Famous Seamus is no more

This late August saw the last days of Seamus Heaney, the great Irish poet and playwright who has died aged 74.

The first poem by Heaney I ever read was ‘Blackberry Picking’. In a chaotic classroom with the shame of our former teacher’s breakdown still hanging unspoken in the air, a nervous supply teacher gulped into his beard and read this poem to us:

Blackberry Picking

Late August, given heavy rain and sun
for a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
sent us out with milk-cans, pea-tins, jam-pots
where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
we trekked and picked until the cans were full,
until the tinkling bottom had been covered
with green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
with thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
the fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
that all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.

I can’t say that, at thirteen, I loved it. But it did seem hugely real to me – how could he recall something I had done myself, without having been standing there beside me? My best friend and I thrilled and laughed at the ‘rat-grey fungus’, whilst the pathos in the last couplet encapsulates the feeling I love most about autumn: the hope that the last warmth sun will stay forever and the soft sigh of inevitability that it will not.


Studying English at university, I came across Heaney again. This time, he threw me a life raft as I thrashed about in the turbulent seas of Old English Literature, trying to find the whale’s way through the waves of eths and thorns. His beautiful translation of Beowulf allowed me to enjoy the poem, rather than struggling through line after line of painful translation which threatened to rob it of any beauty or descriptive power intended by its initial, unknown, authors.

As I listened to Christopher Ricks’ ‘Many Voices: From the Regional’ lecture, Heaney poked me again. This time he used a proggling stick in The Redress of Poetry, hailing the vernacular poet John Clare as his poetic precursor, linked to him through language.  Having grown up in Suffolk, with a paternal family that spoke Suffolk dialect at home, connecting the vernacular with supposed ‘literary’ language was an eye-opener – or perhaps more correctly, an ear-opener.

This, to me, is Seamus Heaney’s greatest legacy: to open ears to the possibilities of language, not shutting doors to literature and history and people.

William Wordsworth – revolutionary or Turdsworth?

So, we’ll start with William Wordsworth. Rivalled only by Robert Burns in terms of international reputation, this British poet has never been far away from adulation – or condemnation. Wordsworth - revolutionary or Turdsworth?

Named Poet Laureate in 1843, Wordsworth has regularly featured in publications like The Nation’s Favourite Poems and his reputation as the doyen of English poetry has been cemented through events like 2004’s mass recital of ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ (more commonly known as ‘Daffodils’). However, he has also been lampooned as ‘Turdsworth’ by Byron, been the inspiration (?) behind Francis Jeffrey’s infamous ‘This will never do’ review, and mocked by William Hazlitt as ‘the spoiled child of disappointment.’ Seamus Heaney champions him in this rather retro clip from 1974, but today his popularity seems to be on the wane as he missed out on being included in the BBC’s Top Ten of the Nation’s Favourite Poets in 2009 and he’s in the news again as education specialists and the Department of Education debate the value of studying his poetry, with GCSE examiners urging caution.

Whatever you think about the artistic merit of his poetry or the peculiarities of his temperament, Wordsworth caused a seismic shift in the way poetry was read and written through his assertion that poets should ‘choose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them, throughout, as far as was possible in a selection of language really used by men’ (Lyrical Ballads). Together with Coleridge he championed the lives and language of ordinary people for the first time in English literature, writing about a child with learning disabilities in ‘The Idiot Boy’ (‘idiot’ then being a medical term rather than a derogatory one) and a poor leech gatherer in ‘Resolution and Independence’. He also eschewed heavily formulaic Latinate language and his rhymes are peppered with a Northern inflection, rhyming ‘waters’ with ‘chatters’. (For a more in depth look at this, have a look at my blog post for OxfordWords.)
There isn’t time to look at more than one Wordsworth poem in this short blog post, or to go into his life story any further (however, the Poetry Foundation have produced a brilliant potted biography of Wordsworth, along with a list of his best-known poetry.) I have chosen my favourite of his poems, his Valedictory Sonnet to the River Duddon, because it is both beautiful and gives hope for humanity:

I THOUGHT of Thee, my partner and my guide,

As being pass’d away.—Vain sympathies!

For, backward, Duddon! as I cast my eyes,

I see what was, and is, and will abide;

Still glides the Stream, and shall for ever glide;

The Form remains, the Function never dies;

While we, the brave, the mighty, and the wise,

We Men, who in our morn of youth defied

The elements, must vanish;—be it so!

Enough, if something from our hands have power

To live, and act, and serve the future hour;

And if, as toward the silent tomb we go,

Through love, through hope, and faith’s transcendent dower,

We feel that we are greater than we know.

The subject of this sonnet is not, as is traditional, a lover – instead it is the River Duddon in Cumbria which draws along the full weight of Wordsworth’s sorrow and his hope. The octave deepens into the battle cry of the final sestet half-way through the ninth line – ‘be it so!’ – which is unusual as it breaks the internal rhythm of the line. However, this volta represents the real power of the sonnet, as Wordsworth moves from the past to the future, calling to the hands of every reader that they might have some power therein to change the world. I do not believe there is a more eloquent call to action in the whole of literature.