Introduction

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Seamus (Justin) Heaney 1939–

Irish poet and essayist.

Critics are divided over Heaney's position in Irish poetry, some even casting him as the greatest Irish poet since W. B. Yeats. Most would agree, however, that he is poet of "sustained achievement," who has become a spokesperson for Ireland. Heaney provides...

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Seamus (Justin) Heaney 1939–

Irish poet and essayist.

Critics are divided over Heaney's position in Irish poetry, some even casting him as the greatest Irish poet since W. B. Yeats. Most would agree, however, that he is poet of "sustained achievement," who has become a spokesperson for Ireland. Heaney provides in his poetry a remarkable balance of the personal, the topical, and the universal which has made his work read and respected by a large audience in Great Britain and America. His search for continuity, as he "digs with his pen" through Irish history and culture and into the "troubles" in contemporary Northern Ireland is described in a concrete, sensuous language that has developed in resonance, density, and fineness of tone. Images of the Irish land and the Irish bog, prominent in his work, serve as important symbols: the land as the subject of the historical-contemporary struggle for possession and the bog as the metaphor for the dark unconscious of Ireland and the self.

Death of a Naturalist, Door into the Dark, and Wintering Out, his earlier works, are in the pastoral tradition, evoking the atmosphere of rural life. His later works, North and Field Work, are called his major accomplishments. In North, his most political poetry, the pastoral element is diminished. Here, Heaney links the grim Irish past with the Irish present, suggesting that love is the redeeming quality—the quality of survival. Field Work is a restrained balance between poetry and politics, Heaney having personally left the violent north to settle in Dublin. His recent Preoccupations is a collection of lectures and reviews in which Heaney examines the history of language, the poetic tradition, and the work of other poets.

(See also CLC, Vols. 5, 7, 14 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85-88.)

Terence Brown

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It is a mistake … to think of Heaney as merely a descriptive poet, endowed with unusual powers of observation. From the first his involvement with landscape and locale, with the physical world, has been both more personal and more remarkable in its implications than any mere act of observation and record could be. (p. 173)

For Heaney, the natural world must be accepted for what it is—heavy, palpable in its irrefutable bulk, in its almost intractable forms. He paints it in thick oils, rarely allowing (except in the delightful 'Lovers on Aran') for light, fire, air, for what the poet has himself called 'the sideral beauty' of things. (p. 174)

Heaney's sense of landscape combines erotic and religious impulses. He responds with a deep sense of the numinous in the natural world, and reads a scene as if it were governed by feminine, sexual principles. (pp. 174-75)

In Heaney's imagination, which is synthetic and osmotic (in the sense that ideas and intuitions seep across thin membranes to blend with each other), this sense of landscape and the natural world extends in its implications into his treatment of another major obsession—Irish history and mythology. The implications of his vision of landscape are that nature, for all its processes, is a static form shaped by feminine forces, worked on by energetic, crafty makers, diggers, ploughmen. Irish history too reveals itself in his poetry as a landscape, feminine, protective, preservative, in which man's artifacts and deeds are received in an embracing comprehension. Love for this deity induces dark fantasy and nightmare, drives to deeds of desperation. A more strictly historical intelligence than Heaney's moves to distinguish nature and history. Heaney, dominated by a sense of nature's powers, reads history, language and myth as bound up with nature, with territory and with landscape. (p. 175)

Heaney's sense of the self and of the poetic imagination is markedly similar to his apprehension of nature and history. He himself has remarked, indeed, that in Ireland 'our sense of the past, our sense of the land and perhaps even our sense of identity are inextricably interwoven'. So the imagination has its dark bog-like depths, its sediments and strata from which images and metaphors emerge unbidden into the light of consciousness…. Such a sense of self as bound up with, and almost indistinguishable from, the dense complex of Irish natural and historical experience, obviously allows Heaney to explore Ulster's contemporary social and political crisis through attending to his own memories and obsessions. Ireland and her goddess of territory shaped unchangeable patterns in the prehistories of landscape and of the self. History and experience lay strata upon strata, and the poet takes his soundings. So poems such as 'The Other Side' and 'A Northern Hoard' consider the poet's personal life, his recollections and nightmares, as moments when Irish reality becomes explicit in himself. (pp. 180-81)

The formal development of Heaney's poetry relates to [his] passive sense of life. His first poems, rich in texture and heavy with the weight of language and rhythm, established a vision of reality as a palpable intractable absolute from which the poet, the conscious self, must accept what gifts may come. His recent poetry is more spare, the line less loaded with poetic and linguistic ore; these poems are moments of revelation when the past, the land and the imagination permit insight into their packed depths. Where Heaney's early poems attempted to comprehend the whole of their experiences in crowded, apparently unselective, sensuously inclusive poetic organisms, his recent poems seem the minimal revelations of a reality that exists at the beck and call of no man—not even of the poet.

An impression of poetic and imaginative humility is one of these poems' initially attractive features. Yet it is this very humility, which one suspects in fact may be a quietist acquiescence, a passivity before the goddess, that this reader finds unsatisfying in Heaney's work, confining its emotional and dramatic possibilities. Heaney has in a singularly beautiful phrase defined a poem as 'a completely successful love act between the craft and the gift'. He clearly thinks that a poem comes up out of the dark, almost unbidden, organically oozing up through capillary channels pressured by incomprehensible forces. He contrasts this to what he considers a 'more Yeatsian view of poetry':

When he talked about poetry, Yeats never talked about the 'ooze' or 'nurture'. He always talked about the 'labour' and the 'making' and 'the fascination of what's difficult'.

                                        (pp. 181-82)

But for Yeats 'labour' was as much the arduous task, between poems, of remaking over and over again his poetic, imaginative self, as it was concern with rhyme and rhythms. For Yeats the self was not an intractable absolute, but a field of possibilities among which the poet is forced to choose, the drama of the choice itself being charged with poetic opportunity.

There is evidence in Heaney's work that such knowledge of the poetic self has not yet been achieved. The poems often give the impression that Heaney has not decided fully what his feelings about the matter of his poetry could be. Choice of either a consistent or a dramatically inconsistent stance within a poem is avoided in an indirection which, however admirable it may be with regard to journalistic exploitation of Ulster's present troubles, renders much of his recent work gnomic and, in some instances, emotionally ambiguous to the point where feeling itself drains from the poems. At moments Heaney himself seems aware that his poetry avoids choices, since he occasionally dramatises himself in positions of hesitating indecision. 'The Forge', for example, ends with the poet still at the door of the forge. (pp. 182-83)

His recent poetry has therefore seemed at times a remarkably skilled, compelling poetic organisation of his indecision, lacking emotional range and drama.

The emotions that I detect running underground through Heaney's work, emotions that have surfaced only once or twice as the subjects of poems, are feelings of revulsion and attraction to violence, pain and death. These are often implicit in the poet's images where empathetic identifications with victims' shame or with oppressors' sadistic sensations are persistent features. (p. 183)

In one poem, 'Summer Home', Heaney allows such feelings as sadistic cruelty and masochistic ambivalence about pain to serve as the explicit matter of his work. The poem is one of his finest so far. Here the poet knows what his feelings are, recognises they are bitter and dark, yet risks making a poem of them…. Such a poem emerges not from the impersonal unconscious but from the pain and complexity of experience which the poet has accepted as his proper territory. This poem is no corpse from the bog, no gift from a dark goddess passively accepted by a craft-conscious artist. (p. 185)

Terence Brown, "Four New Voices: Poets of the Present," in his Northern Voices: Poets from Ulster (© Terence Brown, 1975), Rowman and Littlefield, 1975, pp. 171-213.∗

Robert Buttel

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Sculptural incisiveness is just one of the characteristics of style in Death of a Naturalist.

