Irish poet Seamus Heaney has died at 74. The Guardian has a brief account of his life; The Telegraph grapples more directly with the work There’s also his long, insightful interview with The Paris Review, from 1997.
“Heaney’s volumes make up two-thirds of the sales of living poets in Britain,” the BBC wrote in 2007, calling him “arguably, the English language’s greatest living bard.”
One of his best-known poems, “Digging,” compares his trade to that of his father and grandfather, who were farmers and cattle-raisers. These are its last two stanzas:
The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
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.
One of Heaney’s great later achievements was his translation of Beowulf, which I bought and read along with his Selected Poems when I was in college.
Previous translators struggled with the first word of Beowulf ("Hwaet!") for decades. "Hark!" "What!", and so on. Heaney's version: "So." <3— Ellie Cumbo (@EllieCumbo) August 30, 2013
Heaney’s take on the Anglo-Saxon most reminds me of the first of Ezra Pound’s Cantos, a weird mix of old epic and contemporary free-verse imagery and meters, a translation of a translation of Homer that begins “And then” and ends “So that:”
When Swinburne died, W.B. Yeats is said to have told his sister, “Now I am King of the Cats.” When Robert Frost died, John Berryman asked, “who’s number one?”
I note this not to pose the question “who’s number one?” now that Heaney has died, but to observe that just as champion boxers and sprinters often have outsized competitive personalities that seem like caricatures compared to other athletes, even among writers, and even when they resist, as Heaney did, being drawn into literary feuds or political debate, great poets are often magnificent and terrible and troubling and glorious and weird.