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Seamus Heaney

By Stewart McBrideStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / September 29, 1983


Out of Ireland have we come, Great hatred, little room, Maimed us at the start. . . --W.B. Yeats

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Back when Seamus Heaney was still young enough to believe in Santa Claus, he found a kaleidoscope under the Christmas tree. The Irish Catholic farm boy who lived by the Londonderry bogs decided that morning to see what Ol' Saint Nick had brought his Protestant neighbor.

Seamus found the lad sailing a new toy battleship in a nearby water drain. "I was so disappointed," Heaney recalled recently, "that I sailed my kaleidosscope in the muck with him. You might say I abused my gift."

Heaney, Ireland's foremost living poet, still faces hard choices between battleships and kaleidoscopes, between the muddy and the visionary.

"It's the artist's dilemma of being stretched between the contemplation of a motionless point and the command to participate actively in history," said Heaney, who, like many in Northern Ireland, is trapped in the violent cross fire of sectarian politics. Irish nationalists brand him traitor for refusing (as did poet William Butler Yeats) to write marching songs against the British; militant Protestants denounced him as a "papist propagandist" and deliver death threats to his door.

Heaney's cousin, Colum McCartne, was killed by a Protestant gunman, and just two years ago Seamus's neighbor, Francis Hughes, became the second Irish Republican Army (IRA) hunger striker to die in prison.

"I find myself very, very deeply challenged," Heaney told an interviewer last winter in Cambridge, Mass., where he is poet-in-residence at Harvard. "There is some kind of perhaps too-scrupulous refusal to get involved with what was essentially a Provisional IRA propaganda campaign . . . when you move, you move in behalf of those guys -- you're part of the war machine now, and in a way you have lost your mystery.

"On the other hand, if you do shut up . . .[y]ou live out, or live in, this really useless little tremor of liberal conscience. You're left with Margaret Thatcher. You're speaking, not with forked tongue, but with forked silence."

Back in Londonderry, when neighborhood lads were taking up arms to fight for the warring Unionists and the IRA, Seamus quietly picked up the pen. He was the oldest of nine children, and neither of his parents had gone past grade school. Nevertheless, he managed a public scholarship to Queen's College in Belfast, the "man-killing parish," where he felt "lost, unhappy, and at home."

There the Bogside boy discovered the lyric lurking within.

In Belfast, Heaney wrote a poem called "Digging," which he now refers to as "one of my first noises." He describes watching his father digging potatoes in Northern Ireland:

"By God, the old man could handle a spade./Just like his old man. . .But I've no spade to follow men like them./Between my finger and my thumb/The squat pen rests/I'll dig with it."

The Bard of the Bogs, as he is called, now teaches in Dublin and lives by the waterfront with his wife, Marie, and three children. Seamus (which rhymes with "Amos") is the author of five volume of poetry and is now completing "Station Island," an autobiograpical, Dantesque epic. Four months of each year he teaches the Harvard poetry workshop once tutored by the late Robert Lowell. The American poet once called his friend Heaney the greatest Irish poet since Yeats, a burdensome superlative for any working poet to shoulder.

Heaney's reputation has grown swiftly on both sides of the Atlantic, and Lowell's mountainous praise, said Heaney, has unfortunately made him "a fall guy ," an easy target for those who jealously snipe at "Seamus Feamus."

Being knighted successor to Yeats "is terrible," Heaney says. "It creates all kinds of hostilities among your peers and readers. They assumed you rigged the critical blessing. The writer lives like some kind of sacred king who will be executed by the next king. One of my dramatist friends says: 'Everything's a test, even praise.'"