Seamus Heaney was a brilliantly intelligent person. He was – and he knew he was – the best boy in the class. But he always did his best to keep his intelligence a secret.
In a poem in his 2010 volume Human Chain he describes how one day at Anahorish Primary School, which he attended until the age of 12, he was “sent/The privileged one, for water/To turn the the ink powder into ink”.
But the freedom that came with the privilege meant that he was missing a singing lesson, which he could hear “Coming out through opened windows/Yet still and all a world away.”
It was a lonely fate to be a singer and yet excused from singing. This loneliness had another result: he had, as he says in the poem, “A vision of the school the school/Won’t understand, nor I, not quite”.
The irony is that this clever, lonely child, a Catholic nationalist by birth, living in a remote and neglected part of the British Empire, was the beneficiary of Rab Butler’s 1944 Education Act. His education in primary school, in St Columb’s in Derry, and subsequently in Queen’s University, Belfast, was free.
He never raised his glass to the Queen, at least as her subject, and yet London made him. Without the support of Charles Monteith and Faber and Faber, the company that remained his publisher all his life, he could have been another outsider of genius, like Patrick Kavanagh, Paul Durcan or – the writer it is most interesting to compare him to – John McGahern.
It was, and is, of huge significance that his nationalism never became Provoism. Martin McGuinness may rule in Derry but he does so without any direct sanction from Derry’s greatest citizen.
Now that Heaney’s work has ended, the Irish people can begin to see his vision as a whole. It is a complex picture, marked by a great respect for the sound of language and the value of truth.
Long before he died one thing was plain: he had paid a big price for winning the Nobel prize. He exhausted himself in the service of poetry. He was generous to a fault with his time. He was dutiful on behalf of the State. It would be an exaggeration, but not a major one, to say he died for Ireland.
His intelligence was profoundly diplomatic – he could have been a great Minister for Foreign Affairs. In the small and frequently vicious world of Irish writing, he managed to avoid making enemies.
If there was a divide in him, it was between the way he understood how the world works and his desire to say that it is good.
In 2011, I had the good fortune to be one of the judges who awarded him The Irish Times Poetry Now prize for his book Human Chain.
In my speech at the award ceremony, I said all of the judges were agreed on the high quality of the 42 books in the competition.
But when we considered this array of talent, we were always driven back to a puzzlingly pleasurable question – why was Seamus the best?
In the end, I think the answer had to do with his character – I even dare say his moral character.
Throughout his work, he depended on his highly developed tactile sensitivities. Heaney felt as vividly as a baby does, and indeed in Human Chain, which was written after he had suffered a stroke, there is a sad sense of the infant miraculous, of being able to apprehend the physical world for the first time a second time.
The territory of these late poems is the scene of a serious contest, as the book’s title poem makes clear. Ostensibly it is about the delivery of food to famine victims while soldiers are firing over the heads of the mob.
But it is also about the poet’s art. The poems, like bags of meal, are backbreakingly heavy and the reward of lifting them up and passing them on is “A letting go which will not come again./ Or it will, once. And for all.”
Those three full stops and that one half-stop are deliberate. When we consider how sick he was, they give us pause in the throat.
A passage by the Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana tells us something about the essential Heaney.
In the simple and ignorant age of Homer, poetry was “the sweetest and sanest that the world has known. . . Nowhere else can we find so noble a rendering of human nature, so spontaneous a delight in life, so uncompromising a dedication to beauty, and such a gift of seeing beauty in everything. Homer, the first of poets, was also the best and the most poetical.”
We can say now that Heaney was the first of our poets, the best and the most poetical of them.
Even at this moment, so soon after his death, when we consider his work as a whole, we are left with the inescapable conviction that we have been given something good by someone of good character.
His intelligence was exceptional because it allowed him to become humble. He was a master who brought his word-gift in by the servant’s entrance. Here it is:
The full of a white
Of little pears:
On the red tiles
Of that floor.
I came on
By the scullion’s door.
Note: for reasons of space I edited the paragraph by Santayana quoted above from his essay ‘The Poetry of Barbarism’in his book ‘Interpretations of Poetry and Religion’. Here is the full quote:
It is an observation at first sight melancholy but in the end,
perhaps, enlightening, that the earliest poets are the most ideal, and
that primitive ages furnish the most heroic characters and have the
clearest vision of a perfect life. The Homeric times must have been full
of ignorance and suffering. In those little barbaric towns, in those camps
and farm, in those shipyards, there must have been much insecurity and
superstition. That age was singularly poor in all that concerns the
convenience of life and the entertainment of the mind with arts and
sciences. Yet it had a sense for civilizations. That machinery of life
which men were beginning to devise appealed to them as poetical; they
knew its ultimate justification and studied its incipient processes with
delight. The poetry of that simple and ignorant age was, accordingly, the
sweetest and sanest that the world has known; the most faultless in
taste, and the most even and lofty in inspiration. Without lacking
variety and homeliness, it bathed all things human in the golden light of
morning; it clothed sorrow in a kind of majesty, instinct with both
self-control and heroic frankness. Nowhere else can we find so noble a
rendering of human nature, so spontaneous a delight in life, so
uncompromising a dedication to beauty, and such a gift of seeing
beauty in everything. Homer, the first of poets, was also the best and
the most poetical.