The Marginalian
The Marginalian

Seamus Heaney’s Advice on Life

In his spectacular Nobel Prize acceptance speech, the Irish poet, playwright, and translator Seamus Heaney (April 13, 1939–August 30, 2013) celebrated poetry’s singular power to “remind us that we are hunters and gatherers of values” and to “persuade that vulnerable part of our consciousness.” It’s a task that poetry shares perhaps most directly with an unlikely cultural counterpart — the commencement address, aimed at equipping the young, most vulnerable in their consciousness, with values. This might be why poets make such fine commencement speakers — from Adrienne Rich’s beautiful case for the true value of education to Joseph Brodsky’s six rules for winning at the game of life.

Heaney himself was no stranger to the genre and made several additions to the greatest commencement addresses of all time in his lifetime, lending the young his lucid and luminous wisdom on life.

Seamus Heaney by Felix Clay
Seamus Heaney by Felix Clay

In May of 1996, months after receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature, 57-year-old Heaney took the podium before the graduating class at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and delivered an extraordinary speech later included in Take This Advice (public library) — the compendium of timelessly rewarding commencement addresses that also gave us Toni Morrison on how to be your own story.

Between verses of poetry, Heaney observes:

Getting started, keeping going, getting started again — in art and in life, it seems to me this is the essential rhythm not only of achievement but of survival, the ground of convinced action, the basis of self-esteem and the guarantee of credibility in your lives, credibility to yourselves as well as to others.

Echoing James Baldwin’s admonition that “you’ve got to tell the world how to treat you [because] if the world tells you how you are going to be treated, you are in trouble,” Heaney adds:

This rhythm … is something I would want each one of you to experience in the years ahead, and experience not only in your professional life, whatever that may be, but in your emotional and spiritual lives as well — because unless that underground level of the self is preserved as a verified and verifying element in your make-up, you are going to be in danger of settling into whatever profile the world prepares for you and accepting whatever profile the world provides for you. You’ll be in danger of molding yourselves in accordance with laws of growth other than those of your own intuitive being.


The true and durable path into and through experience involves being true to the actual givens of your lives. True to your own solitude, true to your own secret knowledge. Because oddly enough, it is that intimate, deeply personal knowledge that links us most vitally and keeps us most reliably connected to one another. Calling a spade a spade may be a bit reductive but calling a wooden spoon a wooden spoon is the beginning of wisdom. And you will be sure to keep going in life on a far steadier keel and with far more radiant individuality if you navigate by that principle.


Whether it be a matter of personal relations within a marriage or political initiatives within a peace process, there is no sure-fire do-it-yourself kit. There is risk and truth to yourselves and the world before you.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from Open House for Butterflies by Ruth Krauss

But this wasn’t Heaney’s first commencement address. Fourteen years earlier, he stood before the graduating class at Fordham University and delivered his speech as a 46-stanza poem in metrical verse. (Two years later, an Australian scientist published an astronomical paper as a 38-stanza poem in metrical verse — perhaps a mere coincidence, perhaps inspired by Heaney’s address, which had gone “viral” by pre-social-media standards.)

In the fourth stanza, Heaney offers a defense of the format:

For clarity’s what verse is good for.
It is a kind of aide memoire,
      A metronome
That ticks beneath the pace of talk
As feet convey you when you walk,
Shuttling on and shuttling back,
      On speech’s loom.

Despite the playful form, the verses shuttle straight into the political and the profound. A lifelong voice for the working class, Heaney considers the implicit privilege of higher education:

Inspire me, then, didactic muse,
Beyond clichés and pompous views
      Of Art and Science,
To be dulce et utile,
To speak sweetly and usefully
About the world and th’academy
      And their alliance.

Or is it not a misalliance,
Ivory towers in a world of violence
      And corporate money.
Are college walls perhaps a door
Shut to the working and the poor
While the privileged and the few ignore
      The unwashed many?

Do we not mystify the facts
And milk the taxpayer of his tax
      By the illusion
That our minds serve much higher ends
Than bending backs and blistered hands?
How much of common good depends
      On education?

In other words, dear graduates,
How do we justify our fates
      As an upper crust
With handfuls of credit cards and dollars
In hands as pale as our white collars?
The question makes me want to holler
      All flesh is dust.

It makes me say such status symbols
Are trivial as sewers’ thimbles
      And just as hard
For they can form a callous shell
Against the little pricking needle
Of other people’s needs, and kill
      The feeling heart.

But here, perhaps, I should explain
I was the eldest child of nine
      And I have brothers
Who barkeep, schoolteach — and don’t write.
One labors on a building site.
One milks a herd morning and night
      And in all weathers.