What chiefly makes these early poems Heaney's own is another, complementary quality. Put briefly, it is a sensuous, vital energy which determines their diction, imagery, and prosody. To an unusual degree details register with an immediacy on the reader's senses. Note for example this image in "Death of a Naturalist": "the warm thick slobber / of frogspawn that grew like clotted water." Much of the effect derives from the gross, labial "slobber," but in "clotted water" the substance verbally thickens into tangible density. (p. 37)

Augmenting the physical authenticity and the clean, decisive art of the best of the early poems, mainly the ones concerned with the impact of the recollected initiatory experiences of childhood and youth, is the human voice that speaks in them. At its most distinctive it is unpretentious, open, modest, and yet poised, aware, fundamentally serious despite its occasional humorous or ironic turn. Within an anecdotal, sometimes colloquial, or matter-of-fact context it can be terse, suddenly dramatic, charged with emotion, shock or wonder breaking through understatement. It is flexible, open to modulations and complexities of tone. Generally the rhythms are natural though in accord with the predominant pattern and metrics of a given poem….

Nor would I begin to claim for it the mastery of Yeats or Frost, but it does show that he had learned something of their skill in crossing natural speech with traditional verse structure: form and a living speech working together. (p. 40)

In "Death of a Naturalist" … Heaney most successfully exploited the qualities I have described so far. The poem begins with seemingly matter-of-fact description…. But the description prepares for the grotesque initiation [the young boy] would undergo on a later occasion…. The poem is uniquely Heaney's, the high point of his achievement at this stage of his development. The details at the end are at once true to the nauseating reality of the frogs and to their surreal psychological implications—all the obscure but immediate sexual turmoil of puberty and adolescence nightmarishly concentrated, erupting in the repulsive images.

To consider the volume [Death of a Naturalist] as a whole, however, is to become aware of its unevenness; we should not expect every poem to reach the level of [the title poem]. As the poet tested his new-found skills with a variety of subjects and modes, he wrote some poems in which technique turns into manner. Now and then, for example, the attempt to infuse the poems with energy degenerates into forced metaphor. (pp. 41-3)

[The impact of "Waterfall," for example,] is reduced by the excess of imagistic ingenuity. Ordinance and military terms in this poem and others threaten to become a metaphorical tic. (p. 44)

The love poems in Death of a Naturalist are unpretentious and direct in their feelings yet undistinguished. (p. 47)

But about a third of the poems in this first book … established Heaney's as a voice to be reckoned with. The successes arose from his risktaking, the virtuoso prosody, the bold word choices, the delving into the potentially sentimental subject matter of recollected childhood and adolescent experience on a farm. Dangers lay in the method. The words, for instance, that so characterize his style. Heaney words such as slobber, soused, plumped, knobbed, and clotted, are susceptible to overuse, to the possibility of eventual self-parody, though it was by running this danger that he gained an earthy concreteness; also his diction would undergo a continuing evolution in the succeeding two volumes. He would extend and deepen his subject matter, too, and one means of advance would be to explore more fully those forces underlying plain sense and observation. (p. 48)

Robert Buttel, in his Seamus Heaney (© 1975 by Associated University Presses, Inc.), Bucknell University Press, 1975, 88 p.

Anne Stevenson

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[Heaney] seems to do effortlessly what poets in Britain have been trying to do for a long time; that is, to write a profound and important poetry which is at once topical and private, and which is at the same time classically elegant, rich with language, and beautiful to the ear.

Heaney is the most loved and envied of poets, both profound and accessible. Undisturbed in his development into the finest Irish poet since Yeats, he seems able to write of the anguish of Northern Ireland without panic or obscurity. (p. 320)

Anne Stevenson, "The Recognition of the Savage God: Poetry in Britain Today," in New England Review (copyright © 1979 by Kenyon Hill Publications, Inc.; reprinted by permission of New England Review), Vol. II, No. 2, Winter, 1979, pp. 315-26.∗

Calvin Bedient

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Seamus Heaney's reputation for power, resonance, consummate phrasing, striking talent, uncanniness, etc.—which sprang up like a genie with his very first book, Death of a Naturalist …, and which, as the early reviews come in, still looms with tweedy arms crossed above his fifth, Field Work—is astonishing in view of his modest ambition and tone. The Irish, British, and Americans alike have taken turns rubbing the lamp, as if it were indeed Wonderful, and pure gold. But Heaney himself, it is clear from almost every line, knows what it really is: a very respectable pewter.

Heaney's strength, such as it is, lies in making the most of his real if limited advantages—his rural North Ireland childhood, with its blackberrying, its hunting and fishing, its "Cows cudding, watching, and knowing"; his sense of language, which (pace A. Alvarez) is not really for the pretty or grand, despite lapses, but a squatting farmer's feel for the richest mold; and his nature, which toils not neither does it spin, but keeps a steady repose, being one for whatever it mirrors and finding one in the measures of the poem.

Of these, the most remarkable and restricting is, almost paradoxically, the last. How dormant in Heaney is what Hegel, admittedly Romantic, deemed the very nature of Spirit, which is to be self-determining. Difficult to know this unassuming personality is around, you might think, except as you take notice of a pond because, without any suddenness that you are aware of, it has gathered a full freight of reflection. We are so used to the restless romantic ego in our own poetry that Heaney seems both a rebuke and a reduction—seems more English than Irish, even, in his modesty. (p. 109)

Heaney scarcely projects a point of view. Most of what he writes is no more, if no less, than potato deep—earth-bound if earth-enriched, placidly rooted in top soil, far from unfathomable. Often he turns to the past, especially the personal past, but it's not a great subject with him as it is with Philip Levine or Geoffrey Hill—not a quest for wholeness or a flagellant's discipline. Lacking identifying conceptions, or the desire to press to the edge of what he already knows, or the leadingson of passion, or struggles (even secret struggles) of personality, Heaney writes poems only of memory or occasion, gently given responses….

At most, excepting a few of the very earliest and very latest poems, Heaney has been a poet merely of the desire for profundity—of its tease and glamour. His good nature feels, at moments, the tug of the primeval, but it's not set going like the well-witching wand that agonizes as if it would root at once in the secreted water…. [For example, "The Grauballe Man"] is deliberate myth-making, not the stab of astonishment—an ornamental superposition of natural images (river, grain, egg, etc.) on a man already fused with a bog. (p. 110)

An arguable exception: "The Skunk," one of the two or three best poems in Field Work. This poem disturbs propriety at least enough to liken the poet's wife to a skunk, and on no less a point than sexual glamour….

"The Skunk" is the more valid for finding the mysterious in the ordinary, indeed in accidental patterns lighting up totemic necessities. This reliance on the contingent is Heaney's chief way of being modern. (p. 112)

The up-beat, slightly syncopated, adjectival beginning of "The Skunk" flags an enlivening accession to actuality and what Heaney himself learned as a college student to call "concrete realization"—the staple of the new candid poem. It exemplifies the way the series approaches autonomy in this mode, poetry having fallen on reality in a distraction of naming. (p. 114)

How important, how profound, is "The Skunk"? As we read it, crows wake on the brow; but, delightful though it is, we can tell from it that this poet's work as a whole is not apt to be greater than the sum of its parts. Neither the mind nor the personality evident in it promises a significant unity in the whole work; neither greatly detains. (p. 116)

[Up to the publication of Field Work], Heaney's interest, for me at least, has lain in his Irish subjects—rural life particularly—and his language. An urban American cannot but take at least a tourist's interest in the first, and the second has approached a perfection of unassumingness with little or no sacrifice of density. How natural his language is …, how refreshingly free from facility. Heaney has the Jacobean and modern trick of thick texture: "Outside the kitchen window a black rat / Sways on the briar like infected fruit."… He constantly holds the ear, his language seldom racing past itself, especially now that his sense of the line finally serves it. The secret perhaps lies in clearly spaced emphases, closely played consonance and assonance, the select but simple word, and unfussy specificity—all of which he employs with rare unobtrusiveness.

But in the light of … [certain poems in Field Work], Heaney may become equally notable for his way with a poem, his "slipstream" approaches to the centerless truth of things. In the first and fourth Glanmore sonnets and in "The Skunk," "The Harvest Bow," and "Homecomings," human universals (art, sexual attraction, disillusionment, etc.) and natural particulars mix with and modify one another beyond paraphrase. For the most part, the universals are not expressed in the abstract language of the understanding at all…. It is, instead, an implication of the images, whether natural or human. By this strategy—though in the poems it feels like nothing so cold as "strategy"—Heaney cancels the defect of his lack of ideation. He exploits his gravitation toward the actual without falling down plumb upon it. His interest in the accidental is tasked as a way into the tangled core of experience.

