The great Irish poet and Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney was laid to rest Monday. When news alerts announced Heaney’s death on Friday, they prompted me to turn to that treasured resource at Wake Forest: the Wake Forest University Press, the premier publisher of Irish poetry in North America.
Jefferson Holdridge serves as director and editor of the press and teaches Irish literature as an associate professor of English. I wondered whether Holdridge, who had studied in Dublin, had known Heaney. He wrote me over the weekend:
“My first memories of Heaney were of studying him in the late ’70s, not long after he began writing in fact. I have loved his work from that period on. I was given his second book Door into the Dark during my first stay in Ireland in the early ’80s. And I saw him read there in the mid-’80s a number of times. Each time I was struck by his sonorous voice and even more so by the care he took to answer questions from the audience. Once I remember an older woman asking him what he thought of all the primroses that were no longer. He stumbled for a moment and then went into a beautiful rendering of the importance of Irish landscape.
Our paths crossed many times since those early years, but one of my most vivid memories is of seeing him read at the Abbey Theater, which was sold out for a launch of his much later book Electric Light (2001). Imagine that — a poet selling out a theater.
My most recent memory is of him commemorating the poet Dennis O’Driscoll, who died unexpectedly and prematurely this past year. Heaney was deeply moved by this sad event as I am by his death.”
Holdridge’s words served as tribute to an artist revered the world over. I found myself reading his poetry and the remembrances of those who loved him. I recalled sitting with him at a bar in Cambridge, Mass., and hearing what Holdridge aptly calls that sonorous voice. It was the year before he would receive the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995 ”for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past.”
At the requiem mass on Monday, his son told mourners in the Dublin church that his mother received her husband’s dying words in a text message in Latin. “Noli timere” – don’t be afraid.
The Guardian newspaper noted that Heaney told generations of aspiring writers: “Do not be afraid” in taking up the pen, and implored politicians of all stripes “‘do not be afraid’ in choosing the path of peace and eventually ending the Troubles by putting down the gun.”