Seamus Heaney: “But what about the river in the trees, boy?”

Seamus Heaney by Felix Clay

Seamus Heaney has died at the age of 74.  The Slugger archive has a number of Heaney-related posts, although some links may be defunct.  Among them one of my earliest posts noting Heaney writing on his fellow poet Czeslaw Milosz.  More here, here, here, here, and here.  And here’s a great montage of BBC archive clips from 2009 of “Digging”. [Photo credit: Felix Clay]

And a quote noted back in 2006.

Sitting comfortably at last in the country-like kitchen of his house on the Strand, next to a paper-stuffed annex, Heaney reflects on his Nobel remarks: “I was thinking specifically of the book The Haw Lantern, which came out in 1987 [the ‘transitional volume’ of his earlier joke].

“My favourite poem in this area is a two-line dedicatory verse at the front of it: ‘The riverbed, dried-up, half-full of leaves. / Us, listening to a river in the trees.’ That settles it. You know? Obligation, earnest attention, documentary responsibility – fine. But what about the river in the trees, boy? Poetry has to be that, and it’s very hard to get there.”


Adds The Guardian has more Heaney poetry clips.

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  • Newman

    Resquiscat in pace gentle and noble soul who reached the heights of true greatness

  • Pete Baker

    Adds The Guardian has more Heaney poetry clips.

  • Pigeon Toes

    Thanks to my wee South Derry schooling,..

  • Charles_Gould

    Very good blog Pete.

    I got so much Heany at school that stuck with me, I feel he is a big part of my experience of poetry, it is a sad and moving day and much sooner than I expected.

  • Harry Flashman

    One of St Columb’s two Nobel laureates passes on, a man who never lost touch with his roots and whose poetry (well, most of it) could actually be read and understood and more importantly enjoyed by the ordinary man.

  • Kevsterino

    RIP Heaney, a man who danced with language and left so much of his beautiful mind for the ages.

  • carl marks

    Kevsterino (profile) says: 30 August 2013 at 5:20 pm RIP Heaney, a man who danced with language and left so much of his beautiful mind for the ages.


  • FDM

    I was shocked at the news.

    Studied him at school. Hopefully later in life, when I get my head lifted out of science journals, I will get the time to really probe the depths of the artistic legacy he left behind.

    Rest in peace Seamus and thank you.

  • O’Tuama

    A sad, sad day. Arguably the greatest poet of the 20th century in the English language including Yeats.

  • BetsyGray

    …..”And in August the barley grew up out of the grave”

    You are now truly in the spirit world.

    Thankyou for it all Seamus.


  • Mick Fealty

    From the first of his collections I took seriously, bought the year of its publication, after school:

    “When they said Carrickfergus I could hear
    the frosty echo of saltminers’ picks.
    I imagined it, chambered and glinting,
    a township built of light

    What do we say any more
    to conjure the salt of our earth?
    So much comes and is gone
    that should be crystal and kept

    and amicable weathers
    that bring up the grain of things,
    their tang of season and store,
    are all the packing we’ll get.

    So I say to myself Gweebarra
    and its music hits off the place
    like water hitting off granite.
    I see the glittering sound

    framed in your window,
    knives and forks set on oilcloth,
    and the seals’ heads, suddenly outlined,
    scanning everything.

    People here used to believe
    that drowned souls lived in the seals.
    At spring tides they might change shape.
    They loved music and swam in for a singer

    who might stand at the end of summer
    in the mouth of a whitewashed turf-shed,
    his shoulder to the jamb, his song
    a rowboat far out in evening.

    When I came here first you were always singing,
    a hint of the clip of the pick
    in your winnowing climb and attack.
    Raise it again, man. We still believe what we hear.”

  • Alan N/Ards

    This is a sad day. I started to read his poetry about fifteen years ago and found it fascinating. This island and the world has lost a genius.

  • Charles_Gould

    I have often wondered at something.

    What I find remarkable is that my school was teaching Seamus’s poetry to people in the 1970s. In our parents time at school.

    He dies at, frankly, a relatively young age (these days), 74.

    In the 1970s, he was in his 30s, not even middle aged.

    Think about it: to get your poetry onto the school curriculum, to be a household name, at such a young age is amazing.

    All the other poets studied, in the poetry book, Wordsworth, Shakespeare, Yeats, Keats, Hopkins, Frost, etc etc were more or less dead…often long dead.

    Yet here was someone who was in this London-edited poetry anthology, and he wasn’t even middle aged.

    His poetry was studied and famous among his contemporaries and not just because he was local.

    Think about how long it takes to get most English-language literature onto the curriculum.

    He was a household name in poetry at such a young age.

    And he has stood the test of time.

    He is also someone who was always there – I went to his poetry readings on several occasions. He was someone whose voice added to his poetry.

    A giant – a true legend – in our own living room.

  • Mick Fealty

    “We’ll have one for the ditch…”

  • Alias

    Ireland is a little poorer for his passing. Probably the last of the great master technicians in that realm that we’ll produce…

  • Mick Fealty

    …poetry can make an order as true to the impact of external reality and as sensitive to the inner laws of the poet’s being as the ripples that rippled in and rippled out across the water in that scullery bucket fifty years ago. An order where we can at last grow up to that which we stored up as we grew. An order which satisfies all that is appetitive in the intelligence and prehensile in the affections. I credit poetry, in other words, both for being itself and for being a help, for making possible a fluid and restorative relationship between the mind’s centre and its circumference, between the child gazing at the word “Stockholm” on the face of the radio dial and the man facing the faces that he meets in Stockholm at this most privileged moment. I credit it because credit is due to it, in our time and in all time, for its truth to life, in every sense of that phrase.

    From his speech in Stockholm:

  • Mick Fealty

    Last lines of Sweeney Astray… (first published by Field Day in Derry)

    “Because Sweeney was a pilgrim

    to the stoup of every well

    and every green-frilled, cress-topped stream,

    their water’s his memorial.

    Now, if it be the will of God,

    rise, Sweeney, take this guiding hand

    that has to lay you in the sod

    and draw the dark blinds of the ground.

    I ask a blessing, by Sweeney’s grave.

    His memory flutters in my breast.

    His soul roosts in the tree of love.

