Seamus Heaney’s last poem published in Irish gallery’s anthology

Collection features works from writers such as Roddy Doyle, Colm Tóibín and John Banville inspired by paintings on display at the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin

A poem Seamus Heaney finished 10 days before he died sees the Nobel laureate exploring the quiet beauty of a canal painted by the French artist Gustave Caillebotte, where time is slowed “to a walking pace”, and “world stands still”.

Banks of a Canal will be published as part of a collection of essays, stories and poems by Irish writers inspired by paintings from the National Gallery of Ireland to celebrate the gallery’s 150th anniversary. The poem is, typically for Heaney, rooted in the landscape. “Say ‘canal’ and there’s that final vowel/ Towing silence with it, slowing time/ To a walking pace, a path, a whitewashed gleam/ Of dwellings at the skyline./ World stands still,” writes Heaney, who died in August 2013, aged 74. “I know that clay, the damp and dirt of it,” the author of Digging writes, “the grassy zest/ Of verges, the path not narrow but still straight/ Where soul could mind itself or stray beyond.”

His poem sits alongside pieces by more than 50 Irish novelists, playwrights and poets, including a Roddy Doyle short story inspired by Jack B Yeats’s 1937 painting Morning in a City. Doyle imagines the life of a man in Yeats’s crowd, beginning: “It got harder every day. It got harder and harder to look at each day, to walk out into it as if it was new and he was glad to be walking into it.”

Colm Tóibín takes on Yeats’s 1900 portrait of Rosa Butt, writing of the painting that there “must have been times in the boarding house where [the artist] lodged in New York when the poise in her face, the sense of ease and wit and civility which he gave her in this portrait, came to him as a dream of a life he regretted not having”, while John Banville writes about Caravaggio’s The Taking of Christ, calling the artist the “painter of night, although his is a densely peopled darkness”.

Rosa Butt, 1900 by John Butler Yeats.
Rosa Butt, 1900 by John Butler Yeats. Photograph: National Gallery of Ireland

The pieces will be published on 6 October in the anthology Lines of Vision: Irish Writers on Art, edited by Janet McLean, the gallery’s curator of European art 1850-1950, with each writer’s text illustrated with the painting that inspired it. “It’s been so interesting to see the different pieces come back, and the different approaches – the eccentricity of it works quite nicely; this is a book with personality,” said McLean, who is currently preparing for an exhibition of the paintings at the gallery, which will be opened next week by Ireland’s President Michael D Higgins, himself a poet. “It’s been about seeing what people walk out of the gallery with, when they’ve a painting in mind.”

Heaney, she said, visited the gallery last February. “We had a cup of tea first. I’m from Northern Ireland as well, so it was very special to me,” she said. “Then I was going to let him walk through the gallery on his own, but when I went to meet him, he was talking to a lady who I thought was his assistant, but who was a member of the public. I thought he’d get people coming up to him all the time if he went alone, so I went with him.”

Heaney plumped for the 1872 Caillebotte painting, sending his poem back to McLean in less than a week. The pair corresponded again in August, with Heaney making a “few final changes” 10 days before he died. “It was such a privilege to see that it was OK for Seamus Heaney to change his mind – it was changing a word here and there, a line he wasn’t happy with,” said McLean. “I think people who knew him well were quite moved, reading the poem – they’ve said they could hear his voice, saying it. Caillebotte can make a painting out of nothing, and that’s what Heaney can do, too – that’s the lovely thing about it.”

Also included in the anthology is the late Dennis O’Driscoll’s poem Memo to a Painter, inspired by the 16th-century painting The Adoration of the Magi, which depicts the nativity in elegant surroundings, without the stable or its animals. “Why put so opulent a gloss on the picture/ when the unvarnished truth stares you in the face?” wrote O’Driscoll. “Is it not all a bit rich? Why not shame the devil,/ tell the story straight, stick to the honest-to-god facts?”

O’Driscoll, a friend of Heaney’s, died in December 2012. “Heaney was quite mischievous, trying to find out what everybody else, including Dennis O’Driscoll, had chosen,” said McLean. “Of course, he was the one I told everything to.”

Contributors to the anthology also include award-winning writers Kevin Barry and Colum McCann, crime novelist Alex Barclay and romance writer Patricia Scanlan, covering artists from masters including Rembrandt, Vermeer, Poussin and Velázquez, to Irish artists such as John Lavery and Paul Henry, and European names from Monet to Bonnard. The collaboration has inspired pieces covering “art, love, loss, family, dreams, memory, places and privacy”, said publisher Thames & Hudson.

The National Gallery of Ireland first opened in 1864, with 112 paintings. Today, its collection comprises over 15,000 works, from the 13th century to the modern day.

Banks of a Canal, near Naples, c. 1872 by Gustave Caillebotte.
Banks of a Canal, near Naples, c 1872 by Gustave Caillebotte. Photograph: National Gallery of Ireland

Banks of a Canal

by Seamus Heaney
Gustave Caillebotte, c.1872

Say ‘canal’ and there’s that final vowel

Towing silence with it, slowing time

To a walking pace, a path, a whitewashed gleam

Of dwellings at the skyline. World stands still.

The stunted concrete mocks the classical.

Water says, ‘My place here is in dream,

In quiet good standing. Like a sleeping stream,

Come rain or sullen shine I’m peaceable.’

Stretched to the horizon, placid ploughland,

The sky not truly bright or overcast:

I know that clay, the damp and dirt of it,

The coolth along the bank, the grassy zest

Of verges, the path not narrow but still straight

Where soul could mind itself or stray beyond.


Alison Flood

The GuardianTramp

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