The Redress of Poetry had its origin in fifteen lectures that Seamus Heaney delivered in his role as professor of poetry at the University of Oxford from 1989 to 1994. Ten of the lectures are reprinted in the book, which is both a defense of poetry and an analysis of poets ranging from Christopher Marlowe in the sixteenth century to Elizabeth Bishop in the twentieth century.
The introduction to the book gives a context for the various ways Heaney will discover that poetry provides a “redress” or relief to the reader. For example, he cites a late poem by Robert Frost called “Directive” to show that poetry is an “imaginative transformation of human life.” Poetry does not dwell in the world of fact, represented by the painful events within the house Frost describes “in earnest,” but in the imaginative world, suggested by the playhouse of the children. This imagined world can heal humans and make them “whole,” by encompassing and transforming painful reality into pleasure.
The next chapter, “The Redress of Poetry,” attempts to define some of the possible ways of seeing this “redress.” Heaney begins with the more obvious definitions of the word as “reparation” or “compensation” of a wrong. Yet it can also mean to set right, to “restore” or “re-establish.” These obsolete meanings suggest further ways that poetry may affect a reader. Furthermore, Heaney finds an even more obsolete definition taken from hunting: “to bring back (the hounds or the deer) to the proper course.”
The restorative power of poetry is, for Heaney, its most important function. Heaney is especially eager to defend the delight in poetry against those who would make it an instrument of political correctness and so serve some specific social or political purpose. He cites the example of the Irish rebel Thomas MacDonagh, who participated in and was executed after the 1916 Uprising. MacDonagh despised the British Empire and its refusal to give freedom to Ireland. As Heaney insists, however, MacDonagh did not reject the poetic tradition of Britain and even wrote a book on Thomas Campion’s metrics. In the 1990’s, that tradition, and the canon it represented, is being displaced by those who wish to replace it with literary works that are written by or for members of various groups that have been oppressed. Heaney wishes to preserve the “surprise” and joy that poetry provides in the face of such demands.
“Extending the Alphabet” deals with the style of Christopher Marlowe. Heaney speaks of how he was overwhelmed as a college student by hearing a skilled reader deliver Marlowe’s mighty lines. In the essay, however, he discusses Marlowe’s long unfinished poem “Hero and Leander.” Some might find in that poem a defense of homosexuality or condemn it as being sexist, but Heaney insists that if read correctly, it yields a “fine excess” and a sheer pleasure in the power of language. Any attempt to use the poem for a partisan cause ignores what is most important in it; such a reading is self-serving, not a true response.
In an essay on John Clare’s poetry, Heaney sorts out the permanent and important poems of Clare from the more ephemeral ones. He considers that the celebrated poems that Clare wrote in his madness and poverty do not represent him at his best or show the poet in his true poetic element. Instead, Heaney believes that the true poems of Clare are those on nature, such as “Mouse’s Nest.” Yet he singles out as Claire’s most important and influential poems those written on the enclosure of the land in the nineteenth century, especially “Swordy Well.” That model of protest still pays attention to poetic effects, as “effortless” as they may seem. Heaney cites, for example, the ballad stanza as a traditional form that “kept Clare on the right road poetically.” At the end of the essay, Heaney sees Clare as a possible model for a postmodern poetry that can offer social protest yet still retain the imaginative demands of poetic language. He even claims that the best of recent British poetry is indebted to the style and practice of Clare.
The essay on Oscar Wilde’s “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” is curious in the compromises Heaney seems to make in his demand for the primacy of poetic language over social content. He discusses Wilde’s use of the ballad stanza in “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” as following the example of his mother. Wilde’s mother wrote a number of propaganda poems for the cause of Ireland under the name Sperenza. The ballad stanza, however, was not appropriate for the content or the style of Wilde’s poem. In addition, Wilde was too close to his subject and could not distinguish between the pain he suffered and the distance his art needed. Heaney claims, however, that the poem provides a “redress,” since “Wilde the aesthete was stripped of his dandy’s clothes to...
(The entire section is 1996 words.)