    His body sinks in its clay nest.”

  • Mick Fealty


    We had Blackberry Picking on purple gestetnered sheets still reeking of the ‘ink’ and I think that was in primary school, almost before the sixties were out…

  • Charles_Gould


    Amazing. Talk about the “young star” model of literary achievement.

    It makes me think that, as well as having huge huge talent, he knew how to promote and advertise his work, very effectively.

  • Mick Fealty

    I don’t think he tried for it though… In fact I think it came to him despite the fact he seemed to push it away… This is interesting…

    Heaney’s poems were full of finds, unlikely retrievals from the slime of the ground or the murk of history and memory. His poems about peat bogs and what they preserve are probably the most important English-language poems written in the past fifty years about violence—the “intimate, tribal revenge” that underscores the news. But they never stray an inch from the personal tone that Heaney honed in his poems about his four-year-old brother’s death or his mother’s method of slicing potatoes into soup. That the same vocabulary, the same notes, and the same intelligence could govern his personal poems and his political ones only pointed to the arbitrariness of the distinction.

    Just as a peat bog might contain an elk skeleton, a stick of butter, or the entire, snug corpse of a murder victim, the “word hoard” of English held, for Heaney, infinite discoveries. When he was commissioned to translate “Beowulf,” he said he found the task onerous until he had a breakthrough: he discovered in the Anglo-Saxon text a word he remembered his grandmother using that he hadn’t heard since—“thole,” which means “suffer.” Everything about this epiphany is classic Heaney: finding the seed of his English poetry, “Beowulf,” on the tip of his grandmother’s tongue; finding a word so downcast in a memory so warm, the mingled pain and sweetness, history and the hearth.

  • Brian Walker

    Part of the shock is seeing him trapped in the aspic of those official tributes which so earnestly grope for meaning but only remind us of how so much better he would have made them. Unlike Yeats he didn’t fashion an idiosyncratic personal philosophy. Much of his idiom came from popular culture. His ear for dialogue was pitch perfect. Even in ordinary chat, the words came out new minted and you thought: “What can I say to follow that?” And then the face crinkled in that smile, the warmth flowed and he put you at your ease.

    The integrity was always clear but the halo waved over his head was a bit of a puzzle. He enjoyed the celebrity but gently mocked it. He learned to walk the sectarian tightrope long ago, at home in Anahorish, “ a double agent between the two concepts.”
    . an adept of banter I crossed the lines with carefully enunciated passwords, manned every speech with checkpoints and reported back to nobody.”

    This canniness stood him on good stead when he became, in the hackneyed phrase an establishment icon in both islands and across the Atlantic.

    It was not the bitterness but the exquisite courtesies of difference that he captured, and the awkward sharing of a joke. He was no mere celebrant of Irish archaeology. He could be quite fiercely political. He could trace unerringly a young man’s violent path to destruction. He could admire the courage of a local IRA stalker who died on hunger strike. He demanding recognition of the inalienable humanity of them both. It was the humanity that made it worse.

    The obituaries rightly claim his sympathies were with nationalism but it was nationalism of the broadest kind. Only a few weeks ago he said of the City Hall protests : “ let them have their emblems.” Although he stopped living in Belfast forty years ago, he remained rooted in the north. The generosity of his Irishness was a reproach to old conventions and he had no difficulty in throwing an arm over Britain.

    To say that fine poetry is universal is true but unaffecting. Just now I prefer the parochial version. Seamus Heaney gave us dignity when we desperately needed it and made us a little more intelligible to ourselves and to the world.

  • Mick Fealty


    This is hard to beat, Mark Lawson’s literary wake with Edna O’Brien, Colm Toibin, Michael Longley and Hermione Lee…

    Worth listening to the very tailend of this Newstalk interview with Cullen (about 12.55 on)…

  • Charles_Gould

    Good post, Brian.

    Interesting Radio 4 discussion, Mick.

  • Big Maggie

    What a curious wee place Northern Ireland is.

    An alcoholic wife-beater is afforded a state funeral and an airport named after him. A man who contributed so much to our culture gets, er, none of the above.

    R.I.P. Seamus. Good to know where our priorities lie.

  • Mick Fealty


    Heaney used to annoy me, because I found it difficult in some of his poems to keep with the meaning from one line to the next, or to stay with up him the whole way to a poem’s end (when often it would not be that obvious what on earth he was on about)…

    You cannot say that about this one, I can’t remember who read it on that Front Row, but I loved the homely generosity of the first lines, and it’s not hard to stick with it to the end…


    And some time make the time to drive out west
    Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
    In September or October, when the wind
    And the light are working off each other
    So that the ocean on one side is wild
    With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
    The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
    By the earthed lightening of flock of swans,
    Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
    Their fully-grown headstrong-looking heads
    Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
    Useless to think you’ll park or capture it
    More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
    A hurry through which known and strange things pass
    As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
    And catch the heart off guard and blow it open

  • Brian Walker

    Danny Morrison’s long account of his bearding Heaney on a train at the time of the dirty protests turns into something of a critical review of dossier on the poet’s carefully guarded relationships with politics. It’s well worth resurrecting for its own sake.

    And it usefully points us towards the Stepping Stones interviews.

    The piece shows Heaney refusing to dispute with the propagandist and Morrison still continuing to argue, not realising that Heaney has already had the last word. As Fintan O’Toole quotes today:

    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.”

  • Alias

    “An alcoholic wife-beater is afforded a state funeral and an airport named after him. A man who contributed so much to our culture gets, er, none of the above.”

    Which State would hold the funeral? Or… the world’s first shared sovereignty funeral? Even in death the post-nationalist Heaney is threading very carefully around such political complexities… hence a private funeral.

  • FDM[6.06] He grew up at the other end of the Glenshane pass from me and 16 years older. I was trying to think who he was the spitting image of, and came up with Beethoven. Uncanny ressemblance.

  • Charles_Gould

    A statue, in Belfast, somewhere important.

    We can start our own “poets corner” like the one in Westminster Abbey.

  • Seamuscamp

    It’s interesting that Mike Nesbitt couldn’t quite remember that the play was titled “The Cure at Troy”, and sort of missed the point about the Clinton quote.

