Seamus Heaney

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Carol Moldaw (review date winter 1995)

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SOURCE: Moldaw, Carol. “A Poetic Conscience.” Partisan Review 62, no. 1 (winter 1995): 144-48.

[In the following review, Moldaw contrasts the subject matter of Heaney's earlier works with that of Seeing Things and Selected Poems, noting a shift from materiality to abstraction.]

Seamus Heaney has long been praised for the textured “thingness” of his poetry. If poets have a ruling element, earth has been his. In 1976, after Heaney's fourth book, North, came out, Robert Fitzgerald noted that Heaney fulfills, as Yeats himself did not, Yeats's dictum in “The Municipal Gallery Revisited,” that “All we did, all that we said or sung / must come from contact with the soil.” In “North,” Heaney's poetic conscience, in the form of the “longship's swimming tongue,” counseled him to “trust the feel of what nubbed treasure / your hands have known.” This image of “nubbed treasure” could stand for much of Heaney's poetry. His early work, from the farm and country poems of Death of a Naturalist and Door into the Dark, to the bog poems of North, was tactile in its preoccupations and its language. “Gleaning the unsaid off the palpable” (“The Harvest Bow,” Field Work), has been one of the trademarks of Heaney's work. More than most, he has been capable of embodying linguistic sensuality, and the grounding of emotion in a vibrant object. Characteristically, in “Mossbawn,” from North, love is expressed, and contained, in “a tinsmith's scoop / sunk past its gleam / in the meal-bin.” Heaney's word sounds can chafe the tongue; the rawness heightens our pleasure. One feels one's mouth working to produce the closed, close, dense sounds, the encompassing soft vowels, the muscled, brawny, or sometimes sharp consonants. One needs to be limber to manage some of it.

With Seeing Things, Heaney's most recent book, a geological shift has occurred, as if the ground beneath his feet, and ours, had opened, and there is no ground, not even the bog, with its “bottomless wet centre.” The poems no longer have the sense of being secreted and pulled up from the dark deep; neither, like the first poems, are they rough and abrading, stubbled, sandpapery. Instead, they flow. The language is freer, with an inner clarity, bright glints, sun glancing off water, the spirit forming and reforming in the current. The palpable has given way to the impalpable.

Whereas in “Song” (Field Work), Heaney wrote joyfully of “the moment when the bird sings very close / To the music of what happens,” in Seeing Things that moment has soured, and its music become a matter for regret: “And poetry / Sluggish in the doldrums of what happens” (“Fosterling”). Instead, he looks for “what the reach / Of sense despairs of as it fails to reach it, / Especially the thwarted sense of touch” (“A Basket of Chestnuts”). Touch, once a characteristic response and imaginative gesture of Heaney's, is now at cross-purposes with his endeavor; it is “thwarted” by being out of its element. Now he savors “A farewell to surefootedness, a pitch / Beyond our usual hold upon ourselves” (“Squarings, xxxviii”). This is a poetry that is “against … all emulation of stone-cut verses” (“Squarings, xxxviii”) and self-consciously finds even that formulation too self-conscious, too pumped-up. This is a purposefully playful poetry that “lifts its eyes and clears its throat” (“The Biretta”) at its own imaginings, here an overturned clergyman's hat becoming a boat.

In Seeing Things these moments of transformation are mostly written on water. Images of fishing, boating, streams, rivers, boats, and the sea abound. Stonework (as opposed to “stone-cut verses”)...

(This entire section contains 2035 words.)

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carved to represent flowing water—the element most mutable figured in the material most obdurate—is praised for the transformation of its nature: “Lines / Hard and thin and sinuous represent / The flowing river. … / … / And yet in that utter visibility / The stone's alive with what's invisible” (“Seeing Things”). Water, what's invisible, not earth, where things are encoded and tactile, is the governing element and image ofSeeing Things; the imagination, its ability to re-invent reality, is its ruler.

The struggle between the imagination and the claims made upon it by politics and religion has been one of Heaney's driving themes since Wintering Out, when, in “Midnight,” he wrote regarding Northern Ireland, “The tongue's / Leashed in my throat.” But in the more recent books, Station Island especially, the quarrel has grown dramatically, as Heaney has ventured toward an at first uneasy acceptance of his “free state of image and allusion” (“Sandstone Keepsake”).

Heaney's process of defining his role as a humane person, as a Catholic, and as a poet, in the politically violent, religiously charged atmosphere of Northern Ireland has been arduous and wrenching. He has written about it in the most personal of terms (“The Toome Road,” “The Strand at Lough Beg,” among other poems) and castigated himself for his personal and poetic handling of the situation—especially for evading it (“Punishment,” “Singing School: 4. Summer 1969, 6. Exposure,” “Station Island vii”) or handling it falsely (“Station Island viii”). In section viii of “Station Island” Heaney has his cousin, for whom “The Strand at Lough Beg” was written, lash into him for that elegy:

‘You confused evasion and artistic tact.
The Protestant who shot me through the head
I accuse directly, but indirectly, you
who now atone perhaps upon this bed
for the way you whitewashed ugliness and drew
the lovely blinds of the Purgatorio
and saccharined my death with morning dew.’

Heaney has written as if being a writer, let alone a successful Irish writer writing in English, is tantamount to being a deserter, not least because one's allegiance is necessarily to the “country of the mind” and a larger non-partisan community.

But Heaney has movingly explored the problem of the poet's need to be faithful to and protective of his inner freedom in the essays collected in The Government of the Tongue. There he decisively defends the “imagination as a shaping spirit which it is wrong to disobey.” “Station Island” itself is a pilgrimage to this conclusion, with Heaney continually facing the wrong way or blocking the other, traditional, pilgrims, as he is stopped by his own private station masters. It is, famously, Joyce, whom he has tell him that “You may lose more of yourself than you redeem / doing the decent thing”; since Station Island Heaney has steered away from the shoals of political engagement. He also seems finished, for the time being, with his long mining of the tribal properties of language.

But if Joyce gave him his push, the examples of the Eastern Europeans, Milosz, Herbert, Holub, and Popa especially, all of whom he wrote about in The Government of the Tongue, gave him the navigational chart he used in much of his next book of poems, The Haw Lantern, written at roughly the same time as The Government of the Tongue. Some of the uncharacteristic strategies he borrows are allegory and parable, the indicative mood, the use of abstract words, a temperate, even tone. Although “Parable Island,” “From the Republic of Conscience,” “From the Land of the Unspoken,” “A Shooting Script,” and “From the Canton of Expectation” may be successful by their own lights, with their dispassionate lack of affect they hardly bear comparison to the full-bodied, full-throated, full-hearted poems of Heaney's which preceded them.

Instead, I find the route to Seeing Things in “Clearances,” the sonnet sequence for Heaney's mother, which seems to me the heart of The Haw Lantern, and in “The Placeless Heaven: Another Look at Kavanaugh,” the first essay in The Government of the Tongue. Both “Clearances” and “The Placeless Heaven” contain an anecdote which becomes a metaphor for Heaney's (and Kavanaugh's) poetic. Heaney's aunt had planted a chestnut the year of his birth; the tree became associated, in his mind as in others, with himself: “the chestnut was the one significant thing that grew as I grew.” Sometime after his family moved from that house, new owners cut down the tree. In “Clearances,” written after his mother's death, the chestnut, or the place where the chestnut had been, becomes a metaphor for the powerful presence of what is absent—“A space / Utterly empty, utterly a source”—by implication, his mother's still powerful presence in his interior life, despite her death.

In “A Placeless Heaven,” Heaney tells the story of the chestnut, and concludes:

In my mind's eye I saw it as a kind of luminous
emptiness, a warp and waver of light, and once
again … I began to identify with that space
just as years before I had identified with the young tree.
… The new place was all idea, if you like;
it was generated out of my experience of the old
place but it was not a topographical location. It
was and remains an imagined realm, even if it can
be located at an earthly spot, a placeless heaven
rather than a heavenly place.

About Kavanaugh and his earlier ‘misreading’ of him, he notes:

I still assumed Kavanaugh to be writing about the tree which was actually in the ground when he had in fact passed to write about the tree which he held in mind.

With Seeing Things, Heaney has passed almost wholly from writing about the “tree in the ground,” to writing about the tree which he holds in mind. Before, Heaney used objects to contain and ballast his flights of fancy, his linguistic escapades. The objects were the inspiration; now inspiration—imagination, memory—is the object he examines. The title of the book is apt. The process of seeing—both visually and with understanding—and not the things themselves, is the focus of the poems. The colloquial meaning—seeing what is not there—is carried off with aplomb.

For the most part, the poems in Seeing Things are not attempts to recreate experiences, situations, feelings, or objects from the inside, thereby plunging the reader into the linguistic equivalent of sensory virtual reality. Instead, Heaney ruminates, reflects, recollects from a distance in time, so that the poems, on their surfaces also, have a gap of consciousness between the moment of writing and the original experience.

The difference can be seen in “Glanmore Revisited.” In the original “Glanmore Sonnets” (Field Work), the stance of most of the poems is that they were written at or just after the moment the sonnet describes. The present tense of the poem and its subject overlap. “Come to me quick. I am upstairs shaking” we read, feeling that concurrent with writing it Heaney did indeed call downstairs. In “Glanmore Revisited,” the poet revisits both the place and the time written about earlier; the tone is predominantly one of remembrance: “It felt remembered even then.” His image of memory as the almost tamed bedroom ivy could stand for the poem (perhaps the book) as a whole:

And little shoots of ivy creeping in
Unless you've trained them out—like memories
You've trained so long now they can show their face
And keep their distance.

Throughout Seeing Things, especially in the second part, “Squarings,” Heaney squares up against his past poetics, “re-envisaging” his material in a more relaxed way, going for something elusive he feels he missed, or neglected, before:

Re-enter this as the adult of solitude,
The silence forder and the definite
Presence you sensed withdrawing the first time around.

In the phrase “silence forder” it is tempting to find an allusion to and contrast with the one who burrowed so long in “the word hoard.”

The sense of refinding and re-invigorating a lost self is strong in Seeing Things. It is the self who, as he writes in “Fosterling,” can “credit marvels.” It is the self who, after long instruction, has learned:

… whatever is given
Can always be re-imagined, however four-square
Plank-thick, hull-stupid and out of its time
It happens to be. You are as free as the lookout,
That far-seeing joker posted high over the fog,
Who declared by the time that he had got himself down
The actual ship had been stolen away beneath him.

(from “The Settle Bed”)

As in Blake's couplet, “If the sun and moon should doubt / They'd immediately go out,” belief is all. Fortunately, while he's posted high “over the fog,” like his “far-seeking joker” lookout, the actual ship of Heaney's poetic gift is very much supporting him, carrying him over the waters.


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Seamus Heaney 1939-

(Full name Seamus Justin Heaney; has also written under the pseudonym Incertus) Irish poet, critic, essayist, nonfiction writer, playwright, and editor.

The following entry presents an overview of Heaney's career through 2002. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 5, 7, 14, 25, 37, 74, and 91.

Widely considered Ireland's most accomplished contemporary poet, Heaney was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995 for what the Swedish Academy proclaimed his “works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past.” In his poetry, Heaney often considers the role and responsibility of the poet in modern society, exploring themes of self-discovery and spiritual growth while addressing political and cultural issues related to Irish history. His verse is characterized by sensuous language, sexual metaphors, and images drawn from nature. Many critics consider him the greatest Irish poet since William Butler Yeats.

Biographical Information

The eldest of nine children, Heaney was raised as a Roman Catholic in Mossbawn, County Derry, a rural community in the predominantly Protestant Northern Ireland. When he was eleven years old, Heaney left his family's farm to study at Saint Columb's College in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, where he held a scholarship. In 1957 he enrolled at Queen's University in Belfast, where he was introduced to Irish, American, and English literature and became particularly influenced by Ted Hughes, Patrick Kavanagh, and Robert Frost—poets whose works were significantly informed by their childhood experiences. While in college, Heaney contributed poems to university literary magazines using the pseudonym Incertus. After graduating from Queen's University with a first-class honors degree in English literature and a teaching certificate, Heaney held several positions as a secondary school teacher and later returned to Queen's University as a lecturer. During this time, he also established himself as a prominent literary figure with the publication of Death of a Naturalist (1966), his first major volume of poetry. As a Catholic living in Belfast when fighting erupted between Protestants and Catholics in 1969, Heaney took a personal interest in Ireland's social and political unrest and began to address the causes and effects of violence in his poetry. In 1972 Heaney moved from Belfast to a cottage outside Dublin and began writing full time. In 1975 he was named head of the English department at Caryfort College in Dublin. Heaney has frequently traveled to the United States and England and, since 1981, has spent part of each year teaching at Harvard University, where he was appointed the Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory in 1984. Heaney also held the chair of Professor of Poetry at Oxford University from 1989 to 1994. Having already received numerous awards for his poetry and translations, Heaney was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995.

Major Works

Heaney's earliest poetic works evidence a preoccupation with sensuous memories associated with nature and his rustic childhood. Poems such as “Digging” in Death of a Naturalist evoke the Irish countryside and comment on the care and skill with which his father and ancestors farmed the land. Nature is also a prominent theme in Door into the Dark (1969), in which several poems focus on the work of rural laborers. “Undine,” for instance, describes the process of agricultural irrigation in the context of myth and sexuality. Much of Heaney's poetry addresses the history of social unrest in Northern Ireland and considers the relevance of poetry in the face of violence and political upheaval. Wintering Out (1972) and North (1975) contain a series of “bog poems” inspired by the archaeological excavation of Irish peat bogs that contained the preserved remains of ritually slaughtered human bodies dating from the Iron Age. These poems depict the victims of ancient pagan rites, foreshadowing the violence in contemporary Ireland. Other poems such as “Ocean's Love to Ireland” and “Act of Union” portray the English colonization of Ireland as an act of violent sexual conquest. Field Work (1979) addresses the social unrest of Northern Ireland from a personal perspective as Heaney recounts the loss of friends and relatives to “the troubles.” Other consistent themes in Heaney's oeuvre are self-determination and poetic imagination. Irish history is also an important motif in Heaney's poetry, as evidenced in his sequence of allegorical poems in Station Island (1984). Patterned after Dante's Commedia (c.1307-c.1321; Divine Comedy), the sequence portrays a three-day spiritual pilgrimage undertaken by Irish Catholics to Station Island. While on the island, the narrator encounters the souls of dead acquaintances and Irish literary figures who inspire him to reflect on his life and art. The Haw Lantern (1987) presents a selection of parables about Irish life, including a series of poems entitled “Clearances,” which explores memories of Heaney's relationship with his mother. Other poems in the collection, such as “From the Republic of Conscience” and “From the Canton of Expectation,” meditate on spirituality in the context of a menacing political climate.

Departing from Heaney's earlier emphasis on politics and civic responsibility, Seeing Things (1991) returns to such autobiographical themes as childhood experience and Irish community and ritual. Feelings of loss and yearning are prominent motifs in the collection, as many of the poems evoke celebratory images of Heaney's deceased father who appears frequently throughout the volume. “Squarings”—a sequence of four sections, each containing twelve twelve-line poems—exemplifies Heaney's stylistic and technical experimentation in the collection. The poems in The Spirit Level (1996) examine emotions and ideals that transcend the concrete world, such as “Weighing In,” which offers a meditation on the virtues of self-restraint. The title refers to an Irish term for a carpenter's level, and Heaney's verse reflects the poet's desire to find balance in all spheres of existence. Opened Ground (1998) not only focuses on the physical ground of Ireland, but also on the ground—or foundation—of violence and oppression throughout history. This broad collection, selected from Heaney's entire career, demonstrates how his poems are engendered from images, echoes, and emptiness. Electric Light (2001) draws heavily from reminiscences of Heaney's youth, accompanied by elegies for the people and poets who shaped his life. The collection offers a celebration of how poetry connects Heaney to all of his past and present influences.

Heaney's adaptations and translations have shown a strong focus on ancient history and mythology, while emphasizing the concept of poetry as a liturgical rite. For example, the prose poem Sweeney Astray (1983) has its roots in the medieval Irish tale of King Sweeney, who was transformed from a warrior-king into a bird as the result of a curse. In The Cure at Troy: A Version of Sophocles' Philoctetes (1990) and The Midnight Verdict (1993), Heaney pays homage to several ancient authors, including Sophocles and Ovid, who have inspired his works. Heaney's most acclaimed translation has been his reinterpretation of Beowulf (1999), commissioned by the Norton Anthology of Literature. Heaney attempts to open up the Beowulf myth to a wider audience by replacing the original Old English with more accessible and energetic language. However, scholars have debated the merits of Heaney's use of Irish words handed down from the ancient Anglo-Saxons, with some arguing that this damages the text by arbitrarily inserting Irish elements into a story of Germanic and Swedish descent.

Critical Reception

Critical response to Heaney's work has been predominately positive and enthusiastic. Bruce Murphy has described Heaney as “the poet of the English language with the best ear of any now living.” Comparisons between his work and that of other Irish writers—particularly William Butler Yeats, James Joyce, and Samuel Beckett—have proliferated throughout his career. Reviewers have consistently praised how Heaney addresses Ireland's cultural tensions and divisions through the linguistic duality of his poetry, noting his skillful use of both Irish and English literary traditions. Heaney has also been commended for his experimentation with form and style, especially in Station Island and Seeing Things. Although some scholars have faulted Seeing Things for its presentation of overly elusive images and themes, several have praised the volume for its imaginative qualities and its focus on visionary transcendence experienced through ordinary events. Some critics have interpreted the figure of King Sweeney in Sweeney Astray as a representation of the artist torn between imaginative freedom and the constraints of religious, political, and domestic obligations, lauding Heaney's thoughtful examination of the role of the poet in society. Reviewers of Heaney's translation of Beowulf have complimented his ability to remain faithful both to his poetic vision and to the authenticity of the story. William Pratt has likened Heaney's task of translating the work as comparable to the heroic deeds of Beowulf himself, commenting that Heaney “dredged out of the Old English epic something that compares with what he has dredged out of his native Irish bog, something beautiful as well as terrifying.”

Kieran Quinlan (essay date winter 1995)

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SOURCE: Quinlan, Kieran. “Tracing Seamus Heaney.” World Literature Today 69, no. 1 (winter 1995): 63-8.

[In the following essay, Quinlan examines Heaney's background as a Catholic native of Northern Ireland, outlining how changes in his life and philosophies affected his poetry.]

In 1989, when Seamus Heaney accepted his election as Professor of Poetry at Oxford University (a rather odd position, its occupant chosen in a peculiarly odd manner by the “populist” vote of those M.A.'s of the University caring to participate, and then merely required to deliver a modest number of lectures over the course of his tenure), it seemed to many that he had come a very long way indeed from his roots in a rural, relatively unlettered, and distinctly Catholic Northern Ireland. Was this an achievement, then, of which his countrymen should be proud (though the professorship itself had been held mainly by those whose names, as James Thurber might have said, “had gone down in history—very far down”), or at least the latest prize for a writer heralded as the worthy successor of W. B. Yeats and the Irish Literary Revival of the early part of the century? Or had there been rather a certain selling out of political and cultural loyalties in this embrace of the Arnoldian sinecure, an implicit acknowledgment of the latter's cultivated stereotype of the Celt as the necessary—but inferior—imaginative ingredient in a greater—and more sensible—British whole? In any case, the mix of pride and ambivalence that surrounded Heaney's elevation said much not only about the character of a poet who had been enormously successful from almost the very beginning of his career, but also about the changed and changing self-perception of the people on the island from which he had come—a former colony of the First British Empire now slowly, painfully, and still partially emerging into its proper postcolonial consciousness.

Seamus Heaney's first book, Death of a Naturalist, published in 1966, and the subsequent Door into the Dark (1969), with their several “well-made” poems and refreshingly unexpected turns of phrase and word choices, had immediately established the then thirty-year-old poet as a significant new voice among contemporary British and Irish writers.1 Heaney was applauded as an explorer and celebrant of his Ulster childhood with echoes of Wordsworth, Frost, Edward Thomas, Hopkins, Ransom (characteristically described by Heaney as “well-grounded”), and others. While it might not have required a close-reading New Historicist to notice the untamed nationalist gleanings in those early collections, it was only in retrospect that the note of Catholic defiance of Protestant rule in the province might be seen in his claim, for example, that his pen rested in his hand “snug as a gun” (“Digging”)—and even that reference, Heaney later explained, had more to do with clumsily invoking the American western gunslinger for an analog of the writing process than with any project of subverting British colonial hegemony. The mood, in short, was largely quiescent, the approach markedly on the side of the esthetic.

Such a circumstance reflected the Northern Ireland in which Heaney had grown up. Though staunchly Protestant and British and institutionally repressive of Catholics, it also enjoyed the postwar Westminster government's generous policies that were making university education widely available. Sometime in the early 1960s too, the IRA had officially ceased its small-scale terrorist activities, while traditional celebrations of ancient Protestant victories over Catholics were imperceptibly turning into occasions of more general festivity. Political leaders in the Northern statelet and in the Irish Republic seemed at last to be drawing closer together in a common pragmatic strategy for economic and social development on both sides of the border without reference to historical or denominational differences. Even when this amelioration of conditions provoked a backlash among those most threatened by its consequences, and Catholics and liberal Protestants began marching peacefully for civil rights (very consciously on the model of Martin Luther King Jr. in Alabama and throughout the American South), Heaney's aspiration remained typically ecumenical. Twenty years later, shortly after his appointment to Oxford—and after two decades of wide-scale violence in the province—he explained his present attitudes as stemming from that earlier period: “I never think of the Unionist community in Northern Ireland, nor the Nationalist community. My head doesn't operate in those terms. The writers of my generation, from the Protestant and Catholic side, all thought of ourselves as transcending those things. The desire was to get through the thicket, not to represent it.”2

Moreover, in the early 1980s Heaney had been one of the founders (along with playwright Brian Friel and actor Stephen Rea) of the Field Day group in Derry, a literary and theater movement dedicated to contributing to “the solution of the present crisis by producing analyses of the established opinions, myths and stereotypes which had both become a symptom and a cause of the current situation” (P [Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968-1978], 56-57). Indeed, Heaney has on occasion agreed with Conor Cruise O'Brien's unpopular analysis of the Northern predicament, one that emphasizes the full reality of the Unionist case in the face of a Nationalist agenda that would dismiss it as merely the British government's bogus excuse for continuing to maintain control of the province. He has also acknowledged the validity of Northern poet John Hewitt's claim that “this is our country also, nowhere else” (“The Colony”).

But while such ecumenism has quite genuinely been Heaney's stance throughout the long conflict, when the Ulster situation deteriorated dramatically in 1969 so that additional British troops were sent from the mainland to contain its passions and a resurrected IRA reacted to them as an occupying force, the author's responses to these events in Wintering Out (1972), and especially in North (1975), quickly identified him as a “war” poet. He had chosen powerful images of an ancient and recurrent violence that stretched from pagan human sacrifice (detailed in P. V. Glob's widely read book The Bog People), to Viking slaughter, to more recent outrages as “symbols adequate to our predicament” (P, 56-57). Indeed, his poems departed from the expected “liberal lamentation” over the tragedy to such an extent that even sympathetic critics from both sides of the Ulster divide—Ciaran Carson and Edna Longley, for example—were dismayed at Heaney's implication that such bloodletting was inevitable, while it has been suggested that his immediate popularity in England came partly from his perpetuating the myth of a never-ending Irish violence.

In fact, however, in the midst of this compelling narrative of ritual slaughter in the name of a mythical Irish Bog Queen, Heaney had maintained a kind of Yeatsian ambivalence about the political dilemma, so that by the end of North he proclaimed himself an “inner émigré” from the turmoil, presumably deconstructing even his own brief and reluctant collusion with tribal revenge in a poem such as “Punishment.” On the other hand, it has been difficult for Heaney not to identify first of all with his own tradition of an injured minority: he has admitted to attacking Yeats “meanly,” for example, in response to Yeats's own “meanness” toward Catholics, while his commendation of Paul Muldoon for including the Anglo-Irish poet Louis MacNeice in his 1986 Faber Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry, though accurate in practice, would surely give an Ulster Unionist sympathetic to but hesitant about a less narrow concept of “Irishness” a moment of pause: “To include him [MacNeice] in an anthology of Irish poetry is to affirm in a politically useful way that the category of Irishness is no longer confined to persons with the native blood-thrum but has been expanded to include people of Irish birth who wished to be allowed the rights to all the other dimensions integral to their memory and their heritage” (PW [The Place of Writing], 43; my emphases).

For those who choose to see it, then, the inherent conflict in Heaney's work between esthetic and politico-cultural commitments (with all the ambiguities of the latter) that was apparent in the poems and essays prior to 1972 has continued in the volumes produced since then: four collections of poetry, two of essays, and a translation of a play by Sophocles. Thus, his writing has seemed to some a retreat from the minimal political demands of his Northern Catholic inheritance (they have been especially incensed that he has barely mentioned the IRA hunger strikers who died in prison there in the early 1980s) in favor of an ongoing and ever more refined esthetic celebration of his past, now marketed opportunistically to the needs of a largely Anglo-American academic audience unconcerned with the harsh realities of the Irish experience. For others, too much of the latent Northern Catholic Fenian remains present in his writing, an unwillingness to think rationally about a complex historical and social—though admittedly unjust—development, a constant invoking of exclusionary myths of linguistic and cultural origins in the ominous tradition of Martin Heidegger, an excessive trust in Jungian archetypes and in the validity of portraying the Irish/English divide in an un-self-critical vocabulary of gender relations. Such criticism, however, though accurate in part, fails to do justice to the nuances of Heaney's position, much less to its essential integrity, or indeed to take adequate account of the reasons for his success.

If the Seamus Heaney that moved from Belfast to Dublin in 1972 was an “inner émigré,” he was certainly an unusually successful one, more likely to receive awards from the Irish and British governments, and seductive offers from elite American institutions of higher learning (he was appointed to a professorship at Harvard in the 1980s), than to undergo imprisonment or have his books banned. The meaning of his self-description, therefore, must lie in his sense of continuing responsibility for the political situation he had left, the need to find a way of being faithful to its complexities without betraying his own deepest impulses. He would have to articulate his esthetic and cultural tensions not so much to please a largely non-Irish reading public—the argument of those who claim that the poet has responded too readily to the advice and anti-ideological ideology of Harvard's Helen Vendler—but simply to satisfy himself. Furthermore, it would be hard not to think of Heaney as having had at least a modest sense of his moment of destiny and consequent duty in the evolving crisis of his nation's history.

To begin with, Heaney's return to pastoral celebration in Field Work (this time, of his new surroundings in County Wicklow) was surely less an avoidance of the Northern conflict (though he was certainly relieved to be free of its confinements) than a necessary reassertion of his basic interests. Indeed, while the Ulster crisis has been at the heart of Heaney's progress and has deepened his sense of his own purpose, it has also stood as a distraction from the original impulse of his work. His ongoing esthetic concerns, therefore, arise not so much from a long-term commercial strategy but more from personal inclination (practically also because he had already said as much as he could about the overall situation in the North). Put another way, Heaney's basic mind-set is that of a person brought up in the rural Ireland of the 1940s and 1950s (magically evoked in a famous Henri Cartier-Bresson photo of the period: two farmers chatting ruminatively on the bank of a ditch, a horse grazing contentedly by the side of the road in the background) with its small pieties and petty restrictions and simple elations: “Out of that earth house I inherited / A stack of singular, cold memory-weights / To load me, hand and foot, in the scale of things” (“Squarings,” ST [Seeing Things], 94). That is, it was an Ireland of almost preindustrial consciousness and of a now-nostalgically remembered unworldliness (though tightfisted and land-hungry too); it was also pre-Vatican II, pre-Beatles, pre- (especially for Heaney) Berkeley, pre-Northern Ireland conflict. The outlook of the era has since been savaged by the “troubles,” of course, and also liberated through contact with a wider world, but it continues nevertheless in Heaney's work its essential subterranean existence, a touchstone of artistic and personal authenticity.

