The Letters of Seamus Heaney, Christopher Reid (ed), Faber & Faber, 848 pp, £40, ISBN: 978-0571341085
Seamus Heaney was a steadfast and indefatigable letter-writer – though how he kept up the practice alongside his escalating activities and responsibilities, literary, academic, domestic and international, is a mystery. It wasn’t just a matter of dashing off missives at odd moments – though, on one short flight to Salt Lake City (we read), he completed a total of fourteen letters, ‘and as many more to do on the way back’. That these were mostly testimonials and recommendations doesn’t diminish the effort, or the dedication. But the bulk of the Heaney correspondence is thoughtful, vivid, energetic, and illuminating about his own work, and the work of others. On Medbh McGuckian, for instance, he writes: ‘The language has been pulled outside in, as it were … There’s intimacy and rawly exposed structure to it, the way you see the seams at the oxters and the conjunctions of the stuffs in an inside-out jacket.’ And there you have it! Heaney took his commitments and the expectations of others very seriously, often to the detriment of his own well-being. ‘On the go unmercifully,’ he notes ruefully in a letter included in this collection. But this was late on, when the drawbacks as well as the advantages of nearly unprecedented literary celebrity were well to the fore. Letters arriving by the sackful at his Dublin address, all containing requests of one sort or another, were sometimes treated by the put-upon poet to a half-jocular kick. But then he would deal with them.
Heaney’s prodigious correspondence begins exuberantly, with the writer’s high spirits only occasionally tempered by the need to apologise for this or that unwitting slight or oversight brought to his attention: ‘Please accept … my sincere and useless apologies’; ‘I was simply ashamed of myself’, etc. That the penitent mode comes naturally to him (‘an examination of conscience’, as he describes it), is possibly an effect of an intensive Catholic schooling at St Columb’s College in Derry. Here, in 1951 – as is well known – the twelve-year-old Heaney from Bellaghy arrived as a scholarship boy, and quickly made friends with a fellow eleven-plusser, Seamus Deane from the Bogside. Deane, the recipient of the first letter included here (December 1964), congratulating him on the birth of a son and the award of a fellowship, remains a consistent and valued correspondent. The two were colleagues in the Field Day enterprise in the 1980s – along with Brian Friel, Stephen Rae and others – and presided over its achievements and its eventual dissolution. ‘[I] wish we could re-live those Field Day days and nights,’ Heaney writes nostalgically to Seamus Deane in a letter of 2010, at the same time having good words for his old friend’s ‘passion and intellectual force’. This pivotal association is just the first in a lengthy catalogue of friendships whose progression is tracked and elaborated in the Heaney letters.
‘A hefty volume done with ambition and thoroughness.’ This is Heaney’s comment on Allan Wade’s 1954 edition of The Letters of W.B. Yeats, and one could with equal justice apply the phrase to Christopher Reid’s selection from Heaney’s own correspondence. The Letters of Seamus Heaney extends to more than 800 pages and adds up to a treasury of wit, cogency, insight and felicity of expression. It also, willy-nilly, charts the course of a lifetime’s experience. In 1964, when the Reid volume opens, Heaney is employed as a lecturer in English at St Joseph’s Training College in Belfast, having graduated to this position following a stint as a teacher of boisterous boys at St Thomas’s Secondary School in benighted Ballymurphy (where the headmaster was the novelist and short-story writer Michael McLaverty, an early mentor and encourager of the Heaney oeuvre). He was already publishing the occasional poem in local papers and magazines, and was shortly to be appointed as junior lecturer in the English Department of Queen’s University. Before this, in the early 1960s, he had been a frequent attender at Philip Hobsbaum’s ‘Group’ poetry workshop in Belfast, where, it’s been said, his singular talent was recognised and upheld. The publication of three Heaney poems in the 1964 pre-Christmas issue of the New Statesman, and a consequent invitation from Faber to submit a manuscript, follow. By the end of the decade, with two collections of poetry under his belt, and a sojourn, with his wife, Marie, and two young sons, as visiting lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley, Heaney’s upward trajectory is well under way.
All this is reflected in the letters. It’s a far cry from Bellaghy to Berkeley, and Heaney seems still a bit bemused by the social, professional and academic riches cascading on top of him. ‘My good luck in all spheres of life makes my Irish Catholic consciousness apprehensive …’, he confides to fellow poet John Hewitt. But he needn’t have feared a reversal of fortune. The Heaney letters, naturally enough, gain in confidence and aplomb as their writer’s place in the world of literature is assured. And he can let his hair down whenever he’s off duty, as it were. A relish for impromptu rhyming keeps breaking out in the form of verse epistles: ‘Dear Jimmy, I’ve read Energy to Burn / And your image floats before me, man and shade …’ (to James Simmons); ‘But enough. There’s a clear head where you are / And that national safety valve – laughter’ (to Thomas Flanagan). Heaney’s riposte to ex-St Columb’s pupil Michael Foley, who, as editor of the Honest Ulsterman, had lumped him together with Michael Longley and Derek Mahon, dubbing the three of them ‘the tight-arsed trio’, reads thus:
… who do you think you are?
