Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney was a much-loved poet, and rightly so – he was a real sweetheart and so skilled. His death in 2013 was one of those which made me go “oh no” when I heard of it. His text message to his wife, shortly before he died is moving. His son Michael revealed at the funeral mass that his father texted his final words, “Noli timere” (Latin: “Do not be afraid”), to his wife, Marie, minutes before he died.

I always think of his poem ‘Rite of Spring’ at this time of year, when the temperature dips below freezing in Cornwall. Having lived on a remote sheep farm on a high part of Bodmin Moor, I know what it’s like to be at the mercy of the weather. My water supply pipe once froze for several days, so this poem resonates with me, and its suggestive sensuality seems to be saying more than just a struggle to restore the pump to working order:

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 Rite of Spring

So winter closed its fist
And got it stuck in the pump.
The plunger froze up a lump

In its throat, ice founding itself
Upon iron. The handle
Paralysed at an angle.

Then the twisting of wheat straw
into ropes, lapping them tight
Round stem and snout, then a light

That sent the pump up in a flame
It cooled, we lifted her latch,
Her entrance was wet, and she came.

Seamus Heaney

He wrote evocatively about ageing and continuity, including this poem ‘Digging’ from his first published collection of work ‘Death of a Naturalist’:


Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By god, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.

My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it. He fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

The colds smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

Seamus Heaney

Heaney’s powers of observation were acute, as shown in this two-line verse which perfectly captures a moment in time :

The riverbed, dried-up,hall-full of leaves.
Us, listening to a river in the trees.

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