Seamus Heaney

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Heaney, Seamus (Vol. 7)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5965

Heaney, Seamus 1939–

Heaney is an award-winning Northern Irish poet.

Of all the newer tight-lipped poets Mr. Heaney is the hardest case, and the tight-lipped critics whose praise is not usually easy to get have been sending quite a lot of approbation his way. His technique is hard-edged: a punchy line travels about two inches. The subject matter is loud with the slap of the spade and sour with the stink of turned earth. Close to the vest, close to the bone and close to the soil. We have learnt already not to look to him for the expansive gesture: there are bitter essences to compensate for the lack of that. Door into the Dark confirms him in his course, its very title telling you in which direction that course lies. I will show you fear in a tinful of bait. It should be said at the outset that poetry as good as Mr. Heaney's best is hard to come by. But it is all pretty desperate stuff, and in those poems where we don't feel the brooding vision to be justified by the customary dense beauty of his technique we are probably in the right to come down hard and send our criticism as close as we can to the man within. The man within is at least in some degree a chooser. If he chose to be slick, to let his finely-worked clinching stanzas fall pat, there would be a new kind of damaging poetry on the way—squat, ugly and unstoppable….

Human characteristics tend to be referred back to animals and objects. As with Ted Hughes, it takes a visit to the zoo, the game reserve, or an imaginary dive below the sod before the idea of personality gets any showing at all. The people themselves are mostly clichés disguised in heroic trappings….

Things live; animals almost live; humans live scarcely at all…. It's a roundabout way for passion to get into print….

The spirits lift to the flash of wit. There ought to be more of it. Nobody in his right mind would deny that Mr. Heaney's is one of the outstanding talents on the scene, or want that talent to settle in its ways too early.

"Fear in a Tinful of Bait," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1969; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), July 17, 1969, p. 770.

The first thing to know about Ireland is it's wet…. Seamus Heaney knows that, and has written a good moist book about Eire [Door into the Dark]—I can see it mildew on my shelf. At least the boards are warping. Wet clay ("It holds and gluts"), eels crossing a road, salmon, peat ("the bogholes might be Atlantic seepage./The wet centre is bottomless"). Even his fairies are undines. A lot of them are magazine poems in the sense that the thinking doesn't go very deep—but the peat does, squishy as a leaky boot. (pp. 98-9)

Gerald Burns, in Southwest Review (© 1970 by Southern Methodist University Press), Winter, 1970.

[In Wintering Out] Heaney has revaluated the powerful picture of rural Northern Irish life he drew in Door into the Dark in more consciously political terms. The poet … doesn't harp on the war, though its background presence is acutely felt. Instead, he has turned his attention to the maintenance of the ancient Irish identity of his people through a renewed appreciation of their own language,… which he feels has been buried under the influence of an imposed, essentially alien culture. (p. 117)

The same incredible precision, originality,...

(This entire section contains 5965 words.)

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and depth of language continue, intensified if anything; but it's as though Heaney had suddenly become aware of a wider audience and other trends in the wind. His pre-occupation with the Ulster tongue involves the adoption of a new interpretive role and a less immediate identification with Irish lifeper se, which may prove a narrowing influence on the work of undoubtedly the most talented younger poet writing in the British Isles. (p. 118)

Jonathan Galassi, in Poetry (© 1973 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), November, 1973.

Seamus Heaney [is] one of a number of poets who seem to have been affected by the 'Nature Poetry' of Ted Hughes, but it would be very unfair to leave the matter like that. Heaney's … books have been better received than all but a few during the past ten years, and what has been noticed has been his verbal and physical precision, fresh eyes and fresh phrases. (p. 82)

The sensuous remembrance of things past in Death of a Naturalist (1966) was personal; almost the whole of the book drew on his own childhood in rural Derry. With Door Into the Dark (1969) he began to move beyond himself, looking for example at 'the mysterious life-cycle of the eel and the compulsive work-cycles in the eel-fishermen's life' in 'A Lough Neagh Sequence'. In Wintering Out (1972) there is a frequent return to a remote past, of Ireland and of prehistoric man. (p. 83)

Anthony Thwaite, in his Poetry Today 1960–1973 (© Anthony Thwaite; Longman Group Ltd., for the British Council), British Council, 1973.

[What] Tomlinson finds in water and music, Heaney finds in an Irish peninsula: a place where metaphor and reality meet, a cue, a touchstone:

    … now you will uncode all landscapes     By this: things founded clean on their own shapes,     Water and ground in their extremity.

