Heaney, Seamus (Vol. 171)
Seamus Heaney 1939-
(Full name Seamus Justin Heaney; has also written under the pseudonym Incertus) Irish poet, critic, essayist, nonfiction writer, playwright, and editor.
The following entry presents an overview of Heaney's career through 2002. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 5, 7, 14, 25, 37, 74, and 91.
Widely considered Ireland's most accomplished contemporary poet, Heaney was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995 for what the Swedish Academy proclaimed his “works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past.” In his poetry, Heaney often considers the role and responsibility of the poet in modern society, exploring themes of self-discovery and spiritual growth while addressing political and cultural issues related to Irish history. His verse is characterized by sensuous language, sexual metaphors, and images drawn from nature. Many critics consider him the greatest Irish poet since William Butler Yeats.
The eldest of nine children, Heaney was raised as a Roman Catholic in Mossbawn, County Derry, a rural community in the predominantly Protestant Northern Ireland. When he was eleven years old, Heaney left his family's farm to study at Saint Columb's College in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, where he held a scholarship. In 1957 he enrolled at Queen's University in Belfast, where he was introduced to Irish, American, and English literature and became particularly influenced by Ted Hughes, Patrick Kavanagh, and Robert Frost—poets whose works were significantly informed by their childhood experiences. While in college, Heaney contributed poems to university literary magazines using the pseudonym Incertus. After graduating from Queen's University with a first-class honors degree in English literature and a teaching certificate, Heaney held several positions as a secondary school teacher and later returned to Queen's University as a lecturer. During this time, he also established himself as a prominent literary figure with the publication of Death of a Naturalist (1966), his first major volume of poetry. As a Catholic living in Belfast when fighting erupted between Protestants and Catholics in 1969, Heaney took a personal interest in Ireland's social and political unrest and began to address the causes and effects of violence in his poetry. In 1972 Heaney moved from Belfast to a cottage outside Dublin and began writing full time. In 1975 he was named head of the English department at Caryfort College in Dublin. Heaney has frequently traveled to the United States and England and, since 1981, has spent part of each year teaching at Harvard University, where he was appointed the Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory in 1984. Heaney also held the chair of Professor of Poetry at Oxford University from 1989 to 1994. Having already received numerous awards for his poetry and translations, Heaney was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995.
Heaney's earliest poetic works evidence a preoccupation with sensuous memories associated with nature and his rustic childhood. Poems such as “Digging” in Death of a Naturalist evoke the Irish countryside and comment on the care and skill with which his father and ancestors farmed the land. Nature is also a prominent theme in Door into the Dark (1969), in which several poems focus on the work of rural laborers. “Undine,” for instance, describes the process of agricultural irrigation in the context of myth and sexuality. Much of Heaney's poetry addresses the history of social unrest in Northern Ireland and considers the relevance of poetry in the face of violence and political upheaval. Wintering Out (1972) and North (1975) contain a series of “bog poems” inspired by the archaeological excavation of Irish peat bogs that contained the preserved remains of ritually slaughtered human bodies dating from the Iron Age. These poems depict the victims of ancient pagan rites, foreshadowing the violence in contemporary Ireland. Other poems such as “Ocean's Love to Ireland” and “Act of Union” portray the English colonization of Ireland as an act of violent sexual conquest. Field Work (1979) addresses the social unrest of Northern Ireland from a personal perspective as Heaney recounts the loss of friends and relatives to “the troubles.” Other consistent themes in Heaney's oeuvre are self-determination and poetic imagination. Irish history is also an important motif in Heaney's poetry, as evidenced in his sequence of allegorical poems in Station Island (1984). Patterned after Dante's Commedia (c.1307-c.1321; Divine Comedy), the sequence portrays a three-day spiritual pilgrimage undertaken by Irish Catholics to Station Island. While on the island, the narrator encounters the souls of dead acquaintances and Irish literary figures who inspire him to reflect on his life and art. The Haw Lantern (1987) presents a selection of parables about Irish life, including a series of poems entitled “Clearances,” which explores memories of Heaney's relationship with his mother. Other poems in the collection, such as “From the Republic of Conscience” and “From the Canton of Expectation,” meditate on spirituality in the context of a menacing political climate.
Departing from Heaney's earlier emphasis on politics and civic responsibility, Seeing Things (1991) returns to such autobiographical themes as childhood experience and Irish community and ritual. Feelings of loss and yearning are prominent motifs in the collection, as many of the poems evoke celebratory images of Heaney's deceased father who appears frequently throughout the volume. “Squarings”—a sequence of four sections, each containing twelve twelve-line poems—exemplifies Heaney's stylistic and technical experimentation in the collection. The poems in The Spirit Level (1996) examine emotions and ideals that transcend the concrete world, such as “Weighing In,” which offers a meditation on the virtues of self-restraint. The title refers to an Irish term for a carpenter's level, and Heaney's verse reflects the poet's desire to find balance in all spheres of existence. Opened Ground (1998) not only focuses on the physical ground of Ireland, but also on the ground—or foundation—of violence and oppression throughout history. This broad collection, selected from Heaney's entire career, demonstrates how his poems are engendered from images, echoes, and emptiness. Electric Light (2001) draws heavily from reminiscences of Heaney's youth, accompanied by elegies for the people and poets who shaped his life. The collection offers a celebration of how poetry connects Heaney to all of his past and present influences.
