Seamus Heaney’s death at the age of 74 is both shocking and premature. No part of his poetry seemed finished; no aspect of his work looked to be over. Human Chain, his recent volume, for all the mortal undersong that runs through it, is a book of powerful, vigorous craft, with an energetic sense of memory. It suggested a way forward, not back. It joined themes of childhood with a sense of aging, in a rich, vivid way.
His death brings to a close an exemplary and sometimes unlikely poetic career. He joined the Irish poetic canon from the North of Ireland; he entered the British one from another margin. He commanded with verve and honor a whole range of nuanced responses to the role of the public poet and the political witness.
But maybe what most defines his work for thousands of readers is that he was the lyrical Virgilian guide for a bewildered Irish generation. His words stayed beside them as their island sank into confusion. They followed his seriously crafted poems through the darkness of a civil conflict that seemed to threaten, not just civic stability but the humane purpose of a society. Countless readers inside and outside Ireland who followed poems like “Punishment” and “The Tollund Man”—both of which are close-ups of the violence—found a language that was adequate to its moment.
Seamus Heaney was born in 1939 in his family’s farmhouse, Mossbawn, near Castledawson, a few miles from Lough Neagh. It was a rural landscape and a place of origin: In his own words, “a one-story longish, lowish, thatched and whitewashed house.” In an interview in 2009, his wife Marie said, "It's his paradise," she says. "His Eden. All he's ever wanted to do is go back."
The place names of that region are lovingly braided into his first books Death of a Naturalist and Door into the Dark, published 1966 and 1969 respectively. In the final poem of his second book he writes: “We have no prairies/To slice a big sun at evening—” For that moment, it might have looked as if a meditative, gifted pastoral poet was set to fathom the bleakness and appeal of Irish water landscapes. But the dates are telling. Within months of the publication of his second book, the Irish Troubles had begun. Civic strife, hatred, neighborly violence came to the small circumference of his six counties. They would remain there in one form or another for almost thirty years. There was no exemption for the citizen or the conscientious writer. Seamus Heaney, from being a committed lyric poet, now became a conscripted one.
In person, he was a warm, informal, self-deprecating man, with a gift for reaching out. He had no time for the hubris all too often associated with poets. In an interview he once remarked: "When I was an undergraduate [at Queen's, Belfast], I was in the poetry-aspiring business, and I didn't feel confident.” In fact, he published his first poems under the pseudonym “Incertus.” Maybe because of that old, remembered uncertainty he behaved with a marked kindness and fellow-feeling to the outsider, the shy reader. I remember once in the U.S. meeting a woman—she was not academic—who was writing something about him. I didn’t have a sense it would be published. I wasn’t quite sure what its outcome would be. And yet she told me that Seamus Heaney met her frequently to talk about her work, which meant the world to her. There are countless stories like this.
Beyond this geniality, Heaney tended to a forensic self-awareness that suggested both introspection and self-accusation. He knew he had been hurled into a vortex of history; and he was troubled by the responsibility of the charge. His fine and haunting 1975 volume “North” is most remarkable for shifting the poet’s stance from witness to participant. What makes this volume and his later work on the Troubles so compelling is the subtle portrayal of a moral twilight in which the political poet can end up working, fielding a lack of certainty into a language of engagement. “It is difficult at times to repress the thought that history is about as instructive as an abattoir” he said in his Nobel address. For all that, he persisted in his quest for language and poise, often considering in fine essays the issues of public and political poetry.
Many volumes followed North. Just a few are The Haw Lantern and District and Circle and Seeing Things. Each one of them raised the interesting sight, and sometimes the enigma, of a poet who was immensely popular and yet wrote a signature lyric that could be complex, even dark. There is a small comparison here with Robert Frost. Both poets spoke in a vernacular that was enticing to the reader. Both dealt in the lyric magic of familiar things, extending an open invitation to come into a world that could be recognized and shared. Both were capable of tangling that reader in a depth of perception and awareness that was both fierce and unconsoling.
In 1995, he won the Nobel Prize “for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth.” Contrary to superstition, he continued to write vigorously and well afterward. His Nobel address, “Crediting Poetry,” is certainly one of the best of recent times, with its conversational grief about what had happened in the North together with a powerful re-statement of the necessity of the art. In it, he describes his journey through upheaval: “What I was longing for was not quite stability but an active escape from the quicksand of relativism, a way of crediting poetry without anxiety or apology.”
Seamus Heaney will be immensely missed. In Ireland he anchored a public witness to the life of poetry. Outside Ireland he was widely read and cherished. As well as being the poet that he was, he was also the keeper of a poetic conversation that was rich, challenging and generous. To take his living presence out of that conversation is to feel an enormous loss. But it also seems important to note what isn’t lost. He was a superb witness to the art of poetry. As a practitioner, he was an extraordinarily fine poet, with a far reach into the seen and unseen life of his country, and beyond it. And that cannot be lost.
Eavan Boland is the director of the creative writing program at Stanford University and a member of the Irish Academy of Letters.