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Headstone is mounted on Seamus Heaney's grave: There's a certain poetry to this simple, evocative marker

Two years after his death, a headstone has been mounted on Seamus Heaney's grave. Damian Smyth reflects on the signifcance of the stone's inscription and on the magnetic pull of a poet's last resting place.

By Damian Smyth

Published 14/08/2015

Seamus Heaney’s headstone, bearing the inscription 'Walk on air against your better judgement'
Seamus Heaney’s headstone, bearing the inscription 'Walk on air against your better judgement'
Seamus Heaney

It's two years since the poet Seamus Heaney died in hospital in Dublin at the age of 73 and since his remains were returned for burial in his home village of Bellaghy in south Co Londonderry.

Recognised as one of the major poets in English of the 20th century, standing with Hardy, Yeats and Eliot, and a global presence in the fine arts alongside Joyce, Picasso and Beckett, his career received its highest accolade, but not its completion, with the receipt of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995.

The enduring excellence of his work into his last years was recognised by his receipt of the TS Eliot Prize for District and Circle (2006), the David Cohen Prize (2009) and the Griffin Poetry Prize Lifetime Achievement Award (2012).

His passing was marked by tributes from President Higgins, former US President Clinton and José Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission, as well as from a multitude of public and private figures worldwide.

It's not surprising, given the appetite there had been for decades for the poet's words as poetry, that even expressive fragments left behind would become sought-after artefacts.

The poet's final words, communicated to his wife via a text message - 'Noli timere', do not fear - were received generally as an astonishing rallying cry against personal despair and grief, as much as an affirmation of life in the teeth of the Reaper himself.

The phrase has become a famous graffito in Dublin and is the subject of an illuminated artwork by the artist Deepa Man-Kler above the entrance to the main theatre space in the Crescent Arts Centre in Belfast.

By the same token, more aware than anyone in our time of the power of symbol and the transformative presence of the miraculous in the everyday - and, like most of us in Ulster, keenly sensitive to the magic and lore of grave sites, real or imagined - the poet's bequest of his own remains to his home village, interred beside his own family and among his own people, can be seen as a final gift from this gentle writer and persuasive citizen of his home place.

The poet's grave confirmed that intimate village and its people as the fount and origin of his imagination and the presence of the poet's remains has made possible, I think, the tremendous act of affirmation on the part of the local council which has seen the spectacular multi-million Seamus Heaney Interpretive Centre rise among its few streets, due to open in June next year.

Donegore has Sir Samuel Ferguson. Sligo has WB Yeats - despite recent dispute over the identity of the remains interred in Drumcliffe. Carrowdore has Louis MacNeice.

John Hewitt left his body to medical science, his ashes finally being scattered in the grounds of Musgrave Park, but such was the lyrical power of his verses on Ossian's Grave, a stone circle atop Lubitavish in the Antrim Glens, that some insist his body is buried beneath a commemorative cairn there.

Such is the power of the poet and his or her final physical location.

Now Heaney's resting place, after a not-unusual period of reflection, has its modest headstone and surround in the churchyard of St Mary's Bellaghy, the stone inscribed with the line 'Walk on air against your better judgement'.

Everything about the site is the perfect choice, including the stone and its evocative inscription.

As the drift of Heaney's work in the latter part of his career moved towards 'lightenings', 'clearances' and 'claritas' and away from the 'earthy' rooted imagery of the poetry for which he is probably best remembered, so the line here from the poem The Gravel Walks in his 1995 collection The Spirit Level, represents the step taken by the artist outwards from the security of home and the familiar towards the unfamiliar, the risky, the unsure, the literally incredible.

It is no false application to see it as a line which can resonate powerfully among the risk-takers in our shared culture, those who dare to step across the many obvious gaps which divide us.

Indeed, it is a diagnosis of courage and a kind of secular faith in the virtues of the local people among whom he chose to return.

It is a line of poetry as enigmatic as 'Cast a cold Eye/On Life, on Death./Horseman, pass by' above Yeats's grave.

For Heaney, it sets echoes ringing through the long canon of his own work, right up to the very last poem in his last collection, Human Chain.

In A Kite for Aibhin, the poet takes "my stand again, halt opposite/Anahorish Hill to scan the blue,/Back in that field to launch our long-tailed comet."

In the tow of his small granddaughter, the poet allows the kite to break free "itself alone, a windfall".

It is the perfect farewell on the poet's part to all of us, a salute the line cut into the stone at his head fixes forever as equally an opportunity, a promise and a challenge.

It emphasises too that, line by line, this poet will never be done speaking his wisdom to us.

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