The Poet of Work and Delight
Nobel Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney, in the view of one critic, has succeeded because "his sense of responsibility extends to pleasure itself."
The source: “Seamus Heaney, Digging With the Pen” by Adam Kirsch, in Harvard Magazine, Nov.–Dec. 2006.
Seamus Heaney, born the eldest of nine children on a 50-acre farm in Northern Ireland, would seem an unlikely candidate for preeminent poet of his generation. Just a partial list of his accomplishments bears witness: author of 11 volumes of poetry, translator of an edition of Beowulf that became a bestseller, and, in 1995, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Through it all, says Adam Kirsch, Heaney has stayed true to the promise he announced in “Digging,” the initial poem in his first published volume, Death of a Naturalist (1966). Moving from admiration for his father’s and grandfather’s connection to the soil (“By God, the old man could handle a spade,/Just like his old man.”), Heaney proclaims his commitment to them in the same breath as his determination to chart his own course:
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.
Yet Kirsch, author of The Wounded Surgeon: Confession and Transformation in Six American Poets (2005), warns us not to take Heaney’s commitment to heritage or obligation as a sign that he is a chronicler or “merely a didactic, moralizing poet.” Heaney is ever conscious of being “a Catholic native of Northern Ireland . . . born into one of the most intransigent ethnic and religious conflicts in the world.” That identity renders his rural Ulster “not a pastoral idyll but the theater of wrenching moral dramas.” In one of Heaney’s most personal renderings of the sectarian violence, “Casualty,” from Field Work (1979), he relates his frustration as a bystander, when the Troubles claim a man he fished with, a drunkard, says Kirsch, “who was killed by his fellow Catholics when he violated an IRA curfew to go out to a bar”:
How culpable was he
That last night when he broke
Our tribe’s complicity?
“Now you’re supposed to be
An educated man,”
I hear him say. “Puzzle me
The right answer to that one.”
But with the publication of Station Island (1984), Heaney announced a new direction:
Let go, let fly, forget.
You’ve listened long enough. Now strike
This was “not an abdication of Heaney’s earlier moral concerns in favor of some pure aestheticism,” Kirsch argues, but more a “turn from the local and political to the spiritual and universal.” Now 67, Heaney has just published District and Circle, in which he seems, says Kirsch, “increasingly occupied with last things.” In “Quitting Time,” we catch a glimpse not just of the connection between poetry and physical labor but also, perhaps, a “portrait of an aging farmer as a veiled self-portrait”:
a home-based man at home
In the end with little. Except this same
Night after nightness, redding up the work,
The song of a tubular steel gate in the dark
As he pulls it to and starts his uphill trek.
The great poets all feel a sense of responsibility to something greater than themselves, says Kirsch, “speaking truthfully, bearing witness, offering sympathy; or to an aesthetic ideal—the radiance of beauty, the genius of language.” In his view, what elevates Heaney to greatness is “that his sense of responsibility extends to pleasure itself. The poet, he knows, must delight and instruct; and without the delight, the instruction is worse than useless.”