The Earthy Genius of Seamus Heaney

Slate's Culture Blog
Aug. 30 2013 4:06 PM

Seamus Heaney, 1939–2013

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Seamus Heaney

Photo by JOHNNY EGGITT/AFP/Getty Images

Seamus Heaney died this morning in Dublin at the age of 74. It is a huge loss. The author of 13 collections of poetry, four books of criticism, two plays, and numerous translations, lectures, and other writings, Heaney received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995 and the coveted T.S. Eliot Prize in 2006 (for his twelfth collection, District and Circle). Beyond awards, he was an undisputed literary titan-professor-broadcaster that even the poetry-immune grew to cherish. (In 2007, his books reportedly accounted for two-thirds of the poetry sales in the United Kingdom.) “If poetry and the arts do anything,” he once said, “they can fortify your inner life, your inwardness." His particular music—forthright, humble, weaving in and out of the unseen—had an almost unprecedented way of nourishing readers’ inner lives. He produced the kinds of lines that turn into lenses—panes of thought through which you come to see the world.

Katy Waldman Katy Waldman

Katy Waldman is a Slate staff writer. 

Born in 1939 in Northern Ireland’s County Derry, Heaney absorbed the rustic rhythms of his surroundings and experienced firsthand the religious frictions leading up to the Troubles. Those sometimes bloody conflicts between Catholics and Protestants figured in his poetry, though often in disguise; everything was filtered through Heaney’s favorite element: earth, mud, sludge. Anthony Thwaite once called him the “laureate of the root vegetable.” For Heaney, the act of digging—uncovering spuds, streams, even bog people—stood for the act of thinking, of writing. And that violence, the upheaval of working the soil, spoke to the turbulence of dealing with a painful past—especially if the dirt was Irish, if it somehow housed the country’s divided soul.

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Many have highlighted this “earthy” aesthetic, noting how Heaney’s work is frequently both mud-caked and temperamentally “down-to-earth.” In Newsweek, Malcolm Jones praised  “muscular language so rich with the tones and smell of earth that you almost expect to find a few crumbs of dirt clinging to his lines.” Jones was describing Heaney’s gorgeous 2001 translation of Beowulf, my first encounter with the poet. I remember leafing through Heaney’s introduction in thrilled disbelief—“lambent” heroes and “chthonic” dragons—who was this guy?

But Heaney always went deep. In his wonderful book of essays, The Government of the Tongue, he spoke of a chestnut tree his aunt planted in her yard the same year he was born. He grew up identifying with the tree and mourned when the family that moved into his aunt’s house after her cut it down. Then he forgot about it. And then—in one of those peculiar acts of memory so central to Heaney—it flashed back into his mind, or rather, “the space where it had been” did. “I saw [the opening] as a kind of luminous emptiness, a warp and waver of light, and once again, in a way that I find hard to define, I began to identify with that space,” he recounts.

“Except that this time it was not so much a matter of attaching oneself to a living symbol of being rooted in the native ground; it was more a matter of preparing to be unrooted, to be spirited away into some transparent, yet indigenous afterlife. The new place was all idea, if you like; it was generated out of my experience of the old place but it was not a topographical location. It was and remains an imagined realm, even if it can be located at an earthly spot, a placeless heaven rather than a heavenly place.”

You can see here why people love Heaney’s language—the sackcloth heaviness of it, the authenticity, the song. The critic Brad Leithauser, writing in the New York Times, offered the best explanation I’ve yet read of its almost lullaby-like power. Heaney’s voice, Leithauser says, “carries the believability of the plainspoken—even though (herein his magic) his words are anything but plainspoken….His stanzas are dense echo chambers of contending nuances and ricocheting sounds. And his is the gift of saying something extraordinary while, line by line, conveying a sense that this is something an ordinary person might actually say.”

The chestnut tree is an ordinary symbol for an extraordinary poet. Heaney, bard of the ground, leaves us with shimmering outlines, a thousand ways to fill in his absence. Framed by and indebted to the dirt, his poetry remains a “heavenly place.”

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