- - Monday, September 9, 2013

Poetry is for lovers, and particularly for the lovers of the language, who linger over words, letters and syllables to marvel how the masters organize words into disciplined choirs and make them sing to the ages. The master of the masters, Seamus Heaney, 74, died last week, remembered by everyone who appreciates a lyrical turn of phrase as “a great oak,” fallen.

Mr. Heaney won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995. Robert Lowell had called him “the most important Irish poet since Yeats,” and John Sutherland had called him “the greatest poet of our age.”

The London newspaper Independent went still further. “People keep calling him the greatest Irish poet since [William Butler] Yeats. Now he has gone, perhaps it is time to put it another way, and say that Yeats was the greatest Irish poet until Heaney. Seamus would have demurred; poetry’s not a contest.”

Not a contest, and not given its last full measure of recognition, either, in the busy-busy make-work citadels of finance, commerce and politics where words are much abused, and no one takes time to do right by them. Ireland is one of the places where words and stories, tales, fables and legends are given their proper due, in recognition that language will flower when mere data are long dead.

Seamus Heaney took time to do it right, and he was no spinner of sentimental gossamer. He wrote with muscular directness; the adjective most eulogists employed was “earthy.” He was a playwright, author, translator and lecturer, celebrating the grace notes of family, tribe, the hearth, religious faith, the struggles of living a life.

“The poems that made his name recall a rural childhood,” writes Blake Morrison in the Guardian, “poems about potato-digging, milk-churning, thatching, blackberrying, water-divining, poems strong on euphony, alliteration and other classroom-friendly devices; poems (as one reviewer put it) ‘loud with the slap of the spade and sour with the stink of turned earth.’” He was called a “poet with PQ,” or “peasant quality,” usually by envious reviewers with a churlish hint of condescension. He measured himself against his agrarian forefathers, with the inevitable guilt of the son who has moved on.

He wrote his poems and his stories to reflect life in Ireland, without the bitterness that would make them difficult in other times, other places. One of his poems touched on what the Irish call “the troubles” and spoke of how Irish Republican hardliners tarred and feathered several Catholic girls who were seduced by British soldiers. The poem reflects anger and pity for the girls and understanding of, if not sympathy with, the persecutors: /I who have stood dumb/when your betraying sisters/cauled in tar/wept by the railings/.

His death saddened Ireland and packed the pews of Dublin’s Church of the Sacred Heart with other poets, politicians (the president of Ireland) and even rock stars (all four members of the rock band U2). When his coffin left the church to the cellist’s soft notes of Brahms Lullaby, borne on the shoulders of his two sons and their cousins, a crowd of thousands waited outside to greet them. True to his familiarity with the collision of the ancient and the modern, he left his last words to his wife in a text message: “Don’t be afraid.”