MPT FEATURE

On Seamus Heaney

2013 Number 3 - Secret Agents of Sense

...the living word continues, aiding somebody else, many people else, still among the living, to see. And not just see.

It is usual to say, truthfully and consolingly, after the death of a poet that the work lives on and will continue to do good. However personal its origins, a poem is always also for somebody else, for strangers, for the not-yet-born. Still a man as loved as Seamus Heaney, dying, he leaves a great gap.

Pretty soon in the sadness after his death I remembered very vividly his reading and commenting on Thomas Hardy’s ‘Afterwards’ in the first of his lectures as Oxford Professor of Poetry. He had the amused and appreciative look of the poet who knows, admires and loves what a fellow-practitioner is up to. Heaney’s reading of that poem then would serve as a large epitaph for him now. Here is the opening stanza:

     When the Present has latched its postern behind my tremulous stay,
            And the May month flaps its glad green leaves like wings,
     Delicate-filmed as new-spun silk, will the neighbours say,
            ‘He was a man who used to notice such things?’

Three of the four stanzas that make up the rest of the poemend in a variation of that last line: ‘To him this must have been a familiar sight’; ‘He was one who had an eye for such mysteries’; ‘He hears it not now, but used to notice such things’. Heaney’s point, and why he smiled so knowingly, was that the noticing of ‘such things’ is, in the poem, credited to the neighbours. The things are what anyone might see, they are there to be looked at in everyday life. But they appear in language like this:

     If it be in the dusk when, like an eyelid’s soundless blink,
            The dewfall-hawk comes crossing the shades to alight
     Upon the wind-warped upland thorn...

That is to say, common phenomena appear as marvels.

In that lecture Heaney developed the insight in a way which, tomy thinking now, gives poems and the real world less than their due. He posits a frontier between everyday life and poetry, as between the ordinary and the marvellous, and a language usual or appropriateto each. I don’t quite think that. I should rather say, That is what the everyday is really like, poetry does not transfigure it, poetry quickens us into the truth of it, into how it truly looks when we have eyes to see. Heaney and Hardy saw things thus marvellously and the words to say it rose in them out of the things thus seen. So, alas, a way of seeing does go out of the world when such poets die. But the living word continues, aiding somebody else, many people else, still among the living, to see. And not just see. The ‘seeing’ in poetry (since mostly we read in the absence of the things seen) is a thorough quickening of all five senses and of that sixth sense, the imagination, too. As here (from the eighth of the ‘Glanmore Sonnets’):

          Thunderlight on the split logs: big raindrops
          At body heat and lush with omen 
          Spattering dark on the hatchet iron.

Or here (the famous last stanza of ‘The Skunk’):

          It all came back to me last night, stirred
          By the sootfall of your things at bedtime,
          Your head-down, tail-up hunt in a bottom drawer
          For the black plunge-line nightdress.

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