We’ve lost one of the great ones. Last Friday that gentle, good man with the eye of a shepherd and the heart of a bard, Seamus Heaney, died after a short illness, aged 74.
For a number of reasons I find myself feeling undone by this. He has been a huge influence. I never met him, but everyone I know who have, say the same thing – he was courteous, kind, intelligent, and blessed. As a fellow Glamorganista said, it feels as though a much loved grandfather has died. His funeral brought them out in their thousands – poets, politicians, musicians, and ordinary people. And that’s what his poetry did – brought together the high and the low; exalted ordinary things as much as kings and saints. His death has left a breach in the language, and left us all poorer.
I heard him read once, in London. It was just before we came back to New Zealand, and I phoned up to try and get tickets as soon as I heard about the reading, but was already too late. Apparently it had sold out almost immediately. I played the ‘oh, no,but I’m going back to the other side of the world soon, and I’ve wanted all my life to hear him!’ card, and the very kind young guy on the other end of the line took my phone number and said he’d see what he could do. A few minutes later he phoned back and said he’d managed to procure two tickets. (I think I expressed my deep gratitude at the time, but just on the off chance that he ever reads this – thank you again, it really meant a lot to me.)
We nearly missed the reading. Having spent a day wandering around London, I managed to get the time wrong, and thought we had half an hour more than we actually did. We ended up running, but managed to get there just in time. I don’t know how many people were there. We were seated towards the back, so Seamus was a small figure away in the distance. But somehow it felt like he was addressing us directly. Like we were in a pub somewhere, and were standing there as part of a small group he was talking to. Not a bad trick, given how huge the room was. He was mostly reading from District and Circle, which had just come out. I remember him saying that he found these days that he needed to roughen things up a bit, but that poetry still felt like a gift, and a calling.
It seems unbearably Seamus that his last words managed to yoke the deep historical past with the shinning now. Just a few minutes before he died, he wrote a text message to his wife, in Latin. His last words? Noli Timere – don’t be afraid.
Oh Seamus, how can we not be? Goodbye. Go gently.