Dublin may be a brasher city than of yore, jammed tight with traffic and frantic shoppers, but the old courtesy still clings to Seamus Heaney, standing in the sunlit kitchen of his house poised on a weep of beach at the citys Sandymount Strand.
He hands me a cup of tea, with the milk placed in a small jug next to it. Then he looks at the plate beside the cup, and notes its uncomfortable blankness.
Would you like some … bread? Heaney asks, tentatively. I tell him that I have already eaten. ‘A monastic biscuit then! he says, and goes off to dig out the tin of digestives from the cupboard.
It is, perhaps, the casual exactness of that word ‘monastic that might betray Heaneys profession to one who didnt know.
But then almost no one can be unaware, either, of Heaneys profession, or his stature within it. Irish wags refer to him as ‘Famous Seamus in a sly but proud acknowledgement of his international celebrity, crowned with his Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995.
Although Heaney was born into a Catholic, nationalist family in Northern Ireland - and once objected to inclusion in a book of British poets with the warning lines: ‘Be advised, my passports green / No glass of ours was ever raised / To toast the Queen - British readers cant get enough of him: it is an oft-cited statistic that his books account for two-thirds of the sales of living poets in Britain.
All that might be expected, perhaps, to puff a man up and render him a little prickly with self-importance. With Heaney, quite the opposite has occurred: he only rests easy in the gentle understatement of his achievement. That derives, I think, from the small, superstitious voice that echoes within the Northern Irish psyche, greeting success with the words: ‘Be grateful: dont get cocky and blow it. The word ‘lucky thus chimes like a tiny warning-bell throughout his descriptions of past successes, be they his First Class honours degree from Queens University, Belfast, or the rapturous critical reception for his debut book of poems, Death of a Naturalist, in 1966.
And yet it is evident that Heaney has been a powerhouse of literary labour throughout, regularly turning out poems and translations, essays and lectures, taking up professorships at Harvard and Oxford, and winning the Whitbread Prize twice. I am reminded of that old quote from the movie mogul Sam Goldwyn: ‘The harder I work, the luckier I get. At the sound of my Belfast accent, he asks, as though regretful for some past imposition: ‘Did you have to do the poems at school? We did, I say, and then I heard him read when he was Professor of Poetry at Oxford. ‘Ah, Oxford was wonderful, he says. ‘It was great that so many people came to the readings. As I recall, the scramble for tickets was fierce. You would be a fool, though, to mistake the 68-year-old Heaneys modesty for sleepiness: in the centre of the broad, calm plains of his face, beneath the poetic shock of white hair, his dark eyes glitter and dart. They are the quick eyes of a man who notices everything: noticing, after all, is Heaneys profession. A minor stroke last year compelled him to ease off on his public appearances, but beyond him the worldwide Heaney industry continues unabated.
The Nottingham Playhouse Theatre Company is currently staging The Burial at Thebes, Heaneys 2004 translation of Sophocles Antigone. The play describes the clash between Creon, the Theban king, and Antigone, the daughter of Oedipus, that unfurls after Antigones brothers Eteocles and Polyneices die fighting one another. The plot seethes with timeless questions about the conflict between public order and private honour.
Heaneys translation was originally commissioned by Dublins Abbey Playhouse, just as what Heaney calls ‘the deplorable Iraq/Bush business was underway, and inevitably the poet glimpsed parallels between Creons blinkered rigidity of purpose and the stance of President Bush. ‘The New Yorker was looking for something to publish so I gave them the chorus and called it Sophoclean, but it could equally have been called An Open Letter to President Bush. Heaney is wary, however, of labouring the application. ‘I didnt want Creon to be a figure of mockery, because in the end theres a kind of head prefect in me, too. But Antigone goes too far and Creon goes too far. I have a kind of Sophoclean position in between them all.It is small wonder that Heaney is so expert at navigating the plays shades of grey in Sophocles: its matter - honour, death, the friction between family custom and the mores of the state - has been the very stuff of his life and poetry.
