An Introduction to Seamus Heaney’s Poetry: A time for sorrow and a time for joy

I welcome this opportunity to introduce the poetry of Seamus Heaney to those of you not already familiar with it and to say something about what it has meant to me in my life. I should declare at the start that we attended the same school, St Columb’s College in Derry, Northern Ireland, and that I met him on several occasions. Heaney was born in 1939, and he attended St Columb’s as a boarder between 1951 and 1957. In his final collection of poems, Human Chain (2010), he recalls standing in the hallway of Junior House and watching his parents leave:

Seeing them as a couple, I now see,
For the first time, all the more together

For having had to turn and walk away, as close
In the leaving (or closer) as in the getting.

Before they arrived at St Columb’s, they took Seamus to a shop where they bought him a Conway Stewart fountain pen. He writes about the pen in Human Chain and connects it with being parted from his parents:

Giving us time
To look together and away

From our parting, due that evening

The following day, he would use the pen to write home to his parents. Neither they nor he could have known that this pen would eventually take him to Stockholm in 1995 to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for poems of “lyrical beauty and ethical depth.”

In September 1982, my father dropped me off at the same Junior House door at St Columb’s. I was a day pupil, but still felt the pang of loss which must have been amplified for Heaney, who had never been away from home. The school was run by priests. On my first day, I watched an elderly priest walk slowly around the grounds reciting his breviary. His name was Michael McGlinchey, and he had taught Heaney and inspired him with a lifelong love of Latin. When Heaney died in 2013, his family found a completed manuscript on his desk of a translation of Virgil’s Aeneid VI, where Aeneas is taken into the underworld in search of his dead father. The book was published by Faber & Faber in 2016. In the “Translator’s Note” to the book, Heaney wrote that the translation was “the result of a lifelong desire to honour the memory of my Latin teacher at St Columb’s College, Father Michael McGlinchey.”

During his time at St Columb’s, Heaney’s youngest brother Christopher was knocked down by a car and killed. Heaney recalls the tragedy in one of his earliest poems “Mid-Term Break” (1965), where the final lines still bring a lump to the throat of this writer:

He lay in the four foot box as in his cot.
No gaudy scars, the bumper knocked him clear.

A four foot box, a foot for every year.

It’s possible that this early loss, when Seamus was only fourteen, partly accounted for his deep and lasting interest in Aeneid VI, in the questions of what happens to us after we die and whether we will see our loved ones again. These were foundational questions in Heaney’s early Catholic catechesis, and they remained foundational questions towards the end of his life when he increasingly turned to Virgil. When my own father succumbed to dementia in his final years, and when he was no longer capable of returning my embrace when I hugged him, I turned to Heaney’s translation of Virgil and to these lines in particular:

“Your sad shape would appear, and that kept me going
To this end. My ships are anchored in the Tuscan sea.

Let me take your hand, my father, O let me, and do not
Hold back from my embrace.” And as he spoke he wept.
Three times he tried to reach arms around that neck.
Three times the form, reached for in vain, escaped
Like a breeze between his hands, a dream on wings.

More than any other poet I know, Seamus Heaney can transform the ordinary events of our lives into something resembling the miraculous, without slighting the reality of human loss or what Virgil called the lacrimae rerum, the “tears of things.” In one of his most beautiful poems “Mossbawn: Sunlight” (1973), he celebrates his Aunt Mary, who lived with the family on their farm at Mossbawn. He recalls her baking bread in a “sunlit absence.” The poem has all the rich quality of a Dutch interior; it reminds me of Vermeer’s “The Milkmaid.” Like the milkmaid, Heaney’s aunt stands by the window in a floury apron as she dusts the board “with a goose’s wing.” He concludes the poem:

And here is love
Like a tinsmith’s scoop

Sunk past its gleam
In the meal-bin.

So, a poem that begins in sunlight ends in shadow, with the gleam hidden in the meal bin. As a poem, it might usefully sum up Heaney’s work. His poems are true to the mass and majesty of the world and of our lives in it. We inhabit a chiaroscuro world of light and shade where we experience joy and sadness, where the common denominator is love. Heaney’s poetry celebrates the full range of joys and sorrows that we each experience in the human chain of love. His words put shape on the fleeting moments of our lives and remind us that there is a time for everything—a time for sorrow and a time for joy.

Author: Gary Wade

Gary Wade is an independent academic working on the poetry of Seamus Heaney. He enjoys exploring the interdisciplinary relationship between literature and theology. He writes because it makes his academic interests more widely available to others.

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