Seamus Heaney was a great poet and friend, says Andrew O'Hagan, as he relives their travels in Scotland, Ireland and Wales – tucking into chowder and contemplating the afterlife
He was simply a source of grace, a blessing, and you always knew he was on your side. I was lucky to know those qualities and see them captured in a single name – Seamus. What is it about some people that they seem to carry a kind of moral gladness with them?
Not that they are always good or always right, but that they hold out the possibility of a better selfhood for everybody. In the few days since he died, I've been feeling sore in the heart, because a light has gone out, a reliable comfort. More than that: a genius with a sublime human touch is now beyond reach. I recall the story of the little boy who watched as Robert Burns's funeral cortege passed through the town of Dumfries. "But who will be our poet now?" he said to his mother.
Two decades ago, when I worked at the London Review of Books, the editor, Karl Miller, would ask me to get people on the phone. Late one afternoon, when the paper was being put to bed, he had his nose about two inches from the page, a galley of Seamus's poem in tribute to Hugh MacDiarmid. "Seamus, I'm very grateful to you," said the editor to the poet down the line. "The problem is this. We're delighted with the poem, but there's a mistake in it.
("A mistake?" I imagined Seamus saying. "We can't have mistakes in the London Review of Books.")
"The thing is, you have this thing about MacDiarmid's 'chattering genius'. That's wrong. I'm from Scotland myself. You once said sheep chatter. And I can tell you Scottish sheep don't chatter, Seamus – they blether. Surely you mean MacDiarmid's 'blethering genius'?"
In more recent years, the three of us started going on jaunts together. Everywhere we went, Seamus was recognised, and people felt he might have made their day or changed their life. (It was part of his good nature that each claim seemed to have the same weight with him.) Three years ago, I went with him to the University of Strathclyde so that he could receive an honorary doctorate. His wife Marie and I thought he wasn't looking well and, indeed, he suffered a minor stroke before the event and was taken to the Royal Infirmary. Before the ambulance doors closed, he gave me his speech and told me to read it out. "They'll be waiting," he said. "I know you'll do some credit to the words."
When the ceremony was over and I turned up at the hospital, he was sitting up in bed, joking with Marie, while the young doctor spoke to him about how much he loved his poem The Skunk.
My father had died at the beginning of that week. "No matter what happens," he had said to me, "make sure you go and do that thing with Seamus. He's been good to you and he's a lovely man." When I got back to Inverness, I read a poem of Seamus's at my father's funeral and dropped the poem into his grave. My father's ancestors had come to Scotland from Magherafelt – a few miles from where Seamus grew up – and it felt proper to let the poetry of the old country go with him into the stony ground. I knew both men would appreciate it, allowing neighbouring voices to bridge the day, and it gave me comfort to know that all appointments had been met.
Memory was everything to Seamus. The memory of his father digging in the yard. The memory of peeling potatoes with his mother, or once noticing the glad eye of the coalman. He had a mind to Ireland's memory, the seasonal return of faith and possibility, the falling away and the coming back of things. He cared for this the way other people care about politics. He wanted to offer value to a notion of existence beyond the bounds of sense, and that is where his language led him, to the power of wonder and miracles in daily life. Great is the friend whose one small shove can put you on the upswing. Being with him, I always felt able to give everything its due. His was a steadiness that befriended the person you wanted to be.
In Ayrshire, I once walked with him in a garden next to the town where I grew up. We took our drinks over the grass, and I showed him a gap in the trees revealing Ailsa Craig, the rock that stands in the sea between Ireland and Scotland. Later on, at the birthplace of Robert Burns, we looked in on a multimedia exhibition called the Tam O'Shanter Experience.
"Soon there'll be the Seamus Heaney Experience," said Karl Miller.
"That's right," said Seamus. "It'll be a few churns and a confessional box."
I asked Seamus how the folk around where he grew up reacted to him being awarded the Nobel prize for literature. "Ignored it for the most part, I'm sure," he said. "But yes, after the Stockholm Intervention, a certain Jackie Graham of the local grocery shop in Bellaghy wanted to open a Heaney Museum. 'It'll be good for you and good for us,' he said." Seamus didn't stand in his way and made sure some manuscripts and posters were put into the fellow's hands.
We drove on and went into the old church at Ettrick, and Seamus climbed up to the pulpit. He began quoting Thomas Hardy's The Darkling Thrush, 31 December 1900. He spoke of a visit he and Marie made to Stinsford Churchyard in Dorset, where Hardy's heart is buried, at Hogmanay in the year 2000.
"It's so quiet in here," I said. And the poet's voice rose up and seemed to rescue the beams from their own dampness. "That's a warm voice, Seamus," I said.
