An­drew O’Ha­gan re­mem­bers Sea­mus Heaney

Scot­tish writer An­drew O’Ha­gan re­mem­bers his friend Sea­mus Heaney, the No­bel prize-win­ning Ir­ish poet who died on Au­gust 30, aged 74

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - © Guardian News & Me­dia

HE was sim­ply a source of grace, a bless­ing, and you al­ways knew he was on your side. I was lucky to know those qual­i­ties and see them cap­tured in a sin­gle name: Sea­mus. What is it about some peo­ple that they seem to carry a kind of moral glad­ness with them?

Not that they are al­ways good or al­ways right, but that they hold out the pos­si­bil­ity of a bet­ter self­hood for ev­ery­body. In the days since he died, I’ve been feel­ing sore in the heart, be­cause a light has gone out, a re­li­able com­fort. More than that: a ge­nius with a sub­lime hu­man touch is now be­yond reach. I re­call the story of the lit­tle boy who watched as Robert Burns’s fu­neral cortege passed through the town of Dum­fries. ‘‘ But who will be our poet now?’’ he said to his mother.

Two decades ago, when I worked at the Lon­don Re­view of Books, the edi­tor, Karl Miller, would ask me to get peo­ple on the phone. Late one af­ter­noon, when the pa­per was be­ing put to bed, he had his nose about two inches from the page, a gal­ley of Sea­mus’s poem in trib­ute to Hugh MacDiarmid.

‘‘ Sea­mus, I’m very grate­ful to you,’’ said the edi­tor to the poet down the line. ‘‘ The prob­lem is this. We’re de­lighted with the poem, but there’s a mis­take in it.’’

(‘‘A mis­take?’’ I imag­ined Sea­mus say­ing. ‘‘ We can’t have mis­takes in the Lon­don Re­view of Books.’’)

‘‘ The thing is, you have this thing about MacDiarmid’s ‘ chat­ter­ing ge­nius’. That’s wrong. I’m from Scot­land my­self. You once said sheep chat­ter. And I can tell you Scot­tish sheep don’t chat­ter, Sea­mus, they blether. Surely you mean MacDiarmid’s ‘ blether­ing ge­nius’?’’

In more re­cent years, the three of us started go­ing on jaunts to­gether. Sea­mus was recog­nised every­where, and peo­ple felt he might have made their day or changed their life. (It was part of his good na­ture that each claim seemed to have the same weight with him.)

Three years ago, I went with him to the Univer­sity of Strath­clyde so that he could re­ceive an hon­orary doc­tor­ate. His wife Marie and I thought he wasn’t look­ing well and, in­deed, he suf­fered a mi­nor stroke be­fore the event and was taken to the Glas­gow Royal In­fir­mary. Be­fore the am­bu­lance doors closed, he gave me his speech and told me to read it out. ‘‘ They’ll be wait­ing,’’ he said. ‘‘ I know you’ll do some credit to the words.’’

BE­ING WITH HIM, I FELT ABLE TO GIVE EV­ERY­THING ITS DUE

When the cer­e­mony was over and I turned up at the hos­pi­tal, he was sit­ting up in bed, jok­ing with Marie, while the young doc­tor spoke to him about how much he loved his poem The Skunk.

My fa­ther had died at the be­gin­ning of that week. ‘‘ No mat­ter what hap­pens,’’ he had said to me, ‘‘ make sure you go and do that thing with Sea­mus. He’s been good to you and he’s a lovely man.’’

When I got back to In­ver­ness, I read a poem of Sea­mus’s at my fa­ther’s fu­neral and dropped the poem into his grave. My fa­ther’s an­ces­tors had come to Scot­land from Magher­afelt — a few miles from where Sea­mus grew up — and it felt proper to let the po­etry of the old coun­try go with him into the stony ground. I knew both men would ap­pre­ci­ate it, al­low­ing neigh­bour­ing voices to bridge the day, and it gave me com­fort to know that all ap­point­ments had been met.

Mem­ory was ev­ery­thing to Sea­mus. The mem­ory of his fa­ther dig­ging in the yard. The mem­ory of peel­ing pota­toes with his mother, or once notic­ing the glad eye of the coal­man. He had a mind to Ire­land’s mem­ory, the sea­sonal re­turn of faith and pos­si­bil­ity, the fall­ing away and the com­ing back of things. He cared for this the way other peo­ple care about pol­i­tics. He wanted to of­fer value to a no­tion of ex­is­tence be­yond the bounds of sense, and that is where his lan­guage led him, to the power of won­der and mir­a­cles in daily life.

