World Poetry Day: Seamus Heaney’s love of language

Seamus Heaney with his family and at a party at home in Dublin, 1979. Bobbie Hanvey, photographer.

Seamus Heaney with his family and at a party at home in Dublin, 1979. Photographer: Bobbie Hanvey

It’s the 17th annual World Poetry Day, which was first declared by Unesco in 1999 to help meet the world’s aesthetic needs by promoting the reading, writing and teaching of poetry. This year, Unesco director-general Irina Bokova said: “By paying tribute to the men and women whose only instrument is free speech, who imagine and act, Unesco recognises in poetry its value as a symbol of the human spirit’s creativity. […] The voices that carry poetry help to promote linguistic diversity and freedom of expression.”

One poet of this calibre was Seamus Heaney.

The Irish poet, playwright and lecturer was as prolific a translator of poetry as he was a writer. In September 1998, his translation of Gile na Gile, a poem written by Irish language poet Aodhagán Ó Rathaille (1670–1726) was published exclusively in Index on Censorship under the title The Glamoured.

“It is a classic example of a genre known as the aisling (pronounced ashling) which was as characteristic of Irish language poetry in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as rhymed satire was in England at the same time,” Heaney wrote in Index. “The aisling was in effect a mixture of samizdat and allegory, a form which mixed political message with passionate vision.”

This month, Heaney, who died in August 2013, offers us a gift from the afterlife: the publication of his translation of Aeneid’s Book VI, the Roman poet Virgil’s epic on mythic Trojan Aeneas’s journey to Hades. In the poem, Sibyl of Cumae, a guide to the underworld, “chanted menacing riddles” in an attempt to confuse our hero:

Then as her fit passed away and her raving went quiet,
Heroic Aeneas began: ‘No ordeal, O Sibyl, no new
Test can dismay me, for I have foreseen
And foresuffered all. But one thing I pray for
Especially: since here the gate opens, they say,
To the King of the Underworld’s realms, and here
In these shadowy marshes the Acheron floods
To the surface, vouchsafe me one look,
One face-to-face meeting with my dear father.

In the introduction to Aeneid’s Book VI, published posthumously, Heaney describes the poem – which he began working on in 1986 after the death of his father – as “like classics homework, the result of a lifelong desire to honour the memory of my Latin teacher at St Columb’s College, Father Michael McGlinchey”.

St Columb’s is a Roman Catholic grammar school for boys in Derry. Heaney formed part of the school’s “golden generation” in the 1940s and 1950s, which included the dramatist Brian Friel and politician John Hume.

When I attended St Columb’s between 1999 and 2006, pupils were reminded of the school’s alumni illustrissimi — especially Nobel laureates Heaney and Hume — at many a class, assembly and function. One of the highlights of my time as a pupil was attending an after-school discussion with Heaney and the classicist Peter Jones. They spoke of  the positive effect reading poetry has on thought processes and the irrelevancy of the poet’s intention when a reader encounters the poem. It is, he said, our own unique experience with a work that truly matters.

Afterward, Heaney signed my copy of Redress of Poetry, a collection 10 lectures he gave between 1989 and 1994 while a professor of poetry at Oxford.

“Poetry cannot afford to lose its fundamentally self-delighting inventiveness, its joy at being a process of language as well as a representation of things in the world,” Heaney writes in the opening chapter. “[P]oetry is understandably pressed to give voice to much that has hitherto been denied expression in the ethnic, social, sexual and political life.”

Redress of Poetry’s predecessor, the collection of literary criticism essays from 1978-1987 titled Government of the Tongue, discusses in much more depth those who have been denied such expression in their political and social lives. The book is perhaps best known for its celebration of poets of the Eastern Bloc, the former communist states of central and eastern Europe. The discovery of poets such as Czesław Miłosz, Osip Mandelstam, Joseph Brodsky and Zbigniew Herbert had an impact on Heaney’s own work. As a Northern Irish Catholic, Heaney could easily identify with the religion, culture and history of Polish poets Miłosz, whose work was banned by Poland’s communist government, and Herbert, who organised protests against censorship in the Eastern Bloc.

One poem Heaney references is Miłosz’s Child of Europe, which reads:

We, from the fiery furnaces, from behind barbed wires
On which the winds of endless autumns howled,
We, who remember battles where the wounded air roared in
paroxysms of pain.
We, saved by our own cunning and knowledge.