Thus, for example, in “An Ulster Twilight” (a poem in Heaney's 1985 collection Station Island) the local Protestant toymaker who cycles over to Heaney's childhood home late on Christmas Eve to deliver his wares is excused for his membership in a paramilitary organization opposed to Catholic nationalist aspirations because his basic delight lies in his joy-giving craft. After all the years of bitter sectarian strife, Heaney muses that now

… if we met again
In an Ulster twilight we would begin
And end whatever we might say
In a speech all toys and carpentry,
A doorstep courtesy to shun
Your father's uniform and gun,
But—now that I have said it out—
Maybe none the worse for that.

More than a simple assertion of the complexities of community life in the Ulster of the 1940s and 1950s, however, the writing of such a poem answers other demands. Heaney has justified Yeats's estheticism with the argument that “one of the first functions of a poem … is to satisfy a need in the poet. The achievement of a definite form and the utterance of a self-given music have a justifying effect within his or her life. And if the horizons inside which that life is being lived are menacing, the need for the steadying gift of finished art becomes all the more urgent.”3 Thus Heaney's poem here is not an obfuscating of political realities in the society of his childhood, but a political claim (or rather a prepoliticizing belief) that the personal and the esthetic can partially transcend such conditions and must be recognized as doing so. “Casualty,” a poem in Field Work about a friend killed while defying a curfew to go out for his customary drink, registers the same individualistic affirmation.

Reflecting more broadly on this matter in The Government of the Tongue, where he ponders the experiences of such twentieth-century writers as Osip Mandelstam, Miroslav Holub, Zbigniew Herbert, and Robert Lowell, Heaney concludes that it is the function of the poet to keep beauty alive, especially in those times when oppressive regimes seem bent on its destruction: in other words, the political task of the poet is simply to be a poet. He writes of Mandelstam as standing “for the efficacy of song itself, an emblem of … the way purely artistic utterance can put a crack into the officially moulded shape of truth in a totalitarian society” (GT [The Government of the Tongue: Selected Prose], xx). Above all, Heaney insists, to “survive as a category of human consciousness” poetry must “put poetic considerations first” (GT, 166).

In presenting a faithful, though modified, translation of the medieval Irish poem Buile Suibhne as Sweeney Astray in 1984, Heaney seemed to have found an appropriate metaphor—a rather curious one—for his new condition. If the image for the first half of his life had been bog, that for the second half is surely flight. Unlike Joyce (or his fictional self-representation, Stephen Dedalus), however, Heaney has not tried to escape the maze that is Ireland, to fly by its nets of religion, language, and nationalist politics, though he has distanced himself from each of them in his own peculiar manner. Hence the perceived resemblance between him and Sweeney, the legendary king driven astray into madness as punishment for attacking a saint: Sweeney spent the rest of his life as a bird in flight from place to place in Ireland and Scotland, pursued by both kin and enemies—“hobbled by guilt / … a sheep / without a fold”—until finally achieving an ambivalent reconciliation with the church on the eve of his death. For Heaney, Sweeney is “a figure of the artist, displaced, guilty, assuaging himself by his utterance” (SA [Sweeney Astray], iv).

But it is crucial to note that the original Buile Suibhne, while certainly dealing with the theme of exile and persecution, also commended itself to Heaney because of its frequent, narrative-interrupting celebrations of nature. In this, once again, it satisfied Heaney's basically esthetic impulse. Even the harried and scampering Sweeney, for all his suffering, still has time to “imagine treelines / far away, / a banked-up, soothing / wooded haze,” while his most acute pain is bounded by felicities of meter. The anomaly of the enterprise, of course, is that a medieval poem cannot really fit Heaney's twentieth-century anguish: Sweeney's punitive isolation is always seen to exist within the confines of a Christian doctrine that renders his suffering bearable because meaningful in such a context; Heaney's case as a poet half-exiled spiritually and practically from the political and religious frenzies of Northern Ireland repeats mad Sweeney's itinerary in many ways, but its significance can hardly be as secure for him at this skeptical stage in human history.

In the Sweeney poem Heaney had united his political and esthetic preoccupations at least insofar as these concerned the poet himself. But there was also a much wider sense in which such issues were becoming central to public discourse at the time. By resurrecting the decades-dormant antagonisms between Ireland and England and leading indirectly to the vilification and mockery of things Irish in the British popular press (especially following IRA bombings on the mainland) and condescension toward them even in academia, the Northern crisis had also increased awareness in Southern Ireland of the traditional tension between Anglo-Irish Protestant (Swift, Goldsmith, Yeats, Synge, Beckett) and Gaelic Catholic contributions (Mangan, Joyce) to the English-language literature of the country (at one stage, moreover, Heaney wrote a poem publicly objecting to having his work head up a new anthology of British verse). The much-touted (not least by Ireland's Tourist Board) Irish Literary Renaissance that had earlier come under fire from Patrick Kavanagh (and during its heyday from Joyce himself) as an “English-bred lie,” a distortion of the country's real character, was now even more widely under attack, many of its opponents decked out in the rather heavy armor of contemporary theory. At base, the conflict took the form of an opposition between Yeats and Joyce, best exemplified by Thomas Kinsella in his earlier (1966) criticism of Yeats as isolated from the main Irish tradition, refusing to “write for Daniel O'Connell's children, for De Valera and Paudeen at his greasy till,” in contrast with a Joyce who had an “intimate and direct” relationship with his country.4

Heaney, of course, identified strongly with Joyce and criticized Yeats in turn. His, however, was not the Joyce of “silence, exile, and cunning,” the rejecter of his country and countrymen, but rather the new “green” Joyce now seen as the true modern representative of a repressed Catholic class and consciousness (in spite of—or even because of—his abandonment of things Catholic). The interpretive scene had shifted from preoccupation with the end of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, with its tone of the hero going forth from the benighted island to create its conscience, to an earlier scene in which Stephen Dedalus affirms his Irish difference from his English Jesuit mentor: Stephen realizes that he will always fret in the shadow of the other man's language, but understands also that he is more intimate with it than are its original speakers. For Heaney, as an Irish poet from the same Gaelic Catholic tradition, Joyce's example thus reinterpreted was powerfully enabling and has continued to be so. Still, it is significant that since then the poet has come to see his own life as more resembling Yeat's in their mutual concern with Irish roots and the need of the artist to be independent of politics, matters that never quite engaged Joyce in the same way, and that Heaney has finally affirmed the integrity of Yeats's esthetic vision in spite of its distasteful political implications—“It is true that in Yeats's mind it [the image of the tower] was also linked to the Anglo-Irish tradition, and symbolized the historical bonds of ancestry and inheritance, but its virtue effectively released his consciousness from the exorbitance of the historical”—precisely because it is esthetic (PW, 28).

Such cultural reassessment provides a background to Station Island, a collection in which Heaney confronts his own positions not only on art, but also on politics, and even on religion. Again, as in the case of Buile Suibhne, the vehicle chosen is rather strange: a traditional Irish pilgrimage, perhaps known even to Dante, and famously described in the nineteenth century by another of Heaney's heroes, William Carleton, after artistic and social necessity had driven him to convert to Protestantism. That Heaney should structure his work—even in the mode of a dream—around such an event serves to identify him a little unconvincingly perhaps with those Irish Catholics still practicing a rural piety long abandoned by the nation at large.

During the course of his purgatorial journey, Heaney encounters the shades of former Irish writers, friends, and relatives (including a murdered cousin about whom he had written earlier), who both criticize his behavior and offer him advice for the future. In a passage of rather contrived auspiciousness that refers back to the scene in Portrait, for example, Joyce admonishes him to have confidence in his own powers: “The English language / belongs to us … That subject people stuff is a cod's game … fill the element / with signatures of your own frequency.”

The poet's confrontation with religion is more elusive, however. Like many in his generation, Heaney would seem to identify himself culturally and even in a more personal way with the fidelities and solidarities of traditional Irish Catholicism—and certainly as these represent the repressed faith of his ancestors, or a complex of pieties that the likes of Yeats haughtily despised—while expressing no very firm belief in regard to its actual teachings. Thus, in his meeting with the shade of a missionary priest he had known in more pious times (“a clerical student home for the summer / doomed to the decent thing … arriving like some sort of holy mascot”), the poet is told to face up to the fact that the only reason he is on pilgrimage at all is because he is taking “the last look.” While the issue is never quite resolved in the poem, later, in Seeing Things (1991), it is clear that a biretta remembered from his altar-boy days, for example, is now an esthetic object for Heaney rather than a religious emblem—or that at most it is simply evocative of people who did the best they could in restricted circumstances. Heaney, in fact, is never as explicit as Frost, Stevens, Larkin—much less Joyce—in his rejection of religious belief. His mythology may be of the earth—he has commented on Yeats's last days that “the words of his most celebrated late poem ring out with pride and an utter trust in his ultimate earthly dwelling ‘Under Ben Bulben’” (WBY [Writers and Their Houses], 494)—and he may have drifted from the absolutes of traditional Catholicism; but he has obviously not abandoned its sacral tones or imaginative perspectives.

Indeed, this fundamental sympathy with an undogmatic religiousness is emphasized in his 1990 version of Sophocles' Philoctetes entitled The Cure at Troy, a play that deals with the fate of the politically intransigent. There the hero is advised at one point, “Stop just licking your wounds. Start seeing things,” while the chorus later recommends that he “Believe in miracles / And cures and healing wells.” The Haw Lantern (1987) had already begun this process, especially in a series of poems on the death of Heaney's mother. In Seeing Things the vanished Irish past (made all the more poignant with the death of the poet's parents) acquires an almost apparitional quality now that it is only to be found in the national folk museums or in the poet's imagination and memory: “Heather and kesh and turf stacks reappear / Summer by summer still, grasshoppers and all, / The same yet rarer: fields of the nearly blessed / Where gaunt ones in their shirt-sleeves stooped and dug / Or stood alone at dusk surveying bog-banks— / Apparitions now, yet active still.” With this volume the process of Heaney's development has come to a satisfying completion.

When Seamus Heaney accepted the professorship at Oxford in 1989, he was hardly coming to an alien place (indeed, I suspect that an Oxford common room is more congenial to this former Queen's lecturer than are some of the faculty clubs or even Irish bars in Boston). The famed Oxford Union had had one of the descendants of an executed 1916 Irish rebel as its president in the 1970s, and the colleges of the University are liberally sprinkled with Irish lecturers and graduate students. Its many Catholic halls bring together at odd tangents a snobbish, and intensely English, recusant community with less sophisticated but more skeptical clerics from seminaries on John Bull's other island. Irish sympathizers regularly congregate in the King's Arms or the Greyhound (with Terry Eagleton in tow as the resident theorist), while a short walk from where he lived in Broad Street, Yeats's letters are being meticulously and copiously edited. Setting aside all this Oxonian “Irishness,” however, Heaney has come not as the grateful recipient of an imperial award, but rather as a writer who has established his own domain, revivified the language, and in fact brought much-needed luster to a position known for its undistinguished occupants. He is the postcolonial, forging—more in the manner of Derek Walcott than of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o—less the conscience of his race than a new voice of a decentered and disseminated culture on the frontier of writing. But he does also, it must be confessed, represent his race as the voice of the “native” Irish that had formerly been repressed even in—especially in—that country's so-called, and so famous, literature.


  1. Seamus Heaney's books to date include: Death of a Naturalist, 1966; Door into the Dark, 1969; Wintering Out, 1972; North, 1975; Field Work, 1979; Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968-1978, 1980 (P); Sweeney Astray, 1984 (SA); Station Island, 1985; The Haw Lantern, 1987; The Government of the Tongue: Selected Prose 1978-1987, 1988 (GT); Seeing Things, 1991 (ST). All were published in New York by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Also, The Place of Writing, Atlanta, Scholars Press, 1979 (PW).

  2. Quoted in Seamus Heaney: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Elmer Andrews, New York, St. Martin's, 1992, p. 7.

  3. Seamus Heaney, “W. B. Yeats: Thoor Ballylee, Gort, Galway,” in Writers and Their Houses, ed. Kate Marsh, London, Hamish Hamilton, 1993, p. 490. (WBY)

  4. Thomas Kinsella, “The Irish Writer,” in Davis, Mangan, Ferguson? Tradition and the Irish Writer, Dublin, Dolmen, 1970, pp. 61-62.

Principal Works

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Eleven Poems (poetry) 1965

Death of a Naturalist (poetry) 1966

Room to Rhyme [with Dairo Hammond and Michael Longley] (poetry) 1968

Door into the Dark (poetry) 1969

A Lough Neagh Sequence (poetry) 1969

Boy Driving His Father to Confession (poetry) 1970

Night Drive (poetry) 1970

Land (poetry) 1971

Servant Boy (poetry) 1971

Wintering Out (poetry) 1972

Bog Poems (poetry) 1975

Fire i’the Flint: Reflections on the Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins (criticism) 1975

North (poetry) 1975

Stations (poetry) 1975

In Their Element: A Selection of Poems [with Derek Mahon] (poetry) 1977

After Summer (poetry) 1978

The Making of a Music: Reflections on the Poetry of Wordsworth and Yeats (criticism and lectures) 1978

Robert Lowell: A Memorial Address and Elegy (nonfiction) 1978

Field Work (poetry) 1979

Hedge School: Sonnets from Glanmore (poetry) 1979

Ugolino (poetry) 1979

Poems: 1965-1975 (poetry) 1980; revised as Selected Poems, 1965-1975, 1980

Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968-1978 (essays) 1980

Sweeney Praises the Trees (poetry) 1981

An Open Letter (poetry) 1983

Sweeney Astray: A Version from the Irish [translator; from the medieval Irish poem Buile Suibhne] (prose poem) 1983

Hailstones (poetry) 1984

Station Island (poetry) 1984

From the Republic of Conscience (poetry) 1985

The Haw Lantern (poetry) 1987

The Government of the Tongue: The 1986 T. S. Eliot Memorial Lectures and Other Critical Writings (essays and lectures) 1988; revised as The Government of the Tongue: Selected Prose, 1978-1987, 1988

The Place of Writing (lectures) 1989

The Cure at Troy: A Version of Sophocles’ Philoctetes [adaptor; from the play Philoctetes by Sophocles] (play) 1990

New Selected Poems: 1966-1987 (poetry) 1990

The Tree Clock (poetry) 1990

Seeing Things (poetry) 1991

*The Midnight Verdict [translator] (poetry) 1993

Crediting Poetry: The Nobel Lecture (lecture) 1995

The Redress of Poetry (lectures) 1995

The Spirit Level (poetry) 1996

Homage to Robert Frost [with Joseph Brodsky and Derek Walcott] (criticism) 1997

The School Bag [with Ted Hughes] (nonfiction and criticism) 1997

Opened Ground: Selected Poems, 1966-1996 (poetry) 1998

Beowulf: A New Verse Translation [translator] (prose poem) 1999

W. B. Yeats: Poems [editor] (poetry) 2000

Electric Light (poetry) 2001

Finders Keepers: Selected Prose, 1971-2001 (prose) 2002

*Includes translations of poetry from Ovid's Metamorphoses and the Gaelic poem “Cúirt an Mheon-Oíche” by Brian Merriman.

Michael Allen (essay date July 1995)

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SOURCE: Allen, Michael. “The Parish and the Dream: Heaney and America, 1969-1987.” Southern Review 31, no. 3 (July 1995): 726-38.

[In the following essay, Allen traces the effect of American literature and culture on Heaney's poetry.]

“Here no elsewhere underwrites my existence.” So wrote Larkin, who had left Ireland for England, “home,” in 1955. The implied aesthetic is akin to (and roughly contemporaneous with) Kavanagh's assumption that creative potential has its tap-root in the “parish” of one's deepest allegiance. But despite Kavanagh's importance for Seamus Heaney's art, such local attachments were no longer a crucial spur for Heaney's generation of Irish poets. When Longley, Mahon, and Heaney first read together in the mid-'60s (in Glengormley, Mahon's “home ground”), they were celebrating a poet, MacNeice, for whom all places were potentially elsewhere. Robert Frost and Theodore Roethke (as well as Ted Hughes) show, through their influence on Heaney's early work, that he was not immune to the stimulus of other “parishes” than rural, regional Ireland. And from his second book to his seventh, as we shall see, America's intermittent presence in Heaney's poetry alongside England and Ireland suggests that the verse is searching out some empathy and support there.

Vincent Buckley (in his Memory Ireland) and Dillon Johnston (in the Colby Quarterly) have illustrated how America has figured, in Johnston's phrase, “in the finances and poetic forms” of recent Irish poets. Two older writers for whom Heaney has a long-standing respect, Kinsella and Montague, may have offered him a precedent in seeking such support. It is significant that not just these three but almost all the writers cited by Johnston as attracting American patronage and achieving American audiences come from the Catholic/Nationalist tradition (south and north of the border); it was only for such writers that the prospect of a symbiotic relationship with American readers seemed realistic. They shared with many Americans an ideological distrust of the colonial power; moreover, Catholic Irish-Americans, the core of the diaspora for whom President Mary Robinson keeps a light in her window, had established a powerful and distinctive American subculture, equating Irishness for the wider American public with Catholicism and Nationalism. A premium was thus placed on a “green” Irish identity in American literary circles, and this identity may have been augmented by widespread Irish-American recruitment to the teaching and graduate study of Irish writing in the U.S. By 1983 (when Heaney's American reputation was really catching on) it was by no means only his Irish readers who would respond enthusiastically when he insisted in his Field Day pamphlet, “My passport's green.”

So it is not surprising that, apart from some stylistic indebtedness to Hart Crane, there is little American presence in the early poetry of Longley and Mahon. Whatever pan-Irish notions they might have picked up as students in Dublin, they were excluded at the outset from a Hiberno-American rapport by their Northern Protestant cultural antecedents. When the U.S. does figure in their later poems, it is merely as a place of exile or a launching pad for home. On the economic front, Mahon has recently entered Johnston's list of major recipients of American patronage and employment with a Lannan Foundation Award; but it is interesting that he does so at a time when he has changed his attitude towards Irish poetic locale, rejecting the Northern regionalism he was still displaying in a 1985 interview with Poetry Ireland in favour of the Dublin-centred literary nationalism he and Peter Fallon evince in their Penguin Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry (1989).

Heaney's way of broaching the possibility was from the first very different from that of Montague (who then provided the most notable example of poetic success—particularly in the Midwest—for an Irish poet in the U.S.). The latter writer, Brooklyn-born, uses America either autobiographically (as Dillon Johnston has shown) or else to emphasise his place in the cosmopolitan tradition of Irish poetry instituted by Denis Devlin and Thomas MacGreevy. California in a poem like “All Legendary Obstacles” functions very much as does Paris throughout A Chosen Light (1967)—to confirm the mobility and high-cultural credentials of the speaker. These tendencies are merely modified where the poetry is packaged in a more explicitly political way: on the back cover of The Rough Field (1972) the prestige of place is given a veneer of radicalism to link Paris, Northern Ireland, and 1968 Berkeley: “the New Road I describe runs through Normandy as well as Tyrone. And experience of agitations in Paris and Berkeley taught me that the violence of disputing factions is more than a local phenomenon.”

In contrast, Heaney has always resisted the cosmopolitan self-image. He tends to present himself as a humble worker-craftsman, whether as iconic poem-maker, autobiographical poet, critic, or man of letters. His first invocation of America, as he says in the essay “Feeling into Words,” grew out of assumptions about American literature and culture natural to a teacher of modern literature in higher education in the 1960s (though there is no doubt that they would have a special potency for an Irish writer of Heaney's tradition). The concept of the “American Dream” exemplified—for a teacher in Belfast in those days—by texts like The Great Gatsby and Death of a Salesman takes on a triple resonance in Heaney's work: the phrase is redolent of the emigrant experience (travelling west to the land of opportunity is a powerful idea for the Irish imagination); it accommodates the frontier experience (“Go West, young man”) that was rejuvenated in the '60s when space became the New Frontier (the moon landing occurred in the same year as the publication of Heaney's second book); and finally, these locational and spatial metaphors shade into the dream of upward mobility, of rags to riches, whereby every Irish-American boy can become president.

In the final poem of that second book (Door into the Dark) Heaney seems to be conveying Kavanagh's inward and “parochial” aesthetic to a potential American audience in frontier terms: “We have no prairies / To slice a big sun at evening,” he writes, and later in the same poem (“Bogland”), “Our pioneers keep striking / Inwards and downwards.” The key verbs here, “slice” and “striking,” display the ambiguity that the influence of '60s English poetry encouraged in Mahon and Longley as well as Heaney: the incipient violence is extended (in terms reminiscent of the “snug … gun” of “Digging”) so that the bog “keeps crusting / Between the sights of the sun” (my emphasis). The machismo of the “slightly aggravated young Catholic male” (as Heaney called his younger self in a 1977 interview with Seamus Deane) is here offering tribute to that code of manhood involved in the “winning” of the West (Heaney's own formulation, as we shall see later). In so far as the imagery resembles that of “Digging” (or “The Forge,” from which the book's title is taken), “Bogland” suggests that violent energies should be harnessed into a creative process of orgasmic potency that may be extrovert (America) or introvert (Ireland). It is revealing that Heaney counterpoints the (easily interpreted) “downward,” “wet,” “soft” qualities on the Irish side of the comparison with only the most pallid and clichéd alternatives on the American (as though he is saving the obvious binary opposites to attribute them to England at the end of the “Belfast” section of Preoccupations).

The poem is nevertheless more open to its transatlantic materials than its surface assertiveness would suggest. Its rudimentary plot follows the American settlers westward, with parallels to mid-Ireland at every point. “Our unfenced country” (my emphasis) is the bog; instead of the buffalo, “we” have “the Great Irish Elk”; instead of Nevada gold, “Butter sunk under” the bog is “recovered.” Finally, “waterlogged trunks / Of great firs” are dug up: “-logged” in its context hints at “logging,” and the geographic logic of the poem might point to California redwood. This narrator, despite the static Kavanagh aesthetic he claims to be promoting, has itchy feet. What is more, the speaker does not (perhaps for tactical reasons) insist that the crowded archaeology of forerunners he has inherited is preferable to the exploitable virgin land (conveniently empty of Native Americans) that his imagined New World shares with, for instance, the last pages of The Great Gatsby. As Heaney's speaker puts it in “Bogland,” “Every layer [our pioneers] strip / Seems camped on before.” But there is no way of getting him onto the western trail he surreptitiously hankers after; the first stage of the emigrant's journey is missing. These submerged frustrations are to some extent accommodated in the hope that “The bogholes might be Atlantic seepage.” The poem is hinting that commitment to a regional and local culture need not preclude alien modes of apprehension, a culture-flow from elsewhere.

The heretofore missing strand in Heaney's version of the American Dream, the emigrant strand, opens up in the final poem of Wintering Out (1972), his third book. The speaker of “Westering: In California” is on his way to a residency at Berkeley, and the style of the poem, under the influence of Gary Snyder, is relaxed, narrative and associative rather than cryptically linguistic. The opening lines intimate the larger imaginative dimensions of the journey through the suggestion, in the word “Official,” that the moon is now American territory, won as the West was. Where the infatuated speaker's poetic trek began, how far he has come (in achievement) since his first “parochial” success—with the frogs of “Death of a Naturalist”—is also accommodated:

I sit under Rand McNally's
“Official Map of the Moon”—
The colour of frogskin,
Its enlarged pores held
Open …

What have been left behind on this revelatory journey are the reduced local circumstances of rural Ulster, so dilute in comparison to the present experience that what illuminated the earlier scene hardly seems the same moon:

                                                                                my shadow
Neat upon the whitewash
From her bony shine,
The cobbles of the yard
Lit pale as eggs.

When he looks back from this new point of vantage, only a “shadow” is left to represent the poet. There is a studied reference in the last two lines here to an earlier page of the collection and to the yard where the “Servant Boy,” in what was probably Heaney's last unconditional celebration of the Kavanagh aesthetic, came “resentful / and impenitent, / carrying the warm eggs” (emblems of parochially derived poems).

The road to Shannon, embarkation point for the American West Coast airport where the poem is set, passes through middle Ireland, Kavanagh country, a now “empty amphitheatre”; and the travellers on that road seem to leave behind the repression central to mid-Irish culture: “congregations bent / To the studded crucifix.” (I say “seem” because the point of view of the “congregations” is also represented: “we drove by, / a dwindling interruption.”) The inward pioneering I've argued for in “Bogland” has been replaced by a more extrovert journey that seems to envisage with gusto the dropping away of the Irish Catholic heritage of suffering and repression: “[W]hat nails dropped out that hour?” asks the speaker, patently identifying his own “rooted” predicament with that of the figure on the studded cross. By the end of the poem, however, it is clear which nails have not dropped out. Euphorically the speaker can “imagine untroubled dust, / A loosening gravity”: can see the degree of his freedom from the inturned and rooted Kavanagh aesthetic in terms of the moon as destination. But he (and Jesus) are still only foot-loose: the hands (“Between my finger and my thumb / The squat pen rests,” as the early poem “Digging” proclaimed) are still under coercion. Indeed, the apparently colonised moon of the airport map itself bears the stigmata, and it suddenly seems possible that, like the Jutland traveller earlier in the volume (“The Tollund Man”), this westward, moonward voyager may find himself “lost, / Unhappy and at home.”

These irresolutions are unaddressed in the next book, North (1975), which concerns itself with Ireland in its European historical context and with the Northern Irish issue. But the kind of North American support and attention that Buckley and Johnston see as available can be read as a subtext to the subsequent development of Heaney's verse. This is apparent at the most basic level in the fact that American journals and publishers bulk much larger in the acknowledgements of his volumes from Field Work (1979) on than they did in North. Poetry in the mid-'70s was becoming less iconic, ever more an extension or equivalent of autobiography, and in a poem addressed to Deane in North (published as Heaney prepared to take up an academic post in Dublin), the year in California is given a retrospective aura of intellectual glamour:

                    Then Belfast, and then Berkeley.
Here's two on's are sophisticated,
Dabbling in verses till they have become
A life …

(“Singing School”)

Field Work looks both back and forward. The dedication of the “Glanmore Sonnets” (to “Ann Saddlemyer, our heartiest welcomer”) is a tribute to the way that (Canadian) scholar made a workplace in Wicklow available to the poet in the three years after he gave up his previous academic post in Belfast. And Heaney's “Elegy” for Robert Lowell in the volume implicitly recognises that the route to a New England sphere of influence and a ready audience (at Harvard) for his learning and his poetry were opened up in his mind through his friendship with that poet.

It's easy to see the allure of these transatlantic circumstances; the situation he could envision for himself in the U.S. must have seemed unproblematic compared with the irreconcilable tensions of the Irish situation. Wintering Out (1972), despite its recognition of the need to “uproot” (“A Northern Hoard”), was a collection powerfully committed to the imaginative resources of its region, scrupulous in its ecumenical goodwill; but this did not mean that Heaney, as a liberal nationalist, could respond positively when one of the two Protestant dedicates of that book, Michael Longley, invited him, in a verse letter published a year later, to share the benefits of the Act of Union. On the other hand, North openly committed itself to a liberal nationalist agenda, and two years later Seamus Deane, the dedicatee of the book's central statement of literary fraternity, “Singing School,” was demanding in an interview with his former schoolmate in Crane Bag that Heaney adopt a more radical nationalist position. Such pressures seemed to imply two alternatives: alignment with the “Northern Irish ‘Renaissance’” (as it was later to be represented by Morrison and Motion's Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry) or with the radically nationalist Deane centred Irish groupings that energised Crane Bag and Field Day. The Kavanagh parochial aesthetic (essentially apolitical, as Heaney noted in his essay “The Sense of Place”) offered one way of temporising with these extremes. The American option provided another, a kind of adjustable counterweight to either or both of the opposed cultural imperatives that haunt the prose and verse of the time.

