‘He wasn’t very linear’, Seamus Heaney’s hero Osip Mandelstam says of himself in a mocking late self-portrait. Was there ever, by contrast, a more straightforwardly linear life than Seamus Heaney’s? Two major events occur at the start of this book: the acceptance of Death of a Naturalist by Faber and Faber and his marriage to Marie Devlin. What ‘incredible good fortune’ he is enjoying, Heaney tells his editor Charles Monteith. Much good fortune later, he wins the Nobel Prize in 1995. It is a life not merely fortunate but ‘reprehensibly perfect’, to borrow a phrase of Philip Larkin’s. What sorrows or secrets lurked behind the smiling public man’s facade?
The Letters of Seamus Heaney does not exactly answer this question. Letters circulate endlessly between Heaney and his publisher, but there is a solitary message to his wife – a poignant ‘Noli timere’ texted from the Blackrock Clinic shortly before the poet’s death in August 2013. There are none of Heaney’s letters to family members here; they are kept behind a seal of privacy that Christopher Reid describes as ‘inviolable’. ‘Compose the frieze/with all of us there’, Heaney wrote in ‘The Seed Cutters’. Not so in this case, and over the course of such a long book this absence cannot but represent a puzzle and a challenge.
We begin not on the family farm but in Belfast, where Heaney took a degree at Queen’s University. Local literary rivalries form a rumbling ostinato leading to irritation. ‘I feel I must get out of Belfast: too many ties and obligations to get a silence for writing’, he writes to