THE first volume of Seamus Heaney’s selected poems, New Selected, Poems 1966-1987, has now been followed by the second volume, New Selected Poems, 1988-2013, which begins with poems from Seeing Things (1991) and continues to his last collection, Human Chain (2010), and to a final, poignant poem written in the month of his death — ‘Listening to Bach I saw you years from now (More years than I’ll be allowed) Your toddler wobbles gone, A sure and grown woman. Your bare foot on the floor Keeps me in step..........’
That poem, ‘In Time’, is a grandfather’s joyful prayer for his granddaughter, Síofra. The tapping on the cement floor is a metaphor of how all things are balanced in family life: we are all earthed in family ‘we foot.... lightly/ In time...’ While that last poem was written as a hymn to childhood and regeneration, it acts now as a perfect epitaph.
Heaney was the great poet of Irish plenitude: a begetter of faith and certainties. He was the last literary guarantor of a deeply felt Catholic certainty. Born on the largest farm on a Co Derry road of Catholics and Protestants, he was reared into a sense of Catholic ownership of both land and history. In a sectarian North under a Unionist hegemony, he knew the necessities of political caution. But he never felt culturally or socially deprived.
It would be impossible to have met a more comforted and comforting soul, born of scholarship and church teaching; a farmer’s child formed by Catholic boarding-school, deeply respectful of clerical learning and wisdom. He is our last great Catholic writer: Church, Gaelic football, family, faith and plenty are the abiding gifts he shared from an emotionally complete Catholic plate.
Like many Ulster Catholics, he would never need to carry on an unskilled skirmish against hierarchical power, in the manner of southern intellectuals like Frank O’Connor or Edna O’Brien. The certainties he expressed will never again be read in a first-rank Irish writer. He shares a sensibility with a writer like an tAthair Pádraig de Brún; a certainty that is as morally overwhelming as a windswept cottage in Dunquin. He is Irish to the core, but speaking with a universal monasticism; a learned and Latinate, rather than despairing and contemporary, world view. Politically and culturally, he was an undamaged Ulsterman — a simply amazing achievement. This current volume is based on Heaney’s earlier selection for an Italian edition of his work. It opens with that first poem of Seeing Things, ‘The Golden Bough,’ a reworking from August, 2013, twelve days before his death. Síofra’s bare feet remind of lines 98-148 of The Aeneid, Book VI: ‘Therefore look up and search deep and when you have found it/ Take hold of it boldly and duly. If fate has called you,/The bough will come away easily, of its own accord..’ Then we are hurled straight into Heaney’s familiar territory, the world of football, where goalposts are boyishly marked with four jackets and the light of day dies around the youngsters at play. Others markings are celebrated, too: lines pegged out to mark a garden or the imaginary line that the ploughman follows. All of these markings cohere into something majestic, clairvoyant: ‘All these things entered you/As if they were both the door and what came through it.’ Other forms of creative restriction and created forms recur, from the settings, squaring, crossings of Seeing Things to the album, butt, baler, parking lot and attic of Human Chain. There is in Heaney that marvellous trust in order, the weighing-in and gravel walks of The Spirit Level, to ‘The Loose Box’ and ‘The Bookcase’ of Electric Light.
It was a scholarly rage for order, a belief in the proper arrangement of things that would only come unstuck under the pressurised imperative of history and Ulster conflict.
Nowhere is this more poignantly illustrated than in what is one of his most beautiful sequences of escape, peace and release, his ‘Sonnets from Hellas’ in Electric Light. This sequence is one of the technical joys of his mature period, the immediate years after the Nobel Prize, when he was in his late 50s. He was well and truly in full possession of his material — indeed, from Field Work onward his easy and masterful command of poetry rendered each new book into a virtuoso performance, a showing-off of the Irish poetic and how good it could be in the hands of a master. The language merely submitted to him.
One could pick any poem from the 200 pages here and use it to illustrate how good he was, how sure and athletic he was upon the printed page.
Certainly, this second volume of the New Selected will provide proper markings for a new generation of Heaney readers.