In 2009, as part of the extensive celebrations in Ireland for his 70th birthday, RTÉ broadcast a documentary  about Seamus Heaney. Towards its close, Heaney, who has died aged 74, was asked whether anything in his work seemed appropriate to him as an epitaph. He demurred at first but, when gently prodded, quoted what he had translated from Oedipus at Colonus by Sophocles when his friend the great Polish poet Czesław Miłosz  died in 2004. Telling the story of the old king who dies and vanishes into the earth, the play’s Messenger says, in Heaney’s version: “Wherever that man went, he went gratefully.” That, said Heaney, would do for him too.
The gratitude is not so much, surely, for the leaving of life, but for the work well done. Heaney suffered a stroke  in 2006 and his volume Human Chain  (2010) is painfully shadowed by ageing and mortality. But it is also deeply informed by a spirit of resilience and acceptance and, in the extraordinary love poem Chanson d’Aventure, which describes his ambulance drive to hospital with his wife, Marie, by the sense of renewal and new reward, even at a late stage, in human relationships.
Mortality and domestic relations, affection and obligation, had preoccupied Heaney throughout his work, and were frequently sounded together. One of his most popular poems, Mid-Term Break , from his collection Death of a Naturalist (1966), handles the death of his younger brother Christopher in a road accident in 1953, when Heaney was still a schoolboy; that loss is returned to again in the superb late poem The Blackbird of Glanmore , in District and Circle (2006), which is also concerned with intimations of the poet’s own mortality.
The deaths of many in the Troubles feature in numerous Heaney poems, notably in North (1975), where, in the now famous sequence of “bog poems”, they are brought into alignment with the iron-age bodies recovered from the bogs of Jutland, which Heaney had encountered in PV Glob’s book The Bog People. In the collections Field Work (1979) and Station Island  (1984), Heaney encounters ghosts. With these poems, and others, he became one of the great modern elegists.
But Heaney was also an excellent poet of familial love and, notably, of enduring married love. There are numerous poems of filial affection, for both mother and father, and wonderful poems for his children and, latterly, his granddaughter. One of his finest poems, Sunlight , in North, was written for his aunt Mary, who was partly responsible for his upbringing. Chanson d’Aventure marked a late stage in the marital relationship he had vividly portrayed for years after his marriage to Marie Devlin in 1965: from the difficulties evoked in Summer Home (in Wintering Out, 1972), a poem of regret and self-recrimination, through the stabilities, accommodations, supportiveness, sources of strength and erotic tenderness and arousal recorded in such poems as The Skunk and An Afterwards in Field Work (1979), and The Underground  and La Toilette in Station Island.
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