Great is the friend whose one small shove can put you on the up­swing. Be­ing with him, I al­ways felt able to give ev­ery­thing its due. His was a steadi­ness that be­friended the per­son you wanted to be.

In Ayr­shire, I once walked with him in a gar­den next to the town where I grew up. We took our drinks over the grass, and I showed him a gap in the trees re­veal­ing Ailsa Craig, the rock that stands in the sea be­tween Ire­land and Scot­land. Later on, at the birth­place of Burns, we looked in on a mul­ti­me­dia ex­hi­bi­tion called The Tam O’Shanter Ex­pe­ri­ence.

‘‘ Soon there’ll be the Sea­mus Heaney Ex­pe­ri­ence,’’ said Karl.

‘‘ That’s right,’’ said Sea­mus. ‘‘ It’ll be a few churns and a con­fes­sional box.’’

I asked Sea­mus how the folk around where he grew up re­acted to him be­ing awarded the No­bel Prize in Lit­er­a­ture. ‘‘ Ig­nored it for the most part, I’m sure,’’ he said. ‘‘ But yes, af­ter the Stock­holm In­ter­ven­tion, a cer­tain Jackie Gra­ham of the lo­cal gro­cery shop in Bel­laghy wanted to open a Heaney mu­seum. ‘ It’ll be good for you and good for us,’ he said.’’ Sea­mus didn’t stand in his way and made sure some manuscripts and posters were put into the fel­low’s hands.

We drove on and went into the old church at Et­trick, and Sea­mus climbed up to the pul­pit. He be­gan quot­ing Thomas Hardy’s The Dark­ling Thrush. He spoke of a visit he and Marie made to Stins­ford church­yard in Dorset, where Hardy’s heart is buried, at Hog­manay in 2000.

‘‘ It’s so quiet in here,’’ I said. And the poet’s voice rose up and seemed to res­cue the beams from their own damp­ness. ‘‘ That’s a warm voice, Sea­mus,’’ I said. ‘‘ Well,’’ he replied, ‘‘ the long day wanes, as the mas­ter said.’’

The great­est of our trips was the one to the west of Ire­land. We stopped for lunch at a favourite place of Sea­mus’s called Mo­ran’s. It spe­cialises in oys­ters, and they gave us a ta­ble to our­selves in the snug. There was a nice bot­tle of Al­sace and we all three had chow­der. Sea­mus once wrote a poem af­ter com­ing here, called Oys­ters:

We had driven to that coast Through flow­ers and lime­stone And there we were, toast­ing friend­ship, Lay­ing down a per­fect mem­ory In the cool of thatch and crock­ery.

Lay­ing down a per­fect mem­ory. That was it, wasn’t it? That was the thing, and I knew it at the time. In the main room of Yeats’s tower at Bal­lylee, with the stream be­low and the light com­ing at the green-framed win­dow, I looked at Sea­mus and Karl and sud­denly had a vi­sion of a time when none of us would be alive.

Yeats wrote about such a feel­ing in his poem In Mem­ory of Ma­jor Robert Gre­gory: Now that we’re al­most set­tled in our house I’ll name the friends that can­not sup with

us . . . . . . Or mere com­pan­ions of my youth, All, all in my thoughts tonight be­ing dead.

We went to the Aran Is­lands. As we left the boat at Inisheer, I could hear peo­ple whis­per­ing Sea­mus’s name, and he was very good with that, say­ing hello to peo­ple. The is­land was so serene and filled with lit­er­ary echoes. We climbed into a pony and trap at the pier and were soon off round the is­land. The man driv­ing the ve­hi­cle was the very pic­ture of ro­bust out­door health, and Sea­mus took plea­sure, he said, in the way the fel­low ‘‘ lazily whipped’’ the pony ev­ery few sec­onds.

‘‘ You’re the fa­mous poet,’’ he said. He clearly thought Sea­mus was a coun­try man who had made it into the uni­verse of elec­tric­ity and tele­vi­sion.

