Consternation, of the emotional kind, and the deepest, has had its way with me the last few days. I tend to disappear, go under, in such straits. So it was hard for me to get myself to Seamus Heaney’s reading last night at Hunter College.
Heaney began the evening accepting an honorary degree. He was gracious and kind. He has a lot to teach this sinner about patience. He began by reading a poem that took as its departure point John Donne’s “The Extasie.” It was that poem, more than any other, that activated my love of words. He also read some of his bog poems. They have always spoken to me. They spoke anew last night. “The Tollund Man” seemed to reach into the dark place I’m in these days.
Some day I will go to AarhusTo see his peat-brown head,
The mild pods of his eye-lids,His pointed skin cap.
In the flat country near byWhere they dug him out,
His last gruel of winter seedsCaked in his stomach,
Naked except forThe cap, noose and girdle,
I will stand a long time.Bridegroom to the goddess,
She tightened her torc on himAnd opened her fen,
Those dark juices workingHim to a saint’s kept body,
Trove of the turfcutters’Honeycombed workings.
Now his stained faceReposes at Aarhus.
I could risk blasphemy,Consecrate the cauldron bog
Our holy ground and prayHim to make germinate
The scattered, ambushedFlesh of labourers,
Stockinged corpsesLaid out in the farmyards,
Tell-tale skin and teethFlecking the sleepers
Of four young brothers, trailedFor miles along the lines.
Something of his sad freedomAs he rode the tumbril
Should come to me, driving,Saying the names
Tollund, Grauballe, Nebelgard,Watching the pointing hands
Of country people,Not knowing their tongue.
Out here in JutlandIn the old man-killing parishes
I will feel lost,Unhappy and at home.
Heaney also read from Beowulf. You can read him on his translation from Beowulf here. And you can actually hear him reading it here. You can learn more about the circumstances of the Tollund Man here. A great summary of Heaney’s career and life can be found here.