Seamus Heaney: ‘He Became His Admirers’

A student remembers the plainspoken Nobel laureate who carved pumpkins and worked miracles

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Seamus Heaney, recipient of 1995 Nobel prize for Literature, attends the celebrations about centenary of italian author Giovanni Pascoli for University of Bologna at Archiginnasio on April 3, 2012 in Bologna, Italy.

It was an unseasonably warm night, and the upper room of the white clapboard building on Kirkland Street was lit by candles and decorated with a dozen pumpkins ready for carving. The Sanctum, as the upper room was known to undergraduates, was filled with young acolytes all staring at one of poetry’s highest priests. There are not many Nobel laureates who would carve pumpkins and read poetry with strangers, but Seamus Heaney came eagerly to honor the dead and encourage the living.

Heaney won the Nobel Prize “for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles,” but he was himself a worker of miracles. Scholars and critics will eulogize him by praising his poetry, but I write as one of the many students who knew him as a teacher—a man generous with his time, unsparing with his praise, and brimful with joy.

That tall, snowy-haired owl of a man never seemed to tire of the endless requests for his signature or the unending accounts of how some poem of his had changed the course of someone’s life. He was patient with me both the first and the second time that I told him what effect “Digging”  had on me: first when I was holding him hostage at a photocopier, distracted from the copies he had asked me to make by the opportunity to confess the profound power of his words; second when he made time for tea with me in Sligo, but so clearly had hoped to talk about something, anything but his own work.

Only twelve volumes of poetry survive Seamus Heaney, but the next generation of writers is filled with students nurtured by his teaching, readers encouraged by his verses. His influence is too great to estimate. His plainspoken, plaintive poetry about the tensions between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland brought the emotional reality of the conflict to the world; his lyric translation of Beowulf introduced the history of the English language to scores of schoolchildren.

When W.H. Auden wrote his elegy of W.B. Yeats, the surviving poet said: “he became his admirers.” The same is true of Seamus Heaney: legions mourn his death and lift high his verses today. Although his “squat pen rests” forever, Heaney left us with a body of work and a lifetime of stories that will live in us, his many admirers.