by Peter Byrne
(Swans - September 9, 2013) Heaney, who died August 30, was a master of language and the author of solid work. However, after all the pious assessments of the 1995 Nobel Laureate, it's time for some nay-saying. Dublin pub critics called him "Famous Seamus" foreshadowing the "like a rock star" phrase that keeps recurring in his obituaries. In "Digging" of 1966 he wrote, "Between my finger and my thumb/ The squat pen rests./ I'll dig with it./" The punsters insisted he squatted on his pen since then, playing the celebrity litterateur in Stockholm, Harvard, Oxford, and similar public drawing rooms.
Though Heaney has been touted as the greatest Irish poet since W. B. Yeats, the anxieties of the two men were very different. Yeats despaired for the Ireland he saw in pieces before him. Heaney ruffled his soul over the sad fate of poets who had to struggle so hard to keep above the fray. One felt he envied the great Victorians, someone like Lord Tennyson who was embraced by the establishment and licensed to do his digging in his own conscience without causing trouble on the streets. Finessing Northern Ireland's "Troubles" took so much of a poet's time. It was ironic to see the Irishman Heaney consulted about who should be the next British Poet Laureate, and embarrassing to see how delighted he was to have been asked.
The curse of Irish writers is that they write in a language imposed on them by their conquerors. Yeats's answer was to swath himself in Irish mythology. Brian O'Nolan led a double life as Flann O'Brien in English and Myles na Gopaleen in Gaelic. James Joyce mocked English until it was incomprehensible. Samuel Beckett moved into French. Seamus Heaney played the role to perfection of what the world would tolerate in an Irish poet. May he rest in peace all the same.
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