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.)
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...
(The entire section is 12,592 words.)