Heaney, Seamus (Justin)
Seamus (Justin) Heaney 1939–
Irish poet and essayist.
Critics are divided over Heaney's position in Irish poetry, some even casting him as the greatest Irish poet since W. B. Yeats. Most would agree, however, that he is poet of "sustained achievement," who has become a spokesperson for Ireland. Heaney provides in his poetry a remarkable balance of the personal, the topical, and the universal which has made his work read and respected by a large audience in Great Britain and America. His search for continuity, as he "digs with his pen" through Irish history and culture and into the "troubles" in contemporary Northern Ireland is described in a concrete, sensuous language that has developed in resonance, density, and fineness of tone. Images of the Irish land and the Irish bog, prominent in his work, serve as important symbols: the land as the subject of the historical-contemporary struggle for possession and the bog as the metaphor for the dark unconscious of Ireland and the self.
Death of a Naturalist, Door into the Dark, and Wintering Out, his earlier works, are in the pastoral tradition, evoking the atmosphere of rural life. His later works, North and Field Work, are called his major accomplishments. In North, his most political poetry, the pastoral element is diminished. Here, Heaney links the grim Irish past with the Irish present, suggesting that love is the redeeming quality—the quality of survival. Field Work is a restrained balance between poetry and politics, Heaney having personally left the violent north to settle in Dublin. His recent Preoccupations is a collection of lectures and reviews in which Heaney examines the history of language, the poetic tradition, and the work of other poets.
(See also CLC, Vols. 5, 7, 14 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85-88.)
It is a mistake … to think of Heaney as merely a descriptive poet, endowed with unusual powers of observation. From the first his involvement with landscape and locale, with the physical world, has been both more personal and more remarkable in its implications than any mere act of observation and record could be. (p. 173)
For Heaney, the natural world must be accepted for what it is—heavy, palpable in its irrefutable bulk, in its almost intractable forms. He paints it in thick oils, rarely allowing (except in the delightful 'Lovers on Aran') for light, fire, air, for what the poet has himself called 'the sideral beauty' of things. (p. 174)
Heaney's sense of landscape combines erotic and religious impulses. He responds with a deep sense of the numinous in the natural world, and reads a scene as if it were governed by feminine, sexual principles. (pp. 174-75)In Heaney's imagination, which is synthetic and osmotic (in the sense that ideas and intuitions seep across thin membranes to blend with each other), this sense of landscape and the natural world extends in its implications into his treatment of another major obsession—Irish history and mythology. The implications of his vision of landscape are that nature, for all its processes, is a static form shaped by feminine forces, worked on by energetic, crafty makers, diggers, ploughmen. Irish history too reveals itself in his poetry as a landscape,...
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Sculptural incisiveness is just one of the characteristics of style in Death of a Naturalist.
What chiefly makes these early poems Heaney's own is another, complementary quality. Put briefly, it is a sensuous, vital energy which determines their diction, imagery, and prosody. To an unusual degree details register with an immediacy on the reader's senses. Note for example this image in "Death of a Naturalist": "the warm thick slobber / of frogspawn that grew like clotted water." Much of the effect derives from the gross, labial "slobber," but in "clotted water" the substance verbally thickens into tangible density. (p. 37)
Augmenting the physical authenticity and the clean, decisive art of the best of the early poems, mainly the ones concerned with the impact of the recollected initiatory experiences of childhood and youth, is the human voice that speaks in them. At its most distinctive it is unpretentious, open, modest, and yet poised, aware, fundamentally serious despite its occasional humorous or ironic turn. Within an anecdotal, sometimes colloquial, or matter-of-fact context it can be terse, suddenly dramatic, charged with emotion, shock or wonder breaking through understatement. It is flexible, open to modulations and complexities of tone. Generally the rhythms are natural though in accord with the predominant pattern and metrics of a given poem….
Nor would I begin to claim for it the...
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[Heaney] seems to do effortlessly what poets in Britain have been trying to do for a long time; that is, to write a profound and important poetry which is at once topical and private, and which is at the same time classically elegant, rich with language, and beautiful to the ear.
Heaney is the most loved and envied of poets, both profound and accessible. Undisturbed in his development into the finest Irish poet since Yeats, he seems able to write of the anguish of Northern Ireland without panic or obscurity. (p. 320)
Anne Stevenson, "The Recognition of the Savage God: Poetry in Britain Today," in New England Review (copyright © 1979 by Kenyon Hill Publications, Inc.; reprinted by permission of New England Review), Vol. II, No. 2, Winter, 1979, pp. 315-26.∗
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Seamus Heaney's reputation for power, resonance, consummate phrasing, striking talent, uncanniness, etc.—which sprang up like a genie with his very first book, Death of a Naturalist …, and which, as the early reviews come in, still looms with tweedy arms crossed above his fifth, Field Work—is astonishing in view of his modest ambition and tone. The Irish, British, and Americans alike have taken turns rubbing the lamp, as if it were indeed Wonderful, and pure gold. But Heaney himself, it is clear from almost every line, knows what it really is: a very respectable pewter.