The next day, back in Dublin, Sea­mus took us over to St Pa­trick’s Cathe­dral, and we stood be­fore Swift’s grave, read­ing Yeats’s trib­ute, then Pope’s. I went round the cor­ner from there and saw a plaque on the wall to Swift’s ser­vant — put there, ap­par­ently, by Swift him­self. I thought this was very cheer­fully demo­cratic and said so to Sea­mus as we stood in the cathe­dral’s main aisle.

‘‘ Dili­gence and pru­dence,’’ said Sea­mus. ‘‘ Well played, that man.’’

Three win­ters passed be­fore we got an­other jour­ney to­gether. We’d been think­ing about Wales for some time and set out at the start of the sum­mer in 2010. Sea­mus agreed that we should pick him up at a ho­tel near Birm­ing­ham air­port. By the Bick­en­hill Park­way, Sea­mus was stand­ing out­side his ho­tel next to a fire engine as the en­tire hu­man contents of the build­ing were evac­u­ated in a drill. Sea­mus was star­ing into space. ‘‘ Look,’’ said Karl,

‘‘ the Great Bu­colic Con­tem­plates Life Among the Ring Roads.’’

The land­scape at the Welsh bor­der was green and sil­very and not short of mag­nif­i­cent, the hills ris­ing from nowhere. Wordsworth saw a model of im­mor­tal­ity in the hills.

‘‘ With­out the con­scious­ness of a prin­ci­ple of im­mor­tal­ity in the hu­man soul,’’ he writes in his Es­say Upon Epitaphs, ‘‘ man could never have had awak­ened in him the de­sire to live in the re­mem­brance of his fel­lows . . . To be born and to die are the two points in which all men feel them­selves to be in ab­so­lute co­in­ci­dence.’’

The grave of the poet Henry Vaughan can be found on a hill next to the River Usk. He lies in the grave­yard of Llansantf­fraed Church, where there are trees on ev­ery side, the trees ad­vanc­ing like Bir­nam Wood. There are words, of course, on all the graves, but more than that there are words in the air: They are all gone into the world of light! And I alone sit ling’ring here; Their very mem­ory is fair and bright, And my sad thoughts doth clear.

Vaughan’s grave is un­der a gi­ant yew tree. It is stained with moss and lichens, its Latin phrases shaded. There’s no ob­vi­ous path up from the road, so we climbed through the grass and found the grave look­ing not ob­scure but un­vis­ited. There’s a bench to one side, with a bank of very old grave­stones — some as old as Vaughan’s (1695) — now at­tached to the wall for their preser­va­tion.

I took pic­tures while Karl and Sea­mus sat on a bench and ar­gued about the Latin on Vaughan’s grave. The epi­taph speaks of max­i­mum sin and an eter­nity of sup­pli­ca­tion be­fore God. Sea­mus later wrote a poem where he re­ferred to me as ‘‘ ar­dent An­drew’’ and pic­tured him and Karl on ‘‘ the mossy seat’’.

‘‘ Well, here’s Vaughan,’’ said Karl. ‘‘ A be­liever. It’s hard to think of you, Sea­mus, with­out be­lief. I find it hard not to be­lieve you be­lieve.’’

‘‘ I stopped prac­tis­ing a long time ago,’’ said Sea­mus, ‘‘ but some of it holds. If you have it as a child, it gives you a struc­ture of con­scious­ness the idea there is some­thing more.’’

‘‘ I prob­a­bly wouldn’t go that far,’’ said Karl. ‘‘ But I have to say: I al­ways be­lieved I would see my granny again. She was good to me.’’

‘‘ For me, it was my fa­ther,’’ said Sea­mus. ‘‘ I’d hope to see him again all right.’’ We stayed there for a while and Sea­mus spoke about TS Eliot and his Four Quar­tets. In all our gadding about, there had been many ver­sions of pas­toral and an easy dal­liance of time past and time present, but I sensed that, for Sea­mus at least, it wasn’t like Eliot’s rose gar­den up here. It was just a place where you could rest your bones, take a breath. And that’s what we did that day as the world of light came into the trees.

18 18 Sea­mus Heaney

An­drew O’ Ha­gan with Sea­mus Heaney; fac­ing page, Heaney af­ter re­ceiv­ing the No­bel Prize in Lit­er­a­ture from King Carl XVI Gustaf in Stock­holm in 1995

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