The sister-in-law of the great Irish poet and Nobel laureate recalls his fine-grained intelligence, his generosity, humour – and the time he rustled up a perfect poem on demand
• See the Observer's obituaries of 2013 in full here
It was a sunny day in July, over 40 years ago – how did that happen? – and my sister Marie and her husband Seamus Heaney had just arrived to stay for a few days. Daisy, my second daughter, who had been christened just a few days before, looking touching in the long lace confection that her great-grandmother had worn in 1866, was in her pram in the gardens of Bradley Court, the house where I lived then – an Elizabethan house, in Gloucestershire, the sort of house you might find in the Irish countryside behind high walls – and the irony of that was never lost on me, or I surmise on Seamus.
Noisy peacocks strutted up and down yew walks as though they owned the place, not knowing I could have wrung their necks and longed to. Marie was worried they hadn't had time to get Daisy a christening present. "Go you and write a poem," she said to Seamus – that was what he was like then: on demand, as it were, he could extemporise an exquisite poem, profound and delicate, strong and subtexted, full of charm and glowing with observation and truth. Halfway through writing it we all went for a walk, me pushing Daisy in the pram, and came on a fallen peacock's feather. Seamus went back and finished the poem immediately – A Peacock's Feather for Daisy Garnett. He was shy enough about it – his modesty was part of his character – but now it has became a much-loved part of his canon. It began:
Six days ago the water fell
To name and bless your fontanel
That seasons towards womanhood,
But now your life is sleep and food
Which, with the touch of love, suffice
You, Daisy, Daisy, English niece.
Gloucestershire: its prospects lie
Wooded and misty to my eye
Whose landscape, like your mother's was,
Is other than this mellowness
Of topiary, lawn and brick,
Possessed, untrespassed, walled, nostalgic…
It ends, and I cry when I read it now:
… So this is a billet-doux to say
That in a warm July you lay
Christened and smiling in Bradley.
While I, a guest in your green court,
At a west window sat and wrote
Self-consciously in gathering dark,
I might as well be in Coole Park!
So before I leave your ordered home
Let us pray: may tilth and loam
Darkened with Celts' and Saxons' blood
Breastfeed your love of house and wood.
And I drop this for you, as I pass,
Like the peacock's feather in the grass.
He could and did give the gift of his talent, not only to the world but also to individuals with warm and smiling generosity. Wordsworth wrote: "The face of every neighbour whom I met/ Was as a volume to me", and Seamus too read every face and responded to it. The moment he walked on to the stage it was as if a dear friend had arrived; but people who had never heard him read, or had never read his work, greeted him with pleasure as he went about his daily life. Innumerable people have told me over the years of how he remembered them on slight acquaintance, of how he took the trouble to write to them. He is often thought of as a man of country ways, but he was enormously sophisticated, a cosmopolitan animal, with a ravening intelligence and a sensibility that was the finest I ever met; so down to earth, so ready to be made to laugh, so full of humour, so appreciative of the good things in life and yet so fine-grained that I feel he was like William Blake who, when he stared at a knot of wood in a tree, became frightened
I was outcast on Martha's Vineyard, off the coast of Cape Cod, when I got the news of Seamus's death in the middle of that dark night. Obviously it was a cosmic tragic mistake. A friend texted: "The world is a darker place without him: the brighter the light – the darker the shadow!" It was as if a void had opened up and where there was goodness, warmth, genius, the knowledge that we could learn how we wanted to live; of what, in the words of another Irish poet, Eavan Boland, "that most fabulous of beasts – language" could do, of words speaking to the springing spirit in all of us, there was instead a galactic, silent cold. As Seamus wrote himself about a death: "That morning tiles were harder, windows colder,/ the raindrops on the pane more scourged, the grass/ Barer to the sky, more wind-harrowed."
His death caught all our hearts off guard and blew them open; we never knew how much we loved him or how much he had given us until he had gone. How did he do it? He carried our hopes and aspirations and our longings for a better and more truthful life and he carried them so lightly and with such grace. "If poetry and the arts do anything," he said, "they can fortify your inner life, your inwardness." He did fortify me; not just with his words but with his generosity of spirit, never mind his and my sister's embracing hospitality in their daily lives. "The way we are living,/ timorous or bold,/ will have been our life," he wrote, and the words inspired me daily. I was so lucky to be his sister- in law. I never saw him but my heart jumped with pleasure, I never met him but he didn't welcome me as though he had been waiting to see me, and I know of no one who did not feel the same. We have come to the end of a dispensation with his passing.