Sunday Best – August 27, 2023


It is ten years already since the passing of Seamus Heaney. His final message – noli timere, be not afraid – is with me always, in a little heart shaped amulet that I carry everywhere.

It is tempting to surround our heroes in fluffy pink clouds of admiration, as if they represent nothing but bluebirds and roses and charming one liners that would look great on a coffee mug. But our poets illuminate the essentials of life that are otherwise felt but unseen – both the shadows and the sunbeams.

Here is a small excerpt from Heaney’s Nobel lecture, where he describes our desire to re-tune the world, and how this endeavor requires space for both the marvelous and the murderous.

there are times when a deeper need enters, when we want the poem to be not only pleasurably right but compellingly wise, not only a surprising variation played upon the world, but a re-tuning of the world itself…

Only the very stupid or the very deprived can any longer help knowing that the documents of civilization have been written in blood and tears… the inclination is not only not to credit human nature with much constructive potential, but not to credit anything too positive in the work of art.

Which is why for years I was bowed to the desk like some monk bowed over his prie-dieu, some dutiful contemplative pivoting his understanding in an attempt to bear his portion of the weight of the world, knowing himself incapable of heroic virtue or redemptive effect, but constrained by his obedience to his rule to repeat the effort and the posture. Blowing up sparks for meagre heat…

Then finally and happily, and not in obedience to the dolorous circumstances of my native place but in spite of them, I straightened up. I began a few years ago to try to make space in my reckoning and imagining for the marvelous as well as for the murderous.

Dear ones, let’s straighten up.

Not to avoid the weight of the world,

but to witness its marvels as we carry.



* It is hard to narrow down Heaney’s work to a few suggested sources! Opened Ground is a wonderful anthology of his poems through 1996; the RTE’s multi-volume set of recordings of Heaney readings allows us to hear his own voice; his version of Beowulf won the Whitbread prize and is now out in an illustrated edition; and the Nobel lecture noted above can be seen in full at their site. Finally, my sister sent me a link to an RTE radio series celebrating Heaney this month, which led me to their amazing archival rabbit hole.



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