Seamus Heaney (1939-2013) in the ‘Republic of Conscience’

The Beautiful Irish Woman, 1866, by Gustave Courbet
The Beautiful Irish Woman, 1866, by Gustave Courbet

Seamus Heaney,74,  one of the greatest living poets writing in the “English” language, died today at a clinic in Ireland.

Robert Lowell called Heaney “the most important Irish poet since Yeats.” Lowell didn’t live to see the full grandeur of Heaney’s accomplishments.

I’m in a bit of shock at the news.

The night I heard Seamus Heaney read his poetry at the Kennedy Center was one of the highlights of my literary life.

Most memorably he read from his own translation of Brian Merriman’s “The Midnight Court,” in which the women of Ireland put the men on trial:

‘Get up,’ she said, ‘and on your feet!’
What do you think gives you the right
To shun the crowds and the sitting court?
A court of justice, truly founded,
And not the usual, rigged charade,
But a fair and clement court of women
of the gentlest stock and regimen.
The Irish race should be grateful always
For such a bench, agreed and wise,
In session now two days and a night,
In the spacious fort on Graney Heights …

… Blame arrogant kings, blame emigration,
But it’s you and your spunkless generation–
Your a source blocked off that won’t refill.
You have failed your women, one and all.

I’ve taught Heaney’s poem “Station Island” as part of prayer and poetry retreats. I’ve written essays comparing “Station Island” with Neruda’s “The Heights of Macchu Piccu.” I’ve listened to audio of Heaney reading and lecturing simply to luxuriate in his language.

How can that singular voice be stilled? Who will answer now when I call out in the “republic of conscience”? There will be quite a céilí tonight in the celestial courts!

From The Irish Times:

Taoiseach Enda Kenny has said the death of Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney today has brought a “great sorrow to Ireland” and only the poet himself could describe the depth of his loss to the nation.

Mr Kenny said: “For us, Seamus Heaney was the keeper of language, our codes, our essence as a people”.
Heaney died this morning at the Blackrock Clinic aged 74 after a short illness.

He was admitted to the clinic for a procedure but died prior to the operation.

President Michael D Higgins said Heaney’s contribution “to the republics of letters, conscience, and humanity was immense”.

“As tributes flow in from around the world, as people recall the extraordinary occasions of the readings and the lectures, we in Ireland will once again get a sense of the depth and range of the contribution of Seamus Heaney to our contemporary world, but what those of us who have had the privilege of his friendship and presence will miss is the extraordinary depth and warmth of his personality,” he said.

Mr Higgins, himself a published poet, described Heaney as warm, humourous, caring and courteous.
“A courtesy that enabled him to carry with such wry Northern Irish dignity so many well-deserved honours from all over the world,” he said.

“Generations of Irish people will have been familiar with Seamus’ poems. Scholars all over the world will have gained from the depth of the critical essays, and so many rights organisations will want to thank him for all the solidarity he gave to the struggles within the republic of conscience.” …

Read the rest here.

Poet Theo Dorgan, whom I had the pleasure of meeting in Ireland at a poetry workshop several years ago, said:

Seamus Heaney would react in “half embarrassment” at being compared to the great Irish writers such as W.B Yeats, James Joyce and Oscar Wilde, but “he deserved it. He is there.” He was also a very loved poet and people “just beamed” in his presence. He had, more than any other poet he met, “genuine humility. He knew his gift was just that, a gift”. He was a supportive writer who offered “solidarity and companionship” to others aspiring to be poets, Dorgan said.

More on Seamus Heaney:

Obituary: Heaney ‘the most important Irish poet since Yeats’

Seamus Heaney, poet, dies aged 74

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