Heaney's strength, such as it is, lies in making the most of his real if limited advantages—his rural North Ireland childhood, with its blackberrying, its hunting and fishing, its "Cows cudding, watching, and knowing"; his sense of language, which (pace A. Alvarez) is not really for the pretty or grand, despite lapses, but a squatting farmer's feel for the richest mold; and his nature, which toils not neither does it spin, but keeps a steady repose, being one for whatever it mirrors and finding one in the measures of the poem.
Of these, the most remarkable and restricting is, almost paradoxically, the last. How dormant in Heaney is what Hegel, admittedly Romantic, deemed the very nature of Spirit, which is to be self-determining. Difficult to know this unassuming personality is around, you might think, except as you...
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Gregory A. Schirmer
The difficulty that poets face in negotiating between the local and the universal, between a wish to be true to one's place and cultural heritage and a desire to create an art that will reach beyond the confines of locality, particularly troubles Irish poets, writing, as they do, out of an especially singular culture and writing for an audience largely estranged from that culture. Yeats, of course, provides the most obvious example of an Irish poet able to reach from the particular to the transcendent, but in the decades following Yeats's death, no other Irish poet, with the questionable exception of Patrick Kavanagh, seemed able to fashion a poetic that was both rooted in its native soil and, at the same time, of notable appeal beyond the shores of Ireland.
In the past few years, however, Ireland seems to have produced, in Seamus Heaney, a poet possessing this rather rare capacity…. [By the time that Heaney published Field Work], he was matter-of-factly being described in British and American journals as the most important contemporary voice in Irish poetry and being compared, even, to the great Yeats himself. The question, of course, is why? And, more important, what does Heaney's rather astonishing success among non-Irish readers say about the larger problem of how Irish poets—or poets in general, for that matter—create an art of universal import out of the sticks and stones of their own culture and locality?...
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North is a major accomplishment, a book-length sequence of lyrics which exploits the metaphor of possession more fully than any other Irish poet has done. The poems are richly autobiographical, yet [Seamus Heaney] consistently weaves the particulars of his life into a mythic frame; he has evolved a unique species of political poetry which refers at once to the current Irish "troubles" and to the human situation generally. One would have to invoke Pablo Neruda's Heights of Macchu Picchu for a parallel. Consequently, I think Heaney is among the finest poets writing today in English, and I shall examine his work to date to support my large claim for him. His poetry has evolved with remarkable integrity from the beginning. He has drawn ever widening concentric rings around the first few themes he circled; his language has grown steadily more dense, more resonant, more singularly his own with each successive volume. And now, at the height of his powers, one awaits each new book with the same expectancy afforded Yeats and Eliot in their middle years.
Heaney comes from the north, from Derry, and his first book conjured the pastoral topography of his childhood on the farm. One should remember, of course, that even Theocritus and Virgil did not write for country folk, to put it mildly; rather, they evinced the atmosphere of rural life for the benefit of cultivated city dwellers who would appreciate the subtle texture of meaning...
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I would not say that the Northern Ireland poet Seamus Heaney, at forty, has printed any single poem necessarily as fine as [Yeats's] "Adam's Curse", but the lyric called "The Harvest Bow" in Field Work may yet seem that strong against all of time's revenges. There are other poems in Field Work worthy of comparison to the Yeats of In the Seven Woods (1904), and it begins to seem not far-fetched to wonder how remarkable a poet Heaney may yet become, if he can continue the steady growth of an art as deliberate, as restrained, and yet as authoritative and universal as the poems of Field Work—his fifth and much his best volume in the thirteen years since his first book, Death of a Naturalist….
That book, praised for its countryman's veracity and vividness of soil-sense, reads in retrospect as a kind of dark hymn of poetic incarnation, a sombre record of the transgression of having been a Clare-like changeling. Heaney's first poems hold implicit his central trope, the vowel of earth, and move in a cycle between the guilt of having forsaken spade for pen, and the redemption of poetic work: "I rhyme / To see myself, to set the darkness echoing". Door into the Dark … seems now, as it did to me a decade ago, mostly a repetition, albeit in a finer tone, and I remember putting the book aside with the sad reflection that Heaney was fixated in a rugged but minimalist lyrical art. I was mistaken,...
