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Seamus Heaney in Denmark

Bruce Clunies-Ross sends a memoir of Seamus Heaney in Denmark.

In Copenhagen in 1976, Seamus Heaney was introduced to the eminent Danish archaeologist PV Glob. The meeting was arranged by my late friend Jørgen Andersen, a Danish writer and broadcaster, art historian, hibernophile, natural eccentric and expert on sheela-na-gigs, whose comprehensive study of the subject, The Witch on the Wall, was soon to appear. The book may have cued Heaney’s poem on the sheela on the church at Kilpeck (Station Island, 1984), but that was not what brought them together. Jørgen Andersen was also devoted to English and Irish poetry, and already an admirer of Heaney’s work. Around the time of the meeting, he had been making a programme on poetry in Northern Ireland for Danmarks Radio, where he was a producer. Central to this was North, published in 1975, which reflects Heaney’s reading of Glob’s famous book The Bog People (English translation by Rupert Bruce-Mitford, 1969). Heaney had obviously known it for some time. It is the source of “The Tollund Man” and “Nerthus” in his previous collection, Wintering Out (1972) as well as of “The Grauballe Man” in North. Between the two books, he had evidently visited the sites in the Jutish bogs where the bodies described in Glob’s book were excavated, and seen the remains preserved in museums in Silkeborg and Aarhus.

I am not sure how Jørgen Andersen met Glob. He was an acknowledged supporter of Andersen’s research on sheelas, but they may have known each other earlier. Glob was a very prominent figure in Denmark, as an archaeologist of international standing, responsible for extensive developments in the subject, and of Danish museums, and also as an associate of the influential Danish CoBrA painter Asger Jorn, with whom he collaborated on several projects, notably The Scandinavian Institute of Comparative Vandalism. Jørgen Andersen was also acquainted with Jorn, and deeply interested in his activities, so the acquaintance with Glob may have come about through that connection.

At the time of the meeting, PV Glob was director of the Danish National Museum and rigsantikvar, a title which loses its ring in English translation. Jørgen had arranged to bring Heaney to his office in the vast museum building, and had invited me to come along. At the appointed hour, before lunch, we were admitted and found Glob inspecting stones which had just arrived from one of the Gulf sheikdoms (as he called them), where he had recently been on a dig. He was dressed for that, rather than for Copenhagen at the end of winter, though he was not wearing the keffiyeh in which he was sometimes photographed. A gold ring hung prominently from the lobe of his left ear; this was before ear rings were much seen on men, other than pirates. Heaney was impressed, and after we left, wondered how Glob came to be wearing it; that, Jørgen indicated, was the subject of much speculation.

After introductions, Heaney and Andersen took the chairs facing Glob across his desk and I tried to keep a low profile at the edge of the group. The atmosphere was relaxed and the conversation flowed easily. Heaney tactfully expressed admiration for The Bog People and commented on the significance of the discoveries in the Jutish bogs for him as an Irish poet. It was unclear whether Glob was familiar with Heaney’s poems, but he mentioned that since its translation into English, his book had brought him a number of letters from poets in various parts of the world. As Heaney began to reveal how closely he had observed the bodies, Glob expressed regret that there were no bog people in the National Museum in Copenhagen, but he took us down to a gallery to inspect the great Celtic silver cauldron discovered at Gundestrup in Jutland, which is described in The Bog People. As we stood before it, Glob at first simply extended his hands and invoked its beauty. It was, he declared, the great treasure of the museum, and he drew our attention to many details in the representations of the goddess and human sacrifice, which are embossed on its panels.

I had expected the meeting might end after this, but Glob invited us to return to his office. As we sat down, he went to his filing cabinet and pulled out a long drawer. It was completely filled, as far we could see, with bottles, ranked in upright rows. The narrow, observant eyes in Seamus Heaney’s big face flashed wide open, with surprise and anticipation, to an extent I would have thought physically impossible and never saw again. Beside him, Jørgen had a satisfied grin, whether it was because he had been hoping for something like this or that the view of the cauldron had stimulated his unquenchable thirst, I do not know. Glob produced snaps glasses, and began displaying bottles of various shapes and colours, containing different kinds of brændevin. The word is loosely translated by its cognate “brandy” in a passage relating to the discovery of the Gundestrup cauldron in The Bog People, but it refers to spirits distilled from sources other than wine in Scandinavia, and sometimes called aquavit, or, in flavoured variants, bitters. In Denmark it is commonly known as snaps. This was another branch of Glob’s diverse expertise, and he had written a book on the subject. Better still, he had created his own bitters, Ægte Jyske (“Genuine Jutish”) which he now poured audibly, from a brown klukflaske (the traditional pinched bottle). It was strongly aromatic, and slightly more bitter than any I had tasted before. Almost certainly, one of its ingredients was bog myrtle, which grows on the site where the Gundestrup cauldron was discovered. As we enjoyed the perfect drink to toast this meeting between the poet of bogs and the archaeologist of the bog people, Glob talked discursively of snaps. The glasses were refilled, but before we took them, he suggested we follow the correct procedure and drink some beer. Four bottles, with a square, red Tuborg label I had never seen before, were produced from the drawer. Glob said it was a brew made exclusively for the court, but claimed that as rigantikvar he was entitled to it. More glasses appeared, though not for Jørgen, who like quite a few Danes, preferred to drink his beer straight from the bottle. I wondered what the courtiers would have thought. I retain no memory of how the beer tasted. Ægte Jyske I remember because while it was on the market I bought it, but it disappeared long ago, and now seems to be forgotten. Before we staggered out of Glob’s office he presented us with signed copies of his Brændevinsbog (1972). I assume Heaney received one, though the book is in Danish. When my turn came, Glob had used up all his Danish copies, so I got the Norwegian version. Glob’s inscription is dated “12.iii.76”, the day of the meeting.

