In Seamus Heaney's poetry, ordinary objects and places – a sofa, a satchel, the sound of rain – are sanctified. But it has edge and politics, too. Blake Morrison recognises an astonishing poetic achievement
People kept calling him the greatest Irish poet since WB Yeats. Now he has gone, perhaps it is time to put it another way, and say that Yeats was the greatest Irish poet till Heaney. Seamus would have demurred; poetry's not a contest. But they do belong to the same stratosphere. And in a week when the favourite adjective used about Heaney in the media has been "earthy", it's something that needs to be said. "Earthy" may be no more than shorthand for "farmer's son" or for distinguishing him from the more cerebral Joyce and Beckett. But if it suggests unsophisticated, hearty or coarse, it's wildly misleading. Steadfast, certainly. Grounded, some of the time. But earthy, no, the word's not right.
Whatever he owed to Yeats, Heaney more than gave back. For instance, Yeats had dreamed of writing a poem "maybe as cold/ And passionate as the dawn" about an imaginary fisherman ("The freckled man who goes/ To a gray place on a hill/ In gray Connemara clothes"). Heaney got on and wrote that poem, about a real fisherman, Louis O'Neill, a regular at his father-in‑law's pub in Ardboe, who was killed in a bomb attack after defying the curfew imposed in the wake of Bloody Sunday, when British troops shot dead 13 Catholics. The poem is less an elegy than the exploration of a moral conundrum: "How culpable was he/ That last night when he broke/ Our tribe's complicity?" "Casualty" ends with a memory of the two of them out fishing in a boat one morning. "I tasted freedom with him," Heaney says, and asserts the importance of being yourself, and going your own way, in poetry as in life:
To get out early, haul
Steadily off the bottom,
Dispraise the catch, and smile
As you find a rhythm
Working you, slow mile by mile,
Into your proper haunt,
Somewhere, well out, beyond.
Heaney admired writers (Ovid, Joyce, Mandelstam) who refused to compromise their artistic independence. But he also felt the counter-pull of duty – loyalty to family, tribe, home, nation, religion. You could say it was the central struggle of his life: how to find the time and space to nurture his art, when everyone wanted a piece of him – to give a reading here, go on a lecture tour there, review that book, attend this dinner, judge that prize. The pressure was on long before the award of the Nobel prize in 1995. I had a glimpse of it in Belfast, at the end of the 1970s, when he was still in his 30s. He was living in the south by then but had come up for the day to do a broadcast for Paul Muldoon (then a BBC radio producer). Afterwards, outside in the street, the three of us had barely walked 10 yards before a car screeched to a halt and a man rushed over: "Mr Heaney, Mr Heaney, can I have your autograph?" Ever obliging, Seamus signed his name. So it went on. Ireland accords its poets a special place, as we saw at Monday's funeral, but the demands on him were global. After readings, there were always hour-long queues.
The poems that made his name recall a rural childhood: poems about potato-digging, milk-churning, thatching, blackberrying, water-divining; poems strong on euphony, alliteration and other classroom-friendly devices; poems (as one reviewer put it) "loud with the slap of the spade and sour with the stink of turned earth". There was a lot more to them than this, though, including self‑consciousness ("I rhyme to see myself/to set the darkness echoing") and a need to guiltily measure himself against his father and forefathers, from whose path (pen rather than spade in hand) he had deviated. He took the praise from English reviewers but felt suspicious of it. To be labelled as a poet with PQ – "peasant quality" – had more than a hint of condescension. And though his instinct was to load every rift with ore, he didn't want to be known as an Irish wordsmith. As his friend Seamus Deane put it, "a reputation for linguistic extravagance is dangerous, especially when given to small nations by a bigger one … By means of it Celts can stay quaint and stay put."
By the time the political climate of Northern Ireland changed at the end of the 1960s – with civil rights campaigns, riots, and the calling-in of British troops – Heaney's poetry was changing, too. His verse-forms became sharper, like drills. Even his poems about local place-names were edgy, as in "Broagh", with "that last gh the strangers found difficult to manage". It was a tricky path to tread, between being responsive to the moment and independent of party lines; between using poetry as a slingstone to help the desperate and respecting the "diamond absolutes" of art; between labouring over poems and allowing them to come unexpectedly, "like a ball kicked in from nowhere". But the times, or his conscience, demanded it.
Sorry for his nation's Troubles, he published North, a collection intended to explain and console. The first half covers 2,000 years of northern European history, from earth-sacrifices through Viking raids to Elizabethan colonisation; the second half offers reportage on the present – shootings, bombs, neighbourly murders. In "Punishment", these two strands come together brilliantly as he connects the hanging of a young woman for adultery (her body preserved in a Danish bog for two millennia) with the tarring and feathering by Republican hardliners of Catholic girls guilty of consorting with British soldiers. The loving attention to the female victims doesn't preclude an understanding of their persecutors. "At one minute," Heaney wrote in a piece of journalism at the time, "you are drawn towards the old vortex of racial and religious instinct, at another time you seek the mean of humane love and reason." The ending of the poem is poised between the two:
I who have stood dumb
when your betraying sisters,
cauled in tar,
wept by the railings
who would connive
in civilized outrage
yet understand the exact
and tribal, intimate revenge.
