'Seamus Heaney's last poem'. Whether 'In a Field' can sustain that billing, the small print acknowledges, we don't yet know for sure: 'the papers he left behind are yet to be fully examined'. So, for 'last' read 'latest'. Nevertheless, if even Heaney's final text message enjoys laudatory reviews, his late, latest and last poems should expect enthusiastic attention.
The poem was commissioned by Carol Ann Duffy, who asked writers to 'contribute to a memorial anthology marking the centenary of the outbreak of the first world war'. Each poet should find a letter, diary entry or poem from the time as a starting-point for their own work. Heaney chose Edward Thomas's 'As the Team's Head-Brass' (given as 'Head brass', without its hyphen, in the Guardian article), and has written a strong poem in response. The article quotes Matthew Hollis reporting that Heaney considered this to be 'perhaps his favourite' poem, but the sub-editing has probably muddled up what Hollis said. Heaney must have been talking about Thomas's poem, not his own: 'He admired what he called its "Homeric plane": the way a local conversation shadowed events on the world's field.' It's hard to imagine such a modest man as Heaney, even in private conversation, praising his own work for its 'Homeric plane'.
How many of his fellow contributors avoid the traps remains to be seen, but Heaney has been too astute to reach for barbed wire, shell-shocked Tommies, no-man's-land and dulce et decorum est, or to wring his hands at the horror and futility of it all. 'In a Field' is a beautifully poised poem of restitution, in which a demobbed soldier takes the young child by the hand and leads him 'Through the same old gate into the yard / Where everyone has suddenly appeared, / All standing waiting.' There is something of self-elegy about this ending (which is presumably why Duffy refers to it, with a certain exaggeration, as 'heartbreakingly prescient'). The journey through the gate is both physical and metaphysical, and those family members who have 'suddenly appeared', as if by magic, are simultaneously greeting the young child (and the war veteran) in this world and the recently deceased in the next. To borrow an ambiguous phrase which Heaney always enjoyed, 'In a Field' is a poem of 'seeing things'. It is much smaller than Thomas's poem, and wisely makes no attempt to compete, but it manages an understated perfection.