Yeats, ‘Among School Children’, first stanza: ‘I walk through the long schoolroom questioning; / A kind old nun in a white hood replies; […] the children’s eyes / In momentary wonder stare upon / A sixty-year-old smiling public man.’ In the following stanzas, wildness, beauty, rage, lust, hurt and the consolations of ageing that do not console.
Heaney in latter years made frequent appearances as a smiling public man, to the extent that he’s been criticised for cosying up to the establishment; criticised, I suspect, by many of the same people who complain (or delight?) that poetry is no longer central to even the literary bit of the general culture. Which it isn’t. But for a time Heaney almost single-handedly reversed that trend. The amount of commentary on Heaney’s passing from not just writers but those who don’t read poetry at all, and who don’t need to do that to recognise decency and value, has been remarkable. To respond in kind to the public recognition he had been given must at times have been both a bore and a burden; to do this with such grace – this son of a cattle-dealer donning a penguin suit for the high table and remaining at all times his own man, never compromising the talent that had got him there – was a huge thing. I doubt we’ll see it happening again, in the West.
His place at the high table – not to opinionate, not to argue; but to be there, to represent what otherwise is talked over – is a part of what is now missed. In the same week as Heaney’s dying, the same pages on which that was announced reported not the continuing nightmare of Syria (let alone Egypt, the Central African Republic, plenty more) but the fractious politicking about whether Britain should militarily ‘intervene’: party positioning, retired generals trotted out, conspiracy theories, legal consultants, cost predictions. This is hideous. It feels like a primary school playground, and we’re being bullied into taking sides simply on the grounds on who’s most likely (or is in our best short-term interests) to win. It isn’t that Heaney could have told us all what to do; but his engagement in public life, or even at times the terms of his disengagement, carried weight. I want him back.
Click here, by the way, for the 1994 Paris Review interview (‘He had traveled extensively in recent weeks, and though his brown eyes were heavy-lidded, his mind was alert and mischievous. After each session, we had a glass of Jack Daniels’).