Rare Ben Jonson? Swift? Dryden? Or Ulick?
We both know the Big Study and Pre-Pat
The half-day syndrome and the day-boy lunch.
It would be a pity to spoil things as they are
With a clip on the ear or rabbit punch.
So instead I write to say I am fed up
finding myself too much in gossip columns,
show proper respect, you editorial dope.
You’re dealing with a prefect from St Columb’s.
As castigations go, this is singularly good-humoured. Other critical attacks on Heaney’s modus operandi proved harder for the poet to deal with, coming, as they did, from some who should have known better, and some exasperated to the point of animosity by the whole ‘famous Seamus’ brouhaha. Some of his work, especially in the early years, was subjected to disapproval (by critics such as A Alvarez or Anthony Thwaite) and misinterpretation, sometimes seemingly wilful misinterpretation. I’m thinking, for example, of his 1975 collection North, and its less than enthusiastic reception in the said North. However, it’s likely that Heaney held in mind his advice to Thomas Flanagan: ‘sustain all references to literary success and make notes on begrudgers’. And as it happened, the voices of dissent were soon drowned out by a growing adulatory chorus. It’s true that Heaney couldn’t help but feel slightly embarrassed by the sheer volume of honours and acclamation conferred on him, and the ways in which he appeared to be outstripping his contemporaries. ‘I was both honoured and uneasy to be asked to do it’ (deliver a memorial address on Robert Lowell); ‘You had a lot of Heaneybop to listen to’ (apologetically, to Michael Longley); ‘I don’t know if you were aware of the extent of the exposure and commodification, but it left me oddly unconfident’ (to Eamon Duffy).
A capacity for self-mockery, however, kept Heaney’s spirits in good order. In his introduction to Karl Miller’s essay collection Tretower to Clyro (2011), the critic and author Andrew O’Hagan recalls a series of literary jaunts around Britain and Ireland in the company of Miller and Heaney, both in ebullient form. At Burns’s birthplace, O’Hagan notes, ‘They have something called the Tam O’Shanter Experience.’ Karl Miller at this point can’t resist quipping, ‘Soon there’ll be the Seamus Heaney Experience.’ Heaney’s doughty response is instantaneous: ‘That’s right. It’ll be a few churns and a confessional box.’ (I think he would have said ‘confession box’.)
In fact, Karl Miller’s bantering suggestion was not in the least hyperbolic. Similar proposals for Heaney exhibits had already been mooted more than once, and firmly rejected by the level-headed poet. Writing to Francis Murphy at the Northern Ireland Arts Council in 1989, he politely but implacably rules out the prospect of a photographic display devoted solely to him at the Sperrin Heritage Centre in Strabane. ‘It is imperative for me not to connive in the overstatement of my own meaning …’, a thing which, in his view, overexposed and subtly undermined him. Moreover, the area in question had little relevance to his life or work: ‘I am in fact more an Antrim man than a Sperrin man’ – and even more than that, a South Derry man. Others, including Flann O’Brien, Benedict Kiely and Brian Friel, were, he felt, better qualified by reason of territorial affiliation to be aggrandised in Strabane.
For all his amiability, indeed, Heaney never hesitated to put his foot down whenever it came to overtures which overstepped the mark. ‘The shock of intrusion, which I felt when I heard of your … visit to my family, has been dramatically renewed …’ and so on. A core of privacy, relating to his family, his place of origin and the springs of his inspiration, was essential to his poetic and emotional steadiness. And the more threatened it became, the more fiercely he guarded it. ‘Keeping biographers at bay’ became a major preoccupation. When Heaney agreed to subject himself to a series of interviews with the poet Dennis O’Driscoll (published in 2008 under the title Stepping Stones), it was partly to ensure a degree of control, on his part, over the book’s eventual content. It was as close to autobiography as he was prepared to go, and he was swayed in its favour by his liking and admiration for O’Driscoll and trust in his judgement. As the project progressed, however, Heaney found himself beset by misgivings: ‘ … anxious about the book-length interview … wondering if there’s not far too much information of a gossipy nature, too much … self-swank’, he confided to Eamon Duffy. And to Carol Hughes: ‘I simply did not realise how long the final thing would turn out to be … when it was all put together, I did balk.’ He needn’t have worried. The book, when it appeared, was judged to be ‘richly enjoyable [and] consistently engaging’, while providing ‘an overall sense of the shape of Heaney’s life and career to date’. I’m quoting Terence Brown in an Irish Times review in November 2008 – just one of the many commentators enthralled by Stepping Stones.