    History says, don’t hope
    On this side of the grave.
    But then, once in a lifetime
    The longed-for tidal wave
    Of justice can rise up.
    And hope and history rhyme.

  • Mick Fealty

    The rest of it is more evident by its persistent absence…

    “So hope for a great sea-change
    On the far side of revenge.
    Believe that further shore
    Is reachable from here.
    Believe in miracle
    And cures and healing wells.

    Call miracle self-healing:
    The utter, self-revealing
    Double-take of feeling.
    If there’s fire on the mountain
    Or lightning and storm
    And a god speaks from the sky

    That means someone is hearing
    The outcry and the birth-cry
    Of new life at its term.”

  • Big Maggie


    I agree that the state funeral could be complicated and probably unfeasible now. Not so for that airport. What could be better than renaming Belfast International in Heaney’s honour?

    And before somebody suggests redubbing Derry City Airport, two things:

    1. It’s a minor airport. Seamus deserves better than an uncultured yob who was as proficient with his fists as with his feet.

    2. It would be playing into the hands of the small-minded among us, to whom anything with fewer syllables than Londonderry is anathema, if not downright bloody blasphemous.

  • Alan N/Ards


    It should have been the C.S.Lewis city airport. I have never understood why it was named after Geordie Best. As far as I am concerned Seamus Heaney deserves to have this island named after him, never mind an airport.

  • Charles_Gould

    I don’t think there is any need to bring George Best into the discussion folks.

  • Occasional Commentator

    Glad to see some nice comments about him, unlike the distasteful ones over at A Tangled Web.

  • Mick Fealty

    I find it hard to go beyond that first line on Fintan’s piece, quoted by Brian above:

    We will always have the great poet. We have lost an exemplary man.

    I don’t know about the greatness of the poetry. That’s not assay that really can be made at such a short time after his untimely death.

    I say untimely, I think I would have found it disturbing whatever time he left. Yet, he’s not a man I spent a lot of my time thinking about.

    Strangely though, when I look at my bookshelf, he’s the only modern poet who has held my interest sufficient to buy a slew of his books.

    The price on the back of each identically bound Faber book the only indication of the order I’d bought them in. Field Work, still shows the princely sum of £1.65.

    I think it was Carol Anne Duffy who said it was his capacity to collect and collate his work that fascinated her.

    Those of his poems that reached out to me reminded me of the voice of my largely rural extended family, from Down and Donegal.

    The opening lines of Last Look, are typical:

    “We came upon him, stilled
    and oblivious,
    gazing into a field
    of blossoming potatoes,
    his trouser bottoms wet
    and flecked with grass seed.
    Crowned blunt-headed weeds
    that flourished in the verge
    flailed against our car
    but he seemed not to hear
    in his long watchfulness
    by the clifftop fuchsias.”

    Someone once said (but I can’t remember who) that there are two kinds of poets. Those who describe everything as though they were seeing it for the very first time. And those who describe it as though it were the last.

    Heaney was certainly among the latter.

    But, as the public jostle with Danny over Heaney’s poetic testimony in part four of Flight Path shows, he was no lame duck or artistic push over. Tough as nails, I’d say.

    He dared to say in public what many others were too cowed or frightened to… Here’s the work up to that now famous ‘when the fuck‘ line…

    “Enter then –
    As if he were some film noir border guard –
    Enter this one I’d last met in a dream,
    More grimfaced now than in the dream itself,
    When he’d flagged me down at the side of a mountain road,
    Come up and leant his elbow on the roof
    And explained through the open window of the car
    That all I’d have to do was drive a van
    Carefully to the next customs post
    At Pettigo, switch off, get out as if
    I were on my way to the office –
    But then instead I’d walk ten yards more down
    Towards the main street and get in with – here
    Another schoolfriend’s name, a wink and smile,
    I’d know him alright, he’d be in a Ford
    And I’d be home in three hours’ time, as safe
    As houses…”

    And earlier in North, Whatever you say, say nothing

    I’m back in winter
    Quarters where bad news is no longer news,
    Where media-men and stringers sniff and point,
    Where zoom lenses, recorders and coiled leads
    Litter the hotels. The times are out of joint
    But I incline as much to rosary beads

    As to the jottings and analyses
    Of politicians and newspapermen
    Who’ve scribbled down the long campaign from gas
    And protest to gelignite and Sten,

    Who proved upon their pulses ‘escalate’,
    ‘Backlash’ and ‘crack down’, ‘the provisional wing’,
    ‘Polarization’ and ‘long-standing hate’.
    Yet I live here, I live here too, I sing,

    Expertly civil-tongued with civil neighbours
    On the high wires of first wireless reports,
    Sucking the fake taste, the stony flavours
    Of those sanctioned, old, elaborate retorts:

    ‘Oh, it’s disgraceful, surely, I agree.’
    ‘Where’s it going to end?’ ‘It’s getting worse.’
    ‘They’re murderers.’ ‘Internment, understandably …’
    The ‘voice of sanity’ is getting hoarse.

    And in part II

    As the man said when Celtic won, ‘The Pope of Rome
    ‘s a happy man this night. His flock suspect

    In their deepest heart of hearts the heretic
    Has come at last to heel and to the stake.
    We tremble near the flames but want no truck
    With the actual firing. We’re on the make

    As ever. Long sucking the hind tit
    Cold as a witch’s and as hard to swallow
    Still leaves us fork tongued on the border bit:
    The liberal papist note sounds hollow

    When amplified and mixed in with the bangs
    That shake all hearts and windows day and night.
    (It’s tempting here to rhyme on ‘labour pangs’
    And diagnose a rebirth in our plight

    But that would be to ignore other symptoms.
    Last night you didn’t need a stethoscope
    To hear the eructation of Orange drums
    Allergic equally to Pearse and Pope.)

    And to end he kept a deep and abiding confidence in the capacity of ordinary folk to ‘know’…

    Is there a life before death? That’s chalked up
    In Ballymurphy. Competence with pain,
    Coherent miseries, a bite and sup,
    We hug our little destiny again.

    He had ways of explaining things that you yourself might have felt so deeply that it might otherwise not occur to you that it needed public explanation…

    These lines from A Constable Calls, for instance…

    Arithmetic and fear.
    I sat staring at the polished holster
    With its buttoned flap, the braid cord
    Looped into the revolver butt.

