Seamus Heaney lost his Catholic faith. But his poetry still sought transcendence.
Ten years after his death, commentators and admirers of Ireland’s Nobel Laureate poet Seamus Heaney are still looking for new ways to measure his life and work. His official biographer described him in a recent assessment as “our greatest…necromancer” in recognition of the poet’s long-held fascination with death, spirits and the afterlife. The poet’s last words are by now well-recognized, stolidly reassuring his wife Marie in a final text message with the Latin phrase Noli timere (“Fear not”).
The philosophy of life that underlay these last words is hinted at in his poetry, which came to represent a kind of redemption to Heaney when the religious beliefs of his early life waned. The interplay between his belief and his unbelief is never far from the surface when Heaney approaches the most enduring things, no more so than in his final work, a translation of Virgil’s Aeneid VI. Here, Heaney turns again to the ancient myths—particularly the classical virtue of pietas (“a sense of right”)—to reshape a traditional religious piety that had faded from prominence in adulthood.
Ten years after his death, commentators and admirers of Seamus Heaney are still looking for new ways to measure his life and work.
As Heaney himself described, he “dwelt entirely in the womb of religion” until his beliefs were gradually “screened out” by the onset of adulthood and “a generational feeling that God was dead.” The recession of Heaney’s faith appears less a rejection than a correction to what the poet later observed as the “oversupply of religion” in his youth. The rigidity of his generation’s religiosity was perhaps destined to sit uneasily with a thinker who inclined towards “in-betweeness”: the intellectual and spiritual half-spaces of life.
The eventual extinguishment of his Catholic faith occurred “offstage” and evinced a kind of spiritual nostalgia in Heaney: “the potency [of these beliefs] remains… they retain an undying tremor and draw; I cannot disavow them.” In adult life, though he could not make a profession of faith, neither could the breadth of his imagination—stretched by his religion to conceive of ideas such as eternity, transubstantiation and resurrection—allow for the idea of a mere “neuter absence” at the heart of humankind’s search for meaning.
The eventual extinguishment of his Catholic faith occurred “offstage” and evinced a kind of spiritual nostalgia in Heaney.
The vestigial influence of his faith thus came to bear on his attitude to his own work, as poetry flowed freely into the channels first carved into his youthful imagination by the ideas of his Catholic faith. “Poetry,” he confirmed to Dennis O’Driscoll, “is a ratification of the impulse towards transcendence…Poetry represents the need for an ultimate court of appeal.” This profound responsibility is borne most notably in Heaney’s oeuvre by his treatment of classical myths, where poetry is invested with a kind of redemptive duty as a word “spoken out against nothingness.” Asked three months before his unexpected passing whether he feared the prospect of death, Heaney replied: “I think literature has helped. Mythology has helped.”
Heaney’s poetic career began with a reckoning of father and son in “Digging” and ends in similar fashion with his translation of Aeneid VI. This episode of Virgil’s classical myth tantalized Heaney with a kind of literary counterpoint: Virgil’s set-up of a son, Aeneas, seeking approval and advice from the ghost of his dead father Anchises in the underworld strikes a chord with Heaney’s iconic early poem and gives added resonance to both.
Heaney’s rendering of the scene is unusual—and is instructive of the kind of redemption he found in the poetry of Virgil’s classical myth. As Aeneas’s ghostly father sees his arrival, the old man proclaims: “At last! Are you here at last?/ I always trusted that your sense of right/ Would prevail and keep you going to the end.” The emotional payload of this scene rests on the Latin word pietas. It is arguably the dominant theme of the entire Aeneid and forms the defining trait of the myth’s hero Aeneas.
The meaning of the Latin word does not map exactly onto its English derivative, “piety.” Rather, a broader sense of duty is at stake, of attending faithfully to what is most important: family, country, the gods. It was his trust in the pietas of his son that kept the fears of Anchises at bay as he fretted about his son in the underworld. If we are to take Aeneid VI as a counterpoint to “Digging,” Heaney’s evocative translation suggests an autobiographical kernel. It could be said that long after the demands of adulthood had distanced him from the certainties of youth, what sustained and directed Heaney the poet, the man, the son was not a conventional religious piety, but pietas—”a sense of right,” of duty to the most enduring things in life.
In his life and work, Heaney was characterized, perhaps above all else, by this sense of duty, of pietas to the power of poetry to transcend the confines of reality and achieve a tantalizing glimpse of the sublime. The piety of his early religious faith, divested but never fully dismissed, supplied Heaney with the first belief in the possibility, even the necessity, of such a transcendence.