Seamus Heaney

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Heaney, Seamus 1939–

Heaney is an award-winning Northern Irish poet. Although most of his poetry is set in Northern Ireland, it is only recently that Heaney has considered its political turmoil in his writing. Many critics consider him the best poet now writing in Ireland. (See also CLC, Vols. 5, 7, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85-88.)

Patricia Beer

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Geographically [Heaney's] landscape [in Wintering Out] is still the Irish countryside, past or present….

Sometimes the countryside is seen, dramatically, through the eyes of others, not very human others and one of them an outright mermaid, who returns to the sea wrapped in the smoke-reeks, straw-musts and films of mildew from the thatch of her lover's house…. As to metaphorical landscapes, there is little in this book, apart from the prefatory poem, which deals specifically with the present troubles, but of course 'specifically' is the operative word, and even if it were not, what Heaney chooses to tell us is his own business.

The tenacity with which Heaney, superficially the most urbane and least urban of modern poets, clings to his chosen rural setting is certainly not at this stage due to any limitation of actual experience. It comes perhaps from the spirit which makes compilers of anthologies for children still include such a vast majority of poems about the countryside…. The scenery of Wintering Out is predictable—misty and waterlogged and exhausting, with very black darkness—and its motifs are recognisable and recurrent: half-doors, cobblestones, swinging lanterns. It is an orderly realm of cause and effect. Desirably or undesirably, one thing leads to another…. There is none of the relief of surrealism, as when Ted Hughes's cat is found sitting outside the front door when his murderer gets back from the river.

Out of this sort of order come well-ordered poems, of the well-made kind which, significantly, the younger Irish poets have been giving us. Seamus Heaney's technique is as brilliant and idiosyncratic as ever. His poems do remind us of someone but it always turns out to be Seamus Heaney, except for such odd echoes as, for example, 'huge pleasures in the water', which necessarily recalls Dylan Thomas's 'huge weddings in the waves'. 'Smaller and clearer as the years go by'—Larkin's words about the young lady in the photograph album—could apply to Heaney's work. The poems in Wintering Out seem to be smaller in the best sense of the word: condensed even in their look on the page, concentrated, a long story made short. They are clear in every sense of the word: intelligible, confident, vivid. Every so often a metaphor starts showing off.

               The moon's host elevated
               in a monstrance of holly trees

would have pleased Polonius. But most are more subtly memorable:

                  A nimble snout of flood
                  licks over stepping stones
                  and goes uprooting.

Heaney is not only concerned with sound but obsessed with pronunciation: in poem after poem, vowels, consonants, the organs of speech themselves provide metaphor: in 'Toome', 'Broagh', 'Traditions', 'The Wool Trade', 'A New Song'. Like its two predecessors, Wintering Out is an impressive collection.

Patricia Beer, "Seamus Heaney's Third Book of Poems," in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1972; reprinted by permission of Patricia Beer), Vol. 88, No. 2280, December 7, 1972, p. 795.

William H. Pritchard

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I've admired Seamus Heaney's work, but have preserved my distance from it: almost no human beings, but grainily humble perceptions in terse lines. There are some further capable poems in this mode in … [North ]; yet I confess to being more interested in the group of poems from the book's Part II. There, because he has been pressed to, Heaney writes about being a poet in Ulster...

(This entire section contains 203 words.)

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in time of The Troubles. "What ever you Say Say Nothing," one of these poems has it; Heaney's way is the way of an Irish poet writing sixty years after Yeats's "Easter, 1916" or "Meditations in Time of Civil War." He carries it off with both dignity and gallows humor; in fact I hadn't fully realized until these poems showed me, how sly and expert is the presence of their poet…. I found the relative talkiness of these concluding poems, their reach towards some kind of social sophistication and manner—even put to the purposes of more elaborately saying "nothing"—an attractive new direction I hope Heaney will keep on taking. (pp. 457-58)

William H. Pritchard, "More Poetry Matters," in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1976 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXIX, No. 3, Autumn, 1976, pp. 453-63.∗


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North is the latest collection of verse by Ireland's most significant living poet. The theme is Ireland, but in a new regional and particularly temporal sense. North works less as bleak geographical than as bleaker historical force: from the Vikings of Dublin to the retributive Ulstermen wreaking atrocities in the present…. Ritual brings on and legitimizes the round of punishings. Individual and tribal deaths surface in this secret and retentive landscape, where the poet steps "through origins" "kinned by hieroglyphic peat" and reverses Yeat's line: "This centre holds."

