A Collection Written in the Stars

The late Seamus Heaney's wife Marie calls upon four centuries of distinguished bards in a new book of nighttime-themed poems and songs

Photo by John Minihan

Sometimes you can tell a book by its cover. All Through the Night is a thing of beauty, inside and out. From Paula McGloin’s bewitching cover and page illustrations to the tasteful typesetting of Marie Heaney’s careful selection of night poems and lullabies, it is a little volume to cherish and enjoy.

The very name Heaney is, of course, synonymous with poetry, but Marie’s love of the genre dates way back to her own early years, long before she met and married one of the greatest poets in the English language.

'I have always loved reading poetry, before Seamus Heaney came into my life,' she says. 'My mother was so dedicated to poetry; she bought us poetry books and read to us. And at school I had an excellent, inspirational teacher.'

Heaney was invited by Poetry Ireland to compile this collection. It was not an idea which she took to the publisher. She says that at first she was hesitant but then thought back to an earlier collection which she had put together for Townhouse Publishing in Dublin back in 2003.

'It was called Heart Mysteries, fifty poems to touch the soul. Seamus gave me the title. It’s a line from Yeats. I loved putting them together as a gift book. They are poems of love and loss, all Irish poems.

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'This is a much bigger and more challenging task. I started working on it at the beginning of the year. As you can imagine, I have a vast poetry library in this house. Apart from his own work, Seamus was sent so many books of poetry by people from all over the world. I am constantly touched by the extraordinary number of people who were affected by his death. He had a great gift for being genuinely interested in people and their work. And he was a very good person himself. So people felt they could send him their poetry and he kept them all.

'As the months went by, I realised how much I loved reading poetry, especially at night. Lots of people read novels in bed, but I find poetry so soothing, such a beautiful way to end a day. There are people whose work should be in the book and are not, but I had to make a selection and I have to live with that. Actually, when you start looking there are not that many night poems but I am very happy with this collection, which includes Irish poems but also poems and songs from America, from France, from Scotland, from Wales. There are relatively few lullabies that can stand alone without music but the title of the book comes from probably the most famous lullaby of all, which I also publish in its original Welsh, 'Ar Hyd y Nos'.

The result of her plundering of the family library is a roll call of some of the most distinguished poets of the past 400 years, among them WH Auden, William Blake, Eavan Boland, Emily Dickinson, Paul Durcan, Michael Longley, Ted Hughes, John Keats, Paul Muldoon, Sylvia Plath, Dylan Thomas, WB Yeats, Shakespeare and, of course, her husband, whose 'Serenades' - an amusingly ironic ode to the trials of early parenthood - contains a final stanza replete with his gentle voice and humour:

So fill the bottles, love,
Leave them inside their cots,
And if they do wake us, well,
So would the sedge-warbler.

'I just can’t read that poem aloud,' she says. 'It was written many years ago when the two boys were very small. Now they are in their forties. But it’s an example of the effect the voice of the poet can have. You find that people who never really thought about poetry will reach for a poem at times of great happiness or sorrow. Seamus’s poem 'Scaffolding' has been read at countless weddings over the years.'

The book divides roughly into three sections. The opening section is dominated by songs and poems about children and parenting, the middle section gives voice to night time pleasures, while the elegiac finale turns towards the prospect of that long, last sleep that awaits us all.

In her introduction, Heaney reflects on the fact that we are inclined to think of night as a time of peace, rest and relaxation, a time that brings freedom from the cares of the day, a time to dream, to make love, to embrace a blessed sleep, which, in the words of Shakespeare '… knits up the ravell’d sleeve of care.' But, as we all know, night can bring with it anxiety, guilt, sadness and restlessness.

Children feel resentful at being put to bed long before the day is done, while insomnia for an exhausted adult is something akin to torture. Such emotions and experiences are echoed in this heady mix of poetry, traditional lullabies and folk songs. Poems like Walter de la Mare’s 'Silver' and Ted Hughes’s 'Full Moon and Little Frieda' evoke moons and stars in velvety night skies. There are vivid word pictures inhabited by birds and beasts, fairies and thorn bushes. There are idyllic images of rural life and urban lullabies, such as Sylvia Plath’s sultry, resonating 'Alicante Lullaby'. And there is humour and sensuality, mixed in with what Matthew Arnold called '… the eternal note of sadness.'

As threads and ideas turn into words surrounding a tantalising central theme, the reader is drawn not only to these poems but to the very notion of poetry itself.

'Some of these poems come at a slant, others engage directly,' says Heaney. 'This book is meant to be accessible, to contain a big variety of poems and poets. If it brings more people into reading poetry, it would make my day.'

She says that as she rarely sees her three granddaughters, Anna Rose, Aibhín and Síofra, at bedtime, she doesn’t often get to read lullabies and night poems to them. But she describes how they have each been left a very special gift to treasure all their lives.

'Every one of them has a poem to her,' she says. 'Síofra the youngest was only a baby when Seamus died. But he wrote a last poem for her. It’s called 'In Time' and was written on August 10 2013. He died on August 30. I found it after his death and it was published in The New Yorker at Christmas of that year. It was assumed by some that the title hinted that he had written it just in time, that he knew he was going  to die - which he did not. But I’m very glad for her that he did write it. It’s about a Bach oratorio - so, hence the title 'In Time'.

All Through the Night will be launched at the official opening of the Seamus Heaney HomePlace, the new arts and literary centre dedicated to the life and literature of the late Nobel Laureate in his beloved home town of Bellaghy, Co. Derry. There will be a celebratory weekend of events (September 30 to October 3), featuring music, theatre, poetry, song, readings and talks in its dedicated performance space.

It marks the prelude to a year-long programme spanning the art forms, in response to the poet’s twelve poetry collections in chronological order. Across two weekends each month, events at HomePlace and in the surrounding landscape will celebrate Seamus Heaney’s poetry, prose and plays.

All Through the Night: Night Poems and Lullabies, edited by Marie Heaney, is published in hardback by Poetry Ireland and is available to purchase now.