- Seamus Heaney: An Introduction by Richard Rankin Russell
Though some might sigh at the thought of yet another book on the poetry of Seamus Heaney, Richard Rankin Russell’s new introduction to the poetry fills in a longstanding gap. The last previous introduction, Andrew Murphy’s Seamus Heaney—despite a publication date of 2010—does not discuss any of Heaney’s work after his 1999 translation of Beowulf. Russell’s Seamus Heaney, An Introduction is the first to include the entire scope of Heaney’s poetry, even including sundry poems published after his death in 2013.
Those just embarking on a study of the poetry of Heaney could find no more capable or enthusiastic guide than Russell, who is an astute reader of individual poems, yet one who strikes a balance between close reading and tracing the sweep of Heaney’s poetry, showing Heaney’s development from the early, tentative period when he signed his poems “Incertus” to the confident years as the poet and his poetry evolved from volume to volume, advancing new themes in step with adventurous explorations of form. Russell is especially adept at showing how form becomes part of—or at least undergirds—meaning, especially in his discussion of Heaney’s sonnets. Heaney was not drawn to writing irregular sonnets only as a political gesture to subvert the English form used by such Elizabethan colonizers as Edmund Spenser, though that motive accounts in part for the form of “Requiem for the Croppies.” Russell demonstrates, rather, how Heaney’s variations on English and Italian sonnets advance the particular themes at hand—in “Fostering,” for example, where the octave, representing Heaney’s [End Page 158] earlier poetry celebrating place, “floods into, as it were, the opening lines of the sestet that focuses on a new kind of poetry that will emphasize marvels.”
Often in discussing individual poems, Russell sets the cultural context for the poems, although the first chapter on Heaney’s “Life and Contexts” does this in a more general way. Russell’s account of the world into which Heaney was born is especially engaging. But there soon comes a hint of a more Christian reading of Heaney’s attitude than seems warranted. We see this in this chapter’s closing discussion of Heaney’s last words, which were texted to his wife as he was being wheeled down the corridor in Dublin’s Blackrock Clinic for a risky operation to repair a split aorta. Heaney died before he got to the operating room, and his texted last words to Marie were, “Don’t be afraid.” Michael Heaney, the poet’s son, revealed his father’s last words at the funeral, remarking that the text message was sent in Latin, often used by his parents in personal communication. Subsequently, there was a deal of confusion about whether Michael had said his father texted “nolite timere” (plural) or “noli timere” (singular). The singular form would indicate that the message was personal, just for Marie; the plural form would imply larger meanings for the phrase, some commentators even associating Heaney’s message with the words of Jesus to his cowering disciples (in the Vulgate version of Matthew 14:27). Russell prefers this association and somehow finds in Heaney’s phrase the suggestion that “Jesus, as the living word, can carry us across … the gulf of our fears to safety and comfort.” Michael Heaney, however, has clarified the issue in a September 2015 article in the Irish Times. His father was not quoting Jesus, for he had texted “Noli timere.” This fact suggests a more reasonable interpretation of Heaney’s final words: that he was trying to calm his wife’s fears as he headed into a risky surgery, and, alternatively, that she should not be afraid to carry on without him in the event of his death.
Though Russell occasionally succumbs to an inclination to find straightforward gestures toward transcendence and the hope of an afterlife, for the most part he is willing to allow for Heaney’s unbelief. For instance...