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The Word on the Week

Seamus Heaney

The death of Seamus Heaney yesterday has triggered an avalanche of words providing an appropriate covering for our best known contemporary poet. Potted biographies and eulogies compete with each other in the newspapers, while Presidents and Poets recall their encounters with Seamus.

Not to be outdone, a taxi-driver on our Vox-pop radio show recounted presenting Seamus with a book of his poems only to be asked by the Nobel Prize winner to sign it first!

Throughout his life he sustained a prolific output of poems. Perhaps the most accessible are those which were inspired by memories of his childhood. His genius lay in taking the ordinary and imbuing it with a dignity that was always there but had previously been overlooked. He could construct word pictures that took us into our imaginations transforming the familiar into parables for us to interpret. Here is one such poem.

The annals say: when the monks of Clonmacnoise
Were all at prayers inside the oratory
A ship appeared above them in the air.

The anchor dragged along behind so deep
It hooked itself into the altar rails
And then, as the big hull rocked to a standstill,

A crewman shinned and grappled down the rope
And struggled to release it. But in vain.
‘This man can’t bear our life here and will drown,’

The abbot said, ‘unless we help him.’ So
We did, the freed ship sailed, and the man climbed back
Out of the marvellous as he had known it.

It seems that the crewman enters the world of the spiritual with a mission to save his ship. Salvation is beyond him but he is graciously delivered and his ship set free.

Seamus presents us with a division between the secular and sacred that is unbridgeable unaided. The crewman gets a glimpse of this marvellous “alter universe” to take back with him into his everyday life.

Perhaps the crewman could identify with St Paul who, writing about his heavenly vision, said “I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows” (2 Corinthians Chapter 12 verses 2).

For Seamus the anchor has been cast. For us let us make sure that it is in Christ.