Seamus Heaney dead at 74: The Independent's literary editor pays tribute

'No poet of the past century has voiced dilemmas of the individual conscience torn between anguish at injustice and horror of violence better, or more profoundly'

Share
Related Topics

Thanks to the Syrian crisis, acute sympathy for human suffering has this week smashed head-on into a shocked grasp of the potential cost of war. Although he deserved to be remembered for much more, no poet of the past century has voiced dilemmas of the individual conscience torn between anguish at injustice and horror of violence better, or more profoundly, than Seamus Heaney. Nobel Prize-winner and County Derry farmer’s son, arguably the world’s most celebrated poet and yet (I saw this myself) a modest, friendly guy who would come up at a party and say without any affection “I’m Seamus Heaney”. He didn’t so much seek a middle ground as the higher ground. On that ground, poetry could do its proper job: to dig down deeper than rhetoric or politics (the dense Ulster soil and its labours never left his writing) and express the sort of truth that only its art could find.

From the late 1960s onwards, Heaney’s nuanced and subtle - but always heartfelt - take both on the Troubles of his native province and conflict further afield became a constant refrain. It established him as a sort of unofficial mentor for readers, and writers, who distrusted glib “commitment” but equally sought to avoid a stance of snobbish or uncaring neutrality. Heaney cared, desperately, about conflict, its causes and its victims, from early collections such as Door into the Dark and North right up to Human Chain (2010), his final volume. And, oddly but justly, the world at large did finally catch up with his compassionate empathy. During the Northern Irish peace process of the late 1990s, Heaney’s verse served for many participants almost as the sound-track to the search for understanding. Bill Clinton, who became his friend, liked to quote the lines (from Heaney’s first Sophocles translation, The Cure at Troy) that imagine the moment when “the longed-for tidal wave/ Of justice can rise up,/ And hope and history rhyme”.

That rhyme proves as elusive as ever.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

£9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

£46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: When is a baroness not a baroness? Titles still cause confusion

Guy Keleny
 

CPAC 2015: What I learnt from the US — and what the US could learn from Ukip

Nigel Farage
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

Dinner through the decades

A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

Philippa Perry interview

The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

Harry Kane interview

The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?