More than coherence of place, there's coherence of action. Action is the key to Heaney's poetics. "'Description is revelation,'" yes. But this means here the imaginative retrieval of place, objects and people, and then the naming of these and their movement toward expression. This must be the direction for the modern lyric, away from the reflexive indulgence of "poets who sing like Onan." There is the personal…. And there's the glorious spectacle of the poet's faculties employing a vocabulary of richly restorative sensual and especially temporal particulars in archeology, topography, physiognomy….

Kenneth McRobbie, "World Literature in Review: 'North'," in World Literature Today (copyright 1977 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 51, No. 3, Summer, 1977, p. 446.

Donald Hall

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North is Seamus Heaney's fourth book of poems. Death of a Naturalist was his first, a fully achieved book, followed by a second volume—so often observed in young poets—which was hasty and inferior, Door into Dark; followed in Heaney's case by an excellent third volume, Wintering Out, and now by North which is the best of all. One has the sense in Heaney that politics is forced upon him by the combination of nationality and circumstance…. Circumstance invades this volume…. The second and final section of this book [is politically inspired]. It is good poetry—and there is not a single poem among them that ranks with Heaney's best. It's a poetry written out of social necessity. No man or woman in Northern Ireland at this time could avoid social statement without loss of humanity.

But when mad Ireland teases Heaney into the truest poetry, in North it is confrontation with the long dead which provides us the favor. Heaney writes of the bog people [in "The Grauballe Man"], corpses preserved in the humus of Ireland…. Here in the short lines, sentences elegantly broken across them, contemporary man touches down at an ancient source. In the title poem he makes the same motion downward through to the "longship's swimming tongue," which weds him present and past to poet's journey and task. (pp. 156-58)

Donald Hall, "The Nation of Poets," in Parnassus: Poetry in Review (copyright © Poetry in Review Foundation), Vol. 6, No. 1, Fall-Winter, 1977, pp. 145-60.∗


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"Kinship" and "Funeral Rites," two poems in Seamus Heaney's latest volume North (1975), suggest a theme that recurs in many of his poems, namely, the importance of connection in human experience, the personal and social value of a cultural matrix within which behavior can have intelligibility. (p. 71)

Heaney's first two volumes, Death of a Naturalist (1966) and Door into the Dark (1969), are almost totally concerned with farming and domestic life in the rural area of Northern Ireland where he grew up. Profoundly aware of the traditions that once gave meaning to rural Irish life—the land, the rhythms of farming and fishing, family customs, the mysteries of nature and love—he is equally aware that rural Ireland has nearly lost its customary life. Many of the poems in Death of a Naturalist and Door into the Dark look back longingly to the old ways. Heaney's more recent volumes, Wintering Out (1972) and North (1975) both broaden and deepen his subjects. Aware of the need to develop his own imagination on the one hand and conscious of being part of a violent and ungovernable society on the other, he looks for answers in the bogland, in the goddess-mother whose "wet centre is bottomless" ("Bogland"). His imagination is stimulated by traces of the ancient Irish language he finds embedded in bogland placenames that have survived the imposition of English. These words may enable one to make contact with an ancient Irish spirit. For a present-day Northern Ireland, which has lost its cultural roots, he finds "antecedents" in the traditions of prehistoric societies recently discovered buried in Danish and Irish bogland. The archaeological evidence reveals people apparently obsessed with violence and murder, sometimes ritualized, more often merely self-indulgent. (pp. 71-2)

The poems in [Death of a Naturalist and Door into the Dark] are generally more direct, less figurative, less allusive, and less "literary" than those in Wintering Out and North. In his first two volumes he proposes to dig into the darkness of the earth and his own imagination with his spade-pen to discover his roots. Knowing that Heaney was born a Roman Catholic and attended Catholic schools until he went to the university, one might expect the traditions and rituals of that faith to have a central place in his poetry. But actually there is little reference to Catholicism. (p. 73)