Heaney's adaptations and translations have shown a strong focus on ancient history and mythology, while emphasizing the concept of poetry as a liturgical rite. For example, the prose poem Sweeney Astray (1983) has its roots in the medieval Irish tale of King Sweeney, who was transformed from a warrior-king into a bird as the result of a curse. In The Cure at Troy: A Version of Sophocles' Philoctetes (1990) and The Midnight Verdict (1993), Heaney pays homage to several ancient authors, including Sophocles and Ovid, who have inspired his works. Heaney's most acclaimed translation has been his reinterpretation of Beowulf (1999), commissioned by the Norton Anthology of Literature. Heaney attempts to open up the Beowulf myth to a wider audience by replacing the original Old English with more accessible and energetic language. However, scholars have debated the merits of Heaney's use of Irish words handed down from the ancient Anglo-Saxons, with some arguing that this damages the text by arbitrarily inserting Irish elements into a story of Germanic and Swedish descent.
Critical response to Heaney's work has been predominately positive and enthusiastic. Bruce Murphy has described Heaney as “the poet of the English language with the best ear of any now living.” Comparisons between his work and that of other Irish writers—particularly William Butler Yeats, James Joyce, and Samuel Beckett—have proliferated throughout his career. Reviewers have consistently praised how Heaney addresses Ireland's cultural tensions and divisions through the linguistic duality of his poetry, noting his skillful use of both Irish and English literary traditions. Heaney has also been commended for his experimentation with form and style, especially in Station Island and Seeing Things. Although some scholars have faulted Seeing Things for its presentation of overly elusive images and themes, several have praised the volume for its imaginative qualities and its focus on visionary transcendence experienced through ordinary events. Some critics have interpreted the figure of King Sweeney in Sweeney Astray as a representation of the artist torn between imaginative freedom and the constraints of religious, political, and domestic obligations, lauding Heaney's thoughtful examination of the role of the poet in society. Reviewers of Heaney's translation of Beowulf have complimented his ability to remain faithful both to his poetic vision and to the authenticity of the story. William Pratt has likened Heaney's task of translating the work as comparable to the heroic deeds of Beowulf himself, commenting that Heaney “dredged out of the Old English epic something that compares with what he has dredged out of his native Irish bog, something beautiful as well as terrifying.”
Eleven Poems (poetry) 1965
Death of a Naturalist (poetry) 1966
Room to Rhyme [with Dairo Hammond and Michael Longley] (poetry) 1968
Door into the Dark (poetry) 1969
A Lough Neagh Sequence (poetry) 1969
Boy Driving His Father to Confession (poetry) 1970
Night Drive (poetry) 1970
Land (poetry) 1971
Servant Boy (poetry) 1971
Wintering Out (poetry) 1972
Bog Poems (poetry) 1975
Fire i’the Flint: Reflections on the Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins (criticism) 1975
North (poetry) 1975
Stations (poetry) 1975
In Their Element: A Selection of Poems [with Derek Mahon] (poetry) 1977
After Summer (poetry) 1978
The Making of a Music: Reflections on the Poetry of Wordsworth and Yeats (criticism and lectures) 1978
Robert Lowell: A Memorial Address and Elegy (nonfiction) 1978
Field Work (poetry) 1979
Hedge School: Sonnets from Glanmore (poetry) 1979
Ugolino (poetry) 1979
Poems: 1965-1975 (poetry) 1980; revised as Selected Poems, 1965-1975,...
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SOURCE: Moldaw, Carol. “A Poetic Conscience.” Partisan Review 62, no. 1 (winter 1995): 144-48.
[In the following review, Moldaw contrasts the subject matter of Heaney's earlier works with that of Seeing Things and Selected Poems, noting a shift from materiality to abstraction.]
Seamus Heaney has long been praised for the textured “thingness” of his poetry. If poets have a ruling element, earth has been his. In 1976, after Heaney's fourth book, North, came out, Robert Fitzgerald noted that Heaney fulfills, as Yeats himself did not, Yeats's dictum in “The Municipal Gallery Revisited,” that “All we did, all that we said or sung / must come from contact with the soil.” In “North,” Heaney's poetic conscience, in the form of the “longship's swimming tongue,” counseled him to “trust the feel of what nubbed treasure / your hands have known.” This image of “nubbed treasure” could stand for much of Heaney's poetry. His early work, from the farm and country poems of Death of a Naturalist and Door into the Dark, to the bog poems of North, was tactile in its preoccupations and its language. “Gleaning the unsaid off the palpable” (“The Harvest Bow,” Field Work), has been one of the trademarks of Heaney's work. More than most, he has been capable of embodying linguistic sensuality, and the grounding of emotion in a vibrant object....
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SOURCE: Quinlan, Kieran. “Tracing Seamus Heaney.” World Literature Today 69, no. 1 (winter 1995): 63-8.
[In the following essay, Quinlan examines Heaney's background as a Catholic native of Northern Ireland, outlining how changes in his life and philosophies affected his poetry.]
