The Poet of Work and Delight

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."

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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

your ­note.

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.”

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