In particular, he gets around his self-conscious identification of himself as a poet—a narrowly conceived role standing a kind of scarecrow's sentry over so many of his poems, keeping off the far more interesting crows. So restricted a poet cannot afford so restricting an identity. (Thus the first Glanmore sonnet does not soar until he leaves off thinking about it.) Heaney is the opposite of the astonishing Ashbery, who somehow makes the idea of poetry an elastic that binds and snaps at everything. Since as a poet he does not much care to think, he has nothing of particular interest to say about poetry or being a poet—while over and over choosing it as his subject. A sentimental association of words with soil and of a pen with a potato digger's spade and his store of things to say is more or less exhausted.

So by all means let him dodge universals, if he has a mind to. Let him cry, "Wait then …" and, taking a breath, proceed by inspired immediacies to his goals. (pp. 121-22)

Calvin Bedient, "The Music of What Happens," in Parnassus: Poetry in Review (copyright © Poetry in Review Foundation), Vol. 8, No. 1, Fall-Winter, 1979, pp. 109-22.

Gregory A. Schirmer

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The difficulty that poets face in negotiating between the local and the universal, between a wish to be true to one's place and cultural heritage and a desire to create an art that will reach beyond the confines of locality, particularly troubles Irish poets, writing, as they do, out of an especially singular culture and writing for an audience largely estranged from that culture. Yeats, of course, provides the most obvious example of an Irish poet able to reach from the particular to the transcendent, but in the decades following Yeats's death, no other Irish poet, with the questionable exception of Patrick Kavanagh, seemed able to fashion a poetic that was both rooted in its native soil and, at the same time, of notable appeal beyond the shores of Ireland.

In the past few years, however, Ireland seems to have produced, in Seamus Heaney, a poet possessing this rather rare capacity…. [By the time that Heaney published Field Work], he was matter-of-factly being described in British and American journals as the most important contemporary voice in Irish poetry and being compared, even, to the great Yeats himself. The question, of course, is why? And, more important, what does Heaney's rather astonishing success among non-Irish readers say about the larger problem of how Irish poets—or poets in general, for that matter—create an art of universal import out of the sticks and stones of their own culture and locality?

Heaney's striking power of rendering experience concretely and sensuously—of creating, as his fellow poet Richard Murphy has said, "the feeling as you read his poems that you are actually doing what they describe"—surely accounts for some of Heaney's success outside his own country. Also, Heaney's immediate welcome among non-Irish readers may owe something to the image of Ireland that his first books tended to present: that of a pastoral world governed by rural values—precisely the kind of Ireland that many English and American readers nostalgically wanted to see. (pp. 139-40)

Heaney certainly, as a poet, has surrendered to his native land and culture: not only has he refused to turn his eyes toward the metropolis, but he also has, in the best of his poems, directed his poetic gaze as far into the depths of his cultural heritage as possible. Indeed, Heaney's poetry as a whole seems informed by the principle of excavation, of digging into his personal past, his language, and, perhaps most important, the cultural past of his country. (p. 141)

Of course, other poets—including other Irish poets: Austin Clarke being the most obvious—have trusted the feel of what they know best, have worked out of a deep commitment to their native culture, and, in terms of their reception outside their own country, have suffered because of it. What makes Heaney different is the archetypal dimension of his poetic involvement with Irish culture. Nowhere is this more evident—and nowhere is Heaney's art more transcendent—than in the poems that Heaney has written about the peat bogs of Ireland and Jutland and the treasures and horrors that they have preserved. (p. 142)

Starting with "Bogland" in Door Into the Dark, continuing with "The Tollund Man" in Wintering Out, and culminating in a series of poems about figures preserved by the bog in North, his fourth volume, Heaney has developed the image of the bog into a powerful symbol of the continuity of human experience that at once enables him to write about the particularities of his own parish, past and present, and to transcend, at the same time, those particularities.

Heaney has compared the bog in Irish culture to the frontier in American culture, and has described his use of the bog "as an answering Irish myth," but it serves as more than that. As the figures of bog queens, sacrificial victims, and adulteresses are raised from the bog by Heaney's poetry, they take on archetypal significance, calling to mind not just the specific values of an ancient northern culture, but also qualities of human experience that are timeless and not the exclusive property of one culture. Poems like "Bog Queen," "The Grauballe Man," "Punishment," "Strange Fruit," and "Kinship"—all in North—are local in so far as they insist on the connection between the violence and terror of the Viking age and the violence and terror of contemporary Belfast and Derry. They have universality insofar as they insist, as they do, that the evidence found in these bogs of human cruelty—and, concurrently, of the human need for ritual and community—has something to say about human nature as it has always existed. In this sense, the bog functions in Heaney's poems much as the Homeric parallel functions in Joyce's Ulysses and much as the fertility myths and Arthurian legends function in Eliot's The Waste Land. (p. 143)

The kind of archetypal power found in Heaney's bog poems is not, of course, a required ingredient for poetry that seeks to transcend the confines of locality. One need only to turn to … [Field Work]—and especially to poems like "The Guttural Muse," "The Otter," "The Skunk," "Harvest Bow," and the Glanmore sonnet sequence—to verify this. For an Irish poet writing in the 20th century, and trying to remain true to his roots in a culture largely unfamiliar to most of his readers, the poetic that Heaney has fashioned out of the notion of excavation and, more specifically, out of the image of the bog, provides a means both of expressing a faith in "the social and artistic validity of his parish," and, at the same time, of creating an art that bears significantly on the "fundamentals" of human experience. (pp. 145-46)

Gregory A. Schirmer, "Seamus Heaney's: 'Salvation in Surrender'," in Eire-Ireland (copyright Irish American Cultural Institute), Vol. XV, No. 4, Winter, 1980, pp. 139-46.

Jay Parini

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North is a major accomplishment, a book-length sequence of lyrics which exploits the metaphor of possession more fully than any other Irish poet has done. The poems are richly autobiographical, yet [Seamus Heaney] consistently weaves the particulars of his life into a mythic frame; he has evolved a unique species of political poetry which refers at once to the current Irish "troubles" and to the human situation generally. One would have to invoke Pablo Neruda's Heights of Macchu Picchu for a parallel. Consequently, I think Heaney is among the finest poets writing today in English, and I shall examine his work to date to support my large claim for him. His poetry has evolved with remarkable integrity from the beginning. He has drawn ever widening concentric rings around the first few themes he circled; his language has grown steadily more dense, more resonant, more singularly his own with each successive volume. And now, at the height of his powers, one awaits each new book with the same expectancy afforded Yeats and Eliot in their middle years.