In 1989, when Seamus Heaney accepted his election as Professor of Poetry at Oxford University (a rather odd position, its occupant chosen in a peculiarly odd manner by the “populist” vote of those M.A.'s of the University caring to participate, and then merely required to deliver a modest number of lectures over the course of his tenure), it seemed to many that he had come a very long way indeed from his roots in a rural, relatively unlettered, and distinctly Catholic Northern Ireland. Was this an achievement, then, of which his countrymen should be proud (though the professorship itself had been held mainly by those whose names, as James Thurber might have said, “had gone down in history—very far down”), or at least the latest prize for a writer heralded as the worthy successor of W. B. Yeats and the Irish Literary Revival of the early part of the century? Or had there been rather a certain selling out of political and cultural loyalties in this embrace of the Arnoldian sinecure, an implicit acknowledgment of the latter's cultivated stereotype of the Celt as the necessary—but inferior—imaginative ingredient in...
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SOURCE: Allen, Michael. “The Parish and the Dream: Heaney and America, 1969-1987.” Southern Review 31, no. 3 (July 1995): 726-38.
[In the following essay, Allen traces the effect of American literature and culture on Heaney's poetry.]
“Here no elsewhere underwrites my existence.” So wrote Larkin, who had left Ireland for England, “home,” in 1955. The implied aesthetic is akin to (and roughly contemporaneous with) Kavanagh's assumption that creative potential has its tap-root in the “parish” of one's deepest allegiance. But despite Kavanagh's importance for Seamus Heaney's art, such local attachments were no longer a crucial spur for Heaney's generation of Irish poets. When Longley, Mahon, and Heaney first read together in the mid-'60s (in Glengormley, Mahon's “home ground”), they were celebrating a poet, MacNeice, for whom all places were potentially elsewhere. Robert Frost and Theodore Roethke (as well as Ted Hughes) show, through their influence on Heaney's early work, that he was not immune to the stimulus of other “parishes” than rural, regional Ireland. And from his second book to his seventh, as we shall see, America's intermittent presence in Heaney's poetry alongside England and Ireland suggests that the verse is searching out some empathy and support there.
Vincent Buckley (in his Memory Ireland) and Dillon Johnston (in the Colby Quarterly)...
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SOURCE: Tillinghast, Richard. “Seamus Heaney's ‘Middle Voice.’” New Criterion 14, no. 4 (December 1995): 77-80.
[In the following essay, Tillinghast assesses the political and artistic implications of the poems in Station Island and North.]
Some years ago when Seamus Heaney was rumored once again to have missed a close vote for the Nobel Prize in literature, Charlie Haughey, Ireland's taoiseach (prime minister), was quoted as having remarked: “We wuz robbed!” As Haughey's humorous use of sports-talk and the first-person plural pronoun suggests, Heaney's Nobel on some level belongs to Ireland as a whole. And now, with the cease-fire in Northern Ireland, his having been brought up Catholic in the Protestant-dominated province “positions” Heaney as the kind of writer to whom the Nobel committee likes to give its literature prizes.
But this positioning, this convenient fit between poetry and politics, is perhaps not so neat as much of the journalism I have been reading on the subject would have us believe. Not only is Heaney not a product of the Northern Ireland conflict, his is a sensibility that seeks to assuage (one of his favorite words) and to heal. It would not be true to say, as Auden wrote of Yeats, that “mad Ireland hurt you into poetry,” or that the conflict in his native province, as has been suggested, has significantly stimulated him as a...
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SOURCE: Pratt, William. “The Great Irish Elk: Seamus Heaney's Personal Helicon.” World Literature Today 70, no. 2 (spring 1996): 261-66.
[In the following essay, Pratt provides an overview of Heaney's life and career through his 1995 Nobel Prize in Literature.]
When Yeats received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1923, he was fifty-eight and at the height of his poetic powers, which happily continued undiminished for another sixteen years. Yeats wrote some of his best poems in the last years of his life, the decade and a half that followed the Nobel Prize, and in his Autobiographies he even went so far as to say that “The Bounty of Sweden” made him feel that though he was old his Muse was young. Seamus Heaney has long been recognized as a worthy successor to Yeats; we can hope that, in receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature for 1995, he will share not only Yeats's honor but also his fate, and that, at the slightly younger age of fifty-six, Heaney will prove that he still has some of his best poems to write.
Yeats has been the undisputed Irish national poet for most of this century, a preeminence celebrated annually at the Yeats International Summer School in Sligo, but Heaney is the emergent Irish national poet, for whom another literary festival may well be founded some day. I remember it was at a Yeats International Summer School in Sligo that I first heard Seamus...
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SOURCE: Keen, Suzanne. “Catching the Heart Off Guard: The Generous Vision of Seamus Heaney.” Commonweal 123, no. 10 (17 May 1996): 10-14.
[In the following essay, Keen applauds the tone and style of Heaney's poetics, highlighting its links to the oral traditions of poetry.]
Seamus Heaney in the college cafeteria line at Harvard: The woman serving holds her scoop aloft. “Pasta or potatoes?” she asks. “Surely, you're joking,” says Heaney, and pokes his plate under the sneeze-guard for the potatoes.
In “Digging,” the best-known poem of his first book, Death of a Naturalist (1966), Heaney declares his distance from men like his father and grandfather, men who “could handle a spade” and “scatter new potatoes,” choosing instead to follow the poet's vocation: “Between my finger and my thumb / The squat pen rests. / I'll dig with it.” His successes have carried him far from the Northern Ireland of his childhood, to Cambridge, Massachusetts, for part of each year, to Oxford University where he was elected to the post of Professor of Poetry (1989-94), and last year to Stockholm to accept the Nobel Prize in Literature. (I am sure I am not the only Commonweal reader who cheered at that news!) But the objects, places, literature, history, and contemporary situation of Ireland remain the poet's home turf.