    “Any other root crops?
    Mangolds? Marrowstems? Anything like that?”
    “No.” But was there not a line
    Of turnips where the seed ran out

    In the potato field? I assumed
    Small guilts and sat
    Imagining the black hole in the barracks.

    More later…

  • Alias

    Big Maggie, his work is his memorial. It’ll stand longer than the airport. I’d prefer artists to stand apart from the established order so I’m a bit dubious of those who are willingly honoured by it and of the honours given by it.

    With Heaney, well, there is always going to be mixed feelings about him from his own tribe in NI so I’m not sure how much support a grand state gesture would have. On one hand they’re pleased one of their own did well in the world; on the other, there is that sense of disappointment in him that he stood apart from them at a time of need in order, as it might be suspected, not to offend those English literary critics who always allowed their own nationalism to influence their reviews of Irish artists.

    After all, he campaigned for the Lisbon Treaty so it’s not that he stood apart from promoting European nationalism, merely from promoting Irish nationalism. That’s always going to haunt him.

  • Alias

    Incidentally, I wasn’t saying that Heaney should have been offering his head to either an RUC or a TLS critic’s baton: just stating that there is a perception among NI’s nationalists that he stood apart from them to best serve his ‘career’. Not sure why that is so when no other Irish artist of merit would touch the place with a bargepole…

  • Charles_Gould

    Alias: given that his career was to write, by serving his career he served civilization.

  • Mick Fealty

    Well said Alias… Though I hasten to add the qualifier ‘some’ to your summation of NI nationalist attitudes towards ‘Heaney the Poet’… the ground of Irish history is littered with bodies of kings who misunderstood the power of poet to mortally wound the powerful…

    Big M, sharing grudges at a poet’s ‘wake’ is ‘nat’ cool… Regarding Best, as I once noted here before:

    “… we do not need our mythical heroes to be perfectly ethical role models. Indeed we learn as much through the pain of their mistakes, as we are inspired by their great feats.”

    Heaney, particularly after the Sweeney and Beowulf translations, dealt in myths. He most certainly was not one himself. Perhaps it was because he understood myth’s abiding currency, that he eschewed the ‘temptation’ to become its subject.

    Despite the best efforts of others.

  • Big Maggie


    I bear no grudge against footballers, living or dead. I brought Best into the discussion simply to air my opinion that Heaney is worthy of the highest honour this province can accord him, and that must be far, far greater than that given to Best.

    I followed your link and had to scratch my blonde head on reading this: “In the end he touched people all over the world with his genius.”

    Sorry, but to term a footballer a “genius” is to seriously demean and trivialize the word. It’s theoretically possible to teach a monkey to kick a ball about a pitch, but considerably more difficult to coax that beastie into penning immortal poetry.

  • Charles_Gould

    For goodness sake, can we leave George Best out of this?

  • Pete Baker


    “I brought Best into the discussion simply to air my opinion that Heaney is worthy of the highest honour this province can accord him”

    Arguably, Heaney is worthy of an honour so high that this ‘indigenous’ administration, and it would be the local political parties who would make that decision, would only demean him by attempting to do so.

  • Rory Carr

    I’m afraid, Pete, that your last sentence above does not detract in the least from the local political class. This is mainly because you have not constructed a grammatical sentence to frame the insult.

    Could it be that, with the passing of Séamus Heaney, you are in the process of developing a new avant garde form of free-flowing, unstructured poetry ? And why not ?

  • Harry Flashman

    I don’t think any nationalist can have a problem with Heaney, the fanatical, fundamentalist Provos didn’t like him but that’s not the same thing.

    In “A Constable Calls” Heaney clearly enunciates the passive alienation of Irish Nationalists from the Northern state, but he does so with humanity and without somehow wanting to put a booby-trap bomb under the policeman’s car (or bike as it was after all 1950’s County Derry).

    In “The Other Side” Heaney with dignity expresses his quiet resentment at his protestant neighbour’s off-hand dismissal of the quality of his family’s farmland in contrast to that of his own but at the same time shows us the decency and friendliness of the same man as he waits patiently outside as the Heaney family finishes their Rosary before making his social call. Maybe Provos feel he should have seethed with anger and gone out and shot the protestant neighbour as he delivered the mail or drove local children to school.

    The swivel-eyed, paranoid resentfulness of the oaf shouting through Heaney’s car window about for fuck sake writing something for “us” exemplifies the whining of the Provo who wondered why no one understood him and who hated any Northern Nationalist/Catholic from Heaney to Paul Brady or John Hume to Gerry Anderson who hadn’t signed up 100% for their fascistic bloodletting.

  • Rory Carr

    What on earth is “fascistic bloodletting” ? And tell me, please, how it is differentiated from social democratic bloodletting, or Yankee imperialist bloodletting, or monatchial bloodletting or,for that matter, the medicinal application of leeches ?

    When Daithi O’Conaill and John Joe O’Hagan were ambushed by B-Specials firing from a bread van while walking near Coalisland in 1959, O’Hagan fell badly wounded. O’Conaill who was wounded in the chest and forehead and had the knuckles of one hand shot through. O’Conaill somehow managed to get away and made it some miles across country until he felt that if he did not receive attention he would likely die from loss of blood. He staggered to the nearest farmhouse an collapsed through the door.

    The resident couple happened to be Protestant and right away realised what their visitor might be but, as O’Conaill told me once on a long drive north from Dublin, the couple tended to him as best they were able and made two ‘phone calls, the second to the RUC but the first, sensing that their visitor was close to death, to the local Catholic priest. O’Conaill never forgot their kindness and was forever after resolute in his pursuit of raprochement between the atholic andProtestant communities. When after the campaign, Operation Harvest was concluded, the Governor of Crumlin Road prison shook O’Conaill’s hand and told him that, if he could ever be of any help to him in civilian life he only need contact him.