While Heaney makes few direct references to Roman Catholicism, his consciousness is certainly structured by the myth of the Fall. His poems typically move from "then" to "now," first looking back nostalgically to a time when life had value, and then describing the present as a time without value. (p. 74)

The myth of happy times once long ago is most obvious in Death of a Naturalist in "St. Francis and the Birds," a poem very like Yeats's "Byzantium," where time is fixed and evil has no place. Here are not the rotting blackberries, the drowned kittens, dead child, and aging parents one finds elsewhere in the book. In this poem the artist can connect with his environment, creating the possibility of love. Our present world is quite a different sort of place, where things have fallen apart and the center cannot hold. The poem which follows "St. Francis and the Birds," a poem called "In Small Townlands," also deals with an artist, this time the painter Colin Middleton, whose imagination "creates" a new world. Its qualities starkly contrast with the ordered and beautiful world of St. Francis and suggest the waste land of Northern Ireland. "His eyes, thick, greedy lenses, fire / This bare bald earth with white and red, / Incinerate it till it's black / And brilliant as a funeral pyre: / A new world cools out of his head."

The strongest figures in Death of a Naturalist and Door into the Dark are those, like Heaney's father, who were devoted to the land and whose lives were ritualized in harmony with their environment. (p. 75)

"Lough Neagh Sequence" represents Heaney's most sustained effort in Door into the Dark … to recapture the traditions and rituals of rural Irish life. The subject of the seven poems is eel fishing and the sequence moves from the traditional lore of the fisherman in "Up the Shore" and the beginning of the instinctive return of the eels to spawn ("Beyond Sargasso"), to the rituals of "Bait," "Setting," and "Lifting," and finally of the death of the eel at the end of its life cycle ("Return") and a boy's fear and fascination at being witness to these natural rhythms ("Visions"). Heaney is intrigued by creatures so instinctively connected to their environments that their actions are ordered and beautiful ("The Trout," "Cow in Calf") and by rural people who participate nearly as instinctively in traditional ways.

Seamus Heaney does not have the naïve romantic notion that nature never betrays the heart which loves her. His poems present nature as a random power that sometimes rewards but more often frustrates human [efforts]. "At a Potato Digging" describes the ritual worship of a fickle mother-earth…. The laborers who operate the mechanical harvester in "At a Potato Digging" contrast sharply with Heaney's noble individuals…. Heaney sees neither harmony nor rhythm in them at work or at rest. When set against the easy natural movement of the gulls, their awkwardness is even more apparent.

This life-denying and graceless ritual of mechanized labor contrasts with another ritual clearly life-affirming, the ritual of sexual relations and marriage. Of the several marriage poems in Death of a Naturalist …, "Poem For Marie" is most obviously [concerned with tradition and ritual]. (pp. 76-7)

The last poem in Door into the Dark …, "Bogland," connects Seamus Heaney's first two volumes to Wintering Out … and North…. Moving beyond the traditions of rural Irish society …, "Bogland" suggests another kind of history and culture that has more recently interested Heaney. His realization that the traditions of rural Ireland have had a relatively brief and contingent existence leads him to seek other "connections," other older and more stable reference points. He continues to trust in his homeland, but now he wants to learn more about himself and his society in relation to the archaeology of that land…. [The final line of the poem], "The wet centre is bottomless," suggests the religious and sexual aspects of the earth. Heaney develops this notion of the earth as goddess-mother more fully in Wintering Out and North. (pp. 77-8)

Heaney's own uprootedness has intensified his search for broader cultural and historical roots in Wintering Out. Several of the poems such as "Bog Oak," "Anahorish," "Toome," "Broaghe," and "A New Song," find traces of the Irish language surviving in Northern Irish placenames that could open a door into that dark. As an Irishman, Heaney resents England's centuries-long effort to take away his culture and especially his language. But some of the old words have survived the imposition of English, and they are resonant with the old ways. Poems like "Gifts of Rain," "A Northern Hoard," and "The Tollund Man" continue Heaney's "soundings" for "antediluvian lore" to help him comprehend Northern Ireland's present nightmare. (p. 78)

"Gifts of Rain" and "Toome" bring together … two kinds of "digging," digging for the roots of language and digging for the archaeological roots of history. (p. 79)

