DOCTOR OF LETTERS
You were silly like us: your gift survived it all;
The parish of rich women, physical decay,
Yourself; mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
For poetry makes nothing happen:
W H Auden's sad lament for William Butler Years, deepened as it is by Auden's sorrow at the fall of Barcelona and his own pessimistic view of British political life, is mitigated in its melancholy by the poet's moving defence of the lasting power of his art. He continues,
... it survives
In the valley of its saying...
... it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.
The relevance of this passage to today's ceremony lies in the word "survives". Seamus Heaney, Nobel Prize Winner, one of the most accomplished poets of our century has, in his poetry, prose and teaching led us to hear and read the word-hoard of our country with the informing power of his acute responsiveness, to renew and repossess the world about us; his vision, fulfilling Auden's hopes that Years' work may live on, has ensured the survival of poetry in these challenging and difficult days; or, to quote his own essay on Czeslaw Milosz, his subject is "the responsibility of each person to ensure that survival". (The Government of the Tongue, p.69).
Seamus Heaney's concern to articulate the healing properties of art, its strength in holding differences in harmony is at the centre of his recently published Oxford lectures, The Redress of Poetry. In a series of incisive and thoughtful discussions on topics ranging from the poetry of George Herbert and Christopher Marlowe to the Irish writers Brian Merriman and Oscar Wilde, Seamus Heaney concludes with a meditation on Ireland now:
"... whatever the possibilities of achieving political harmony at an institutional level, I wanted to affirm that within our individual selves we can reconcile two orders of knowledge which we might call the practical and the poetic; to affirm also that each form of knowledge redresses the other and the frontier between them is there for the crossing." (The Redress of Poetry, p. 203).
This sensitive approach to the Irish question is a hallmark of Seamus Heaney's continued probings into the historical and cultural constructions of Ireland. His appreciation of the complex identities of Ireland has earned him a respect that transcends the division of the nation. A deep sense of the past and a remarkably wide knowledge of what Eliot calls "the dialect of the tribe" provides his work with a magical, indefinable core, an inscape of the history of a people.
In his recent Nobel Prize acceptance lecture, Seamus Heaney suggests that poetry can make an order that is both "true to the impact of external reality" and "sensitive to the inner laws of the poet's being". This two-sided conception of order links his work - and his strenuous defence of poetry - with earlier practitioners and theorists. Sir Philip Sidney, for instance, tells us that the poet "... cometh unto you, with a tale which holdeth children from play, and old men from the chimney corner. And, pretending no more, doth intend the bringing of the mind from wickedness to virtue: even as the child is often brought to take more wholesome things by hiding them in such others as have a pleasant taste".
Such views of poetry possess a special meaning within the academy where poetry is indeed seen as a philosophical and aesthetic agency in our teaching. And it is also as an inspired teacher that we honour Seamus Heaney today. He has recently completed a five year appointment as Professor of Poetry at Oxford; he has, since 1982, held the Boylston Chair of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard University. His work for the Field Day Company, his many broadcasts, articles and patient explanations of the history, importance and methods of his chosen art are well known.
In a discussion of the apparent "uselessness" of the imaginative arts, Heaney circles around the issues raised in the Auden elegy quoted earlier:
"Faced with the brutality of the historical onslaught, they are practically useless. Yet they verify our singularity, they strike and stake out the ore of self which lies at the base of every individuated life. In one sense the efficacy of poetry is nil - no lyric has ever stopped a tank. In another sense, it is unlimited. It is like the writing in the sand in the fact of which accusers and accused are left speechless and renewed." (The Government of the Tongue, p. 107)
This teaching reminds us that sanity, coherence and order can only be achieved through those rehearsals of the fulfilled life made possible by art. For Sidney, Nature's world is brazen, "the poets only deliver a golden".
In his 1983 volume, Sweeney Astray, Seamus Heaney considers the medieval text of Sweeney as a fluid figuration of the crossing-point. Sweeney is Christian and Celtic, British and Irish, a creative poet and a responsible citizen. Sweeney's kingdom on the Down/Antrim border and his final resting ground in Wicklow provided a guiding shape for the poet's own sense of place. In the lyrical close of that poem, we hear a current of feeling that pulls together place, companionship and loss in a single harmony:
"I am standing beside Sweeney's tomb
remembering him. Wherever he
migrated in flight from home
will always be dear to me.
Because Sweeney loved Glen Bolcain
I learned to love it, too. He'll miss
the fresh streams tumbling down,
the green beds of watercress."
(Sweeney Astray, p. 84).
In his discussion of this text, Seamus Heaney clarifies an issue that will be immediately apparent to his readers. Poetry is in the detail, the "local power" of Glen Bolcain, the streams and watercress; we learn of a Sweeney family of tinkers at St Mullins in Wicklow which the poet associates with the text. These are the elements that delight, energise and involve the reader.
Seamus Heaney's ability to produce lasting and notable images of Ireland, "Islands riding themselves out into the fog", "the squawk of clearance", the "bonded pith and stone" of the haw, has radically altered the world's perception of this island: his grasp of history, the professional resources he is able to deploy in his work and his strong moral commitment to a peaceful world order have made him an unofficial and much-welcomed cultural ambassador for Ireland. The values that flow from his poetry, prose, drama and teaching are those of generosity, toleration and courtesy.
The Chorus in The Cure at Troy, Seamus Heaney's version of Sophocles' Philoctetes beats out a sentiment towards the close of that play that has been much quoted. It possesses a resonating relevance to many of our concerns. At the close of this citation we quote it once more:
History says. Don't hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up.
And hope and history rhyme.
So hope for a great sea-change
On the far side of revenge.
Believe that a further shore
Is reachable from here.
(The Cure at Troy, p. 77).