In the year of his 70th birthday, two thirds of the poetry compilations sold in the UK were by Heaney. His translated Beowulf was a best-seller and became a classroom fixture.
Most writers pen their own eulogies. Today’s Twitter sparkles with little chunks of Heaney’s writing. The words of a poet are modified in the guts of his admirers. “For every one of us, living in this world means waiting for our end. Let whoever can win glory before death. When a warrior is gone, that will be his best and only bulwark.” He knew how to compose a muscular line. His lines were taut and taught.
They have the deceptive simplicity of a master craftsman. New York Times critic Brad Leithauser, writing on Heaney’s 2006 “District and Circle,” said, “His is the gift of saying something extraordinary while, line by line, conveying a sense that this is something an ordinary person might actually say.”
Like many, I encountered his work first through his translation of Beowulf.
Translation can be a mixed bag. Vladimir Nabokov famously warned translators against trying to do anything more than offer a precise translation of each word, since capturing the essence of the original was, to him, presumptuous and impossible. Nabokov obviously did not read Heaney’s Beowulf. It restored the muscular life of the Old English in well-hewn lines that landed with the force of blows. It was the kind of thing you wanted to see onscreen, even if the Robert Zemeckis-Angelina Jolie version was not quite what you had in mind. It took an epic that could have been long strings of brute forgotten vowels and restored its vivid music. The past, in Heaney’s hands, was viciously alive. And so were the words of the past.
Ezra Pound said that “a great age of literature is perhaps always a great age of translations.” Heaney’s was a great translation.
I worried earlier this year about the death of poetry and got myself duly bashed around on the Internet for it. What makes a language dead but people ceasing to think in it? It only dies in the absence of minds that use its words to connect a thing to its meaning. Beowulf could have been words written in a dead language, but Heaney brought it back into the present tongue. He found the human at the intersection of present and past, reconciling the parish tongues of the old English and the new. He rescued it — and gave us something beautiful and new. His words had the solid weight of thought. I’ll miss the way he inhabited language.
But the death of the poet, as Auden wrote in his elegy for that other great Irish poet, is kept from his poems. He lives on in his lines.