In “Elegy” (for Robert Lowell) we see the American poet's influence at both intertextual and autobiographical levels, launching the speaker on his most substantive westward journey yet; “fear of water” pales into insignificance beside the verse's euphoric response to the rhetoric of the “Dream”:

As you swayed the talk
and rode on the swaying tiller
of yourself, ribbing me
about my fear of water,
what was not within your empery?
You drank America
like the heart's
iron vodka …

The word America functions here with the enigmatic, liturgical force it always carries in the literature of the Dream (at the end of The Adventures of Augie March, for instance). So advocated, and by such an inspiring patron, the potential journey of the emigrant was made to seem no more terrifying than the familiar (cf. Mahon's Night-Crossing) archipelagic crossing in the opposite direction, from Belfast to Liverpool:

                    You were out night ferry
thudding in a big sea,
the whole craft ringing
with an armourer's music
the course set wilfully across
the ungovernable and dangerous. …

The implication is still that violent energies are to be harnessed and that the courage and determination that might be required of a “slightly aggravated young Catholic male” on the home front are also required on the westward journey. Heaney could valorise the quasi-emigrant entrepreneurial impulse because professional success for the Northern Catholic has political significance. It represents a triumph for the liberal (non-violent) nationalist cause by demonstrating within the Catholic community that social and economic advantage can be gained in the North in peaceable and constitutional, rather than revolutionary, ways.

Heaney's next book, Station Island (1984), seems to take several steps backwards (a frequent strategy for him), relocating the vocational quest (wherein the protagonist is allowed a childlike earnestness) among the penitential rituals of middle Ireland out of which Kavanagh had fashioned Lough Derg. It is not surprising, however, if one looks back to “Westering,” to find Irish/American cultural tensions dramatised in a key poem. There is a conflict of loyalties for the poet-speaker of “Making Strange” between the embarrassed incoherence of his County Derry farmer father and the sophistication of a literary visitor from America, Louis Simpson. Just as Lowell was an important influence on Heaney both as stylistic innovator and as inspiring friend, Simpson too has a dual appeal: he provides, in poems like “American Poetry” and “Walt Whitman at Bear Mountain,” a distinctive American idiom against which Heaney can play off his own style; and because America was his adopted country (Simpson having been born in Jamaica), Simpson offered Heaney a possible alter ego in his quasi-emigrant quest.

The speaker in “Making Strange” is initially paralysed by the need to introduce “the one with his travelled intelligence” to “another” (his father) and to his parish, to “these eyes and puddles and stones.” The poem is an uneasy blend of the iconic and the autobiographical, and in an improbable mode directly inherited from Kavanagh's “Temptation in Harvest,” a “cunning middle voice” comes out of “the field across the road,” urging the speaker on the one hand to “Be adept and be dialect, / tell of this wind coming past the zinc hut” (i.e., continue to capitalise on the parochial) and on the other hand to “love the cut of this travelled one” (a poetic equal this time rather than a genial patron like Lowell). At first sight Heaney might seem to be indulging in the kind of aestheticised cosmopolitanism one sometimes finds in Montague. But the naivety with which he characterises his speaker is balanced through adjective and simile with elements of the noble savage in the American visitor: “[his] tawny containment, / his speech like the twang of a bowstring.” The speaker's first need in realising their potential equality is (as in “Elegy”) for courage to transcend the tried parochial aesthetic. As the Muse says:

Go beyond what's reliable
in all that keeps pleading and pleading,
these eyes and puddles and stones,
and recollect how bold you were
when I visited you first
with departures you cannot go back on.

The “making strange” (which phrase, in an Irish family, would describe a child behaving peculiarly in the presence of a stranger) is changed here in implication: it indicates the way the company of an outsider can make even one's most familiar surroundings seem alien.

I found myself driving the stranger
through my own country, adept
at dialect, reciting my pride
in all that I knew, that began to make strange
at that same recitation.

The materials of the poetry may still be “my own country,” “all that I knew” (as in “The Forge”: “All I know is …”), but access on equal terms to a new audience (of which Simpson is here representative) is recognised as necessary to produce new “departures,” an adjusted aesthetic.

This adjustment had been in process from about 1979, when Heaney began teaching creative writing at Harvard for one semester a year (spending the rest of his time in Ireland). He was publishing widely in American journals and at once cementing literary relationships and confirming a New England audience through his association as contributor and then guest editor of a New England magazine, Ploughshares. In 1984 he became Boylston Professor of Rhetoric at Harvard and presented there, as his Phi Beta Kappa offering, the poem “Alphabets” (later to appear in The Haw Lantern, 1987). At the centre of the poem, treated with some irony, stands the prospective Boylston Professor: “The globe has spun. He stands in a wooden O. / He alludes to Shakespeare. He alludes to Graves.”

The first sentence, despite the irony, is not entirely free from portentousness. It encapsulates both the speaker's westward journey from the County Derry “parish” of the earlier poetry and his journey in time from an education at the hands of a teacher who is recognisably “Miss Walls” of “Death of a Naturalist.” As in “Westering,” the image of the moon journey enhances the speaker's vertiginous sense of the spatial and social remove from County Derry farmyard to Harvard lecture hall:

                                                  As from his small window
The astronaut sees all he has sprung from,
The risen, aqueous, singular, lucent O
Like a magnified and buoyant ovum—
Or like my own wide pre-reflective stare
All agog at the plasterer on his ladder
Skimming our gable …

But the “parish” as a reservoir of mimetic possibilities (which made Heaney modify rather than jettison the Kavanagh aesthetic in “Making Strange”) is now seen as an anachronism:

Time has bulldozed the school and school window.
Balers drop bales like printouts where stooked sheaves
Made lambdas on the stubble once at harvest
And the delta face of each potato pit
Was patted straight and moulded against frost.
All gone …

Interestingly, with the “parish” gone, the idea of an American elsewhere ceases to be pressing. Implicit and exemplified in these lines is the shift to the nonmimetic and self-reflexive aesthetic that governs Heaney's recent poetry. It is as though the poet has here lifted out a strand in his own development, contemplated it, refocused it, and turned from the subject entirely.

About this time, one of Vincent Buckley's informants found the opinion common back in Ireland that Heaney was “not an Irish poet; he's a Yank now.” Buckley himself formulated a contrary but equally unsubstantiated view that Heaney, like other Irish poets, was exploiting in America his “native” Irishness to achieve a social elevation comparable with that from working class to upper middle class. In 1986 Terence Brown suggested in Poetry Ireland that Buckley's thesis (that the complex fate of such Irish poets as Heaney and Montague was “not to become Americans but to be Irish in relation to America”) deserved exploration. But Buckley's notion probably reflects little more than a knee-jerk response to reports like this from the U.S. Information Service's international magazine Dialogue:

It was a pleasure, too, last spring, to join the annual dinner of the Signet Society, a 116-year-old club for undergraduates and professors. The guests sat back at their tables in the Faculty Club—pale faces, red faces, elegant shocks of white hair, the half-childlike faces of adolescents, a colorful punk hairdo or two, and everyone in evening clothes—and listened silently to a string trio of superb undergraduate musicians.

Later, the Irish poet Seamus Heaney, Harvard's Boylston Professor of Rhetoric, recited some of his verses, which sounded as if Yeats had come back to life; and then Helen Vendler, a professor of English, told everyone what Heaney meant. At one point, a great silver bowl of champagne went around the room, and hundreds of people sipped from it. And still later, at the Signet's clubhouse, the undergraduates got intelligently rowdy. They obviously felt, as such undergraduates do, that they were special, as they were.

And Heaney spoke the first lines of his poem on Harvard:

A spirit moved. John Harvard walked the yard.
The atom lay unsplit, the west unwon,
The books stood open and the gates unbarred.

My own interest here is in how the passage from an (uncollected) poem recited in such circumstances shows Heaney in the American '80s (when the concept of the Dream had been transformed by the sense of America as a mosaic, an aggregation of coequal and hyphenated groupings) still tying together westward journey, technological advance, and (by implication) upward mobility in a way conceived of in Ireland nearly twenty years earlier.

Foremost among the creative benefits to him of the ongoing American experience (Heaney said in 1987) was the achievement of “a certain distance from your first self.” Heaney has argued further that this is particularly necessary for a Northern Irish poet (which is clearly how he still sees himself). It is interesting that Paul Muldoon, a younger Northern Irish poet now resident in the U.S., dedicates to Heaney a prefatory poem to his deconstructive version of the American Dream, Madoc (1990). In it a bustling, expatriate Muldoon, crossing New York, nearly loses his eelskin briefcase (my italics) and the poem inside it. The briefcase symbolises the desire for upward mobility as patently as does the one in Ellison's Invisible Man; its sudden, “supple” impulse to “strike out” for “the ‘open’ sea” by way of the East River, however, serves (like a great deal of sly intertextuality in the volume) to relate Muldoon to a poetic precursor who was also his predecessor on the transatlantic route. Muldoon, after all, began “parochially,” writing out of his “own little postage stamp” of County Armagh (though it has to be said that it was from the start sometimes tinctured, unaccountably, with American images and mores). His career, from rural beginnings to university in Belfast to Faber/Farrar, Straus & Giroux publication to employment by American universities, has closely paralleled Heaney's.

The eel to which our attention is being drawn appears in Heaney's “Beyond Sargasso” (1969) and has a homing instinct that leads it inevitably back to Lough Neagh, a landmark of the poet's “parish”:

                                        he drifted
into motion half-way
across the Atlantic,
sure as the satellite's
insinuating pull
in the ocean, as true
to his orbit.

The eel appears again in Station Island to suggest a parochial colouring to the “signatures of your own frequency” that the poet hopes to transmit: “elver-gleams in the dark of the whole sea.” Muldoon, while sharing with Heaney a readiness to reverse the upward and westward direction of the “Dream,” is eager to register his vote (in characteristically oblique fashion) against the inexorable pull of any parish: hence the force—given by the emphatic syntax, its final position in the poem, and its intertextual quotation marks—to “the ‘open’ sea.”


I held the briefcase at arm's length from me;
the oxblood or liver
eelskin with which it was covered
had suddenly grown supple.
I'd been waiting in line for the cross-town
bus when an almighty cloudburst
left the sidewalk a raging torrent.
And though it contained only the first
inkling of this poem, I knew I daren't
set the briefcase down
to slap my pockets for an obol—
for fear it might slink into a culvert
and strike out along the East River
for the sea. By which I mean the “open” sea.

Richard Tillinghast (essay date December 1995)

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SOURCE: Tillinghast, Richard. “Seamus Heaney's ‘Middle Voice.’” New Criterion 14, no. 4 (December 1995): 77-80.

[In the following essay, Tillinghast assesses the political and artistic implications of the poems in Station Island and North.]

Some years ago when Seamus Heaney was rumored once again to have missed a close vote for the Nobel Prize in literature, Charlie Haughey, Ireland's taoiseach (prime minister), was quoted as having remarked: “We wuz robbed!” As Haughey's humorous use of sports-talk and the first-person plural pronoun suggests, Heaney's Nobel on some level belongs to Ireland as a whole. And now, with the cease-fire in Northern Ireland, his having been brought up Catholic in the Protestant-dominated province “positions” Heaney as the kind of writer to whom the Nobel committee likes to give its literature prizes.

But this positioning, this convenient fit between poetry and politics, is perhaps not so neat as much of the journalism I have been reading on the subject would have us believe. Not only is Heaney not a product of the Northern Ireland conflict, his is a sensibility that seeks to assuage (one of his favorite words) and to heal. It would not be true to say, as Auden wrote of Yeats, that “mad Ireland hurt you into poetry,” or that the conflict in his native province, as has been suggested, has significantly stimulated him as a writer. Unlike the early Auden, whose genius was sharpened by the revolutionary currents of the Thirties, Heaney would prefer, it seems to me, not to have lived in what his younger contemporary Eavan Boland has called “a time of violence.” On the other hand, if Heaney is seen as a symbol of rapprochement and healing, then the political symbolism of his Nobel Prize is brilliantly apt.

Under the Catholic, nationalist, pro-Gaelic Eamon De Valera, the Republic of Ireland, once liberated from British rule, pointedly distanced itself from the British side of its complex cultural history. The result has been a cultural narrowness, where the Church has banned books, kept divorce illegal, banned abortion. The tragic destruction of Dublin's Georgian architecture since the 1950s was aided by a sense that all signs of British domination were well got rid of.

Seamus Heaney has never evidenced that kind of cultural parochialism. He seems to have gleaned from his own reading and from his education at Queens University in Belfast a sense that the English literature tradition was his to do with what he chose. When he once, rightly, bristled at being placed in an anthology of British poetry, he averred that if he were going to be placed among the English poets, that would be another matter—defining his work in terms of the language rather than of a political entity. This is how he puts it in the 1975 collection, North, assessing what it was like to apprentice as a writer in Northern Ireland,

Ulster was British, but with no rights on
The English lyric: all around us, though
We hadn't named it, the ministry of fear.

In the short poem “Holly,” from Station Island (1984), while the experience rendered in the poem comes straight out of an Irish childhood, he doesn't hesitate for a moment to marshall the full resources of English, both linguistic and cultural. It is one of many poems in which this poet struggles to reconcile the journey that has brought him from a farm in County Derry to his position as one of the most honored literary figures in the English-speaking world.

The remembered scene couldn't be homelier: a childhood Christmastime expedition in search of greenery to decorate the house, when “the ditches were swimming, we were wet / to the knees, our hands were all jags // and water ran up our sleeves.” Fast-forward to adulthood:

Now here I am, in a room that is decked
with the red-berried, waxy-leafed stuff,
and I almost forget what it's like
to be wet to the skin or longing for snow.
I reach for a book like a doubter
and want it to flare round my hand,
a black-letter bush, a glittering shield-wall
cutting as holly and ice.

The poem is a lament for the intensity of childhood enthusiasms, even for childhood discomforts. The book he reaches for would be a substitute for those intensities. I find it striking that as a metaphor for the “cutting” sharpness he seeks, Heaney comes up with an image from Anglo-Saxon celebrations of war, the “shield-wall” familiar to readers of poems like “The Battle of Maldon.”

This is a literary heritage I fancy it would occur to few Irish poets to claim as their own. The thrust of the Irish nativist movement since Independence has been to recover a cultural heritage suppressed under English rule. Not many modern poets have taken the course of actually writing in Irish, but few, I think, would range so freely in the cultural territory of “the oppressor.” Even the Anglo-Irish Yeats looked for cultural references to the battles of Cuchulain or some other figure out of Irish myth. Heaney's counter-thrust finds a rough parallel in the poetry of Derek Walcott, who emerged in the Caribbean from another outpost of the former British Empire. The approach here has been to make free with one's linguistic heritage and not be programmatic about its origins. As opposed to many ideological approaches that come to mind, Heaney's way with the material may be seen as commonsensical and workmanlike.

“Making Strange,” from the same 1984 collection, again shows Heaney engaged in cultural mediation. Here the conflict transpires at first not within the poet, but in a triangular configuration involving two other people he brings together on his native turf:

I stood between them,
the one with his travelled intelligence
and tawny containment,
his speech like the twang of a bowstring,
and another, unshorn and bewildered
in the tubs of his wellingtons,
smiling at me for help,
faced with this stranger I'd brought him.

The language here is pure Heaney, with its well-rubbed, determinedly unabstract adjective, “tawny,” and its tight, masterly simile, “like the twang of a bowstring.” What other poet could set the scene so sure-handedly and with so little fuss?

It's easy to imagine the farmer scratching his head and rocking back and forth in his mud-spattered wellingtons, contemplating this sleek exotic his friend the poet has presented him with. Having set up the dramatic face-to-face between these two, Heaney leaves them for a moment and goes within. Or rather “a cunning middle voice / came out of the field across the road …” The voice's message goes right to the heart of the divided experience dramatized in “Holly” because it says “Be adept and be dialect … love the cut of this travelled one,” and calling forth the Old Testament's most memorable symbol of alienation, the voice says, “call me also the cornfield of Boaz.” Keats alludes to the story of Ruth and Boaz in “Ode to a Nightingale.” The immortal Bird's voice is “Perhaps the self-same song that found a path / Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home, / She stood in tears amid the alien corn.”

Elsewhere Heaney writes that in school he took on the Latin pen-name “Incertus,” to underscore his innate shyness. And here the middle voice is a voice of encouragement and departures, urging him on to

“Go beyond what's reliable
in all that keeps pleading and pleading,
these eyes and puddles and stones,
and recollect how bold you were
when I visited you first
with departures you cannot go back on.”

Just as in Keats's poem, there is a bird here also—not the grand Romantic nightingale, though, but a common Irish bird of field and stone wall: “A chaffinch flicked from an ash,” bringing him out of his reverie,

                                                                      and next thing
I found myself driving the stranger
through my own country, adept
at dialect, reciting my pride
in all that I knew, that began to make strange
at that same recitation.

These lines make a distinction that is precise, unshowy, and cunning. He is the master of actions that bring two worlds together, enhancing them both, truly one who is “adept at dialect.” The poem stubbornly asserts the departures Heaney has earned for himself; but paradoxically it is the homely things of farm and field that he has been able to “make strange.”

As for the political ramifications of Heaney's middle voice, it is worth quoting from a short piece he wrote for the BBC periodical, The Listener, in 1971:

For some people in this [Northern Irish] community, the exercise of goodwill towards the dominant caste has been hampered by the psychological hoops they have been made to jump and by the actual circumstances of their lives within the state, British and all as it may have been. A little goodwill in the Establishment here towards the notion of being Irish would take some of the twists out of the minority. Even at this time it is difficult to extend full sympathy to the predicament of that million among us who would ask the other half-million to exalt themselves by being humbled.

Even granted that this was written for a British audience, what restraint, what dignified irony there is in this passage! While faulting the British majority for bullying the Irish minority, he evenhandedly acknowledges the “twists” in the psychology of the dominated caste. And note the use of “caste” itself, pointing out an inflexible social structure in a province where advancement for the Catholic Irish is all but impossible. Readers hoping for a passionate defender of the Republican cause were not going to find it in Heaney, whose sympathy was with the victims on both sides. And as he notes in “Whatever You Say Say Nothing,” also from North, language itself, including his own, is one of the victims:

Yet I live here, I live here too, I sing,
Expertly civil tongued with civil neighbours
On the high wires of first wireless reports,
Sucking the fake taste, the stony flavours
Of those sanctioned, old, elaborate retorts:
“Oh, it's disgraceful, surely, I agree.”
“Where's it going to end?” “It's getting worse.”

Contemplating the ironic use of “sing” in this passage, one might consider its distance from Keats's nightingale and Yeats's golden bird in “Sailing to Byzantium”: “set upon a golden bough to sing / To lords and ladies of Byzantium / Of what is past, or passing, or to come.”

Among the several reconciliations that concern Heaney is that between male and female, even within a single personality. In his 1978 essay “Yeats as an Example?” he sees such a blending taking place in Yeats toward the end of his life. On the one hand,

Yeats lies under Ben Bulben, in Drumcliff Churchyard, under that dominant promontory which I like to think of as the father projected into the landscape, and there is perhaps something too male and assertive about the poem that bears the mountain's name and stands at the end of the Collected Poems.

Heaney proposes as a more fitting conclusion the poem “Cuchulain Comforted,” written shortly before the death of Ireland's earlier Nobel Prize-winning poet. “It is a poem deeply at one with the weak and the strong of the earth”—and here one thinks of Heaney's own response to the Troubles—“full of a motherly kindness toward life, but also unflinching in its belief in the propriety and beauty of life transcended into art, song, words.”

In “The Harvest Bow,” a poem written about the same time he would have been writing the essay on Yeats, Heaney enunciates an artistic credo based on the Irish folk-craft of weaving crosses and lapel decorations out of wheat straw left over from the harvest. The first lines—“As you plaited the harvest bow / You implicated the mellowed silence in you”—introduce a “you” whose identity is never specified: his father or grandfather perhaps? In “Cuchulain Comforted” Yeats has his hero, “a man / Violent and famous” who “strode among the dead,” humble himself and sew a shroud for himself in the underworld. Heaney says nothing explicitly to indicate that the “you” is male, except that he has “lapped the spurs on a lifetime of game cocks” and that he carries a stick, “Whacking the tips off weeds and bushes.” He makes with his practiced fingers “A throwaway love-knot of straw.”

Quietness, mellowness, love have been—in Heaney's lovely use of a latinate word for its etymological suggestions—“implicated,” or folded into, the harvest bow to the extent that it becomes a talisman: “I tell and finger it like braille, / Gleaning the unsaid off the palpable.” The words are rich with connotations: that he can “tell” the object, likens it to a rosary; that he is “gleaning” something off it, shows that where its maker has reaped, he comes along behind like Ruth and picks up what remains, which is what it means to glean. Twentieth-century poetry is rich with objects used as sources of meaning: William Carlos Williams's red wheelbarrow, Elizabeth Bishop's toy horse and ballerina from “Cirque d'Hiver,” Robert Lowell's father's battered chair from “91 Revere Street,” the laundry in Richard Wilbur's “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World.” But I can think of no poem that uses an object more evocatively than “The Harvest Bow” does. Heaney can almost literally see into it:

And if I spy into its golden loops
I see us walk between the railway slopes
Into an evening of long grass and midges,
Blue smoke straight up, old beds and ploughs in hedges,
An auction notice on an outhouse wall—
You with a harvest bow in your lapel …

This poet, “Incertus” no longer, even has the confidence to come right out—in defiance of conventional twentieth-century poetic practice—and draw an explicit meaning from the harvest bow, quoting from Coventry Patmore:

The end of art is peace
Could be the motto of this frail device
That I have pinned up on our deal dresser—
Like a drawn snare
Slipped lately by the spirit of the corn
Yet burnished by its passage, and still warm.

If the Nobel Prize committee registered the message of this “frail device” when it linked Seamus Heaney with the frail but hopeful cease-fire in Northern Ireland, then its decision was a wise one indeed.

Further Reading

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Cho, Christina. Review of Finders Keepers: Selected Prose, by Seamus Heaney. New York Times Book Review (6 October 2002): section 7, p. 33.

Cho compliments Heaney's devotion to language as evidenced in the material collected in Finders Keepers.

Hall, Jason. “Heaney's ‘Requiem for the Croppies.’” Explicator 61, no. 1 (fall 2002): 56-60.

Hall offers a critical assessment of Heaney's early sonnet “Requiem for the Croppies.”

Heaney, Seamus. “From Beowulf.American Poetry Review 29, no. 1 (January-February 2000): 21-5.

Heaney discusses how his personal history merges with the history of Beowulf in his translation, describing his methods for ensuring that the translation remained true to both histories.

Wills, Clair. “On the See-Saw.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5170 (3 May 2002): 25.

Wills praises the collection of material in Finders Keepers, noting that “[t]he common thread is a spontaneous, insistent relating of poetry to his own experience.”

Additional coverage of Heaney's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: British Writers Retrospective Supplement, Vol. 1; British Writers Supplement, Vol. 2; Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, 1960 to Present; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85-88; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 25, 48, 75, 91; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 5, 7, 14, 25, 37, 74, 91; Contemporary Poets, Ed. 7; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 40; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, 1995; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Poets; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Exploring Poetry; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Poetry Criticism, Vol. 18; Poetry for Students, Vols. 2, 5, 8; Poets: American and British; Reference Guide to English Literature, Ed. 2; Twayne's English Authors; World Literature and Its Times, Vol. 4; and World Literature Criticism Supplement.

William Pratt (essay date spring 1996)

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SOURCE: Pratt, William. “The Great Irish Elk: Seamus Heaney's Personal Helicon.” World Literature Today 70, no. 2 (spring 1996): 261-66.

[In the following essay, Pratt provides an overview of Heaney's life and career through his 1995 Nobel Prize in Literature.]

When Yeats received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1923, he was fifty-eight and at the height of his poetic powers, which happily continued undiminished for another sixteen years. Yeats wrote some of his best poems in the last years of his life, the decade and a half that followed the Nobel Prize, and in his Autobiographies he even went so far as to say that “The Bounty of Sweden” made him feel that though he was old his Muse was young. Seamus Heaney has long been recognized as a worthy successor to Yeats; we can hope that, in receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature for 1995, he will share not only Yeats's honor but also his fate, and that, at the slightly younger age of fifty-six, Heaney will prove that he still has some of his best poems to write.

Yeats has been the undisputed Irish national poet for most of this century, a preeminence celebrated annually at the Yeats International Summer School in Sligo, but Heaney is the emergent Irish national poet, for whom another literary festival may well be founded some day. I remember it was at a Yeats International Summer School in Sligo that I first heard Seamus Heaney read his poems, and it was a moving experience because he reads so well, in a soft Ulster accent freighted with gravity but lightened by wry humor. I realized then that if Heaney could be compared with Yeats, the two poets must have more in common than their Irishness, for Yeats himself was never simply an Irish poet; he was one of the chief modern world poets as well. And if Heaney is really like Yeats, he may come to be seen as more significantly a Modern poet than an Irish poet. Indeed, it may already be happening: Heaney's poems appear regularly in such non-Irish places as the (London) Times Literary Supplement and the New Yorker, and his dual appointment to the prestigious Boylston Professorship of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard and the Chair of Poetry at Oxford are proof enough that he commands wide respect outside Ireland.

Americans especially appreciate Heaney, for he has lived long enough in Boston to become an honorary citizen, has had his picture in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, has delivered a commencement address—in verse, no less—at Fordham University, and has been featured on a special American television program for Saint Patrick's Day, introduced by his universally admired fellow-countryman, the flutist James Galway, as “everybody's favorite Irish poet,” as he strolled beside a stone wall in the Boyne Valley, talking of Saint Patrick's conquest of Ireland as if it had happened the day before. His own conquest of America was pictured some time ago in the pages of National Geographic magazine, which ran a photographic essay on “The Mystery of the Bog,” quoting Heaney's poetry almost as if it were scripture. He is already ahead of Yeats in recognition, for his honors at Oxford and Harvard elevated him to the highest position a poet can reach in the English-speaking world, before he won a still higher international honor from the Swedish Academy at Stockholm.

So there is justice as well as judgment in the award of a Nobel Prize in Literature to Seamus Heaney, and it is clearly a popular choice for the Swedish Academy to make. When Yeats received it, he was honest enough to admit that his lyric poetry alone would not have won him the honor, though it had given him greater distinction than anything else he wrote: he attributed the award as much to his identification with the cause of Irish Nationalism—which by 1923 had won independence from England and created a new Free State—and to his having helped found the Irish National Theatre, as to his lyric poems, because he knew patriotism and theatre appealed to a wider audience than poetry. Yeats was naturally suspect in his native country, belonging as he did to the Anglo-Irish Protestant Ascendancy, but he overcame the prejudices of his mainly Catholic countrymen by defining a new Irish consciousness rooted in Celtic myth as much as in Christian faith. He created a heroic character for Ireland out of mythical heroes like Oisin and Cuchulain and Queen Maeve, which allowed him to transform the very landscape into symbols of courage and patriotic pride: the Isle of Innisfree was his youthful retreat; above his grave “Under Ben Bulben” is his own defiant epitaph.

Seamus Heaney has had less native prejudice to overcome, being born as he was into an Irish Catholic farming family; but he had greater literary prejudice to overcome, for he was destined to come after Yeats, and the new Irish poetic tradition of which Yeats was the master forced Heaney to wrestle through much of his career with the powerful ghost of Yeats. Indeed, he could only lay that ghost to rest by founding an Irish tradition of his own recognizably different from that of Yeats.

It is not surprising that there are echoes of older poets in Heaney's early poems: the Irish voice of Yeats, the English voices of Hopkins and W. H. Auden, the Welsh voice of Dylan Thomas, even the American voice of Robert Frost can be heard in them. But the strong voice of Heaney asserted itself above these echoes, from the time when he chose to open his first book, Death of a Naturalist (1966), with “Digging,” an ancestral poem linking him with his father and his grandfather on the farm near Londonderry where he was raised. By the time he had written his next three books, Door into the Dark (1969), Wintering Out (1972), and North (1975), it was clear that Heaney had found his true subject and was no longer in debt to Yeats or any other poet, having at last made himself into an Irish Symbolist in his own right.

