Seamus Heaney’s last days: “a moment of changing direction … a movement of gratitude to the people who helped him.”

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John Deane (Photo: Mossy Carey)

We’ve posted on the seminal conference at Loyola University in Chicago last week here and here. This is our final installment. The Irish poet and novelist John Deane, founder of Poetry Ireland and The Poetry Ireland Review spoke movingly, eloquently of his friend and fellow countryman, the Nobel poet Seamus Heaney. (We’ve written about him before, here and here and here.) He described his eminent colleague’s crisis of faith and final days in 2013. He has allowed us to share an excerpt from his essay in the April 2019 issue of Intercom Magazine:

In the collection Human Chain, he reflects on the stroke he has suffered and how he was helped by others; it is a poem where he uses that same metaphor of the palsied man lowered through the roof. Heaney had suffered a severe stroke and this poem uses the metaphor – not as a spiritual poem, not an act of faith, Heaney insisted, but a moment of changing direction in one’s life – as a movement of gratitude to the people who helped him. There is continuum of perspective in the poem, “Miracle”, and a placing of the work on the ground of his early Christian awareness: “Not the one who takes up his bed and walks / But the ones who have known him all along / And carry him in —” The reader, or hearer, of this poem is not urged towards belief in miracles, but towards wonder at the kindness of the people who brought him to the ambulance when he needed them.

“A wonder at the kindness of the people…”

When I asked Seamus Heaney if he might write a poem for the issue of Poetry Ireland Review I was planning, seeking new work from poets I knew that might offer a personal answer to the question of what the personal Christ meant to them, (“Who do you say that I am?”) he answered enthusiastically: “I will definitely keep the project in mind. It’s quite a commission, a test of truth and art, but one worth risking.” Eventually he sent me “The Latecomers”. It reads, to me, as a poem in which Heaney sees himself, not as the palsied man, nor as the helpers, but as Christ himself, surrounded by the needy who press around seeking help and healing. Seamus was then constantly being badgered for signatures, for readings, for statements. The poem is written from Christ’s perspective and I will quote it in full:

The Latecomers

He saw them come, then halt behind the crowd
That wailed and plucked and ringed him, and was glad
They kept their distance. Hedged on every side,

Harried and responsive to their need,
Each hand that stretched, each brief hysteric squeal –
However he assisted and paid heed,

A sudden blank letdown was what he’d feel
Unmanning him when he met the pain of loss
In the eyes of those his reach had failed to bless.

And so he was relieved the newcomers
Had now discovered they’d arrived too late
And gone away. Until he hears them, climbers

On the roof, a sound of tiles being shifted,
The treble scrape of terra cotta lifted
And a paralytic on his pallet

Lowered like a corpse into a grave.
Exhaustion and the imperatives of love
Vied in him. To judge, instruct, reprove,

And ease them body and soul.
Not to abandon but to lay on hands.
Make time. Make whole. Forgive.

It is a remarkable piece, and I hoped it signalled a new certainty and confidence in Heaney. In a book just published (He Held Radical Light, 2018), the former editor of Poetry Chicago, Christian Wiman, a powerful poet in his own right, tells of a reading Seamus gave, one of his last, in Chicago. He tells how he “met Seamus Heaney in person only once”, at a dinner given after that reading. They sat together and Seamus mentioned he had been reading the proofs of Wiman’s memoir, My Bright Abyss, where Wiman struggles with suffering and faith. Wiman was moved to know he was being read. Later in the dinner, “and in the middle of a conversation that had nothing whatsoever to do with religious faith, he leaned over to me and said – very quietly, he seemed frail to me – that he felt caught between the old forms of faith that he had grown up with in Northern Ireland and some new dispensation that had not yet emerged.” Wiman felt unable to respond properly, but the moment is highly significant. I would hold that that “new dispensation” in faith is already in place, based on a Christian cosmology and catholicity, and an acceptance of the developments in faith demanded by the fact of evolution. …There is one God; there are as many ways to the love of God as there are individuals. A poet with Seamus Heaney’s intellect, imagination and great generosity of spirit, cannot be confined within the limited and limiting borders of dogma and ritual. His is a rich and, I would assert, a holy spirit.


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