A landscape interprets landscapes: no allegory is to intrude. That cleanness of things on their own shapes is very much the mark of Heaney's work, which evokes a hard, mainly rural life with a rare exactness. This is truer of his earlier volumes (Death of a Naturalist and Door into the Dark) than of [later ones], where we see him groping for themes, far less poised and precise than before, and a good deal shallower. There is an insistence now on the sounds of Irish names … as if the sounds were all the poet had left. And while this may be a moving plight, it is moving because a poet can't go very far on names that won't call up realities behind them. Lost potent musks lead straight back to the Celtic twilight.

Michael Wood, in Parnassus (copyright © by Parnassus: Poetry in Review), Spring/Summer, 1974, pp. 50-1.

Heaney's Wintering Out [is] among the most important books of poetry published recently in the British Isles. Wintering Out continues to explore in directions determined in his first two volumes. In Death of a Naturalist (1966), he declared that poetry is a substitute for his childhood practice of spying into "the dark drop" of wells and into ditches…. Heaney retains a Romanticist's interest in identifying the self in the perceived experience, while attempting to make a direct and primitive contact with nature. He gives us what the phenomenologists call a "noematic reflection," a recreation of perception in which we sense the reflected eye as well as the natural object in its fundamentally inhuman essence. Through a rich vocabulary of Anglo-Saxon and Gaelic cognates, he conveys precise sensations of touch and smell and temperature that represent a dense and grainy nature. In his subjects, bog-land half-lives, he is remarkably close to Theodore Roethke's green house poems of 1948, in which that poet rediscovered his relation to primal forms of life, and in his fidelity to the perceived natural object, Heaney parallels Ted Hughes' more single-minded attempts to capture the unique reality of various animals.

Heaney's second volume, Door Into the Dark (1969), advanced his lyric skill and his epistemology…. [Many] of Heaney's poems challenge the distinction, which psychologists call our ego-boundary, between ourselves and our excrescences, between our animated flesh and contiguous but alien life.

Of the volume's finest poems, "The Outlaw," "In Gallarus Oratory," "The Wife's Tale," and "Bogland," the latter summons Irish poetry from its typical bardic peregrinations to a vertical quest "into the cyclops' eye of a tarn." Influenced by P. V. Glob's Bog People, which he read in 1969, Heaney represents the bog as a repository where the past is rendered contemporaneous with the present—"Butter sunk under/more than a hundred years/Was recovered salty and white"—a modernist assumption that snaps the catena of history. Heaney, Mahon, and Ryan, all of whom have read Glob, have adopted the persona of the archaeologist or the direction of his quest, or a vision of time in which the stria of eras seep and blend. Although Kinsella makes few references to archaeology as such, his myth of "the dark drop"… has remarkable similarities to Heaney's. (pp. 5-6)

The first section [of Wintering Out] explores lost traditions, the individual's relation to the land, and religious, cultural, and linguistic differences between the two Ulster heritages. Heaney would undoubtedly accept Kinsella's argument that "every writer in the Modern world … is the inheritor of a gapped, discontinuous, polyglot tradition."… Yet, in "Anahorish," "Toome," "Broagh," "The Backward Look," "Traditions," and "A New Song," he rummages for some radical connection between the land and the language it nurtures. The tentative resolutions of these poems—that we can achieve "a soft gradient of consonant, vowel…" ("Anahorish") or that Irish vowels will irrigate consonantal English ("A New Song")—are less interesting than the deliberate display of the swirl and suck of vowels which are irreducible articles of Heaney's faith. Enriched by the revival of the Gaelic language and by Clarke's experiments with assonantal patterns in Gaelic poetry, Heaney can rival Hopkins in his ear for vowels and his historical sense of diction. (pp. 6-7)

While this first section of Wintering Out is pervaded by bad weather, the seasonal metaphor implies an eventual spring thaw. In the second section, however, from "Linen Town," to "Veteran's Dream," Heaney places "the back end of a bad year" in contemporary Belfast. Although, in "A Northern Hoard," Heaney promises to find in roots and loam surrogates for suffering humanity, elsewhere in this section he cannot maintain this detachment from the zone of conflict where he is bewildered and where his lines falter and lose faith. His best poems characteristically reside, in Muldoon's phrase, at "pain's edge where we take shelter." (p. 7)

The third section of Wintering Out actually begins with "Augury" the last poem in the book's "Part One." It establishes the tone, which pervades the first five poems of "Part Two," of shared wonder that the spring, awaited in the earlier sections, is now blighted or incongruous with the couple's shrunken, wintry love ("Summer House"). It represents the woman as an unwilling adversary and, thus, introduces the fourth and most complex section of the book….

