A Warrior Is Gone: Remembering Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney, who passed away at the age of 74 on August 30, was hailed as the best Irish poet since William Butler Yeats. When he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1995, the committee noted his "works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past."

At his funeral today in his native County Derry, which drew some 1,000 mourners—including Irish president Michael D. Higgins, Taoiseach Enda Kenny, Bono and the other members of U2, actor Stephen Rea and fellow Irish poets Michael Longley and Paul Muldoon—the Catholic archbishop of Dublin, Dr. Diarmuid Martin, said that "greatness and graciousness belonged together in him."

"Seamus has been with me on every journey I have taken, and there have been many times when a retreat into his words has kept me afloat," wrote Bono in a piece published yesterday for The Guardian. "Most of our life in this kind of work is very concrete, full of facts, but we all have to seek redress from time to time in poetry. Seamus was where I went for that. He was the quietest storm that ever blew into town. As an activist, From the Republic of Conscience has been like a bible for me, something I return to and have returned to for as long as I can remember. Some of those phrases are like tattoos for me, worn very close to the heart."

In 2009, Irish composer Rachel Holstead wrote about "The Given Note," one of Heaney’s most famous poems, saying that the fiddler of the poem was a metaphor for Heaney himself, "for his seeing and hearing of the beauties, ordinary and extraordinary mysteries of the world." (Read the poem—which was read aloud at his funeral by his friend, the publisher Peter Fallon—and Holstead’s introduction to it here.)

Amidst all the reverential recollection of the universally beloved poet, it’s easy to forget why poetry still matters, especially in a world that in many ways seems to be spinning out of control. But it’s precisely when times seem bleak that poetry serves not only as a salve, but a salvation.

In the brief interview below, Heaney explains that while a poem "isn’t for the moment utilitarian," it is a "snapshot of consciousness," recognizing the importance of poetry as a unifying voice to both the black movement of the United States and the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland in the 1960s and 1970s.

Indeed, poets throughout history have been able to communicate across and through social barriers, particularly at times of struggle. At the funeral, Monsignor Brendan Devlin referred to Heaney’s remarkable ability to "speak to the King of Sweden or an Oxford don or a South Derry neighbour in the directness of a common and shared humanity."

Seamus Heaney, one of the most important poets of the 20th century, will be greatly missed. But those who mourn his death would do well to simply relish in the glory of the work he created while he was alive. As Heaney penned in his celebrated 2001 new verse translation of the Old English heroic epic poem Beowulf:

"It is always better
to avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning.
For every one of us, living in this world
means waiting for our end. Let whoever can
win glory before death. When a warrior is gone,
that will be his best and only bulwark."

image: Antonio Olmos

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