Seamus Heaney passed away earlier today. Social media is, rightly so, alight with recollections of his great work. While remembering his poetic brilliance comes easy, we should also remember that, in difficult times, Heaney refused to be captured as a propaganda tool. In “Flight Path” he remembers being accosted by Danny Morrison during the hunger strikes and his reply:
… ‘For fuck’s sake are you going to write Something for us?’ If I do write something, Whatever it is, I’ll be writing for myself.
My favorite poem of his is “Summer 1969” referring to the outbreak of the Troubles while Heaney was living in Madrid. In the first verse images of violence and heat personify the oppressive knowledge of what was going on back home. In the second verse, he’s asked, “‘Go back,’ one said, ‘try to touch the people.’ “, to be that national rather than universal poet, but instead:
I retreated to the cool of the Prado.
Goya’s ‘Shootings of the Third of May’
Covered a wall—the thrown-up arms
And spasm of the rebel, the helmeted
And knapsacked military, the efficient
Rake of the fusillade. In the next room,
His nightmares, grafted to the palace wall—
Dark cyclones, hosting, breaking; Saturn
Jewelled in the blood of his own children,
Gigantic Chaos turning his brute hips
Over the world. Also, that holmgang
Where two berserks club each other to death
For honour’s sake, greaved in a bog, and sinking.
He painted with his fists and elbows, flourished
The stained cape of his heart as history charged.
I’ve found no image that describes the the Troubles better than “that holmgang / were two berserks club each other to death / For honour’s sake, greaved in a bog, and sinking.”
A universal poet, who, when he spoke of our pain, dispelled us of any notion of its specialness and set looking for answers among the tragedy of all European literature.
Here’s to Seamus Heaney, a great and good man.