[He portrays] woman, moved by elemental forces of moon and tide, as antithetical to the pragmatic world of man. In "Shore Woman," as in several other poems, she establishes her margin, here between the sea of violent, sexual anarchy and the land she overshadows: "And I'm walking the firm margin. White pocks/Of cockle, blanched roofs of clam and oyster/Hoard the moonlight, woven and unwoven/Off the bay." She concludes, "I have rights on this fallow avenue,/A membrane between moonlight and my shadow." (p. 8)

["Maighdean Mara," the most successful poem in Wintering Out,] may seem too contrived and artificial, a charge that can be answered on two bases. The poem has the effect of a ballad or other basically oral forms where artifice—rhyme and refrain—serves only to emphasize some undigested fact, whose mystery no abstraction can reduce. He achieves this same oral quality in "A Winter's Tale," "Limbo," and "Bye-Child." The source of the mystery in "Maighdean Mara" may be sought in the allusion to The Tempest … in the last two lines of the first stanza. The poem is about a counterspell, a ritual of immersion that breaks the conjuration of love and allows her to return to her natural, inhuman state. We wonder at, as we are threatened by, her beautiful form of non-being: she "doth suffer a sea-change/Into something rich and strange." (p. 9)

The burden of Wintering Out remains on the poems of the fourth section, in which he comes closest to representing a dark, feminine force. Ted Hughes has argued that modern rationalism has, since the seventeenth century, supressed a primal feminine force which was once represented by Venus and then by Mary…. In section four Heaney attempts to depict his non-human force in women. In other sections, through images tactile and olfactory, which operate more radically than metaphor, he suggests the dark vaginal pull of the earth. (p. 10)

Dillon Johnston, in Shenandoah (copyright by Shenandoah; reprinted from Shenandoah: The Washington and Lee University Review with the permission of the Editor), Summer, 1974.

North gives us Seamus Heaney paring things down even more strenuously than in his 1972 volume, Wintering Out, where his current trend away from the earthy approachability of his first two books decisively started. After two very beautiful dedication poems in which words and images are precisely and affectionately married in the old Heaney way ('here is love/like a tinsmith's scoop/sunk past its gleam/in the meal-bin') he is straight into his new zeal to compound the history, the landscape and the violent troubles of his Ireland with a wider northern European experience and render the whole thing in terse, weighted quatrains…. [The] latest Heaney verse is of a kind one stumbles through with respect for the impulsion he feels to make it tough, intricate and riddling rather than pleasure in the end product. Poems like his 'Funeral Rites', which would make prehistoric rituals out of modern funerals, or 'Punishment', about an 'exact/and tribal, intimate revenge', are as difficult and distressing to the reader as they are necessary to the poet. These slow, measured glosses on history and prehistory do seem to make better sense for Heaney than the more direct utterances towards the end of North (with exceptions like 'A Constable Calls'), but it's an uncompromising path he's treading and one hopes this brave and ingenious poet won't let it harden into a habit. (p. 59)

Alan Brownjohn, in New Statesman (© 1975 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), July 11, 1975.

Seamus Heaney's Death of a Naturalist (1966) began with a decisive-looking overture in which the poet finds himself with a pen in his hand rather than the accustomed spade of his ancestors and resolves 'I'll dig with it'. The poems that followed dealt with rural and primitive subjects in a toughly anecdotal and unsentimental way and reviewers—perhaps obscurely reminding themselves of the need of being versed in country things—were more or less unanimous in hailing a vigorous new talent. The vigour and the talent were there, but so also was a certain evasiveness about whether this old-farmer's-coat of a persona, easily earthy and folklorically masculine, was going to suit the poet for very long in his life of verbal delving. There were ironic half-hints at the incompleteness of his satisfaction with easy naturalism (the title poem shows him being horrified by frogs) but no real suggestion of what he might be going to put in its place…. [He] manages to suggest that all the really important things remain to be said without ever actually saying any of them. In his later volumes Heaney continues to rest on this equivocation: there are cheerfully forceful moments … but for the most part Heaney's well-run farm has become badly exhausted without his finding anything new or substantial to move on to. In some poems he has stirred up the language a good deal, but without ever striking down into what begins to look like the nervous blankness beneath his surface simplicities; while declining to settle for the medievally crude psychologising of, say, Ted Hughes, he has not so far managed to reject it either and engage with the subtleties of civilisation. In North, his latest book, the vocabulary and thinking have thickened up … but the emotion seems correspondingly thinned down; instead we get some hesitant foragings into history and archaeology (Viking Ireland) and some ominous first appearances by Hercules, Diana, Actaeon and Co. Heaney begins to sound like a good many other poets who aren't sure where to go next—though it's a relief to find … that he can still call on some of his old directness in dealing with the Ulster conflicts. Whether Heaney's talent will yet carry him into the more distinctively modern areas of the modern world or whether we're in fact witnessing the slow extinction of a poetic naturalist remains to be seen. (p. 61)

