So. Seamus Heaney is gone. That prodigious pen now rests snugly beyond the reach of finger and thumb. Even in a year when we have lost several great writers, some tragically young, his passing at 74 still feels particularly brutal, like the end of an era. Few other contemporary poets’ passing will dominate the headlines and blogosphere quite as much as that of ‘Famous Seamus’. To adapt another phrase, from the title of his final collection, he leaves a huge chink in the human chain.
Heaney’s extraordinary achievement as a poet was his ability, during a period when the notion of poetry as a serious public platform had become almost laughable, to find a way of speaking to a modern audience in a voice which managed to be clear and simple, yet not simplistic. He favoured straightforward, conventional forms – the four-line verse quatrain, for instance, often with light, unobtrusive rhyme schemes – which gave his poetry a ready accessibility for those (let’s face it, most of us) with only a rudimentary grasp of form and structure. Similarly, his gentle, lilting metre possessed an intimate, conversational quality stripped of extravagant vocabulary or artificial constructions: his poems read more naturally than a thousand angry, shouty blogs.
Nonetheless, in spite of the simplicity, he could still contrive to make words sing and dance, as he covered topics from breathless accounts of furtive love (‘Twice Shy’) to the blood-soaked history of Ireland. It is not for nothing that the poem for which he is most famous – ‘Digging’ – compares the act of writing, with complete sincerity, to the back-breaking manual labour of his father’s farm life and the brutal precision of a firearm. Heaney’s poems may appear to us as delightfully honed and lightly polished artefacts but, as explained in books such as Stepping Stones and Finders Keepers, they were also the end products of a lifetime’s worth of excavation and graft into the roots, development and possibilities of the English language as a tool for connection.
His greatest single achievement, perhaps, was his modern verse translation of Beowulf, which found a way of creating a version of the rough-hewn Old English epic fit for a twenty-first-century reader, while maintaining its pre-modern difficulty and barbaric otherness. As the critic Terry Eagleton observed at the time, it was a preposterous goal from the outset and, rather like the hero’s own monster-slaying mission, an act of breath-taking hubris, yet it seemed ideally suited to Heaney’s own distinct fascination with subtlety and savagery.
The groundwork for his poetic achievement can be traced back to the early days of Heaney’s career in the controversial poems of North, which sought to reflect upon the early days of ‘the Troubles’. Never comfortable as a political poet – a struggle I wrote about in greater depth here – Heaney, like Yeats before him, retreated from the seemingly unpalatable divisions of the present into the mysticism and romanticism of a shared, distant past. The fetishism of the local and the cautious, conciliatory rhetoric of the cultural diplomat never quite left his work, and has been subject to some deserving criticism.