A tribute to Seamus Heaney, the Nobel Laureate, who passed away on August 30.
Behold these lines from Seamus Heaney’s 1991 verse play The Cure at Troy: A Version of Sophocles’ Philoctetes, that were quoted by President Bill Clinton when he gave a speech about the Northern Ireland peace process in Londonderry in 1995: History says, don’t hope/On this side of the grave. /But then, once in a lifetime/The longed-for tidal wave/Of justice can rise up,/And hope and history rhyme
These lines, of course, resonate in Heaney’s native Northern Ireland with its long and tragic history of conflict between the Catholics and the Protestants. However, the desire for a just peace that ushers in a life of dignity is not just the wish of the Northern Irish. It is a core human desire, held dear by people living in parts of the world where such aspirations have long been smothered by violence justified, rather ironically, by an oft-repeated urge for peace. In the Middle East, Afghanistan and even our own Kashmir, millions of people hope against hope for reconciliation, of the sort Heaney describes.
That, in a nutshell, is what makes Seamus Heaney a powerful poet. His technical mastery and the sheer weight of his accomplishments — besides being a world-renowned poet, he was also a respected playwright and translator — may be a literary critic’s delight. But it matters little to the common reader who reads literature merely to be touched by it. And Heaney, like his fellow Irishman William Butler Yeats, possessed an uncanny ability to touch in ways that transcended all kinds of divides.
Even when he was at his most personal, invariably, he managed to catch the essence of the human condition. Take, for instance, the poem ‘Follower’ from his first collection, Death of a Naturalist (1966). The poem is about Heaney’s relationship with his father, a farmer. Yet it could be about the relationship between all sons and fathers. In the poem, initially, Heaney looks up to his father as a child and wishes to emulate him, often making a nuisance of himself in the process. In the concluding lines, though, the tables are turned as Heaney, now grown-up, longs to be free from his father’s influence and is frustrated when his father refuses to leave him alone: It is my father who keeps stumbling/Behind me, and will not go away. In addition to natural fathers, ‘Follower’ also refers to literary fathers. Like a natural father, a literary father gives the fledgling poet his or her first inspiration as well as the desire to write. But then, as the fledgling poet grows up and seeks his or her own voice, a literary father’s influence, like that of a natural father, can increasingly become an encumbrance.
In his lifetime, Heaney was often compared to the other great Irish poet of the twentieth century, William Butler Yeats. The two men, though, couldn’t have been more different. Yeats came from the upper-class Protestant ascendancy and had the backing of wealthy patrons, right through his artistic life. Heaney, a Catholic, on the other hand, was raised on a farm in Northern Ireland and had to teach in universities for a living. Even before he won the Nobel Prize in 1923, Yeats was arrogant enough to declare in ‘To a Young Beauty’: There is not a fool can call me friend/And I may dine at journey’s end/With Landor and with Donne. By the same token, Heaney, after winning the Nobel Prize in 1995 and being considered the equal of Yeats, likened himself to a little foothill at the bottom of a mountain range.
The most abiding memory I have involving Heaney’s work is of an event that took place in Norwich, England in 2010, when I was at the University of East Anglia. In those days there was a common room on the second floor of the Arts Building where members of the English department would often gather to discuss literary matters over beverages.
A striking picture of a smiling Seamus Heaney, taken when he visited the university, adorned one of the walls of that room. On a February afternoon, I got into an argument with a British scholar who was adamant that Indian writing in English was no more than an exotic branch of English literature and should be treated as such, since all Indians writing in English were Kipling or Forster’s children. After butting heads with him for close to half an hour, I finally shut him up by paraphrasing Heaney’s response at being included in an anthology of British poetry: Be advised our colours are saffron, white and green. No glass of ours was ever raised to toast the Queen.