Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | August 31, 2013

Seamus Heaney

So. The Irish poet Seamus Heaney passed away this week. He was 74. Sad news. His translation of Beowulf was the best around.

Update (September 3, 2013, 9:15 PM): this Guardian obituary is a good place to start. (See also this piece.) Tributes to the Nobel Literature laureate have started to appear. The Irish Times and the Irish Independent have accounts of Heaney’s funeral, as does The Guardian, and the (British) Independent has a story about Heaney’s last text to his wife: Noli timere (“Don’t be afraid”).

At Crooked Timber, Maria Farrell shares an anecdote about calling Heaney: “In the days before everyone had Internet, I was working for a tv production company called Hummingbird. One day I was tracking down the source of an obscure couplet of Irish poetry. My boss, Philip King, handed me a phone number and said ‘Call Seamus Heaney. He’ll know it’. Heaney had only won the Nobel a few months before. I called, embarrassed to be troubling a Great Man. He picked up after a few rings, patiently listened while I recited the lines, thought for a moment and gave the answer. I wish I could remember who the poet was. Heaney was warm and generous that day, just as he was a few years later when my sister Nickie approached him, similarly starstruck, in Waterstones on Dawson Street.”

Megan O’Rourke has this appreciation in The Atlantic: “Poetry wasn’t inventive romance; it was a way of describing reality. It was actually a form of speech, as intimate as it was magnificent. That immediacy of voice is one of Heaney’s greatest attributes as a poet. As well-shaped and musical as his poems are, they never seem fancy or false or even baroque. They have a plainspokenness derived from his childhood in the country. A ‘country boy’ from Northern Ireland who got a scholarship to a Catholic boarding school, Heaney left his family’s farm life behind when he was quite young, but it stayed in his soul somehow. In the ’60s, he moved to Belfast, where he began to make a name for himself, as part of the so-called “Northern School” of Irish poets—among them, Derek Mahon and Michael Longley. Like some of their work, his is rooted in physical experience, in dirt and peat and cow udders and green hedges; one of the most startling images in his early poems is a dead younger brother’s ‘poppy bruise’ glimpsed as the boy lies at the wake in a ‘four foot box, one for every year.’ His work is also preoccupied by the difference between father and son, with the way that his urban, worldly life had a shadow rural life behind it.”

Via 3 Quarks Daily, here is Heaney reading one of his early poems, “Scaffolding”:

And here is the text to “Scaffolding”:

SCAFFOLDING

Masons, when they start upon a building,
Are careful to test out the scaffolding;

Make sure that planks won’t slip at busy points,
Secure all ladders, tighten bolted joints.

And yet all this comes down when the job’s done
Showing off walls of sure and solid stone.

So if, my dear, there sometimes seems to be
Old bridges breaking between you and me

Never fear. We may let the scaffolds fall
Confident that we have built our wall.

Seamus Heaney, 1939-2013. Requiscat in pacem.

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