Making “Rejoice” Answer Back – Further Thoughts on Seamus Heaney

A mourners lays his hands on the coffin of Nobel Laureate poet Seamus Heaney before his funeral at the Sacred Heart Church in Donnybrook in south Dublin.

A mourners lays his hands on the coffin of Nobel Laureate poet Seamus Heaney before his funeral at the Sacred Heart Church in Donnybrook in south Dublin.


In Memory of David Hammond

The door was open and the house was dark
Wherefore I called his name, although I knew
The answer this time would be silence

That kept me standing listening while it grew
Backwards and down and out into the street
Where as I’d entered (I remember now)

The streetlamps too were out.
I felt, for the first time there and then, a stranger,
Intruder almost, wanting to take flight

Yet well aware that here was no danger,
Only withdrawal, a not unwelcoming
Emptiness, as in a midnight hangar

On an overgrown airfield in high summer.

Seamus Heaney (April 1939 – August 30th, 2013) from Human Chain, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2010

Even though I already wrote my tribute to Seamus Heaney in the after-shock of his death and even though I thought this would lessen the unexpected ache, it hasn’t. The music and earth-real taste of his images stay in my mouth and sing somehow deeper inside me -in atrium and ventricle: the blood-pumped guts inside a heart.

Does death offend me? Yes, but at 62 I have grown some numbness to it. Aunts and uncles gone, mother and father, gone. But those offenses don’t feel like this one, no, not like this death, this stranger’s stranger death. Because the life, his life, inside his poems will not snub out. But that life, worse, seems to mock the life inside the man, now snubbed too soon, it seems to me, furiously, out.

Yes, Seamus in your poem, in your last book, on the street of your dead friend, The streetlamps too were out. I don’t know your street but somehow in the streets I walk inside my mind some of those streetlights are out.

And Seamus as I read this morning your translated lines in Beowolf, those unrelentling four-beat lines, I stumbled across the ones about the grieving King (Hrethel) over the death of his son:

He gazes sorrowfully at his son’s dwelling,
the banquet hall bereft of all delight,
the windswept hearthstone; the horsemen are sleeping,
the warriors under ground; what was is no more.
No tunes from the harp, no cheer raised in the yard.
Alone with his longing, he lies down on his bed
and sings a lament; everything seems too large,
the steadings and the fields.

from Beowolf, translated by Seamus Heaney, Faber and Faber Limited, 1999

After your death everything seems too large. Especially, Seamus, your poems. The life, the building-busting life inside them. Like the knock-me out life in this one, this sonnet without a full stop until its last blow, a literal sledge’s blow but also a blow like the one that knocked the Twin Towers over:

The Shiver

The way you had to stand to swing the sledge,
Your two knees locked, your lower back shock-fast
As shields in a testudo*, spine and waist
A pivot for the tight-braced, tilting rib-cage;
The way its iron head planted the sledge
Unyieldingly as a club-footed last*;
The way you had to heft and then half-rest
Its gathered force like a long-nursed rage
About to be let fly: does it do you good
To have known it in your bones, directable,
Withholdable at will,
A first blow that could make air of a wall,
A last one so unanswerably landed.
 The staked earth quailed and shivered in the handle?

* A Testudo is a defensive formation of shields and a last is a foot-shaped tool used in making shoes.

from District and Circle, Faber and Faber, 2006)

The question inside this poem comes like another blow. I have felt that kind of shiver when I have hammered my sledge so hard my hands hurt. I felt that way when the Twin Towers fell. Did it do me any good.? Well the blow of your death Seamus has done me good. My hands might sting and ache but your death has caused me to haul your poems out and read them, Read more of them than I have before.

In reading many of the tributes to Seamus during these past few days I first became conscious that I had included the first (Digging) and last (Postscript) of the poems from his collection Open Ground – Poems 1966-1996. This came to my attention through a tribute written by Henri Cole, the American poet and former colleague of Heaney’s who took the first word from Digging and last word from Postscript to describe Heaney. Lovely move!

The words he quoted were between and open. And so Cole describes Heaney as a man who lived between so many worlds, so many forms of poetry, so many realities, yet managed at the same time to stay open, especially as Cole quotes, while being true to the negative evidence of history. Cole adds: This is the question Heaney was always struggling to answer while making poems of aesthetic beauty and converting the roughness of our human experiences into complex harmonies.