The bog is quite literally Heaney's turf, for he has come to join that distinguished line of modern poets who sought the prehistoric and primitive roots of civilization, following the lead of cultural anthropologists who went in search of the origins of all myths and the foundations of all religious beliefs. In the twentieth century, along with the Bible and epic poetry, The Golden Bough has been one of the primary sources for poetry, bringing back from deep in human memory vegetation rites that are even more ancient than the Trojan War. The poet's imagination, as another Nobel Prize-Winning poet, T. S. Eliot, once said, must be at the same time primitive and sophisticated, extending human consciousness to the extreme limits of our encounter with the present and our knowledge of the past. Heaney, like other modern poets before him—like his fellow Irishman Yeats, but also like the American expatriates Eliot and Pound—has felt the need for recalling vividly and often painfully in his poems certain ancestral myths and rituals, apparently with the instinct to preserve the record of the remote past so that we will never forget it, knowing from somewhere deep inside, as Yeats once put it, that “we only begin to understand life when we conceive of it as tragedy.”

Yeats achieved his first identity as an Irish poet, later as a Modern poet. So, in the first decade of Heaney's career, in the 1960s, he could be seen—indeed saw himself—as only one of several promising young Irish poets, maybe a little more ambitious than Thomas Kinsella or John Montague, but not necessarily more talented or more accomplished than they. His first book, Death of a Naturalist in 1966, evoked comparisons with Thomas Hardy and Robert Frost, high company for a beginner, but it was the voice of the Irish farm boy that was most distinctly heard. The really memorable poems in that volume were the opening poem, “Digging,” and the closing poem, “Personal Helicon.” The first was clearly autobiographical, since Heaney, having grown up on a farm in County Derry, portrayed himself in the poem as following his father, who dug for potatoes, and his grandfather, who dug for peat, by “digging” for words with his pen. It is a homely metaphor, but it suited his style well, signifying strength, skill, and earthiness. Heaney later said that

‘Digging,’ in fact, was the name of the first poem I wrote where I thought my feelings had got into words, or to put it more accurately, where I thought my feel had got into words. Its rhythms and noises still please me. … I wrote it in the summer of 1964, almost two years after I had begun to ‘dabble in verses.’ This was the first place where I felt I had done more than make an arrangement of words: I felt that I had let down a shaft into real life.1

So his first poem came directly from life on the farm where he grew up, and his attitude in it seems almost the Irish equivalent of an American naturalist such as Thoreau or Frost; however, the last poem in that first collection, “Personal Helicon,” speaks from a more sophisticated and literary background. Heaney had left the family farm to go to Belfast and earn a first-class honors degree in English literature from Queen's University, and the poem introduces more literary ancestors than his father and grandfather. Helicon, after all, is the sacred mountain in Greece where Apollo and the Muses were supposed to dwell, and where poetic inspiration was said to flow from the Fount of Hippocrene. In Heaney's poem, Helicon is transformed from a Greek fountain associated with the Muses into a sacred well associated with many Irish saints, but it is also unmistakably a real well on the farm where Heaney spent his boyhood: “As a child, they could not keep me from wells,” he begins, and ends, as a man and a poet, still looking into them: “Now, to pry into roots, to finger slime, / To stare, big-eyed Narcissus, into some spring / Is beneath all adult dignity. I rhyme / To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.”

To see the Irish holy well as also a Greek fount of inspiration, and to compare himself to Narcissus looking at his image in the water—of course, with the myth of destructive self-love staring straight back—sets up a parallel between ancients and moderns that Heaney found congenial to his poetic development. By placing the first poem, “Digging,” beside the last poem, “Personal Helicon,” we can see that in his first book Heaney was beginning to dig deep into the Irish landscape for his subjects, though he still had the Irish farmer's point of view chiefly in his mind, and County Derry, Northern Ireland, bore a strong resemblance to that other Derry in New Hampshire where Robert Frost had once kept farm and written poetry.

Then in his next book, Door into the Dark, in 1969, Heaney began digging deeper, and a new theme appeared in his poetry, which was barely discernible then but became more evident in Wintering Out in 1972 and was definitely confirmed by the publication in 1975 of his fourth collection of poems, called simply North. Heaney emerged in this fourth and most distinctive volume as a poet who had a special perspective on the stormy scene of Northern Ireland that came from the light of the remote past—not simply from the Irish past, though he knew it well, nor simply from the Western literary and historical past, which he also knew, but from the truly ancient, the ancestors, distant kinsmen connected to him in imagination only, as Homer was connected with Troy, Virgil with Greece, or Dante with Rome, a kinship of the spirit more than of the blood, a vital link with the whole heritage of his race. Heaney was not ostensibly writing an epic; yet his series of short poems seemed to have coherence, and a new kind of hero stepped forth in them, the unlikely figure of “The Tollund Man”: “Some day I will go to Aarhus / To see his peat-brown head, / The mild pods of his eye-lids, / His pointed skin cap.” After meditating on his kinship with this Danish corpse dredged up from a bog far from his own native Ireland, Heaney concludes the poem with a reference to the contemporary situation in Ireland: “Out there in Jutland / In the old man-killing parishes / I will feel lost, / Unhappy and at home.”

What Seamus Heaney had stumbled upon, in the bogs of Denmark, was a man like himself, whose body had been miraculously preserved for two thousand years so that the features were still recognizable, and so was the cause of his death: ritual sacrifice. Around the Tollund Man's neck was a noose that had been twisted to resemble the torc necklace worn by the goddess for whom he had given his life. Heaney's sympathy for this ancient victim was strong, because it formed a connection in his mind with the deaths in his own North of Ireland, where the bogs also preserved organic material for centuries, as perfectly as if it had been mummified. Tollund Man as Heaney imagined him had willingly sacrificed himself to his goddess, the Bog Queen or Earth Mother, in a way that reminded Heaney of the deaths of contemporary Irish Catholics for the Virgin Mary; and so it seemed that the “Modern” was repeating the fatal action of the “Ancient.” Heaney was not admiring their heroism so much as he was remarking on the similarity of their martyrdom, in “the old man-killing parishes” where he as a living Irishman felt both “Unhappy and at home.”

Seamus Heaney did not claim that he had invented this figure, but freely admitted that he had discovered the Tollund Man in the illustrations and descriptions contained in a contemporary archeological treatise called The Bog People: Iron-Age Man Preserved by P. V. Glob, a Danish anthropologist, a work that had fascinated him when it first appeared in English translation in 1969. Heaney's poetic use of this book bears less resemblance to what Yeats did with early Irish mythology in his poetry and drama than to what Eliot did in adapting Sir James Frazer's Golden Bough and Jessie Weston's From Ritual to Romance to his purposes in The Waste Land. Indeed, Heaney's true Personal Helicon, his bog imagery, seems closer to Eliot's modern version of the Grail legend than to any of Yeats's poems, since it gives the reader the same uncanny sense of walking through a contemporary Irish landscape that is also an ancient Danish landscape, just as the reader of Eliot's poem looks at modern London as the Grail knight might have seen the Waste Land, a haunted and sterile landscape where the only voices are those of hollow men and women waiting for death to relieve the monotony of their futile lives. Heaney's Tollund Man has taken the place of Eliot's Fisher King, just as the bog has taken the place of the Waste Land. Furthermore, any possible hope for an end to the ancient sacrificial killing seems as remote in Heaney's bog as hope for the restoration of fertility seems in Eliot's Waste Land: the conjunction of the ancient and the modern has produced a purgative diagnosis of human suffering, but no relief or means of escape from it.

So, by the time he had written his fourth book, Seamus Heaney had made his difficult rite of passage and had come of age as a poet, and along the way he had raised Glob's Bog People to something like the status of Weston's From Ritual to Romance. But Eliot's Waste Land was as real as it was mythical, owing less to Jessie Weston than to his own acute observation of the lonely crowd which “Flowed up the hill and down King William Street / To where St. Mary Woolnoth kept the hours / With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.” And Heaney's bog was not purely literary, but came directly from his own observations of growing up on a farm in Ireland. As early as his second volume, Door into the Dark, even before he had read Glob's book, Heaney had already written a poem called “Bogland,” which made the bog a symbol of the long Irish memory and contrasted it with the American frontier as a symbol of the wide-open spaces of the West, which Heaney says he had in mind because “at that time, I was teaching modern literature in Queen's University, Belfast, and had been reading about the frontier and the west as an important myth in the American consciousness, so I set up—or rather, laid down—the bog as an answering Irish myth.”2 It starts by looking at the American frontier from an Irishman's perspective.

We have no prairies
To slice a big sun at evening—
Everywhere the eye concedes to
Encroaching horizon,
Is wooed into the cyclops' eye
Of a tarn. Our unfenced country
Is bog that keeps crusting
Between the sights of the sun.

Then Heaney proceeds to raise up an Irish equivalent of the American Frontier from his bogland.

They've taken the skeleton
Of the Great Irish Elk
Out of the peat, set it up,
An astounding crate full of air.

The symbolic landscape of Seamus Heaney's poetry is a place where long-extinct animals like the Great Irish Elk may come to the surface when a farmer digs for peat in a bog, as if the earth itself had a faculty of memory like the minds of the men who live on it, and could draw them downward by the seductive appeal of its soft, dark body, by a feminine presence like the Bog Queen reincarnated. Heaney has said that “if you go round the National Museum in Dublin, you will realize that a great proportion of the most cherished material heritage of Ireland was ‘found in a bog,’”3 and he has described his own creative process as if it had lain for a while in the earth beside the Great Irish Elk: “I have always listened for poems, they come sometimes like bodies come out of a bog, almost complete, seeming to have been laid down a long time ago, surfacing with a touch of mystery.”4

Certainly such a rebirth after long burial in the earth seems to fit the language of “Bog Queen,” where Heaney replicates the voice of the Earth Goddess, to whom the Tollund Man long ago had been ritually married and then sacrificed.

I lay waiting
between turf-face and demesne wall,
between heathery levels
and glass-toothed stone.
My diadem grew carious,
gemstones dropped
in the peat floe
like the bearings of history.
My skull hibernated
in the wet nest of my hair.
Which they robbed.
I was barbered
and stripped
by a turfcutter's spade
and I rose from the dark,
hacked bone, skull-ware,
frayed stitches, tufts,
small gleams on the bank.

The best footnote to this poem is a passage in The Bog People where Glob describes the figure of Nerthus, who was once depicted on bronze amulets as a naked woman, the primitive Danish personification of Mother Earth, a fertility goddess like the Middle Eastern Ishtar or Astarte or the Greek Aphrodite, to whom sacrifices were made in ancient vegetation rites in order to renew natural fertility. Glob concludes his book by linking the belief in the Bog Queen, or fertility goddess, with the sacrificial death of the Tollund Man, a real man who was ritually killed and buried in a bog to appease the Bog Queen and ensure the coming of spring.

Thus Heaney, in the poems about the bog which are his most memorable creations, completed something approaching an epic reconstruction of primitive man in his prehistoric, preliterate stage, and connected that remote and aboriginal tribal experience with his own experience as an Irishman living in the violence-torn North, the subject of so many terrible and shocking headline stories in the latter half of the twentieth century. In so doing, he drew a strong moral parallel between contemporary terrorism and ancient ritual sacrifice, or what in the poem “Punishment” he calls “the exact / and tribal, intimate revenge.” It would be too easy to say that he has accounted for the causes of strife among the people of his native country, and too much to say that he has produced a cure for them, but he has humanized them by the power of poetic language and so made them more understandable, more capable of a sympathetic response, than they would otherwise be. Especially by transforming the Irish bogs into a symbolic landscape, Heaney has performed a feat of imagination which can justly be compared with Yeats's achievement in making a symbolic landscape of the countryside around Sligo, the world of his childhood, so that readers far removed from Ireland could inhabit it and feel at home there. True, Yeats's Lake Isle of Innisfree and his mountains of Knocknarea and Ben Bulben are more beautiful than Heaney's bogs, and his rhythms are more lyrical; but there is something deeply elemental and instinctive in the appeal of Heaney's earthy language, nowhere more seductive than in the sequence in North called “Kinship,” which may be his finest single poem to date, especially its second section, a relentless hammering of compound words that signify

… bog
meaning soft,
the fall of windless rain,
pupil of amber.
Ruminant ground,
digestion of mollusc
and seed-pod,
deep pollen bin.
Earth-pantry, bone-vault,
sun-bank, enbalmer
of votive goods
and sabred fugitives.
Insatiable bride.
casket, midden,
floe of history.
Ground that will strip
its dark side,
nesting ground,
outback of my mind.

This is incantatory language, ritual verses for the Earth Goddess in which we hear what sounds like the song of the elements, the movement of wind and rain and rivers and tides above the earth and beneath it, a sort of ancient vegetation ceremony reenacted in the present, digging deep into the tribal memory for roots that connect the earliest generations with the latest generation, a distant and strange but still warm human kinship that is also a natural kinship renewed and reaffirmed.

Sound has always been an essential element in Heaney's poetry, and he seems to be aware of the incantatory power of his voice when he reads his poems. His meters are often regular enough to be called traditional but still free enough to be unpredictable, which makes his poems less easy to memorize than those of Yeats. Yet he is fond of Eliot's phrase “the auditory imagination” and listens for the music in poetry, attesting that “the grave inward melodies of Wallace Stevens become more available if we happen to have heard that Caedmon recording of him reading ‘The Idea of Order at Key West.’”5 The eloquence of Heaney in his bog poems arises as much from their sound as from their sense, and it is his ability to imitate the primitive ritualistic use of language that imbues his best poems with religious overtones which seem to evoke prehistoric ceremonies celebrating earth goddesses and sacrificial victims.

Few poets have written so eloquently as Heaney in recent years, and he himself has not surpassed the poems of North in his later books Field Work (1979), Sweeney Astray (1983), Station Island (1985), The Haw Lantern (1987), and Seeing Things (1991); nor has he achieved anything like the emotional coherence and depth of his bog poems. He says that he has been seeking a new direction out of the bog, understandably being reluctant to remain mired in his native sod forever: “I remembered writing a letter to Brian Friel just after North was published, saying I no longer wanted a door into the dark—I want a door into the light. … I really wanted to come back to be able to use the first person singular to mean me and my lifetime.”6 The quest for a new tone and subject matter is understandable for a poet in middle age and again invites comparison with Yeats, who in his middle years deliberately strove for his Mask, in opposition to his earlier Irish Self, and who succeeded so heroically that he wrote much of his best poetry in his later years. All we can say so far is that Heaney has not found his Mask, whatever shape it might take, for neither the wildly comic persona of the medieval anti-Catholic Irish king Sweeney (the name rhymes with Heaney), whose mad wanderings about Ireland after being cursed by Saint Ronan are the subject of Sweeney Astray, nor the more personal and political poems of Field Work and Station Island and The Haw Lantern and Seeing Things have provided Heaney with a contrasting set of themes and imagery to put beside the bog poems. He is in everything he writes worth reading, but no more so than a score of contemporary poets, Irish, English, or American. His criticism is at its best when it is most personal, as in the self-exploratory essay “Feeling into Words,” which traces his early development as a poet born into an Irish Catholic farming family in the Protestant North, an essay that appeared in his earlier collection, Preoccupations (1980); no essay in his more recent collection, The Government of the Tongue (1988), is as insightful as the earlier one, and when he writes about his contemporaries, Irish or English or American, he seems to have less important things to say than he has to say about himself.

Nevertheless, taking him at his best, Heaney has come as near to being the epic poet of the later twentieth century as any poet in the English language after Robert Lowell. So far his epic is more piecemeal than whole, and he has written no single poem of the scope of Lowell's Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket, though he may eventually find a new subject for epic outside the bog. Sweeney Astray was clearly meant to be a step in that direction, but it remains a translation from the Old Irish more than an authentic new poem in English; and Station Island also moves toward epic but is finally a long poem of personal pilgrimage to Saint Patrick's Purgatory—that is, to medieval, monastic, Catholic Ireland. Heaney can be as unreservedly candid and critical as Joyce about the Irish Catholic mind, but Station Island, in spite of some arresting passages, finally lacks the force of real belief that animates his poems about the Bog People. Perhaps Heaney is waiting for his imagination, which had seemed to sprout flippers in the bog, to grow wings and fly above it—that, at any rate, is an intriguing possibility, briefly tried in Sweeney Astray and in a few other poems, such as the one in Station Island called “Drifting Off,” which is as good as any to be found in his more recent poems collected in The Haw Lantern and Seeing Things. In this later poem he names a number of birds he would like to be, starting with “The guttersnipe and the albatross” and going on to the gannet and the heron, “the allure of the cuckoo / and the gossip of starlings,” and mentioning also the bullfinch and the wren, as well as waterhens and corncrakes, blackbirds and magpies, before concluding:

But when goldfinch or kingfisher rent
the veil of the usual,
pinions whispered and braced
as I stooped, unwieldy
and brimming,
my spurs at the ready.

In this poem Heaney does not try to become a golden nightingale, seated on a bough in Yeats's imaginary Byzantium; his mood is more playful than joyful, but having swum so long and successfully in his native bogs, he seems to be looking upward, perhaps to find the right bird for his reincarnation. If he finds it, it is more likely to resemble one of the wild Irish geese of the coastal slobs than one of Yeats's wild swans at Coole Park.

All that can be said with certainty at this pinnacle of his career is that Seamus Heaney has done one thing extremely well, enough to make him a worthy successor to Yeats: with his Irish bog poems he has created a symbol of human memory and imagination that goes far beyond Ireland in its significance, reestablishing the link between man and the natural world that we seem to have lost by single-mindedly pursuing a purely technological mastery of nature. For this achievement, he deserves the Nobel Prize in Literature as much as any living writer. We can hope that he will go on to emulate Yeats, meaning that he will write some of his best poems after winning the Nobel; but even lacking such a resurgence of inspiration—even if the rest of his writing, whether in poetry or in prose, is less consequential than a dozen of his earlier poems about the bog—he may be said, as Ezra Pound once memorably claimed, “To have gathered from the air a live tradition / Or from a fine old eye the unconquered flame,” and as Pound added, “This is not vanity.” No, Seamus Heaney's work is not an act of vanity, but an act of humanity, for which we can all feel grateful, whether we are Irish or not.


  1. Seamus Heaney, Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968-1978, London, Faber & Faber, 1980, p. 41.

  2. Ibid., p. 55.

  3. Ibid., p. 54.

  4. Ibid., p. 34.

  5. Ibid., p. 199.

  6. Quoted by Helen Vendler in “Echo Soundings, Searches, Probes,” her review of Seamus Heaney's Station Island, in The New Yorker, 23 September 1985, p. 114.

Suzanne Keen (essay date 17 May 1996)

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SOURCE: Keen, Suzanne. “Catching the Heart Off Guard: The Generous Vision of Seamus Heaney.” Commonweal 123, no. 10 (17 May 1996): 10-14.

[In the following essay, Keen applauds the tone and style of Heaney's poetics, highlighting its links to the oral traditions of poetry.]

Seamus Heaney in the college cafeteria line at Harvard: The woman serving holds her scoop aloft. “Pasta or potatoes?” she asks. “Surely, you're joking,” says Heaney, and pokes his plate under the sneeze-guard for the potatoes.

In “Digging,” the best-known poem of his first book, Death of a Naturalist (1966), Heaney declares his distance from men like his father and grandfather, men who “could handle a spade” and “scatter new potatoes,” choosing instead to follow the poet's vocation: “Between my finger and my thumb / The squat pen rests. / I'll dig with it.” His successes have carried him far from the Northern Ireland of his childhood, to Cambridge, Massachusetts, for part of each year, to Oxford University where he was elected to the post of Professor of Poetry (1989-94), and last year to Stockholm to accept the Nobel Prize in Literature. (I am sure I am not the only Commonweal reader who cheered at that news!) But the objects, places, literature, history, and contemporary situation of Ireland remain the poet's home turf.

Justly celebrated as one of the finest poets writing in the English language, Heaney manages with unusual grace the incredibly difficult balancing act required of an international literary figure who simply must find the privacy required for writing. When I was studying at Harvard, people often wrung their hands on behalf of Seamus, as everyone familiarly calls him, even as they counted on him to appear at their colloquia and readings and parties, to remember their names, and (always) to charm. “Can it be good for his poetry?” ran the fretting refrain from this camp, even as others outside the academy expected “Famous Seamus,” as they snipingly named him, to spend every waking moment promoting other Irish poets. (He is, indeed, the best known of an outstanding cohort, and not the only heir to Ireland's rich literary tradition.)

Remarkably, Heaney has more than a little of what everyone wants from him, as teacher, cultural ambassador, lecturer, poet. Many others put in positions like Heaney's take refuge in a cover of irascible or absent-minded behavior (and who can blame them?) in order to protect themselves from demands on their time. Heaney's generosity and graciousness pervade all aspects of his public existence, and he is an especially fine teacher of poetry. If you have ever heard him read his poetry aloud, or sought a signature for one of his books, you will know what I mean when I say that he has the gift of creating a feeling of intimacy, as if something particular and valuable has opened up and changed hands between you. This is, of course, the effect of reading a great lyric poem, the thing that makes us feel that we have received a glimpse of something especially true, or a valuable piece of advice about how to move through the world:


And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you'll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A burry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the ear sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.

(from The Spirit Level, 1996)

I love the last sentence of this poem, spilling over three and-a-half lines back toward the road and the heart, moving from the “earthed lightning” of Heaney's swans (so different from the abstract broken patterns made by Yeats's airborne “Wild Swans at Coole”) to the place where the poet and reader share the in-betweenness, motion, and vulnerability to the “big soft buffetings” of wind and wings.

You don't have to be Leda set upon by a god, Heaney's poem tells us, to have your heart caught off guard and blown open. Making “a hurry” the metaphor for the way we live exonerates us for not parking and capturing the scene “more thoroughly.” We are not blamed for being tourists or city-folk in our car, on Yeats's alienating “roadway, or on the pavements grey” (“The Lake Isle of Innisfree”). At the same time, of course, we needn't stop to “capture” the swans on the lake because the poet has caught them for us, down to their “head-strong-looking heads,” in all the possible positions above and below the water. In this nearly allegorical and completely accessible landscape, “known and strange things pass” through us because we are in motion, because we “are neither here nor there.” Look at what you see now, and to what it opens in you immediately; the poem instructs, rather than treating the sight of the natural world as something to be stored up like Wordsworth's memories of landscapes, hoarded tranquilizers for treating future afflictions and alienation. You can have it now as long as you are willing to be caught off-guard by the marvellous. As Heaney's recent poetry has more and more frequently attested, there is “space in his reckoning and imagining for the marvellous as well as for the murderous” (“Crediting Poetry”), or, as he puts it in the introduction to The Redress of Poetry (1995), for “poems and parables about crossing from the domain of the matter-of-fact into the domain of the imagined.”

In his 1991 volume of poems, Seeing Things, Heaney describes such a close encounter with the marvelous, in the sequence “Lightenings”:

The annals say: when the monks of Clonmacnoise
Were all at prayers inside the oratory
A ship appeared above them in the air.
The anchor dragged along behind so deep
It hooked itself into the altar rails
And then, as the big hull rocked to a standstill,
A crewman shinned and grappled down the rope
And struggled to release it. But in vain.
‘This man can't bear our life here and will drown,’
The abbot said, ‘unless we help him.’ So
They did, the I reed ship sailed, and the man climbed back
Out of the marvellous as he had known it.

In this vision proximate and tangible world and other-world overlap, but the elements themselves, air and water, cannot be translated. The abbot wisely sees that the crewman must be helped back into his own “real” world up there in the air, and that the monks must not attempt to capture or arrest the materials of the vision, except in the words of the annals and the poem. The crewman and monks reach into the region uncannily shared by their world and the otherworld, a boundary-zone in which air and water are at once “known and strange,” while the swans of “Postscript” move comfortably on either side of the boundary between air and water, and help us to imagine the next step in the experience of in-betweenness: hearts open, off guard, and blown through by the same elements that make the ocean wild and light the slate-grey lake. Though he will not reassure us about where we are when we are passed through and passing by, Heaney generously invites us along to share his revisiting and reinventing of air, light, water, swans.

This is not a solitary's journey. The fact that we can overhear a conversation with Yeats in this poem from the forthcoming volume The Spirit Level reminds us that the intimacy of the lyric poem comes not only from the gesture of speaker to reader, but from being allowed in, temporarily, to the poet's library. We hear what he has read, and how he reads and (as Harold Bloom would show us) misreads it. Strong poets, according to Bloom, misread one another in order to clear imaginative space for themselves and their own work. While it seems to me that Heaney employs in his poetry only the cagey and crafted sort of allusion, I know no more creative and critical a misquoter of others' lines than Seamus Heaney the teacher. Listening to him lecture on twentieth-century British and Irish poets, I have heard him inadvertently improve lines of Ted Hughes, Philip Larkin, Geoffrey Hill, and W. B. Yeats, among many others.

Introducing the late James Merrill, author of The Changing Light at Sandover, Heaney emended the title of this magnificent book to The Shifting Light at Sandover, Merrill cringed, but shifting light … not bad! Of course, anyone who learns by heart a vast amount of poetry and recites from memory will occasionally misplace or elide a word, and I know few poets who wouldn't be willing to risk misquotation to have Heaney think of their work what he feels about a poem by Thomas Wyatt: “I often say it just for the sheer elation of the poem itself.”

A memorable performer of his own poems, Heaney carries on the important tradition of reading aloud. The Harvard Poetry Room at Lamont Library has made available a tape of Heaney reading not only his own work, but poems by the fifteenth-century Scots poet Dunbar, by Thomas Wyatt, Walter Raleigh, William Shakespeare, Andrew Marvell, William Blake, William Wordsworth, Thomas Hardy, and W. B. Yeats. Only two, Yeats and Hardy, lived into the age of sound recordings, so we have no “authentic” voice to confute the versions we hear in our heads. (For those who have not had the opportunity to hear Heaney's voice, I'm pleased to say that Farrar, Straus and Giroux is issuing The Spirit Level in a special edition with an audiotape of the poet reading.) Interspersed with anecdotes about those who introduced him to the poems, and with brief comments on why and how they are meaningful to Heaney, the Poetry Room tape captures some of what makes Seamus Heaney such a wonderful teacher. His reading of Walter Raleigh's admonitory poem to his son, the “pretty knave” of the sonnet, is worth the price of the two cassettes:

Three things there be that prosper up apace
And flourish, whilst they grow asunder far,
But on a day, they meet all in one place,
And when they meet, they one another mar;
And they be these the wood, the weed, the wag.
The wood is that which makes the gallow tree;
The weed is that which strings the hangman's bag;
The wag, my pretty knave, betokeneth thee.
Mark well, dear boy, whilst these assemble not,
Green springs the tree, hemp grows, the wag is wild,
But when they meet, it makes the timber rot;
It frets the halter, and it chokes the child.
Then bless thee, and beware, and let us pray
We part not with thee at this meeting day.

Though I know that Raleigh's Elizabethan English was a different accent entirely, I hear this lyric now in Heaney's voice. Perhaps coincidentally, this sonnet was also one of Robert Frost's favorites to recite, and Frost, like Heaney, honored the discipline of formal verse, even as he took the line in the direction of the colloquial. Frost famously commented that writing without form was like playing tennis with the net down. Heaney's metaphor takes us back to his scene of the monks in the oratory at Clonmacnoise: “Poetic form is both the ship and the anchor. It is at once a buoyancy and a holding, allowing for the simultaneous gratification of whatever is centrifugal and centripetal in mind and body” (“Crediting Poetry”). In this version of the story, no abbot intervenes to free the ship, for the crewman descending the rope must be the poet, adjusting the tension between the captured craft and the anchor, and entering the marvelous as he goes.

As the Nobel prize reminds us, Heaney's sojourns in the academy have not impeded his true work. In the past decade he has published three superb volumes of poetry: The Haw Lantern (1987), containing the breathtaking sonnet sequence “Clearances”; Seeing Things (1991), reviewed in Commonweal (February 26, 1993); and the aforementioned new collection, The Spirit Level. In addition, The Government of the Tongue: Selected Prose, 1978-1987 appeared in 1988, a play, The Cure at Troy: A Version of Sophocles' Philoctetes, in 1991, and the lectures Heaney delivered during his tenure as Professor of Poetry at Oxford came out last year as the collection The Redress of Poetry. His moving Nobel lecture, “Crediting Poetry,” published in the New Republic (December 25, 1995), should not be omitted, for here Heaney articulates the credo of his vocation: “I credit poetry,” he says, “both for being itself and for being a help, for making possible a fluid and restorative relationship between the mind's center and its circumference. … I credit it because credit is due to it, in our time and in all time, for its truth to life, in every sense of that phrase.”