Seamus Heaney visited Denmark again a few times, and I met him then, and on a couple of occasions elsewhere, through friends who were unknown to each other: the late George J Watson, Irish literary scholar, whose acquaintance with Heaney went back to their student days at Queen’s University, Belfast, and the late Bernard McCabe, dedicatee, with his wife, Jane, of Heaney’s collection The Haw Lantern (1987) and owner of “the big time-keeping foot, as bare as an abbot’s” in “The Birch Grove” (District and Circle, 2006). In 1994, Heaney was in Copenhagen to launch a substantial collection of his poems translated into Danish by Annette Mester and the poet Uffe Harder. A double reading was arranged in one of the fine old lecture halls at the university. The plan was for Seamus Heaney to read a poem, followed by Uffe Harder reading the translation, or maybe it was the other way around. It does not matter. Uffe Harder had fortified himself for the occasion, and once he got into the swing of things, began to deviate from the prearranged order. This unsettled the audience, and we became restive, barely suppressing the urge to interrupt. At first, Heaney, one of the few in the room unfamiliar with both languages, did not realise what was happening, but he caught on quickly, particularly when Harder broke into a pause in the middle of one of the English poems, and started reading a different one in Danish. Heaney might have been unaware of the difference, but he showed a remarkable instinct and resourcefulness in saving the situation. He gently took control, at the same time protecting Uffe Harder, and, in a steady voice, read on to the end. What impressed me about that event was how successfully some of the poems Uffe Harder read managed to match the rhythms of the English. I mentioned this to Heaney afterwards, and he was delighted. Rhythm, he said, was the most important element in a poem, and a translation which captured that was a success.

On this visit, Seamus Heaney returned to the site in Jutland where the Tollund Man was found, and composed another poem, “Tollund”, privately printed in four stanzas in 1994, and expanded to six in The Spirit Level (1996). A poem published a decade later, “The Tollund Man in Springtime” (District and Circle, 2006) indicates that Heaney’s imagination was stirred, throughout his career, by the images of the mummified body of the hanged man, recovered after thousands of years from its burial place in Tollund bog, whose story he first discovered in Glob’s book, and discussed with him at the meeting in 1976.

Almost the last time I saw Seamus Heaney in Denmark, it was a sunny day in 1999 and he was a Nobel laureate, standing in the middle of a green field in Lejre, not far from where I live on the island of Sjaelland. A few horses looked curiously over the single strand electric fence behind him, and in the middle distance I am sure there were some browsing cows, released from their winter prison. The field contained traces of the foundations of a Viking mead-hall, thought to be Heorot, Hrothgar’s palace in Beowulf, and Heaney had been placed where the scop might have stood while declaiming to the feasting warriors. A small group of us – poetry enthusiasts, medievalists, miscellaneous scholars and curious locals – gathered at a distance for an open air poetry reading. It was another duet; my colleague Professor Arne Zettersten read passages of Beowulf in Old English, followed by Heaney reading his translations of them, and this time, as far as we could tell, the antiphony went without a hitch. Afterwards, in the refreshments tent, Seamus asked “Did I get away with it?” and before I could answer added, “That is always the first question I ask myself.” It was a typically modest remark, thrown away with a smile as he reached for a drink, but I took it also as an allusion to the element of risk in art.

A day or two later, I saw him in the hall of the Glyptotek in Copenhagen, surrounded by sarcophagi and sculptures of Roman gods. I had arrived in plenty of time for his public reading, but the place was already filling up, and as I sat down, standees were crowding in behind me. It was the largest audience for poetry I had ever seen, comprised mostly of people who had come to listen to a poet read in what was for them a foreign language, and they obviously enjoyed it. That distant view of him, over the heads of the Danish audience, was my very last. I still heard about him from mutual friends, and enjoyed his later books as they appeared, but our paths never crossed again.

Bruce Clunies-Ross was appointed to the English Institute at the University of Copenhagen in 1970, and remained there until he retired in 2001. Most of his publications are about Australian poetry and music. His is writing a memoir of his earlier life in Adelaide in the 1950s.
23/01/2014