    This man hardly fits the picture you paint and he was Adjutant-General initially of the Provisional IRA and later, Chief-of-staff, a man whose influence ran throughout the movement and whose intellect largely shaped and guided it. so that the picture you attempt to paint of mouth-foaming, blood-flecked republicans is not one that I recognise. The baying youth shouting into Séamus Heaney’s car is most likely to have been one of those drunken corner-boys who would never have been accepted into the IRA or, indeed, Sinn Féin both of which organisations were keen to recruit those who were sober and disclipined.

    In my experience, Heaney was widely admired among Republicans and his work greatly appreciated by men who, typical of their time, may had have little formal edcation but were ardently autodidactic particularly in the literary and artistic spheres. Such activity is helpful when you are dedicated to a life that, more likely than no, will require the sacrifice of long spells in the enemy prison.

    The pejorative outburst to which Harry Flashman treats us says nothing of any state of regard between Republicans and Heaney but rather portrays only Flashman’s own prejudices and propensity for colourful language.

  • Alias

    Harry, it’s hard for an outsider such as myself to judge how important the theme of abandonment by Irish artists is to NI Catholics, other than to note that it is a recurring theme. The peaceful civil/equal rights campaign is usually conflated with the violent national rights campaign. The former was exploited by the Provos to support the latter and few artists would want blood on their hands as a result of earnest enterprise. Plus, it was just plain sordid. It’s hard to know how much of that sense of abandonment is mopery and how much of it is fair comment.

  • Occasional commentator [8.56]
    David Vance never fails to reveal the true nature of his deathly cynicism and bloodymindedness. Should be left to fade away without an audience.

  • CW

    While I rarely agree with anything H Flashman says on this blog, I think his comments above are fairly accurate.

    I have no wish to get into a debate on whether nationalists/republicans liked or disliked Heaney, but part of his appeal was that he wrote about simple themes and didn’t try to be too clever or complicated or pretentious. No-one else could make poems about such mundane topics as frogs on bogs, pregnant cows, cutting turf or picking blackberries so readable and memorable. In short he wrote about what he knew based on his own unique experiences in life and unlike some some other successful people who came from humble backgrounds he never distanced himself from his rural roots.

    I never met the man, but he visited my school, Omagh CBS in the late 1980s. Even though my year group was studying his poetry for GCSE, we couldn’t attend as it was for A Level students only – in hindsight a f***ing ridiculous decision! Still I’m glad I gave him a mention in my book “In Complete Circles” before he passed away.

  • Seamuscamp

    Which part of the Alias post are “well said”. The “some” which you add completely changes the tenor of his remarks. I don’t doubt that “some” Nationalists dislike Heaney; but I have yet to meet one or correspond with one. Yet Alias, self-confessed outsider, feels he can generalise.

    I can’t say I knew SH (although I met him a number of times in 57-58) but I read his poetry. It is moving, educational, moral; I feel it’s strength lies in the transformation of apparently everyday themes (such as CW describes) into subtle commentary on society and politics and religiosity.
    “Right down the dam gross-bellied frogs were cocked
    On sods; their loose necks pulsed like sails. Some hopped:
    The slap and plop were obscene threats. Some sat
    Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting.
    I sickened, turned and ran. The great slime kings
    Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew
    That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.”
    The imagery might be frogs and spawn; but the thoughts are about exploitative people.

    Read “From the Canton of Expectation” and there before you is a society in transition; suck on “From the Republic of Conscience” to grasp the ambivalence; remember the universality in the 50’s of “Whatever You Say, Say Nothing.”

    As to his allegiance: to Andrew Motion in 1982;
    “Be advised my passport’s green.
    No glass of ours was ever raised to toast the Queen.”

  • Alias

    “I don’t doubt that “some” Nationalists dislike Heaney; but I have yet to meet one or correspond with one. Yet Alias, self-confessed outsider, feels he can generalise.”

    And you can generalise from an anecdote…

    Look, it’s a Northern Irish ‘tribute’ thread so the feelings of the Northern Irish toward the subject are relevant …particularly when they’re (un)surprisingly absent from a particular section and when the subject of naming airports came into it.

    Now it didn’t take long on for the ‘stooper poet‘ tag to be thrown at Heaney. Indeed, the Provo’s chief propagandist confronted Heaney about the issue. It isn’t surprising that the Catholics, who have been conditioned to regard the Shinner’s interests as synonymous with their interests, should mimic the same offence.

  • Alias

    Incidentally, the Shinners’ chief propagandist, Danny Morrison, didn’t confine his attacks on Heaney to chance encounters on trains.

    He edited a book, Hunger Strike, which consistently attacks him. His own introduction to the book makes a sequence of grass and ignorant attacks on Heaney for failing to intervene, and lauds “an honourable minority of artists, writers and poets that bore witness.” Predictably this “honourable minority” are low-rent and forgettable, e.g. the Wolfe Tones, Stephen Rea, etc.

    Perhaps Morrison and ilk would be better served wondering why no artist of substance would touch his squalid little sectarian squabble rather than simply excoriating them not doing so?

  • Kevsterino

    I think it is a shame what has become of this thread, considering the subject is the loss of a man who did nothing but give the world his vision of the truth as he understood it. I amuse myself by imagining what Heaney would say about it.

  • Tir Chonaill Gael

    “It isn’t surprising that the Catholics, who have been conditioned to regard the Shinner’s interests as synonymous with their interests, should mimic the same offence.”

    You’re just embarrassing yourself now.

    Rest in peace Seamus: this (northern) Irish nationalist will always hold you in the highest regard. A true Irish patriot and genius.

  • Delphin

    I don’t associate airports with Seamus Heaney. Impersonal places only visited as a means to an end. I think a better tribute would be to rename the Ulster Hall after him. A place associated with artistic endeavour at the heart of Belfast, rather than somewhere to be endured near Templepatrick.

    Anyway, Stephen Spendor on being great

    I think continually of those who were truly great.
    Who, from the womb, remembered the soul’s history
    Through corridors of light where the hours are suns
    Endless and singing. Whose lovely ambition
    Was that their lips, still touched with fire,
    Should tell of the Spirit clothed from head to foot in song.
    And who hoarded from the Spring branches
    The desires falling across their bodies like blossoms.

    What is precious is never to forget
    The essential delight of the blood drawn from ageless springs
    Breaking through rocks in worlds before our earth.
    Never to deny its pleasure in the morning simple light
    Nor its grave evening demand for love.
    Never to allow gradually the traffic to smother
    With noise and fog the flowering of the spirit.

