This, Heaney’s final collection, shows the poet at his most self-effacing, almost writing himself out of history, restricting his subject matter and themes to the narrowest, becoming a palimpsest for older, greater, thoughts to travel via his poems.
One of the final sequences has Heaney identifying himself with Celtic monks, in particularly Colum Cille (St Columba) (even the front cover medieval images (the Human Chain) look like Seamus), choosing to translate three of his Irish works which fit his own experience (the first two are first lines; the last a complete poem):
My hand is cramped from penwork.
Derry I cherish ever.
Towards Ireland a grey eye
Will look back but not see
The men of Ireland or her women.
And in the next sequence (“Hermit Songs”) he describes himself as a librarian covering books,
To make a covert for the newness
Learn you were a keeper only
The final “Hermit Song” (IX) has Heaney programmatically rejecting Yeats and other poets, and concluding for himself:
Mine [faith] for now I put
In steady-handedness maintained
In books against its vanishing.
From this perspective, the individual cannot be less important than this, and the poet’s mission, as a transmitter of something greater than himself, cannot be more so.
But John Carey’s blurb to this book claims that “this collection is almost a mini-biography, but made of poetic wonders not career steps”. It is that, but also, as we’ve seen, a final statement from Heaney on his work as a poet, and a contemplation on death. The “Hermit Songs” fade out to images of being lifted: in “In the Attic” the attic becomes a crow’s nest – the soul is seeking release, and in the last poem he recalls flying a kite, which, in the last words of the last poem, “takes off, itself alone, a windfall.” Soul and body “separate, elate” at last.
But “windfall” isn’t an end; it leaves us, having expected closure, asking questions, simplistic and naïve to formulate: is Heaney’s soul a windfall, something which lands randomly and brings good fortune? Is that how he sees his poetry? Does he see his soul continuing on, or is it his poems which remain? Too literal though these questions are, they remain in the air. And then we remember the first poem of the collection, ‘Had I not been awake’, in which he recalls a strangely exciting wind he heard in the night,
Had I not been awake I would have missed it,
A wind that rose and whirled until the roof
Pattered with quick leaves off the sycamore
And got me up, the whole of me a-patter,
Alive and ticking like an electric fence:
Had I not been awake I would have missed it.
The brilliant casual-conversational style shown in the repeated first line and “patter”, and the hidden rhymes of “quick”, “syc-“, “tick-” and “-ric” straightaway let us know that we are safe in this poet’s hands, that we are going to be taken on a proper journey. But it’s only when we reach the end of the final poem (and for me this only became clear on a second reading) that we realise that something exciting is going on at a structural level too, that the whole collection reflects in its shape the reincarnation outlined to Aeneas by Anchises in the sixth book of Virgil’s Aeneid, itself the subject of two of the central poems. Wind = Greek άνεμος; Latin anima “soul”. The beautiful autobiographical poems (which I haven’t even mentioned, on his childhood, parents, home village) are swaddled in an aged poet’s deeper meditation. The windfall does land, somewhere, “a wind that…got me up, the whole of me a-patter”.