Justly celebrated as one of the...
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SOURCE: Pratt, William. Review of The Redress of Poetry, by Seamus Heaney. World Literature Today 70, no. 3 (summer 1996): 698.
[In the following review, Pratt criticizes Heaney's overemphasis on politics in The Redress of Poetry.]
The lectures Seamus Heaney gave while occupying the Chair of Poetry at Oxford from 1989 to 1994 are magisterial, perhaps even to a fault, since he ranges all the way from Herbert and Marlowe to Merriman and MacDiarmid, from John Clare to Dylan Thomas, Philip Larkin, and Elizabeth Bishop. If his purpose is to show his wide reading in the English, Scottish, Welsh, and American poetic traditions, to “redress” the imbalance of his Irish poetic prejudices, then he has made his case. But he has something more in mind, for he states in his title essay [in The Redress of Poetry] that “as a mode of redress in the first sense,” poetry can be “an agent for proclaiming and correcting injustices.” His main effort therefore is not so much literary as social, and his reading of poets quite different from himself is directed more to establishing their relevance to current causes than to understanding what they might have meant in their own historical or national context. In short, in this third collection of his prose Heaney shows himself to be a surprisingly fashionable academic critic, whose tenure as a professor at Harvard and Oxford may have had more influence on...
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SOURCE: Sen, Sudeep. Review of The Spirit Level, by Seamus Heaney. World Literature Today 70, no. 4 (autumn 1996): 963.
[In the following review, Sen assesses the humanist impulses that inform The Spirit Level.]
Seamus Heaney's collection The Spirit Level is his first book of poems to appear following his 1995 Nobel Prize in Literature (see WLT 70:2, pp. 253-66) as well as being the first book of verse in five years after Seeing Things (see WLT 67:1, p. 182). As an aside, it may be interesting to note that his new book was in fact written (and was with the publishers) well before he received the prize itself.
Hailed as the greatest Irish poet since Yeats, Heaney here shows once again that with subtle use of language, politics that is rooted in both the local and the universal, intelligence, humanism, and his love for nature, he can evoke in the reader feelings of immense transport that lead you from one terrain to another, from one landscape (both exterior and interior) to another, and from one state of mind to another. True poetry has the capacity to do all that, perhaps even more. When one reaches the last pages of this new collection, there emerges a sense of an overall balance that is both measured and spontaneous, a conviction that follows and explores the tenets of science as much as the arts.
Memory is permanence; permanence is...
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SOURCE: Deane, Seamus. “Powers of Earth and Visions of Air.” In Seamus Heaney: The Shaping Spirit, edited by Catharine Malloy and Phyllis Carey, pp. 27-33. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1996.
[In the following essay, Deane connects the political aspects of Heaney's poetry with definitions of Ireland as both cultural and geographic entities.]
Since his first book, Death of a Naturalist (1966), Seamus Heaney has been much concerned with deaths of various kinds. His life as a writer has almost exactly coincided with the most recent period of crisis in Northern Ireland, and the degeneration of that rancid statelet over the past twenty years has provided enough violent killings to deepen a preoccupation that was already there in the early work. In Heaney's poetry, as in the political world that subsists with it, there is a need to possess or to repossess a territory that is always there in its specific actuality and yet evades all attempts to seize and hold it in one stabilizing grasp.
It has often been observed that Heaney's work—especially the first four volumes, including Door into the Dark (1969), Wintering Out (1972) and North (1975)—has a remarkably large vocabulary for earth, especially earth in a state of deliquescence, earth mixed with water. Mud, slime, mould, silt, and slicks are words that note the ambiguity of the ground...
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SOURCE: Shetley, Vernon. “The State of Poetry.” Partisan Review 64, no. 4 (fall 1997): 674-76.
[In the following excerpt, Shetley enthuses about Heaney's “sensitive” perspective on contemporary poetics in The Redress of Poetry.]
In his criticism, T. S. Eliot once asserted, a poet “is always trying to defend the kind of poetry he is writing, or to formulate the kind that he wants to write.” Far from deploring this lack of disinterestedness, Eliot felt that the critical writings of poets “owe a great deal of their interest” to this implicit self-reference, and no doubt many readers are led to Seamus Heaney's prose out of a desire to learn more about the writer of the poems. A good deal about Heaney's poetics is to be learned, if somewhat obliquely, in The Redress of Poetry; readers will also find that the qualities of sympathy, generosity, and curiosity that mark his poetry are equally on display in Heaney's prose. Readers who come to Heaney's essays to learn more about their writer will find themselves led outward by his sensitive appreciations to new worlds of poetic pleasure.
The gates to pleasure, though, in our moment seem guarded by some severe angels indeed, and Heaney clearly feels he must take cognizance of them at the outset. The volume's first essay, which shares its title, sees poetry pressured between the immediacy of political demands, and the...
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SOURCE: Hosmer, Jr., Robert Ellis. “Poetry Roundup.” America 177, no. 20 (20 December 1997): 23-9.
[In the following excerpt, Hosmer assesses the style and theme of The Spirit Level.]
