Seamus Heaney’s Journey Into Darkness

In the deepest reaches of history, the poet found a voice for the troubled present.

photo illustration of Seamus Heaney
Illustration by Oliver Munday; Eamonn McCabe / Popperfoto / Getty

In a lecture called “Frontiers of Writing,” Seamus Heaney remembered an evening he spent as the guest of an Oxford college in May 1981. A “quintessentially Oxford event,” he called it: He attended chapel alongside a former lord chancellor of the U.K., went to a big dinner, slept in a room belonging to a Conservative cabinet minister. Heaney would not have been ill at ease in these environs. True, he was a long way from the farmhouse in Derry, in the north of Ireland, where he had been born in 1939, but by that time he was famous (for a poet) and even cosmopolitan. Awards and acclaim had been a constant since the publication of his first book, Death of a Naturalist, in 1966; a wistful post-agrarian sensibility in combination, or collision, with a crunching exactitude of language made his poetry irresistible.

That evening in Oxford, however, his thoughts were elsewhere. Earlier that day, in the Maze prison in Northern Ireland, Francis Hughes had died. Hughes, after Bobby Sands, was the second IRA hunger striker to starve himself to death in protest of the British government’s refusal to classify Republican internees as political prisoners. Heaney, a Catholic, knew Hughes’s family. “My mind kept turning towards that corpse house in Co. Derry,” he wrote. “Even as I circulated with my glass of sherry, I could imagine the press of a very different crowd outside and inside the house in mid-Ulster, the movement of people from one room to the next, the protocols of sympathy, the hush as members of the bereaved family passed, and so on.”

County Derry, glass of sherry. In the Heaney poem that this moment somehow didn’t become, that would have been a perfect, perfectly pressurized, rhyme. And the Norse-sounding corpse house would have been in there too, one of his kennings or bardic throwbacks. The poet, although an honored guest, is deep in enemy territory; his imagination and his language are called back home, to the old and urgent place, to be with the mourners and the dead.

This long, downward-and-backwards pull is one of the sensations of Heaney’s poetry. It’s right there, prophetically, in the title poem of Death of a Naturalist, still one of his best-known pieces: the biological darkness with its reptile protectorate, the frogs that sit by the clogged water with “their blunt heads farting.” And the poet hanging back: “The great slime kings / Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew / That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.” I hadn’t understood, however, until I read R. F. Foster’s excellent new study, On Seamus Heaney, the extent of his negotiation with the pull of history, and the redemptive power of his creativity.

Heaney, writes Foster, “grew up among the nods, winks, and repressions of a deeply divided society, and saw those half-concealed fissures break open into violence.” This bloody breaking-open, the beginning of the Troubles, happened with the marches for Catholic civil rights in 1968 and 1969. Life was different afterward; poetry was different. Heaney’s “Requiem for the Croppies,” for example, was a defiant if faintly orotund homage to the rebels of the 1798 Rising, rural Irishmen taking on the English army: “Terraced thousands died, shaking scythes at cannon. / The hillside blushed, soaked in our broken wave.” Now the poem became dangerous. “After 1969,” Foster writes, “with the British Army on the streets of Belfast and the birth of the Provisional Irish Republican Army, this could look like an invocation of blood sacrifice … Heaney was acutely conscious of this—so much so that he stopped reading it in public performances.”

Yo soy yo y mi circunstancia,” said the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset. I am myself and my circumstances. Wilfred Owen was a war poet because he was a poet in a war. Heaney was a poet in Belfast. How to address actuality? How to write about occupation, sectarian killings, the contagion of fear? Heaney’s path was backwards and downward. He described the writing of “Bogland,” from 1969’s Door Into the Dark, as “like opening a gate.” The poem enacts a sinking, sucking, center-of-the-Earth draw into the chthonic mulch: ancestral cruelty, the unconscious, the self, the roots of words, whatever’s down there. It ends like a horror movie: “The wet centre is bottomless.”

“The Tollund Man” anticipated the grim forensics of Heaney’s legendary collection North. A pre-Christian murder, a bog burial, an exhumed preserved corpse: Tollund Man, whose body was dug from the embalming peat of the Jutland Peninsula in Denmark. Presumed by archaeologists to be a sacrificial victim, for Heaney he becomes an offering to the bog goddess, to that same insatiable horror-spirit of “Bogland.” “She tightened her torc on him / And opened her fen.” And in these black depths, where the victims are hidden, the poet finds his link, connects to the atrocities of his own time: “The scattered, ambushed / Flesh of labourers, / Stockinged corpses / Laid out in the farmyards.” Heaney felt himself to be “crossing a line really” with this poem: “My whole being was involved.”

Heaney left Belfast in 1972, warily decamping south to a cottage in too-quiet County Wicklow. “How did I end up like this?” he asked in “Exposure.” “Escaped from the massacre / Taking protective colouring / From bole and bark, feeling / Every wind that blows.” Four years after North came Field Work, in which—as if enabled by the plunging-down, the bog-bargaining, of the previous volume—he achieved a series of extraordinarily direct poetic confrontations with the situation in the North: the British armored cars encountered in “The Toome Road,” “warbling along on powerful tyres”; the abduction and murder of his second cousin Colum McCartney in “The Strand at Lough Beg.” “What blazed ahead of you? A faked road block? / The red lamp swung, the sudden brakes and stalling / Engine, voices, heads hooded and the cold-nosed gun?” (McCartney’s ghost would return, in the long title poem of his next collection, Station Island, to reproach Heaney for being too poetical: “The Protestant who shot me through the head / I accuse directly, but indirectly, you / … for the way you whitewashed ugliness.”)

Mire and violence and clubbing syllables; that was one Heaney. There were others. He incorporated within himself—it was part of his greatness, perhaps—several brilliant minor operators, each with his own specialty and stylistic angle. There was the love poet, and the journalist-in-verse, and the lyrical chronicler of potato-peeling or ploughing or ironing or just driving in the west of Ireland, where “big soft buffetings come at the car sideways / And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.” And then there was my favorite, the Heaney of his Beowulf translation, and his own recorded reading of it. I listened to this recording night after night when I was working as a baker, thumping in the back of the oven with a long-handled broom, dragging out flour-soot while Heaney’s warm and wry and somehow motherly voice went on: “There was Shield Sheafson, scourge of many tribes / A wrecker of mead benches, rampaging among foes.”

But there she is again, nesting in the action-packed heart of Beowulf: the bog goddess. Beowulf tracks the monster Grendel’s mother to the edge of a tarn, a black pond, what Heaney calls in his introduction an “infested underwater current.” Down there she guards the corpse of her son. Hear Heaney’s voice: “He dived into the heaving / depths of the lake. It was the best part of a day / before he could see the solid bottom.” Beowulf battles in the murk, killing the mother, decapitating the son, and finally breaking the surface before his astonished kinsmen, bearing Grendel’s head. Could there be a starker, surer metaphor for Heaney’s poetic endeavor, for the move on which his later achievement depended? You have to dive, you have to find what’s down there, be it ever so monstrous; you have to recover it and bring it back to the light of day.

This article appears in the July/August 2020 print edition with the headline “‘How Did I End Up Like This?’”