He was born on a farm in Mossbawn, County Derry, the eldest of nine children, at a time when Catholics were conscious of being politically marginalised in a Unionist state. Did that unease act as a spur to poetry? ‘Inner division of some kind is what delivers a lot of it. It didnt have to be sought in Northern Ireland. You were handed that situation. To go back to Creon and Antigone, nationalists - the minority within the state - were handling that question: to what extent your family or household gods were not recognised by the polis [the Greek body of citizens] and yet you were in the polis, getting your scholarships from them and reading their literature. I dont think I would claim any great hurt from that: it was a common situation. ‘The completely solitary self: thats where poetry comes from, and it gets isolated by crisis, and those crises are often very intimate also.
Indeed they are: some of Heaneys most powerful poems spring from exactly those intimate crises: in ‘Mid-Term Break, recalling the death of his four-year-old brother when he was 14; or in Clearances, after his mother Margarets death, tenderly remembering the time ‘When all the others were away at Mass/ I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.Politics was more contentious. Although an avowed Irish nationalist, throughout the Troubles Heaney, like some elusive salmon, avoided being netted as a spokesman for violent republicanism. He and his family left Northern Ireland in 1972 for Wicklow, and then Dublin, but he says of his birthplace: ‘I am always in it, in a way. I just was dwelling elsewhere.
His Requiem for the Croppies - a 1966 homage to the dead of the United Irishmens 1798 rebellion - was a frequent choice at poetry readings until the IRA campaign rendered history freshly combustible. For nearly 30 years and more I didn't read it, because I was aware that it would always have been taken as a coded IRA poem, he said. He found himself sifting the factual detail of poems about sectarian killings, in order to carry the essential truth without inflaming the political situation. In North, he wrote of ‘weighing and weighing / My responsible tristia. That volume, somewhat ironically, drew the greatest weight of criticism for its perceived ambivalence about violence. Some of it came, I think, because his critics scented Heaneys essential responsibility, like the school prefect who is caught and caned the one time he smokes behind the bike sheds, while others flout the rules daily.
Yet as a Protestant teenager in Belfast in the 1980s, and one who admired Heaneys poetry, I absorbed with a sinking heart his depiction of strutting Orangemen beating on drums ‘like giant tumours; and in ‘Docker, his description of a taciturn Protestant bigot: ‘The only Roman collar he tolerates/ Smiles all round his sleek pint of porter. Here, surely, was the caricature of the inarticulate, thuggish Ulster Protestant that was already all-too firmly entrenched abroad. Yet even early on he could be capable of grace, too, in depicting ‘the other side: a poem of that very name describes a Protestant neighbour gently tapping out a tune with his stick as he waited outside for the Heaney family to finish their murmured rosary before he knocked on the door.
In his 1995 Nobel address, Heaney related a story about the 1976 Kingsmills massacre, at which masked men stopped a bus full of workmen going home, lined them up outside, and asked each to declare their religion. There was only one Catholic in the group, and it was presumed that the gunmen were loyalists. One Protestant worker squeezed the Catholics hand, as if to say ‘well not betray you but he declared himself anyway. He was promptly thrust aside, and the Protestants were gunned down: the gunmen were from the IRA. Heaney remarked that the future of Ireland lay, not in the gunfire, but the hand-squeeze.
I suggest that he has moved from often seeing Ulster Protestants as a source of apprehension, to a greater understanding of their fear, and the potential for mutual affection. ‘ "Docker" was the wrong word, he says, laughing. ‘I found out later that it should have been ‘shipyard worker, because all the dockers were Catholic. I was writing from within a kind of nationalist collective sense of things, yes. ‘So yes, I became far, far more alert to that. How and ever I felt that it was important, as Beckett said, to ‘vent the pent, to draw the boil and get it out. So I dont feel too bad about it, because if it was a stain then it was a stain that was in the fabric.
Journalists and politicians, who were wont to quote Yeatss ‘Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold in the worst of the Troubles, grabbed for Heaney instead as the ‘peace process got underway - in particular, the lines from his translation of Sophocles Philoctetes, The Cure At Troy: ‘But then, once in a lifetime / the longed-for tidal wave / Of justice can rise up. / And hope and history rhyme. Heaney scrunches his face up slightly in recognition when I cite the lines, as though they are too artlessly positive to feel entirely comfortable: ‘That at least is choral stuff. I would never have allowed myself that in propria persona. Its a chorus speaking so you have to have that class of rhetoric and uplift and so on. Hope. I quoted with great pleasure Vaclav Havel on hope. His view is that its not optimism but its something worth working for. What does he make of the new set-up in Northern Ireland, I ask, with Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness in government together? ‘Its the best that can be managed, and possibly workable, he says, cautiously. ‘Nobodys going to start being amorous with each other, but institutions, the polis, might have a chance.