Being true to life means more than giving “a print-out of the given circumstances of time and place,” as Heaney says in his essay on Yeats and Larkin in The Redress of Poetry, for poetry must be a help, must restore and transform, “in order that human beings bring about the most radiant conditions for themselves to inhabit.” Though we may wonder how poetry can accomplish this urgent work, we can at least applaud the generosity of the vision. And some time make the time to drive out west into County Clare.

William Pratt (review date summer 1996)

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SOURCE: Pratt, William. Review of The Redress of Poetry, by Seamus Heaney. World Literature Today 70, no. 3 (summer 1996): 698.

[In the following review, Pratt criticizes Heaney's overemphasis on politics in The Redress of Poetry.]

The lectures Seamus Heaney gave while occupying the Chair of Poetry at Oxford from 1989 to 1994 are magisterial, perhaps even to a fault, since he ranges all the way from Herbert and Marlowe to Merriman and MacDiarmid, from John Clare to Dylan Thomas, Philip Larkin, and Elizabeth Bishop. If his purpose is to show his wide reading in the English, Scottish, Welsh, and American poetic traditions, to “redress” the imbalance of his Irish poetic prejudices, then he has made his case. But he has something more in mind, for he states in his title essay [in The Redress of Poetry] that “as a mode of redress in the first sense,” poetry can be “an agent for proclaiming and correcting injustices.” His main effort therefore is not so much literary as social, and his reading of poets quite different from himself is directed more to establishing their relevance to current causes than to understanding what they might have meant in their own historical or national context. In short, in this third collection of his prose Heaney shows himself to be a surprisingly fashionable academic critic, whose tenure as a professor at Harvard and Oxford may have had more influence on his critical opinions than his receipt of the Nobel Prize in Literature (see WLT 70:2, pp. 253-66).

Of course, no one would deny that Heaney is always engaging, or that there is much pleasure to be found in his graceful way of quoting and praising a rich variety of poems; but when it comes to their substance, the essays are disappointing, for instead of treating poetry as intrinsically worthy of his attention because of its artistic merit, he examines it for ethnic or sexual themes: we have George Herbert's Anglicanism, the Scottish nationalism of Christopher Grieve (alias Hugh MacDiarmid), the Welsh bardic oratory of Dylan Thomas, the homoeroticism of Marlowe's “Hero and Leander” and Wilde's “Ballad of Reading Gaol,” the feminism of Brian Merriman's Midnight Court and Elizabeth Bishop's lyrics, and finally, in “The Frontiers of Writing,” a host of contemporary Irish poets who have tried to speak for a united Ireland despite its “troubles,” as he concedes Yeats once did admirably and as he himself has tried to do. He quotes his own poetry more than once, first as a translator of Ovid in his essay on Merriman, then as a Northern Irish Catholic poet in his final essay, affirming his “attempt to bring the frontiers of the country into alignment with the frontiers of writing, an attempt to sketch the shape of an integrated literary tradition.”

Thus, although Seamus Heaney can speak from a central position in contemporary poetry, and says he wants to “confirm the possibility of a new commonwealth of art,” he chooses to assert his own ethnic identity in these lectures delivered at Oxford, insisting that “there was still nothing deleterious to my sense of Irishness in the fact that I grew up in the minority in Northern Ireland and was educated within the dominant British culture.” And so what he means by “the redress of poetry” turns out to be more partisan, and more political, than one would expect from a poet of his high international standing. He is most winning when he quotes himself, because his poetry ultimately offers more “redress” than his prose.

Sudeep Sen (review date autumn 1996)

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SOURCE: Sen, Sudeep. Review of The Spirit Level, by Seamus Heaney. World Literature Today 70, no. 4 (autumn 1996): 963.

[In the following review, Sen assesses the humanist impulses that inform The Spirit Level.]

Seamus Heaney's collection The Spirit Level is his first book of poems to appear following his 1995 Nobel Prize in Literature (see WLT 70:2, pp. 253-66) as well as being the first book of verse in five years after Seeing Things (see WLT 67:1, p. 182). As an aside, it may be interesting to note that his new book was in fact written (and was with the publishers) well before he received the prize itself.

Hailed as the greatest Irish poet since Yeats, Heaney here shows once again that with subtle use of language, politics that is rooted in both the local and the universal, intelligence, humanism, and his love for nature, he can evoke in the reader feelings of immense transport that lead you from one terrain to another, from one landscape (both exterior and interior) to another, and from one state of mind to another. True poetry has the capacity to do all that, perhaps even more. When one reaches the last pages of this new collection, there emerges a sense of an overall balance that is both measured and spontaneous, a conviction that follows and explores the tenets of science as much as the arts.

Memory is permanence; permanence is imagination recalled, one that is indelible as well as porous. This is exemplified beautifully in the short poem. “The Strand”: “The dotted line my father's ashplant made / On Sandymount Strand / Is something else the tide won't wash away.” The “solid letters” of honor, classicism, remembrance, memory, and discovery, are all played out with an unerring and unstated irony in the poem “Remembered Columns.”

The solid letters of the world grew airy.
The marble serifs, clearly blocked uprights
Built upon rocks and set upon the heights
Rose like remembered columns in a story
About the Virgin's house that rose and flew
And landed on the hilltop at Loreto.
I lift my eyes in light-hearted credo,
Discovering what survives translation true.

When the actual Nobel Prize announcement was made declaring Heaney the foremost man of letters last year, he was away on a holiday amid the classical ruins in Greece. He could not be contacted immediately, and it was only when Heaney made a routine telephone call to his son in Ireland that he actually discovered his wonderful fate, something the rest of the world already knew well before the recipient himself. That a poem such as the one quoted alluding to all that was scripted well before actualization is one of many marvels and beauty of poetry.

My favorite piece in the collection is the five-part “Mycenae Lookout,” a poem that explores with pungent power the twentieth century's political strife and hostility, even though it only alludes to the situation by employing a transferred metaphor that uses ancient Greek mythology. Ultimately, however, Heaney's latest collection is a moving and human book, one that includes in its composition a plea for hope, for innocence, for balance, and to seek eventually that “bubble for the spirit level.”

Seamus Deane (essay date 1996)

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SOURCE: Deane, Seamus. “Powers of Earth and Visions of Air.” In Seamus Heaney: The Shaping Spirit, edited by Catharine Malloy and Phyllis Carey, pp. 27-33. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, Deane connects the political aspects of Heaney's poetry with definitions of Ireland as both cultural and geographic entities.]

Since his first book, Death of a Naturalist (1966), Seamus Heaney has been much concerned with deaths of various kinds. His life as a writer has almost exactly coincided with the most recent period of crisis in Northern Ireland, and the degeneration of that rancid statelet over the past twenty years has provided enough violent killings to deepen a preoccupation that was already there in the early work. In Heaney's poetry, as in the political world that subsists with it, there is a need to possess or to repossess a territory that is always there in its specific actuality and yet evades all attempts to seize and hold it in one stabilizing grasp.

It has often been observed that Heaney's work—especially the first four volumes, including Door into the Dark (1969), Wintering Out (1972) and North (1975)—has a remarkably large vocabulary for earth, especially earth in a state of deliquescence, earth mixed with water. Mud, slime, mould, silt, and slicks are words that note the ambiguity of the ground itself; they appear in those man-made workings that Heaney endlessly explores, in trenches, drains, pits, wells and furrows. These in turn belong to particular kinds of territory—fens, bogs, loanings, keshes—and all of these are finally embedded in political and religious division of the land: baronies, parishes, counties, and parklands. Even the local place-names are seduced into their alluvial origins. To name a place is to pronounce the kind of ground it occupies; to fail to pronounce the name properly is to fail to possess it truly, to be foreign. This devotion to the ground and its names, the constant ascent from original slime to the nominations of geography and history, provides Heaney's poetry with a highly complex sonar architecture in which vowels and consonants dispute between themselves for an equilibrium that will allow to each its separate function and yet acknowledge for both their interdependence. The vowel, especially the vowel O, is originary: but it cannot speak the emptiness it represents without the consonantal surround. Looms and honeycombs, seeds splitting into root systems, interconnected deltas of archaeological remains, develop their ramifications around these gaping open ground vowels, the eyes, sores, valves and wounds that are the characteristic marks of the creature who is the ultimate victim of and possessor of the ground—the buried corpse.

In Wintering Out and in North, more than in any previous volume, Heaney found a way to make the ground speak in a human voice. The act of ventriloquism by which he made the Viking dead speak for the contemporary victims of violence in Ireland was a brilliant stroke—it enabled to a higher degree than before the tone of reverence and piety that had been and has continued to be the most notable aspect of Heaney's mode of address to his subject. The violence of the actions that had produced these sacrificial victims was only partly muted. By deflecting it to these archaeological remains, he could brood on it without risking that pornographic observation of atrocity which is so frequently found in the reportage of political crises. More importantly, though, it brought him back to the inexhaustible trope of origin (since the violence is, in a sense, originary, prehistoric) and death as manifested in the earth itself. The territory now assumes yet another vocabulary—of souterrain, flint, and hoard—the words of archaeology that support and reproduce the words of farming and cultivation. A digging is now both a cultivation of the ground and an exploration of it. The ground is never firm; like the bog, with its moss and peat and its aqueous nervous system, it absorbs and preserves the dead it receives, making them like itself but allowing them to retain their own identity, an embrace of vowel and consonant. For Heaney, this is a linguistic as well as a historical and political drama, an actual place in time, geography intersecting history, in and through which he can gaze at the nub, node, or center his poetry craves.

For all the consolations Heaney's poetry is supposed to offer, it is, in truth, unconsoling. Its evocation of tradition, rural landscape, folk custom and deep historical time in tones that bespeak healing, annealment, reverence and peace is powerful indeed. Yet the quest for a center, for what he calls an “omphalos,” is darkly stimulated by his recognition that the idea of a center is fictive. The tree that he remembers from his childhood as part of the garden hedge has been cut down, and in the eighth and last poem of the sequence called “Clearances” (from The Haw Lantern, 1987), he writes of the empty source it has become:

I thought of walking round and round a space
Utterly empty, utterly a source …

Finally it has, marvelously, become

                                        a bright nowhere,
A soul ramifying and forever
Silent, beyond silence listened for.

“Ramifying” is the key word here. As Heaney's poetry has changed, the thick trellises of earth and water have become more and more etherealized, as he dwells more and more somberly on that ultimate emptiness which death, like that of his mother and of the several victims of political violence, commemorated particularly in poems such as “The Strand at Lough Beg,” “Casualty” and “Triptych” (all in Field Work, 1979), make more acute. The tree that is cut down in the eighth poem of “Clearances” is anticipated in the immediately preceding sonnet, which ends with a similarly emptied space in which cries, not a tree, are felled. Ultimately, everything that has a physical actuality is translated into a voice. Silence is the voice of emptiness.

The space we stood around had been emptied
Into us to keep, it penetrated
Clearances that suddenly stood open.
High cries were felled and a pure change happened.

Heaney's poetry is an attempt to voice that pure emptiness, to put the tongue in that O, the vowel that is the precondition of speech and that is altered by it. In North, he found a way to figure this issue in the opposition between Antaeus, the hugger of the ground, from which came his strength, and Hercules, who defeats Antaeus by lifting him off the ground into the air. The elemental territories are, of course, incorporated in this figure; earth and water vie with air and fire. It is Heaney's emblem for his won version of his development as a writer. He asks a severe question here. Is the emptiness actual or is it a virtual absence that produces a real poetry? Conversely, if it is a real absence, is the poetry that engages with it merely virtual? The terms in which he conducts this investigation are recognizably ones that recur in Irish poetry, particularly in this century. It is in Station Island (1984) that Heaney opens the debate into a series of encounters that take place at Lough Derg, a traditional site of pilgrimage in Ireland since early medieval times and a place of literary pilgrimage for a number of writers before him—William Carleton, Patrick Kavanagh, Denis Devlin, and Sean O'Faoláin.

All of these, in their different ways, represented Lough Derg as a place of ancestral faith, profoundly disturbing to the secular modern spirit with which they had become imbued. It is, in Heaney's terms, an Antaean place visited by a Herculean sensibility. Yeats is the great poet in whose work this debate had been most dramatically staged. His folk Ireland and his occult worlds were constantly coalescing to form an alternative to the modern world of eighteenth-century Anglo-Irish enlightenment and its degenerate offspring, the modern secular world of the twentieth century. He too was intent on achieving an act of repossession out of a series of dispossessions. The territory of Ireland and the realm of magic were dissolved into one another in an attempt to assert an originary and blessed quality that had disappeared in a world without the aura of memory, without the charisma of the spiritual. This is all part of the traditional debate between the metropolitan and the regional community, with the latter now claiming that it possesses a form of knowledge not subordinate but superior to the rational knowledge produced by the metropolis. Regions, thus conceived, regard themselves and are regarded as the habitat of the instinctual, the irrational, or the nonrational. The attractions of this form of the debate were too much for Yeats. He sought to sacralize the territory of Ireland in order to ratify his notion of the Irish as an autonomous and antimodern community. This is the most powerful form of conservative nationalism, partly because it is based on a critique of the colonial power as a degenerate version of civilization. To that extent, it served Yeats well; the political situation in Europe in the first three decades of this century encouraged such views, although it did not often see such poetry elicited by them.

Since then, poetry in Ireland has, in its more remarkable manifestations, sought to reconstitute the Yeatsian version of culture. Yeats found all his versions of origin were complicit with violence. So too, from a quite different version, does Thomas Kinsella. Heaney rewrites the issue by attributing to his version of origin this pure emptiness. When the emptiness speaks, it speaks of violent death, but is distinct from it. The act of poetry is a Herculean effort to lift off from the old Antaeus-like hugging of the holy and violent ground into the realm of air and fire, the zone of vision, not merely the dry air of rational enlightenment. Heaney's later poetry is full of subtle slicings that confirm this distinction. He does not move from the regional to the metropolitan. The quizzical relationship between these two is of interest to him; but it is too limiting. He wants the powers of earth to give him sufficient liftoff to carry him into the regions of the air. In The Haw Lantern, there is a poem called “Mud Vision” about an “appearance”—of a sort frequent in Ireland, although usually in the form of the Virgin—that transforms a ruined gable wall into a great mud rose window. The enchantment stays for a while; then it disappears and the media begin their explanations. The community gives its trust to these and betrays itself.

Just like that, we forgot that the vision was ours,
Our one chance to know the incomparable
And dive to a future. What might have been origin
We dissipated in news. The clarified place
Had retrieved neither us nor itself—except
You could say we survived. So say that, and watch us
Who had our chance to be mud-men, convinced and                                                                                                              estranged,
Figure in our own eyes for the eyes of the world.

That is only the most recent of a number of missed visionary opportunities. The poem “Exposure” (in North) is another notable example; in that instance, the poet misses the “comet's pulsing rose” because he had been listening to the rational or rationalizing explanations of his friends, attempting to account for the political crisis and for Heaney's ascribed or proscribed role within it. Listen to reason and you'll miss the vision, especially the vision that belongs to the air but is constituted of the material of the earth.

One has to be careful, therefore, with Heaney's invocations, in Station Island and elsewhere, of his mentors—whether Carleton or Joyce, Wordsworth or Dante or the name not mentioned, the emptiness at the heart of the list: Yeats. In effect, he is asking them for no specific guidance; he is really asking them to let him go, let him be free. The Irish mentors in these poems, Joyce especially, talk like Heaney. They are occasions for self-endorsement, to go ahead “and fill the element / with signatures on your own frequency.” Immediately after the Joycean encounter that closes the central sequence in Station Island, Heaney takes his own advice and becomes Sweeney, the legendary Irish king who was changed into a bird and is famous for his madness and his poetry. (It was Flann O'Brien who had most memorably commemorated Sweeney before Heaney's version, Sweeney Astray, 1983.) The cleric who had changed Sweeney into a bird played, unwittingly, the stern role of a Heaney mentor. He rebuked him into poetry by releasing him from the ground of history, from the imprisonment threatened by the competing allegiances of Irish experience:

he opened my path to a kingdom
of such scope and neuter allegiance
my emptiness reigns at its whim.

That is Heaney's way of making history, especially Irish political and literary history, consort with that pure emptiness, that blank and fictive center that is the heart of his desire. An allegiance that is neuter is a fidelity without an object of faith commensurate with its strength. As Sweeney Redivivus, Heaney looks for it in moments when the given, that which is there, is suddenly released from its congealment in the actual. A cave painting of a drinking deer is meditated on

until the long dumbfounded
spirit broke cover
to raise a dust
in the font of exhaustion.

Heaney's ultimate home is not Station Island, or the island of Ireland, but, as he titles it in The Haw Lantern, “The Disappearing Island.” In this poem the imagined situation is that of a band of wandering Irish monks, voyaging in the western seas and making camp on an island that disappears as they light their fire. (The old tales mention such islands that turned out to be whales, sea monsters.) The final stanza restores to us memories of Heaney's earlier explorations of that boundary between the actual and the visionary. “Water and ground in their extremity” (from “The Peninsula,” in Door into the Dark) is one version of it; another is registered in the recurrent images of eye, needle, notch, the infinitesimally small opening through which the actual flows, as through an isthmus, into the visionary. For that to happen, the fidelity must be there; but it must be given to a vision and in such a manner that it is the actual that becomes the product rather than the precondition of the vision.

The land sustaining us seemed to hold firm
Only when we embraced it in extremis.
All I believe that happened there was vision.

Perhaps it is this probing, exact and exacting measurement of the fictive distance between actualities and their representation that so attracts audiences and readers to Heaney's work. He gives the double impression that nothing gets lost in the translation of the world into poetry, and that it is only through the poetry that the world to which it refers comes fully into existence. He so narrows the discrepancy between world and word, so winningly lends a tongue to emptiness, that the effect is genial. His is an earth that speaks directly and in recognition to the body. It is without even the vestige of alienation. At the root of every word there is a tentacular handshake between the speaker and the thing spoken of. In “A Postcard from Iceland” (in The Haw Lantern), we learn that the word “lukewarm,” describing the temperature of the water from a spring, derives from the old Icelandic word luk, meaning “hand.” Heaney characteristically shares this knowledge with his reader by making it more intimate, by making hand into “palm” and by telling us we knew it already. Of course we did; but never this way.

And you would want to know (but you know
How usual that waft and pressure felt
When the innerpalm of water found my palm.

Here the reader is acknowledged as a lover in a world that is “usual” and yet, as in love, extraordinarily perceived.

Heaney's New Selected Poems: 1966-1987 does not include this poem, but then there are very few indeed from the last three volumes that I would have had the heart to exclude. The work gets more and more Herculean, but the Antaean root does not snap. In The Place of Writing, the inaugural Richard Ellmann Lectures in Modern Literature delivered at Emory University, Heaney broods on the question of place and writing, with Yeats finally taking here a priority never assigned him in Heaney's own poetry. Heaney's reading of Yeats is also a reading of himself, particularly what he calls Yeats's “desire for foundedness” and the accompanying “fear of unfoundedness which might lurk beneath it.” Heaney is exploring his own recent preoccupation with an origin that is empty, because writing reveals its absence, and yet is actual because writing envisions its presence. Yeats's tower is transposed into the poems; for Heaney these themselves become buildings, stanzas return to their origin by becoming rooms, and the verbal architecture of the poem locates itself in a space that is also a place. The actuality of place queries the insubstantiality of space; but space is what place becomes in vision. This affirmation and denial are an operatic affair in Yeats. The music is Wagnerian, the libretto Nietzschean. Heaney loves the Götterdämmerung atmosphere, but his admiration is more pronounced than his affection. He prefers what his contemporaries, such as Kinsella, Montague, Mahon, and Muldoon, do when they refuse the limited destiny of place and go in search of “the problematic place of the writer.” In Ireland, where the place has been invested with such political energy, this is a difficult problem. In one sense, it is the struggle to become a writer rather than an Irish writer. You can't be one without the other; yet to be too self-consciously Irish might rob one of the freedom to be a writer, an author. These poets have to authorize their Irishness by giving primacy to author-ity; only then will the place of Ireland become real. Otherwise it is merely a stereotype, a place that is given, not found.

Vernon Shetley (review date fall 1997)

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SOURCE: Shetley, Vernon. “The State of Poetry.” Partisan Review 64, no. 4 (fall 1997): 674-76.

[In the following excerpt, Shetley enthuses about Heaney's “sensitive” perspective on contemporary poetics in The Redress of Poetry.]

In his criticism, T. S. Eliot once asserted, a poet “is always trying to defend the kind of poetry he is writing, or to formulate the kind that he wants to write.” Far from deploring this lack of disinterestedness, Eliot felt that the critical writings of poets “owe a great deal of their interest” to this implicit self-reference, and no doubt many readers are led to Seamus Heaney's prose out of a desire to learn more about the writer of the poems. A good deal about Heaney's poetics is to be learned, if somewhat obliquely, in The Redress of Poetry; readers will also find that the qualities of sympathy, generosity, and curiosity that mark his poetry are equally on display in Heaney's prose. Readers who come to Heaney's essays to learn more about their writer will find themselves led outward by his sensitive appreciations to new worlds of poetic pleasure.

The gates to pleasure, though, in our moment seem guarded by some severe angels indeed, and Heaney clearly feels he must take cognizance of them at the outset. The volume's first essay, which shares its title, sees poetry pressured between the immediacy of political demands, and the corrosive skepticism that characterizes the postmodern intellect. Against these pressures Heaney asserts an ideal of poetry not as “an agent for proclaiming and correcting injustices” but as “a working model of inclusive consciousness,” “a revelation of potential that is denied or constantly threatened by circumstances.” Heaney defines the mode of “redress” he argues for as one that would “set [poetry] up as its own category, an eminence established and a pressure exercised by distinctly linguistic means.” This perspective, of course, is conditioned by Heaney's situation as an Irish Catholic poet who nevertheless refuses to put his poetry into the service of a sectarian program.

But if Heaney has declined to become a spokesman for the nationalist cause, he has just as firmly resisted being defined as a British poet, as an untroubled member of an imperium centered on England. Heaney's own experiences have made him particularly sensitive to the ways that “in emergent cultures the struggle of an individual consciousness towards affirmation and distinctness may be analogous … with a collective straining towards self-definition.” Relations between the imperial center and the margins are a hidden preoccupation running through much of the volume; most of the poets Heaney treats resisted, or operated at the margins of, “the normative authority of the dominant language or literary tradition.” Hugh MacDiarmid is Heaney's most self-conscious objector to the authority of the “normative,” but even Elizabeth Bishop, whose imaginative world revolved around the twin poles of Nova Scotia and Brazil, he defines in part through her distance from “the literary life of the States.” Heaney is careful, though, not to turn his celebrations of “outsiders” into an argument for parochialism; instead, the local and marginal figure for Heaney as emblems of that world of imaginative freedom where all traditions stand equal. The essay on John Clare offers a moving defense of that poet's linguistic localism as a means to “dream of a world where no language will be relegated,” and the chapter on Brian Merriman's The Midnight Court places this “poem from beyond the Pale” not merely within a tradition of Gaelic dream-visions but within the whole trajectory of the Orpheus myth, and within a context of sexual politics that makes it seem alive and urgent today. The reader who, upon finishing Heaney's essay, doesn't rush to the library to find the whole of this marvelous poem, is a good deal less suggestible than I.

Robert Ellis Hosmer, Jr. (review date 20 December 1997)

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SOURCE: Hosmer, Jr., Robert Ellis. “Poetry Roundup.” America 177, no. 20 (20 December 1997): 23-9.

[In the following excerpt, Hosmer assesses the style and theme of The Spirit Level.]

Most of Heaney's poetry is eminently accessible. His latest collection, The Spirit Level, is no exception. Open the book at random, say to “A Brigid's Girdle” or “The Gravel Walks,” and you're immediately drawn in effortlessly to worlds both new and familiar. The language is clear as fresh rainwater and clean as crisply laundered linen, the structure polished, the moment lived through, without seam or crack visible.

Heaney's verse is also richly musical, a mixture of the idioms of home country speech, Christian hymns and the learned diction of European humanistic literature, all somehow “naturally” blended into lines of striking rhythm and clarity. In simple objects—clay, straw, an old sofa, a 56-lb. weight, a whitewash brush—history and meaning reside. In “Mint,” Heaney's eye lights upon the often unnoticed—a cluster of mint, “unverdant ever, almost beneath notice”—and sees in it an image that embraces “the disregarded we turned against / Because we'd failed them by our own disregard.” As Craig Raine has noted, Heaney's eye is so sharp, his ability to describe what he sees so powerfully precise, that “the actual comes to seem marvelous.” Heaney's verse renders the essence of Aeschylus' monumental “Agamemnon” in a series of five distinctively varied poetic panels, “Mycenae Lookout,” that capture the panorama of exposure, suffering and tragedy with cinematic focus and swiftness. “A Call,” a rather brief lyric in five stanzas that moves inexorably to a poignant crescendo—“Next thing he spoke and I nearly said I loved him”—demonstrates how a master poet achieves emotional impact without a hint of sentimentality.

The Spirit Level displays the power of a deeply historical and personal memory focused in images that are then refracted so that their rays illumine even the dark and violent corners of an existence ever in flux. In a collection without a single misstep, without a merely average poem two poems stand out: “Keeping Going,” a haunting tribute to a “dear brother,” sharer of childhood experience who has stayed behind on the farm and witnessed the bloodshed brought by sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, yet has gone on. The poem is a lesson for poetry workshops on using apt and evocative imagery to give integrity to composition. Heaney's poetry is a meditating force, all the more powerful for its restraint, what he calls in “Weighing In” “the power of power not exercised.” That is perhaps nowhere better demonstrated than in “The Sharping Stone,” arguably the best poem in the collection. This bittersweet, altogether human recollection of a departed father breaks the reader's heart—only later do you realize the technical mastery of the structure and verse line.

The Spirit Level is the triumph of an imagination and spirit continuously refreshed, renewed and reinvigorated from many sources. Seamus Heaney's poetry, to borrow lines from his own poem, “At the Wellhead,” is “like a silver vein in heavy clay, / Night water glittering in the light of day.” In words taken from this collection's last poem, “Postscript,” it has the power to “catch the heart off guard and break it wide open.”

Lavinia Greenlaw (review date 18 September 1998)

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SOURCE: Greenlaw, Lavinia. “Seeing and Believing.” New Statesman 127, no. 4403 (18 September 1998): 54.

[In the following review, Greenlaw praises the poetry of Opened Ground, summarizing Heaney's achievements from Death of a Naturalist to the present.]

Opened Ground, as Seamus Heaney says in a prefacing note, is neither a selected poems nor a collected. Twice the size of his New Selected Poems: 1966-1987, it includes subsequent work, some uncollected pieces, dramatic excerpts and his Nobel address, an illuminating essay that reflects on “a journey into the wideness of the world … into the wideness of language.” It is worth these 500 pages to be able to trace that journey's ripples and backwash; to see how Heaney's poems call to, question and answer one another; how he turns his subjects over and over, angling and reexamining them with the self-effacing scrutiny of Elizabeth Bishop, her “tipping / Of an object toward the light.”

Heaney's poetry is rooted in the rural Northern Ireland of his childhood. It is an unusually defined place to stand, and dense, complicated ground to open. In his first collection, The Death of a Naturalist (1966), the place is its own horizon resulting in a pressure that Heaney counters with a pressure of his own—a palpable, muscular language. This is no stand-off but the beginning of an active engagement: he puts his ear to the ground, he is up to his elbows in mud, he probes and pushes. Heaney's purpose is not just to feel out his world but also his place in it, a compulsion that gathers momentum in the supple quatrains of “Personal Helicon”: “I rhyme / To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.”

Having established a style still immediately recognisable in his most recent work, Heaney begins to test it. He reduces his subject to element or essence, to “Water and ground in their extremity,” to “things found clean in their own shapes.” He tries out a more fragmented form: compressed syntax, short lines and a nervy, excitable lilt. His metaphors become more ambitious and startling: “A muscled icicle / That melts itself longer / And fatter”; “the line's a filament of smut,” eels that “moved through grass like hatched fears.”