Colin Falck, in The New Review (© The New Review Ltd.; 11 Greek Street, London WIV 5LE), August, 1975.

In the earlier poems of North it seems that Heaney's doom is to be "poetic": he is often fatally incapable of direct statement; and many poems perish chasing their own allusive/elusive tails…. As with many Irish poets since the boring Yeats, Heaney's fabulous landscapes and stories simply obscure the real ones and dampen the feeling they are meant to release. Perhaps they are even meant, like absurd theatrical props, to alienate. They succeed. At times even the trees grimace, as someone once said about something.

But as the book progresses so do we. The earlier impression of too many details failing to add up to enough—a common fault of today's daisy-leaf counters—is replaced by a sense of something to say. With few exceptions, Part Two is far better than Part One, and 'Whatever You Say Say Nothing' is very fine…. (p. 315)

Peter Washington, in The Spectator (© 1975 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), September 6, 1975.

I had the uncanny feeling, reading [the poems in North], of listening to the thing itself, the actual substance of historical agony and dissolution, the tragedy of a people in a place: the Catholics of Northern Ireland. Yes, the Catholics: there is no equivalent Protestant voice. Poetry is as unfair as history, though in a different way. Seamus Heaney takes his distances—archaeology, Berkeley, love-hate of the English language, Spain, County Wicklow (not the least distant)—but his Derry is always with him, the ash, somehow, now standing out even more on the forehead….

Many people in Northern Ireland are in the habit of arguing that they 'have nothing against Catholics as such' (or 'Protestants as such', as the case may be). The trouble is that neither lot, in practice, can remain just 'such', they have to be the much more and much less that it means to be Irish Catholics and Ulster Protestants: such-plus and seen as such-plus, inherently hostile and frightening. In these poems of Seamus Heaney's, Protestants are seen as such-plus: a matter of muzzles, masks and eyes. About his own such-plusses he is neither sentimental nor apologetic. (p. 404)

Seamus Heaney's writing is modest, often conversational, apparently easy, low-pitched, companionably ironic, ominous, alert, accurate and surprising. An Irish reader is not automatically reminded of Yeats by this cluster of characteristics, yet an English reader may perhaps see resemblances that are there but overlooked by the Irish—resemblances coming, perhaps, from certain common rhythms and hesitations of Irish speech and non-speech. One may, of course, be reminded, by the subject-matter, of Yeats's 1916 poems and of 'Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen' and 'Meditation in Time of Civil War'…. I am more struck with the differences than the resemblances. Yeats was free to try, and did splendidly try, or try on, different relations to the tragedy: Heaney's relation to a deeper tragedy is fixed and pre-ordained; the poet is on intimate terms with doom, and speaks its language wryly and succinctly:

          I am neither internee nor informer;           An inner émigré, grown long-haired           And thoughtful: a wood-kerne           Escaped from the massacre….

As I read and re-read North, I was reminded, not so much of any other Irish poet, as of one of Rudyard Kipling's most chilling fairy stories, 'Cold Iron'. It is a story in which bright and tender hopes are snuffed out by ineluctable destiny, the hand of Thor. And the way in which Thor makes his presence felt is always 'a slow northeast wind'. (pp. 404-05)

Conor Cruise O'Brien, "A Slow North-East Wind," in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1975; reprinted by permission of Conor Cruise O'Brien), September 25, 1975, pp. 404-05.

Heaney's imagination is as fascinated with language itself as the subjects and concerns which elicit language from him. Since he considers poetry to be "craft", or, in the language of Tel Quel, un travail, it was probably inevitable that Heaney's word-obsession should have grown into a conspicuous part of his past-orientated thematic sweep….