There are now no poets, in either Ireland or Britain, to touch Heaneys standing internationally: it must be both an enjoyable and slightly lonely position. I wonder if he misses Ted Hughes, his mentor and friend. In many ways they were opposites. Hughes was the Poet Laureate; Heaney an Irish nationalist. Hughes had a complicated love life that twice - with Sylvia Plath and Assia Wevill - slipped beyond turmoil into tragedy; while Heaney found a calm harbour early on with his wife Marie (they have three children), and has stayed there happily ever since.
But they were both strong country boys who rescued poetry from any whisper of the effete. Heaney, speaking at Hughess funeral, said: ‘No death outside my family has left me more bereft. Today he recalls: ‘Ted Hughes was like a gable, a psychic gable that you could put your back to. ‘He had a brotherly status in that way. He was important to me to begin with, to start the writing, and then that he commended the work was very important, and then I got to know him and felt - as so many, many people did - that there was an element of care for you.
Now that Heaney is at home more, in the house where he has lived for 30 years, one suspects that he is the frequent object of poetic pilgrimages from far-flung places: a Japanese academic writing a thesis on Heaney is arriving later that afternoon. The place has the romance fitting to a poets house, with a triangular garden blazing with summer flowers tended by Marie, and the walls either crammed with books or hung with paintings and drawings.
In Antigone, it is Tiresias, the blind seer, who points out to Creon the error of his ways. Is that the role of the poet, and of Heaney himself? ‘Oh, I would never claim Tiresian authority, he says quickly, ‘but Tiresias is that sixth sense in everybody: youre always being stalked by intuition. Tiresias is voicing what is unconscious: the shadow recognition that haunts the action. It is the poetic faculty, I suppose.Perhaps, then, Tiresian authority has been thrust upon him: does it feel like a weight? ‘I dont see it as a weight, I dont acknowledge it as a weight. I suppose I have internalised a kind of caution. He looks at me like a wily badger delicately sniffing out a trap: we are approaching the dangerous territory of his eminence. ‘I cant really talk about it, he says, finally, ‘although youre right to ask the question.
If Heaneys early life was entangled in an argument about a border, he has repeatedly ignored them in his relentless exploration of the English language. His translation of ‘Beowulf prised open the Anglo-Saxon treasure-hoard of language for a wider audience. Now he is working on a ‘version, translations really of the 15th-century Scottish poet Robert Henryson: in its way, it is his healing together of the Ulster-Scots and Irish cultures. ‘My point is theres a hidden Scotland in anyone who speaks the Northern Ireland speech. Its a terrific complicating factor, not just in Northern Ireland, but Ireland generally. Scottish music was indigenous to us, so Henrysons speech is part of my inner acoustic. I absolutely love it.
He plans to do a ‘poet to poet book with translations of Henryson next year, and to see published an extended interview with the poet Dennis ODriscoll ‘called something like A Life Re-viewed. Its not inward, particularly. Maybe a short inwardness would do no harm at some point, he muses. Then Heaney laughs, and quotes one of his own best-known lines, on the charged silences among Northern Irish people during the Troubles: ‘My son Michael said, Dad, whatever you say say nothing, that will be operating with you. Despite the jest, Heaney is always saying something: it is just that his yearning for precision, his wariness of misrepresentation, means he is supremely careful how he says it.
As I leave, he is offering advice on where in Dublin to eat good mackerel, and asking, ‘Have you euros? while preparing to rummage in his pockets, just in case I have stumbled up without the currency to make it back to the city centre. A generous poet, then, and most generous of all is his parting benediction: ‘Write whatever you like! There it is, a gift from the Irish poet whom the world watches: an exultant setting-free from the fetters of responsibility.