An Invitation to Dig: The Legacy of Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney, probably the most widely read and beloved poet of his time, died early Friday morning at a hospital in Dublin, at the age of 74. He had been going through a period of poor health, his family said. The outpouring of grief and loss at his passing bears witness to a legacy that cannot, as yet, be fully fathomed.

Heaney’s poetry was deeply rooted in his Northern Ireland homeland: its farms and towns, its political strife, and its language and culture. He considered his own career as a poet to have begun when he realized, as an undergraduate, the universal relevance of his own local experience. “I learned that my local County Derry experience, which I had considered archaic and irrelevant to ‘the modern world,’ was to be trusted… Suddenly, the matter of contemporary poetry was the material of my own life.”

His work served his own community by preserving, through poetry, its culture and language. “Digging,” the opening poem of his first collection, The Death of a Naturalist (1966), recalls his father and his grandfather digging for potatoes and cutting peat. Heaney presents his poetry as his way of digging in that same Irish soil:

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

He kept digging for the rest of his life. It’s a testament to the singularity of his vision that, in a eulogy nearly fifty years later, his poetic program can still be accurately epitomized by that first poem in his first collection. It’s a wonder, too, that he never ran out of material, never got monotonous or repetitive. His poems record the things of everyday life — a cow, a photograph, a wedding, a miscarriage — and remind us that these things contain all the meaning and wonder in the world.

One of Heaney’s greatest gifts was to make poetic themes accessible and relatable to people who, by and large, weren’t all that interested in poetry. He was able, as Paul Muldoon put it in his reaction to Heaney’s passing, “to allow people in… to give them room.” In a world where poetry is read less and less, that gift is increasingly important, and in this sense Heaney stands in the tradition of Robert Frost and Patrick Kavanagh, poets he emulated. As a translator, he’s best known for his version of the ancient Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf (1999), and specifically for the liberties he took in his use of modern language. His translation is thus credited with revitalizing a poem that had begun to lose pertinence and immediacy, making it accessible to a new generation.

Not that his poetry is always easy, or his themes all common. He was preoccupied, for instance, with the Irish language, and with the relationship between sound and sense, particularly as he saw his own native language being overrun by English influence. The regional aspect of his poems can be difficult for those of us who lack fluency in Irish natural history and politics, but then, that is as it should be. If his poetry is open and inviting, it is still an invitation to dig, to sift through layers, to spend the necessary time and energy.

The connection between a poem’s concrete circumstance and its transcendent meaning was always in Heaney’s mind. He believed in poetry’s power to point beyond itself to greater and more universal verities. He wrote,

When a poem rhymes, when a form generates itself, when a metre provokes consciousness into new postures, it is already on the side of life. When a rhyme surprises and extends the fixed relations between words, that in itself protests against necessity. When language does more than enough, as it does in all achieved poetry, it opts for the condition of overlife, and rebels at limit… The vision of reality which poetry offers should be transformative, more than just a printout of the given circumstances of its time and place.

Poetry is not just a reflection of physical experience, or an exercise in creative expression. It has the power to transform, in that it bears witness to a transcendent order. For Heaney, the very existence of poetry stands against the idea of an empty, meaningless life.

In 2009, at Ireland’s national celebration of Heaney’s 70th birthday, it was announced that two-thirds of the poetry collections sold in the UK the previous year had been Heaney’s books. Such popularity for a contemporary poet, especially a traditionalist like Seamus Heaney, was and remains truly remarkable. By all accounts, he bore his fame with grace and self-deprecation, but his legacy is immense. His poetry is pitched to invite us into a world where the right things — home, nature, history, moral choice — matter, and where they’re shown up in all their complexity, mundanity, and transcendence. He is gone, but his poems will only grow more lovely with time. And so we keep digging.

About Ethan McCarthy

Ethan McCarthy lives in Highwood, Illinois, with his wife Jenni and their two children. They like literature, music, and listening to the Atlanta Braves on the radio. He currently works in an elementary school special education classroom.


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