At Seamus Heaney’s funeral Michael Heaney said that his last words “written a few minutes before he passed away, were in his beloved Latin. And they read: ‘Noli timere.’ ‘Don’t be afraid.’” http://www.boston.com/2013/09/02/bgcom-heaney/sXh3GrNoZ1Q6KzLD4inViN/story.html
“His beloved Latin”? With roots that reached so deep into the Irish muck, surely he would have been a fine poet, even if Latin had never been willow-whipped into him. But a better poet from grasping that perennial tug of war between the Anglo-Saxon and the Latinate? And from hearing the cadences of the Roman poets in his ears? Surely that too.
So which of his beloved Latin texts did the famous Seamus have in mind at that moment. It’s been claimed that his last words were the same as the first words Pope John Paul II spoke at his inauguration. That’s not literally true, but in section 5 of his first homily (22 October 1978) the Pope did say “Do not be afraid. Open wide the doors for Christ. To his saving power open the boundaries of states, economic and political systems, the vast fields of culture, civilization and development. Do not be afraid. “ http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/homilies/1978/documents/hf_jp-ii_hom_19781022_inizio-pontificato_en.html -- words often neglected by some of his successors.
Or was our poet thinking further back? Was it Thomas a Kempis Imitatio Christi 1.23.6 “ Stude nun taliter vivere ut in hora mortis valeas potius gaudere quam timere”? “Make every effort now to live so in such a way that at the hour of death you may have the strength to rejoice rather than be afraid.” And was Thomas in turn thinking back to the Vulgate version of Jesus’ words in John 6.20 “ἐγώ εἰμι. Μὴ φοβεῖσθε. “It’s me; don’t be afraid,” echoed at another moment when Jesus astonishes those about him, Matthew 28.10 and Luke 24.38.
Or was it none of this religious stuff, but Lucretius in the de rerum natura? I bet Heaney liked Lucretius and knew well these lines from book one:
nunc ratio nulla est restandi, nulla facultas, 110
aeternas quoniam poenas in morte timendum.
ignoratur enim quae sit natura animai …
Did he learn from Lucretius that we have nothing to fear even in a materialist universe?
I don’t know which of these it was -- All of the above? None of the above? Something else entirely? Maybe it doesn’t much matter: A life doubly grounded, in Earth and Word, can figure out for itself that it has no need for fear.