Seamus Heaney Heaney, Seamus (Justin) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1148 words.)

Robert Buttel

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Anne Stevenson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1173 words.)

Gregory A. Schirmer

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 966 words.)

Jay Parini

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 entire section is 2625 words.)

Harold Bloom

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 843 words.)

A. Alvarez

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 961 words.)

Shaun O'Connell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

(The entire section is 1088 words.)

Anthony Thwaite

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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David Wright

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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Robert Pinsky

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 413 words.)

Marjorie Perloff

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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,...

(The entire section is 379 words.)

Rodney Rybus

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

(The entire section is 272 words.)


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

(The entire section is 940 words.)