DEATH OF A NATURALIST.
In the great literary tradition of the island of Ireland, Heaney, who has died at the age of 74, was distinctive. One reason was his immunity to the quasi-mystical claims of national identity that have caused much destruction in modern times. His was a voice of sense as well as sensibility, which produced some of the finest poetry of the past century.
Heaney's first volume of poems, Death of a Naturalist, was published in 1966. As the eldest son of a farmer, he had been set to inherit this family vocation and his earliest work was a lyrical evocation of rural life.
The soil and the earth were continual images in his work, which garnered numerous awards and sold by the tens of thousands. "Between my finger and my thumb," he wrote, "The squat pen rest./ I'll dig with it."
What critics consider to have been Heaney's literary breakthrough was his applying this metaphor of the natural world to the history of Ireland.
In Bogland (1969), he invoked the metaphor of the well-preserved bodies of people from the Iron Age, found in peat bogs in Ireland and Denmark. Imagining them to have been the victims of ritual sacrifice, Heaney linked the landscape of Ireland to more recent violent events.
Though Heaney lived in Ireland from 1972, he was a Catholic from northern Ireland, who knew what it was to be part of a minority in a highly stratified society. A poetry devoted to things as they are was bound to be informed by the tragedies that afflicted Northern Ireland after 1969. While never allowing himself to be seen as political spokesman for any side, Heaney wrote explicitly about the Troubles and powerfully of the pity and folly of war. The sacrificial victims of the ancient past had their counterpart in the slaughter of innocents in the modern age.
His volume North, published in 1975, may be his finest work. It includes a poem whose mordantly ironic title itself became a proverb in the conflict" Whatever You Say Say Nothing.
Heaney was a poet about politics with an appreciation of its limits. In Station Island, published in 1984, he imagines encounters with figures of the past, including James Joyce. This fictional Joyce says to the poet, against those who are demanding literature in the service of propaganda: "You lose more of yourself than you redeem/doing the decent thing. Keep at a tangent. When they make the circle wide, it's time to swim..."
Heaney kept at a tangent and was ever suspicious of the ideological certainties promoted by partisans of all sides in Ireland's conflict. He was concerned with the lives of those underneath the surface events. He was in that respect different from a great Irish poet who had been awarded the Nobel Prize 70 years before.
W B Yeats insisted that "the mystical life is the centre of all that I do and all that I think and all that I write." It was perhaps that stress on things unseen that enabled him to espouse a romantic nationalism of blood and sacrifice, exemplified in his play Cathleen ni Houlihan. Heaney was a poet to be spoken of in the same breath, whose talent was devoted to wiser things in the most evocative of language.
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