Seamus Heaney

by Maria on August 30, 2013

Seamus Heaney has died. He once said that poetry doesn’t change things, but can alter how we think and feel about them. He was a poet of all of Ireland, and a man who lived and spoke for our kindest and least sentimental selves.

In the days before everyone had Internet, I was working for a tv production company called Hummingbird. One day I was tracking down the source of an obscure couplet of Irish poetry. My boss, Philip King, handed me a phone number and said ‘Call Seamus Heaney. He’ll know it’. Heaney had only won the Nobel a few months before. I called, embarrassed to be troubling a Great Man. He picked up after a few rings, patiently listened while I recited the lines, thought for a moment and gave the answer. I wish I could remember who the poet was. Heaney was warm and generous that day, just as he was a few years later when my sister Nickie approached him, similarly starstruck, in Waterstones on Dawson Street.

All my books are in storage so I can’t find the poem I want. It’s about washing up after Sunday lunch, and reading it always brings me back to our old family home in Cashel. Everyone talks about writers finding the universal in the particular, but Heaney did it better than most. Anyway, here’s this:

Now it’s high watermark
and floodtide in the heart
and time to go.
The sea-nymphs in the spray
will be the chorus now.
What’s left to say?

Suspect too much sweet-talk
but never close your mind.
It was a fortunate wind
that blew me here. I leave
half-ready to believe
that a crippled trust might walk

and the half-true rhyme is love.



Niall McAuley 08.30.13 at 11:20 am



Jim Buck 08.30.13 at 1:07 pm

Did not Seamus Heaney win a prize for something or other?


Jonathan Goodman 08.30.13 at 1:28 pm

I love his translation of Beowulf. Can anyone suggest other poems of his that a speaker of American Standard English might follow. The ones I’ve tried have too much Irish for me to understand them. Thanks.


calling all toasters 08.30.13 at 3:27 pm

There is a sunlight absence today.


calling all toasters 08.30.13 at 3:29 pm

..a sunlit absence, dammitall


Bob 08.30.13 at 6:16 pm

Sunday Morning– Wallace Stevens?


Agog 08.30.13 at 6:40 pm

I go back to ‘Death of a Naturalist’, and raise a glass.


Tom Slee 08.30.13 at 6:46 pm

I have long felt that I have missed out on poetry, and have recently been trying to correct. So I can’t say much about Heaney save that I did enjoy Beowulf, but recommendations (and, if possible, what you like about them) by those who know him better would be appreciated.


Agog 08.30.13 at 7:00 pm

It ends with ‘Personal Helicon’, recalling a childish fascination with “wells and old pumps with windlasses.”

The final stanza:

“Now, to pry into roots, to finger slime,
To stare, big-eyed Narcissus, into some spring
Is beneath all adult dignity. I rhyme
To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.”

Here’s to echoes.


js. 08.30.13 at 7:01 pm

I also know rather little about poetry, but this is a Heaney poem that I think is pretty wonderful:


Masons, when they start upon a building,
Are careful to test out the scaffolding;

Make sure that planks won’t slip at busy points,
Secure all ladders, tighten bolted joints,

And yet all this comes down when the job’s done,
Showing off walls of sure and solid stone.

So if, my dear, there sometimes seem to be
Old bridges breaking between you and me

Never fear. We may let the scaffolds fall
Confident that we have built our wall.


Anderson 08.30.13 at 8:03 pm

2: “Heaney had only won the Nobel a few months before”


LFC 08.30.13 at 8:39 pm

js @10
that one is sort of Frost-like (Frostian?), ISTM


Anderson 08.30.13 at 9:28 pm

“He once said that poetry doesn’t change things, but can alter how we think and feel about them.”

Stevens, “Anything Is Beautiful If You Say It Is.”

(Always a sharp hand with a poem’s title, Stevens was.)


subdoxastic 08.30.13 at 9:36 pm

Friend of mine introduced me to Heaney just a few years ago. My first taste was “Mid-term Break” it got me hooked and I’ve enjoyed reading his other work ever since. Sorry to hear about his passing.