Heaney does not presume that the pressure of English ways alone is responsible for loss and powerlessness in Ireland. Had he done so, his poetry would be provincial…. [He] understands that ours is an age without sacred time or space. In Wintering Out he develops this theme most fully in the five poems that make up "A Northern Hoard." (p. 82)

Each of the poems in "A Northern Hoard" sets the present chaotic state of Northern Ireland against a time of ritualized behavior and the contrast dramatically highlights the psychological, religious, and cultural impoverishment of that unfortunate country. "Roots" begins with the impossibility of sexual love in a barren and uprooted place reminding Heaney of the Old Testament Gomorrah, and then moves to the only space where sexuality can still express itself in deeply rooted mythic forms, the space of dreams. "No Man's Land," "Stump," and "No Sanctuary" set the terrors of our present rootless time against terrors in a time of faith. The Judeo-Christian experiences of Passover, plague, and All Souls' Day were times of tribulation and testing, but likewise times when men believed in divine purpose. "Tinder," the final poem of "A Northern Hoard," introduces a quite different cultural reference, the Danish Iron Age, which provides Heaney with a rich source of inspiration for other poems in Wintering Out and especially in North. In "Tinder" Heaney stresses the similarity between the Judeo-Christian experience and the "antediluvian lore" revealed in the excavation of bogs in Denmark and Ireland. In other poems, particularly in North, he will be less confident about the faith of this Iron-Age culture, and will emphasize instead its distressing similarities to our own age. (pp. 82-3)

The idea of an Iron-Age society structured around ritual … changes radically in North…. Many poems in this volume, including the title poem, consider the "antediluvian lore" and "new history" to be found buried in the bog…. Heaney moves from the Iron-Age people of Denmark to the Danish presence in Ireland in "Belderg," "Funeral Rites," "North," "Viking Dublin: Trial Pieces," "Bone Dreams," and "Bog Queen." These tribal societies now seem to Heaney much more like our own. He no longer contrasts an older, ritually structured society with current loss of faith. On the contrary, in North the social behavior of the ancient peoples reveals depressing similarities to our own. (p. 87)

Life-enhancing experiences in North occur only in the private world of the poet's memory, imagination, and dreams. Or, put in the ritual terms of "Kinship," the benevolent goddess of one's private world becomes in society-at-large an indifferent goddess who "swallows / our love and terror." One of Heaney's most ambitious poems, "Kinship" again celebrates intimacy with land, language, and family. But intimacy with society is not possible. (p. 89)

However, in the narrowed world of family and self, life-enhancing relations are still possible. "Kinship" begins characteristically with Heaney walking in the bog searching for "antediluvian lore." The redemptive powers of the earth do not flow into society-at-large, but only to the sensitive and trusting spirit. He speaks in section I of "hieroglyphic peat" and the "coopered secrets / of process and ritual." For the enlightened one, the bog remains a source of sacred rings: "the unstopped mouth / of an urn, a moondrinker." Digging into the bog becomes a sexual experience in sections III and IV, as the poet himself becomes part of a fertility ritual…. Heaney's kinship with his father is presented in section V as a sacred ritual as well. Interestingly, the small boy has a patriarchal rather than matriarchal concept of primordial power. Only later does he learn of female power. (pp. 89-90)

"Funeral Rites" provides an excellent final example of Seamus Heaney's concern for tradition and ritual. The poem attempts to replace a ritual-of-memory, the family observances of a Catholic wake, with a ritual-of-imagination, a burial service that could incorporate the ancient symbols of Iron-Age peoples. While the senseless murders of the young continue in Northern Ireland, the victims' families dare not risk the exposure of a traditional burial service. Heaney himself has lost faith in the symbols of the traditional Catholic wake and burial. So, for different reasons, poet and community are without ritual: "We pine for ceremony, / customary rhythms." In "Funeral Rites" a burial rite is imagined that might give these violent deaths the dignity of association with the elemental, life-sustaining female powers revealed elsewhere in his poems. Heaney does not presume that such imagined ritual can actually happen in the afflicted communities of Northern Ireland. But the ritual is obviously important for him, and he may feel that this imagined link with what he regards as fundamental truth is the only sort of "connection" he can make with the society of Northern Ireland. (p. 90)