"Well," he replied, "the long day wanes, as the master said."
The greatest of our trips was the one to the west of Ireland. We stopped for lunch at a favourite place of Seamus's called Moran's. It specialises in oysters, and they gave us a table to ourselves in the snug. There was a nice bottle of Alsace and we all three had chowder. Seamus once wrote a poem after coming here, called Oysters:
We had driven to that coast
Through flowers and limestone
And there we were, toasting friendship,
Laying down a perfect memory
In the cool of thatch and crockery.
Laying down a perfect memory. That was it, wasn't it? That was the thing, and I knew it at the time. In the main room of Yeats's tower at Ballylee, with the shallow stream below and the light coming at the green-framed window, I looked at Seamus and Karl and suddenly had a vision of a time when none of us would be alive.
Yeats wrote about such a feeling in his poem In Memory of Major Robert Gregory:
Now that we're almost settled in our house
I'll name the friends that cannot sup with us …
… Or mere companions of my youth,
All, all in my thoughts tonight being dead.
We went to the Aran Islands. As we left the boat at Inisheer, I could hear people whispering Seamus's name, and he was very good with that, saying hello to people. The island was so serene and filled with literary echoes. We climbed into a pony and trap at the pier and were soon off round the island. The man driving the vehicle was the very picture of robust outdoor health, and Seamus took pleasure, he said, in the way the fellow "lazily whipped" the pony every few seconds. "You're the famous poet," he said. He clearly thought Seamus was a country man who had made it into the universe of electricity and television.
The next day, back in Dublin, Seamus took us over to St Patrick's Cathedral, and we stood before Swift's grave, reading Yeats's tribute, then Pope's. I went round the corner from there and saw a plaque on the wall to Swift's servant – put there, apparently, by Swift himself. I thought this was very cheerfully democratic and said so to Seamus as we stood in the cathedral's main aisle. "Diligence and prudence," said Seamus. "Well played, that man."
Three winters passed before we got another journey together. We'd been thinking about Wales for some time and set out at the start of the summer in 2010. Seamus agreed that we should pick him up at a hotel near Birmingham airport. By the Birkenhill Parkway, Seamus was standing outside his hotel next to a fire engine, as the entire human contents of the building were evacuated in a drill. Seamus was staring into space. "Look," said Karl, "the Great Bucolic Contemplates Life Among the Ring Roads."
The landscape at the Welsh border was green and silvery and not short of magnificent, the hills rising from nowhere. Wordsworth saw a model of immortality in the hills. "Without the consciousness of a principle of immortality in the human soul," he writes in his Essay Upon Epitaphs, "man could never have had awakened in him the desire to live in the remembrance of his fellows … To be born and to die are the two points in which all men feel themselves to be in absolute coincidence."
The grave of the poet Henry Vaughan can be found on a hill next to the River Usk. He lies in the graveyard of Llansantffraed Church, where there are trees on every side, the trees advancing like Birnam Wood. There are words, of course, on all the graves, but more than that there are words in the air:
They are all gone into the world of light!
And I alone sit ling'ring here;
Their very memory is fair and bright,
And my sad thoughts doth clear.
Vaughan's grave is under a giant yew tree. It is stained with moss and lichens, its Latin phrases shaded. There's no obvious path up from the road, so we climbed through the grass and found the grave looking not obscure but unvisited. There's a bench to one side, with a bank of very old gravestones – some as old as Vaughan's (1695) – now attached to the wall for their preservation.
I took pictures while Karl and Seamus sat on a bench and argued about the Latin on Vaughan's grave. The epitaph speaks of maximum sin and an eternity of supplication before God. Seamus later wrote a poem where he referred to me as "ardent Andrew" and pictured him and Karl on "the mossy seat".
"Well, here's Vaughan," said Karl. "A believer. It's hard to think of you, Seamus, without belief. I find it hard not to believe you believe."
"I stopped practising a long time ago," said Seamus, "but some of it holds. If you have it as a child, it gives you a structure of consciousness – the idea there is something more."
"I probably wouldn't go that far," said Karl. "But I have to say: I always believed I would see my granny again. She was good to me."
"For me, it was my father," said Seamus. "I'd hope to see him again, all right."
We stayed there for a while and Seamus spoke about TS Eliot and his Four Quartets. In all our gadding about, there had been many versions of pastoral and an easy dalliance of time past and time present, but I sensed that, for Seamus at least, it wasn't like Eliot's rose garden up here. It was just a place where you could rest your bones, take a breath. And that's what we did that day as the world of light came into the trees.