"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Literature In The News: Poet Seamus Heaney Dies

When I saw Seamus Heaney passed away yesterday, I felt a wave of sadness.  From BBC News:
Seamus Heaney, acclaimed by many as the best Irish poet since WB Yeats, has died aged 74.
Heaney was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995 "for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past".
Over his long career he was awarded numerous prizes and received many honours for his work.
He recently suffered from ill health.
And then from the official obituary from BBC News. 
Seamus Heaney was internationally recognised as the greatest Irish poet since WB Yeats. Like Yeats, he won the Nobel Prize for literature and, like Yeats, his reputation and influence spread far beyond literary circles.
Born in Northern Ireland, he was a Catholic and nationalist who chose to live in the South. "Be advised, my passport's green / No glass of ours was ever raised / To toast the Queen," he once wrote.
He came under pressure to take sides during the 25 years of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and faced criticism for his perceived ambivalence to republican violence, but he never allowed himself to be co-opted as a spokesman for violent extremism.
His writing addressed the conflict, however, often seeking to put it in a wider historical context. The poet also penned elegies to friends and acquaintances who died in the violence.
Describing his reticence to become a "spokesman" for the Troubles, Heaney once said he had "an early warning system telling me to get back inside my own head".
Born on 13 April, 1939, on a family farm in the rural heart of County Londonderry, he never forgot the world he came from. "I loved the dark drop, the trapped sky, the smells / Of waterweed, fungus and dank moss," he recalled in Personal Helicon.
He was a translator, broadcaster and prose writer of distinction, but his poetry was his most remarkable achievement, for its range, its consistent quality and its impact on readers: Love poems, epic poems, poems about memory and the past, poems about conflict and civil strife, poems about the natural world, poems addressed to friends, poems that found significance in the everyday or delighted in the possibilities of the English language.
The BBC obit seems to focus on the Catholic/Protestant conflicts that has consumed Ireland.  I did not really see that side of his work, since I’m neither Irish or British ethnicity.  My appreciation of Heaney’s poetry really focused on his nature and rural life themes.  Here’s a poem that highlights for me what makes his poetry unique and spectacular.  In regard to the copywrite laws, I’ll only post the first half of this two part poem.

Mossbawn 1. Sunlight

By Seamus Heaney


For Mary Heaney

I. Sunlight

There was a sunlit absence.
The helmeted pump in the yard
heated its iron,
water honeyed

in the slung bucket
and the sun stood
like a griddle cooling
against the wall

of each long afternoon.
So, her hands scuffled
over the bakeboard,
the reddening stove

sent its plaque of heat
against her where she stood
in a floury apron
by the window.

Now she dusts the board
with a goose's wing,
now sits, broad-lapped,
with whitened nails

and measling shins:
here is a space
again, the scone  rising
to the tick of two clocks.

And here is love
like a tinsmith's scoop
sunk past its gleam
in the meal-bin.

Notice the unique but simple diction, a farmer’s diction but stilled charged with freshness.  There is nothing in there that smacks of cliché, even though it appears to be describing a common activity.  I love the short lines, suggesting a simple person.  I love the cacophony of hard sounding consonants: pump, bucket, griddle, bakeboard, plaque, scone, tick, scoop.  Short words with hard consonants suggest an elemental simplicity, recalling early English or Gaelic roots.  Mary Heaney is his wife, and in her simple rural baking he sees love.

You can read about tributes here and obits from The Indepedent and The New York Times , each with some more information.

I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention that Heaney had a fine translation of Beowulf in verse, which I enjoyed reading very much.

 Finally here is a nice memorial to him.
May he rest in peace.


  1. Thank you for this beautiful tribute to an amazing poet and man. A peaceful, purling rest...

    1. Why thank you. Feel free to stop by any time.