It brings to mind the experiences of many in Northern Ireland. Throughout the Troubles, Heaney was known for expressing both clarity and humanity amid chaos. He tells a story in Government of the Tongue, however, of his personal difficulties in creating art amid violence. He was on his way to a recording session at the BBC studios in Belfast sometime in 1972 with folksinger David Hammond when the pair heard bombs go off.

“[T]he very notion of beginning to sing at the moment when others were beginning to suffer seemed like an offence against their suffering,” he wrote.

This tension in the poet’s mind seemingly had no bearing on his ability to capture the mood of an entire nation through his work. In The Cure at Troy, Heaney’s telling of Sophocles’ Philoctetes, the story of how Odysseus tricked Achilles’ son into joining the Greek forces at Troy, expressed the hope felt by many in his country in 1991, a year of ceasefires and all-party talks.

The poem contains the often-quoted and poignant words:

History says, don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme

Seamus Heaney 1939-2013

Feast of the arts continues in Edinburgh

The Glamoured

Brightening brightness, alone on the road, she appears,
Crystalline crystal and sparkle of blue in green eyes,
Sweetness of sweetness in her unembittered young voice
And a high colour dawning behind the pearl of her face.

Ringlets and ringlets, a curl in every tress
Of her fair hair trailing and brushing the dew on the grass;
And a gem from her birthplace far in the high universe
Outglittering glass and gracing the groove of her breasts.

News that was secret she whispered to soothe her aloneness,
News of one due to return and reclaim his true place,
News of the ruin of those who had cast him in darkness,
News that was awesome, too awesome to utter in verse.

My head got lighter and lighter but still I approached her,
Enthralled by her thraldom, helplessly held and bewildered,
Choking and calling Christ’s name: then she fled in a shimmer
To Luachra Fort where only the glamoured can enter.

I hurtled and hurled myself madly following after
Over keshes and marshes and mosses and treacherous moors
And arrived at that stronghold unsure about how I had got there,
That earthwork of earth the orders of magic once reared.

A gang of thick louts were shouting loud insults and jeering
And a curly-haired coven in fits of sniggers and sneers:
Next thing I was taken and cruelly shackled in fetters
As the breasts of the maiden were groped by a thick-witted boor.

I tried then as hard as I could to make her hear truth,
How wrong she was to be linked to that lazarous swine
When the pride of the pure Scottish stock, a prince of the blood,
Was ardent and eager to wed her and make her his bride.

When she heard me, she started to weep, but pride was the cause
Of those tears that came wetting her cheeks and shone in her eyes;
Then she sent me a guard to guide me out of the fortress,
Who’d appeared to me, lone on the road, a brightening brightness.

Calamity, shock, collapse, heartbreak and grief
To think of her sweetnes, her beauty, her mildness, her life
Defiled at the hands of a hornmaster sprung from riff-raff,
And no hope of redress till the lions ride back on the wave.

Aodhgan O’Rathaille, translated by Seamus Heaney

The Glamoured is my translation of Gile na Gile (literally Brightness of Brightness), one of the most famous Irish poems of the early eighteenth century. It is a classic example of a genre know as the aisling (pronounced ashling) which was as characteristic of Irish language poetry in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as rhymed satire was in England at the same time.

The aisling was in effect a mixture of samizdat and allegory, a form which mixed political message with passionate vision. After the devastations and repressions brought about by the armies of Oliver Cromwell and King William, the native Irish population became subject to the Penal Laws, a system of legislation as deliberately conceived as apartheid, enacted against them specifically as Catholics by the Irish parliament (representing the ‘Protestant interest’ which took control after William of Orange’s victory over the forces of the Catholic Stuart king, James II, at the Battle of the Boyne). The native Irish aristocracy fled – and were ever afterwards know as The Wild Geese – and dreams of redress got transferred into poetry.

Politically, the aisling kept alive the hope of a Stuart restoration which would renew the fortunes of the native Irish. Symbolically, this was expressed in the ancient form of a dream encounter in which the poet meets a beautiful woman in some lonely place. This woman is at one and the same time an apparition of the spirit of Ireland and a muse figure who entrances him completely. She inevitably displays signs of grief and tells a story of how she is in thrall to some heretical foreign brute, but the poem usually ends with a promise — which history will not fulfil — of liberation in the form of a Stuart prince coming to her relief from beyond the seas.

Aodhgan O’Rathaille (1675-1729) is one of the last great voices of the native Irish tradition, Dantesque in his anger and hauteur, a voice crying in the more or less literal wilderness of the Gaelic outback, at once the master of outrage and the witness of desolation.

Seamus Heaney, Index on Censorship, September 1998