    Near the snow, near the sun, in the highest fields
    See how these names are feted by the waving grass
    And by the streamers of white cloud
    And whispers of wind in the listening sky.
    The names of those who in their lives fought for life
    Who wore at their hearts the fire’s center.
    Born of the sun they travelled a short while towards the sun,
    And left the vivid air signed with their honor.

  • Seamuscamp

    Tir Chonnail Gael

    It says it all that Alias (“an outsider”) thinks that Danny Morrison is a typical NI Catholic Nationalist. I suppose he thinks that Desmond Fennell is a typical critic and Goebbels a typical German. The rest of us can mourn a genuine genius and a generous man

  • I first saw Heaney in the flesh — dark of hair, solid, even already statuesque — in Front Square of TCD, in the company of Michael Longley and Derek Mahon. That must have been around 1962 or 1963.

    Those who took interest knew this was a voice to harken to. Of course, we aspirants hated the notion of being a published poet by the age of 22.

    I had his QUB pamphlet of Eleven Poems until I lent it. If it has survived, it’d pay off most credit card bills. I’d rather have the original.

    Then, of course, his poems turned up on school exam courses, and I had to teach them. I must have done it too well: my youngest daughter, “the Pert Young Piece”, at GCSE had a strip torn off for suggesting there were (almost subliminal) political and historical elements in many of his poems: “potatoes” from a Derry Catholic, with an overtone? — perish the thought!

    The kids I taught thought I had the poster of Famous Seamus on the wall because there was a slight likeness, facially and (as we both aged) follicly. This has a significance for later in this post.

    Then I several times saw the Great Man when he appeared at public and semi-public performances, always understated, always uplifting. Capable of making an eye liquify.

    When I first began this blogging lark, I did a vamp on number VII of his Glanmore Sonnets, from the 1979 collection Field Work. It’s still one of my greatest hits (and deserves to be refreshed). I think it even got a passing note here on Slugger.

    Back to the follic bit. Then there was a late morning I wandering Nassau Street, the main (only) drag of Princeton NJ, from coffee shop to Labyrinth Books. I could not understand why I was on the receiving end of so, so many nods and “Hi!”s. Only when I was in the university library, and saw the lecture lists, did I realise I was being mistaken for … Him! Should I have been flattered? (Yes! Oh, yes!). And him several years older? (Absit omen.)

    And now? I’m re-studying Blackberry Picking. It’s as good as it gets as a commentary on youthful expectation, and the inevitability of decay and disappointment:

    Our hands were peppered
    With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.
    We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
    But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
    A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
    The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
    The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
    I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
    That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
    Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.

    When the sheer pathos of that has quietened, I’ll reach for one of the more erotic poems in the language: The Skunk. They tell me that’s on the Leaving Cert course these days. How times change.

  • Pete Baker

    I’ll just add without comment one of my favourite pieces by Heaney. From Seeing Things, 1991.

    Lightenings VIII

    The annals say: when the monks of Clonmacnoise
    Were all at prayers inside the oratory
    A ship appeared above them in the air.

    The anchor dragged along behind so deep
    It hooked itself into the altar rails
    And then, as the big hull rocked to a standstill,

    A crewman shinned and grappled down the rope
    And struggled to release it. But in vain.
    ‘This man can’t bear our life here and will drown,’

    The abbot said, ‘unless we help him.’ So
    They did, the freed ship sailed, and the man climbed
    Out of the marvellous as he had known it.

  • Alias

    “It says it all that Alias (“an outsider”) thinks that Danny Morrison is a typical NI Catholic Nationalist.”

    If you can’t understand a simple sentence then I doubt you have much look with poetry.

    “It isn’t surprising that the Catholics, who have been conditioned to regard the Shinner’s interests as synonymous with their interests, should mimic the same offence.”

    It isn’t claimed that the Shinners’ chief propagandist believes what he has led others to believe – propagandists rarely believe their own propaganda.

  • Harry Flashman

    “Now it didn’t take long on for the ‘stooper poet‘ tag to be thrown at Heaney.”

    I have to admit that I didn’t always feel this way but the older I get and the more I read about the true nature of our disgusting, squalid little civil war the more I come to the opinion that the term “stoop” is probably the most honourable that can be bestowed on anyone who played any role in the Troubles.

  • Delphin

    An extract from the NY Times obituary

    As a result of Mr. Heaney’s inclusive stance, some supporters of the Irish Republican cause condemned him as accommodationist. His rejoinder can be found, for instance, in lines from his 1974 essay on the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, who was exiled to Siberia by Stalin’s regime and died there in 1938.
    In the essay, Mr. Heaney set forth an observation that could be applied with equal force to contemporary Ireland:
    “We live here in critical times ourselves, when the idea of poetry as an art is in danger of being overshadowed by a quest for poetry as a diagram of political attitudes,” he wrote. “Some commentators have all the fussy literalism of an official from the ministry of truth.”

  • Gosh, it didn’t take long for it all to go politically pear-shaped round here!

    Yes, of course, Heaney’s politics are a valid topic:

    All of us, Protestant poets, Catholic poets — and don’t those terms fairly put the wind up you? — all of us probably had some notion that a good poem was “a paradigm of good politics”, a site of energy and tension and possibility, a truth-telling arena but not a killing field. And without being explicit about it, either to ourselves or to one another, we probably felt that if we as poets couldn’t do something transformative or creative with all that we were a part of, then it was a poor lookout for everybody. In the end, I believe what was envisaged and almost set up by the Good Friday Agreement was prefigured in what I called our subtleties and tolerances – allowances for different traditions and affiliations, in culture, religion and politics. It all seems simple enough. But here and now I soundly far more civic and clarified than I ever was at the time.

    That’s from one of the O’Driscoll interviews — surely, one of the prime sources. Frontiers of Writing, of course, expands his ideas there.

    If such opinions are decried as “Stooping”, there are many, many Stoops out here in the real, polychrome world.