"Funeral Rites" concludes … with Seamus Heaney's most dramatic use of the "sacred ring" motif. Just as on the domestic level—in a significant reversal of the Pauline adage—husbands must be submissive to their wives in order to experience the richest possibilities of marriage ("Poem for Marie"), so in an ideal society the energies of the hero must be channeled through female power to have order and value: "he turned with a joyful face / to look at the moon." Heaney nowhere else presents the case for ritual more unequivocally. Provided that it has not degenerated into platitude and habit, ritual can still give order to life. Digging into the "bog" of his imagination as well as into the archaeological lore of the real bog has convinced Heaney that, even in these desperate times, one might hope to connect with life-enhancing elemental powers and, through the discipline of language, to give these connections shape. (p. 92)

Arthur E. McGuinness, "'Hoarder of Common Ground': Tradition and Ritual in Seamus Heaney's Poetry," in Éire-Ireland (copyright Irish American Cultural Institute), Vol. XIII, No. 2, Summer, 1978, pp. 71-92.

Peter Porter

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Heaney has plenty of magic in his poetry: that moving on from the first unusual word, the right placing of which is probably in the gift of every poet, to a second one which clinches the insight, and thence to the confirming vision which makes the poem memorable.

You can see this in the first poem in [Field Work], entitled 'Oysters.' Clearly, such a mundane subject is going to be made to yield dividends in seriousness, even solemnity. He says his tongue was 'a filling estuary' and that he tasted 'the salty Pleiades.' In the next stanza the sigh of ocean is given the adjective 'philandering'; the poem moves to celebrate friendship in oyster-eating and a further stanza recalls the privileged Romans who carried oysters over the Alps 'packed deep in hay and snow.' The final stanza picks up that touch of philandering, and turns away from poetry and freedom to an unplaced disquiet which is countered only by his resolution to eat the day and be quickened 'into verb, pure verb.'

The poem has a sense of an ending, but what does the vision perpend? Heaney pleases critics because he is at once accurately plain and resoundingly obscure. He is lyrical and pastoral, yet the lights of great city quarrels flicker over his horizon. Ambivalence and a sort of archaism run through the book. Nevertheless, it strikes me as a finer performance than 'North,' which was such a chilly standing-about in the niches of the Pantheon.

The magic I referred to has been too often used by Heaney in the past to tie tighter the knots in his poetry, so that nobody might strip him of his Yeatsian robes. He just wasn't going to concede place to any rival…. But he relaxes more often in Field Work, and is just as magical and far more human when he does. 'The Skunk' is a beautiful poem which re-mystifies the love of man for wife in terms of that unloved but graceful animal…. I would like to see Heaney move to themes which demand that he takes greater risks. He has the grand style at his command, but there is no insurance available to those who use it.

Peter Porter, "Landscape with Poems," in The Observer (reprinted by permission of The Observer Limited), No. 9819, November 4, 1979, p. 40.∗

Donald Hall

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Seamus Heaney's new volume is Field Work, containing poems written since North in 1976. North was a superb volume; I suppose Field Work is even better, though it is possible that I merely hear more of his voice as I come to know him better…. Heaney's land is Ireland …; but what Ireland? He is a northerner who lives in the south; he writes the English inherited from centuries of oppression, sweetened by the excellence of earlier Anglo-Irish poetry. These conflicts make for energy, I suspect. If Heaney is the best Irish poet since Yeats, a sentiment often expressed, it is less known that there are half a dozen other living Irishmen who could run for the title without fear of disgrace.

Heaney's subjects in Field Work range from troubles in Ireland to skunks in California, but his geographical spread never suggests the tourist. The voice speaks of love with an astonishing and wholly captivating tenderness. It speaks as well of violence, desire and memory, and it speaks with deliberate intelligence—willful, diligent and playful. For all the qualities I list, the most important is song, the tune Heaney sings which is poetry's tune, resolutions of cherished language. (p. 473)

Donald Hall, "The Music of What Happens," in The Nation (copyright 1979 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 229, No. 15, November 10, 1979, pp. 472-73.∗

Denis Donoghue

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Seamus Heaney … has learned his trade so well that it is now a second nature wonderfully responsive to his first. And the proof is in "Field Work," a superb book, the most eloquent and far-reaching book he has written, a perennial poetry offered at a time when many of us have despaired of seeing such a thing.

