The poems in this volume strike out in many directions, and the author’s stylistic resourcefulness and agility are on full display. The collection is only partly brought together by its central theme; this is balance, and moderation—or the lack of moderation. At first glance, balance might appear a bit abstract, yet in Heaney’s hands the notion becomes an exciting and challenging theme of exploration. It is by no means a sanctimonious or static concept; it is tested, ironically mocked, and even rejected in the poem “Weighing In,” which is about the need to participate in struggle and conflict, not to assume a passive or pacifistic stance of standing aside. The poem posits the need to give blows, but—-and here lies the drama of the poem—a certain kind of blows. These turn out to be the “blows” of real balance, or moderation. The notion of balance, and the difficulty in achieving it, forms the background of most poems in The Spirit Level, and frequently it moves into the foreground. The title poem, “The Errand,” describes a game with a carpenter’s level—the “spirit level” containing a bubble—and it is a metaphor for the notion of balance.
Only a few poems in The Spirit Level directly explore the conflicts of Northern Ireland, yet these are central to the volume. It is impossible to understand Heaney’s concern with the notion of balance without referring to the context of groups of people who are at each other’s throats. Returning from New York to Belfast, a man on a train recognizes the poet and reproaches him, confronting him directly. The episode is described in the poem “The Flight Path”:
So he enters and sits down
Opposite and goes for me head-on.
‘When, for f——’s sake, are you going to write
Something for us?’ If I do write something,
Whatever it is, I’ll be writing for myself.’
And that was that. Or words to that effect.
Much of what Heaney means by “balance” can be seen in this passage, and in its tone, or tones. “Words to that effect” is modest and self-deprecating; many of the poems in this collection contain similar ironical, throw-away phrases. The notion of balance applies to Heaney’s whole poetic style—it is a sustained juggling act combining passion and seriousness on the one hand, and humor and self-deprecating irony on the other.
Heaney was born about thirty miles north of Belfast. In his poetry and criticism he rarely uses labels such as “Catholic” or “Protestant,” and he wrote in his 1995 collection of essays, The Redress of Poetry : “I grew up in the minority in Northern Ireland and was educated within the dominant British culture. My identity was emphasized rather than eroded by being maintained in such circumstances.” Heaney writes from personal knowledge of the nationalist and religious passions of Northern Ireland. These are among the central experiences that mark the end of the twentieth century, and our contemporary period has been called with some truth a time of fundamentalism; the conflicts of Northern Ireland have been echoed elsewhere—in Bosnia, the Middle East, Africa, and much of the world. Unfortunately they are universal.
Ever since the late 1960’s, Heaney has explored fundamentalist and nationalist passions, most notably in his 1975 collection of poems entitled North. In the fine meditative poem “The Flight Path” included inThe Spirit Level, Heaney imagines that his situation is comparable to that of Dante in exile. Heaney also follows Virgil, and is pursued by a timeless zealot:
When he had said all this, his eyes rolled
And his teeth, like a dog’s teeth clamping round a bone,
Bit into the skull and again took hold.
Since 1985, Heaney has continued to live half the year in Ireland, where he lives in Dublin, and half in the United States, where he is Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard University. Some of the poems in his new collection are written for specific occasions; and some are like expanded metaphors. Yet his concerns and themes are very much like those of his previous volumes. The opening of the poem “Weighing In” is apparently about lifting weights, the cast-iron disks balanced on a crossbar. Yet this is not the notion of balance that Heaney really has in mind. The poem enters a new domain of balance and the necessary participation in deep conflict where no one can remain unaffected, where sanctimonious moralism is impossible, hypocritical, and false. The poem’s speaker comments dryly:
And this is all the good tidings amount to:
This principle of bearing, bearing up
And bearing out, just having to
Balance the intolerable in others
Against our own, having to abide
Whatever we settled for and settled into
Against our better judgment. Passive
(The entire section is 2062 words.)