Monday, March 14, 2011

Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney was born in 1939 to a Catholic family in County Derry — in predominantly Protestant Northern Ireland; since 1972 he has lived in the Republic of Ireland. He has received many honours as a poet — serving as the Professor of Poetry at both Harvard and Oxford, and having received the Nobel Prize in 1995. He is also celebrated for his Whitbread Award-winning translation of Beowulf.

His poetry usually dwells in a rural landscape, where his faith is more taken as a given, than discussed as a topic. He tends to not reveal himself or make declarations, but sets images up for observation. Biblical references, including miracles, are portrayed as history.

In a poem, dedicated to the memory of fellow–Catholic poet Czeslaw Milosz, called “Out of This World” — from Heaney’s 2006 collection District and Circle — he gives us a deeper glimpse: “I went to the alter rails and received the mystery / on my tongue, returned to my place, shut my eyes fast, made / an act of thanksgiving, opened my eyes and felt / time starting up again.” In this image of faith, he says of the consecration that he “believed (whatever it means) that a change had occurred”. Is he saying he believed without understanding — or that he’s questioning what belief means, or what the change means? Since it’s “a change” is he acknowledging or questioning the Catholic idea of transubstantiation?

Similarly below, in this earlier poem, Heaney seems to be criticizing the long-held Catholic belief in limbo — and by extension the Catholic doctrine that salvation is only possible for those who have been baptised. These questions are raised in his poetry, but Heaney seems to leave us to our own conclusions.


Fishermen at Ballyshannon
Netted an infant last night
Along with the salmon.
An illegitimate spawning,

A small one thrown back
To the waters. But I'm sure
As she stood in the shallows
Ducking him tenderly

Till the frozen knobs of her wrists
Were dead as the gravel,
He was a minnow with hooks
Tearing her open.

She waded in under
The sign of the cross.
He was hauled in with the fish.
Now limbo will be

A cold glitter of souls
Through some far briny zone.
Even Christ's palms, unhealed,
Smart and cannot fish there.

This is the first Kingdom Poets post about Seamus Heaney: second post; third post

Entry written by D.S. Martin. He is the award-winning author of the poetry collections Poiema (Wipf & Stock) and So The Moon Would Not Be Swallowed (Rubicon Press). They are both available at: