In recent weeks there has been a torrent of tributes to Seamus Heaney, many written by people who claimed friendship with Heaney. A cynical viewer might assume that such claims are simply self-promotion, and that could be true in some cases. There is, however, another possibility. Heaney had a way of entering into short, intense conversations with people, and those fortunate enough to have enjoyed the experience could well emerge with the impression that they had become Seamus’s friend.
I was not Seamus’s friend, and indeed only knew him slightly. Whenever we met, he recalled my name with varying degrees of inaccuracy, and I was always grateful. We first met more than 40 years ago, in Aarhus, where I was teaching and he had come to see Tollund Man. He had already published ‘The Tollund Man’, which began ‘Some day I will go to Aarhus/, To see his peat-brown head’, and now he had arrived to realise that intention. He had known that the head of Tollund Man is displayed in Silkeborg, not Aarhus, but disarmingly observed that there was another bog body in Aarhus (Grauballe Man), which in any case was metrically better suited to his purpose than was Silkeborg. The reason for the attraction of bodies in peat bogs soon became apparent. Seamus had grown up amongst peat-cutters, and had worked in the peat-bogs himself; as a child he had watched things being recovered, notably the skeleton of an elk. The image of the spade sliding into the peat was one to which he would repeatedly return.
I soon moved to University of Liverpool, and the following year Seamus came to give a lecture on Wordsworth. Before the lecture he went out to a pub for lunch with a few colleagues. I had to teach, and couldn’t go, but when the little group returned, it was reported that Seamus had drunk eight pints, and that my colleagues had struggled to keep up. He went on to give an extraordinary fine lecture, pacing across the stage on imaginary gravel in imitation of Wordsworth establishing the rhythm of his poems by walking. There were a few subsequent encounters, notably at an ESSE conference in Bordeaux, where he read to a vast audience. Our last contact came two years ago. I was writing a book on garden hermits, and wanted to quote from his poem ‘The Hermit’, which spoke with austere eloquence of the farmer-hermit’s deep, quiet work of refreshment. Quoting Heaney in print is always an expensive exercise, but my publisher asked for permission, and the fee was quietly waived. As I look back now, it feels like a parting gift.