Attempting to come up with a definition of poetry, Wordsworth said it is “the pleasure which there is in life itself”.
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If the former quotation suits Seamus Heaney perfectly, the latter shows just how wrong the Lakeland laureate could be. As he embraces his eighth decade, and having made a successful recovery from a stroke, Heaney’s grip on life and its pleasures (not to mention his sanity) – as the poems in Human Chain, his 12th collection, show – is yet strong and constant. Or, as he might prefer steady, steadiness being a characteristic both he and the saintly Macóige of Lismore – one of many shades here invoked – admire.
Mention of Macóige is made in a nine-poem sequence called Hermit Songs which is dedicated to Helen Vendler, the scholar and critic whom Heaney once described as “the best close reader of poems to be found on the literary pages”. In it Heaney, as he often has in his industrious and singular career, traverses decades and worlds real and personal, imagined and mythical.
He begins with his schooldays, carefully covering books with whatever is to hand to protect their covers, books being sacred objects, as they were in much earlier times, as they were to saints such as Fursa and Colmcille, “the riddle- solving anchorites”. Thus Heaney makes the connection between himself, the Irish seers and Virgil’s Aeneid, between poet and priest, the one kept in our consciousness by the other, the past linked to the present and vice versa.
Heaney’s title for this collection is well chosen. On one level a human chain is associated with relief work, passing from one hand to another “bags of meal” to feed starving refugees. Significantly, though, Heaney’s title poem is dedicated to Terence Brown, an Irish literary critic, and thus the hefting of those bags becomes a metaphor for the writing of poetry and the fear (and inevitability?) of its drying up: “That quick unburdening, backbreak’s truest payback,/ A letting go which will not come again. Or it will, once. And for all.” It is as if Heaney is at once celebrating creation, life, and fearful of its passing. Being alive, being open and receptive to the moment, is the spirit that imbues Human Chain. “Only connect!” implored E M Forster, referring specifically to prose and passion. Heaney’s connection, his chain, links the art he pursues and life in all its manifestations.
In the opening poem, Had I not been awake, the poet, perhaps writing in the immediate aftermath of illness, expresses gratitude for hearing sycamore leaves patter on a roof which, had he not been awake, he would have missed. It reminds me, in its fleetingness, of Burns’s snow fall on a river, “A moment white – then melts for ever”. But Heaney takes the idea of emphemerality further, imbuing it with drama: “It came and went so unexpectedly/ And almost it seemed dangerously, Returning like an animal to the house...”
But for all its acknowledgement of life, Human Chain cannot help but be concerned with death. Many of its poems, for instance, are dedicated to friends who have died either through the wear and tear of time or prematurely, like the child hit while cycling by “a speed-merchant from nowhere” or a victim of the Troubles, like Louis O’Neill, an eel fisherman friend of the poet, who is also commemorated in the poem Casualty which appeared in Field Work, published some four decades ago. Truly famous Heaney may have become in 1995 with the award of the Nobel Prize but, even on his dutiful gallivants around the globe, those he grew up with remain in his thoughts.
It is this transfiguration, this elevation, of the everyday into that which takes its rightful place in the pantheon of human experience and record. Not the least of his talents is his ability to resuscitate texts that need constantly to be reinterpreted if they are to survive, hence his translations of Beowulf and Henryson’s Testament of Cresseid.
In Human Chain he is at it again, not only with Virgil but also with Colum Cille Cecinit, a 12th-century Irish poet, whose sentiments Heaney makes his own. In the three parts, the poem begins first with a poet, his hand “cramped from penwork” scratching out poems in “a blue-dark/ Beetle-sparkle of ink”. Next he moves on to Derry, the county in which he was born: “Derry I cherish ever./ It is calm, it is clear.” Finally, his gaze settles on Ireland, on both sides of whose man-made border Heaney has lived and worked: “Towards Ireland a grey eye/ Will look back but not see/ Ever again/ The men of Ireland or her women.”
Rarely beautiful and affecting stuff.