Heaney's is almost a poetry of "felt philology." That poems can be made from fascinations with "word-hoards" far back in the ancestral past, from what he calls "the coffered riches of grammar and declensions", is just as true as the fact that poems can be found anywhere else. What he appears to be doing [in North] is to associate the craft of poetry itself with his identification of a native Irish culture, and the larger Northern civilisation of which it was, or is, a part. (p. 76)

Heaney's merging of the historical with the personal makes it possible for him to engage with the sensation of mysteries ineluctably associated with national culture at a poetically authentic level. One of the most remarkable qualities of his writing is that it is national in the most acceptable sense of the word. There is no deafening chauvinism; his meanings are gently pressed from the background to the front. He saves the reader from having to think about his meanings as "claims" or arguments; instead, they are recognisably parts of poems. (p. 77)

Douglas Dunn, in Encounter (© 1975 by Encounter Ltd.), November, 1975.

Seamus Heaney's new, widely-praised collection [North] has an untypically intelligent blurb (did he write it himself?) which speaks of his discovery of a myth allowing him to cohere the history and landscape of Ireland into a single vision. The workings of that myth, in North, seem to owe something to Black Mountain poetics: there's the same concern with unearthing history from geographical space, an archaeological rather than Romantic-humanist sense of historicity which excavates from the present hidden structures of a past stacked vertically, so to speak, beneath it. (It is interesting, incidentally, to compare this kind of poetic enterprise to the work of the French structuralist historians, not least the writing of Michael Foucault). In North, such spiritual excavation assumes quite literal form: poem after poem focuses on the disinterring from Irish bogs of relics, bones and skeletons which are the remnants of foreign invasions. This is a fertile, deeply productive metaphor for Heaney, for a number of reasons: it licenses, as the blurb suggests, a more totalising vision than he has been capable of before, drawing landscape and history into complex unity; it furnishes the imagery for a self-exploration, as the movement of sinking into the bog becomes symbolic of a meditative psychological return to the roots of personal identity; and it does all this while preserving and deepening the kind of discourse which has always been Heaney's chief poetic strength—the discourse of material Nature itself.

Heaney's poetry has moved gradually away from the direct, sensuous encounters with Nature of the earlier work, towards a natural world which, while still insistently, materially present, is increasingly medicated by verbal categories. And this movement has roughly paralleled what Jon Silkin has termed, not altogether approvingly, the progressive 'deftness' of his poetic technique. In one sense, this double-movement of deftness/meditation reflects the growing remoteness from immediate reality of the professional self-absorbed poet; yet in another sense the very compactness and ellipsis of his formidably sophisticated language intensifies, through its stringent, highly discriminate selections, the sense of material textures…. [There is] a danger of aesthetic ingrownness—a dense, over-compacted savouring of idiosyncratic sound which can touch the point of self-parody…. What Heaney has tried to do, however, is to preempt the dangers of this by turning his lexical and phonetic interests to good use—by allowing the sound and sense-value of certain significant words to open out into cultural and historical perspectives, so that the very act of verbal articulation can become a metaphor of objects, processes, events…. [He attempts] to find in the evolution of words a mode of access to the past, tunneling back through the mutations of speech to retrieve an alien culture. (pp. 77-8)

[Where] North is perhaps most characteristically Irish is in the striking tension between the harshness of its material content and the refining discriminations of its verbal form. The bleak, boggy terrain of these poems is gathered and transmuted by a devotion to the word into a kind of learned ceremony—just as, within the poems themselves, dead, frozen, disjointed things are rescued and revived from the black maw of landscape and history. The Irishness of North seems to me to lie in this conjuncture of material grimness and imaginative grace—to lie there, rather than in the generally inferior pieces offered by the book's second part about contemporary Irish politics. (p. 78)

Terry Eagleton, in Stand (copyright © by Stand), Vol. 17, No. 1, 1975–76.

