduring rhythms of life in the bogs and on the farms of Ireland, and the literature in Irish which had never quite gone away. However, Heaney also had the advantages of a humanist education, first at grammar school and later at Queen's University: throughout his career, the influence of classic English and Latin poetry could be identified. 1975's collection North addresses the Six Counties' struggles, while death is never far away from his thoughts, having lost a brother while still a schoolboy.
I sat all morning in the college sick bay
Counting bells knelling classes to a close.
At ten o'clock our neighbours drove me home.
In the porch I met my father crying -
He had always taken funerals in his stride -
And Big Jim Evans saying it was a hard blow.
The baby cooed and laughed and rocked the pram
When I came in, and I was embarrassed
By old men standing up to shake my hand
And tell me they were 'sorry for my trouble'
Whispers informed strangers that I was the eldest,
Away at school, as my mother held my hand
In hers and coughed out angry tearless sighs.
At ten o'clock the ambulance arrived
With the corpse, stanched and bandaged by the nurses.
Next morning I went up into the room. Snowdrops
And candles soothed the bedside I saw him
For the first time in six weeks. Paler now,
Wearing a poppy bruise on his left temple.
He lay in a four foot box, as in his cot.
No gaudy scars, the bumper knocked him clear.
A four foot box, a foot for every year.
Heaney returned to his brother's death much later in 'The Blackbird of Glanmore' (2006), this time inflected with intimations of his own mortality, which he reads here:
Heaney will be buried next to his brother, after a separation of seven decades.
The secret of Heaney's success was that while the learning was always present, it was lightly worn. His poetic persona was gentle, thoughtful, though it could be sharp and dogged too. He never lectured or laboured a point. Instead, simple words with few rhetorical flourishes were allowed to sink slowly in until (perhaps much later) their effect was felt. His poetic importance is as a nexus of multiple cultures drawn together to make something new. Without him, Anglophone readers would never have encountered the poetry of Irish names, places and lives; without him, Irish readers might not have welcomed the 'great' English poets so readily. Without him, there would have been no room for the generations of poets he nurtured, personally and professionally.
Heaney became an icon in Ireland and round the world: the ease with which he mixed with Bill Clinton, U2 and other celebrities, and the glib way they adopted his lines when they needed to sound profound led to accusations that 'Famous Seamus' liked the high life too much. These accusations were wrong. Reading the poetry, which however much it grew in scope, never wavered from his personal preoccupations, reading his superb writing on literature, and listening to the hundreds of people to whom he gave his time, care and attention, it's clear that though the courtiers were legion, he never allowed himself to be reduced to a caricature of the Famous Irish Poet. His Nobel Prize and the multitude of awards that came his way were fully deserved, and changed him not one jot: his gently ironic sense of humour allowed him to accept them without taking them too seriously.
I would recommend that new readers start with North, which takes in Heaney's roots, the war in Northern Ireland and the complications of love. To appreciate his strengths as a translator of other cultures, his version of Beowulf is essential reading.
Ireland has had an awful century or so: war, corruption, the sexual and social depredations of a decaying faith depopulation and greed all stalked a country which should have been able to celebrate political independence and cultural strength. With the exception of the Celtic tiger and its collapse, Heaney made us think carefully about the State, its history, its ways of life and its virtues in new ways and new words, without ever becoming a prisoner of fixed perspective and simple nostrums. His lilting rhythms and quiet stanzas should not be mistaken for cultural or political conservatism: he was a poet of the experience, of the journey, not of the answer nor of the arrival.