Human Chain is Seamus Heaney’s thirteenth collection since Death of a Naturalist in 1966. His work over nearly half a century has lost none of its accessibility, erudition and vitality.
The textual commentaries that follow seek to tease out what his poems are intimating in Human Chain. Of course, the poet’s ‘message’ will have started life as an essentially personal one, not intended primarily for his reader; accordingly, there are moments when some serious unravelling is required. In the case of a poet as accomplished, complex and focused as Heaney, the rewards for persevering are at once enriching, fortifying and hugely pleasurable.
There are issues, too, beyond ‘the text, the whole text and nothing but the text’: there is the question of ‘style’, that is, the combination of language and poetic devices deliberately selected by the poet to carry his narrative forward; then there is the matter of Heaney’s appeal to the ear, the poem intended as a song to be heard and enjoyed or, to the mind’s eye, a picture to be ‘seen’ and felt. These issues are explored in individual commentaries and summarised at the end.
Fifty years on.
It is revealing to compare the challenges and dilemmas facing the apprentice-poet preparing his first collection after 1960 with the way the world presents itself to a poet now over 70 years of age, Nobel Laureate along the way, publishing his thirteenth collection.
In 1960, Heaney is 21 years of age; he is single and will marry five years later; in 2010 he is over 70 is surrounded by his family, married to the same wife since 1965 with three children and, currently, at least, two grandchildren.
His move to Belfast as an undergraduate in 1957 took him into a different world. He had been brought up in the rural Irishness of his 1940s and 50s farming background in deepest Ulster, first at Mossbawn then at The Wood near Bellaghy to which the family moved after the loss of brother, Christopher; in 2010 his memories of both this and subsequent periods are acute, sustained and voiced still with huge emotional and lyrical charge.
Thanks to enlightened education policies he had made best use of a privileged, largely ‘classical’ education (at school he was particularly successful at Latin); both his school and his awareness of languages and literature feature strongly in Human Chain.
In 1960 he possessed all the uncertainty of young men with bright futures seeking to make their way; he needed to earn a living and was interested in ‘teaching’; by 2010 teaching had proved to be a mere stepping stone to greater things; the risk he took in resigning his university teaching post and going ‘freelance’ has rewarded us with the evidence of a life’s journey of rare achievement.
If ever Heaney needed in those early days to confirm the legitimacy of his own language, place and voice, there is no doubt that he has achieved it in full measure, acclaimed as one of the very best of twentieth century poets writing in English.
From childhood Heaney possesses a deep sense of his Irishness, whilst belonging to the Northern Irish Catholic minority in predominantly Protestant Ulster; times would grow increasingly turbulent and dangerous for him during the so-called Troubles; by 2010, against all expectations, there have been 12 years of ‘peace’ following the major breakthrough of the Good Friday Agreement signed in 1998; As a result Heaney can be an Irish poet in Northern Ireland and carry an Irish ‘green’ passport without looking over his shoulder, unthinkable during those times of sectarian violence.
In the early 60s, Heaney was in need of friends and mentors, hopefully of all political and religious shades, who shared his interest in the creative arts and would help him along the way; by 2010 thanks to his poetic stature, his reputed good nature, optimism and generosity of spirit, Heaney can enjoy a long list of friends and people who matter, to whom he dedicates his poems.
Heaney in the four years since District and Circle.
District and Circle (2006) is published in the same year as Heaney suffers a stroke. Thanks to a number of factors, not least the proximity of medic friends, the ultimately mild nature of a condition that can easily deal a fatal blow, the strength of love of his immediate family, the effectiveness of the Irish medical services and intensive care, he recovers in about 6 weeks without suffering permanent disability.
He first spoke publicly and relatively light-heartedly about this issue in an interview with Robert McCrum, A Life of Rhyme, published in The Observer of Sunday July 9th, 2009. Heaney also sets out both his fright and his emotional responses in the immediate aftermath.
His decision, made in hospital, during initial convalescence to take time-out for a year, reflects the intense pressure of commitments that, over time, Heaney willingly accepted as part of his ‘territory’. He readily confesses in the same interview how difficult he finds it to say ‘no’ to invitations. To illustrate this intense activity, Heaney attended the Hong Kong Literary Festival and offered readings in Ireland, USA, Rotterdam, Stratford, Grasmere and Edinburgh in the few months before the August of his set-back.
In 2009 he reaches the age of 70. He confesses to some of the symptoms of the ageing process in In The Attic of Human Chain. Despite mortality’s ‘little warning’, Heaney’s mind and memory are intact; the important things he still has to say simply assume a greater urgency.
Heaney might have had free choice over his Appointments Diary but there was no cooling of his poetic spark. Within half a decade he has published the present collection with its 29 titles and 97 individual poems!
Heaney may have reached that stage in life when the funerals of people that matter happen more regularly, when there may be more Festschrifter to write in celebration of living literary celebrities but he has survived to memorialize them . Moreover, thanks to his ‘muse’ he shows no appetite to slow down.
Within the same period, two grandchildren were born, both girls: son Christopher and his wife Jenny produce Anna Rose, to whom Route 110 is dedicated. Then second son Michael and his wife Emer produce Aibhín (pronounced Ay-veen) just in time for Heaney to add a final poem to the collection. This is a time for great celebration: the Heaney chain is destined to continue!
The test of time.
Digging, the very first poem of the very first collection, Death of a Naturalist, written at The Wood in 1964, sets out a kind of mission-statement :
Between my finger and my thumb/ The squat pen rests./ I’ll dig with it.
The final couplet of the last poem in the same collection declares a deeper quest:
I rhyme/ To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.
Half a century has elapsed and Heaney remains faithful to those aspirations. It is hard to imagine greater creative integrity than that!