‘Noli timere’ – Seamus Heaney’s last words to his wife by text. ‘Don’t be afraid’.
That feels very relevant for me at the moment, as for some reason, I am plagued by feelings of doubt and – perhaps fear is too strong – but certainly anxiety.
It might be because of some minor health issues that have put in an unwelcome appearance, some family changes that I’m finding difficult to adjust to, a very busy summer with no writing done, and of course the imminent launch of ‘The Piano Player’s Son’. Still, rather than wallow in self-pity, I want to use Heaney’s phrase as a springboard to think about what his death – and more significantly life – mean to me.
When I heard that he had died, I felt a sense of loss as if it was the death of someone I knew personally. Perhaps that’s because he has been part of my consciousness for a long, long time. But, as it happens, two others – David Frost and David Jacobs – who have also been part of the backdrop to my life have died this week. I would have expected to feel something similar about them (perhaps even more so with their frequent appearances on television), but no, that personal sense of loss isn’t there.
I can only conclude the difference is in THE POETRY. Reading Heaney’s words has drawn me closer to him.
I taught Heaney’s poetry for A level for a number of years and loved the immersion in his work that was required. I’ve also used poems such as ‘Blackberry Picking’ and ‘Trout’ in creative writing workshops to illustrate the wonderful blending of technique and meaning. He wrote a lot about Ireland, its history, the troubles, the relationship between Catholic and Protestant, and many of those are powerful poems.
However, the ones that remain with me the most are poems about family. The poem ‘Digging’ is often mentioned, but I also love ‘Follower’ which describes his relationship with his father, both when he was a child, and poignantly later, when the roles are reversed, and it’s now his father who stumbles.
The poem ‘Mid-Term Break’ about the death of his little brother is heartbreaking in its starkness. It builds to a final shocking line
A four foot box, a foot for every year.
And poems I’ve found unbearably moving are Heaney’s sonnets ‘Clearances’ about his mother. Every line is one to savour, but I’ll have to content myself with quoting only a few, the first describes sharing the simple chore of peeling potatoes:
When all the others were away at Mass
I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.
They broke the silence, let fall one by one
Like solder weeping off the soldering iron:
And the second describing stretching and pulling sheets with his mother in a way that makes vivid my own memories of doing so:
But when I took my corners of the linen
And pulled against her, first straight down the hem
And then diagonally, then flapped and shook
The fabric like a sail in a cross-wind,
They’d make a dried-out undulating thwack.
Wonderful stuff! Thank you, Seamus Heaney.Tags: Poetry, Seamus Heaney