In 1938, the year before he died, preeminent Irish poet William Butler Yeats spelled out in his valedictory poem “Under Ben Bulben” explicit instructions for the epitaph he wished to have cut into the slab of local limestone that would mark his grave:
Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by.
Ironically, given that his intention was to turn on its head the Roman entreaty of Sta viator—“Halt, traveler”—commonly found on roadside graves in old Italy, Yeats’s stoic directive has become a summons to his legion of admiring readers and other literary tourists to do just the opposite of what he commanded. Located in Drumcliff churchyard in County Sligo, his grave is probably the most frequently visited in all of Ireland. A couple of years ago I made the pilgrimage there myself . . . and not for the first time.
Will the grave of Seamus Heaney, the only other Irish poet whose popularity and name recognition rival Yeats’s, likewise become a must-see tourist site? Born in 1939, the year that Yeats died, Heaney emerged as a promising poet in the mid-1960s then rose to prominence in the 1970s and to fame in the ’80s. In 1995 he was awarded, like Yeats before him, the Nobel Prize for literature, the judges honoring him for his “works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past.” He died in late August of 2013 and was buried in St. Mary’s Cemetery in his home village of Bellaghy in south County Derry. Thanks to the opening in 2016 of The Homeplace, a former Royal Ulster Constabulary police station in Bellaghy converted into an arts centre dedicated to his writing and his life, Heaney’s final resting place may indeed become a destination. I visited his grave in 2016 to pay my respects to a writer and a man whom I have admired greatly since first encountering his poetry in 1978, before he had become “famous Seamus.”
I was reminded of that visit recently when I read a particularly fine poem included in Go There (MadHat Press), a rich new volume by County Monaghan native Aidan Rooney. The author of two previous books of poems, Day Release (2000) and Tightrope (2007), Rooney is a longtime resident of Massachusetts, where he teaches at Thayer Academy in Braintree. An unabashed admirer of Heaney, Rooney not only traveled to Dublin for his funeral but also followed his funeral cortege northward to Bellaghy for his interment. His experience in the cemetery prompted a poem that he titled simply “In a Country Churchyard.”
For seasoned readers of poetry, that title will call to mind Thomas Gray’s iconic “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” from 1751, a somber meditation on human mortality. “The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,” Gray intones in the opening stanza, “The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea, / The plowman homeward plods his weary way, / And leaves the world to darkness and to me.” As Heaney’s friend and fellow Nobel Laureate Czesław Miłosz once wrote in a poem, “One clear stanza can take more weight / Than a whole wagon of elaborate prose.” Composed not in Gray’s precisely measured and strictly rhymed quatrains (32 of them, no less) but in four supple blank verse six-line stanzas, Rooney’s poem is likewise built to carry its thematic weight, and it is built to last.
While dedicated to the memory of Seamus Heaney, Rooney’s poem actually has at its focal center the aging unnamed gravedigger in St. Mary’s cemetery whose son, also a gravedigger, confides in the poet that Heaney’s burial will be his father’s last day on the job: “We want him to go out on a high note,” the son explains. But this is unbeknownst to the father: “We haven’t told him yet, the son disclosed, / but will when all the fuss is over.” The attuned reader might recognize that Rooney himself is recognizing common ground (as it were) between the recently deceased poet and the elder gravedigger. This is hinted at in the first stanza when, describing how the younger gravedigger stood with “his right foot on the left lug of a spade,” Rooney makes a deft allusion via that word “lug” to Heaney’s most famous poem, “Digging,” the first poem in his first volume of poems, Death of a Naturalist (1966). In that poem of succession from father to son, Heaney remembers with a precise eye how adeptly his “old man” handled a spade to dig potatoes on the family farm: “The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft / Against the inside of the knee was levered firmly.” Rooney’s Heaney-esque deploying of the Ulster dialect word “fornenst” in the second stanza—in this context meaning “alongside” or “near”—offers another linguistic link between the poet and the senior gravedigger: “His father sat fornenst the opened plot, / on a stone wall the sun going down lit up.”
By the third stanza, Rooney becomes more explicit in equating the two men when, suddenly seeing the father from the perspective of the son who will carry on the family operation of helping to bury the dead, he casts the soon-to-be-retired gravedigger as a stand-in for Heaney:
His father’s hair, as the poet’s used to, glowed
in a sudden, sideways burst of sunshine.
Magnesium burning. And would not let up
no matter the light. Or the light dying.
To his credit, however, Rooney resists any temptation to follow Heaney’s lead, which famously involved transforming the farm implements of his forefathers—the spade for digging spuds, the sleán for cutting turf—into a metaphor: “Between my finger and my thumb / The squat pen rests. / I’ll dig with it.” (Yeats used a similar trope in his poem “Pardon, old fathers,” apologizing that “I have nothing but a book, / Nothing but that to prove your blood and mine.”)
Rooney’s poem ends instead with a striking description of how the son fills in the poet’s grave by tipping from a mechanized digger’s bucket a load of shingle scooped and transported from Lough Neagh, which figures so prominently in Heaney’s poetry. (Aptly, with a surface area of more than 150 square miles, Lough Neagh touches on five of the six counties of Heaney’s native Northern Ireland.) The gravel cascading “like the wall of a waterfall,” the speaker in the poem—ostensibly Rooney himself—watches the son as “He watched his father through its thinning veil / get up to get the shovel and the rake.” Still unaware that this will be his final burial, unaware of “the sun going down” on his undertaking, on “the light dying” on his shock of white hair, the older man persists, as did Heaney with his pen, in taking up the trusty tools of his trade.
In mid-August of 2015, a little less than two years after Seamus Heaney’s death, the wooden cross that temporarily marked his grave was replaced by a simple headstone of Kilkenny blue limestone inscribed with words from his poem “The Gravel Walks”: WALK ON AIR AGAINST YOUR BETTER JUDGEMENT. Heaney once explained that line in an interview: “My poetry on the whole was earth-hugging, but then I began to look up rather than keep down. I think it had to do with a sense that the marvellous was as permissible as the matter-of-fact in poetry.” Less a directive than an invitation, his epitaph may prove as much of a summons to readers to visit Bellaghy as Yeats’s is to visit Drumcliff. And a summons to visit his poetry as well.
Thomas O’Grady recently retired after 35 years as Director of Irish Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston.