by Frances Clarke, Archivist of the Seamus Heaney Literary Papers, 1963-2010
In November 2011 the National Library of Ireland acquired one of its most important donations for many years – the literary papers of the Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney. The papers have since been catalogued (I was fortunate to work on this collection) and are now accessible to researchers in the Department of Manuscripts. The archive as a whole is a wonderful resource, as it spans Heaney’s career from his contributions to the poetry workshop, the Belfast Group in the early 1960s, right through to his 2010 poetry collection Human Chain. Alongside almost fifty years of poetry manuscripts (from multiple autograph and typescript rewrites through to the printer’s proofs) is a similarly extensive collection of drafts, lectures, essays, plays and reviews.
While working on the archive, I was particularly interested in its series of bound notebooks. These notebooks intrigued me because they so frequently include a very unpredictable and broad range of subject matter: a mixture of drafts of poems, reviews, occasional but nevertheless significant diary entries, doodles (often provided by his children) and jottings in which Heaney reflects on his ideas, preoccupations and the progress of his writing. In contrast to the files of worksheets – which are so focussed, organised and rarely contain any unconnected annotations – his notebooks show a different approach. Many were in use for long periods of time, were sometimes set aside and returned to after lengthy gaps, and could potentially contain just about any element from his extensive literary output.
An early notebook dating from January 1966 (MS 49,493/5), with its assortment of draft poems, text for a radio broadcast, reviews, notes and a single diary entry, is a case in point. Some of the poems drafted in this volume went on to be published in the collections Door Into The Dark (1969), Wintering Out (1972), North (1974) and Seeing Things (1991).
The single diary entry in this notebook relates to Heaney’s visit to Dingle, Co. Kerry and is dated 19 August 1966. It provides an account of his visit to Gallarus Oratory, which, on the day in question was packed with tourists – ‘all cameras and loud talk’. Heaney’s concluding remarks record his disappointment in the visit – ‘It was the kind of place where one could have sat alone, just in the presence of the past. But not to-day’.
Nevertheless, Gallarus was clearly a source of inspiration for him as is evident from his poem ‘In Gallarus Oratory’, collected in Door Into The Dark (1969).
There is a definite sense that Heaney used his notebooks to document significant, standout moments in his life and career. He records news of his appointment to the post of Professor of Poetry at Oxford University in June 1989 in a notebook that for the most part contains drafts of poems later collected in Seeing Things (MS 49,493/91). Later, on September 12, and in a different notebook, he records his plans to ‘make a first stab at the writing of the Oxford inaugural’. This statement of intent is followed by a vivid and eloquent analysis of the writing process, of his strategy for working and teasing out ideas for his first lecture as Professor of Poetry, and is later followed by a draft of the inaugural lecture in question titled ‘The Redress of Poetry’, which he delivered at Oxford on 24 October 1989.
Heaney also used the notebooks to log new or challenging literary undertakings. A notebook which contains drafts of the poem sequence ‘Mycenae Lookout’ (published in the collection The Spirit Level in 1996) includes a diary entry for 31 October 1994 in which he outlines his intention to ‘Break through the concrete. Unbreak my nerve.’ and ‘get started with the figure of the watchman in the Agamemnon.’ (MS 49,493/110).
Similarly, in another notebook, he records his plans to start writing the ‘Station Island’ sequence of poems, later published in the collection of the same name in 1984. His diary entry on 4 September 1979 states ‘On Saturday … I began what I hope will be a large undertaking, the poem I have been thinking about set on Lough Derg – a big open form that will turn like a wheel’. (MS 49,493/57)
A subsequent diary entry (16 November 1980) records his frustration at his stalled progress with the ‘Lough Derg poem’ which he describes as ‘a building site, abandoned in November. Cold. Mucky. Puddled’. This notebook also provide us with evidence that Heaney returned to the ‘Station Island’ sequence by the following January and in a subsequent progress note, dated 16 January 1981, he writes of his having achieved ‘some grip’ on the sequence.
Heaney also uses his notebooks to make fleeting but nevertheless interesting references to family life and the importance and value he placed on friendship. This more personal element is most evident in the notebook series than in any other aspect of the archive. In fact some of the notebooks themselves are presents from his children and contain their inscriptions and drawings. A brief diary entry on 25 December 1973 in one such present describes his family’s different activities on Christmas morning.
The same notebook remained in use up to 1989, and contains drafts of poems and essays on poets Philip Larkin, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Ezra Pound and W.B. Yeats, alongside a diary entry for 15 July 1988 in which he writes of his re-examination of poems he had written in early 1975 and the pressures of ‘poetry endeavour’.
The importance of his friendships with other poets and writers is also evident from an examination of the notebooks. Heaney records his thoughts on hearing of the death of American poet Robert Lowell in September 1977, and follows it with an account of the last time he and Lowell met.
Later, in November 1980, when writing of his struggles to conclude ‘Station Island’ he recalls the positive and sustaining effects of his contact with the poet Ted Hughes and playwright Thomas Kilroy (MS 49,493/57).
This collection – which proved so engrossing to catalogue – is a wonderful record of Seamus Heaney’s life as a writer, and is a tremendous addition to the National Library’s already great collection of Irish literary papers.
The National Library is planning to launch a ‘Seamus Heaney Archive Project’ which aims to bring this tremendous archive to a wider audience.