An Irish wake: W&M remembers Seamus Heaney

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One month ago, a poet died. Not just any poet. The deceased was Seamus Heaney, nicknamed ‘Famous Seamus,’ the literary rock star, winner of the “N” prize, friend of presidents, of Japan’s empress, of England’s queen and beloved at William & Mary. 

He was, according to Henry Hart, W&M’s Mildred and J.B. Hickman professor of English and humanities, a rich man from humble roots, “the most generous famous poet I’ve ever met.”

Hart was one of approximately 50 people who showed up at the new Tucker Hall theatre to participate in a memorial reading for the Irish poet on Sept. 30, one month to the day after Heaney’s death. Hart, as did many of his English-department colleagues, brought their own autographed texts to the event, texts left following Heaney’s three-day visit to the campus in 2002.

Suzanne Hagedorn, associate professor of English at the university who organized the reading, called it a necessary gesture.

“He made a lot of friends here,” she said. “His gift of sharing himself and his poetry meant that even people who only knew him through his poems felt sad that our world had lost a great poet.”

A medievalist, Hagedorn remarked, “The fact that he was able to put Beowulf, an Anglo-Saxon epic written somewhere between 700 and 1000, on the bestseller list for many, many weeks is just amazing. He made what had been a chore for many of our students who had to read Beowulf a delight.”

Nancy Schoenberger, W&M professor of English, commented on the fact that Heaney treated all people the same.

“It’s funny, we feel as if we can call him Seamus because he had the common touch — he had that humility, that accessibility,” she said.

She recalled meeting Heaney in New York during the late 1980s. At the time, she organized the reading series for The Academy of American Poets. Heaney, recognizing the attendance of the ambassador from the United Kingdom as well as the ambassador from Northern Ireland, graciously acknowledged each, she said, but asked forgiveness for the fact that “he would lean toward the latter.”

 He remained humble, she said, as if he “did not have the weight of international fame hanging around him.”

Of all the professors at William & Mary, it was Hart who knew Heaney the best. Their relationship spanned 30 years, coalescing in 1985 when Hart, a professor at The Citadel, traveled to Harvard, where Heaney was teaching, to begin research for the biography he would write, Seamus Heaney: Poet of Contrary Progressions. Hart found Heaney, who at that time was considered a shoe-in for the Nobel Prize, easily approachable. Typical of the Heaney he would come to know, Hart recalled the poet becoming angry at a New York Times critic who had written a flattering review of the poet’s recent work Station Island. Heaney called the review “fulsome” several times as means of dismissing both the review and the reviewer. 

Later, when the conversation lagged, Heaney went into an adjacent room and returned with a bottle of whiskey and two jars. “They were the kind of jars that hold jellies, or pickled vegetables, or moonshine,” Hart said. “I’m not sure where the conversation went after that, but I know I had a good time,” he added.

Hart described Heaney the son of an impoverished North Ireland farmer, a Roman Catholic cognizant of “The Troubles,” a world-renown figure who constantly made light of his own success.  After he won the Nobel Prize, he joked how he no longer was an “ignoble” person but had become a “noble” person.  He was a man who always gave gifts to others, Hart said.

“I think he was a kind of genius, the kind of genius who just received gifts from the muse, gifts of poems. He didn’t work for the poem—I think that’s why he sometimes felt guilty, why he always was trying to give back.”

It was Hart who arranged the three-day visit by Heaney to the university in 2002. He recalled driving Heaney from the airport to campus. He asked Heaney, “Seamus, how has winning the Nobel Prize changed your life?”

Heaney, after short deliberation, replied, “Henry, you’re not allowed to use the 'N' word in my presence. Nobody in my house is allowed to use the ‘N’ word.” Heaney feared, according to Hart, that use of the word would lead people to think of him as arrogant.

Hart also remembered Heaney suggesting that, when he died, he would like for his epitaph to include a line he had translated from Sophocles: “Wherever that man went, he went gratefully.”

It was that gratefulness that endeared Heaney to his readers and fans worldwide, as well as at William & Mary.

“We loved him,” Hagedorn said. “We wanted to remember him not with a somber event but with a celebration of someone whose life was incredibly vivid, incredibly vibrant, incredibly giving. We wanted it to be sort of an Irish wake. We think that’s what he would have wanted.”