In September 2004 Seamus Heaney opened the Autumn Gathering in Gort, and he read the above poem (which I will conclude in a moment ), and told the audience that he was happy to be once again in south Galway. “ To drive across Ireland, east to west, towards Padraic Fallon’s native Galway, is to experience a double sensation of refreshment and déja-vu. The refreshment comes from the big lift of the sky beyond the River Shannon, the déja-vu from entering a landscape which has been familiar for a century as an image of the dream Ireland invented by the Irish Literary Revival.’
‘ Yet even a disenchanted critic, tired of exposing the mystifications of social and economic reality in that old Celtic Twilight of cottage and curragh, cannot fail to respond to vistas of stone-walled plains running to the horizon and shifting cloud-scapes underlit from the Atlantic. For in spite of the west of Ireland’s status as a country of myth, the actual place can still waken an appetite for experience that is pristine and unconstrained.’
And sometime make time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Gentle and wise
Heaney reminded us that one of the most celebrated literary landmarks in Ireland is the ‘Autograph Tree,’ in the walled garden of Lady Augusta Gregory’s estate at Coole Park, near Gort. You can still easily make out some of the famous initials: WBY, GBS, AE, and several more including Violet Martin (the pseudonymous “Ross” of the Somerville and Ross writing partnership ), who visited Coole in the summer of 1901. She left us this wonderful picture of the young poet WB Yeats... “ Yeats looks just what I expected. A cross between a Dominie Sampson and a starved RC curate, in seedy black clothes, with a large black bow at the root of his long naked throat. He is egregiously the poet...mutters ends of verse to himself with a wild eye, bows over your hand in dark silence...but poet he is, and very interesting indeed, and somehow sympathetic to talk to...I liked him.”
“ Augusta made me add my initials to a tree, already decorated by Douglas Hyde, AE and more of the literary crowd. It was most touching. WBY did the carving, I smoked, and high literary conversation raged and the cigarette went out and I couldn’t make the matches light, and he held the little dingy lappets of his coat out and I lighted the match in his bosom.”
Seamus Heaney never looked aesthetic. He did have a head of white hair, and stood out in a crowd. Someone described him to me this week saying that the man himself was the poem. I always felt that he looked a very spiritual man, gentle and wise as the Dalai Lama, with a great loud laugh.
At the Gathering that time he talked to everybody, signed his books, took his time, listened, and stayed late so he could meet everyone who had queued to meet him.
Noise and movement
He said that Coole, and its ‘inspirational landscape’ was important to him. He had been coming there since 1965. The work of ‘remembering and continuing’ are important values, he believed. “ I feel it also when I go to Thomas Hardy’s home, when I go to Wordsworth’s Grasmere, or visit Hopkins’ grave at Glasnevin. These places have a meaning.”
His poem Postscript (which I quoted above ) has echoes of Yeats’ famous poem, The Wild Swans of Coole. Yeats’ poem captures the noise of the‘ bell-beat of their wings’ as the swans lift off the water.
I love some of the noises and movement that you hear in Heaney’s poems. The sound of his father’s spade, the wet turf thrown up on the bank; and that unforgettable moment when standing as a boy opposite his mother folding the sheets they have just taken off the line: ‘They made a dried-out undulating thwack.’
Sitting in his car on the Flaggy Shore (where the Gregorys once had a holiday home ), the poet is doing what we have all done from time to time, especially as here, in the west, the wind regularly whips up the sea. We sit snug and safe in our cars, and watch the drama.
The poet, however, sees the magic in it. Here is how he ends the poem:
Unless to think you’ll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.’
You can feel the car move!
The initials SH should be added to that tree.
(Seamus Heaney April 13 1939 - August 30 2013 )
NOTES: Postcript is taken from The Spirit Level, published by Faber and Faber 1996.