By Wintering Out (1972), language and landscape are informing one another. In an echo of Osip Mandelstam, one of Heaney's touchstones, local words and place names have their own geography: “Anahorish, soft gradient / Of consonant, vowel meadow” Political history is embedded in the land; sectarianism and its violence mapped in the divides of field, parish and province, and refracted through ritual sacrifice. “Out there in Jutland / In the old man-killing parishes / I will feel lost / Unhappy and at home.”

As the poetry becomes more metaphorical and allusive, we can sense Heaney placing more trust in the truth-telling powers of art. In North (1975), his ground has become timeless, casting up old and new myths, corpses and relics. Land and body elide in “Act of Union,” where childbirth is a metaphor for British occupation and colonisation. The sequence “Singing School” is overlooked by a constellation of poets so that when Heaney questions his vocation—“As I sit weighing and weighing / My responsible tristia”—we feel them reassure him. “Tristia” evokes Ovid and Mandelstam, who both had works of that name. Heaney is not elevating himself to their company but setting up another vital echo.

In Field Work (1979), there is a looseness and lightness that comes with technical ease and a pleasure in capacity. “Oysters” is subtle and expansive: “Our shells clacked on our plates / My tongue was a filling estuary.” Its ending is a characteristic push: “I ate the day / Deliberately, that its tang / Might quicken me all into verb, pure verb.” Not just any language but active language—praxis.

This warmth and receptivity take an interesting turn in Station Island (1984). The poems continue to dig deeper but their atmosphere cools. The emphasis shifts from language to image. The words are simpler and more obdurate. The dream encounters of the title poem trace a pilgrimage that is to some extent submerged, subconscious and so unexplained. This strangeness is developed in The Haw Lantern (1987), which is punctuated by reports from imaginary states such as “From the Republic of Conscience.” Their mixture of nightmare and routine has about it an Eastern European politicised irony.

For those whose appreciation of Heaney suffered from having been taught the ones about ploughing, digging and frogs; or who found some of his subsequent work remote or submerged, Seeing Things (1990) is an enlightenment. The book is framed by translations of Virgil and Dante, and is itself a declarative point in Heaney's own odyssey. The first part revisits childhood in the light of the death of his father. The rituals of fishing and football, the still lifes of an ash plant, a pitchfork, a settle bed, prepare the ground for the profound shift of perspective asserted in “Fosterling”: “So long for air to brighten / Time to be dazzled and the heart to lighten.”

The second section is made up of “Lightenings,” “Settings,” “Crossings” and “Squarings.” These moments of balance, adjustment, transition and “in placeness” are a kind of geometrical propulsion, a Cartesian extension and motion with which Heaney can go on and on “seeing things.” The “bright nowhere” at the end of The Haw Lantern has been liberating: “And it is not particular at all / Just old truth dawning: there is no next-time-round / Unroofed scope. Knowledge-freshening wind.”

After this metaphysical airiness, The Spirit Level (1995) is, perhaps unexpectedly, earthbound. It is louder and more energetic, like the children pretending to ride a train: “Our only job to sit, eyes straight ahead / And be transported and make engine noise.” There is a return to narrative momentum, heavy sensual language and technical adventurousness. “Two Lorries” (one carrying coal, the other bombs) is a remarkable sestina in which, for once, that ostentatious form is made to work flat out for its subject.

It is as if the more Heaney can hold in his hands, the more he can allow for out-of-placeness, including his own. In “Tollund,” visiting the Jutland bogs at last, the poet feels “footloose, at home beyond the tribe.” This is the ease and renewal of being “Ourselves again, free-willed again, not bad.”

Pleasingly crowded and untidy, Opened Ground gives us a broader picture of Heaney's poetic trajectory than we have had before, a picture arranged to show its own making rather than to offer itself complete. As such, it works beautifully.

William Pratt (review date summer 1999)

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SOURCE: Pratt, William. Review of Opened Ground, by Seamus Heaney. World Literature Today 73, no. 3 (summer 1999): 534.

[In the following review, Pratt highlights the influence of Ireland and Irish culture in the poems of Opened Ground.]

Ireland is a country of only about four million people, but in this century it has produced four Nobel Prize winners in literature: Yeats, Shaw, Beckett, and Heaney. To average one world-famous writer for every million people is a record that makes a small nation like Ireland seem singularly blessed. Some might say its literary blessing comes at the price of a political curse, since the island has long been one of the world's trouble spots. The political curse, however, has often been a boon to Irish writers. “Out of Ireland have we come / Great hatred, little room,” Yeats once remarked poetically. And James Joyce, a voluntary exile, the one indisputably great Irish writer never honored by a Nobel Prize, wrote even more bitterly about his native land, “Ireland is the old sow that eats her farrow.”

Heaney can be every bit as scathing as Yeats or Joyce about the Irish character, “we slaughter for the common good,” he says in one of his poems. But his gift for language, combined with his frequent quarrels with his native land, have earned him his place in the distinguished line of Irish writers. The quarrels seem more evident in the ample new collection Opened Ground than in the slimmer volumes which earned him the Nobel Prize in 1995. Of all Ireland's Nobel laureates, Heaney seems most consistently agitated about Irish politics, especially the still-smoldering civil war that clouds many of the poems in this ample volume, which, he insists in a foreword, is a selected and not a collected works.

Unlike Yeats and Shaw and Beckett, his Nobel predecessors, Heaney is identified with the Irish Catholic majority, even if he comes from Northern Ireland, where the majority are Protestant Irish. In Ireland, it could be argued, the minority always has the most compelling voice: Yeats was a Protestant born in the South, and Heaney is a Catholic born in the North. As Heaney notes in his Nobel Lecture, “Crediting Poetry” (printed here as a prose epilogue to the poems), “Yeats barely alluded to the civil war or the war of independence in his Nobel speech … he chose to talk instead about the Irish Dramatic Movement.” Thus Heaney, speaking to a world audience, acknowledged an artistic as well as religious difference from Yeats, for Yeats was preeminently a lyric poet, whereas Heaney has been prevailingly a polemical poet. Yeats dramatized himself as “a sixty-year-old smiling, public man” self-critically, tracing the conflicts in Irish politics to classical and biblical roots of human imperfection; Heaney has written about the troubles around him more painfully, as proof of man's natural inhumanity to man, his “kinship” with his savage ancestors. Even when indignant, Yeats always managed somehow to sing, “and louder sing / For every tatter in his mortal dress,” whereas Heaney seems obliged to speak out even when he sings.

He speaks as much as he sings in all his poems, even his most moving poems about the vast peaty wetlands that are a unique feature of the Irish landscape. They become his poetic symbol for Ireland, from “Digging,” the first poem in the collection, through “Bogland” and “The Tollund Man” and the “Bog Queen,” poems which made him famous as the Poet of the Bogs. Heaney anguishes again and again over the feudal tribalism of the Irish, who have inherited a sort of national suicide wish that threatens to catch everyone in its lethal net. Those relatively few, early bog poems are his major legacy, eloquent in their probing of historical conscience, going below the more recent Protestant and Catholic hatreds into primeval Celtic behavior, “domains of the cold-blooded,” where stark evidence of a murderous past has been perfectly preserved in the changeless vegetable kingdom of the bogs. Though he expresses hope in some of his poems for a gradual lessening of Irish tensions, and though he has clearly worked hard to become a more international poet by translating passages from Dante, Virgil, and Aeschylus, the best of his later poems are, like the best of his early poems, intensely Irish, but more topical and less evocative, more prosaic and less poetic, and there are in this copious collection many more of the forgettable than of the memorable.

John F. Desmond (review date 31 July 1999)

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SOURCE: Desmond, John F. “Measures of a Poet.” America 181, no. 3 (31 July 1999): 24-5.

[In the following review, Desmond outlines Heaney's career through the poems in Opened Ground.]

In his 1995 Nobel Prize address, “Crediting Poetry,” Seamus Heaney defined lyric poetry as the creating of an order of reality that is both “true to the impact of external reality and … sensitive to the inner laws of the poet's being.” Heaney's definition is self-revealing in that it expresses the basic tensions in his own poetry, his struggle to balance the grim actualities of history against the deeply felt impulses toward lyric delight.

Heaney's struggle, and his lifelong fidelity to both contending elements, is beautifully displayed in his newest collection, Opened Ground: Selected Poems, 1966-1996, which contains representative poems from his 11 published volumes, an excerpt from his play The Cure at Troy and the Nobel Prize address. Heaney's titles are always percussively significant.

“Opened Ground” comes from the first line of the pivotal “Glanmore Sonnets” in his sixth collection, Field Work (1979)—“Vowels ploughed into other: opened ground”—and it points to the vital tension between landscape (history, actuality) and language (visioning, imaginative transformation) that marks all of his work.

The ground in these poems is, of course, first and foremost Ireland, especially his native terrain of County Derry. But it is also the landscape of Western history in general, including Troy, Mycenae and Rome, two world wars in this century, tribal conflicts ancient and modern, repression, torture and enslavement—history the poet once described as “about as instructive as an abattoir.” Into this landscape Heaney shines the light of lyric freedom, the “openness” and delight in poetry's affirming power to express truths both sanguinary and salutary. At its deepest level, Heaney's art is strangely healing, as restorative as the gushing waters that figure so prominently in his poems.

The poems in Opened Ground record Heaney's developing vision as he struggled to define himself and his role as a poet in an age generally indifferent to the wisdom of poets. The poems of the 1960's and 1970's—Death of a Naturalist,Door into the Dark,Wintering Out,Stations and North—reveal both the beautiful and the brutal facts of daily life in Northern Ireland with exactness of vision and stunning linguistic virtuosity. These poems also bear the moral weight of his “responsible tristia” as a minority citizen within a deeply divided, violent community. The guilt of indulging the poetic life in the face of calls for political action shadows Heaney's verse.

With Field Work (1979), composed after Heaney moved south to the Republic of Ireland, a new lightness and self-assurance in the efficacy of the poetic life begins to filter into the work, confirmed by the domestic happiness found in marriage and family life. Thus in the tenth Glanmore sonnet, he celebrates the marital union. “When you came with your deliberate kiss / To raise us towards the lovely and painful / Covenants of flesh; our separateness; The respite in our dewy dreaming faces.” The movement here is toward an interior freedom and self-affirmation, a shifting of ground away from the precedential weight of history. Thus in Sweeney Astray (1983) he identifies himself with a creature of air, the mad poet of Irish legend who was exiled and condemned to live in the trees. And in Station Island (1984), the poet ends his symbolic, purgatorial pilgrimage by accepting advice from the ghost of James Joyce: “The main thing is to write / for the joy of it. … / You are fasted now, light-headed, dangerous. / Take off from here. And don't be so earnest. … / So ready for the sackcloth and ashes. / Let go, let fly, forget. / You've listened long enough. Now strike your note.”

Heaney comes into full voice as the commanding poet of his times in The Haw Lantern (1987), Seeing Things (1991) and The Spirit Level (1996), all amply represented in this new collection. Clarity of vision, linguistic virtuosity and formal brilliance still mark these volumes, but the political and moral questions that haunt all of his work are here elevated to a metaphysical level. Heaney fully emerges as a philosophical poet in Seeing Things: “Where does spirit live? Inside or outside / Things remembered, made things, things unmade? / What came first, the seabird's cry or the soul. … / Imagined in the dawn cold when it cried?”

As these lines reveal, Heaney now is more willing to “credit” mystery and invoke the power of the visionary—but not at the expense of the solid, natural world. Rather, his best poems, as reflected in lines from “Seeing Things,” become incarnations of the numinous within the actual:

“Claritas. The dry-eyed Latin word
Is perfect for the carved stone
          of the water
Where Jesus stands up to his
          unwet knees
And John the Baptist pours out more
Over his head: all this in bright
On the façade of a cathedral. Lines
Hard and thin and sinuous represent
The flowing river. Down between
          the lines
Little antic fish are all go. Nothing
And yet in that utter visibility
The stone's alive with what's
Waterweed, stirred sand-grains
          hurrying off,
The shadowy, unshadowed stream

Opened Ground is a treasure-trove of such visionings, the distillations of a great poet at the height of his powers who is able, as he affirms in “Postscript,” to “catch the heart off guard and blow it open.”

Great poets demand great critical readers, and in this regard Heaney has been blessed by the steady attention of America's foremost critic of poetry, Helen Vendler, the A. Kingsley Porter University Professor at Harvard University. Vendler's lucid, insightful study plots the trajectory of Heaney's poetic development from the 1960's to the present. Focusing on the art of his poems, she examines the internal structures of words, syntax, rhythm, voice and symbol that dramatize the poet's emotional responses to his experience. At the same time. Vendler demonstrates how Heaney has expanded and revised the nature of the personal lyric in response to the disruptive political and cultural pressures of his time.

Analyzing representative major poems across the range of his career, she traces his development through several stages: from an anonymous-voiced celebrator of nature, work and local history; into a poetic archeologist of “the matter of Ireland” and its pre-historic, violent roots; then into an adult, individuated domestic poet who seeks a balance between the legacy of cultural violence and the nutritive bonds of family and friendship; and then into a poet who defines himself by creating poetic alter-egos with which to identify, especially exiled artists like the mythical Sweeney, James Joyce and Chekhov.

After the death of his parents in the mid-1980's, Heaney becomes a poet focused on “absences,” on imagined realities, writing from an “almost posthumous” perspective to balance the solidity of the actual against the airness of the virtual. Having abandoned a traditional belief in the afterlife. Heaney now puts his faith in the power of creative imagination and in the noble, stoic endurance of humanity.

Vendler's study, in my view, is the best analysis of Heaney the poet yet published. She brilliantly unfolds the dynamics of his poetry by her subtle reading of his language, voice and the deft syntactical shifts that give his work its lyric power and range of implication. Vendler demonstrates how Heaney is a poet of “second thoughts,” one whose work constantly re-scrutinizes itself in terms of the demands of reality, justice and art. Reading her study, I only wish she had discussed more poems. Yet her superb commentary achieves what first-rate criticism should do: It makes us want to go back and read the poems again.

Tom Shippey (review date 1 October 1999)

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SOURCE: Shippey, Tom. “Beowulf for the Big-Voiced Scullions.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5035 (1 October 1999): 9-10.

[In the following review, Shippey objects to Heaney's use of Irish words derived from Anglo-Saxon, but unfamiliar to most English speakers, in his translation of Beowulf.]

In the 1997 Beowulf Handbook edited by Robert Bjork and John Niles, Marijane Osborn lists some twenty full or partial English translations of Beowulf, and that is by no means a complete list. Some have been produced by distinguished scholars (J. R. Clark Hall and C. L. Wrenn, E. T. Donaldson, Constance Hieatt), some by rated poets (Edwin Morgan, Burton Raffel, Kevin Crossley-Holland, Michael Alexander). And all this is now immaterial. Seamus Heaney is a Nobel Prize-winner; his translation of the poem was commissioned for and is going straight into The Norton Anthology of English Literature; set for virtually every introductory course in English on the North American continent (and all undergraduates have to take them, not just English majors); and he is a Northern Irish Catholic, one of the excluded, a poet in internal exile. All this, within the power poker of American academe, gives him something like a straight flush, ace high; to which any reviewer must feel he can oppose no more than two pairs, and aces and eights at that, the Dead Man's Hand. Like it or not, Heaney's Beowulf is the poem now, for probably two generations.

So. This is the way Heaney starts the poem, quelling instantly the long (and tedious) academic debate about how to translate its opening word, Hwœt. He gets “so,” Heaney explains, from his Irish relations, whom he calls, in a previous poem and in the “introduction” to this one, “big voiced Scullions.” Why “big voiced”? Because, “when the men of the family spoke, the words they uttered came across with a weighty distinctness, phonetic units as separate and defined as the delph platters displayed on a dresser shelf.” In their mouths, a sentence like “we cut the corn today,” says Heaney, “took on immense dignity”; when they opened a statement with “So,” the idiom operated “as an expression that obliterates all previous discourse and narrative, and at the same time functions as an exclamation calling for immediate attention.” Heaney wanted, then, to make Beowulf speakable by one of his Scullion relatives; what he loved about the poem was “a kind of foursquareness about the utterance, a feeling of living inside a constantly indicative mood.”

Right, then (for as Edward Risden pointed out in his 1994 translation of the poem, “right” is the English for Hwaet); maybe the first thing to say is that we seem here to be in the presence of two folk narratives, a personal one and an academic one. On the personal side, no one can grouch at Heaney relating a poem to his own experience and hearing his own history in it. He was much struck, he says, when he first read the poem at university, to realize that the strange verb þolian in the glossary, with its weird runic initial letter, was also the dialect word “thole” which he was used to hearing in completely non-academic surroundings. The word and its history (Old English to Scottish to Ulster planters to native Irish) gave him “illumination by philology,” it “opened my right of way,” it made Beowulf “part of my voice-right.”

Fair enough, and no one wants to take the voice-right away. But Heaney's illumination is, or ought to be, pretty widespread. Ever since William Morris (at the very least), it has been noted that many Old English words, and many Beowulfian words, are unfamiliar only to educated English, with its self-imposed burden of French and Latin. From the first few lines I pull “settle,” “wax,” “dree,” “ere,” “barm,” “bairn”—Heaney has replaced drugon (= “dreed”) with “tholed,” so making one point but rejecting another. If he is under the impression that “Scullion-speak,” as he calls it, some-how preserves a native purity which other and more effete dialects of English do not, then that is a delusion: an amiable delusion, maybe, for ancestral piety is to be admired, but a dangerous one too. A hundred years ago, foolish philologists, who should have known better, were claiming that standard English was intrinsically superior to dialects because it had nicer vowels; reversing the statement makes it no wiser.

As for the academic folk narrative, that crops up perhaps in the remark about the indicative mood. Heaney is fond of indicatives. In his poem “From the Canton of Expectations” he sees the history of his people as moving from optative to imperative, and wishes for someone “who stood his ground in the indicative; / whose boat will lift when the cloudburst happens.” But is Beowulf an especially indicative poem? If one is talking real grammar, not the folk-grammar of John Major and most English-department introductory courses, then the poet of Beowulf might be thought to be distinguished by his handling (among much else) of subjunctives. How does Heaney take these?

A test case is Beowulf's early confrontation, before we even know his name, with the Danish coastguard. As Beowulf's crew, heavily armed, stream over the bolca (the baulk, the gangplank), the Danish warden, Hrothgar's thane, rides down to meet them. Is he going to start shooting? Is he going to wave them through? What he does is offer a long speech, almost agonizingly balanced between threat and conciliation. Twice, for sure—you cannot always tell—he uses subjunctive verbs, switching the first time from a very plain compliment, nis þœt seldguma (“that's no hanger-on”) to an immediately doubtful half-retraction, nœfne him his wlite leoge (“unless his looks should happen to belie him”); moving the second time from the peremptory modal ic sceal (“I shall, I must”) and the definitely uncomplimentary léassceaweras (“false seers, spies”) to another retractive subjunctive, œr ge … furþur feran (“before you should happen to go any further”). Catching the tone of the subjunctive is hard in modern English, but it is a major part of the careful, prickly dignity of armed men in the heroic world.

How does Heaney catch it? His translation of the latter part of the speech runs as follows:

                                                                      Nor have I seen
a mightier man-at-arms on this earth
than the one standing here: unless I am
he is truly noble. This is no mere
hanger-on in a hero's armour.
So now, before you fare inland
as interlopers, I have to be informed
about who you are and where you hail from

Heaney has switched the “unless” clause to precede the compliment, and added the bit about “truly noble.” Also, the “unless” now governs the coastguard being mistaken (which is deprecatory), not the stranger's looks being lies (which is suspicious). “Before you fare” is pretty good, keeping the characteristic Old English “pararhyme,” but to my ear “I have to be informed” sounds apologetic. The Old English is both flatter, more uncompromising, “bigger-voiced” indeed, and at the same time more subjunctive, more open-optioned, than Heaney can get across. Beowulf is a highly aggressive poem, of course, and in the folk narrative of modern academe this translates out as “butch.” But maybe real warriors, as opposed to thugs or gangsters, had to learn complex social skills. “Foursquare” does not always seem to be the right description of how they talk.

Try another scene, a speech so oblique, though riddled with imperatives, that no reader in the early modern period understood it for sixty years and the interpretation was ignored for another forty and resisted into my own student days by scholars like Kenneth Sisam, who just did not believe that Anglo-Saxon housecarls, “men not chosen primarily for their intellectual qualities,” to use his polite formulation, could possibly have taken it in. Hrothgar's queen Wealhtheow is speaking, after Beowulf has got rid of Grendel, and after her husband has made a perhaps rash offer to adopt Beowulf into his own family. She tells her husband, five imperatives in a row, to enjoy himself and show appropriate generosity. Then she mentions the adoption, deadpan; and—twice using very careful subjunctives—raises the possibility of her husband's death. She never at all says the words, “who is going to succeed you, who is going to inherit?,” let alone rebukes her husband for gratuitously importing a competitor to his and her sons. But it is there (and much else is there, for the speech is not over) in the gaps, in the contrasts between grammatical moods.

Heaney again:

                                                                                          The queen spoke:
“Enjoy this drink, my most generous lord,
raise you your goblet, entertain the Geats
duly and gently, discourse with them,
be open-handed, happy and fond.
Relish their company, but recollect as well
all of the boons that have been bestowed on you.
The bright court of Heorot has been cleansed
and now the word is that you want to adopt
this warrior as a son. So, while you may,
bask in your fortune, and then bequeath
kingdom and nation to your kith and kin,
before your decease.”

Wealhtheow said neither “before” nor “decease,” she said something like (and this is E. T. Donaldson), “when you must go forth,” though the “must” was subjunctive—“when you may perhaps have to.” She didn't say the “but” in line 6 above either, and I think the “boons” she is telling her husband to “recollect” are the ones he should be giving, not the ones he has received. The Anglo-Saxon speech treads much more delicately than the modern one. Maybe we have got more four-square (or ruder), not less; though, of course, in academic folk narrative it is well known that Anglo-Saxons were just plain primitive, a distinguished professor of literature recently calling them the Falkland Islanders of the first millennium, which is rude on several levels.

How does Heaney handle, then, the most plainly indicative statements in the poem, its many gnomic sayings and maxims? It has to be said that he gets off to a bold but shaky start. Very early in the poem, the son of Scyld Sceafing arrives, and the poet comments, for no apparent reason, that this is how sons should behave: they should give gifts and buy loyalty while their fathers are alive, so as to have willing support in war when they grow up. The poet ends with an uncompromisingly universal statement, lofdœdum sceal / in mœgþa gehwœre / man geþeon. This means, translating very literally, “in each one of the tribes a man must thrive (is bound to thrive?) by deeds of lof”—what is lof? “Praise,” say the dictionaries—so, “by deeds of praise.” Heaney, claiming to be “attending as much to the grain of my original vernacular as to the content of the Anglo-Saxon lines,” translates “Behaviour that's admired / is the path to power among people everywhere.”

This is universal enough, and the echo of gehwœre in “everywhere” is good. But who in the world could begin to go about believing it? The people of power now are financiers and politicians. Are they remarkable for “behaviour that's admired”? Does the maxim survive contact with mention of Robert Maxwell and Bill Clinton? Were the Anglo-Saxons (or the Scullions whom Heaney cites once again as models for those lines) really as starry-eyed as that? I do not think lof means “praise” here, I think it means the other half of the exchange relationship, “generosity.” The poet is saying that men rise to the top everywhere through judicious payoffs: in his culture, with its hatred of stinginess, that is a virtue without cynical suggestion. But it has stayed true even in a quite different political culture, which is one mark of a good saying.

Heaney does not always guess wrong, or shy away from the unwelcome. I appreciate his demotic “That was one good king” for Scyld Sceafing, as also “That is no good place” for the monsters' mere, and “They were a right people” for the sleeping Danes. His “voice-right” has helped him out in another respect, too, in his dealings with what he calls, in careful awareness of modern commentary, the poem's “appositional” syntax. The bane of translators of Old English poetry from the lowest levels upwards is its use of variation, saying the same thing in different ways. In Old English, with its ability to indicate syntactic connections through word endings, this is a flexible and often climactic technique, but in modern English, where word-order rules, the unspoken instruction to get everything in and not leave any phrases out often leads to sentences which feel like someone pushing a line of supermarket trolleys.

Heaney deals with this sometimes (not often) by judicious cutting; more often by skilful permutation of the syntactic resources modern English still allows, mixing adverbial phrases with relative clauses, using non-finite constructions (something his own poetry has always exploited). Compare, for instance, Clark Hall and Wrenn, a self-proclaimed students' crib, with Heaney on Hrothgar getting up. The crib is resolutely uninteresting: “the king, too, guardian of ring-hoards, came from his bed-chamber; he, famed for noble qualities, advanced majestically with a great company, and his queen with him passed over the path to the mead-hall with a company of maidens.” Compare Heaney:

                                                                                                    the king himself,
guardian of the ring-hoard, goodness in person,
walked in majesty from the women's quarters
with a numerous train, attended by his queen
and her crowd of maidens, across to the

The vocabulary is not much different, but the syntax is. One finite verb, not three; an appositional pronoun cut out; a couple of adverbial phrases relocated, a co-ordinate clause subordinated: and the trolley effect, thankfully, has disappeared. It does make the poem much easier to read at length, for which many successive cohorts of students and tutors will be grateful.

More importantly, though, can Heaney hit the heights? I do not know if it is because the poem gets sadder towards the end, but I formed the impression that he was becoming more comfortable with his mode as time went by. There are many moments of pathos, usually understated, in the last third of Beowulf, and Heaney singles some of them out for comment in his introduction. His “Lay of the Last Survivor” is excellent, plain, like the original full of unexplained transitions and unstated regrets:

Now, earth, hold what earls once held
and heroes can no more; it was mined from
                                                                                                                        you first
by honourable men. My own people
have been ruined in war; one by one
they went down to death, looked their last
on sweet life in the hall. I am left with nobody.

I am not so sure about Beowulf's part-weary, part-proud, reminiscence. How can one go wrong with Ic wœs syfanwintra, þa mec sinca baldor / freawine folca œt minum fœder genam? “I was seven winters, when the prince of treasures, / friend and lord of peoples, took me from my father”: the honorifics contrast with the little boy taken into service, a service he now means to complete in loyalty to men long dead. Heaney has, “At seven, I was fostered out by my father, / left in the charge of my people's lord”; the little boy has become the subject of the fostering, not the object taken away. Often, it seems to me, the plain flat phrase is ducked, as in the tragedy of line 2439, when Beowulf's uncle miste mercelses ond his mœg ofscet, “missed the mark and shot his brother”; in Heaney, “shot wide and buried a shaft / in the flesh and blood of his own brother.”

On the other hand, Beowulf's three last dying speeches to Wiglaf are good—“You are the last of us, the only one left …”—as are Wiglaf's own, and in particular his speech to the shirkers, where long and complex sentences are kept rolling through the appositions to the crunch lines, “now the day has come / when this lord we serve needs sound men.” Thirteen monosyllables in a row; if this is “Scullion-speak,” we need more of it.

How, finally, should one deal with the last three lines, the end of a poem sometimes described not as an epic but as a long, long dirge? In the Old English, they are both plain and complex, the last two lines being the only ones in the poem which follow each other identically in the rhythm (trochaic stress, two central stresses, trochaic stress, two central stresses) and, apart from a genitive changing to a dative, in grammar. I translate them as near as I can word for word and sound for sound. The Geats, mourning their lord, “said that he were [subjunctive], of world-kings, / of-men mildest and most loyal / to-men kindest and praise-yearnest.” “Mildest” and “kindest” (mildost, lindost) are surprising words to use of the dead hero; the fourth superlative seems (but is it?) out of line with the others. Heaney gives:

They said that of all the kings upon the earth
he was the man most gracious and fair-minded,
kindest to his people and keenest to win fame.

