While the Nobel committee was looking for Seamus Heaney to tell him that he had won the 1995 prize for literature, he was driving through, of all places, Arcadia in southern Greece. This was doubly apt. Heaney was surely the English language’s last great Arcadian poet, the last whose memory cells contained personal images of a pastoral life, the last who could regard Virgil as a contemporary and write eclogues without irony. He was also, however, Arcadian in the other sense, the one depicted in those Poussin and Guercino paintings of idealized shepherds gazing at tombs or skulls inscribed with the words et in Arcadia ego: even in Arcadia, I (that is, death) am present.
In Heaney’s case, that shadowing presence was death indeed (he was, apart from so much else, a superb elegist), but also other potent disruptions: history, politics, culture. He made his work from the tension between the pull of an innocent rural world and the push of violence, complexity, conflict, and contradiction, the inescapable knowledge that there is no paradise that is not already lost.
He could evoke, with the precision of lived intimacy, an immemorial, pre-mechanical rural life:
My father worked with a horse-plough,
His shoulders globed like a full sail strung
Between the shafts and the furrow.
The horses strained at his clicking tongue.
(“Follower,” Death of a Naturalist)
But he could not escape
That old sense of a tragedy going on
Uncomprehended, at the very edge
Of the usual, it never left me once….
(“Known World,” Electric Light)
Urban readers may initially have been drawn to Heaney by some imagined promise of rustic nostalgia, but they stayed for the energy of a mind forever hovering between these contradictions. Poetry is language held taut by being stretched between the poles of competing desires. In Heaney’s work, the tensions extend in many directions: the Wordsworthian Romantic at odds with the Joycean realist; the atheist in search of the miraculous; the world-ranging cosmopolitan with his little patch of remembered earth; the lover of the archaic who cannot escape the urgency of contemporary history.
In one of his last public speeches, at the National Museum in Dublin last March, Heaney spoke of how “the objects on display range from the Mesolithic Age to the third millennium, and it surely says something about the Ireland I grew up in that I feel closer to the first exhibit from 7,000 years ago than I do to” those from the last years of the twentieth century. The childhood world of rural County Derry to which he returned again and again, the tiny universe of Mossbawn and Anahorish, of Toome and Lough Beg, was largely pre-industrial. Heaney could remember the blurry interiors before electric light and an exterior landscape that was as “sacramental, instinct with signs” as the land must have been to ancient man.
He could conjure up with startling vividness the motions of antiquated labors: farmers plowing with …