Remembering Seamus Heaney

The tenth anniversary of the death of Seamus Heaney — who was, after W B Yeats, Ireland’s most celebrated poet and, like Yeats, a Nobel Laureate for Literature — is being very widely marked.  Here, we remember Seamus’s special relationship with Magdalene.

Seamus was an Honorary Fellow of Magdalene and a regular visitor to the College.  There were inspirational readings and discussions, perhaps most strikingly a conversation in November 2008 before an audience between Seamus and Professor Valerie Hall of Queen’s College Belfast (subsequently elected Magdalene’s Parnell Fellow in Irish Studies for 2009-10). Valerie, who died in 2016, was a renowned scientist and world expert in palynology, using records of fossil pollen to reconstruct past environments, Ireland’s among them.  The theme of the discussion, part of the Magdalene College Festival of Landscape, was (or were) Bogs.  Heaney brought to the event his deep and compassionate poetry about the iron-age corpses found in modern times in Northern European peat-bogs.  Famously, his reading of P V Globe’s The Bog People, an illustrated archaeological study of many of these bodies recovered in the course of modern peat-diggings,  had been a crucial imaginative stimulus for Heaney.  Places were hugely important to him. Names of farms or of towns were evocation not in an archaic or nostalgic sense but because these words were containers of history and of human experience, deposits of the human past just as peat-bogs were dark and mysterious deposits of millenia of flourishing, growth and decay. Crucially, the fact that many of those perfectly preserved iron-age corpses appeared to have been murdered sacrificial victims seemed to offer him a poetic “objective correlative” for the victims of contemporary sectarian slaughter in the ‘Troubles” in Northern Ireland. He read and discussed eleven of the poems that had resulted, several of them among his most often quoted -and also controversial – writings.  Valerie Hall brought to the conversation not merely her scientific expertise in paleo-ecology, but, with humanity equalling Heaney’s, a sense of how this could help us to understand the people of a past time, quite literally through the soil they dug.   They had not met before; but the convergence of their presentations and the riveting exchange between two speakers with such different backgrounds and approaches ignited with understanding and empathy, and led to personal friendship. It was one of Magdalene’s most memorable public events.

Eamon Duffy Emeritus Professor of the History of Christianity at Cambridge writes here about another aspect of that occasion.

Seamus arrived Cambridge for the” bog” event a day early, and stayed at my home with us. That November was unseasonably sunny, and we decided on an outing.  Seamus liked graveyards – I had taken him more than once to visit the poet Edwin Muir’s grave at Swaffham Bulbeck, (and the College had marked Seamus’s Nobel prize by presenting him with Muir’s annotated first edition of Yeats’s greatest single volume, The Winding Stair.) I suggested we go this time to the grave of the great early nineteenth-century “peasant” poet, John Clare, at Helpston, near Peterborough. Seamus enthusiastically agreed: a countryman himself, he loved Clare’s writings, and his deeply insightful account of Clare’s poetry, “John Clare’s ‘prog’”, was one of the most memorable of his lectures as Oxford Professor of Poetry, published as The Redress of Poetry. The journey to Helpston appealed to Heaney all the more because we decided to take the scenic route through the Fens, so that he could see, for the first time, quintessential English bogland.

               We arrived in Helpston at midday, and having viewed the outside of Clare’s cottage (frustratingly closed for renovation, though no work was in evidence!) repaired to Clare’s local pub, the Bluebell Inn, for lunch. There we found we were the only patrons, and the barmaid who served lunch, remarking that they didn’t get many visitors in winter, asked us what had brought us to Helpston.  I told her my friend was a poet, and we had come to see John Clare’s cottage, and his grave. “Oh”, she said, “as a matter of fact, Clare’s body was brought from Northampton Asylum to Helpston, and lay in state in this very room the night before he was buried. They say the coffin was so big it wouldn’t go through the door, and they had to dismantle the door frame”. We contemplated in silence the broad eighteenth-century doorway, its opening apparently at least four feet wide.  “Did they take him out sideways?” asked Seamus, impishly.

Seamus Heaney at the grave of John Clare

               Clare’s grave outside St Botolph’s church is covered by a long-pitched capstone. Down one side are carved Clare’s name and dates and places of birth and death. On the other slope is carved an English translation of a well-known Latin tag,  “A poet is born, not made”. I photographed Seamus, his head haloed by an aureole of white hair in the watery November sunshine, standing by the grave. Then we went inside to view the church itself. As we left, I suggested he sign the visitor’s book. Heaney paused a minute or two, pen in hand, and wrote: after he had left, I stole a look. In his distinctive handsome script was written “Seamus Heaney – born and made”.

Heaney’s image in College.

Magdalene owns two portraits of Seamus Heaney.  A charcoal sketch by Peter Edwards, made in preparation for the well-known portrait in Tate Britain, was acquired as part of the College’s Heaney Commemorations in 2014, and is currently hung in the rooms formerly belonging to another of Magdalene’s celebrated Northern Irish literary figures, C. S. Lewis. 

On permanent display in Cripps Court is a bronze head of Heaney by the celebrated Ulster sculptor, Carolyn Mulholland. The head was cast from the sculptor’s maquette in the poet’s possession, and was presented to the College, by Heaney himself, after we were outbid for another Edwards portrait head in oils, by our wealthier Oxford sister College (where Heaney was also an Honorary Fellow).

Seamus Heaney bust by Carolyn Mulholland

M E J Hughes

Pepys (Fellow) Librarian.

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