I, like most of the class during GCSE English back in the late 1990s, used to draw mustaches on the picture of Heaney in the textbook and made fun of his wild, unkempt hair. But well over a decade later, the poems that I studied then have stayed with me. ‘Digging‘ is the one I remember the clearest and the one I keep coming back to: simple short words and the rhythm and alliteration all framing both Heaney’s alienation from the tradition of his forefathers, and his admiration for the physical deftness of their labour. It had a keen, earthy sense of longing in which was couched a certain pride – defiance – at his own, more intellectual vocation. The description of the field, the spadework, all roll off the tongue deliciously, but there is a hint of unease, of the realisation that he is not like those who came before him, which lends the poem an air of melancholy and sadness. Even back then, in my immature mind, the power was undeniable. We also studied ‘Mid-Term Break‘, a heartbreaking poem that, along with typically straightforward and plangent expressions, carried an escalating suspense as tensely foreboding as a Hitchcock movie, until the final line hits you like a brick to the guts. There were some depressing poems in the GCSE curriculum – not least John Clare’s harrowing requiem for lost souls, ‘I Am’ – but ‘Mid-Term Break’ was particularly bleak.
Then there is, of course, Heaney’s verse translation of ‘Beowulf’. There is that straightforward language: where most other versions begin with the declarative ‘Alas!’ or ‘Hark!’, Heaney simply starts with ‘So.’ The use of spare, plaintive words hint at Heaney’s desire to make the epic more accessible, and yet it also enhances the power and beauty of the tale. In Heaney’s hands, Beowulf’s courage and sheer love of glory smash through the cynical barriers of time and come across, as it must once have done in centuries past, as wonderfully ennobling and dignified. If nothing else, Heaney’s translation is just rollicking good fun, a great adventure as well as a clear-eyed and erudite work of scholarship.
Heaney’s poetry was humane and sympathetic, yet powerful and haunting. He also brought Beowulf into our recent consciousness with an unadorned approach to the narrative and thematic values of the text, allowing us to see the real hero past the clutter of classicism and the haze of the post-modern. I am thankful to have come across his work when I did, and I’m sure it will stay with me for a long time yet.