Earlier this year, the Nobel prize-winning poet—who died last month—selected his favourite places

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, January/February 2013

Winner of the Nobel prize for literature in 1995, Seamus Heaney is often described as the greatest living poet. Ever since the publication of “Death of a Naturalist” in 1966, he has tended to draw inspiration from the details of his childhood in rural Northern Ireland.

JOURNEY Around the Peloponnese
I first visited the Peloponnese in 1995, and as we drove through places with mythic names—Argos, Nemea, where Heracles wrestled with the lion—I could hardly believe they were real. As we entered Arcadia, the road was covered in apples—they must have fallen from a lorry—and we drove over them, crunching. Such sense of omen, good omen, and benediction—and in Arcadia! In Pylos, we found everyone was looking for me, including the Swedish Academy. So the end of that journey was in a helicopter, flying to Athens, feeling rather shocked, grateful to have this time to gather myself.

BEACH Portstewart Strand, Co Derry
The beach in Portstewart in County Derry is the first place where I encountered the ocean. It is a mighty curve of sand and dunes running for a mile and more. It retains for me the aura of original wonder and, of course, there was the mystery of the courting couples in the dunes.

HOTEL Orologio, Bologna (pictured)
Beautifully situated on the edge of the Piazza Maggiore, the Orologio is small and welcoming, and somewhere to be anonymous. I love Bologna because it doesn’t have too many big "musts" in the cultural field; you can see things, and not feel guilty that you’re not seeing more. In Florence and Rome the list of commands is long. But in Bologna you don’t feel oppressed by cultural duty.

CITY St Petersburg
I’ve only been to St Petersburg once, about ten years ago. I was interested in it because I’d been reading the poets Mandelstam and Akhmatova, both of whom lived there. It’s a city of beautiful perspectives, with a great sense of the survival of the siege [of Leningrad, 1941-44], and of course there are literary associations at every turn. There’s the so-called "Dostoyevsky area", and the Nevsky Prospect. Mandelstam wrote a poem about the Admiralty Building, and Pushkin wrote one about the bronze statue of St Peter the Great. We visited Joseph Brodsky’s apartment. We’d known him in America, and he’d written about this Soviet "room-and-a-half" where he grew up. We met a friend of his there who’d photographed him on the day of his exile. He’d made a cake, and there was vodka, and we had a little ceremony in memory of Joseph.

BUILDING The Pantheon
I didn’t go to Rome till I was 50. I’d read about the Pantheon, of course, but the actual size of it, the substantiality, and the sense of it persisting, uninterrupted, for millennia—all this enters you. It fortifies you. There’s a great beauty about it: it’s monumental, but also beautiful. Just sitting in the square looking at it gives me a sense of being steadied. 

VIEW San Francisco from north of Berkeley Campus
My particular vantage point is Grizzly Peak Boulevard, from which you can look down on the whole of the bay area, and see San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge. I remember this view on a particular summer morning when the sun was striking the white terraces and tower blocks of the city, and I had a huge sense of the wonder of what man and woman have built. It was a moment of epiphany, something akin to Wordsworth’s revelation on Westminster Bridge.

WORK OF ART The Flagellation of Christ
I’m choosing a work of art that I don’t quite understand. If you see other representations of Christ being scourged, he is right at the front. But Piero della Francesca puts him way down at the vanishing point of the perspective, and it gives the painting an aura of the uncanny; a sense of Christian iconography, but defamiliarised. There’s a mysteriousness about it, and yet a complete clarity. I’d known it from reproductions for years, but when I first came across it in the paint—and there’s a lucent quality about the actual paint—it really made a memorable impact.

Interview by Maggie Fergusson

Image Getty