In his essay “Secular and Millennial Miłosz”, Seamus Heaney wrote of the Polish/Lithuanian poet in terms of the phases of his personal and writing life, which chimed with some very unpleasant phases of twentieth century history but which ended up rather better, for Miłosz, and for Europe, and, eventually, and late in the day, for Poland. But back in the 1960s
Romanticism followed, a total embrace of poetry and a trust in his ‘prophetic soul’, so that he has ended up on a hill above San Francisco Bay, a sage on the mountain, maintaining the gravity of being even as he inhales the increasingly weightless, late-capitalist, post-modern air of California.
But, Heaney added, none of this would have counted had Miłosz not been granted what Yeats called the gift “to articulate sweet sounds together”. And then, having enunciated the principle, Heaney enacts it in his own beautiful words – he was a master in prose as well as poetry ‑ which so often exhibited shrewdness of judgment as well as a great turn of phrase. With Miłosz
[t]he needle is constantly atremble between the reality principle and the pleasure principle: Prospero and Ariel keep adding their weight to either side of the argument. Miłosz dwells in the middle, at times tragically, at times deliciously, for he will renege neither on his glimpses of heaven upon earth nor on his knowledge that the world is a vale of tears.
We will no doubt be reminded over the next days and weeks of many beautiful Heaneyisms, those formulations which were frequently surprising, sometimes daring and often beautiful and which were marvellously enhanced by the speaking voice, which, even if one didn’t hear it directly, one could perhaps produce for one’s own ear out of the page.
As most people know, Seamus Heaney was a student, a hungry boarder, at St Columb’s College in Derry, a hard station indeed back in the 1950s and a hard station still in the mid-1960s when I sat in the English class of the languid but engaging Fr James Coulter with his younger brother, Daniel. We sophisticated city boys used to laugh at the accents of the boarders (what exactly had we got to feel superior about?), then predominantly from south and southeast Derry, Ballinascreen/Draperstown, Maghera, Killea, Bellaghy, Drumsurn. Drumsurn was one of Fr James, a city man’s, favourites: he would turn the word around his mouth and smile pleasurably to himself. Drumsurn indeed.
Who would have thought that this undervalued place, and its undervalued language, and undervalued accent, or voice, or perspective, would produce our greatest modern poet?