Aeneid: Book VI

Colin Burrow writes:

In one of those engagingly innocent-seeming anecdotes Seamus Heaney so skilfully used in both his poems and his prose, he relates (in an essay on Patrick Kavanagh from 1985) that one of his aunts ‘planted a chestnut in a jam jar’ in the year of his birth. In due course the seedling was planted out and grew to a fine height. Heaney says that ‘over the years I came to identify my own life with the life of the chestnut tree.’ When the aunt’s house was sold the chestnut tree was cut down. ‘Then, all of a sudden, a couple of years ago, I began to think of the space where the tree had been or would have been. In my mind’s eye I saw it as a kind of luminous emptiness, a warp and waver of light.’ That story is the Heaneyesque in miniature. It’s all so throwaway, so casually unassertive and domestic. And then it isn’t. For an Irish poet to identify his own life with that of a chestnut tree necessarily recalls the great blast of beauty at the end of Yeats’s ‘Among School Children’:

O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer,\ Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?\ O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,\ How can we know the dancer from the dance?

(LRB 21 April 2016)

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