Mid-Term Break

I sat all morning in the college sick bay
Counting bells knelling classes to a close.
At two o’clock our neighbors drove me home.

In the porch I met my father crying–
He had always taken funerals in his stride–
And Big Jim Evans saying it was a hard blow.

The baby cooed and laughed and rocked the pram
When I came in, and I was embarrassed
By old men standing up to shake my hand

And tell me they were ‘sorry for my trouble,’
Whispers informed strangers I was the eldest,
Away at school, as my mother held my hand

In hers and coughed out angry tearless sighs.
At ten o’clock the ambulance arrived
With the corpse, stanched and bandaged by the nurses.

Next morning I went up into the room. Snowdrops
And candles soothed the bedside; I saw him
For the first time in six weeks. Paler now,

Wearing a poppy bruise on his left temple,
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.


RosencrantzisDead 08.31.13 at 12:53 am

They had someone read ‘From the Republic of Conscience’ on RTE (Irish State Broadcaster) Radio this morning:

When I landed in the republic of conscience
it was so noiseless when the engines stopped
I could hear a curlew high above the runway.

At immigration, the clerk was an old man
who produced a wallet from his homespun coat
and showed me a photograph of my grandfather.

The woman in customs asked me to declare
the words of our traditional cures and charms
to heal dumbness and avert the evil eye.

No porters. No interpreter. No taxi.
You carried your own burden and very soon
your symptoms of creeping privilege disappeared.

Fog is a dreaded omen there but lightning
spells universal good and parents hang
swaddled infants in trees during thunderstorms.

Salt is their precious mineral. And seashells
are held to the ear during births and funerals.
The base of all inks and pigments is seawater.

Their sacred symbol is a stylized boat.
The sail is an ear, the mast a sloping pen,
the hull a mouth-shape, the keel an open eye.

At their inauguration, public leaders
must swear to uphold unwritten law and weep
to atone for their presumption to hold office –

and to affirm their faith that all life sprang
from salt in tears which the sky-god wept
after he dreamt his solitude was endless.

I came back from that frugal republic
with my two arms the one length, the customs
woman having insisted my allowance was myself.

The old man rose and gazed into my face
and said that was official recognition
that I was now a dual citizen.

He therefore desired me when I got home
to consider myself a representative
and to speak on their behalf in my own tongue.

Their embassies, he said, were everywhere
but operated independently
and no ambassador would ever be relieved.


xaaronx 08.31.13 at 1:18 am

My favorite poet, since I discovered him in high school and did my first real academic paper on him. I’ll have to see if my mom still has it somewhere.


parsimon 08.31.13 at 2:15 am

I confess that I have been grumpy about the fact that numerous media commentators have insisted on mispronouncing his name. I am not a native Irish, but I could swear that it’s not “Heeney” but “Haney”. NPR has repeatedly told us, throughout the day, that Seamus “Heeney” has passed, and that he was likened at times to Yeats – which they pronounce “Yates”, so good heavens, can they try on for size “Haney”?

Just a grump on my part.


Ronan(rf) 08.31.13 at 2:19 am

It is Heeney! (Or at least Ive never heard Haney, though could be in some parts of Ireland)


pedant 08.31.13 at 2:27 am

His version of the “Ode to Man” from Sophocles’ Antigone–it’s fabulous.

I read a dozen translations in parallel for a class. His was one of the furthest from the Greek, but said much of what Sophocles meant, and by god it was magnificent poetry. So much better than the pablum that passes for translation. Vital and charismatic. Polla ta deina. His passing is our loss, his legacy our gain.


parsimon 08.31.13 at 2:29 am

No way. It is Heeney? He was at Harvard when I was there, and I have him in my head as “Shaymus Haney”. Could have sworn that’s how people said his name.

Huh. I was beginning to doubt myself, I admit, when even the liberal NPR kept saying Heeney.