If the publication of the Dennis O’Driscoll interviews was a cause of anxiety, worse was to follow in the form of extensive seventieth birthday celebrations. Heaney, overwhelmed by overexposure and overpraise (as he saw it), summed up his feelings in a letter to the painter Hughie O’Donoghue: ‘This morning I was prostrated by the passage of the media juggernaut that bore down on me and drove over us all during the weekend.’ This amounted to a kind of culmination, perhaps; but increasing fame over the years had brought other hazards in its wake – and especially in the aftermath of Heaney’s 1995 Nobel Prize, the daunting round of lectures, readings, prizegivings, literary appointments, worldwide public appearances and all, took an immense toll. While Heaney longed for solitude, though, his ingrained sense of obligation enabled him to perform with grace the role allotted to him. A clear if ironic connection with the ‘smiling public man’ persona enshrined in a poem by Yeats, bolstered his stamina.
And still the letters came. A compulsion to answer each one the minute he got it proved utterly impracticable, and many of Heaney’s replies begin with an apology ‘for not having written earlier’, for being ‘slow in replying’, etc.. Sometimes a belated response is geared to disarm its recipients:
For months I’ve said, ‘Tomorrow I shall write,’
And every morning put it off till night …”
and so on, through twenty-one merrily rhyming couplets. In a rather more serious vein are Heaney’s remarkably conscientious answers to queries about his work from scholars and editors – though some of these, lacking in ‘what Mahon and Longley once called “the good crack” requirement’, cannot have struck him as anything other than a chore. (He is still replying to appeals for information from academics three weeks before his unexpected death in August 2013.)
He is patient with some correspondents’ over-interpretation of his poems (a recurring annoyance): ‘No, I hadn’t noticed or intended a play with “soft bog-pillow’”; ‘Please excuse me – nothing worthwhile to contribute here.’ You can see him gritting his teeth while doing his utmost to be helpful. Fortunately he had a bolthole, ‘a bunker in Wicklow’, to which he could escape from time to time. This was a valued resource, especially when health problems (in particular, the well-documented stroke he suffered in 2006) forced him to slow down. But still no let-up occurred in ‘the mighty influx of mail that comes in, day by day’.
Glanmore Cottage in Wicklow was first of all rented from the Canadian academic and Synge specialist Ann Saddlemyer, and then bought outright by the Heaneys in 1988. By this stage, the principal family home was in Dublin’s Sandymount. The decision to leave Belfast and move South, back in 1972, was not, Heaney insisted, dictated by the escalating Troubles afflicting the North. It wasn’t the Troubles, but somehow the decision had been taken to move away; and then the offer came, opportunely. ‘We’re very glad we made the move,’ Heaney assured his friend Karl Miller in an early letter from Wicklow, dated November 1972, ‘it’s like living in a Georgian poem.’ It is also a setting for marvels and delights. In the middle of the verse letter I mention above (to Monica and Tomas Tranströmer in 1991), comes a magical, off-the-cuff description of a small incident ‘like a grace bestowed’:
… Last night we stood
Watching the sea from a high place in a wood
Not far from here (we’re in the country now,
Down in our silence-den in County Wicklow).
At any rate, what happens? A young fox
Is suddenly beside us on the rocks!
His fine, long, white-and-ginger nose, his brush,
His slender, feral vigilance in the hush
Of trees and twilight, his just being there
Beside us, and not showing any fear
Of us or of the world felt heaven-sent
It verified a word like innocent.
I’m reminded of a sentence I’m about to extract from Karl Miller’s essay ‘Country Writers’: ‘ … in the Sixties, … in a Border farmhouse, I held in my arms a friendly young half-domesticated fox, his ears like two silk purses’. These are both country writers imbued with the utmost urbanity and savoir faire, whose instincts for grace and goodness are finely tuned.
Heaney may have turned his back on the North and its exigencies, for practical and personal reasons, but he never dissociated himself from his Mossbawn/Bellaghy/Anahorish origins. His home territory remained for him inviolable and incandescent, akin in some sense to Paul Muldoon’s ‘ancestral Armagh’, as Heaney puts it in a letter of 2005 to the younger poet, ‘which still makes its presence felt and metamorphoses as marvellously and even more marvellously than before’. For himself, he acknowledges the impulse, in terms of the creative imagination, ‘to keep in touch with the old, damp, Derry sources of … inspiration, to beware of becoming a showpiece, an exhibit, a mascot’, — something, in his words, to be relegated to a display case.