Heaney published his first book of poems, "Death of a Naturalist," in 1966. It was a book of promise, and of promises made mostly to his father, family, race and country. A local book, in the sense that our household gods are local…. In his second book, "Door Into the Dark" (1969), the dark is a blacksmith's forge, to begin with, and then the other forms of darkness that shadow the security of earth, time and the seasons. One poem speaks of "the smells of ordinariness." The art of poetry is likened to other arts, including thatching and smithery. In a few poems the young poet's veins bulge more than the occasion warrants, but mostly the rhetoric is true, well-earned. The poet in these two books is walking the land, training his eyes, getting the measure of things right. Landscapes are tactfully moralized, pressed to disclose values and meanings so gracefully reasonable that they hardly need pressure at all, only a few of Heaney's "time-turned words."

"Bogland," the last poem in "Door Into the Dark," made a new promise, that Heaney would go further, dig more deeply into Ireland's past…. In his next book, "Wintering Out" (1973), Heaney included some political and civic poems, mainly about the competence in pain you acquire by living in it—he was still writing in the North of Ireland and pondering its "little destiny"—but the most far-reaching poems reached down into the bog and magma of the country. (pp. 1, 45)

It is my understanding that in "North" Heaney draws upon the long perspective of an ancient buried race to release himself from the appalling syntax of a modern Irish history. There are a few poems, such as "Whatever You Say Say Nothing," in which there is no perspective and therefore no respite. The scene is Belfast, Heaney's town, where the only vantage points are held by soldiers. But the more typical, and indeed the richer poems, take the long view of the dead, going down through the dictions, fossils, quernstones, Norse, Viking—evidence you read like braille….

"Field Work" is the record of … four sabbatical years in [rural County Wicklow]. The book is continuous with "North" in its values, but far stronger in its craft, what Yeats called its trade. Heaney is still "the etymologist of roots and graftings," Irish poetry's contact-man: seeing is still believing, but the strongest belief is touching and hearing. "North" was animated by those convictions, but the new poems listen even more movingly to "the music of what happens" and find a second music to respond to the first. (p. 45)

Heaney is now writing more powerfully than ever, more fully in possession of his feeling, more at home in his style. He has given up, at least for the moment, the short line of his earlier poems, which often went along with a brittle, self-protective relation to his experience. The new long line is more thoughtful, it brings a meditative music to bear upon fundamental themes of person and place, the mutuality of ourselves and the world.

Heaney's confidence, entirely free of vanity, is so finely adjudged that he can allude to other poets in the spirit in which, as Eliot said, "there is no competition." The strongest allusion is to Robert Lowell, as in the poem "Sibyl," where the abruptions of tone are lessons well learned from the Lowell of "Life Studies" and "Near the Ocean." (pp. 45-6)

The only poem that falls short in "Field Work" is a version of the Ugolino episode in Cantos 32 and 33 of Dante's "Inferno." For once, Heaney's confidence faltered, as well it might. There are fine things in the version, but much of it is flat….

[The] superlative poems in "Field Work" are the personal lyrics. I wish I could go through the book, quoting, reciting from the "Glanmore Sonnets," and for an encore, "The Otter," "The Badgers," "An Afterwards," "The Skunk," "The Harvest Bow" and "A Dream of Jealousy." What is exhilarating in these poems is the relation between their two musics: the music of what happens comes first, and Heaney listens to it, receives it as a gift, like the first line of a poem; the second music is what he makes of the first, taking it into himself and finding a voice for it there.

These poems make you feel that the best part of poetry is given not as inspiration but as something you have had the luck to see, hear, smell or taste, and that the poem adds only a grace note here and there to a music virtually complete. It is doubtless untrue. But Heaney's new poems sound, yes, so natural that you believe them to be forces of nature, like rain and sunset, and forces of culture only by the way. (p. 46)

Denis Donoghue, "Poets Who Have Learned Their Trades: 'Field Work'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 2, 1979, pp. 1, 45-6.


Heaney, Seamus (Justin)


Heaney, Seamus (Vol. 171)