Monday, March 17, 2008

Finding beauty within tragedy

Heaney was born on a small farm in County Derry in 1939, "the eldest child of an ever-growing family". In his Nobel address in Stockholm he spoke lovingly of his childhood at Mossbawn - could his birthplace have had a more Heaneyesque name? In the three-roomed thatched farmhouse where, in their early years, he and his siblings - they are all there in A Sofa in the Forties, "kneeling / Behind each other, eldest down to youngest" - passed "a kind of den-life which was more or less emotionally and intellectually proofed against the outside world". That outside world, as we know, had entered upon one of its most murderous and cataclysmic phases, though "none of the news of these world-spasms entered me as terror ... and if there was something culpable about such political ignorance in that time and place, there was something positive about the security I inhabited as a result of it."

This unapologetic stance is characteristic of Heaney; if he insists on affirming the enduring decencies, what Wordsworth calls "the little, nameless, unremembered, acts / Of kindness and of love", it is in the full acknowledgment of the savagery that man is capable of visiting upon man. Many of the poems he wrote in the 1970s and the 1980s, during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, are unflinching and often enraged threnodies for a terrible time.

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