Seamus Heaney, 1939-2013

Many people are contributing memories of “Famous Seamus.” I will not claim any great insight, and certainly no important interactions with the poet, although he, his wife, and I did wait on a freezing pitch-black Oxford winter morning for the bus to Heathrow, ca. 1990. This is the wife to whom he texted his very last words: “Noli timere” from the Gospel of Matthew:

And when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were troubled, saying, It is a spirit; and they cried out for fear.

But straightway Jesus spake unto them, saying, Be of good cheer; it is I; be not afraid. (Mathew 14:26-7)

I don’t think Heaney was identifying himself with Jesus. He was just recalling the Latin for “be not afraid” from his childhood of school and church. But he was an insightful reader of the New Testament, pointing out, for example, that it was Jesus’ bare act of writing that saved the “Woman Taken in Adultery.”

And again he stooped down, and wrote on the ground.

And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst (John 8:8-9)

Heaney said that poetry, like Jesus’ mysterious and quiet writing, “holds attention for a space, functions not as distraction but as pure concentration, a focus where our power to concentrate is concentrated back on ourselves.” Poetry puts us in the “Republic of Conscience.”

People seem to like my discussion questions prompted by Heaney’s magnificent poem of that name. That post has had 1,300 unique visitors, including a burst of readers just lately. I first heard “The Republic of Conscience” in the soft Irish lilt of Mary Robinson, formerly president of Ireland and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, who read it at a conference. It belongs to Amnesty International because Heaney gave AI the copyright. Looking back over my blog, I also find that I’ve reviewed Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, quoted his commentary on terrorism from his Nobel Lecture, quoted him on the liberating power of poetry, and ruminated on what it would really mean to live in a republic of conscience. That is a fair amount to have written about one poet on a civics blog, so I am satisfied I have done my bit to memorialize this great man.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.