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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
John Banville

The Letters of Seamus Heaney review – amazing grace

Seamus Heaney in 2008.
Seamus Heaney in 2008. Photograph: Leonardo Cendamo/Getty Images

If letter writing is an art form, then Seamus Heaney was one of its master practitioners. Christopher Reid’s 800-page selection from what he assures us was an “enormous output” – “I have had to cut back severely to make a book of publishable proportions” – is a trove of delights as much as it is a literary testament.

Heaney was as fluent in prose as he was sublime in verse, as readers will know from his essays and articles, and his extensive memoir, Stepping Stones, compiled in interview form with the poet Dennis O’Driscoll. Yet the style in the letters, many of them obviously composed at breakneck speed, is astonishing in its quality and unflagging grace. As one of his correspondents said of Heaney: “He makes the simplest words shine.”

Despite occasional asperities, his generosity and enthusiasm for the work of others are remarkable. Here he is writing in 2006 to Ted Hughes’s widow, Carol, about the poet’s posthumous Selected Translationsand note the beautifully sustained oceanic metaphor: “The delights are dolphin-like, the mighty talent rising again and showing his back above the elements … I got [the book] and swam in and out of the different coves and caves, safe havens (few) and strange strands. A strong sense of being lifted on the tide of it all.”

Heaney could not have had a better editor than Reid. The task was surely enormous, but Reid fulfils it with a Heaneyesque diligence and scrupulousness. The choice of letters is never less than apposite, the scholarly apparatus discreet to the point of invisibility, and the endnotes to each letter are kept to a minimum.

On this last point, Reid remarks that “the sheer outward-facing busyness” of Heaney’s life, as man and poet, “called for equally busy footnotes”. In fact, there is no sense of busyness here. Reid’s method is to leave the letters themselves clear and cleanly readable, then attach the necessary explanatory matter at its end, often in no more than a few deft lines. The result is an uncluttered text that is a pleasure for the eye as well as to the mind.

Reid wisely passes over the juvenile correspondence, of which no doubt there was much, since young Heaney was a boarding school boy. The first letter is dated 9 December 1964, when Heaney was 25, and is addressed to his lifelong friend and fellow pupil at St Columb’s College in Derry, the poet and academic Seamus Deane – who used to complain, in his droll fashion, that most Americans seemed to think his name was Seamus Deaney. At the time, Heaney was waiting to hear if the Dolmen Press in Dublin, the leading publisher of poetry in Ireland, would accept his first collection, under the title Advancements of Learning.

Dolmen rejected the poems but asked to see more. By then, however, Heaney had been approached by Faber, who would be his English publishers for the rest of his life. Already, as we see, the hand of god had touched his brow: how many young poets are invited to submit their prentice efforts to the most important publishing house in these islands?

The letter to Deane, as so often, opens with an apology for Heaney’s tardiness in replying to one from his correspondent: “my accumulating guilt feelings grow into a neurosis”, he writes. It was an unconscious prophecy of things to come. Throughout his life, in letter after letter, he would be apologising, trying to catch up, trying to make amends. The theme is so consistent that one wonders if there was not in his psychological disposition a resistant factor that was at once a burden and a necessity. His sense of responsibility, of commitment, of always being somehow in debt, seems never to have slackened.

The fact is, as letter after letter shows, he did too much, gave too much, made himself too readily available to those close to him, and some who were not so close, and later to the vast public following that he and his work accumulated. A friend used to tease him by characterising him as the girl who couldn’t say no. In later life he was so famous – “Famous Seamus”, as the pub wits spitefully had it – that his appearances at literary gatherings caused a near stampede. There is a letter here to a woman who had written to complain that her daughter had sustained bruises when caught up in a jostling crowd pursuing him as he made his escape from an event.

Again and again he invokes Philip Larkin’s lines in Afternoons, in which the poet writes of young mothers in a playground: “Something is pushing them / To the side of their own lives”, and applies the notion to his own predicament. Yes, he had success, a huge proportion, or disproportion, of it, and though it buoyed him up, it weighed him down too. He was only 56 when he was awarded the Nobel prize in 1995. Years later he wrote to his friend, the poet and fellow Nobel laureate Tomas Tranströmer and his wife, that “the prize came early – too early – in my life. I suppose I was in denial about it for the first 10 years or so, but it doesn’t go away and nowadays I realize that most invitations to speak, read and/or travel have little to do with me or my work, everything to do with the N word.” In a letter to the same recipients at the beginning of 2013, the year of the poet’s death, Heaney’s wife Marie wrote: “Seamus once said that getting the prize was ‘like being hit by a mostly benign avalanche’.”

At the beginning of 2010 his life as the Yeatsian “public smiling man” brought him low at last. Writing on 30 May of that year, again to his friend Seamus Deane, he confessed: “I have been in a doldrum for a good while now. No writing. No confidence. Low barometer.” But he got himself out of depression, as four years previously he had recovered from a stroke – his friend, the playwright Brian Friel, who had suffered a similar mishap, greeted him in hospital with the words: “Well, Seamus, different strokes for different folks, eh?”

He was fortunate in the friends he had – the simple warmth in these letters is palpable throughout – but especially in his family: his parents and siblings, and later his wife and three treasured children. Writer and scholar Marie Heaney was the rock upon which he leaned, and he refers, and defers, to her frequently in these letters. From the start she had, as he would have said, the measure of him. Writing to Seamus Deane in 1966, he noted that Marie, whom he had married the previous year, had, with her usual wit and irreverence, “dubbed me ‘the laureate of the root vegetable’”.

This is a marvellous book, lovingly edited, beautifully produced – the paper is notably good, a rare thing these days – and brimming with literary insights, much laughter, a sprinkle of gossip and the poet’s insuppressible joie de vivre, even in adversity. Buy it, read it, and keep it to hand on to your children.

• The Letters of Seamus Heaney is published by Faber (£40). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.

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