    I’d suggest that Heaney was one of a generation who were educated out if and escaping from the polarised post-War of Independence world. The ’60s, until 1968 changed everything, were a strange, shape-shifting time, and the beginnings of “hands across the Border”. [The shell-backs and meat-heads (both sides of the political crevasse) then held back the inevitable for — what? — nigh on another half-century.]

    Heaney was nationalist, undoubtedly so:

    Don’t be surprised if I demur, for, be advised
    My passport’s green.
    No glass of ours was ever raised
    To toast The Queen.

    Yet, famously, he did that at Dublin Castle.

    Then there’s his response to the death of hunger-striker, Francis Hughes. That got to Heaney — the Hughes family were near neighbours from Bellaghy:

    The Fellow’s room I was assigned for the night was one that belonged to Sir Keith Joseph, the then Minister of Education in the Thatcher government. It took me ten years to come back to that occasion and see it as emblematic of the general stalemate. Francis Hughes was a neighbour’s child, yes, but he was also a hit man and his Protestant neighbours would have considered him involved in something like a war of genocide against them rather than a war of liberation against the occupying forces of the crown. At that stage, the IRA’s self-image as liberators didn’t work much magic with me. But neither did the too-brutal simplicity of Margaret Thatcher’s ‘A crime is a crime is a crime. It is not political.’

    What the brain-dead shell-backs didn’t and don’t grasp is that’s where most of us exist. Heaney, for me, nailed it with his borrowing from Czesław Miłosz:

    I was stretched between contemplation
    Of a motionless point
    And the command to participate
    Actively in history.

    There’s another O’Driscoll interview: it used to be on the Guardian website, but is now available (I think) only within book-covers. As I recall, it is set against a journey north on nthe Enterprise. It notes how Heaney marked crossing from Louth into Down, by effortlessly switching from Redbreast to Black Bush.

    That’s getting one’s priorities aright.

  • Rory Carr

    I read today that Séamus Heaney’s final message to his wife was a ‘phone text that read simply, “Nolle timere“. I suspect that Heaney, who was pretty familiar with his Latin is more likely to have written, “Noli timere” which correctly translates as, “Be not afraid,” when addressing a single person, as he was in this instance, (or “Nolite timere when addressing more than one person) and that the reporters got it wrong. In Latin poetry we sometimes find the construction, “Ne Time (singular) or Ne timete” (plural”).

    In any case it is a most beautiful message of love to his wife since the opposite of fear is love. It is fear that corrodes all. When I see those poor individuals with “Love/Hate” tattooed across their fingers I smile wryly and wish they could only someday know that hate is but a tiny little impoverished component of fear and that it is fear they must conquer in all its many disguises in order to break through to healing love. Perhaps if they read our dear, departed poet’s many messages of love they might touch the beginning of wisdom.

  • Forgive me, Rory Carr: I am sure your Latin is less rusty than mine.

    I read “nolle timere” as two infinitives, “to not be to fear”. A bit awkward, but roughly what Dylan Thomas was urging, typically more wordily, with:

    Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
    Though lovers be lost love shall not;
    And death shall have no dominion

    Not a command, then. More of a shared emotion.

    Works for me.

  • Mick Fealty

    His son Michael flagged it at the end of his short eulogy to his father “head-the-ball”… poor notation may be the cause of it, but he texted his wife “noli timere” minutes before he died. Michael then translated it as “Don’t be afraid”… RTE:

    And Paul Muldoon’s personal encomium is worth reading too in that same personal vein…

    I called the Heaney house once years ago. Maybe thirty years, now. The phone was answered by one of the boys. Michael, I’m pretty sure. He was a teen-ager at the time. Having known him since he was a kid, I was glad to have a chance to have a chat and hear what he was up to. After a while, Michael ventured, “I suppose you’ll want to speak to head-the-ball?”

    Not being a parent at the time, I was a little taken aback by the familiarity, perhaps even the over-familiarity, of this nomenclature. Even if Michael didn’t call Seamus “head-the-ball” to his face (which I’m pretty sure he didn’t), I realize now that it was a very telling moment. It was a moment that suggested a wonderfully relaxed attitude between father and teen-age son, one I now see as highly difficult to establish and maintain.

  • Mick Fealty
  • Red Lion

    I would remind that Queen’s University Belfast named their newly built library after Seamus Heaney in the 1990’s, and I seem to remember the man himself being there to open it. I stand to be corrected.

    His last communication to his wife is deeply affecting. I have pondered it all evening.

  • Some years ago there was a library on the ground floor….the two upper floors were computer suites.
    The building now appears to be the Post Graduate Centre.

  • Nolle timere!

    This is going to smell of the lamp, for indeed it took a bit of midnight study. It is, I promise, relevant to nolle timere. Eventually.

    Let us start with the curious character, Laurence Humphrey (c.1525-1589) — Elizabethan scholar, divine and university administrator. He was a protagonist in the evolving nature of the reformed Church of England — particularly over such matters as the wearing of ecclesiastical robes.

    By 1561 Humphrey was president of Magdalen College, Oxford, and the leading theological doctor of the university. Magdalen was a hotbed of religious controversy, with the robing issue being the hot topic. Humphrey had already been arraigned before Archbishop Parker at Lambeth Palace, and obliged to conform to Parker’s demand that vestments were of no consequence, and could be a matter of official edict — Humphrey (along with Dean Thomas Sampson of Christchurch, Oxford, the main dissenters) cryptically agreed to sign Parker’s agreement, both adding that, if “all things were lawful, all things were not expedient”.

    Queen Elizabeth (25 Jan 1565) then ordered that the rites and dignities of her church (including vestments) be maintained. Parker, properly suspicious, sent a commission to Magdalen to ensure the proper wearing of vestments. On 26 Feb 1565 we find most of the fellows of Magdalen complaining that only the Bishop of Winchester had jurisdiction, and refusing to wear vestments. The dispute rumbled on for the next year or so — Sampson was removed from his position at Christchurch, and Humphrey survived, mainly by support from the Earl of Leicester and the Duke of Norfolk.

    Elizabeth took enough interest in the doings to make a royal progress to Oxford in August 1566. She pointedly commended Humphrey on how his doctoral gown suited him. Moreover, since Humphrey was now a family man, he needed the income and slithered into line — becoming vice-chancellor (again on the support of Leicester) of the University in 1571.