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Heaney has in abundance a gift which the English distrust in one another but expect of the Irish: a fine way with the language. What in Brendan Behan, for instance, was a brilliant, boozy gift of the gab is transformed by Heaney into rich and sonorous rhetoric. He is a man besotted with words and, like all lovers, he wants to display the beauties and range and subtleties of his beloved. Unlike most, however, he disciplines his passion, reining it in for better effect. It is an admirable procedure, although there are times when the urge to make a nice noise gets the better of him….
It is something of a miracle for a poet writing at the latter end of the twentieth century to sound … Victorian without, at the same time, sounding merely pompous and secondhand. Heaney's skill in bringing off this difficult balancing act is, I suspect, the clue to his extraordinary popularity. The British have never taken easily or willingly to Modernism…. So they are comfortable with Heaney because he himself is comfortably in a recognizable tradition.
He is also a rural poet, born and brought up in the country and now wisely retired to it from the hurly-burly of literary life….
Heaney's position in it, however, is far from countrified. He is an intensely literary writer: his poems on the Irish troubles sound like Yeats, his elegy on Lowell sounds like Lowell; he brings in heroes and heroines with beautiful names...
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[Since Seamus Heaney] is a poet of sustained achievement and since his life has touched so many sides of Ireland—North-South, rural-urban, violent-pacific—he is contended for, like a valuable piece of land, by squads of contrary critics. The intensity of these critical responses suggests how much his poetry, as well as the political situation he sometimes describes, affects. (p. 3)
From his first poem, "Digging," in his first book, Death of a Naturalist, Heaney pulled away from poetry of overt political purpose…. This, though, may have been a resolution more easily arrived at in 1966, before the resurgence of violence in the North. In any case, since then Heaney has sought more elaborate and remote imagery in which to implant his oblique commentaries, though at times he is willing, outside his poems, to decode his imagery in order to point up his thematic purposes. In 1979, for example, he contributed a revealing preface to a handsomely-illustrated edition of his "Ugolino", the savage poem which concludes Field Work; Heaney makes his political-poetical purposes unmistakable when he explains that he was drawn to the material
because I sensed there was something intimate, almost carnal, about these feuds and sorrows of mediaeval Pisa, something that could perhaps mesh with and house the equivalent and destructive energies at work in, say, contemporary Belfast....
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The first six pieces in [Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968–1978], all quite short, form an untitled section on their own, though three are headed "Mossbawn" and three "Belfast". They are all, in the best sense, self-centred—informal circumstantial sketches of [Heaney's] upbringing in Co Derry, his childhood reading and absorption of "rhymes", his literary apprenticeship as an undergraduate at Queen's …, and a laconic Christmas 1971 message from the battlefront….
One of Heaney's considerable gifts in these prose pieces is that he keeps a proper—and not mock-modest—commonsensical balance, whether he is talking about himself or other poets….
The refinement and extension of Heaney's art, which reached its striven-for level in North …, goes hand-in-glove with his strong but delicate handling of other men's flowers. In Preoccupations, lectures and reviews show a generosity of spirit, and an acuteness of mind, which can see the best in such different recent poets as Ted Hughes, Geoffrey Hill, Philip Larkin, Theodore Roethke, Hugh MacDiarmid, Stevie Smith, Robert Lowell; among the Irish, Patrick Kavanagh, John Hewitt, John Montague, Paul Muldoon—as well as, presidingly and almost forbiddingly, Yeats; which can find as much nourishment, unobviously, in Wordsworth as in, obviously, Hopkins. In all these plumbings in prose, what is felt for is the nerve of the rhythm, the energy of the...
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[Selected Poems 1965–1975] is an impressive little book in that the poems have an obsidian polish and are obviously made to last; that some will, there is no doubt. They are documentary, rural poems shaped out of spare packed words, as if written by a staccato Edward Thomas. The best are pure lyrics like "Anahorish", "The Given Note", and "A New Song"; the least compelling are the ones whose intentions impose on the reader—the well-known bog poems for example….
What has opened my eyes to Mr Heaney's quality is his prose, backhanded though the compliment may seem…. [The calibre of Preoccupations] is such as to establish Mr Heaney as that rarest of rare birds, a serious critic in the class of Yeats, Pound and Eliot. Like them he has the advantage (I would say the sine qua non) of being a practitioner of the art he examines….
The difference between craft and technique, the importance of the speaking voice, sense of place, origins, lines of communication with the past, are among Mr Heaney's persistent preoccupations: and what he has to say about them is of the greatest value and appositeness.
David Wright, "A Poet's Prose," in The Times Educational Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1980; reproduced from The Times Educational Supplement by permission), No. 3360, November 14, 1980, p. 20.