Ronan(rf) 08.31.13 at 2:33 am

Tbh, Heeney might be the anglicised version, so you might well be right that its Haney in Irish. Thats something I should probably know, but dont. Theres also generally regional variations in pronunciation to the point of incomprehension, so Haney could be used somewhere


parsimon 08.31.13 at 2:43 am

We may need an Irishman to explain. I wonder if there are any of those about?


weichi 08.31.13 at 4:13 am

FWIW, wikipedia says it’s “heeney”, like the “long e in bead”.


Alan 08.31.13 at 4:47 am

Thanks to this thread I now have his most recent selected poems on my ipad from Amazon.



Dave OB 08.31.13 at 7:34 am

Thanks for writing this lovely piece. By the way, was Philip King/Hummingbird the folks who were involved in the Other Voices TV program when it was set up? The first couple of series were a wonderful document of a short, special time in Irish music.


Maria 08.31.13 at 8:22 am

Tom, you could start with Death of a Naturalist, which was his first. Or District and Circle was a recent and very popular one. But I’ve just checked and Faber & Faber have a couple of collections, arranged chronologically, sort of a ‘best of’, which might be an even better place to start.


Maria 08.31.13 at 8:22 am

Re. pronunciation, as Ronan has pointed out, it’s definitely ‘Heeney’.


Maria 08.31.13 at 8:24 am

Dave @25, yes, the very same PK. I left before Other Voices but worked for Hummingbird on other music documentaries & series. Great memories.


margecsimpson 08.31.13 at 3:17 pm

@ Jonathan Goodman
This poem is taken from CLEARANCES, a sonnet sequence which Heaney published in 1987 on his mother’s death.

In Memoriam M.K.H., 1911-1984
When all the others were away at Mass
I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.
They broke the silence, let fall one by one
Like solder weeping off the soldering iron:
Cold comforts set between us, things to share
Gleaming in a bucket of clean water.
And again let fall. Little pleasant splashes
From each other’s work would bring us to our senses.
So while the parish priest at her bedside
Went hammer and tongs at the prayers for the dying
And some were responding and some crying
I remembered her head bent towards my head,
Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives–
Never closer the whole rest of our lives.


Fineday 08.31.13 at 5:09 pm

Thank you, very much, js. I was searching for that poem.


Joyce James 09.01.13 at 5:21 am

I met Seamus when a graduate student at U. of H. in Texas. Later I attended his poetry conference at in Calif. He took an interest in my poems. My family also were farmers and I later realized we had something else in common, I too was the oldest and my parents had lost a four year child suddenly. He took two of my poems for Ploughshares. A poet friend of mine
who attended a reading he gave for the journal called late one night. She recognized my poem he read saying this is a poem that meant a great deal to me. I saw him several time and to my shame I asked him to write a recommendation for a teaching
position which he did. In my mind, since I have read and studied his work and ideas about writing, no greater poet in
the 20th century exists. We loved hearing him read, we honored his essays about poetry, we took and took, and now he
will be there for those to come. Blessing, dear Seamus and to your family. I too love the sonnets to his mother. especially
the one that ends “Never closer the whole rest of our lives.” My family spoke many silent words too.


SJ 09.01.13 at 11:30 am

On the name – while it is clearly ‘Heeney’, there is a certain Irish accent, quite close to SH’s own, that would pronounce it ‘Hayney’, so I don’t think he would take offence at the mispronunciation.

Thank you for reminded me that ‘Scaffolding’ was read by my father at my wedding.

Of all of the snippets of poetry that were quoted after he died, the one that I found most elegant was simply:

“…the squat pen rests”.



Harold 09.01.13 at 6:29 pm

I saw him lecture at a symposium on Revolutionary Romanticism held at Bucknell University, organized by the late Jonathan Wordsworth (scholar of Romanticism and descendant of the poet). It was held there because Wordsworth and Coleridge had for a time seriously contemplated setting up a utopian community in the Susquehanna Valley, and Joseph Priestly actually did emigrate there. (His house is now a museum). Also at the conference was E.P. Thompson and there was a show of Turner watercolors. It was heaven.

