Learning, today, of the death of Seamus Heaney, I first thought of his magnificent essay contrasting two views of dying, “Joy or Night: Last Things in the Poetry of W. B. Yeats and Philip Larkin,” in his 1995 volume The Redress of Poetry. Heaney speaks of Larkin’s stark poem “Aubade” as “treating as mystification any imaginative or rhetorical ploy which might mask the facts of the body’s dissolution and the mind’s disappearance after death.”
This is how the poem begins:
I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.
Heaney finds Larkin’s terror reminiscent of the terror suffered by the character Everyman in the medieval morality play: “Everyman’s summoner, the presence whom Larkin calls ‘unresting death,’ stalks the poem every bit as menacingly as he stalks the play.” But in spite of “all its heart-breaking truths and beauties,” Heaney sees the poem as reneging on what Yeats called the “spiritual intellect’s great work” in his poem, “The Man and the Echo.” It reads in part:
. . . All that I have said and done
Now that I am old and ill,
Turns into a question till
I lie awake night after night
And never get the answers right.
Did that play of mine send out
Certain men the English shot?
Did words of mine put too great strain
On that woman’s reeling brain?
Could my spoken words have checked
That whereby a house lay wrecked?
And all seems evil until I
Sleepless would lie down and die.
Lie down and die.
That were to shirk
The spiritual intellect’s great work
And shirk it in vain. There is no release
In a bodkin or disease
Nor can there be work so great
As that which cleans man’s dirty slate.
Heaney never ceased toiling at that great work, aiming, as he put it, for a transformative vision of reality, one that outstrips the conditions of life even as it observes them:
The truly creative writer, by interposing his or her perception and expression, will transfigure the conditions and effect thereby what I have been calling “the redress of poetry.” The world is different after it has been read by a Shakespeare or an Emily Dickinson or a Samuel Beckett because it has been augmented by their reading of it.
The world is surely different because it has been read by a Seamus Heaney, and augmented by his reading of it.
Sissela Bok, August 30, 2013
Sissela Bok, 78, is Senior Visiting Fellow at the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies. Her most recent book is Exploring Happiness: From Aristotle to Brain Science (Yale University Press, 2011).