Almost from the beginning of his poetic career, Seamus Heaney gained public recognition for poems rooted deep in the soil of Northern Ireland and flowering in subtle rhythms and nuanced verbal melodies. In many respects, he pursues a return to poetry’s foundations in Romantic meditations on nature and explorations of the triple relationship among words, emotions, and the imagination. Heaney’s distinctive quality as a poet is that he is at once parochial and universal, grounded in particular localities and microcultures yet branching out to touch every reader. Strangely, this unusual “here and everywhere” note remains with him even when he changes the basic subject matter of his poetry, as he has done frequently. His command of what William Blake called “minute particularity” allows him to conjure up a sense of the universal even when focusing on a distinct individuality—to see “a world in a grain of sand.” He makes the unique seem familiar. Because his success at this was recognized early, he was quickly branded with the label “greatest Irish poet since Yeats”—an appellation that, however laudatory, creates intolerable pressure and unrealizable expectations. Neo-Romantic he certainly is, but not in William Butler Yeats’s vein; Heaney is less mythic, less apocalyptic, less mystical, and much more material and elemental.
In many respects Heaney’s art is conservative, especially in technique. Unlike the forms of the iconoclastic leading poets of the first half of the twentieth century—T. S. Eliot, E. E. Cummings, Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound,William Carlos Williams, andDylan Thomas—Heaney’s meters, figures, diction, and textures are all relatively straightforward. Also in contrast, his poetry is not “difficult” as theirs was; his sentences generally employ standard syntax. Nevertheless, he is a master technician with an ear for fine and subtle verbal melodies. Instead of breaking with the past, his poems much more often depend on forging links; his music often harks back to that of William Wordsworth, John Milton, or Edmund Spenser. However, his diction is common and Irish as well as formal and English. Colloquial speech patterns of the brogue often counterpoint stately cadences of British rhetoric. The combination produces a varied music, blending the different strains in his personal history and in the history of his people and his region. His best poems ring in the memory with echoes of modulated phrase and evocative sound patterns. He has probed the Irish conscience and discovered a way to express it in the English language, to render the Irish soul afresh.
Death of a Naturalist
Heaney’s first book, Death of a Naturalist, laid the groundwork for his achievement. Centered firmly in the country scenes of his youth, these poems declare both his personal heritage from generations of Irish farm laborers and his emancipation from it, acquired by the mastery of a foreign tradition, the literature of the English. His art is Irish in origins and inspiration and English by training. The result is a surprisingly uniform and rich amalgam that incorporates much of Ulster’s complex mix of cultures. The poems become what Heaney at the time hoped was possible for his region: the preservation of both Irish and English traditions by a fusion that transcended either of them separately.
“Digging,” a celebrated poem from this volume, illustrates this idea. It memorializes the typical work he associated with his father’s and grandfather’s generations (and, by implication, those of their ancestors): cutting turf, digging. He deliberately contrasts their tool of choice, the spade, with his, the pen: “I’ve no spade to follow men like them.” By his instrument, he can raise their labor into art, in the process ennobling them.
“Follower” similarly contrasts his labor with his...
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