Heaney's poetry is full of accusations – often self-accusations, voiced by others: the ghost of his second cousin, Colum, a victim of sectarian murder, who tells him "[you] saccharined my death with morning dew"; the unnamed Sinn Féin hierarch (Danny Morrison, in fact) who sits down opposite him on a train to Belfast and demands: "When, for fuck's sake, are you going to write/Something for us?"; his wife, Marie, who asks "Why could you not have, oftener, in our years/Unclenched, and come down laughing from your room/And walked the twilight with me and your children?" He has answers for all of them – for Marie, the answer is two of the most surprising and beautiful love poems in the language, "The Otter" and "The Skunk". But worries about whether he is doing the right thing are integral to Heaney's poetry, and that vulnerability is part of their strength. "Incertus" was an early pseudonym he used, and even after becoming Famous Seamus a shyness and tentativeness remained. No poet was ever less pompous.
Much of his poetry was written from a cottage in Glanmore, to where he would retreat from the house in Dublin or between teaching spells in the US. At the end of North, and in his next, equally magnificent collection, Field Work, he presents himself as a wood-kerne escaped from the massacre, a man who has left the urban battlefront for Wordsworthian seclusion or Ovidian exile. It was a necessary strategy: a way to clear some space for himself. But as Andrew Motion and I discovered, it didn't betoken quietism or the surrender of a public voice. We had given him pride of place among the 20 writers included in The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry in 1982. It wasn't the first time he had featured in an anthology with the word "British" in the title. But he decided it would be the last. People were killing and being killed over the issue of Britishness and Irishness, and his identity was on the line. "Be advised/My passport's green," he told us in "An Open Letter". "No glass of ours was ever raised/ To toast The Queen." The rebuff couldn't have been more gracious but thereafter he was Irish, no messing.
I had got to know Heaney after publishing a book about him that same year – only a short book, soon superseded by others, but he was grateful for the advocacy (and for the fact I hadn't pestered him while writing it), and declined to play lordly creator to his grubbing scholar. He was quick with jokes, puns and anecdotes, and liked a good gossip, but there was no malice. With his warmth and (later) that shock of white hair, he lit up a room. Audiences were spellbound when he read. He had a gift for being himself, or for seeming to be. The easy onstage charm was deceptive: to combat nerves, and choose the right poems for the occasion, he sometimes spent two or three hours preparing.
Like Yeats, he had a talent for reinventing himself. "Time to be dazzled and the heart to lighten," he announced in the 1990s, with Seeing Things, berating his past poetry for being heavy, sluggish, in the doldrums, and of having to wait "until I was nearly fifty/to credit marvels". He was being too hard on himself, as always. The luminous and the numinous had long been a feature of his work: "here is love/like a tinsmith's scoop/sunk past its gleam/in the meal-bin" – nothing sluggish about that. But it is true he lightened up. "For years I was bowed over the desk like some monk bowed over his prie-dieu," he said in his Nobel lecture. Now was time for the marvellous as well as the murderous – to walk on air against one's better judgment. Trust, agility, give-and-take, "a less binary and altogether less binding vocabulary": the qualities he espoused, as a poet, would also, he thought, help bring peace in Northern Ireland.
His later poems make room for everyday miracles and otherworldly wisdom. There is a lovely one about a ship that appears in the air while the monks of Clonmacnoise are at prayer. According to legend, the ship's anchor gets hooked on the altar rail:
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 back
Out of the marvellous as he had known it.
For Heaney, there were marvels enough in this world, and never mind the next. Ordinary objects and places – a sofa, a wireless, a satchel, a gust of wind, the sound of rain – were sanctified. His Catholicism ran deep: in his teens he made pilgrimages to Lough Derg and Lourdes, and he thought of writing as a sacred act: "When I sit opposite the desk, it's like being an altar boy in the sacristy getting ready to go out on to the main altar." Religion taught him reverence but the gods of the hearth were what he revered – the den-life he had known as a child. He kept coming back to it and finding new things, or seeing the same things in a new light. In "Digging", his pen rests "snug as a gun". In a late poem, "The Conway Stewart", the pen is named and given a "snottery" life of its own, "The nib uncapped,/Treating it to its first deep snorkel/In a newly opened ink-bottle."
Has any poet since Wordsworth written so lovingly of his childhood – its textures, sounds and furniture, and all the relations (parents, siblings, aunts, neighbours and cousins) who populated its domain? There was no need for Heaney to publish a memoir, because the poems do the remembering (and the remembrances) with a resonance no prose could equal. Still, he did collude in a biography of sorts, a 500‑page book of interviews with Dennis O'Driscoll (another poet who died recently and all too young), which looks back on the life, and the work, in illuminating detail. The poems must always come first, then Beowulf, then the essays. But Stepping Stones shouldn't be missed.
Seamus himself will be missed, hugely: for his critical intelligence, his old-fashioned courtesy and his deep learning (no one who read his 2010 collection Human Chain would have been surprised that his last words were texted in Latin). Above all, though, because he showed what poetry was capable of, and how many people it could reach without ingratiation or dumbing down. To record "the music of what happens" was his mission. It's hard to believe that music has stopped.