“Walk on Air Against Your Better Judgement” are Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney’s parting words to the world. They are etched on his tombstone, which has just been erected, IrishCentral has learned.
The lines are taken from his Nobel Prize speech in 1995. Responding to what the lines meant Heaney told the Harvard Crimson publication the following:
“A person from Northern Ireland is naturally cautious. You grew up vigilant because it’s a divided society. 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 marvelous was as permissible as the matter-of-fact in poetry. That line is from a poem called “The Gravel Walks,” which is about heavy work—wheeling barrows of gravel—but also the paradoxical sense of lightness when you’re lifting heavy things. I like the in-betweenness of up and down, of being on the earth and of the heavens. I think that’s where poetry should dwell, between the dream world and the given world, because you don’t just want photography, and you don’t want fantasy either.”
Heaney, one of Ireland’s greatest poets and most beloved individuals, died on August 30, 2013.
He was the recipient of the 1995 Nobel Prize for literature. Heaney was recognized as one of the great contributors to poetry in the early 21st century.
The Derry-born poet was buried in his home village of Bellaghy, County Derry, near other family members.
Heaney was a professor at Harvard from 1981 to 1997 and its Poet in Residence from 1988 to 2006. From 1989 to 1994, he was also the Professor of Poetry at Oxford. His literary papers are held by the National Library of Ireland.
Robert Lowell described him as "the most important Irish poet since Yeats," and many others, including the academic John Sutherland, stated he was "the greatest poet of our age." Robert Pinsky has stated that "with his wonderful gift of eye and ear Heaney has the gift of the story-teller."
Upon his death in 2013, the Independent described him as "probably the best-known poet in the world."
Professor Kevin Whelan of Notre Dame remembered the greatest poet of his generation and his outstanding personal qualities.
“I first met Seamus Heaney in 1979 when I was a tutor at Carysfort College. He gave me sage advice then: “never let your job interfere with your work.”
“Ever since, he and I as countrymen in the city had a natural empathy. As his fame exploded, he always remained generous and accessible to me, as to hundreds or indeed thousands of others.
“I was in his house at Sandymount one morning when the postman arrived with what can only be described as a bag bursting under the weight of all the myriad of stuff in it - and that happened every day. He welcomed me into his home, did so many readings for me, he launched my book, he gifted me rare publications, he let me print broadsheets for good causes (especially Notre Dame) and best of all he shared with me his northern sense of humour - which people underestimated or didn't 'hear’ - an inexhaustible repertoire of winks, slags, puns, drolleries and double-edged comments.
“He was always available to those he regarded as genuinely interested in his poetry, what he called ‘hearteners’ of his work. With his death we have lost a great Irish man, a great poet and a great friend.”
Meanwhile the local priest Father Andy Dolan has revealed the grave has become a literary pilgrimage stop for poetry lovers from all over the world.
“It’s difficult to say how many people actually visit the grave as there’s no-one keeping an eye on it all the time but we have a visitor’s book and that gives us some indication of the huge numbers who visit regularly.
“They’re coming from all over the world, from New Zealand, the US and Japan and leaving messages in the book in different languages,” Dolan said.
He said the style of gravestone and the inscription was decided on by the poet’s family.
“I know they were keen to have it all in place before the second anniversary of his death,” Fr Dolan said.
"My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner's bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.
The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I've no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I'll dig with it.”
- from "Digging", Death of a Naturalist.