In his lecture Heaney quoted feelingly Wordsworth’s lines — famous to the point of sometimes having been the object of mockery, I later discovered, but it was the first time I had heard them. Of course they are now even more applicable:

The wealthiest man among us is the best:
No grandeur now in nature or in book
Delights us. Rapine, avarice, expense,
This is idolatry; and these we adore:
Plain living and high thinking are no more …

Afterwards there was a reception and my friend and I spoke to him. I remember him as remarkably modest, courteous, his eyes sparkling with intelligence and humor.

Until then I had always thought of Lewisburg, Pa., as the rather dreary place where Alger Hiss had been imprisoned, but I think of it quite differently now.


Joyce James 09.01.13 at 9:34 pm

To John Goodman, Heaney has a collected book of poems and an American can read and when the names or vocabulary are
too difficult go to the next poems. To me, his best poems are about the ground, the earth, nature, his family, clear and concise
poetry. Just keep reading, you’ll fall–in love with his metaphors, his sentences, his heart.


Gene O'Grady 09.02.13 at 12:05 am

I’m puzzled about the comment about Heaney’s poems having too much Irish to understand. My knowledge of the Irish language is nil, but I have never found any difficulty. Am I confused, or assuming I understand where I don’t?


Andrew John 09.02.13 at 1:20 am

Each year I’d hope they’d keep, knew they would not.


Witt 09.02.13 at 1:53 am

I came across a bit from a commencement speech he did which I like quite a lot:

One kind of wisdom says, keep your feet on the ground. Be faithful to the ancestors…. Another says lift up your eyes. Spread your wings. Don’t renege on the other world you have been shown.

One kind of wisdom says if you change your language, you betray your origins. Another kind says all language is a preparation for further language.


Witt 09.02.13 at 2:02 am

Ah, here we go. It’s from a graduation speech at the University of Pennsylvania in 2000.

There is a dreamlike quality to every commencement day. But the veil trembles more mysteriously if you are graduating in the year 2000…. A turning point in your life has coincided with a turning point in our era.

It is like the moment when a tide has risen to its highest and then rests: Everything is at the full and yet everything is volatile. And for the duration of this moment, you are held between two worlds. It’s like those few seconds when you pause and hold the pose, and are photographed standing between your parents and your professors.

Today, inevitably, many of you will experience this in-between condition. You stand at a boundary. Behind you is your natural habitat, as it were, the grounds of your creaturely being, the old haunts where you were nurtured; in front of you is a less knowable prospect of invitation and challenge, the testing ground of your possibilities.

One kind of wisdom says, keep your feet on the ground. Be faithful to the ancestors…. Another says lift up your eyes. Spread your wings. Don’t renege on the other world you have been shown. One kind of wisdom says if you change your language, you betray your origins. Another kind says all language is preparation for further language.


Khalid R Hasan 09.02.13 at 11:24 am

For Jonathon Goodman @3 (and anyone who knows the Mid-West)

In Iowa

In Iowa once, among the Mennonites

In a slathering blizzard, conveyed all afternoon

Through sleet-glit pelting hard against the windscreen

And a wiper’s strong absolving slumps and flits,

I saw, abandoned in the open gap

Of a field where wilted corn stalks flagged the snow,

A mowing machine. Snow brimmed its iron seat,

Heaped each spoked wheel with a thick white brow,

And took the shine off oil in the black-toothed gears.

Verily I came forth from that wilderness

As one unbaptized who had known darkness

At the third hour and the veil in tatters.

In Iowa once. In the slush and rush and hiss

Not of parted but as of rising waters.


cathy 09.02.13 at 8:06 pm

Heaney can be prounced as Haney in some parts of Ireland according to which part you come from.
I know Haneys in Co Cavan Ireland its the same name.
Hope this helps

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