I was in the last days of a family vacation in a house on a lake in northern Vermont when I got the news that Seamus Heaney had died. It was 30 August, not in the ‘dead of winter’, as when W B Yeats, his predecessor as greatest living Irish poet, had died, also at age 74. In his great poem on that loss, W H Auden had written ‘Let the Irish vessel lie/ Emptied of its poetry.’ Yeats died in January of 1939. Heaney was born in April of that year and, remarkably, the vessel was refilled. Now we await another elegist as great as Auden.
I was vacationing, away from cities, and had not really expected to have an internet connection — had, indeed, been looking forward to not having it — but wires go everywhere these days, and the will to cut oneself off voluntarily is weak. I was the first one awake. The hour was early morning, the lake was still misted over. I had started the coffee and was taking a few minutes to catch up on screen business. There was something from my poet-friend Peter. I noted the subject heading ‘Seamus Heaney at 74’, but thought nothing of it. No, that’s not quite true. I unthinkingly assumed this was news of some commemoration, a birthday salute — though I knew, we all did, that his birthday was in April, that he shared his date with Samuel Beckett. When I opened the email and saw that there was no message, just a link, I clicked. And then all at once I was awake and trying to take in what I was reading. Seamus Heaney was dead. Seamus was dead.