Seamus Heaney comes from the north of Ireland, and his career has almost exactly coincided with the present span of the "troubles." A crisis like the present Irish one inevitably makes demands, sometimes very crudely, on a poet; and Heaney has recently begun to answer these more forthrightly. His first two books—Death of a Naturalist (1966) and Door into the Dark (1969)—charted the boundaries of a luxuriantly experienced private world. These two more recent books [Wintering Out and North] concede the presence of a large, violent, and public landscape which is inhabited sometimes by Norsemen, sometimes by policemen, as well as by Mr. Heaney himself—now ready, it seems, to enter into a subtly nuanced dialogue with them on the subjects of politics, culture, and poetry. The ancient past and the contemporary present, myth and politics, are in fact analogues for one another in these books. Mr. Heaney is very much in the Irish tradition in that he has learned, more successfully than most, to conceive of his personal experience in terms of his country's history. Even the names of the townlands of County Derry—Anahorish, Toome—lead him directly back to his childhood and into the depths of the area's past history. Accent, etymologies, old ritual murders and invasions, contemporary assassinations and security systems—these and other related elements swarm now more and more thickly, the lethal infusoria in this pellucid verse.

Some of Mr. Heaney's poems are about words, some about bogs and their well-preserved victims, some about love and marriage, some about the social and political tensions of the Irish situation. But these categories, initially useful, finally give way under sustained rereading. The poems express no politics and indeed they flee conceptual formulations with an almost indecent success. Instead they interrogate the quality of the relationship between the poet and his mixed political and literary traditions. The answer is always the same. Relationship is unavoidable, but commitment, relationship gone vulgar, is a limiting risk. Nevertheless commitment is demanded during a crisis, and in a poem like "Exposure," the final poem in North, Mr. Heaney faces the further, less welcoming possibility that poetry is itself a commitment and therefore a limitation too. It is what makes the poet miss the comet, "the once-in-a-lifetime portent." On the other hand the demand to write has come from the public realm. He is called upon to assume responsibility. In doing so, he does not satisfy his critics, for whom his commitment is not of the sort they want; nor does he satisfy himself, for, in attempting to do "the whole job of culture," he may forget to live.

When we look again at the faces rising out of the Norse past or the violent present, we see that they are the most vivid renderings in Mr. Heaney's poetry of a deep sense of estrangement. In Wintering Out he associates himself with outcasts or lost remnants of a tradition, with victims in fact…. Remnants are the core of Heaney's treasure [in North]. What is scattered in the culture is collected in the poetry. His fondness for the word hoard itself and for images or relics of the past bursting out of the skin of the all-preserving peat-bogs would sufficiently indicate this…. Seamus Heaney could be claiming the right [in the title poem "North"] to keep to what he knows; but I think he also means that the retention of such intimacy leads to a more profound deepening of knowledge, a deeper searching in the word-hoard. In the end his varied relationships with his culture are for him a means toward poetry. At the end of every rainbow of association lies the word-hoard.

So he assumes responsibility for language in language. It is a delicate matter since language is bearing the freight of history and tradition and Mr. Heaney is expert in the balancing of this cargo in the sensitive scales of his increasingly flexible verse forms and rhythms…. In North particularly it is notable that many of the poems find voices in which the poet is addressed—for Mr. Heaney wants to hear the sand sift in the hourglass, time's whisper in his Ireland, coming to him in the articulate speech of a poetry implicit in the very artifacts of his world, violently different though it may be from others. In Wintering Out the poem "The Wool Trade" makes the contrast between the speech of the continental culture associated with wool and that of Ireland where the poet finds: "And I must talk of tweed,/A stiff cloth with flecks like blood." (pp. 202-05)

Seamus Deane, in Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1976 by The University of the South), Winter, 1976.

[Heaney's] range has widened through four books in the last 10 years until with North, his latest, old and new gifts are astringently and powerfully realized. There is no point in avoiding the inevitable comparison. Yeats is hardly a presence in his work…, but Heaney has heard a spirit music no less distinct than that of his great predecessor…. [In] truth very little that Yeats said or sang came from contact with the soil of Ireland in any literal sense; had he ever had his hands in it? It is primary with Heaney that he has…. In his 20s he began to find an accurate language, weighted and spare, for a physical universe as intensely given as that of some Ionian speculator pairing, in his wonderment, rough and smooth, soft and hard, dry and moist, hot and cold….

Thence, and tenacious thereof, the life of the mind. Heaney's Irish landscape flickered and reeked from the start with sensibility and a sense of the past, with pathos, fantasy and fear….

