Professor Kevin Whelan | Sept. 2, 2013 | Keough-Naughton Notre Dame Centre
Today I want to remember Seamus the poet rather than Seamus the friend. Seamus always regarded his poetic talent as a gift: something given to him, something that expressed itself and breathed through him [the original meaning of inspiration].
Peter Fallon read his poem 'The Given Note' at his funeral Mass today- perfectly chosen because it expresses that sense of inspiration as as not being your own, while you still must be open to it, and have the technical skills to master it. That sense of the gift kept Seamus grounded and grateful, because he never claimed his supernal talents as his own. Like any great artist, Seamus had an inner eye as well as an outer one, and saw with absolute clarity back into the core [Latin cor /heart] of what it means to be human. I never met anyone with a finer recall of what it felt like to be in a particular time and place: has there ever been a better poet of childhood?
But if Seamus himself was always modest about his gifts, that doesn't mean we have to be. He had a way with words that only the greatest can command. Seamus's own favourite poem was the wonderful one on Clonmacnoise from the ‘Squarings’ sequence in Seeing Things (1991), of which he himself said:
I [am] devoted to this poem because the crewman who appears is situated where every poet should be situated: between the ground of everyday experience and the airier realm of an imagined world. And the essential thing – whether you are the poet or the crewman – is to be able to move resourcefully between these two realms, not to get yourself bogged down in the quotidian, yet not to lose your head in the fantastic.
When I think of Seamus, I think of sprezzatura: an Italian word originating in Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier, where it is defined as ‘a certain nonchalance, so as to conceal all art and make whatever one does or says appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it’. It is the ability of the courtier to display ‘an easy facility in accomplishing difficult actions which hides the conscious effort that went into them’. That's a good way of describing Seamus's gift.
A cliché of Heaney criticism would be to divide his poetry into two phases: an earlier one of bog and body, a later one of air and spirit, a movement from gravity to grace. What is less observed is that a third phase emerged in the superb efflorescence of magnificent poems in the late Heaney: ‘District and Circle’, ‘The Blackbird of Glanmore’, ‘The Tollund Man in Springtime’ and ‘Miracle’ . These poems are no longer about body or spirit as a binary but about the catalytic relationship between them, about the constant movement, between time and eternity, between the past and the present, between the represented and the representation, between history and memory, between filiation and affliliation. Seamus made all these things alive in each other through the sheer power of his representation. Representation, the only mode of cognition for writers, is not secondary - representation for a poet is always the primary act of self-consciousness, not a belated second-best thing that occurs in the aftermath of what we call ‘living’.
For me, these poems, situated between the life and the writing of the life, are among the greatest that we have in the English language, and I am confident that they will remain part of the imaginative inheritance of the world as long as people read poetry.
They entitle Seamus to be ranked where he would want to be ranked: with Wordsworth, Dante, Virgil and the classic masters of language as the supreme human talent.
Seamus's very last act was to text his wife Marie a brief two words; noli tangere— be not afraid. Virgil's words well up: sunt lacrimae rerum et mens mortalia tangunt'. The death of a great poet reminds us certainly of the tears at the heart of things, because the limit of life is always edged by death. I will miss the poems he can no longer write just as I will miss his friendly presence in my life- two gifts which he freely gave to me and to so many others, and for which we can only be grateful.
- Kevin Whelan, The Smurfit Director of the Keough-Naughton Notre Dame Study Centre, Ireland
Read more: Father Jenkins pays tribute to Seamus Heaney