Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Noli Timere – Seamus Heaney

Philip Harvey
News of the death of Seamus Heaney has gone worldwide in the time it takes to do a day’s work. Words and person come together in the minds of those who knew him, even if only from the page. It is safe to say that no other poet today could receive such universal acclamation or unite his readers in a shared loss. Even the minority criticisms of enemies hidden in newspaper blogs only add to the chorus of proof that someone great has passed on. Reports both in the media and from the funeral say his last words to his wife Marie were ‘Noli Timere’. ‘Do not be afraid’ could itself be heard as an undercurrent of reason in his poetry, but it’s early days to make too many generalisations. Interestingly, the media has not picked up on the source of the Latin ‘Do not be afraid’, which would be instantly identified by any Catholic churchgoer in Ireland before the Council. It’s Bible, in particular Jesus to his followers, but also the messenger to Joseph at the annunciation, and is traced back to Isaiah and other places in Hebrew Scripture. It’s Bible because it’s the Vulgate, used in the churches and schools of County Derry in Heaney’s childhood. And that is what he is saying as well to his wife Marie, it’s going way back, to their childhoods. It is a private language. Heaney is not being literary or clever by saying Latin, he’s saying something they would know really really well: Noli timere, Do not be afraid of anything. It’s an intimacy and a message of courage at the same time. It is very fine indeed, difficult to countenance once there in public view.

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