Seamus Heaney – An Appreciation
On 30th August 2013 the news broke that Seamus Heaney had died in a Dublin hospital, following a short illness. A measure of the legacy left by the poet’s life and work was given by the widespread sense of sadness across cultures and continents that a man of greatness and forceful intellect had passed away.
Like many people, Heaney’s work means a great deal to me. I can still remember our English teacher, Mr Martin, reading the poem ‘Digging’ to us in our 3rd Form English class, and feeling spellbound by the mastery and economy with which the poet was able to capture his personal experiences, as well as universal truths, through simple imagery. From that day Heaney’s work has held a fascination for me: his astonishing ability to portray a sense of national consciousness through the most mundane of objects or landscapes, and the deep earthiness and rootedness that his language could evoke.
Many of Heaney’s lines achieve that rarest of feats: allowing one to frame and phrase one’s own experiences and feelings which were previously unexpressed. Perhaps in common with James Joyce, Heaney could in very few words communicate big and deeply felt concepts in fresh ways which felt well worn. He could describe his experiences of grief as an adolescent – ‘I shouldered a kind of manhood, stepping in to lift the coffins of dead relations’ – characterise his native bogland – ‘We have no prairies to slice a big sun at evening’ – or simply delight in describing nature with words that held the weight of his subject – ‘the warm thick slobber of frogspawn that grew like clotted water in the shade of the banks’.
With the publication of Beowulf in 1999 I had opportunity to secure a signed first edition and to hear the poet read selections from his new translation at the Queens Festival in Belfast. Here Heaney was at his best, combining a fluent engagement with an Old English text, with a certain down-to-earth normality and honesty. Listening to him to talk about the task of writing was like having a conversation with a neighbour across the back garden fence – but a neighbour who just happened to be a man of massive learning and erudition.
So much for the literary merit of Seamus Heaney, but for a Christian, what lessons are there to be learned from his life and work? A few spring immediately to mind.
Firstly, Heaney’s approach to life and learning holds great application for those who are called to preach. As a poet he excelled in bringing the big philosophical concepts with which he was preoccupied into conversation with the ordinary objects, landscapes and experiences that made up his world. This gave his work a sense of depth and approachability, of culture and candour, which managed to avoid the verges of over-simplification or blinding sophistication. For the preacher this is surely instructive, speaking to us of the possibility of reading, studying and thinking deeply about the big themes and issues of Scripture and theology, whilst aspiring to present them in plain, clear terms which our hearers can understand and apply. Learning need not be dry in presentation, nor need clarity be light in content.
Secondly, Heaney’s work can be viewed as a pointer to the grace of God in making us rational creatures who love beauty. Particularly in his pastoral pieces Heaney could compose a picture with words which carried a sense of realism and dimension, engaging more than the mind of the reader. Our world is undoubtedly broken, but literature is one of the things which God has given us to enjoy, and in that very enjoyment we glimpse something of the greatness of a God who grants us sensation beyond mere sense. The best of secular writing, in other words, satisfies us intellectually and conceptually, but also highlights our hunger spiritually for something more than bare fact or mere fiction. We are predisposed to love those things which point us to the majesty of a Creator who could make us so fearfully, and furnish us so generously with creativity and an aesthetic sense.
Thirdly, Heaney’s work stands as a monument to, and a warning against, a delight in literature, nature, and culture which makes little of the Creator. For all of the sophistication of his thinking, and the keenness of his observations, the poet’s work is singularly lacking in explicit reference to (or wrestling with) God and faith. The body of his work is rich in reference to the religious-political divide in Northern Ireland, but the deeper issues of God and faith, of belief and rejection, are not given sustained thought or treatment. This reluctance might be owing in part to Heaney’s sense that many of the religious labels that were applied during his generation in Northern Ireland were more political or tribal than spiritual. But it is still a glaring omission in his work that the world and the soil which so entranced him, bear so little of the imprint of God.
Professing himself to be ‘woefully inarticulate’ about matters of faith, Heaney nevertheless gave some account of where he stood with God in an unpublished poem describing his experiences of Communion in childhood:
There was never a scene
When I had it out with myself or with another.
The loss of faith occurred off stage.
One can only find it sad that a man who so easily recognised the significance of things never made the connection between his world and its Creator, nor gave voice or vantage point to thinking through the big issues of the human heart in relation to God or eternity.
Tellingly, the final words attributed to Heaney came in the form of a text message sent to his wife Marie from his deathbed. He wrote ‘noli timere’, ‘don’t be afraid’ in the minutes before his passing – a phrase which is distinctly biblical and haunting. For all of the depth and dimension of the world his words could weave, it is sad that his final sentiments carried so little apparent weight with regard to the issues of life beyond the grave.
We have much to be thankful for, and there is much that is salutary, in the work of Seamus Heaney. It behoves us to appreciate the tremendous worth of his poetry, whilst with the writer of Ecclesiastes feeling the sadness of a world of pointless beauty, and vivid vanity in the absence of God our Creator.
Andrew Roycroft is pastor of Millisle Baptist Church, Northern Ireland.
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