Heaney comes from the north, from Derry, and his first book conjured the pastoral topography of his childhood on the farm. One should remember, of course, that even Theocritus and Virgil did not write for country folk, to put it mildly; rather, they evinced the atmosphere of rural life for the benefit of cultivated city dwellers who would appreciate the subtle texture of meaning embedded in their eclogues. This is the pastoral tradition, and Heaney's Death of a Naturalist … fits into it. He was in fact a farm boy, and he writes from immediate experience; but his craft was learned in the city, at Queens University, Belfast, where he enjoyed the tutelage of Philip Hobsbaum, the poet-critic, among others. Hobsbaum's bias toward lean, physical language wedded to intellectual toughness shows up in Heaney's early work, as in the first lines of "Digging."… Heaney furls us into his vision with lines admitting no abstraction; his experience thrusts itself upon us directly, and we cannot doubt "the cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap / Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge."… Like Wordsworth, who says in The Prelude that he was "fostered alike by beauty and by fear," this poet lays claim to a similar parentage. (pp. 100-01)

Death of a Naturalist is an apprentice volume, one in which a young poet tests the limits of his abilities, tries out various verse forms and metrical patterns. But if there are echoes in these poems, they are well assimilated. A major poet often steps into his own clearing from the start, and Heaney does this here. The controlled irony of "The Early Purges," with its adumbration of things to come in later volumes, shows this young writer possessed of a maturity beyond his years…. None of the sentimental flurries characteristic of Yeats as a novice can be found in Heaney; he writes with a stern grip on reality. (pp. 102-03)

The boyhood evoked in these poems is tinged with violence … but not blotted out by it. (p. 103)

Family deaths, the persistence of old ghosts, hunting expeditions, potato diggings, and the normal preoccupations of a life in County Derry provide material for Death of a Naturalist; yet the loveliest poems in the book are those addressed to Marie Heaney, the poet's wife. "Valediction" sets the standard…. Not an ounce of fat detracts from the poem's swift statement and hard, clear edges. It is a minor classic. (pp. 103-04)

"Personal Helicon" concludes the book, and it is as good as anything Heaney has written since. It pulls into a single locus the varied themes of Death of a Naturalist, and it may be thought of as a poetic credo, a guide to this poet's personal iconography. Heaney's version of Helicon, the stream which ran from Parnassus and the source of inspiration to ancient poets, is the well on his farm…. The well of memory, with its slippery sides and musky odors, goes down "so deep you saw no reflection in it." Like a poem, it "gave back your own call / With a clean new music in it." This world of dangling roots and slime, of soft mulch and scary ferns, recalls the greenhouse poems of Theodore Roethke, with whom Heaney has much in common at this stage in his development. Here is concrete poetry with a vengeance, what Roethke called "that anguish of concreteness." (p. 105)

With Door into the Dark…. Heaney opens a new vein of subject matter and works his way slowly, at times painfully, toward the mature style fully realized in North. There is the expected carry-over from Death of a Naturalist; anything that good deserves carrying-over! The folksy, pastoral side begins to dwindle, although poems like "The Outlaw" …, "The Thatcher," and "The Wife's Tale" are a fine addition to earlier poems like "Churning Day" and "The Diviner." Heaney's geniality, compassion, and impish wit run through these poems like a watermark. There is great precedence in British poetry for this kind of poem, of course, and this poet adds a few fresh lyrics to this tradition (which reaches back well beyond Wordsworth, who comes to mind as a master of this genre). Heaney is matched among his British/Irish contemporaries writing this kind of romantic-pastoral verse only by R. S. Thomas and George Mackay Brown. What interests me especially about Door into the Dark is Heaney's discovery of natural symbols in rural life—which gives his work a new resonance; also, I am intrigued by the sudden compression of style, the tough intellectual sinew flexed in phrase after phrase, and the laser-beam focus of his vision: the image is seared indelibly on the reader's mind.

Heaney pushes his style toward a spareness, an absence of rhetoric and normal syntactical connective tissue, which culminates in the granite style of Wintering Out…. The style [of Door into the Dark] recalls Hopkins, one of Heaney's dominant ancestors, with its heavy alliteration, "sprung" rhythm, and the tightly packed imagery. A tendency toward symbolism is also in evidence…. (pp. 105-06)

"Description is revelation"—a phrase from North—illumines the technique behind many of the poems in Door into the Dark, where each act of description becomes a repossession of experience. Often Heaney's tone, as in "Girls Bathing, Galway 1965," is whimsical, using bathos as a common trope; but one finds a seriousness underlying even this light poem. (p. 107)

The remaining poems of Door into the Dark are closely autobiographical and anecdotal…. "Elegy for a Stillborn Child" stands out among these more personal poems for its startling analogies…. (p. 108)

The most important poem in the book, I believe, comes last "Bogland" concludes Door into the Dark and lends additional meaning to the title, for the Irish bogs (which preserve generations of Irish civilization intact) may be thought of as openings into the dark of history. The theme of this poem is the literal repossession of the ground, a theme which becomes central in Heaney's next two books…. The suggestive possibilities of bogland seem unbounded, and Heaney knows this; but he refuses to go much beyond a literal representation until the last line: "The wet centre is bottomless." As a symbol of the unconscious past which must be unfolded, layer by layer, the bog image will prove indispensable. For this reason, "Bogland" is a watershed poem in the Heaney corpus. After it, one rereads all the poems coming before it with a new lens, realizing that this poet's vision of historical sequence reaches beyond the pastoral-folk tradition. The theme of digging, registered twice in Death of a Naturalist (potato digging, then), moves into a rich light now, acquiring new potency from the symbolic force of the bogland metaphor.

In Wintering Out … Heaney was quick to pick up the end note of Door into the Dark to mine the ore still locked inside this vein. Ireland's archaelogical sites yield poems like "Bog Oak," "Anahorish," and "Toome," and Heaney's research into Danish excavations results in "The Tollund Man" and "Nerthus." These poems exploit the metaphoric plunge backward through time tenaciously. As one delves in bogland, history peels away like the layers of an onion; one falls through shelves of civilizations often represented by odds and ends…. (pp. 109-10)

The poems in part 1 of this collection all reconstruct historical instances or offer a meditation on some fact of the lost past. "Servant Boy," for example, draws a simple portrait of a lower-class child…. The poet clearly identifies with this "jobber among shadows." Placed where it is, in the sequence of bog poems, "Servant Boy" stands out as a reminder of Heaney's breadth of vision, his empathetic range. The poem recollects the old feud between invading noblemen and the indigenous servant classes; it helps to explain the present Irish conflict by pointing to centuries of accrued resentment. There is nothing overtly political about "Servant Boy," of course. Heaney stays rather far away from engagement of this sort until North; but one senses the gathering storm. (p. 110)

Part 2 of Wintering Out moves away from the wide historical rummage of part 1 into the private arena of one man's life; I prefer the poems in this section on the whole, no doubt because they are less dense, less tortuously argued. (p. 112)

[North] represents this poet's latest repossession of history, of his tongue, of himself. There is a new directness here, indicated by the title; but Heaney loses none of the suggestive power of controlled ambiguity seen in earlier volumes. His "north" is not just Northern Ireland. The tone of the book rings like a struck anvil; it is stark, cold, brisk as the northerly themes and diction which suffuse these poems. The poet-as-scop (Old English minstrel) entertains us with our foibles, with the past (we identify with his past) reenacting itself on the native ground. The setting is specifically Irish, of course, but the subject matter obtains for all of us, in any country of the present. His theme, that love is what redeems the past and makes living possible in today's violent world, is set out in the two dedicatory poems, "Sunlight" and "The Seed Cutters," both of which evoke the idyll of remembrance.

Once again, Heaney uses a two-part division, working in the same overall pattern used so effectively in Wintering Out. In the first part, beginning and ending with poems referring to Antaeus, the mythical giant whose strength derived from contact with the ground, Heaney investigates the burden of Irish history once more: the history of possession and repossession of the island by various tribes. The magnificent "Belderg" begins with another of the poet's bog poems…. I find these bog poems much more easily comprehensible, but not less dense or complex, than similar poems in Wintering Out. (pp. 116-17)

The majestic title poem "North" itself focuses on Viking invasions…. Here, the "ocean-deafened voices" of the past speak to him, explaining how "Thor's hammer swung / to geography and trade, / thick-witted couplings and revenges." The violence foisted upon man by man is rooted in economic necessity and irrational desires. The "longship's swimming tongue" says, "Lie down / in the word-hoard … compose in darkness." This Heaney does, consummately. (p. 117)

"Ocean's Love to Ireland" shifts to the Elizabethan colonial possession of Heaney's island, and its theme is summed up in the last line—my principal theme in this essay—"The ground possessed and repossessed." Heaney envisions the English-Irish relation in explicit sexual terms, making literal the metaphor of "possession." "Act of Union," which follows shortly, pursues the analogy further, making the poet's beloved into "the heaving province where our past has grown."… A deeply plunging terror underlies this poem, one of Heaney's memorable achievements. The political implications suggest that no treaty will salve the wound inflicted by England on this "ruined maid" of Ireland. To quote William Empson, "It is the pain, it is the pain endures."

