On the last Friday of August, 2013, I read the headline: Seamus Heaney dies. I have loved his poetry for years, and although I have never met him in the flesh, I feel as if I know him as a friend. I was of course shocked and saddened by his death—but also afraid of my own mortality.
I immediately turned to Heaney’s elegiac poem, “In the Attic.”
I have reached the age when the elegiac is both unavoidable and welcome. The human soul is not restrained by the physics of time and space: the boy-self (mostly unaware) is comforted and informed by his future older-man-self, and vise verse. Of course, the older-man-self has the advantage of experience and memory—in spite of the challenges age puts on him—but the boy-self certainly pulls his share of the load.
“In the Attic” begins by invoking the fictional boy/man, Jim Hawkins, in the moments after overcoming the “face of Israel Hands” (i.e. Death). The second section of the poem presents the poet’s setting and alignment: “a man marooned/ In his own loft, a boy/ Shipshaped in the crow’s nest of life . . .” Part three brings in the frailties of old age, with a ghostly visitation from the poet’s grandfather. Here there are elements of humor and pathos, as the old man’s wavering memory leads him to change Israel to Isaac: “His mistake perpetual, once and for all, like the single splash when Israel’s body fell.” The final section is the first-person poet alluding to his post-stroke “uncertainty on stairs” and “lightheadedness.” The last stanza closes and opens:
It’s not that I can’t imagine still
That slight untoward rupture and world-tilt
As a wind freshened and the anchor weighed.
For the past several weeks I have been reading sections of Robert Luis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Stevenson’s novel has more than one mention concerning the nature of the soul (or “sperrit,” as Israel Hands would have it). Just a few pages before Jim Hawkins is “aloft in the cross-trees of [the] Hispaniola,” he is questioned by the man he would shoot in self-defense.
“Well now, I’m no scholar, and you’re a lad as can read and figure, and to put it straight, do you take it as a dead man is dead for good, or do he come alive again?”
“You can kill the body, Mr. Hands, but not the spirit; you must know that already.”
I believe Seamus Heaney knows it first hand. His last words speak volumes; his borrowed phrase comforts from its source. Thanks to the courage of his son Michael, we know the final message Seamus gave his loving wife Marie—a text message, minutes before his death—Noli timere: Don’t be afraid.