He was not afraid of balancing opposites. But even so when the opposites were stark and dark his innate hopefulness often seeps through. I think this is the reason for his huge appeal. His poems contain both yes and no and yet somehow in many poems, the yes is not snuffed out by the no.

He captures this with a deft touch in his poem In The Attic from his last book,  Human Chain published in 2010. It’s been reported he described that book a month or so ago as his last and then corrected himself and called it his latest. Another, but now especially poignant, example of what the literary luminary Helen Vendler calls his second thoughts, so evident in his poems. Ah, the hope of this man. The hope.

In his poem In The Attic he uses a wonderful comparison of a young and vital Jim Hawkins, from R.L. Stevenson’s Treasure Island , perched up in his crowsnest, fighting off an enemy, his ship grounded but not damaged; and aging Heaney up in his attic, the only mast and rigging available to him, a birch he planted 20 years before that now blocks his view to the ocean!!!

In a wonderful shift Heaney becomes both that boy and that man:

At the attic skylight, a man marooned

In his own loft, a boy
Shipshaped in the crow’s nest of a life,….

He brings these two aspects of himself ( the yes of the young boy and no of the aging man) into a marvelous balance in the poem’s last part:

As I age and blank on names,
As my uncertainty on stairs
Is more and more the lightheadedness

Of a cabin boy’s first time on the rigging,
As the memorable bottoms out
Into the irretrievable,

It’s not that I can’t imagine still
That slight untoward rupture and world-tilt
As a wind freshened and the anchor weighed.

The endurance, the hope of that. He was being slowly defeated by age but he wouldn’t give up. That was his answer to history’s negative evidence. Anchors aweigh!!!. This is an answer he describes in his essay Joy or Night through these lines in the poem The Dead by Czech poet Miroslav Holub:

After the third operation, his heart
pierced like an old carnival target,
he woke in his bed and said,
‘Now I’ll be fine,
like a sunflower, and by the way
have you ever seen horses make love?

He died that night.

In this essay Heaney goes on to contrast the views of Philip Larkin and Yeats on life’s cruel necessities, mainly death, and finishes with a discussion of Yeats’ poem The Man and the Echo. Here is the last part of Yeats’ poem and part of Heaney’s commentary:

O Rocky voice
Shall we in that great night rejoice?
What do we know but that we face
One another in this place?
But hush, for I have lost the theme
its joy or night seem but a dream;
Up there some hawk or owl has struck
Dropping out of sky or rock,
A stricken rabbit is crying out.
And its cry distracts my thought.

For Heaney this declares not only that the human spirit must endure but also how it must endure, by pitting human resource against the recalcitrant and the inhuman, by pitting the positive effort of mind against the desolations of natural and historical violence, by making “rejoice” answer back to the voice from the rock, whatever it says:…..

Heaney continues with a final comment on this poem and Yeats’ poetry that could equally apply to Heaney and many of his poems:

The Man and the Echo has preserved a freedom, and manages to pronounce a final Yes. And the Yes is valuable because we can say of it what Karl Barth said of the enormous Yes at the centre of Mozart’s music, that it has weight and significance because it overpowers and contains a No.

Here, to conclude I include from Human Chain, its first poem. Another contradiction, another yes/no. And the richness of meanings within meanings. Whatever it was in this poem that brought the narrator awake seems a marvel but scary, almost, too. But the one awake sees it. Just the way Heaney sees the world in its dark and light, in how he paid such attention to language, to words. And how he invites his readers to come awake.


Had I not been awake I would have missed it.
A wind that rose and whirled until the roof
Pattered with quick leaves off the sycamore

And got me up, the whole of me a-pater,
Alive and kicking like an electric fence
Had I not been awake I would have missed it.

It came and went so unexpectedly
And almost it seemed dangerously,
returning like an animal to the house,

A courier blast that there and then
Lapsed ordinary. But not ever
After. And not now.

Heaney’s death, its blast, has brought something in me awake. But will it here and now, lapse ordinary? May I let it not be so. May I let the no of self-protection, quotidian every-dayness, human quandariness, be supplanted by this yes:

A courier blast there and then
Lapsed ordinary.But not ever
After. And not now.


Post a Comment

Your email is never shared. Required fields are marked *