Pain, in all its sinister permutations, obsesses Heaney in part 2 of North…. [These poems] must be read qua poems, not political tracts. They register one sensitive man's response to an impossible historical situation, a country "where bad news is no longer news."… The pastoral element has disappeared; the pastoral whimsicality of some of the earlier work fades as the poet offers a stinging new version of reality, almost without comment save in the implicit irony of such lines as "Whatever you say, say nothing."

The last sequence of seven poems is called "Singing School," a title summoning the ghost of Yeats; it's theme may be called the growth of the poet, "fostered alike by beauty and by fear." (pp. 119-20)

"Fosterage," the penultimate poem of this final sequence, pictures Heaney "with words / Imposing on my tongue like obols" (silver coins). Its grand first line, "Description is revelation," a quotation, could easily serve as an epigraph to Heaney's oeuvre. In his poems description gives way, continually, to evaluation, to revelation. The poet becomes seer, "a transparent eyeball" in Emerson's great phrase. He becomes everything and nothing, fixing his eye on the object, transforming it. "Fosterage" ends with a tribute to Hopkins, who sought the inscape of each object, who "discerned / The lineaments of patience everywhere." Hopkins, of course, continues as the dominant ancestor for Heaney, the source, the starting point of his own angle of vision. But "Fosterage" remains a preface to poetry, not the thing itself, a prelude to "Exposure," the last poem of "Singing School" and North as a whole.

"Exposure" is, again, a meditation of the poet's responsibility in a desperate historical moment. It is a poem about withdrawal, deeply autobiographical; for Heaney has himself in a sense withdrawn into Eire, the south. He lives, now, with his wife, Marie, and children in a stone house in Dublin, looking out to Joyce's fabled Martello tower from Ulysses. He is in his own tower of imagining there. "Exposure," being the last poem in a sequence tracing the growth of a poet, should be triumphal. That it lacks this note, for the most part, points not to the poet's failure but to a particular kind of success. Heaney's tower is not Yeats's. His escape is not into the artifice of eternity but into the recesses of his own solitude…. "How did I end up like this?" he wonders, thinking of "the anvil brains of some who hate me / As I sit weighing and weighing / My responsible tristia." A wonderful self-irony permeates "responsible" here as Heaney acknowledges the need for detachment and engagement at the same time. Yeats could manage this combination, of course; indeed, the cutting edge of his best poems can be described as the point where these seemingly incompatible realms touch. And Heaney's greatness in "Exposure" derives from a similar balance of conflicting needs…. Without independence and withdrawal, a poet's work becomes infected with the langauge of propaganda; but this independence depends, paradoxically, on an intimacy with his environment that has made Heaney Ireland's successor to Yeats.

"Ulster was British," Heaney writes in "Singing School," "but with no rights on / The English lyric." He claims for himself, now, the rights denied to his countrymen at an earlier date. He has turned aggressor, repossessing the ancient role of scop, and his poems have become, progressively, a private reclamation—a protest—and a personal reclamation of a heritage buried under layers of earth and language. Heaney digs with his pen, exhuming a past which informs and enriches the present and which has designs upon the future. His delving in the philological soil has yielded a poetry of the first order already; indeed, Seamus Heaney is a major poet writing today at the height of his powers. (pp. 121-23)

Jay Parini, "Seamus Heaney: The Ground Possessed" (copyright, 1980, by Jay Parini), in The Southern Review, Vol. 16, No. 1, January, 1980, pp. 100-23.

Harold Bloom

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I would not say that the Northern Ireland poet Seamus Heaney, at forty, has printed any single poem necessarily as fine as [Yeats's] "Adam's Curse", but the lyric called "The Harvest Bow" in Field Work may yet seem that strong against all of time's revenges. There are other poems in Field Work worthy of comparison to the Yeats of In the Seven Woods (1904), and it begins to seem not far-fetched to wonder how remarkable a poet Heaney may yet become, if he can continue the steady growth of an art as deliberate, as restrained, and yet as authoritative and universal as the poems of Field Work—his fifth and much his best volume in the thirteen years since his first book, Death of a Naturalist….

That book, praised for its countryman's veracity and vividness of soil-sense, reads in retrospect as a kind of dark hymn of poetic incarnation, a sombre record of the transgression of having been a Clare-like changeling. Heaney's first poems hold implicit his central trope, the vowel of earth, and move in a cycle between the guilt of having forsaken spade for pen, and the redemption of poetic work: "I rhyme / To see myself, to set the darkness echoing". Door into the Dark … seems now, as it did to me a decade ago, mostly a repetition, albeit in a finer tone, and I remember putting the book aside with the sad reflection that Heaney was fixated in a rugged but minimalist lyrical art. I was mistaken, and should have read more carefully the book's last poem, "Bogland", where Heaney began to open both to the Irish, and to his own, abyss….

Heaney was poised upon the verge of becoming a poet of the Northern Ireland Troubles, a role he now wisely seeks to evade, but in a morally rich sense of "evade"…. [Wintering Out] seems stronger than it did seven years ago, when it began to change my mind about Heaney's importance. It is a book about nearing the journey's centre, and takes as its concern the poet's severe questioning of his own language, the English at once his own and not his own, since Heaney is of the Catholic Irish of Derry. Few books of poems brood so hard upon names, or touch so overtly upon particular words as words. No single poem stands out, even upon re-reading, for this is the last volume of Heaney's careful apprenticeship, as he works towards his deferred glory. North … begins that glory, a vital achievement by any standards….

What emerges in North, and stands clear in Field Work, is the precursor proper, the middle Yeats, with whom the agon of the strong Irish poet must be fought, as much by Heaney in his maturity as it is by Kinsella, with the agony itself guaranteeing why Heaney and Kinsella are likely to become more memorable than Kavanagh and Clarke, among the Irish poets following Yeats….

The enduring poems in North include the majestic title-piece, as well as "Funeral Rites", "Kinship", "Whatever You Say Say Nothing" and, best of all, the sequence of poetic incarnation with the Yeatsian title, "Singing School"….

The problem for Heaney as a poet henceforward is how not to drown in [the] blood-dimmed tide. His great precedent is the Yeats of "Meditations in Time of Civil War" and "Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen" and it cannot be said in North that this precedent is met, even in "Whatever You Say Say Nothing", where the exuberance of the language achieves a genuine phantasmagoria. But "Singing School", with its queerly appropriate mix of Wordsworth and Yeats, does even better, ending poem and book with a finely rueful self-accepting portrait of the poet, still waiting for the word that is his alone….

That is true eloquence, but fortunately not the whole truth, as Field Work richly shows. Heaney is the poet of the vowel of earth, and not of any portentous comet. In Field Work, he has gone south, away from the Belfast violence….

Like Emerson, Heaney has learnt that he has imprisoned thoughts of his own which only he can set free. No poem in Field Work is without its clear distinction, but I exercise here the critic's privilege of … [naming] those poems that move me most: "Casualty", "The Badgers", "The Singer's House", the lovely sequence of ten "Glanmore Sonnets", "The Harvest Bow" (Heaney's masterpiece so far), and the beautiful elegy "In Memoriam Francis Ledwidge", for the Irish poet killed on the Western Front in 1917. All of these lyrics and meditations practise a rich negation, an art of excluded meanings, vowels of earth almost lost between guttural consonants of history. (p. 137)

To this critic, on the other side of the Atlantic, Heaney is joined now with Geoffrey Hill as a poet so severe and urgent that he compels the same attention as his strongest American contemporaries, and indeed as only the very strongest among them. (p. 138)

Harold Bloom, "The Voice of Kinship," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1980; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4011, February 8, 1980, pp. 137-38.

A. Alvarez

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Heaney has in abundance a gift which the English distrust in one another but expect of the Irish: a fine way with the language. What in Brendan Behan, for instance, was a brilliant, boozy gift of the gab is transformed by Heaney into rich and sonorous rhetoric. He is a man besotted with words and, like all lovers, he wants to display the beauties and range and subtleties of his beloved. Unlike most, however, he disciplines his passion, reining it in for better effect. It is an admirable procedure, although there are times when the urge to make a nice noise gets the better of him….

