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A trip to Heaney country

The fiftieth anniversary of Seamus Heaney’s Wintering Out is a chance to recognise the importance of place to his poetry

When the first reviews of Seamus Heaney’s Wintering Out were published in 1972, the reviewers were unable to take the collection — or its poet — out of his Irish context. Writing in Poetry, one critic said Heaney “has re-evaluated the powerful picture of rural Northern Irish life … in more consciously political terms”; he “doesn’t harp on the war, though its background presence is acutely felt”.

The Observer was rather crueller: the reviewer argued that the collection’s “themes are often a bit glib”, and there is “an inevitability of gloom which paradoxically ends up by selling the tribulations of modern Ireland a bit short”.

Wintering Out — Heaney’s third collection — was published fifty years ago. For its anniversary, Simon Callow read a selection of the poems in the Seamus Heaney HomePlace in Bellaghy, accompanied by the pianist Charles Owen.

In Callow’s reading, the bog-body was almost tangible

As the early reviewers noted, in 1972 the Irish political context was not one that could be easily ignored: the year saw Bloody Sunday, the beginning of direct rule, and an untold amount of violence. Heaney himself moved from Belfast to County Wicklow, some way from the intensity of the conflict — and wrote much of the collection whilst in California. But the book remains rooted in the politics of northern Ireland. Its opening dedication describes “a new camp for the internees” alongside bomb-craters, machine guns, and political graffiti in downtown Belfast.

The collection is as much the product of geographical observations as it is political: following the description of a war-ravaged Belfast are descriptions of bog-oak beams in rural cottages, country springs, and grass that unbraids and unfurls as the speaker walks through it.

This is not mere sentimentalisation of rural life. Heaney declares that his language comes from the landscape: the “vowel-meadow” of the fields and slopes. In his earlier, incredibly famous, poem “Digging” (Death of a Naturalist, 1966) Heaney established writing as an inheritance from Heaney’s turf-cutting father and grandfather: “Between my finger and my thumb / The squat pen rests. / I’ll dig with it”. But in this later collection, writing is a national, collective inheritance. Ireland is a place of soft gradients of consonants, a “small drumming” that comes from the “phantom ground”, and a “guttural muse” that is learning to resist an “alliterative tradition”.

When read aloud in the landscape that Heaney credits, in part, for his writing, the poems took on a life of their own. In Callow’s reading of “The Tollund Man”, the bog-body was almost tangible. The preserved, ancient violence wrought the exhumed body’s “peat-brown head” and “mild pods of his eye-lids” was echoed in the death and destruction of seventies Ireland, and was no less horrifying when read aloud in twenty-first century Bellaghy. And the trauma of a mother drowning her illegitimate child in “Limbo” — “Fishermen at Ballyshannon / Netted an infant last night” — felt all the more immediate, real, and gut-punchingly tragic.

Elsewhere in Heaney’s work, it is hard not be struck by the importance of his family to his writing. One of his best poems is his sonnet sequence Clearances: an overwhelmingly tender memorial to his mother. The third sonnets opens

When all the others were away at Mass
I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.
They broke the silence, let fall one by one
Like solder weeping off the soldering iron

The intimacy, silence, and the domestication of the religious mother-son dynamic — all heightened by the contrast of the “soldering iron” of rural, mechanical life. There are few lines of poetry more emotive, or effective.

“Heaney country” is not just the landscape, but its people

And it is this delight in the familial and domestic that is so perfectly brought to life in the Seamus Heaney HomePlace: just a stone’s throw from Heaney’s first home, Mossbawn, it is part museum, part library, and part cultural centre. The centre holds many of Heaney’s own drafts and manuscripts, alongside archive clippings of his appearances in magazines. (One of his earliest print features was, rather incongruously, in Vogue — alongside a full page model-esque headshot. One wonders if his youthful good looks had some sway over the poetry editor).

But it is the attention to family photos and histories that is most impressive. Each of the poems is meticulously placed in context. Reading them here, poems for his friends, children, and grandchildren become even more intimate, special, and deeply personal.

“Mid-Term Break” — from his early collection Death of a Naturalist — is one of Heaney’s most famous poems. It opens with the young Heaney waiting “in the college sickbay” to return to his family from school in the wake of the death of his brother, who lies in a coffin that has become his cot. The poem is unbearably sad on the page — “a four foot box, a foot for every year” — but next to pictures of the family, and just down the road from where the fatal car accident happened, it is hard to read without welling up. Dan Heaney — Seamus’s younger brother — was at the celebration of Wintering Out, and chatted about being the baby who “laughed and cooed and rocked the pram” in the midst of the distress of the rest of the poem. “Heaney country” is not just the landscape of County Londonderry, but its people.

Not loving Heaney is almost in vogue now. There has been some backlash against his status as the darling of Irish letters; the Nobel Prize-winning “famous Seamus” — and it is undeniable that some of his poems are ripe for parody (if in doubt, go for something about a bog, the smell of cold potatoes, and being somewhat wary of being a voyeur).

But, a few days in Heaney country is enough to disabuse even the most critical of their misapprehensions. A visit to the forge that inspired the poem of the same name in Door into the Dark (1969), a trip on Loch Neagh (of A Loch Neagh Sequence), or a tour around Belfast — these are not just parts of a cottage industry of Heaney-based tourism, they are a tribute to his poetry, and how much he mattered to the people who wrote for and about. Heaney’s work was so tied to the landscape in which it was written — from the checkpoints in towns and cities, to the fields that lay under empty skies and telegraph wires — that to visit feels like something akin to a poetic pilgrimage.

It is somewhat facile to say that seeing the landscape makes Heaney’s poetry feel “more real”: Heaney evidently needed no assistance in crafting scenes out of words, and his poetry stands alone and impressive after his death. But, for us mere readers, it is hard not to get something more out of visiting the places that formed both his ideas and language. Between my finger and my thumb, my copy of Opened Ground rests — and I’ll read it.

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