Seamus Heaney's poetry sheds light on our modern fears: Michael Enright

The CBC's Michael Enright reflects on the last words of the great Irish poet, Seamus Heaney, and how our poets act as the counter to our fears in the modern world.

Irish poet's last words to his wife were "Noli timere – Don't be afraid"

In this file photo from Dec. 10, 1995, Irish poet Seamus Heaney, center, displays his Nobel literature prize medal, surrounded by his family. Heaney died Aug. 30 in Dublin. (Eric Roxfelt/Associated Press)

The host of The Sunday Edition, Michael Enright, reflects on the last words of the great Irish poet, Seamus Heaney, and how our poets act as the counter to our fears in the modern world.

They buried Seamus Heaney in his Londonderry village the other day, after a Dublin funeral that brought poets and presidents and rock stars together as the skirl of Uillean pipes floated in the churchly air.

Said the Dublin Archbishop of Ireland's most renowned poet since Yeats: "Greatness and graciousness belonged together in him."

Famous Seamus, the Irish liked to call him. He was theirs; and the world's.

He was 74, and his pace-makered heart was no longer up to the task.

In the course of the funeral tributes, his son Michael told the mourners that a few minutes before he died, the poet sent a message, in Latin, to his wife Marie. It said simply: "Noli Timere – Don't be afraid."

Poets know about human pain and human fear.

It is part of their mandate to write about our fears, not necessarily to assuage them, but only to describe them accurately so that we know what we are dealing with.

Heaney's last words were 'Don't be afraid,' sent to his wife, Marie, above, by way of a text message written in Latin. (Cathal McNaughton/Reuters)

We seem to be steeped in fear these days, marinating in the uncertainty that something dreadful is about to happen.

Not just the existential fear of death and what may or may not come after. Not just extinction.

The old worry about their physical deterioration and loss of dignity and sense and yes, pensions.

The young worry about their future. People with jobs fear losing them. People without a job fear that they will never again enjoy the pleasures of honorable work.

We fear for our children. We drive them to school, because by walking they might fall to harm or meet a stranger in a dark place. We in truth educate them in the ways of fear from an early age. 

We fear the untrammeled power of wealth in a globalized world.

We fear the special interests, the string pullers, the privileged, the insiders, the scammers.

Our public institutions such as schools and hospitals fear litigation and insurance companies.

We are frightened by the prospect of a poisoned planet, as the lasting legacy to our grandchildren.

We fear new, angry forces in the world, forces we can neither control nor understand. We are knocked off balance by torrents of confusing news reports, daily, hourly even, about the terrifying state of things. Our political leaders don't seem to have a purchase on anything. They seem to fear telling us the truth about the world. They fear to act.

Governments like to create nodules of fear in their populations. For our political leaders, a goodly measure of fear inspires a people to do what they are told without too many questions.

Our poets act as the counter to our fears. Our poets don't change the world, but instead change the way we look at it. They provide a glimmer of something better.

A photo dated May 1, 1970 of Seamus Heaney. (File photo/Associated Press)

In The Cure at Troy, Seamus Heaney wrote:

History says, don't hope

On this side of the grave.

But then, once in a lifetime

The longed-for tidal wave

Of justice can rise up, 

And hope and history rhyme.

Heaney grew up in the hard-scrabble country of rural Northern Ireland. He lived through the "Troubles," the horrific sectarian violence of the '70s and '80s. If anyone had reason to live a fearful life, surely it was him.

But his art and his insight are a constant denial of the corrosive power of fear.

In his Nobel Prize lecture in Stockholm in 1995, he said, "Walk on air, against your better judgment."

Which was his dying message to his wife and to us.

"Noli timere – Don't be afraid."