My father bargained on fair days.
My mother’s father worked the railways
      And linen mills.
One uncle drove a rural breadvan.
One aunt was more farmhand than woman.
One who became an enclosed nun
      Worked in hotels.

So part of me half stands apart
Beyond the pale of books and art
      And is not moved
Until they justify their place
And win their rights and can keep face,
Until their value for the race
      Is really proven.

Art by Shaun Tan for a special edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales

Heaney points out that the esteem of education alone is no guarantee of peace and justice — the highest-ranking Nazi leaders, he reminds us, were highly educated men and those who held down Galileo were esteemed scholars but were more concerned with keeping “the sum of knowledge static” than with advancing human thought. He considers, instead, the true sustaining force of the human spirit. Echoing Bertrand Russell’s ever-timely insistence on the role of “fruitful monotony” in a full life and Susan Sontag’s admonition against the false divide between intuition and the intellect, Heaney offers:

No co-ed dorm supplies the joys
Of an attic full of dusty toys
      And old dolls’ houses.
No faculty of engineering
Repeats the joys of tinkering
With model planes, that hankering
      To fly with aces.

It seems illiterate solitude
Is the first place where the true and the good
      Awaken in us.
The later freedom we call leisure
Cannot supply that buried treasure
Which is the basis and the measure
      of personalities

And which we name imagination,
A word I cite with much elation
      And some unease
Because it can sound slight and airy
An entry in the dictionary,
A bubble word. Yet while I’m wary
      I realize

I still want to declare its great
Sustaining force, early and late,
      From youth to age.
It does not just mean fancy thoughts.
Accountants, lawyers, graduates
In medicine, as well as poets
      Using language —

All need its salutary power.
All men and women must beware
      Who would deny it
And go against their childhood’s grain
And dry up like earth parched for rain.
They’ll grow mechanical and then
      No drug or diet

No health-farm, clinic, yoga course
No mantra om, no Star Wars force
      Will compensate
For what is lost when the mind divides.
Even science now concedes
The brain has two conjugal sides,
      The left and right.

To have to marry intuition
To the analytic reason
      For psychic balance.
Head sleeps with heart, begets a creature
Free yet cornered in its nature.
To be your whole self, you must mate your
      Brains and glands.

So scholarship and art must be
Fragrant with personality
      And moral feeling.
Distinction’s not an ego-trip.
Good luck helps many to the top
Yet once up there you can still slip
      And keep on falling.

Everything flows, an old Greek said.
Nothing’s secure. Gold’s only lead
      When you stop to think.
On your way up, show consideration
To the ones you meet on their way down.
The Latin root of condescension
      Means we all sink.

Let self-will be anathema.
Let the hierarchy and Mafia
      Join hand in glove
To doom and excommunicate
Whoever’s not compassionate,
Whoever will not contemplate
      The world through love.

Art by Emily Hughes from The Little Gardener

Speaking at the University of Pennsylvania, my alma mater, in May of 2000, Heaney begins by naming the perennial problem all successful speeches must solve — that of how a single person can “address a crowd of 25,000 and hope to establish any kind of worthwhile contact.”

And yet establish it he does, not only with the 25,000 people sitting on the Franklin Field bleachers that day but with millions more across time and space. In a sentiment that has only swelled in pertinence in the decade and a half since, Heaney offers:

Living in the world [of today] means that you inhabit several different psychic and cultural levels at the same time. And the marvelous thing about us as human beings is that we have been provided with a whole system of intellectual and imaginative elevators that whisk us from floor to floor, at will and on whim. This is the world of globalization where one thing can impinge unexpectedly and often drastically upon another; so much so that we no longer have any difficulty in entertaining the theory that the shake of a butterfly’s wing in one part of the world is going to produce a tornado in another.

Considering the singular precipice of graduation, as the young part with their certain past and prepare to plunge into this uncertain world, Heaney counsels:

My advice to you is to understand that this in-between condition is not to be regarded as a disabling confusion but that it is rather a necessary state, a consequence of our situation between earthy origin and angelic potential.

A master of metaphor, Heaney illustrates this notion with the poetic image of Terminus, the Roman deity of boundaries:

The image of the god Terminus was kept in the Temple of Jupiter, at a point where the temple was unroofed, open constantly to the sky. In other words, even Terminus, the god of limits, refused to recognize that limits are everything. The open sky above his head testified to his yearning to escape the ground beneath his feet… We are placed, as individuals and as a species, between a given history and habitat and any imaginable future.


Remember that the anchor of your being lies in human affection and human responsibility, but remember also to keep swimming up into the air of envisaged possibilities.

Complement with this cinematic tribute to Heaney, then revisit this collection of the most abidingly elevating commencement addresses of all time.

Published January 19, 2016




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