Most of Heaney's poetry is eminently accessible. His latest collection, The Spirit Level, is no exception. Open the book at random, say to “A Brigid's Girdle” or “The Gravel Walks,” and you're immediately drawn in effortlessly to worlds both new and familiar. The language is clear as fresh rainwater and clean as crisply laundered linen, the structure polished, the moment lived through, without seam or crack visible.
Heaney's verse is also richly musical, a mixture of the idioms of home country speech, Christian hymns and the learned diction of European humanistic literature, all somehow “naturally” blended into lines of striking rhythm and clarity. In simple objects—clay, straw, an old sofa, a 56-lb. weight, a whitewash brush—history and meaning reside. In “Mint,” Heaney's eye lights upon the often unnoticed—a cluster of mint, “unverdant ever, almost beneath notice”—and sees in it an image that embraces “the disregarded we turned against / Because we'd failed them by our own disregard.” As Craig Raine has noted, Heaney's eye is so sharp, his ability to describe what he sees so powerfully precise, that “the actual comes to seem marvelous.” Heaney's verse...
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SOURCE: Greenlaw, Lavinia. “Seeing and Believing.” New Statesman 127, no. 4403 (18 September 1998): 54.
[In the following review, Greenlaw praises the poetry of Opened Ground, summarizing Heaney's achievements from Death of a Naturalist to the present.]
Opened Ground, as Seamus Heaney says in a prefacing note, is neither a selected poems nor a collected. Twice the size of his New Selected Poems: 1966-1987, it includes subsequent work, some uncollected pieces, dramatic excerpts and his Nobel address, an illuminating essay that reflects on “a journey into the wideness of the world … into the wideness of language.” It is worth these 500 pages to be able to trace that journey's ripples and backwash; to see how Heaney's poems call to, question and answer one another; how he turns his subjects over and over, angling and reexamining them with the self-effacing scrutiny of Elizabeth Bishop, her “tipping / Of an object toward the light.”
Heaney's poetry is rooted in the rural Northern Ireland of his childhood. It is an unusually defined place to stand, and dense, complicated ground to open. In his first collection, The Death of a Naturalist (1966), the place is its own horizon resulting in a pressure that Heaney counters with a pressure of his own—a palpable, muscular language. This is no stand-off but the beginning of an active engagement: he...
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SOURCE: Pratt, William. Review of Opened Ground, by Seamus Heaney. World Literature Today 73, no. 3 (summer 1999): 534.
[In the following review, Pratt highlights the influence of Ireland and Irish culture in the poems of Opened Ground.]
Ireland is a country of only about four million people, but in this century it has produced four Nobel Prize winners in literature: Yeats, Shaw, Beckett, and Heaney. To average one world-famous writer for every million people is a record that makes a small nation like Ireland seem singularly blessed. Some might say its literary blessing comes at the price of a political curse, since the island has long been one of the world's trouble spots. The political curse, however, has often been a boon to Irish writers. “Out of Ireland have we come / Great hatred, little room,” Yeats once remarked poetically. And James Joyce, a voluntary exile, the one indisputably great Irish writer never honored by a Nobel Prize, wrote even more bitterly about his native land, “Ireland is the old sow that eats her farrow.”
Heaney can be every bit as scathing as Yeats or Joyce about the Irish character, “we slaughter for the common good,” he says in one of his poems. But his gift for language, combined with his frequent quarrels with his native land, have earned him his place in the distinguished line of Irish writers. The quarrels seem more evident in the...
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SOURCE: Desmond, John F. “Measures of a Poet.” America 181, no. 3 (31 July 1999): 24-5.
[In the following review, Desmond outlines Heaney's career through the poems in Opened Ground.]
In his 1995 Nobel Prize address, “Crediting Poetry,” Seamus Heaney defined lyric poetry as the creating of an order of reality that is both “true to the impact of external reality and … sensitive to the inner laws of the poet's being.” Heaney's definition is self-revealing in that it expresses the basic tensions in his own poetry, his struggle to balance the grim actualities of history against the deeply felt impulses toward lyric delight.
Heaney's struggle, and his lifelong fidelity to both contending elements, is beautifully displayed in his newest collection, Opened Ground: Selected Poems, 1966-1996, which contains representative poems from his 11 published volumes, an excerpt from his play The Cure at Troy and the Nobel Prize address. Heaney's titles are always percussively significant.
“Opened Ground” comes from the first line of the pivotal “Glanmore Sonnets” in his sixth collection, Field Work (1979)—“Vowels ploughed into other: opened ground”—and it points to the vital tension between landscape (history, actuality) and language (visioning, imaginative transformation) that marks all of his work.
The ground in...
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SOURCE: Shippey, Tom. “Beowulf for the Big-Voiced Scullions.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5035 (1 October 1999): 9-10.
[In the following review, Shippey objects to Heaney's use of Irish words derived from Anglo-Saxon, but unfamiliar to most English speakers, in his translation of Beowulf.]