    So on 11 Sep 1571, Vice-chancellor Humphrey is preaching before the Queen at Woodstock, and in honour of the occasion, knocks off a few lines of verse, happily preserved by Google books. See page 585 for what ensues:

    Hactenus afflavit Zephyrus, fuit aura secunda,
    Spes est: mox portum, qui bene solvit, habet.
    At mare fluctisonum est, Syrtes, Pirate, Charybdis,
    Saxa latent, scopulos nolle timere, furor.

    How all that might (or more likely might not) be a relevant analogy for the Big-enders and Little-enders of our local political and religious disputants, I hesitate to pursue.

    However, allow me an attempt at rendering into English:
    So far the West Wind has blown, and a breeze followed, there is hope: then there’s a port (to enter), which suits well [that bit seems arsy-versy]. Yet the sea roars with waves — sandbanks, corsairs, Charybdis, rocks lurk, fear not the reefs, the storm.

    At which ‘Hold on’, says he! This is going right back to Heaney’s beginning, and Hobsbaum’s Belfast Group. Try Storm on the Island, and its enigmatic final line:
    Strange, it is a huge nothing that we fear.

  • Correction: the date of Humphrey at Woodstock should read 11 Sep 1575.

  • Mick Fealty

    He’s not around to correct or put you in your place, boy! Very enjoyable (if that’s the right word) though. Has the feel of Lear to it… Put me in mind of this from Postscript:

    “More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
    A hurry through which known and strange things pass”

  • Rory Carr

    Thank you, Malcolm. Very entertaining. Reminds me of the antics of Capt. LPS Orr, onetime Unionist MP for South Down who preceded Enoch Powell as MP from 1950-1970 and who in all that time, prior to the beginning of nationalist resistance to Orange rule, rose only once to speak in the House – and that was on the pressing matter of the length of Anglican clergymen’s cassocks. The benefit ensuing to his constituents is not recorded.

    In any case,a good try, but all I have to advise is:

    Adversus solem ne loquitor .

  • I fully appreciate that unreconstructed Romanists (you know who you are!) would not appreciate the theology of Anglian clerical dress. Nor recognise it is a symbolic matter down to the present day. Did you not observe, along with Mr Andrew Marr’s Sabbath return, the missing dog-collar on Archbishop Sentamu (as of the last few weeks my Metropolitan)? Do you not appreciate why?

    Similarly with the serious matter of nolle+ following infinitive. Despite the trivial protests of Rory Carr, this is an accepted construction, especially among poets with a hexameter line to fill.

    More to the point, it is one with which Heaney was familiar. Let me direct you to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, book ten, lines 38-39:

    Quod si fata negant veniam pro coniuge, certum est
    Nolle redire mihi: leto caudate duorum.

    Let Dryden (who never fails for me) render that:

    But if the destinies refuse my vow,
    And no remission of her doom allow;
    Know, I’m determin’d to return no more;
    So both retain, or both to life restore.

    Non-Latinists and the less-classically attuned should still recognise the story of Orpheus and Euridice, nobly celebrated by Herr Gluck, then in a leg-show manner), bouffe(d) by M. Offenbach. [If you clicked that hotlink, and your speaker cones blew out around 1:25, don’t blame me.] Now ponder on what Heaney’s text-message meant.

    The drafts of Heaney’s rendering of that Ovid episode are lodged at the National University of Ireland. If you still don’t get the implications, recall that Heaney celebrated Marie’s and his honeymoon (in London) in The Underground. She was running for the last train, and he followed, picking up the buttons she had ripped from her coat.

    Damned if I’ll look back.

  • Hmm. Must check I’m closing those block quote markers properly. Apologies.

  • Rory Carr

    Malcolm Redfellow is of course, as ever, perfectly correct insofar as that I treat the matter of whether or not Michael Heaney rendered his father’s final words as Noli timere or Nolle timere, it is of no great importance to me and I only drew attention to it in the first instance because so many newspapers simply got it wrong until The Guardian and RTE published the correct form, “Noli timere.

    Malcolm Redfellow insists that it is a serious matter, serious that is as to who is right and who is wrong whereas I don’t really give a fig. But if Redfellow must needs be satisfied then here is the final conclusion – I am right and he is wrong !

    Judge for yourselves Michael Heaney’s rendering of his father’s final words and whether or not he can be clearly heard to say (as I insist, and The Guardian and RTE believe), “Noli timere,” (pron. nole-ee) and not, as Malcolm Redfellow insists, “Nolle timere” (pron.nolly). Check here at 2:25 in:

    As to all the totally irrelevant Gas and Gaiters sideshow, each must make of it what he will.

  • Actually, Rory, I don’t “insist”.

    Both are quite acceptable readings.

    My point is that nolle timere has different implications, and might — just might — be more subtle, more sympathetic, than a straight imperative. It also seems to me to suit the tone of other published work by Heaney.

    Now let’s get technical and look at the scansion. Admittedly, here I’m dredging back to circa 1960-1, when I was last doing composition exercises in Latin verse.

    Nōlō has to be a spondee. So is the emphatic nōli. The second syllable of nōlle is “short” (unless, in verse, it is followed by two consonants in the following word).

    The vowels of timēre are short-long-short — and, yes, I have checked my recollection of second-conjugation verbs with my 1968 copy of the Oxford Latin Dictionary.

    Now show me how to get the long-long-short-long-short scansion of noli timere into the Virgilian dactylic hexameter.

  • Seamuscamp

    Rory Carr
    Like you I’d assume his son got it right. I find the exegisis of a unsubstantiated possibility unconvincing – and irrelevant.

    Unrelated perhaps, perhaps not, the motto on Terry Pratchett’s coat of arms reads: “Noli Timere Messorem” – Don’t fear the Reaper.

  • Rory Carr

    Now show me how to get the long-long-short-long-short scansion of noli timere into the Virgilian dactylic hexameter.
    Malcolm Redfellow @ 10.43 am

    I would be delighted but, unfortunately, Malcolm, dinner is about to be served.

  • Rory Carr @ 6:53 pm:

    Dinner! Not chicken, I trust?

    OK, fun over. There are far more pressing issues to discuss. And I guess we would agree on many of those.

    Till later.