It is something of a miracle for a poet writing at the latter end of the twentieth century to sound … Victorian without, at the same time, sounding merely pompous and secondhand. Heaney's skill in bringing off this difficult balancing act is, I suspect, the clue to his extraordinary popularity. The British have never taken easily or willingly to Modernism…. So they are comfortable with Heaney because he himself is comfortably in a recognizable tradition.

He is also a rural poet, born and brought up in the country and now wisely retired to it from the hurly-burly of literary life….

Heaney's position in it, however, is far from countrified. He is an intensely literary writer: his poems on the Irish troubles sound like Yeats, his elegy on Lowell sounds like Lowell; he brings in heroes and heroines with beautiful names from Irish myth, and quotes Wyatt and Dante, whom he also "imitates," Lowell-fashion. There are, in fact, moments when his literariness turns into downright pedantry. (p. 16)

Heaney is not rural and sturdy and domestic, with his feet planted firmly in the Irish mud, but is instead an ornamentalist, a word collector, a connoisseur of fine language for its own sake.

The exception is North, his fourth and best book, which opened with an imposing sequence of poems linking the grim Irish present with its even grimmer past of Norse invasions and ancient feuding. The tone was appropriately stern, but also distanced, the language spare, as though stripped back to its Anglo-Saxon skeleton. For the space of these dozen and a half poems Heaney seemed to have found a theme so absorbing that charm and rhetoric were irrelevant. The poems were as simple, demanding, and irreducible as the archaic trophies from the bog which they celebrated. And like an archaeologist, he pared away the extraneous matter and kept himself decently in the background.

That reticence and self-containment have largely gone from Field Work. He is back with the seductions of fine language, the verbal showman's charming sleights of hand. Consider, for example, the first stanza of "Oysters," the opening poem of the book…. First there is a verbal discovery, "clacked," the right and precise word to set the scene; then a precise evocation of the seawater taste of the creatures, "My tongue was a filling estuary"; after that, Heaney takes off into graceful, expanding variations on the same theme. In other words, the poem does not advance into unknown territory, it circles elegantly around and around on itself until it ends where it began, with language…. This is a twentieth-century expression of a nineteenth-century preoccupation, old aestheticism and new linguistics, Gautier filtered through Barthes.

Heaney's real strength and originality are not, I think, in his flashy rhetorical pieces, or in the poems where he takes on the big themes that are unavoidable for a serious poet living in Northern Ireland. They are, instead, in modest, perfect little poems like "Homecomings," or the short sequence which gives this book its title, or the closing stanzas of "The Skunk."… Heaney's originality [in "The Skunk"] lies in his aroused, free-floating sensuality which pushes at the language, mingling the other senses—smell, sound, touch, taste—in visual images…. When Heaney is at his best he maintains a tender, fruitful muddle between the body of the natural world and the body of his wife. It is beautifully done in a way perfected most recently by poets like Snodgrass and Wilbur: pure and expert and deliberately low-key. (pp. 16-17)

[Heaney's work] challenges no presuppositions, does not upset or scare, is mellifluous, craftsmanly, and often perfect within its chosen limits. In other words, it is beautiful minor poetry, like Philip Larkin's, though replacing his tetchy, bachelor gloom with something sweeter, more sensual, more open to the world—more, in a word, married.

It is, however, precisely these reassuring qualities which have been seized on by his champions as proof of the fact that in Heaney Britain has, at last, another major poet. This seems to me grossly disproportionate both to the fragility of the verse and also to Heaney's own modest intentions. After all, he does not often come on like Yeats reincarnated and much of his excellence depends on his knowing his own range and keeping rigorously to it, no more, no less….

If Heaney really is the best we can do, then the whole troubled, exploratory thrust of modern poetry has been a diversion from the right true way. Eliot and his contemporaries, Lowell and his, Plath and hers had it all wrong: to try to make clearings of sense and discipline and style in the untamed, unfenced darkness was to mistake morbidity for inspiration. It was, in the end, mere melodrama, understandable perhaps in the Americans who lack a tradition in these matters, but inexcusable in the British.

These, as I understand them, are the implications of Heaney's abrupt elevation into the pantheon of British poetry. (p. 17)

A. Alvarez, "A Fine Way with the Language," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1980 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. XXVII, No. 3, March 6, 1980, pp. 16-17.

Shaun O'Connell

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[Since Seamus Heaney] is a poet of sustained achievement and since his life has touched so many sides of Ireland—North-South, rural-urban, violent-pacific—he is contended for, like a valuable piece of land, by squads of contrary critics. The intensity of these critical responses suggests how much his poetry, as well as the political situation he sometimes describes, affects. (p. 3)

From his first poem, "Digging," in his first book, Death of a Naturalist, Heaney pulled away from poetry of overt political purpose…. This, though, may have been a resolution more easily arrived at in 1966, before the resurgence of violence in the North. In any case, since then Heaney has sought more elaborate and remote imagery in which to implant his oblique commentaries, though at times he is willing, outside his poems, to decode his imagery in order to point up his thematic purposes. In 1979, for example, he contributed a revealing preface to a handsomely-illustrated edition of his "Ugolino", the savage poem which concludes Field Work; Heaney makes his political-poetical purposes unmistakable when he explains that he was drawn to the material

because I sensed there was something intimate, almost carnal, about these feuds and sorrows of mediaeval Pisa, something that could perhaps mesh with and house the equivalent and destructive energies at work in, say, contemporary Belfast.

As Heaney digs through time for apt tropes to mesh with matters of great and immediate moment, it is not clear that he is not using his spade as something of a weapon.

For all that, it is clear too that Heaney also feels personal distress at any overt political purposes to which his poetry might be put….

Heaney's ambivalent attitude—his poetry both consumed and nurtured by the Troubles—is beautifully caught in the implications of his epigraph, from Yeats, for Preoccupations … and his later reflections upon it. In Explorations Yeats argued that Cathleen ni Houlihan was not written to affect opinion. If he had written it with an audience in mind "all would be oratorical and insincere." The poet, Yeats argues, can only move others by reaching into himself "because all life has the same root."…

[Heaney's] poems bear oblique paradoxical relation to the crisis in Northern Ireland…. [He] has politicized his imagery, as he has put it, in "The Tollund Man," from Wintering Out, a poem in which an unearthed corpse from a Jutland bog made him feel both "unhappy and at home," made him feel an essential identity between old and new "man-killing parishes." There and in "Whatever You Say Say Nothing," from North, Heaney speaks directly of the killing grounds of conflict in political imagery, but without evident partisanship. He would, then, dance near the edge of direct statement, yet pull back into enlarging metaphors, particularly those associated with bogs….

Part of Heaney, it seems, wishes to retreat from political responsibility into the personal, yet another part of him wishes to move through the personal into realms of larger significance…. Thus Field Work is well-balanced between personal, even confessional poems, particularly the stately "Glanmore Sonnets," in which the acts of union are computed in the algebra of private calculation, and those poems that cast a wider net, particularly "Triptych," filled as it is with the comfortless noises of gunshot and helicopter. In "The Strand at Lough Beg," a poem of mourning for his assassinated cousin, Heaney appears as a character, at once grieving relative and celebrating poet, washing the body clean with dew. Death is noted, shock and rage are registered, then all is incorporated, perhaps too easily, into the cleansing ceremony of elegy. Poetry replaces terror….

Heaney invokes paradox when he attempts to make the poems in Field Work at once less political and more public, both more personal and more direct. Yet it is in the midst of these tensions that Heaney's poetry gains its force…. [The] Troubles provide Heaney with a frame of reference, another level of allusion, a field of tropes, all of which make his poetry tensely relevant, about something that hovers between the personal and the universal. The Troubles become a network of metaphors that lie behind and beyond even those poems that do not invoke the political situation.

All of this is evident in "Oysters," the first poem in Field Work….