In the 1997 Beowulf Handbook edited by Robert Bjork and John Niles, Marijane Osborn lists some twenty full or partial English translations of Beowulf, and that is by no means a complete list. Some have been produced by distinguished scholars (J. R. Clark Hall and C. L. Wrenn, E. T. Donaldson, Constance Hieatt), some by rated poets (Edwin Morgan, Burton Raffel, Kevin Crossley-Holland, Michael Alexander). And all this is now immaterial. Seamus Heaney is a Nobel Prize-winner; his translation of the poem was commissioned for and is going straight into The Norton Anthology of English Literature; set for virtually every introductory course in English on the North American continent (and all undergraduates have to take them, not just English majors); and he is a Northern Irish Catholic, one of the excluded, a poet in internal exile. All this, within the power poker of American academe, gives him something like a straight flush, ace high; to which any reviewer must feel he can oppose no more than two pairs, and aces and eights at that, the Dead Man's Hand. Like it or not, Heaney's...
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SOURCE: Howe, Nicholas. “Scullionspeak.” New Republic 222, no. 9 (28 February 2000): 32-7.
[In the following review, Howe singles out the humanity and energy of the narrative speeches in Heaney's translation of Beowulf, but concedes that Heaney's use of Ulster idiom is inappropriate since he does not fully re-invent the tale in terms of Anglo-Irish relations.]
For all that it seems to begin English literature, Beowulf is a relative newcomer to the canon. First edited by a Danish scholar in 1815, the year of Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo and Jane Austen's Emma, the poem as a whole was not translated into Modern English until 1837. In subsequent years, Beowulf has found numerous translators, many of them scholars and few of them possessing any poetic gift. Of the sixty or so translators who have done the complete poem into English, only two have had any larger literary reputation. William Morris published a version in 1892; and C. K. Scott-Moncrieff, the English translator of Proust, published a version in 1921. But their talents lay elsewhere, and neither produced a Beowulf that can be read today with pleasure or even much comprehension.
That the poem made it into the canon, much less into the cliché “from Beowulf to Virginia Woolf,” is something of a miracle. Unlike most European epics, this poem exists in a...
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SOURCE: Campbell, Colin. “This Old Dragon Still Breathes Fire.” Christian Science Monitor 92, no. 99 (13 April 2000): 15-16.
[In the following review, Campbell praises Heaney for making Beowulf accessible to twenty-first-century students, using his verses as a bridge between the original text and modern English.]
Speaking from the 6th century across 1,400 years of tempestuous history, what does Beowulf, the high-minded king of the Geats, have to teach us as we strive to outmaster the Grendels and dragons of our own place and time?
But first, another question that springs from my admiration for the Beowulf saga as a work of art: How did he do it? How did Seamus Heaney fashion verses, singularly handsome verses that not only capture the somber grandeur and mythic vigor of the Anglo-Saxon original, but also reflect the rhythm and timbre of the English we speak today?
The answer to this question you must find for yourself by reading the epic, which I urge you to do. Fashioned by an Irish poet of surpassing power, this newborn translation makes accessible to everyone the first supremely great poem to be written in the English language.
Beowulf was composed about the year 700. Because of linguistic fossils embedded in the West Saxon dialect of the manuscript in which the epic has come down to us, we conjecture that its unknown...
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SOURCE: Boly, John. “Following Seamus Heaney's ‘Follower’: Toward a Performative Criticism.” Twentieth Century Literature 46, no. 3 (fall 2000): 269-84.
[In the following essay, Boly applies speech act theory to construct multiple modes of meaning and layers of reality for the main persona in Heaney's poem “Follower.”]
Readers of Seamus Heaney's poetry may remember the scene in “Follower” when the father, hard at work with spring ploughing, interrupts his task to reach down, pick up his little boy, and set him on his shoulders. It is an intimate detail made poignant by the speaker's point of view; now an adult, he recollects a moment in childhood shared with a father who has passed away.1 Composed altogether of nine such scenes, the poem serves as a funerary monument. The father and horse plough appear first, much as would the central figure of a classical frieze, and then supporting scenes encircle them: the father adjusting the coulter, pivoting the team, striding about the farm with his son following. As would be expected from the shallow depths of a bas-relief, there is no background. Though set in the bloom of an Irish spring, the poem makes no mention of wildflowers, birdsongs, the rich odors of wet steel, freshly turned earth, and weathered tack. Instead, a sculptural austerity prevails. A few clicks of the ploughman's tongue and the massive draft surge against the...
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SOURCE: Murphy, Bruce. “Seamus Heaney's Beowulf.” Poetry 177 (December 2000): 211-16.
[In the following review, Murphy evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of Heaney's translation of Beowulf.]
The Anglo-Saxon scholar Jess Bessinger used to refer to the poem we call Beowulf as the libretto of a lost musical composition. He wanted to draw attention to the fact that the Anglo-Saxon scop, in whom the roles of singer and poet were not yet divided, probably recited this alliterative and mesmerizing poem while accompanying himself on a harp. It is, therefore, an event when the poet of the English language with the best ear of any now living tackles the task of translating this enormously important work. The poem was composed in the West Saxon dialect probably in the seventh century; the unique manuscript copy that survives was made around the end of the tenth. Where it spent the centuries between the turn of the millennium and 1563, when the early Anglo-Saxon enthusiast Lawrence Nowell apparently wrote his name and the date at the top of it, is a mystery.
But what is certain is that Beowulf long ago fell into the same hole that, for Americans, Moby Dick occupies: being a book that everyone “has” to read. Generations of students encountered the poem in nineteenth-century translations like this one by Francis Gummere:
Lo, praise of the...
