His poetry has become a beacon of hope amid the COVID-19 pandemic
By Jennifer Duffy
During the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Seamus Heaney’s poetry has been quoted extensively. Working at the National Library of Ireland’s ‘Seamus Heaney: Listen Now Again’ exhibition over the past year, I have had discussions with people from all around the world about the solace and joy they have found in Heaney’s poetry. In 1995, Heaney was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in recognition of ‘works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth.’ It has been heartening to see that his work continues to comfort people.
Below are some empowering quotes from the much-loved poet that can help us find hope and courage during these difficult times.
1. “If we can winter this one out, we can summer anywhere.”
On the back of tweets from @SeamusHeaneyNLI and @island_lesley, this quote went viral in March. It has appeared on banners, pillars and electric boxes as well as all over social media. In a way, it has become the quote of the pandemic. It took us a while to track down the original source of this quote – it came from an interview in the Cork Examiner in 1972, the same year Heaney’s collection Wintering Out was published.
2. “Believe that a farther shore Is reachable from here. Believe in miracles And cures and healing wells."
This is part of the final chorus section from Heaney’s play The Cure at Troy (1990). This play is Heaney’s version of a Greek poetic drama – Sophocles’ Philoctetes. However, Heaney inserted this last chorus verse to address the conflict taking place during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Lines from this play were quoted during the Peace Process, especially the phrase “hope and history rhyme.”
3. “So long for air to brighten, Time to be dazzled and the heart to lighten.”
This is one of my personal favourite Heaney quotes, taken from his poem ‘Fosterling’ which was published in Seeing Things (1991). These lines keep me feeling hopeful for lifting and lightening in the current situation and in my own mood. It also speaks of the importance of air and light, the solace that can be found in nature.
4. “I can't think of a case where poems changed the world, but what they do is they change people's understanding of what's going on in the world.” This quote is from an interview with Heaney in This Week in 2004. It shows his pragmatic view of poetry. No, these poems and quotes will not fix any difficult situation, but they can give us perspective, show us a new way of thinking, or bring us together. It reminds us of the power that the arts have to foster empathy and connection in troubled times.
5. “Noli Timere” (Don’t Be Afraid)
Seamus Heaney passed away in August 2013. Noli Timere (Latin for ‘Don’t Be Afraid’) were his last words, sent in a text message to his beloved wife Marie. The street artist Maser created a Don’t Be Afraid mural on Richmond Street ‘for good people in hard times.’ He has recreated a blackboard version of this at the ‘Seamus Heaney: Listen Now Again’ exhibition. Visitors’ messages and drawings on the blackboard show how Seamus Heaney continues to inspire hope and creativity.