Nicholas Howe (review date 28 February 2000)

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SOURCE: Howe, Nicholas. “Scullionspeak.” New Republic 222, no. 9 (28 February 2000): 32-7.

[In the following review, Howe singles out the humanity and energy of the narrative speeches in Heaney's translation of Beowulf, but concedes that Heaney's use of Ulster idiom is inappropriate since he does not fully re-invent the tale in terms of Anglo-Irish relations.]


For all that it seems to begin English literature, Beowulf is a relative newcomer to the canon. First edited by a Danish scholar in 1815, the year of Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo and Jane Austen's Emma, the poem as a whole was not translated into Modern English until 1837. In subsequent years, Beowulf has found numerous translators, many of them scholars and few of them possessing any poetic gift. Of the sixty or so translators who have done the complete poem into English, only two have had any larger literary reputation. William Morris published a version in 1892; and C. K. Scott-Moncrieff, the English translator of Proust, published a version in 1921. But their talents lay elsewhere, and neither produced a Beowulf that can be read today with pleasure or even much comprehension.

That the poem made it into the canon, much less into the cliché “from Beowulf to Virginia Woolf,” is something of a miracle. Unlike most European epics, this poem exists in a single, unadorned manuscript that barely survived a fire in 1731 and today rests, charred edges and all, in the British Library. We know nothing about the manuscript's existence between the early eleventh century, when it was created, and the sixteenth century, when it re-appeared. Most likely it sat unnoticed in a monastic library for centuries, when nobody could read its Old English or, as it is also called, Anglo-Saxon.

That the manuscript did not circulate during these centuries should make us leery of celebrating the poem as the start of the English literary tradition, and also of demonizing it. Beowulf never enjoyed the currency and the prestige that Homer or Virgil had in their respective literary canons. It was not discussed in commentaries, or quoted by later writers, or honored as part of a common culture. Indeed, if the single manuscript of Beowulf had disappeared when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in England—as might easily have happened, given its physical homeliness and its incomprehensible language—we would not have the faintest suspicion that such a poem had ever existed. No other writer mentions the story of Beowulf, even in passing; nor is any part of it embedded in other works.

The mystery around Beowulf extends to such basic matters as who composed it and when. No name attaches itself to the poem, not even one of dubious historical veracity like Homer. Nor is any single date commonly accepted for its composition. Reputable scholars have placed it as early as the middle of the seventh century or as late as the beginning of the eleventh century—a period of 350 years or so, about as long as the period that separates Paradise Lost from today. It is hard to know if the undateable poem came at the start of the Old English literary period or at its end. We cannot know, therefore, whether it was composed in a culture that had been (at least in recent memory) oral in form and style, or in an increasingly literate culture that made England into a center of Christian learning.

Having neither an author nor a date for Beowulf poses problems for scholars, and temptations for translators. This lack of facts leaves them free to render the poem in the image of their various desires. And so translations of the poem range from effusive bardic performances that bear little relation to the original to scholarly transcriptions that are so close to the original that their Modern English makes sense, paradoxically, only to those who know Old English. It is certainly true that there are features of Old English poetry that contribute to any translator's difficulties in rendering Beowulf in Modern English.

For a start, the poetry in the original is heavily alliterative, so that each line marks out three of its four main metrical stresses with the same initial sound: “and find friendship in the Father's embrace,” to borrow an example from Seamus Heaney's version. These days alliteration survives most audibly in rap lyrics and advertising jingles, so the translator of Beowulf must use it sparingly and knowingly. Nothing kills a translation faster than relentless alliteration; but nothing can help a good one more than the subtle use of alliterative emphasis, especially if the translator avoids ransacking the language for obscure synonyms to fill out the sound pattern.

More difficult to handle in Modern English than alliteration is the pervasive use in Old English poetry of variation or syntactically parallel expressions to describe the same person or object. Thus, a character in Beowulf will describe a king as “lord of the Danes,” “king of the Scyldings,” “giver of rings,” and “famous chief” in three and a half lines of poetry. For the modern reader, accustomed to believing that a poet must use the exact word, Old English poetic variation can seem mindless repetition, the piling up of formulaic expressions to pad out a line, a sure sign that the Beowulf poet did not really know what he was doing.

As one reads the poetry, however, variation comes to seem evidence not of ineptitude, but of a desire to display a being or an object in all its richness. The more one reads Old English poetry, the more one senses that variation is what stands in the way of its successful journey into Modern English. Either you cut out some of the variants, and thin out the poem; or you render all of them as they appear, and clog the movement of the narrative. The two poetries seem to find little common ground: the modern is exact and sparing in its inevitability, the early medieval is accretive and multitudinous in its generosity. The closest any twentieth-century poet has come to making Old English variation work in Modern English is Geoffrey Hill, in his Anglo-Saxon-inspired cycle called Mercian Hymns, which appeared in 1971.

That Old English and Modern English are not all that different at times, especially at the level of vocabulary, also renders the translation of Beowulf tricky. Anyone reading through a translation of Beowulf soon encounters some term or phrase that seems archaic, but is in fact perfectly good Old English smuggled in by the translator for lack of an adequate equivalent in Modern English. This usually occurs when the poet offers a rich run of variation for warrior gear—shields, helmets, armor, and so on. Without an equivalent technical vocabulary, the Modern English translator has few choices: either pretend that the Old English word for a piece of armor is still current or else invent some metaphoric rendering. Scholarly translators usually go for the first choice, poetic translators for the second choice. Either way, the original gets distorted. Words that are familiar and specific in Old English—such as words for vehicles are in Modern English—are made quaintly archaic or poetically ornate. Of course, such words are neither archaic nor ornate in Beowulf. They are as specific to their language, and circulate as easily in it, as do “minivan” or “sport-utility vehicle” in ours.

The markedly episodic shape of the narrative also raises problems for translators. The first two-thirds of Beowulf, a little more than two thousand lines, tells of the young Beowulf's journey from his home in Geatland (perhaps modern Sweden) to the court of Hrothgar, king of the Danes. There he vanquishes the monster Grendel, who has raided Hrothgar's hall and eaten his men for years. That victory is followed, the next night, by the appearance of Grendel's Mother, who raids the hall for the first time to avenge her son. In turn, Beowulf tracks her to the underwater cave where she lives, and kills her. These feats accomplished, Beowulf returns home to Geatland where, after a series of events, he becomes king and rules his people well for fifty years.

The poet effects the transition from the young Beowulf to the old Beowulf in ten lines or so, because the intervening years are of little interest compared to the appearance of a dragon that burns Beowulf's hall and ravages his lands. Beowulf must thus prepare himself for a last fight. And, with his young comrade Wiglaf, he defeats the dragon, but not without receiving a fatal wound. His death leaves the Geats without a leader, and without hope of resisting the onslaught of their traditional enemies. In the absence of Beowulf, the Geats face a future of death and captivity. As a poem about two defining moments in a life, Beowulf offers little narrative continuity. It places heavy demands on the audience's attention.


All this said, it is hardly surprising that we have had no translation of Beowulf to match those of Homer by Richmond Lattimore, Robert Fitzgerald, Christopher Logue, or Robert Fagles, of Virgil by Fitzgerald, of Horace by David Ferry—to cite only recent renderings of dead white European males. Even Dante's Divine Comedy, for all its technical virtuosity, has been better rendered in Modern English than Beowulf. Readers who know Beowulf through the poetic versions of Burton Raffel, Kevin Crossley-Holland, or Michael Alexander may have some sense of its verbal style but little of its forceful directness; and readers of E. Talbot Donaldson's prose version, usually found in the canon-setting Norton Anthology of English Literature, know a Beowulf that retains the original's powerful narrative but little of its poetic inventiveness.

Now comes, like an “interloper from the Celtic realms,” Seamus Heaney and his poetic version of Beowulf, intended for use in that same Norton Anthology but also appearing in a separate volume with a facing-page Old English text. For the first time, a major poet has taken on Beowulf. Heaney is an “interloper” in much the same sense as he meant when he applied the epithet to Yeats. Both are Irish by birth and cultural affinity; both write and read in English; both occupy an uneasy ground.

This crossing of historical and linguistic allegiances has its value for translating Beowulf, because the poem shows an analogous kind of crossing. It is written in Old English and was recited to an English audience, but its narrative is set entirely in north Germanic regions of the European continent in the years before the Anglo-Saxons made their migration to the island of Britain. Reading through it, you will never learn that there is in fact such a place as England or such a people as the Anglo-Saxons. Its religious and cultural landscape is pagan or at least pre-Christian, its geography is Scandinavian, and its ethos is distinctly military. It portrays not the Anglo-Saxons in England, as one might expect from an epic poem, but the world of their fathers in the fifth and early sixth centuries.

From the start of his career in the 1960s, Heaney has shown an affinity for Old English poetry. Having studied the language at Queen's University in Belfast, he could shape some of his lines by Old English metrical practices, as in “Digging,” one of the poems that announced his arrival as a significant voice. In a fine lecture of 1976 on “Englands of the Mind,” he located the poetry of Ted Hughes, Philip Larkin, and Geoffrey Hill in the English landscape and poetic tradition. When he spoke of these poets and their desire “to keep open the imagination's supply lines to the past, to receive from the stations of Anglo-Saxon confirmations of ancestry,” he was also describing one strand in his own work.

Still, there is some surprise in reading Heaney's Beowulf, because it reverses the process that he described in “Englands of the Mind.” In very forthright ways, Heaney's version demands to be read as his connection back to the stations of his Ulster ancestry. And it does so from the very first word of the poem, the Old English interjection “Hwæt.” This word has no fixed semantic meaning but serves instead as a call to attention, a signal that something important is about to be said. Our equivalent in a loud or colloquial setting might be “Yo!”; but that would hardly do for the opening of a canonical poem. Recent translators have used “Attend” or “Indeed” or “Yes” or “Hear” for it; older translators used “Lo” or “Hark.”

Heaney offers the less literary “So”; and he notes that in his Ulster colloquial, what he lovingly calls “Hiberno-English Scullionspeak,” this word “came naturally to the rescue, because in that idiom ‘so’ operates as an expression which obliterates all previous discourse and narrative, and at the same time functions as an exclamation calling for immediate attention.” His rationale for using “So” is precise, even plausible; but one wonders if it holds for those who use other varieties of English. To my ear, “So” sounds too understated, too domestic for the start of a poem such as Beowulf. I also hear it with a bit of a Yiddish intonation, an ironic questioning that does not match the poem at all—an inappropriate response, I know, but one that the word carries in my variety of Scullionspeak.

In his translation of the poem's opening, Heaney seems intent to downplay its assertion of epic temporality and heroic achievement: “So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by / and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness. / We have heard of those princes' heroic campaigns.” As he levels the diction of these lines and flattens their claims on the audience, Heaney writes two sentences where the original has one grammatical unit. In the original, the subject and the verb of Heaney's second sentence govern the first sentence as well. A recent version of the passage by the scholar Roy Michael Liuzza goes: “Listen! We have heard of the glory in bygone days / of the folk-kings of the Spear-Danes, / how those noble lords did lofty deeds.” The original stresses from the start, as does Liuzza's version, that the “we” of the audience knows all the matter of the poem because poets have recited it so others can hear and learn it. Perhaps Heaney thought that splitting the single Old English sentence into two would make for an easier entry. What gets diminished, though, is the ceremonial opening claim, the reminder to the audience that all they know and can know about the past comes from poets.

That opening assertion matters for the understanding of Beowulf and for the appreciation of its style. The poem makes allusive use of the past in ways that speak to the circulation of stories and legends in a traditional culture. Similarly, the poem employs maxims and other terse statements of culturally shared belief. The narrator of the poem and its characters show a gift for the tight laconic expression that speaks to a common sense of how the world works and how one is to live in it. Heaney rightly praises “the cadence and force of earned wisdom” in such passages. To a modern reader, they can seem platitudinous, even trivial, if they are not translated with epigrammatic force. (And some seem so even when they are translated well.) The danger is that the narrator or the characters will seem pompous and verbose in Modern English when, in Old English, they are forceful and direct.

Consider a few examples, taken from high points in the poem. When Beowulf and his band of retainers land in Denmark on their way to help King Hrothgar fight the monster Grendel, they are greeted by a coastguardsman who challenges them. After hearing Beowulf speak, the coast-guardsman recognizes that his intentions are honorable and that his status is aristocratic. He adds that learning to judge a man by his words and his works is a survival skill in a warrior culture. In E. Talbot Donaldson's prose version, he says: “A sharp-witted shield-warrior who thinks well must be able to judge each of the two things, words and works.” The sentiment is not original to the coastguardsman, and thus its expression can be tight and understated. And that is why it carries conviction in the poem. In Heaney's version, however, the coastguardsman sounds folksy and long-winded: “Anyone with gumption / and a sharp mind will take the measure / of two things: what's said and what's done.” This is accurate enough, but it misses the original's proverbial tone, which is at once a stylistic feature of the poem and the coastguardsman's compliment to Beowulf, who is smart enough to get the point even when it is made in a highly elliptical form.

Later in the poem, Grendel's mother comes out of the darkness to avenge the death of her son at Beowulf's hands by killing one of King Hrothgar's beloved comrades. As he tries to encourage Hrothgar after this calamity, Beowulf tells him tersely: “It is better for a man to avenge his friend than to mourn much.” The young hero's admonition to the old king risks being disrespectful, and thus it seems to violate protocol, but it is allowed because it is maxim-like in expression. He is saying what anyone in the culture must know, and so he says it as simply as possible. Heaney gets the sentiment right, but in ways that make it seem platitudinous and thus offensive in context: “It is always better / to avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning.” This misses the force of Beowulf's words: that the old king, for all that he mourns, needs only a glancing reminder that his duty is to seek revenge. To say “indulge in mourning” makes the point obvious to the modern reader, but it also makes Beowulf less hard-bitten than he must be at this moment.

Heaney seems throughout to resist the tight, compressed style of Beowulf. It is not that his version has more lines or even more words than the original, though the latter is almost unavoidable, but that it seems looser and less edgy as it moves forward line by line. Yet there is one extended section in Heaney's Beowulf in which he brilliantly captures this poetic style. As he renders the so-called “Finnsburg Episode,” a poem within the poem told by a performer in Hrothgar's court, Heaney moves powerfully and accurately from Old to Modern English, as in these lines:

                                                  Wind and water
raged with storms,
                                                  wave and shingle
were shackled in ice
                                                  until another year
appeared in the yard
                                                  as it does to this day,
the seasons constant,
                                                  the wonder of light
coming over us.

Heaney rightly notes that his version of this passage is marked “by a slight quickening of pace and a shortening of metrical rein.” Perhaps a translation of all 3,182 lines of Beowulf in this style would prove unreadable. Still, these lines do sound truer to the original than other parts of Heaney's translation, precisely because they avoid being tediously explicit or drawn out. Here we are not burdened with an overly long line that uses more language than it needs to render the original.

The overly long line is especially evident in passages in which Heaney has to translate the original's use of variation or apposition. In his introduction, he admits to slighting this aspect of the poem's style. His frankness is winning, but it cannot obscure the fact that some of the dullest lines in his rendering are the consequence of this slighting of variation, as here: “Then he saw a blade that boded well, / a sword in her armoury, an ancient heirloom / from the days of the giants, an ideal weapon, / one that any warrior would envy. …” This kind of passage may not sound like poetry to us, but passages like it appear throughout Beowulf. To make them work in Modern English, the translator needs to do more than dutifully fill out the list of synonyms. There needs to be also a sense of why the poet clusters so many synonyms at that particular moment in the poem.

Writing about any translation means judging it for its faithfulness to the original as well as for the quality of its own expression. It also means looking at local moments and large passages. As Heaney once remarked, in an essay on John Clare: “I am reminded of a remark made once by an Irish diplomat with regard to the wording of a certain document. ‘This,’ he said, ‘is a minor point of major importance.’” In the judgment of translation, certainly, minor points have major importance; and to my ear Heaney's translation tends to flatten or to elongate the Old English line, to make it seem heavy with words rather than direct and flowing with alliterative stress and verbal energy. His Beowulf sounds at times more like some poetry of medieval Ireland than it does like that of Anglo-Saxon England, and this is not unrelated to Heaney's objective as a translator.


There is one thing that Heaney's Beowulf does better than any other translation of the poem that I know. The most moving and powerful moments of his translation appear in the speeches delivered by characters during the last third of the poem. This section takes place fifty years into the reign of Beowulf. His triumphs over Grendel and Grendel's mother are in the distant past; all that remains is the final contest. In these speeches, which are addressed at least as much to the audience as to other characters, we hear a wise and weary Beowulf, a man who knows that his time on earth is nearing its end. But first he must fight and defeat the dragon who has burned his hall and ravaged his land, even though that fight will likely end in his death and thus, because he leaves no heir, in a new peril for his people.

After killing the dragon and receiving a mortal wound in exchange, the king takes the measure of his life:

                                                  No king
of any neighbouring clan would dare
face me with troops, none had the power
to intimidate me. I stood my ground
and took what came, cared for things in
          my keeping,
never fomented quarrels, never
swore to a lie.

The note here is exact: the voice of the old Beowulf seems not so much translated by Heaney into Modern English as ventriloquized into it. The record of a life is finely caught in the dignified, modest assertions of half-lines such as “I stood my ground” or “and took what came.” These are almost uncannily accurate renderings of Old English poetic form, especially of direct speech. In such passages, when Heaney seems to enter characters such as the old Beowulf, he finds the right melody for translating Old English.

To expect that Heaney would work at this level throughout would be unfair. And here it may also matter that his translation originated as a commission for the Norton Anthology of English Literature. A translation meant for students encountering Beowulf for the first time probably should prefer the clear and the accurate over the brilliant and the allusive. Some of the passages that I have criticized for being overly explicit can also be read as attempts to explain the poem to first-time readers. Yet the rationale for the translation is not that simple, despite Heaney's gracious acknowledgement of assistance from various medievalists. What complicates Heaney's translation, and in many ways makes it deeply interesting as a contemporary statement on literature and politics, as a redress of poetry, is that he sets out to make the poem Irish.

At the most immediate level, this means that Heaney is willing to use various words that are current in the English of Ulster but do not circulate widely if at all in the standard English of either England or North America. Some of these words are survivals from Old English that have lasted in Ulster but not elsewhere, such as the verb “thole,” meaning “to suffer.” Others are forms current in Ulster English that Heaney sets into his translation carefully and sparingly, but also polemically: “bothies,” “war-graith,” “bawn,” “keens,” “brehon,” “wean,” and “hoked.” Even if you know Old English, many of these words are puzzling and intrusive, for they introduce an element of what one might call political dialect into the Modern English version that is not in the Old English version. The original does not use words from one specific dialect to make a larger political and poetic claim. What Heaney does with words such as “oawn,” “brehon,” and “hoked” is his own remaking of the poem. That they are mystifying, at least at the immediate level, is admitted by the practice of the Norton Anthology in glossing these words with notes, some written by Heaney.

Adding words that need glossing to a translation when there are reasonably usable words at hand is a provocative thing to do. I think that the method would have been far more successful if Heaney had gone all the way and written a fully Ulsterized version of Beowulf, instead of a version that stands at times awkwardly between a textbook version for undergraduates and a remaking of the poem to gather in his own heritage. Heaney's Beowulf would have been far more exciting if it had followed the practice of Derek Walcott's Omeros, and traveled the full and exhilarating distance from translation to poetic remaking.

Why didn't Heaney do so? It is hard for a reader to say. What can be usefully explored is how this version of Beowulf relates to other aspects of Heaney's career. Over the last several years, Heaney has located his fascination with Old English poetry in the figure of the Anglo-Saxon poet Caedmon. Lamenting the death of Ted Hughes, he wrote: “This modern poet from Yorkshire who published in the 1960s a poem called ‘The Bull Moses’ would have had no difficulty hitting it off with Caedmon, the first English poet, who began life as a farmhand in Northumbria, a fellow northerner with a harp under one arm and a bundle of fodder under the other.” It is a lovely image of the poet: a harp and a bundle of fodder. It reminds one vividly of some of Heaney's early poems about his youth in rural Ulster where, as a Catholic in a Protestant region, he sometimes seemed to be more at home with the countryside and its creatures than with most of his fellow citizens. It is a fine image, this poet with harp and fodder; but it is not an accurate image of Caedmon and it may not be fair to Hughes either, who was a learned poet in his terrifying way.

Heaney's retelling of the Caedmon story matters a great deal to his intentions as a translator of Beowulf and, more radically, to his use of the poem to graft himself onto the English literary tradition. It also matters to some of his most obvious moves as a translator, especially his use of Ulster vocabulary. The story of Caedmon first appears in 731 in Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English Church and People, and this fact alone should make one hesitate to treat him simply as a bucolic harper. Bede records that Caedmon was a cowherd at the monastery at Whitby, who would withdraw from the drinking when the harp circulated and his turn to sing came round. One night, after slipping away and tending to his animals, Caedmon fell asleep and dreamed that a mysterious figure ordered him to sing a song. Puzzled but awestruck, Caedmon asked of what he should sing, and was told to sing of God and His Creation. The result, spontaneous but technically perfect, is known today as “Caedmon's Hymn.”

Bede also tells us that once the cowherd's gifts were recognized, the abbess of the monastery ordered the learned monks to read the Bible to him so he could meditate on these readings like (in Bede's image) a cow chewing its cud and then retell them in traditional vernacular verse.

At that moment, Caedmon ceased to be a cowherd. He matters as the first English poet because he put the oral bard out of business when he became the mouthpiece for a highly literate tradition of Scripture. But Heaney prefers to read Caedmon as the bard who stands “as a reminder of the daemonic strengths of the art, its covenant with the singing voice of Orpheus, the sheer spellbinding power of rhythmic speech,” as he recently wrote in The Threepenny Review. His preeminent recent example of such a poet is Dylan Thomas.

Perhaps so, but to make the comparison work, to invent a lineage from Caedmon to Dylan Thomas and Ted Hughes and, implicitly but no less firmly to himself and to his translation of Beowulf, Heaney has to forget that Caedmon matters because he composed thoroughly orthodox poems in English to persuade pagan Anglo-Saxons to renounce their faith and their culture in order to become good and dutiful Christians. Caedmon is an agent of conversion, of Christian conversion, which means that he is an agent of cultural betrayal. Whichever way one reads him, he is the figure who makes poetry the vehicle for a written scriptural tradition that has little place, or no place at all, for the bardic Orpheus.

Heaney loves his version of Caedmon, so fervently that he makes me want to believe and love it, too. One of his strongest recent poems begins: “Caedmon too I was lucky to have known.” This Caedmon is the bard who beneath the learned poet remains unspoiled and earthy: “And all that time he'd been poeting with the harp / His real gift was the big ignorant roar / He could still let out of him, just bogging in / As if the sacred subjects were a herd / That had broken out and needed rounding up.” Heaney ends on a note of vernacular praise: “Oh, Caedmon was the real thing all right.” This evocation of the Old English poet is alluring, and it is designed to advance Heaney's own ends as a poet. For this particular poem is called “Whitby-sur-Moyola,” the first name being the site of Caedmon's monastery in the north of England and the second being a river that flows near Heaney's childhood home in the north of Ireland. The French preposition between the place-names looks forward and backward to the arrival of the Normans in 1066, another part of Heaney's heritage.

Whitby-sur-Moyola belongs on the most beautiful of maps, in the atlas of imaginary places, because it is a fictive setting for the tension that has driven Heaney's poetry from the start. And this tension can also be felt in his Beowulf, as he acknowledged proudly in his lecture on translating the poem, “The Drag of the Golden Chain.” Irish by birth, English by language, a partisan of neither side in the religious troubles of Ireland, Heaney can find no spot in the real atlas to fix his poetic home. And so Whitby-sur-Moyola is a place deeply attractive in its gesture toward political, cultural, linguistic, and religious harmony.

Yet Whitby-sur-Moyola is a curious place to work from as a translator of Beowulf. One might even argue that someone writing from there is not really a translator of the poem at all. He is, rather, a reinventor of the poem, who turns Old English into Modern English to remake the literary and cultural history of the British Isles. And there is an argument in this remaking. The argument is that there is a deep affinity between the Anglo-Saxon and the Celtic, between two peoples and traditions that have rarely been at peace with each other from the time when the Germanic tribes arrived on the island of Britain in the fifth century A.D.

One can only roar like Heaney's Caedmon at the irony of a revisionist Beowulf appearing in that most canonical of textbooks, the Norton Anthology; but for Heaney's purposes, where better than a textbook that will assure his Beowulf of several generations of readers? Or one would roar at this irony if Heaney had really rewritten Beowulf to be the poem of Whitby-sur-Moyola. As it is, he has added some Celtic echoes to an Old English poem because that can be, in his words, “one way for an Irish poet to come to terms with that complex history of conquest and colony, absorption and resistance, integrity and antagonism” that has characterized Anglo-Irish relations since the time when the Irish burned the poet Edmund Spenser out of Ireland and back to Elizabeth's court.

As a translator, Heaney does not work forward from the start of a literary tradition, as a scholar might. He looks back from his moment in that tradition, as a poet seeking out connections, trying to refashion the Old English in ways that can disturb a scholar, but always locating his poetry and his history on his own grounds. The result is a Beowulf that is sometimes deeply exciting to read for its energy, for its allegiance to the colloquial and idiomatic rather than the academic and official, for its sometimes astonishing acts of ventriloquism in rendering some of the characters' speeches into Modern English. Whether this makes it as well into a good translation is a more complicated matter, because Heaney sometimes seems at a loss to render some of the poem's most essential stylistic features.

For reasons that have as much to do with its virtues as with poetic reputation and publishing houses, Heaney's Beowulf is likely to be the most commonly read version of the poem over the next few years. In its thrilling passages, it reads better than any other translation that we have; and in its dullest passages, it is no worse than many others. Does it belong with the best recent translations from Latin and Greek? Probably not. For that Beowulf, we await a translator who has worked deeply through Old English poetic style and who has thus, in Geoffrey Hill's words, “exchanged gifts with the Muse of History.”

Colin Campbell (review date 13 April 2000)

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SOURCE: Campbell, Colin. “This Old Dragon Still Breathes Fire.” Christian Science Monitor 92, no. 99 (13 April 2000): 15-16.

[In the following review, Campbell praises Heaney for making Beowulf accessible to twenty-first-century students, using his verses as a bridge between the original text and modern English.]

Speaking from the 6th century across 1,400 years of tempestuous history, what does Beowulf, the high-minded king of the Geats, have to teach us as we strive to outmaster the Grendels and dragons of our own place and time?

But first, another question that springs from my admiration for the Beowulf saga as a work of art: How did he do it? How did Seamus Heaney fashion verses, singularly handsome verses that not only capture the somber grandeur and mythic vigor of the Anglo-Saxon original, but also reflect the rhythm and timbre of the English we speak today?

The answer to this question you must find for yourself by reading the epic, which I urge you to do. Fashioned by an Irish poet of surpassing power, this newborn translation makes accessible to everyone the first supremely great poem to be written in the English language.

Beowulf was composed about the year 700. Because of linguistic fossils embedded in the West Saxon dialect of the manuscript in which the epic has come down to us, we conjecture that its unknown author lived not in the kingdom of the Saxons but in Northumbria.

By the 8th century, this part of England had become one of the most illustrious centers of learning in Europe. Its fame was founded upon the labors of the Venerable Bede and other scholars attached to the twin monasteries of Jarrow and Wearmouth.

Three of the languages that nourished civilization in the antique Mediterranean world—Greek, Latin, and Hebrew—were the battle flags of Bede's educational crusade in Northumbria.

So it is not a complete surprise to discover that the author of this epic had read Virgil's Aeneid. The echoes are too numerous to be accidental. Thus, although the classical world lay in ruins, its glory could still be felt in Northern Europe where a new civilization was rippling its muscles, a civilization facing the Atlantic.

Just as the epics of Homer and Virgil dramatized the values of the classical way of life, so in Beowulf we see enacted the aspirations of the primitive Germanic culture that the poem celebrates, a warrior society governed by deep and sacred loyalties to kin and king.