Though "Oysters" is not directly about the Irish Troubles, it takes little imagination to connect the men who violate "lower" orders of being for their taste with the fierce power politics of Ireland. Still, here it is best left unsaid by the poet, who dramatizes a perception only incidentally Irish. As in his bog poetry, Heaney here has dug beneath the particular politics of the moment and unearthed a larger pattern of violation. (p. 4)

Those who see Seamus Heaney as a symbol of hope in a troubled land are not, of course, wrong to do so, though they may be missing much of the undercutting complexities of his poetry, the backwash of ironies which make him as bleak as he is bright. Those who see him as the darling of the undemanding critical establishment are not talking about all that goes on in his poetry. Furthermore, it seems a dangerous game—… to move too freely across the boundary lines between poetry and politics, between pure verb and impure propaganda. Heaney's best poetry swings between, combining clarity of statement with poised paradox: the imagery of shock which reaches under the divisions of the moment and stretches beyond….

In Preoccupations he speaks of poetry as divination, "as a restoration of the culture to itself," though he wisely adds a characteristic qualification: "to forge a poem is one thing, to forge the uncreated conscience of the race, as Stephen Dedalus put it, is quite another and places daunting pressures and responsibilities on anyone who would risk the name of poet." The problem, perhaps, resides with those who read Heaney, readers who should be quite cautious about asking this poet to stand as a symbol of national unity. Neither the problems of Ireland nor the possibilities of poetry are well served by fusing the two….

Still, a poet remains interesting for the risks he chooses to run. Heaney bears watching in part because he is a poet who will sustain tension: write for himself before his audience, yet also, as he has said of Yeats, "pay into the public life." A neat trick, a delicate balance. (p. 5)

Shaun O'Connell, "Seamus Heaney: Poetry and Power," in New Boston Review (copyright 1980 by Boston Critic, Inc.), Vol. V, Nos. V & VI, August-September, 1980, pp. 3-5.

Anthony Thwaite

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The first six pieces in [Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968–1978], all quite short, form an untitled section on their own, though three are headed "Mossbawn" and three "Belfast". They are all, in the best sense, self-centred—informal circumstantial sketches of [Heaney's] upbringing in Co Derry, his childhood reading and absorption of "rhymes", his literary apprenticeship as an undergraduate at Queen's …, and a laconic Christmas 1971 message from the battlefront….

One of Heaney's considerable gifts in these prose pieces is that he keeps a proper—and not mock-modest—commonsensical balance, whether he is talking about himself or other poets….

The refinement and extension of Heaney's art, which reached its striven-for level in North …, goes hand-in-glove with his strong but delicate handling of other men's flowers. In Preoccupations, lectures and reviews show a generosity of spirit, and an acuteness of mind, which can see the best in such different recent poets as Ted Hughes, Geoffrey Hill, Philip Larkin, Theodore Roethke, Hugh MacDiarmid, Stevie Smith, Robert Lowell; among the Irish, Patrick Kavanagh, John Hewitt, John Montague, Paul Muldoon—as well as, presidingly and almost forbiddingly, Yeats; which can find as much nourishment, unobviously, in Wordsworth as in, obviously, Hopkins. In all these plumbings in prose, what is felt for is the nerve of the rhythm, the energy of the word, which, together, reach what Eliot … called "the auditory imagination"….

Although, on the face of it, many of the preoccupations of Heaney's prose may seem to be personal and/or Irish (and perhaps there is no need for the "and/or"), the most impressive single piece in the book is a long lecture called "Englands of the Mind", which takes three poets who "treat England as a region—or rather treat their region as England—in different and complementary ways": Hughes, Hill, and Larl in. Heaney's sensitive and sympathetic discussion of these three concentrates on their speech, their special language, in a way that has eluded most of their explicators and standardbearers…. What Heaney establishes is the way in which "their three separate voices are guaranteed by three separate foundations which, when combined, represent almost the total resources of the English language itself", and how these draw on distinct landscapes…. This essay is an altogether masterly analysis, precise in its convictions, of a kind that only a poet could achieve and only a specially gifted poet could communicate so effortlessly and scrupulously….

Taken together (and taking the unrepresented Field Work into account too),… Selected Poems and Preoccupations show Heaney as all of a piece, a man in whom technique and craft (he makes his distinction between them in "Feelings into Words") have made a happy marriage. If he was overpraised for his early poems, as I think he was, he is now in danger of being cut down to size by those repelled by the lumbering tread of the symbolic exegetes and the over-attention of the elephantine misreaders. But he seems to me a man who knows his own mind and will not easily be deflected.

Anthony Thwaite, "The Hiding Places of Power," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1980; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4048, October 31, 1980, p. 1222.

David Wright

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[Selected Poems 1965–1975] is an impressive little book in that the poems have an obsidian polish and are obviously made to last; that some will, there is no doubt. They are documentary, rural poems shaped out of spare packed words, as if written by a staccato Edward Thomas. The best are pure lyrics like "Anahorish", "The Given Note", and "A New Song"; the least compelling are the ones whose intentions impose on the reader—the well-known bog poems for example….

What has opened my eyes to Mr Heaney's quality is his prose, backhanded though the compliment may seem…. [The calibre of Preoccupations] is such as to establish Mr Heaney as that rarest of rare birds, a serious critic in the class of Yeats, Pound and Eliot. Like them he has the advantage (I would say the sine qua non) of being a practitioner of the art he examines….

The difference between craft and technique, the importance of the speaking voice, sense of place, origins, lines of communication with the past, are among Mr Heaney's persistent preoccupations: and what he has to say about them is of the greatest value and appositeness.

David Wright, "A Poet's Prose," in The Times Educational Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1980; reproduced from The Times Educational Supplement by permission), No. 3360, November 14, 1980, p. 20.

Robert Pinsky

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The strengths and limitations of poet-critics, as a class, seem to come from intensity of focus: They need to think about writing, about poetic composition. And any insight or idea in their criticism grows somehow from the complex, subterranean roots of concern with composition, and with the circumstances of composition. These collected lectures and reviews ["Preoccupations"] by the gifted Irish poet Seamus Heaney often explore those roots in exciting ways, dealing intimately with composition as an act of mind more profound than mere rhetoric, and showing how the circumstances of composition extend to the most urgent, painful historical questions.

The moments of such penetration come primarily, I find, when Mr. Heaney meditates on his personal and national past—Irish speech, landscape, history, poetry, and hereditary blood-struggles—touching and testing the links between them. The most moving piece in the book, the lecture "Feeling Into Words," confirms the idea that Mr. Heaney's vitality and seriousness rely in large measure upon a particular soil and its past….

As a prose writer, Mr. Heaney has a nimble, elegant charm and the ability to rise suddenly, at his best, from conventional ideas to home truths. He manages to keep a little of the charm of thought even in the journeyman reviews included in "Preoccupations."…

On the subject of poets close to him—Wordsworth, Hopkins, Mandelstam, Lowell, his own opposed tutelary geniuses Yeats and Patrick Kavanagh—Mr. Heaney writes with authority, persuasive intensity and learning. His ability to go into the texture of poetic language and figures of sound, and his speculations about the way a life and times inform a life's work, remind one that there is a taste to be satisfied by literary criticism….

If any mannerisms mar the book here and there, the offending ones to my taste would be the tones of the literary journalist, not the university instructor. In the service of a convenient orotundity, for instance, he sprinkles little allusive tags into his sentences now and then with an effect I find mechanical….

Such coasting makes the moments when Mr. Heaney's underlying alertness and seriousness come all the way into the foreground that much more stirring by contrast. If the solemn tag lines indicate that he is allowing himself an easy moment, comic charm can sometimes indicate that he is about to deal with crucial matters.

Robert Pinsky, "The Prose of an Irish Poet," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 21, 1980, p. 4.

