In 1975 Seamus Heaney’s second cousin Colum McCartney — whom it seems he did not know personally — was murdered by members of the Glenanne Gang, Ulster Protestants engaged in a campaign of terror that largely involved killing Catholics at random. McCartney and a friend were returning to their homes in Ulster from a football match in Dublin when they were stopped at a police checkpoint — which turned out to be not a police checkpoint at all. Both were shot in the head.
Soon thereafter, Heaney wrote a poem, “The Strand at Lough Beg,” in memory of McCartney. (It is in his collection Field Work.) In the poem’s final stanza the dead man appears to the poet, appears not where he was killed — that happened “Where you weren’t known and far from what you knew” — but at Lough Beg, a place familiar to the family:
Across that strand of ours the cattle graze
Up to their bellies in an early mist
And now they turn their unbewildered gaze
To where we work our way through squeaking sedge
Drowning in dew. Like a dull blade with its edge
Honed bright, Lough Beg half shines under the haze.
I turn because the sweeping of your feet
Has stopped behind me, to find you on your knees
With blood and roadside muck in your hair and eyes,
Then kneel in front of you in brimming grass
And gather up cold handfuls of the dew
To wash you, cousin. I dab you clean with moss
Fine as the drizzle out of a low cloud.
I lift you under the arms and lay you flat.
With rushes that shoot green again, I plait
Green scapulars to wear over your shroud.
A scapular, worn primarily by monks and priests, offers here an image of prayer and hope, and the poem is prefaced by a quotation from Dante’s Purgatorio. In caring for the body of his dead cousin, then, Heaney is preparing him for his final journey.
Some years later, in Heaney’s harrowing sequence “Station Island” — a sequence shaped more thoroughly by long meditation on Dante than the earlier poem had been — the poet is again visited by his dead cousin, and the visit is not pleasant. In the first poem the poet speaks while the murdered man is silent; in the second the poet must listen to the voice of man he had eulogized. The sequence narrates a pilgrimage to St. Patrick’s Purgatory, a journey involving several encounters with the dead, very like those Dante experiences in his voyage through the Three Realms — except often more uncomfortable.
We have reached the eighth station. Heaney is conversing with “my archaeologist” — Tom Delany, his friend, who died of tuberculosis at age 32 — when suddenly his cousin Colum appears, with a word of accusation:
But he [Delany] had gone when I looked to meet his eyes
and hunkering instead, there in his place
was a bleeding, pale-faced boy, plastered in mud.
‘The red-hot pokers blazed a lovely red
In Jerpoint point the Sunday I was murdered,’
he said quietly. ‘Now do you remember?
You were there with poets when you got the word
and stayed there with them, while your own flesh and blood
was carted to Bellaghy from the Fews.
They showed more agitation at the news
than you did.’
(The Fews is the part of County Armagh where McCartney was murdered; Ballaghy is the village in County Londonderry where Heaney was born and raised and where McCartney was buried.) You did not clean my body and lay me out for burial. You remained in the company of your fellow poets. Heaney pleads for himself, says that the news made him “dumb,” describes the image of Lough Beg just outside Bellaghy that rose unbidden to his mind. (His mind went to the home town they shared, but his body did not.)
Colum is not appeased.
You saw that, and you wrote that — not the fact.
You confused evasion and artistic tact.
The Protestant who shot me through the head
I accuse directly, but indirectly, you
who now atone perhaps upon this bed
For the way you whitewashed ugliness and drew
the lovely blinds of the Purgatorio
and saccharined my death with morning dew.
You confused evasion and artistic tact. You told yourself you heeded your calling by shaping the story artfully, festooning it with imagery; in fact you merely whitewashed the ugliness of my murder. To this charge the poet makes no response — except, of course, the poem itself, which is in fact made of Heaney’s own words, not Colum McCartney’s.
And this is both the problem and the wonder. Philip Larkin once said, in response to a comment about how “negative” his poems are, that “The impulse for producing a poem is never negative; the most negative poem in the world is a very positive thing to have done.” Colum’s accusation against his cousin is just this, that he has done a positive thing — but then, the accusation itself, being couched in masterful verse, is also a positive thing. The poet’s eulogy must be beautiful, even (especially?) when the dead one’s murder was hideous beyond our ability to confront it. It is only in the language of poetry that the poet can acknowledge the limits of the language of poetry.