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SOURCE: Pratt, William. Review of Beowulf, translated by Seamus Heaney. World Literature Today 75, no. 1 (winter 2001): 119-20.
[In the following review, Pratt champions Heaney's fresh approach to the language of Beowulf.]
The oldest epic in English comes to us anew, like a voice out of the cave of our ancestors. It greets us in the original Anglo-Saxon with Hwaet, usually translated as “Lo!” or “Behold!” but liberally transformed by Seamus Heaney into “So,” which he says he heard when he was a boy on a farm in Ulster, when his family and their friends wanted to start a conversation. “So. We Spear-Danes in days gone by,” his translation begins, and the reader knows immediately that for Heaney this Old English epic is not distant but familiar. Personal intimacy with the past is Seamus Heaney's trademark as a poet, and it gives his translation of Beowulf authenticity, making it an integral part of his own work, not something encountered in a schoolroom and learned in a foreign tongue.
Seamus Heaney's Beowulf has become an international bestseller, surprising everyone including himself, but its popularity is justified, since it is the most accessible version in modern English, which is now a world language. Reading it in a bilingual version, with strange-looking Old English characters on one page and Heaney's well-known Hiberno-English on the...
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SOURCE: Bolton, Jonathan. “‘Customary Rhythms’: Seamus Heaney and the Rite of Poetry.” Papers on Language and Literature 37, no. 2 (spring 2001): 205-22.
[In the following essay, Bolton analyzes the means and ends of Heaney's poetics, as exemplified by the structure and thematic concerns of what Bolton identifies as Heaney's “station poems.”]
Ceremony's a name for the rich horn And custom for the spreading laurel tree.
—W. B. Yeats, “A Prayer for My Daughter”
Near the conclusion of his Nobel Prize address, Crediting Poetry, Seamus Heaney speaks of two kinds of “adequacy” ascribable to poetry: “documentary adequacy” and “lyric adequacy.” The former has to do with the impact and emotive power of description and is as old as Homer's account of the Fall of Troy. “Even today, three thousand years later,” Heaney says, “as we channel surf over so much live coverage of contemporary savagery, highly informed but in danger of growing immune … Homer's image can still bring us to our senses. … [It] has that documentary adequacy which answers all that we know about the intolerable” (49). The second kind of adequacy has to do with the poetic process itself, what Heaney calls “‘the temple inside our hearing’ which the passage of the poem calls into being” (49). This interior space is the domain of national conscience and...
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SOURCE: Newey, Adam. “A Scratchy Woollen Jumper That Doesn't Quite Fit.” New Statesman 130, no. 4533 (15 April 2001): 53-4.
[In the following review, Newey offers a negative assessment of Electric Light, noting that “the compressed textures of the language tak[es] primacy over just about everything else.”]
All those grant-givers, Arts Council grandees, intellectual-wannabe celebs and assorted boosters who, every so often (usually around Poetry Day), crawl out of whatever piece of bureaucratic woodwork they normally inhabit to proclaim that poetry in Britain has never been more vibrant, diverse and popular should remember two things: that Britain's greatest living poet is actually a soi-disant Irishman, and that, of all sales of poetry books by living writers in Britain, the same man. Seamus Heaney, alone accounts for almost two-thirds.
Those two factlets spell a grave crisis in British poetry. The latter for fairly obvious reasons: because of its perennially low sales figures, poetry is desperately unattractive to bookshops, which naturally prefer to stick with established authors: and while the number and quality of reviews for new poetry in the mainstream press have declined to the point of invisibility, publishers are failing to back up their books with decent PR. When was the last time you walked past a Waterstone's or Borders and saw some grand point-of-sale...
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SOURCE: Mariani, Paul. “The Mother Tongue.” America 184, no. 14 (23-30 April 2001): 25-6.
[In the following review, Mariani celebrates the influence of both famous and non-famous authors on the poems in Electric Light.]
Because Seamus Heaney and I are of an age, and because he has been my secret talisman and guide now for over 30 years, he an Irish Catholic from Derry, I a mongrel Catholic from New York, every book he has published since his first, Death of a Naturalist, has been an event for me. The question I keep asking myself is how he has done it and continues to do it. Each new book offers new surprises, and these take time to digest and absorb. Surprises in terms of language, in terms of metaphor, in terms of new gains in poetic consciousness, Electric Light is no exception.
Three books of critical prose, a play and this—his 17th book of poetry (if you include his two Selected Poems and his masterful translation of Beowulf). It's a Janus-faced book, elegiac, heartbreaking even, like Heaney's friend and predecessor, Robert Lowell, in his posthumous Day by Day, published in his 61st year. Here's Heaney, the world-trotting poet among his fellow poets—Rafael Alberti, Caj Westerburg, Hans Magnus Enzenburger at the Struga Poetry Festival in Macedonia in 1978; here too that Harvard Nestor, Robert Fitzgerald, as well as two of his poet-friends,...
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SOURCE: Mangan, Gerald. “Like Peat-Smoke Mulling.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5118 (4 May 2001): 24.
[In the following review, Mangan praises Heaney's impeccable pairing of words to things and his ability to elevate poetry to the level of myth or religion in Electric Light.]
