I think of Seamus Heaney the same way. He represented something better than we have grown used to. He was, without doubt, as Robert Lowell said, the greatest Irish poet since Yeats. But it’s only partially accurate to describe Heaney as an Irish poet, because while his Irishness informed his work and certainly his identity, he was a citizen and a poet of the world. For all his nationalism, he loved English poets. He loved Keats as much as Yeats. He believed that if countries were run by poets instead of politicians, we’d be much better off. He loved Vaclav Havel, the poet who led the Czechs to freedom, and he really loved Michael Higgins, Ireland’s current president and a poet of some regard himself.
And, it goes without saying, he loved above all his Marie, his wife. Marie and the land were the twin loves of his life, and his ode to Marie managed to evoke both of those loves:
Love, I shall perfect for you the child
Who diligently potters in my brain
Digging with heavy spade till sods were piled
Or puddling through muck in a deep drain.
It was getting close to 7:30 that night in Cambridge 11 years ago. I was checking the clock. Seamus, as the Irish say, couldn’t be arsed. He had a dinner with the Adams House masters, Sean and Judy Palfrey, and I knew there would be hell to pay if I delivered him late. Sean and Judy are pediatricians, working with some of the most vulnerable kids in Boston, and they’re also my pals. I wasn’t going to diss them by keeping their distinguished dinner guest at a bar around the corner all night.
But when I told the great man from Bellaghy it was time to go, he squinted up at the clock, nodded toward Laurence Hopkins, leaned into me and said, in that delicious south Derry sotto voce, “Ach, we’ll have one for the ditch, will we?”
So he was 15 minutes late. We said our farewells outside Adams House.
“God bless you, St. Kevin,” Seamus Heaney said, bowing gallantly, and I laughed because I remembered how often he had mentioned St. Kevin during his Nobel lecture in Stockholm in 1995. Seamus and Marie had lived in County Wicklow, not far from Glendalough, the monastic site where St. Kevin lived in the 7th century.
In his lecture, Seamus recalled the story of St. Kevin kneeling and praying at Glendalough with his arms stretched out in the form of a cross.
“A blackbird mistook his outstretched hand for some kind of roost and swooped down upon it, laid a clutch of eggs in it and proceeded to nest in it as if it were the branch of a tree,” Seamus told the audience in Stockholm. “Then, overcome with pity and constrained by his faith to love the life in all creatures great and small, Kevin stayed immobile for hours and days and nights and weeks, holding out his hand until the eggs hatched and the fledglings grew wings, true to life if subversive of common sense, at the intersection of natural process and the glimpsed ideal, at one and the same time a signpost and a reminder. Manifesting that order of poetry where we can at last grow up to that which we stored up as we grew.”
Seamus Heaney was very much like St. Kevin in that he held out his hands until the eggs that was his verse hatched, grew wings and flew away, all over the world. He dared to leave the bog. He made words a weapon of wonder and tolerance. He walked on air against his better judgment.