Marjorie Perloff

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[Of] the 10 essays in Preoccupations (there are also 11 short reviews), only one stands out: the Berkeley lecture (1976) called "Englands of the Mind," in which Heaney discusses the ways in which sense of place functions as "a confirmation of an identity which is threatened" in the poetic language of Ted Hughes, Geoffrey Hill, and Philip Larkin. The distinctions drawn between Hughes' Anglo-Saxon, Hill's "Anglo-Romanesque," and Larkin's "English language … turned humanist" and "besomed clean of its inkhornisms and its irrational magics by the eighteenth century" are both interesting and convincing. But when Heaney writes about his own childhood or about the poets who have meant most to him—Wordsworth, Hopkins, Yeats—he is given to commonplaces….

[And] Heaney's statements of poetics, whether his own or that of others, are curiously bland….

There is not a statement here with which anyone would want to take issue for these are, after all, classroom pieties. What is missing is a particular point of view, an individual perspective, at least one if not 13 ways of looking at a blackbird…. [It] is hard to remember what Heaney says about Yeats, for his Yeats, the dreamer turned practical man turned visionary, is a familiar textbook figure. (p. 5)

It is [his] inclination to speechify rather than to engage his subject directly that makes even such celebrated Heaney poems as "The Bog People" and "The Grauballe Man" a case of what Calvin Bedient calls "deliberate myth-making, not the stab of astonishment" [see excerpt above]. Even "The Harvest Knot," which Bloom praises so extravagantly, [see excerpt above] is almost spoiled by the reference to the love-knot made of straw as a "knowable corona," an epithet that almost gives the poet's game away. Perhaps the problem is that, as the prose pieces suggest, Heaney doesn't really trust his emotions or his intellect, that he doubts repeatedly whether his own particular response to things is significant. Having been cast by friendly critics in the role of "the greatest Irish poet since Yeats," as the spokesman of decency and good sense in a world torn by the violence of the Ulster war, Heaney seems to have withdrawn into a realm of easy solutions. (p. 11)

Marjorie Perloff, "Seamus Heaney: Peat, Politics and Poetry," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1981, The Washington Post), January 25, 1981, pp. 5, 11.

Rodney Rybus

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[The essays in Preoccupations] are freely admitted to be occasional pieces brought about by the life of a freelance writer rather than an academic critic, and none at all the worse for that, though I think that on balance they do throw more light on Heaney's own poetry than others'. Sometimes the writing wears its public responsibility too heavily, the language becoming orotund or tortuous…. Heaney must be as widely read and respected now as any living writer of poetry in English … in this country [England], perhaps because the detailed and sensuously vivid evocation of rural Ireland and childhood has appealed to urban poetry-readers on account of its 'distance': pastorally attractive but largely unchallenging. While Heaney is rightly cautious of turning Irish-English contentions and writing into a 'spectator sport', he has shown in North and Field Work … a desire to engage more directly with Ulster's contemporary pain…. What is clear from his verse and prose is that of all the Irish poets now writing [Heaney] has most actively and consistently worked to forge a new voice for Irish poetry, worked with a Yeatsian intensity for it. That doesn't mean that he is a similar kind of poet or that he is 'the best poet since W. B. Yeats': no poet at Heaney's time of life should be saddled with that kind of public approbation…. It undervalues the considerable virtues of poets like Montague, Murphy, Mahon and Longley, and makes it no easier, surely, for Heaney himself to find his 'befitting emblems of adversity'. (pp. 77-8)

Rodney Rybus, "Matters of Ireland: Recent Irish Poetry," in Stand (copyright © by Stand), Vol. 22, No. 3, (1981), pp. 72-8.∗

W. S. Di PIERO

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 940

[Heaney's] work, poetry and prose alike, is rooted in the need to penetrate, claim, and express the rough exigencies of history. He seeks coherence and continuity. "Digging," the opening poem in Death of a Naturalist … and the initial poem in [Poems: 1965–1975], announces the work that will follow. Writing by a window, the poet hears the "clean rasping sound" of his father digging turf, and in that sound hears his grandfather's work before him. Digging becomes at once a signal of origins and legacies and a sounding of Heaney's own poetic ambitions. He has "no spade to follow men like them," so he will dig instead with his pen…. The metaphor is meant to articulate the method by which the poet will carry on, while at the same time departing from, the family tradition. Although the fancy may be somewhat strained and self-important, Heaney's intention is clear enough: he wants connections, continuities, and historical justification for his art.

In one essential particular the truth of the metaphor is redeemed, for in many of his poems Heaney does dig with his pen, excavating, unearthing histories of families, country, and self. But in the poem's opening lines, he also describes the feel of the pen in his hand as "snug as a gun." The figure is at first glance rather impressive, and its apparent authority is boosted by the clicking backward rhyme; but what has this terrorist image to do with agriculture, archaeology, or intellectual exertion of any sort? I question the integrity of this core metaphor because it prefigures a larger problem in Heaney's work…. [It] must be said that his ambition, which is in almost every way admirable and pure, does on occasion lead him to will connections by virtue of overwrought metaphor, leading him into good writing which is not always good poetry. The danger for someone of Heaney's abundant talent is that his aspiration will spiral his work away from integral metaphoric truth. But when the two, aspiration and metaphoric truth, are unified, the poetry is exact, deliberate, and natural, as in "At a Potato Digging."… This poem is an extraordinary meditation on natural dependencies, Irish sorrow, the body as bearer of history, the legacies of deprivation and blight. The language has the gritty sonority one hears in Dante…. (pp. 558-59)

A poet often writes prose to articulate an investigative technique or explanatory procedure, by which his intended discovery, probably initially intuited, may be claimed and justified. An exhibition of need and will, it's also an act of self-declaration. The essays in Preoccupations demonstrate Heaney's aspirations, his awareness of his own position in the larger poetic tradition, and an account of those patterns of exploration which comprise the nervous system of his verse. Heaney is almost obsessively concerned with what we might call the natural history of language, its origins, morphologies, homologies. Whatever the occasion—childhood, farm life, politics and culture in Northern Ireland, other poets past and present—Heaney strikes time and again at the taproot of language, examining its genetic structures, trying to discover how it has served, in all its changes, as a culture bearer, a world to contain imaginations, at once a rhetorical weapon and nutriment of spirit. He writes of these matters with rare discrimination and resourcefulness, and a winning impatience with the received wisdom….

Heaney's essays are studded with reiterated phrases and notions, but such repetition is less a sign of indolence than of a coherent and strong-willed intellect testing, tuning, and revising its themes. (p. 560)

At every point, Heaney shows himself a discriminating and intense diagnostician of the poetic tradition. He brilliantly explains the way in which poetry issues from the roughly shaped, vaguely stirring beginnings in intuition and compulsion. He draws firm distinctions between his predecessors, clarifying that diversity (and divisiveness) which gives such quarrelsome vitality to poetic tradition….

The most crucial distinction Heaney makes regarding the writing of poetry is that between craft [and technique]…. (p. 561)

North, the last volume collected in Poems: 1965–1975, suffers from the dominion of craft over technique. The territory, as in all of Heaney's books, is clearly demarcated. North is in large part an anthology of death chants, songs of bones and boglands, anatomizations of the body of language and history, another dig into the geological strata of culture, its residues, seepages, signs. A number of the poems, however, like the early "Digging," demonstrate the triumph of rhetoric over theme, of mere good writing over investigative vision…. Poems like "Bog Queen," "The Grauballe Man," and "Kinship," which at first shine forth with the sort of writing that one might praise for its ingenuity and intensity, are finally so clenched, or so overwrought in metaphor, that they inevitably become little more than a stage on which the poet performs. When style comes unstuck from feeling, subject matter dissociated from thematic explorations, the result is the kind of poem that bullies the reader into admiration. (pp. 561-62)

I'm not suggesting that Seamus Heaney is going stale, or that his inspiration is failing, or that he is writing too much. I do, however, feel obliged to say that at this point in his work, now that the public office has imposed itself upon the private, and now that Field Work has shown that he still has not resolved what seem to me major questions of craft and vision (questions appropriately asked only of a poet of unmistakably major talent), he may now need to be more vigilant than ever. (p. 562)

W. S. Di Piero, "Digs," in The American Scholar (copyright © 1981 by the United Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa; reprinted by permission of the publishers), Vol. 50, No. 4, Autumn, 1981, pp. 558-62.

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