Formally simple and conversational, a little clumsy and thick-tongued, Heaney's early poems were carefully guarded against the curse of lilt. None approached the summits of Irish poetry after Yeats, which I take to be Thomas Kinsella's beautiful and bitter "Country Walk" (1962) and "Down Stream" (1964). But Heaney had a deeper affinity than Kinsella for their common progenitor in Irish writing, Joyce. His work was and would be incarnational, conceived in an objective and substantial world and embodied in forms respectful of it, no matter how various with learning and linguistic art the music of the spirit might become. For such a writer a good poem can be autotelic and autonomous only after a manner of speaking, for it owes its life above all to the life of men and only necessarily, if you like, to the life of poetry; it is utterance and artifact on equal terms. (p. 27)

[A] kind of courtesy regulates Heaney's writing. In the Age of Criticism the cultivation of poetry as a superior amusement, superior indeed in the work of at least one master, has gone so far among later talents as to attenuate and trivialize the whole business. Heaney's best poems in their purity are certainly fresh esthetic objects; at the same time his manner is large and open, his intent a publicly conducted meditation among the living and the dead. (p. 28)

Heaney's piety toward the life of his boyhood appears in two excellent, comparatively late poems, "Sunlight" and "A Drink of Water." But his tribal sense, his learning, and his imagination have collaborated most remarkably, perhaps, in the poem "Funeral Rites." Here he envisages for the dead-by-violence a ceremony on a grand scale and a glimpse of heroic appeasement. The "great chambers of Boyne" are the megalithic tombs at New Grange, to which you drive from Belfast through the Gap of the North, skirting loughs with Scandinavian names. Gunnar is a figure out of Icelandic saga at whose burial a cycle of vengeance was broken, at least temporarily, by a miracle of strange light and happiness beyond death. It is almost startling to think that the measured progression and elevation of this poem can do nothing for Northern Ireland.

Robert Fitzgerald, "Seamus Heaney: An Appreciation," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1976 by The New Republic, Inc.), March 27, 1976, pp. 27-9.

What about the pessimism, the determinism [in Heaney's North]? The message is certainly there. Violence and death is the inheritance, in past, present and, seemingly, future. Withdrawal stimulates guilt. Yet the overall effect of North is not entirely depressing or deterministic. One thinks of Hardy or Housman, with their philosophy of pessimism. North is not like The Shropshire Lad.

Partly, this owes itself to the texture of his language. The very explorations, positive rhythms and inventiveness seem to deny a lapse of hope; his 'digging' seems so worthwhile, as it works towards 'understanding' and also towards 'teaching'—teaching the English, for example. Partly, too, it owes itself to his compassion for the victims; he loves the Bog Queen. Man can still feel, and the evidence of love, not only in the poem to Mary Heaney, must be put against the pessimism.

A comparison with Zola may be apt. Zola's plots generally chart an all-encompassing course downwards towards tragedy. But, thanks to his vision, his style and his compassion, the effect is tonic as well as pessimistic. Reading 'The Seed Cutters', that marvellous poem, one feels that Seamus Heaney's sense of one-ness with Breughel's seed cutters, a solidarity even in anonymity, in the teeth of the elements and time, is life-enhancing. Vying with the message of pessimism, the stigmata of heredity, its message is of endurance and rebirth. Its vehicle is art of the highest order. (p. 83)

Simon Curtis, "Seamus Heaney's 'North'," in Critical Quarterly, Spring, 1976, pp. 81-3.

Heaney, to my mind the best poet now writing in Ireland, seems the only one of his generation not in some way inhibited by the shadow of Yeats. Though he shares Yeats's love of the archaic, with its combination of the civilized and the stark, he unearths his archaism not in Celtic legends but in the bodies of long-dead Vikings, buried and preserved in Irish and Scandinavian bogs….

For Heaney, things in their "opaque repose" can be searched out only by divination, in a "somnambulist process of search and surrender" (as Heaney described it in a lecture to the Royal Society of Literature two years ago). When the diviner has found out, as by instinct, a hoard in the nether darkness, he must then gather words with "a binding secret" between them to lift the treasure into view. The serpentine line of Norse art "like an eel swallowed/in a basket of eels" becomes for Heaney a metaphor for his own intertwining of national and personal truth.

The autobiographical poems closing Heaney's new collection ["North"] make explicit his meditations on the troubles of Ulster, where he was born, but seem, paradoxically, less deep in their reflections than the poems where meaning resists intellectual reduction. History in these poems is as absorptive, mysterious, and dark as the many-layered bog…. (p. 6)

Helen Vendler, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 18, 1976.


Heaney, Seamus (Vol. 5)


Heaney, Seamus (Vol. 91)