Seamus Heaney has mapped out his own territory so clearly and thoroughly, over the past thirty-odd years, that we are liable to fall into the comforting illusion of knowing him from every angle, as if he were already a sort of walking monument. He paces the same ground habitually, with all the sharp-eyed fondness of a crofter inspecting a fertile inheritance; and he is constantly enriched by the mineral resources he finds under his feet. But he has never ceased to expand, and his very rootedness allows him to absorb the most far-fetched influences without fear of changing shape. Although bounded in a nutshell and a prey to occasional bad dreams, he behaves increasingly like a king of infinite space; and his tribute to Auden in this new collection might now be applied aptly enough to himself: “The definite growth-rings of genius rang in his voice.”
The core of those growth-rings is of course Mossbawn, the County Derry farm of his childhood, where the sap of inspiration seems to rise without fail; and Electric Light reminds us how readily he will retire into that centre of his imagination, when he...
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SOURCE: Oser, Lee. Review of Electric Light, by Seamus Heaney. World Literature Today 76, no. 1 (winter 2002): 110-11.
[In the following review, Oser offers a positive assessment of Electric Light.]
Like all of Seamus Heaney's work, Electric Light owns up to a modernist inheritance. Anyone who argues that modernism is merely an extension of romantic poetry will not understand where Heaney starts or where he might lead us. It is not merely the case that Heaney adopts the form and diction of the High Modernists—Yeats, Eliot, Pound, Joyce, and Auden (as well as Robert Lowell, their immediate heir)—but that he partakes of their problems, most specifically the task of establishing a voice in the face of distinct conditions: coming late in a culture, being massively learned, being exposed to multiple pasts and violent histories, knowing many languages, and facing the withering self-consciousness of modern man. In the face of unrelenting displacement from a simpler, more traditional life, to forge a style is to confront the cosmos nakedly, in an unironic manner, whether you find your salvation in art or religion. Heaney continues to find it in both.
Not to be ungrateful to a poet whom I warmly admire, I find Electric Light to be just a touch complacent. In particular, Heaney's line is sometimes a little too lazy for my taste. Craving an urgent or a patient mastery, I...
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SOURCE: Taylor, John. Review of Electric Light, by Seamus Heaney. Poetry 179, no. 5 (February 2002): 296-98.
[In the following review, Taylor appreciates Heaney's examination of the past in Electric Light, but laments the poet's apparent emotional distance from his subjects.]
Although Seamus Heaney includes fine lines celebrating landscape in Electric Light, this is not his most impressive collection. Several bookish poems enfeeble the overall impact of a volume comprising, even more than descriptive nature poetry, some engaging, thought-provoking reminiscence. This irregularity is a pity. The Irish poet's particular way of looking back merits attention. One wishes that he had produced a more unified collection devoted to recovering vanished events from his past.
He notably attempts, as an aging man, to re-experience childhood and early-adulthood perceptions in all their sensate fullness. When (in the opening poem) he looks down at water “pouring over the weir out of Lough Neagh,” he recalls a few telling incidents associated with the site. He then significantly yearns for the “slime and silver of the fattened eel” to reappear—a manifold symbol moreover involving his desire to enjoy “as once before” this synaesthetic perception. When a poet willingly seeks out this state of consciousness, wherein the past becomes present, and when he furthermore makes...
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SOURCE: Glover, Michael. “A Force for Good.” Spectator 288, no. 9061 (6 April 2002): 32.
[In the following review, Glover offers a positive assessment of Finders Keepers: Selected Prose, noting that Heaney's poetry and criticism “has helped to keep the craft of poetry on the right, tight track.”]
Another year, another Heaney, ho-hum. I counted up 20-odd titles on the shelf just now. And this time it's not exactly a new book either. This hefty doorstop [Finders Keepers: Selected Prose] takes in material from three earlier collections of his prose published by Faber over the last three decades: Preoccupations, The Government of the Tongue and The Redress of Poetry. All these books were an appealing mixture of autobiographical reminiscence and literary criticism (the second and third were edited transcriptions of whole series of lectures)—and, unsurprisingly, that's pretty well what the new one is too.
Of course, there's some extra stuff—no self-respecting editor would want Heaney's old and faithful readers to go away gnashing their teeth and feeling cheated, would they?—a few more lectures, some reviews, various appreciations of writers … And a bit more about the relationship between literature, language and politics too this time, a subject about which Heaney has been a touch reticent in the past.
It's difficult to...
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Cho, Christina. Review of Finders Keepers: Selected Prose, by Seamus Heaney. New York Times Book Review (6 October 2002): section 7, p. 33.
Cho compliments Heaney's devotion to language as evidenced in the material collected in Finders Keepers.
Hall, Jason. “Heaney's ‘Requiem for the Croppies.’” Explicator 61, no. 1 (fall 2002): 56-60.
Hall offers a critical assessment of Heaney's early sonnet “Requiem for the Croppies.”
Heaney, Seamus. “From Beowulf.” American Poetry Review 29, no. 1 (January-February 2000): 21-5.
Heaney discusses how his personal history merges with the history of Beowulf in his translation, describing his methods for ensuring that the translation remained true to both histories.
Wills, Clair. “On the See-Saw.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5170 (3 May 2002): 25.
Wills praises the collection of material in Finders Keepers, noting that “[t]he common thread is a spontaneous, insistent relating of poetry to his own experience.”
Additional coverage of Heaney's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: British Writers Retrospective Supplement, Vol. 1; British Writers Supplement, Vol. 2; Concise...
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