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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1996

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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 become Wilde the convict. . . . The master of the light touch came to submit to the heaviness of being and came, as a result, to leave his fingerprints on a great subject.” This seems to contradict the earlier descriptions of what “redress” poetry might offer and to make a special claim for Wilde on nonaesthetic grounds. It is difficult to see how the change in Wilde’s condition led to an increase in his art. Instead, it seems to have brought out unfortunate elements that had been hidden under the brilliant surface of Wilde’s earlier writing.

The chapter on Hugh MacDiarmid looks at his poetry as a whole. Heaney discusses MacDiarmid’s poetic conversion, when he changed his English poems into “synthetic Scots.” Heaney praises some of the early poems, but he focuses on “A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle.” The thistle is, of course, the national emblem of Scotland. MacDiarmid treats it with typical irreverence as he creates a long list of Scottish heroes and declares, “Upon the thistle they’re impaled”; so Scotland has from its early years rejected those who were most valuable to it. Heaney calls the poem a mixture of “passion and irreverence” and a “masterpiece,” although he does not discuss its language or form in any detail. In contrast, Heaney believes that the later poems of MacDiarmid, which were written in English after his conversion to communism, are failures. The failure is attributable to MacDiarmid’s losing touch with his roots and the language that had spurred his creativity. He replaced this dialect with a grand and universal political solution that hobbled his poetry.

The chapter on Dylan Thomas attempts to discover what part of Thomas’ poetry has long-lasting value. Heaney claims that the earliest poems of Thomas are among his greatest achievements. Those poems have an exuberance in language that fits his descriptions of a union with nature and have a “pre-lapsarian wholeness.” Yet when Thomas continued to use these stylistic mannerisms in his middle age, they became, according to Heaney, tiresome and unconvincing. He sees only one late poem that suggests a development in style and theme: the villanelle called “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night.” There Thomas came to terms with death and age, themes that had been absent from his early and middle poems. Heaney suggests that Thomas’ most famous poems, “Fern Hill” and “Poem in October,” have the same sense of loss found in Wordsworth; however, Thomas did not, according to Heaney, grow beyond that loss into the “philosophic mind,” as William Wordsworth did in “Ode: Intimations of Immortality.” Heaney ends the essay by suggesting that a number of poems by Thomas will last and become permanent parts of the poetic tradition.

The chapter on Philip Larkin’s “Aubade” is the most disturbing and controversial one in the book. Heaney compares Larkin’s poem to “The Man and the Echo” by William Butler Yeats. He finds that Larkin’s poem is depressing, even though it exhibits great poetic skill. Heaney quotes Czesław Miłosz’s negative reaction to the poem in support of his own. He especially praises Yeats’s ability to bring out opposite points of view on humanity’s final fate and to keep the mind’s “options” open. In contrast, Larkin takes a single-minded position: People die, and religion or friends are no consolation. Yet as Helen Vendler has said, “What is irremediable needs recognition too.” Larkin’s “Aubade” presents that grim point of view fully and powerfully. It is a great poem that is at least the equal of Yeats’s, and one that speaks directly to the human condition at the end of the twentieth century. Heaney decides the case on his dislike of the uncompromising treatment of death in Larkin’s poem and not its aesthetic value. This is, once more, a contradiction of his stated position on the primary values of poetry.

The chapter on Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry is unusual in that it begins with a consideration of one of her short stories, “The Scream.” The story is told from the perspective of a little girl. She is delighted to hear the sound of the blacksmith’s anvil. In contrast, the scream of the title is of the girl’s mother, who sinks into a permanent state of madness after the death of her husband. Heaney sees the “redress” that art can create in the ending of the story. The girl pleads for another sound: “Nate!/ Oh, beautiful sound, strike again.” The sound on Nate’s anvil is, for Heaney, an analogy to poetry. Moreover, Bishop’s preoccupation with loss and finding ways of dealing with it can be seen in many of her poems. Heaney singles out her villanelle “One Art” as one of the finest examples of that practice. “There the scream was subsumed in the anvil note; here the disaster is absorbed when it meets its emotional and phonetic match in the word ‘master.’” In this chapter, Heaney is sensitive to the details of the poem as well as the way redress can be achieved in poetry of a high order.

In the last chapter in the book, “Frontiers of Writing,” Heaney discusses the political and literary situation in Ireland after the troubles in Northern Ireland and the renewal of bombing by the Irish Republican Army (IRA). His solution is to find a unity in the diversity of Ireland. He suggests that the form of a “quincunx” can bring together “five towers.” The first tower is at the center of Ireland, in its “original insular dwelling.” The others, which are arranged around it, are those of James Joyce, Edmund Spenser, Louis MacNeice, and William Butler Yeats. Such an Ireland is Protestant and Catholic, modern and ancient, and includes the aristocracy, the peasantry, and the urban dweller. It is an Ireland of the imagination, one that can overcome all sectarian divisions.

The defense of poetry is a genre that goes back at least as far as Aristotle. Its most common claim is that literature both teaches and delights. Heaney comes down squarely on the side of delight. That insistence on delight, however, does not exhaust the wide range of functions that poetry has in Heaney’s formulation. For him, poetry must first of all delight; it then has some restorative power, suggested by the various meanings of “redress.”

The breadth of Heaney’s vision makes this one of the most useful and elegant statements on what poetry can do. In addition, his defense comes at a time when the delight to be found in poetry is little championed in criticism. Cultural and deconstructive criticism have ignored or distorted the formal elements of poetry that Heaney calls to our attention so eloquently.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCII, November 15, 1995, p. 530.

Boston Globe. November 16, 1995, p. 67.

The Guardian. September 15, 1995, p. 5.

Library Journal. CXX, November 1, 1995, p. 64.

The Nation. CCLXI, December 4, 1995, p. 716.

The New Yorker. LXXI, October 23, 1995, p. 84.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLII, October 30, 1995, p. 52.

The Spectator. CCLXXV, September 16, 1995, p. 39.

The Times Literary Supplement. October 20, 1995, p. 9.