Seamus Heaney’s first book of critical essays, PREOCCUPATIONS: SELECTED PROSE, 1968-1978, was published in 1980. At that time he enjoyed modest recognition as one of the leading Irish poets of his generation. In the decade that followed he gained an international readership; he is a candidate for the Nobel Prize. THE GOVERNMENT OF THE TONGUE, like its predecessor, shows Heaney to be a fine critic; it also highlights some of the strengths that account for his remarkable rise in stature.
The book is divided into two parts. Part 1 consists of individual essays. Most of these are devoted to particular writers, living and dead, whom Heaney admires. The range of his interest is wide indeed: Patrick Kavanagh (Ireland), Derek Walcott (the Caribbean), Miroslav Holub (Czechoslovakia), Zbigniew Herbert (Poland), and Osip and Nadezhda Mandelstam (the Soviet Union). Fittingly, this section also includes an essay titled “The Impact of Translation.” Part 2 consists of Heaney’s T.S. Eliot Memorial Lectures, delivered in 1986. The first in the sequence of four lectures, the title piece of the collection, is concerned with “poetry as its own vindicating force.” In the three remaining lectures Heaney focuses in turn on W.H. Auden, Robert Lowell, and Sylvia Plath. The lecture on Plath offers one of the most perceptive readings of her work available anywhere; emphasizing the interplay of sound and meaning, Heaney describes Plath as “a poet governed by the auditory imagination to the point where her valediction to life consisted of a divesting of herself into words and echoes.”
A recurring theme in this collection, established in a prefatory essay, is the responsibility of poetry in a world torn by suffering and political violence. Poetry, Heaney suggests, offers “a break from the usual life but not an absconding from it.” Poetry operates in a “rift,” a space set aside for “pure concentration.” There, “our power to concentrate is concentrated back on ourselves"; the reader returns to life with a renewed spirit.
Sources for Further Study
Boston Globe. February 26, 1989, p.101.
Listener. CXIX, June 23, 1988, p.33.
London Review of Rooks. X, June 23, 1988, p.11.
Los Angeles Times. January 5, 1989, V, p.10.
New Statesman and Society. I, June 17, 1988, p.41.
The New York Times Book Review. XCIV, March 5, 1989, p.25.
The New Yorker. LXV, March 13, 1989, p.102.
The Observer. June 12, 1988, p.43.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIV, November 18, 1988, p.57.
The Times Literary Supplement. July 1, 1988, p.726.