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The strengths and limitations of poet-critics, as a class, seem to come from intensity of focus: They need to think about writing, about poetic composition. And any insight or idea in their criticism grows somehow from the complex, subterranean roots of concern with composition, and with the circumstances of composition. These collected lectures and reviews ["Preoccupations"] by the gifted Irish poet Seamus Heaney often explore those roots in exciting ways, dealing intimately with composition as an act of mind more profound than mere rhetoric, and showing how the circumstances of composition extend to the most urgent, painful historical questions.
The moments of such penetration come primarily, I find, when Mr. Heaney meditates on his personal and national past—Irish speech, landscape, history, poetry, and hereditary blood-struggles—touching and testing the links between them. The most moving piece in the book, the lecture "Feeling Into Words," confirms the idea that Mr. Heaney's vitality and seriousness rely in large measure upon a particular soil and its past….
As a prose writer, Mr. Heaney has a nimble, elegant charm and the ability to rise suddenly, at his best, from conventional ideas to home truths. He manages to keep a little of the charm of thought even in the journeyman reviews included in "Preoccupations."…
On the subject of poets close to him—Wordsworth, Hopkins, Mandelstam,...
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[Of] the 10 essays in Preoccupations (there are also 11 short reviews), only one stands out: the Berkeley lecture (1976) called "Englands of the Mind," in which Heaney discusses the ways in which sense of place functions as "a confirmation of an identity which is threatened" in the poetic language of Ted Hughes, Geoffrey Hill, and Philip Larkin. The distinctions drawn between Hughes' Anglo-Saxon, Hill's "Anglo-Romanesque," and Larkin's "English language … turned humanist" and "besomed clean of its inkhornisms and its irrational magics by the eighteenth century" are both interesting and convincing. But when Heaney writes about his own childhood or about the poets who have meant most to him—Wordsworth, Hopkins, Yeats—he is given to commonplaces….
[And] Heaney's statements of poetics, whether his own or that of others, are curiously bland….
There is not a statement here with which anyone would want to take issue for these are, after all, classroom pieties. What is missing is a particular point of view, an individual perspective, at least one if not 13 ways of looking at a blackbird…. [It] is hard to remember what Heaney says about Yeats, for his Yeats, the dreamer turned practical man turned visionary, is a familiar textbook figure. (p. 5)
It is [his] inclination to speechify rather than to engage his subject directly that makes even such celebrated Heaney poems as "The Bog People"...
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[The essays in Preoccupations] are freely admitted to be occasional pieces brought about by the life of a freelance writer rather than an academic critic, and none at all the worse for that, though I think that on balance they do throw more light on Heaney's own poetry than others'. Sometimes the writing wears its public responsibility too heavily, the language becoming orotund or tortuous…. Heaney must be as widely read and respected now as any living writer of poetry in English … in this country [England], perhaps because the detailed and sensuously vivid evocation of rural Ireland and childhood has appealed to urban poetry-readers on account of its 'distance': pastorally attractive but largely unchallenging. While Heaney is rightly cautious of turning Irish-English contentions and writing into a 'spectator sport', he has shown in North and Field Work … a desire to engage more directly with Ulster's contemporary pain…. What is clear from his verse and prose is that of all the Irish poets now writing [Heaney] has most actively and consistently worked to forge a new voice for Irish poetry, worked with a Yeatsian intensity for it. That doesn't mean that he is a similar kind of poet or that he is 'the best poet since W. B. Yeats': no poet at Heaney's time of life should be saddled with that kind of public approbation…. It undervalues the considerable virtues of poets like Montague, Murphy, Mahon and Longley, and makes it no...
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W. S. Di PIERO
[Heaney's] work, poetry and prose alike, is rooted in the need to penetrate, claim, and express the rough exigencies of history. He seeks coherence and continuity. "Digging," the opening poem in Death of a Naturalist … and the initial poem in [Poems: 1965–1975], announces the work that will follow. Writing by a window, the poet hears the "clean rasping sound" of his father digging turf, and in that sound hears his grandfather's work before him. Digging becomes at once a signal of origins and legacies and a sounding of Heaney's own poetic ambitions. He has "no spade to follow men like them," so he will dig instead with his pen…. The metaphor is meant to articulate the method by which the poet will carry on, while at the same time departing from, the family tradition. Although the fancy may be somewhat strained and self-important, Heaney's intention is clear enough: he wants connections, continuities, and historical justification for his art.
In one essential particular the truth of the metaphor is redeemed, for in many of his poems Heaney does dig with his pen, excavating, unearthing histories of families, country, and self. But in the poem's opening lines, he also describes the feel of the pen in his hand as "snug as a gun." The figure is at first glance rather impressive, and its apparent authority is boosted by the clicking backward rhyme; but what has this terrorist image to do with agriculture, archaeology, or...
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