In 1992, writing to Derek Mahon, Heaney gives vent to a moment of apprehension: ‘Christ, now that Larkin’s letters are out and Longley’s are in archives, I’m beginning to panic about putting down a line!’ However – and we should be grateful for it – he couldn’t have helped himself: letter-writing was one of his strongest modes of expression, and he had a gift for it if anyone had. No doubt he would have approved the choice of Christopher Reid as editor of his own Selected Letters (when it came to the bit), and applauded Reid’s thoroughgoing approach to deciding what to include, and – perhaps more importantly – what to leave out.
‘Selection from an epistolary output as vast as Heaney’s has inevitably involved rewards and regrets,’ Reid explains in his introduction. One of his decisions is to omit any letters written by Heaney before the age of twenty-five: there’s nothing here, for example, along the lines of, ‘I got ten for conduct at lessons’, or ‘On Saturday I climbed up a tree and got very dirty’, as we find (quite charmingly) in the opening pages of The Letters of Louis MacNeice. The book, in fact, contains no letters addressed by Heaney to his siblings or other relatives still living in Bellaghy; equally appropriately, those to his wife and children are likewise excluded from public scrutiny. There’s intimacy aplenty throughout Christopher Reid’s 800-page selection, but no violation of the individual’s deepest privacy. The editor has taken to heart the poet’s assertion in a letter to one would-be interviewer: ‘There are subjects that I do not want to address, other than in the poems themselves.’ This is putting it plain. What’s abundantly in evidence from the start of the correspondence, though, is Heaney’s talent for friendship – though occasionally, it’s true, a wry, disabused or acerbic note creeps in, with comments made which he’d probably rather the subjects weren’t able to read. The letters were never written for publication, although, with the passage of time, it became inevitable that many of those available would be published.
Heaney has tremendous praise for Christopher Reid’s edition of Ted Hughes’s letters (published in 2007): ‘true to the friendship, to the editorial requirement, close, kind, grave, loyal and loving’ – exemplary in other words, and all true, as it happens, of the current volume too. Well – aside from a couple of infinitesimal errors which appear among the generally meticulous and informative editorial notes. For example: the place called Cranfield at the centre of Ciaran Carson’s luminous quasi-novel Fishing for Amber (1999) is in Co Antrim, not Co Down (p 518); Derek Mahon did not attend University College Dublin with Eamon Grennan or anyone else; his alma mater was Trinity (p 163).
The correspondence becomes noticeably sparse in the final years of Heaney’s life, and, as Christopher Reid points out, the old fluency and buoyancy are overtaken by a somewhat troubled frame of mind. ‘I have been in a doldrum for a good while now,’ Heaney confesses, writing to Seamus Deane. Nevertheless, I was surprised to find no reference in a letter to an extraordinary occasion in a Belfast cemetery on a wet July morning in 2010. The grave of the playwright Sam Thompson (d 1965) was being rededicated, and Thompson’s friend and ally, the actor James Ellis, had come over from London to perform the ceremony. Unfortunately, something had gone wrong with elderly actor’s wits. He caught sight of Seamus Heaney in the small crowd gathered around the Thompson grave and got it into his head that it was Heaney’s funeral oration he was delivering. ‘It’s a great honour for me, a great honour to be unveiling the grave of this famous poet, a Nobel Laureate, the greatest poet Ireland has ever produced …’ So it went on, and on, despite the intervention of a number of startled spectators, including Heaney himself. Ellis, smiling amiably at interrupters, persisted with his alarmingly premature eulogy. ‘Jimmy was not to be diverted,’ Seamus observed wryly in a postcard he sent to me a couple of weeks later. ‘The whole thing was sad but had a wild edge of comedy – especially in retrospect. I tried to hide behind Gerry Adams – very tall, I discovered, in person …’ – but no go. What James Ellis got right, however – inappropriate though it was at the time – was his praise for Heaney’s great achievement, for his generosity of spirit, his countryman’s robustness and unique skill in bringing a whole world to life, a world of stone-floored kitchens, of cattle in the long rich grass, yellow catkins, trees and bogs, and primary school children skylarking on the Lagans Road. The Heaney letters, along with Dennis O’Driscoll’s Stepping Stones, enlarge our understanding of the complex allegiances, motivations, agitations and idiosyncrasies underlying the public image of the poet. Now we await the biography, in the hope that it will, in Heaney’s words, ‘show more than a scholar’s awareness of the Irish context’.
Patricia Craig’s most recent book was Kilclief & Other Essays. It was published by Irish Pages and was reviewed by Eve Patten in the September 2021 issue of the Dublin Review of Books.