I thought about Seamus Heaney and the Music of What Happens (BBC Two) long after the credits had passed, and not just because it is a gorgeous, almost luxurious documentary about one of the all-time greats. While it stands as an excellent tribute to the man and his work, it acts, too, as a history of the second half of the 20th century, laying out the Troubles through anecdote and verse. Given the current political climate, it is an apt time for people to be reminded of what happened in our very recent past, and what that was like for the people living through it.
That lovely title is from Song. In archive footage – and there are a lot of great interviews plundered here – Heaney recalls taking it from the answer Fionn MacCool gave when asked about the best music in the world. “So I used it as the basis for a little declaration about poetry,” he explains casually, as if it were that easy. In these old clips, with his polo necks and coats, his cigarette and Bob Dylan hair, Heaney has the look of a rock star. It is delightful to spend so long in his company.
His family and friends talk about his life and work with affection, but this is no saccharine tribute. His old pal Michael Longley recalls the first collection, Death of a Naturalist, being published in 1966. It was an overnight success and made Heaney a star. Longley says fondly that Heaney was “easily the luckiest poet in the history of English literature”. His wife, Marie, to whom he was married for more than 50 years, reads Wedding Day. Its first line is, “I am afraid.” “Not the happiest wedding poem,” she smiles. She remembers one year that he had forgotten to get her a Christmas present. Instead, he wrote out all the love poems he had written to her, by hand, in a single notebook. From that, she reads Scaffolding, the camera lingering on his script. It is read, she notes, at practically every wedding in Ireland.
Heaney is a curriculum staple. Like many, my first encounter with him came through an anthology at school. We read Digging and Mid-Term Break and talked about the stories they contained and what they might mean. For anyone who has held on to a love of those poems, this documentary is a rich gift. His brothers talk about life on the farm in Bellaghy on which he grew up. We see photographs of family members, of his brother, Christopher, who was killed aged three by a car on the road outside the house, immortalised in Mid-Term Break. Heaney named one of his sons after him.
The film follows Heaney’s life chronologically, from university in Belfast, to living in the city as violence flared and its buildings went up in flames. A second cousin was shot and killed in 1975; in a Thames TV interview from 1980, Heaney calmly takes the pulse of the situation. We see him having a family and moving to Wicklow, then Dublin, and later his stint at Harvard. There are plenty of admiring voices who try to explain the magic in his work, from the American poet laureate Tracy K Smith, to Paul Muldoon, whom Heaney taught at Queen’s. His daughter Catherine recalls finding out that her father had won the Nobel prize in 1995; his brothers talk of their happiness and surprise, and apprehension, too. The archive footage throughout is extraordinary, whether news reels accompanying stories of Belfast women tarred and feathered for associating with British soldiers, or clips of Heaney presenting documentaries for RTE and the BBC. Hearing his poetry read by him, with the voices of the people they were for or about woven through, is stirring. More than once, I had to choke down a tear.
Heaney died in 2013, the day after he and his family discovered he had a heart condition. Catherine says he had texted Marie the night before, ending the message, “noli timere” – do not be afraid. Marie reads a poem he had written about her flat in Belfast, Tate’s Avenue, where she lived before they were married, and her voice cracks on its final line: “When we moved I had your measure and you had mine.” “I shouldn’t have read it,” she says. “It’s a beautiful poem.”
This is a beautiful film. When Longley talks about the heartbreak at the loss of his old friend, he says, simply, “I thought we were all going to go on forever, you know.” Two days after Heaney died, 80,000 people attended the All Ireland semi-final at Croke Park, and a picture of him was put up on the screens. “I can think of no other country where a football crowd will have a minute’s silence and cheer a poet,” says Marie. By the end of this long, loving tribute, I went straight back to Heaney’s poems, another way, I suppose, of cheering a poet.