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The National Gallery of Ireland in Merrion Square, Dublin, recently published an anthology of Irish writers’ personal responses to paintings in the gallery. Invitees chose a painting and then wrote a piece, some poetry, some prose, relating to their choice. “Lines of Vision: Irish Writers on Art” is receiving a fair amount of publicity because it contains Seamus Heaney’s last poem. He submitted ‘Banks of a Canal’ to the National Gallery just 10 days before his death at the end of August 2013. The painting he chose to write about is ‘Banks of a Canal near Naples’ (circa 1872) by the French artist Gustave Caillebotte.

Gustave Caillebotte: Banks of a Canal near Naples c.1872, National Gallery, Ireland

Gustave Caillebotte: Banks of a Canal near Naples c.1872, National Gallery, Ireland

Banks of a Canal by Seamus Heaney

Say ‘canal’ and there’s that final vowel

Towing silence with it, slowing time

To a walking pace, a path, a whitewashed gleam

Of dwellings at the skyline. World stands still.

The stunted concrete mocks the classical.

Water says, ‘My place here is in dream,

In quiet good standing. Like a sleeping stream,

Come rain or sullen shine I’m peaceable.’

Stretched to the horizon, placid ploughland,

The sky not truly bright or overcast:

I know that clay, the damp and dirt of it,

The coolth along the bank, the grassy zest

Of verges, the path not narrow but still straight

Where soul could mind itself or stray beyond.

I found Heaney’s choice of painting very humble when compared for example, to John Banville’s selection: Caravaggio’s ‘The Taking of Christ’; or John Montague’s – El Greco’s ‘St Francis Receiving the Stigmata’. But it’s no surprise to find that Heaney’s last poem is so very ‘Heaneyesque’. Here we have a reference to the last vowel sound in ‘canal’ – the poet often wrote about the sound of words encompassing a place or a function. Similarly, the vocabulary would not be out of place in Heaney’s great body of poems referring to his home place, the County Derry bog and farmland he grew up with, and which so inspired him – ‘whitewashed gleam’, water and stream, ploughland and clay, and that lovely earthy expression, ‘the damp and dirt of it’. There is nothing pretentious about Heaney’s choice of painting, and it’s heartening to read his last poem and find it so ‘typically’ Seamus Heaney.

More details about other Irish writers’ pieces in ‘Lines of Vision’ can be found here.