When Seamus Heaney died last August, he had planned but not finished a one-volume harvest from his later poetry to partner the much-loved 1990 volume of New Selected Poems. That book gathered work from his debut Death of a Naturalist (1966) up to The Haw Lantern (1987). Choices made in accordance with his wishes, its companion runs from 1988 to 2013. It moves from Seeing Things (1991) to Human Chain (2010), by way of The Spirit Level, Electric Light, District and Circle – and, of course, his trophy-snaffling Beowulf (1999).
Together in handsome twin hardbacks, these selections put a two-pronged pitchfork into the hands of every Heaney reader. Delve into this precious, glittering word-hoard, and will you find one kind of treasure – or two? The volumes hint at distinction between “early” and “late” Heaney – between the County Derry farmer’s boy, lyrical, local and familial, albeit with dark undertones of politics and history, and the global poet who strolled with Dante and Virgil into the realms of epic, mythic and philosophical verse. Neither to the poet nor to anyone who loves him would such a borderline make sense.
Paradoxically, a back-to-back reading serves to underline the career-long unity of his work. Whether in 1966 or 2010, the motifs of elegy and memory, time and violence – and of the art and love that withstand both – feel equally embedded in the Ulster soil. Take the “squat pen” that, in that classroom warhorse “Digging”, nestles “snug as a gun” in the young poet’s hand, both homage to the spade his father bore and tacit challenge to the literal armaments that would scourge the poet’s province. Four decades later, in “The Conway Stewart” from Human Chain, the remembered pen still has a “pump-action lever” and a “mottled barrel”. Heaney’s chosen weapon will recall history, reflect on its injustice, honour its victims - but always proclaim that (as “The Harvest Bow” puts it) “the end of art is peace”.
Every poem here springs from the same patch of inexhaustible ground. Heaney’s verse dug where it grew, deeper and richer with each successive spadeful. Thus the bog-pickled Tollund Man of Iron-Age Denmark haunts him from Wintering Out (1972) to District and Circle (2006). Early or late, the dirt – of time, of grief, of craft – always stays under the poet’s fingernails. Summoning his labouring father yet again in “Poet’s Chair”, Heaney keeps faith with the poem “as a ploughshare that turns time/ Up and over”.
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