But like other epics, Beowulf embodies a theme that transcends ethnic and geographical boundaries. The monsters that the hero defeats are emblems of immemorial evil. Grendel and his dam are incarnations of moral depravity, while the dragon is a symbol of the suffering inflicted on humankind by nature.

In his clash with the fire-drake, Beowulf lays down his life, thereby blessing with fresh energy the ideal of courage for which he dies. The truth made manifest in his life and death—defiant opposition to whatever would bind with chains the driving spirit of man—is also mirrored in the epic adventures of Aeneas. To despise evil and defy oppression, this is what the Geatish chieftain has to teach us.

In the poem's final scene, the fallen hero-king is placed upon a pyre and given over to the flames amid the lamentations of his people. They erect over his ashes a royal barrow in which they hide the dragon's treasure. Twelve warriors circle the mound on stalwart steeds, praising the virtues of their slain leader.

If I could, I would honor Seamus Heaney, Nobel laureate, with a golden goblet from the trove buried in Beowulf's barrow. Were he here to see this, the miserly dragon would be furious, but Beowulf, the most mettlesome, the most bountiful of kings, would be glad.

John Boly (essay date fall 2000)

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SOURCE: Boly, John. “Following Seamus Heaney's ‘Follower’: Toward a Performative Criticism.” Twentieth Century Literature 46, no. 3 (fall 2000): 269-84.

[In the following essay, Boly applies speech act theory to construct multiple modes of meaning and layers of reality for the main persona in Heaney's poem “Follower.”]

Readers of Seamus Heaney's poetry may remember the scene in “Follower” when the father, hard at work with spring ploughing, interrupts his task to reach down, pick up his little boy, and set him on his shoulders. It is an intimate detail made poignant by the speaker's point of view; now an adult, he recollects a moment in childhood shared with a father who has passed away.1 Composed altogether of nine such scenes, the poem serves as a funerary monument. The father and horse plough appear first, much as would the central figure of a classical frieze, and then supporting scenes encircle them: the father adjusting the coulter, pivoting the team, striding about the farm with his son following. As would be expected from the shallow depths of a bas-relief, there is no background. Though set in the bloom of an Irish spring, the poem makes no mention of wildflowers, birdsongs, the rich odors of wet steel, freshly turned earth, and weathered tack. Instead, a sculptural austerity prevails. A few clicks of the ploughman's tongue and the massive draft surge against the traces. The thick clay, doubtlessly sodden from winter rains, curls with an effortless grace. As if to defy the mystery of death, a raking light captures each detail so it is possible to feel the ploughman's eye squint as he lines up his next pass, or his son's slender arm stiffen as he dreams of one day driving the team himself.

The scene provides an ideal opportunity for poetic melancholy. The child, grown up, discovers like the creator of another cold pastoral that he may never enter the world of his beholding. Yet the tone of “Follower”'s initial persona suggests something different from longing or regret: relief, maybe even accomplishment. Homages to the dead can also serve the interests of the living, and it is not unusual for such reminiscences to become a means of containment. As René Girard notes in Violence and the Sacred, “With death a contagious sort of violence is let loose on the community, and the living must take steps to protect themselves against it. So they quarantine death …” (255). The cliché about speaking no ill of the dead may present itself as an act of reverence for the deceased, but it also protects the living. The well-groomed anecdotes and recollections found in funeral genres help to edit painful memories and displace ugly secrets. It might even be possible to construct a correlative index. The more intense an effort to enshrine the dead (to seal, fix, finish them), the greater their threat. If so, the danger in “Follower” would be considerable because the initial persona resorts to one of the most powerful of mythemes to contain his father. The illud tempus, or “those times,” commemorates the timeless moment when creation moved in perfect harmony with the gods. After the war between heaven and earth, historical beings were forever barred from revisiting this condition, except in the symbolism of sacred ritual (Eliade 80). It is to this forbidden place that the son transports his father, to become one of the ancient giants who towers over the mortals of subsequent ages. This mythical parent acquires the might of a Titan whom creatures, wind, and the earth itself obey. The events of his life unfold with the solemn inevitability of a sacred rite. There is no mention of his thoughts, for all is arranged in accordance with the eternal rhythms of nature. Such mastery cannot exist within human experience, and that is the point. The father, securely entombed in a timeless self-sufficiency, will never climb down from his stone monument.

Or at least that would be the case were it not for the poem's last lines. As with many of the poems in Death of a Naturalist, “Follower” does not end; it interrupts itself with the beginning of a completely different poem.

                    But today
It is my father who keeps stumbling
Behind me, and will not go away.

A new world emerges. Sudden shadows overtake the scene and a hitherto idealized being turns demonic. The lurching father suggests a voodoo zombie dug up by some malevolent Pedro loa and set to work in the plantations of Haiti. With no will of his own, the heroic ploughman loses control of his own limbs. There is no hint of what conjures this apparition from the father's sculptural repose, nor any indication of its subsequent actions. Unless, that is, this bare plot fragment is itself an act of conjuring in that it opens the way to so many counterplots.2 Does the father wish to accuse, judge, punish, forgive, or thank the son?3 The silent, grim, and reeling shadow offers no answers. For whatever reason, “Follower” ends with the dead awakened from the spell of illud tempus and returning to a “now” forever poised at the threshold of human time.

What unspoken summons leads to this unconcluding interruption? Although the poem probably has but one speaker, this dramatic character in turn comprises at least two different personas. Poetic speakers readily play distinct roles within the same work, even when the poem is a monologue. In “Follower,” however, the text withholds the information needed to understand the inner conflict that generates the speaker's separate roles. The last persona might be heard as assigning blame with an insistent “It is my father who keeps stumbling / Behind me, and will not go away.” But an imaginative reader could also hear the lines in a way that indicates surprise, resignation, terror, guilt, or even satisfaction. A reader is put in the situation of an outsider unexpectedly caught up in a family feud, perhaps recruited by the warring parties but given no explanation of their conflict. One interpretive move would be to rely on social convention. Suppose the second persona begrudges the harmless compliments paid by the first? What would be so wrong with glossing over memories from childhood? Did the horses lag at field's end, or the ploughshare veer to one side, or the father sometimes need to rest? Assuming that the first persona's remarks were sanitized, would that be so terrible in a reminiscence of the dead, particularly of one's father? If called upon, social convention delivers its usual swift judgment, in this instance by pronouncing the second persona to be irrational, horrid, distracted, or deeply troubled, with the choice depending on a preference for normalization, projection, displacement, or denial. But few responses are more suspect than the reflexes of social convention, however gratifying it may be to join in communal outrage.

If there are no direct connections between the speaker's beautiful memories and his puzzling self-interruption, and if a moralizing judgment is not the answer, then readers must turn to other resources. Some concepts from speech act theory may be useful here in that they distinguish otherwise simultaneous aspects of a locution. In How to Do Things with Words, John Austin quickly moves beyond an initial distinction between constatives (which assert something to be true or false about a state of affairs) and performatives (which accomplish social actions such as reassuring, misleading, belittling, inspiring, etc.).4 Yet his earlier formation still has considerable value for critical practice. The speaker in “Follower” clearly provides the constatives of the poem's fictional “information.” At the same time, he also enacts a series of performatives, each of which plays out a drama in brief. While his constatives are restricted, his performatives are not. There is only so much information available in the poem. But how many different performatives are there? In the last lines of “Follower,” for example, does the persona lament that he did not become a farmer, unearth a repressed experience, interject a screen memory that actually conceals something else, wreck a belated revenge on a tyrannical parent, shrewdly enlist one of numerous possible tactics for eliciting his listeners' sympathy, etc.? With face-to-face communications, human beings commonly identify performatives on the basis of contextual cues. “I will see you” might be a promise to someone in love with the speaker, a deliverance to someone caught in a tedious conversation, or a threat to someone who owes the speaker money. Notwithstanding the confidence many people have in their judgment, the process of identifying performatives is notoriously perilous. In the case of imaginative literature, matters are even worse. Literary works oblige readers to identify performatives mainly on the basis of internal cues, yet they deliberately omit, ambiguate, and overload such markers.5 To tell if an acquaintance were evening scores with a less-than-perfect parent, a listener might refer to factors such as the speaker's intonation, the nature of the occasion, their prior encounters, the genre (letter, casual remark, retort), etc. But if the only access to a speaker's performatives potential meanings quickly outpace calculation. Necessarily, to interpret the purely textual and thus unrestricted performatives of a literary text requires a departure from the conventions of understanding ordinary speech acts. A literary text asks its readers to consider whether its performatives include some that are unintended by a speaker, or even at odds with one another. Nor is this a strictly modern preoccupation. Shakespeare's plays offer a great many scenes in which characters sincerely believe in their benign constatives, yet enact bloodthirsty and cynical betrayals. And they virtually consist of utterances whose leading metaphors portray the cast and setting of a coherent action, yet at the same time bear within themselves a medley of divergent and even contradictory dramas.

Literary criticism has much to learn about the various elements that cue a performative, or the complex interactions that may occur among multiple performatives.6 One matter, though, is clear. Some performative cues are relatively apparent in that they consist of familiar generic and stylistic elements. Other cues, however, may consist of more subtle markers: a gap in narrative continuity, a shift in physical perspective, a slight discrepancy within a metaphor's source domain. As with Austin's other distinctions, the various performatives of a literary text cannot be neatly divided into so many discrete textual segments, for they are simultaneous. A passage within a work of fiction, or lines within a poem, may contain an array of performative cues. And each of these may bring into being the cast and conflict of a different social world. As a heuristic, however, the performatives of any given passage may be roughly divided between a primary set signaled by familiar and apparent markers, and a secondary set signaled by less commonly noted and thus less conspicuous markers. Adapting a term from Foucault, the performatives of these secondary markers can be considered as heterotopias. In his essay “Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias,” Foucault describes a heterotopia as a space that potentially connects to any other space, yet whose internal relationships “halt, suspend, or invert” conventional relationships (350). As well as its main drama, then, a literary work's performatives may further enact a series of heterotopias or spaces of decoding. By patiently tracing these spaces of the other, it becomes possible to delve into the tacit history of a locution, even should that history be entombed within a protective funerary art.

The framing drama of “Follower” suggests an amiable scene, perhaps a pub or other informal gathering. The conversation has perhaps turned to a harmless rivalry. Whose family and kin were closest to the land? The audience is probably a small group rather than an individual, for grandiloquence such as “His shoulders globed like a full sail strung …” would be too great a risk with just one person.7 Its members do not know the speaker well, otherwise they would not need to be told he is talking about his own father. Most likely the audience consists of outsiders unfamiliar with the husbandry skills that were common prior to the use of farm tractors. Were they locals they would be unimpressed by the initial flourish of rural argot: “shafts,” “wing,” “sock,” “headrig.” Interestingly, the speaker draws on this lexicon for only the first two quatrains. Each term occurs once, after which he returns to a more standard diction. His brief and well-placed display of verbal expertise leaves the impression of someone, perhaps an outsider himself, who mimics a ploughman's language just long enough to assume the role. Whatever his intentions, the initial persona plays several trumps in this conversational game. His ancestors belong to a tradition of survival that reaches back to fifth-century BC tillers of millet, and his diction confers an expert's knowledge and authority. Put simply, he pulls rank.

In different circumstances, even casual companions would grow suspicious and maybe resentful. But “Follower” also conducts a ceremony for honoring the dead, a eulogy, which tightly restricts an audience's responses. Anyone within earshot of a eulogy is supposed to listen respectfully. Doing so is a social obligation because the dead, if not put to rest, may wreak havoc anywhere. Those in attendance must furthermore take the speaker at his word, lest irony or innuendo begin to unravel the pall of reverence. Eulogies are usually announced well in advance so that participants can arrive well prepared to play their attentive and supportive roles. Yet “Follower”'s band of mourners find themselves inducted without benefit of either prior notice or situational cues, so they could not possibly anticipate the consequences of the subtle net in which they are caught. Only a gradual accumulation of past tenses hints that the father has passed away, and even this remains an inference, not a fact. The eulogy's restrictions of the audience insinuate rather than announce themselves. Perhaps the father is still alive, but who would dare ask? By the time the listeners understand the drama in which they have been cast, it is too late. They have no choice but to play their assigned role.

But what about the restrictions on the speaker? Some generic codes are relevant here. A eulogy is not an encomium, which requires emotional warmth from the speaker; or a panegyric, which requires richly elaborated praise; or a tribute, which requires both profound grief and a substantial memorial, preferably one that involves heavy expense. Eulogies instead tend to be set pieces, delivered by commissioned rhetors, who do not know the deceased well, if at all. In a busy world, a eulogy offers a ready-made and convenient template, complete with fill-in blanks. All the initial persona of “Follower” need do is follow the numbers.

  • 1. Put the deceased at center stage, but describe general features common to a role rather than specific details about an individual.
  • Anyone working a horse-drawn plough must adjust the share depth and angle of the moldboard according to the soil conditions, keep a solid grip on the lurching handles, turn the team at field's end, and match the furrows so as to waste neither time nor tillage. These are also the major events of the poem.
  • 2. Keep it safe and shallow.
  • The two-dimensional ploughman appears entirely from the outside, just like his draft horses. The audience learns nothing of the father's thoughts, dreams, or disappointments, not even those that would be risk-free truisms such as his great love of the land or deep concern for his family.
  • 3. To heighten the reality effect, and keep disharmonious memories at bay, weave several different occasions into a single memorable episode.
  • The eulogy forsakes the splays and tangles of historical time for the tight inevitability of a plot. It creates an unbroken thread, but at a high cost of exclusion.
  • 4. End with a contrast between the ennobled past and the dismal future.
  • There can be no doubt concerning the difference between the father's manly prowess and the son's childish mimicry.
I wanted to grow up and plough,
To close one eye, stiffen my arm.
All I ever did was follow
In his broad shadow round the farm.
I was a nuisance, tripping, falling,
Yapping always.

While such dogged adherence to generic convention would make sense for a professional, especially one who is rushed or underpaid, for a son it raises questions about the purpose of his performative. Is its primary objective to conduct an act of homage to the dead? Or is this only a tactical means to another end, namely to exercise inescapable power over a conscript and submissive audience? It is a curious issue to raise, were it not for the even more curious absence of either emotion or understanding of son for father.

Yet if it is power the initial persona seeks, the stakes would surely need to be higher than the pleasure of manipulating a few docile and credulous tourists. When performatives are so ill-matched to their occasion, it may indicate that a speech act performs a surrogate function. In “Follower” the audience is an anonymous collective, previously unknown to the speaker and unlikely to have any further dealings with him; hence they might serve as ready substitutes for the social Other, the faceless “they” whose imagined gaze locks each individual into a self-enforced normality. What better justice for this outrage than forcing the Other into the very powerlessness it inflicts? To that end, the eulogy tosses off a number of insolent innuendoes about the father. He follows the team, and by extension follows the caprice of weather, illness, and blight. Other innuendoes are more pointed. The father's “one eye” casts him as an uncivilized Cyclops, that perambulating phallus whose vision narrows to the care of herds and crops. Plagued by relentless duties, he sinks to a drunken “sod.” His “hobnailed wake” reveals a friendless man whose perfunctory mourners do not even bother to change their work boots. Such innuendoes are not important because they are true or false but because they enact an opposing performative. Within the eulogy's main drama, they undertake an entire judicial process. Indictment, trial, sentence, and punishment transpire in a single word. Yet there is little risk for the persona because innuendoes are well shielded by their deniability. Anyone foolish enough to notice any of these veiled insults would be informed that such thoughts were far from the speaker's intentions, and thus arise from the protestor's malicious intent. In this way the innuendoes of “Follower” exact a retribution from the despised social Other by splitting the audience into distinct groups. One group, the obligingly obtuse, either are or pretend to be incapable of detecting the innuendoes. The other group, the resentfully silent, understand them well enough but also recognize the meager rewards of objecting. Of the two responses, the latter is doubtless the more gratifying as there is little pleasure in outwitting the witless. But to have one's listeners gradually discover that they are being duped, to watch as their sympathy turns to resentment, and to know that they know their Hobson's choice is compliance, that would be a fine revenge on the imagined Other, which holds human freedom in bondage.

Each unfolding consequence of a performative, however, only leads further into the poem. Why does the initial persona harbor such a subtle rage for strangers? It remains to trace the history from which the poem's main drama emerges, a history that somehow demands redress. As noted, the range of performative markers from which that history might commence is considerable. A single metaphor may invoke an earlier drama. A shift in topic may precipitate an ideological collision, an unusual word rekindle a bitter feud, a change in physical perspective signal a new belief system. Or, as in the case of “Follower,” a stylistic commonplace may bring into being a series of fragmentary narratives. As is appropriate for his informal setting, the speaker adopts a loose or running style throughout the poem. The lack of transitions in the resulting parataxis quickens the pace, but at the cost of straining cohesion. A quiet depth gathers at the end of each sentence, sometimes of each phrase. Despite the relaxed pace, these remaining gaps eventually demand notice. To what further tales might a succeeding phrase have led? Imagine hearing the lines of the second quatrain as a series of introductions:

An expert …
The sod rolled over without breaking …
At the headrig …

In a fundamental conflict between constative force and performative possibility, the assuring parataxis itself begins to serve as a resistant marker of performatives that potentially contradict its simple narrative. As the silences become more resonant, “Follower”'s plot slowly drifts into multiple narratives, any one of which might provide the entry point for an opposing drama.

The eulogy tells not only of a father's skill but also of the child who watches him plough. Obedient to its rule of exclusion, however, the eulogy leaves out a host of implicated events. The poem's abrupt beginning. “My father ploughed. …” leaves out the circumstances of how the son got to the field. Whose idea was the expedition? Possibly a small child would be eager to leave his mother's side for the company of a parent later remembered only as a shape seen from behind, a “broad shadow.” And possibly a mother would commend her little boy to the care of a husband distracted by back-breaking labor that required his full attention. But what if she knew nothing of this? Even if she did consent to her son's watching the father rig the plough and harness the team, how likely is it she would approve of his accompanying the father into the field? His uncertain legs could not manage the journey on their own, so the father would have to carry the toddler on his shoulders. Was this fatherly affection, or an abduction? Once arrived, the father no doubt put his son to one side and, with a busy adult's obtuseness, told him to keep out of the way. With little else to draw his attention, the child would be effectively enrolled as a captive audience and left to study the performative that was in turn enacted before him. Looking at the horses, he may have seen that the world is ruled by will and cunning, since their massive strength still left them in servitude. Or thinking of prior events, he may have grasped that at any instant he could be plucked from safety. Or the son may have learned that he had no place in the exercise of power. Not merely unable to plough, he is unable to be taught.

Like some lesser god, the father acts out a drama of irresistible domination. Solitude and perhaps secretiveness protect him, though were someone to chance upon this rural revelation of the god's power, he would have a ready supply of explanations. Had not the famine taught that survival depended on owning not just a patch but enough land to diversify crops and keep livestock? It was a son's duty, particularly the eldest's, to preserve the family farm. Besides, watching father plough was an honored tradition. He had done so as a child and he expected that one day his grandson would watch his son. So the father knew in advance that his actions would cast him in a defensible role, at least for the right audience of neighbors, acquaintances, and relatives. They would understand that actions instruct better than words, and that a hard world allows no pause before imposing its ways.

Yet the ploughman is unprepared for resistance from a surprising source, his son. Although the events of “Follower” are told in the language of an adult, they are shown as if through the eyes of a child. This discontinuity opens the possibility of exploring the impossible, the little boy's prelinguistic consciousness. The poem describes the toddler as “Yapping always,” as producing the fluent vocables that gradually give birth to words, but still not enunciating the words themselves. If so, then it cannot be the child's language that the audience hears. He might yap in the sense of producing sounds that resemble a small dog's annoying bark, but he could not say that he was yapping. Efforts to go beyond this point, as in children's stories, simply project an adult's language into a space from which it has still to emerge. Yet as part of its brazen experiment, “Follower” does venture into this space by using its visual decoupage as a cue for an opposing performative. The poem's arrangement of scenes retraces a sequence of physical points of view through which it becomes possible to follow the actions of the ploughman's son. While the little boy cannot speak for himself, his location, focus, and selection of visual subjects can speak for him.

At first, the ploughman appears from behind and at a distance with only his back, the wide frame of the plough, and the just-turned furrow visible. As instructed, his son watches from a safe distance. The scene cuts to the earlier events of adjusting the ploughshare, visualized from a few feet away, before fading to “The sod rolled over without breaking.” The line has an almost hypnotic effect with its continuous and endless motion. Together, the first three scenes suggest a child's fluid perceptions as they drift from distant impression, to close observation, to dreamlike reverie. Then abruptly, the decoupage begins to follow an orderly sequence of actions.

At the headrig, with a single pluck
Of reins, the sweating team turned round
And back into the land. His eye
Narrowed and angled at the ground,
Mapping the furrow exactly.

The son's wandering attention returns to the father who has meanwhile reached the end of the field. Though a child, he notes the precise cue that forecasts this event: a quiver in the hame rings. Once the team opens into full profile as they swing round and then recoil into a foreshortened oddity, the son shows even greater perceptiveness. He sees that the ploughman has only one eye showing. His father is now behind the draft, whose haunches might stand anywhere from 16 to 19 hands (5 feet 4 inches to 6 feet 4 inches), and even a powerful man must lean well forward to guide the heavy frame. So the ploughman is blind to whatever lies dead ahead. Moreover, the son notices that the ploughman must squint as he constantly gauges the 2-feet-square area between the breaking and the adjacent furrow. Swing wide and he loses yield, narrow and he overworks his team. The little boy consequently intuits that not only is there a considerable blind spot directly before the horses but also that his father's attention is riveted to a tiny spot just behind their rear hooves. At this moment he gets up from his vantage point and crosses the tilled field. “I stumbled in his hobnailed wake, / Fell sometimes on the polished sod. …” The ploughman's “wake” would be his most recent furrow. His son falls on ground dead ahead the landside horse.

The decoupage that brings the drama into focus offers only a hint of what happens next, for its evasive generalization precludes a conclusion. “Sometimes he rode me on his back / Dipping and rising to his plod.” The viewpoint shifts from the immediate sensations of uncertain legs over broken ground and small hands feeling the smooth, somewhat slick clay, to a distant observer who notices the steady rhythms of a silhouette. But who is this distant observer? Did a passerby chance to see the danger, or a hired man? There is no mention in the poem of other characters. Or did the mother, finding her child gone, go looking for her son and discover the threat in time to stop it with her cries? The silhouette lacks the detail that would be visible from a hailing distance. Or did she watch the disaster unfold, the calm of morning, the dark earth, the glint of the coulter, the ploughman lost in his task until the defiant draft balked and reared, their trip-hammer hooves just stirring the wisps above her child's upturned face?

The scene's ambiguity illustrates the cold brilliance of Heaney's early poems, where deadly calms only grudgingly divulge their world of inhuman humanness. The will to power generates not merely the fact of human existence but also the deepest intimacies of father and son, husband and wife. Nor does any insight wait to overcome the dark mysteries that pervade and bemock the dim consciousness that follows long after. Father and son join in battle to the death, yet neither can comprehend a rage so natural and loving. Long before they share even a single word, each regards the other across an ancient enmity whose rules never change because they are too banal to be spoken. A father must exercise absolute power over one thing in his powerless life, even if it be a two-year-old. A son must risk injury, dismemberment, and death itself, even if it be in empty defiance. The stakes are preposterous because they are irrelevant. Power is both genesis and eschatology in these malevolent idylls, its own beginning and its own end.

The performative cues of “Follower” considered so far include the poem's inventive use of genre, innuendo, parataxis, and decoupage. But perhaps the most fascinating markers are to be found in the poem's use of metaphor. George Lakoff and Mark Turner in More than Cool Reason distinguish between a metaphor's target domain (the conceptual field of the term that is being elaborated) and its source domain (the conceptual field of the term that does the elaboration). As an illustration, the source domain “polished” in the fourteenth line of “Follower” articulates the target domain “sod.” For Lakoff and Turner, a good metaphor significantly changes the way an era constructs its knowledge and values. Accordingly, a reader would decide how the associations of a surface buffed to a smooth luster might remap the concept of a dull, heavy, cumbersome lump of clay and densely matted roots. But as the example from “Follower” shows, Heaney's metaphors do not always acquire their poetic power from either the distance between the different domains or the surprising originality of the subsequent remapping. Well-polished brass and fertile soils both belong to an Irish aristocrat's estate. And depending on soil conditions, certain clays do seem as if shined by the coulter's slicing action, an image noted in Hopkins's “The Windhover.”8 Rather than using one concept to cognitively remap another, Heaney's metaphors often work on a principle of topographic counterpoint. They interpose an arbitrariness in the linkage between target and source domains which enables them to overlay discrete social worlds. With “polished sod,” one scene opens on domestic servants who dip, rub, or brush wood, stone, and brass with a light, rapid motion, a way to keep them not just busy but highly visible in drawing rooms, conservatories, libraries, and other public parts of private dwellings. The other scene shows starving, barely recognizable farmers as they heave a dense and tangled mass with crude implements to a capricious rhythm of weathers and seasons. Although a plot may not be recoverable from a metaphor's topographies, a range of settings usually is, and from their associations may emerge the actors, oppressions, resistances, and lingering bitterness of struggles that will not die.

“Follower” makes no mention of what happens between its unspecified moment in childhood and the endless present of its last lines. With a single phrase, “But now …,” entire decades might disappear into the textual abyss between successive sentences, were it not for the metaphors that intimate how the son's first lesson remained an active force. The father no sooner appears in the poem's opening scene than he drifts into an image taken from a schoolboy's daydream. His broad back becomes “a full sail strung” as it mingles with the new experiences of a history textbook or a master's lecture. The father's back resembles a sail because he wears a cloth shirt. It would be worn loose about his waist for mobility, and thus appear roughly square in shape: a trivial enough detail, except to a student who has just learned that renaissance mariners, beginning with the Portuguese, supplemented their usual lateen-rigged or triangular sails with an additional rectangular sail set on a fourth mast. The greater canvas area provided increased speed for the longer voyages needed to explore the coast of West Africa. Square-rigged sails were particularly effective on the lighter ships known as caravels, which is why the Nina and Pinta were apt choices for Columbus's first voyage. Almost imperceptibly, then, the metaphor offers a glimpse into the faded heterotopia of a schoolboy's fantasy, whose discreet source domain recalls an early rebellion. The invincible father of early childhood turns into a fair wind of freedom, his rocking horse plough into a vessel of grace, and the sullen Derry clay into a beckoning horizon that rounds a narrow field into a sphere of adventure. Sailors “set the wing” of the rigging. The coulter's prow smoothly cuts a sea that “rolled over without breaking.” The horses' turnabout gracefully tacks “back into the land” with a deck “dipping and rising” in the gentle swell. In its passage the ship leaves a broadening “wake” whose sun-streaked ripples are “polished” in the abundant light.

The beautiful world brought into being through this fantasy's performative replaces the blunt fact of power with an idyllic if impossible state of harmony. An actual ship of exploration, particularly one that might tilt off the world's edge, required a standard crew of drunkards and sociopaths, hence a chain of command with ranks, rules, judgments, and punishments. Columbus's sailors routinely threatened mutiny, and it was mainly his deceit that kept them tractable, for example by telling them that they lacked sufficient provisions to return and had no choice but to continue. Moreover, an actual ship would need to contend with hostile currents and storms, heavy seas and treacherous shoals. Even perfect tranquillity could mean dying of hunger and thirst while becalmed. But the schoolboy's magical craft, like the vessel of Coleridge's Rime when the weather is good, responds to the touch of a benevolent pantheism. There are no rivalries aboard this solitary vision, no suffering or distress, for the death-mocking Celtic warrior who once welcomed the fate of being trampled to death has since turned into a utopian fantasist. Perhaps the schoolboy had already learned that his father's early lesson would be tirelessly repeated by others, and that he would rarely be given either an opportunity for resistance or a rescuing audience. Yet a grim world can be turned into poetry, and poetry into beautiful dreams. The strategy makes good sense. While commonplace wisdom spurns escapism, practical experience sometimes calls for it. Prisoners of war and victims of torture often keep their sanity by drifting away to distant and untroubled scenes. To an imaginative boy recently consigned to the shot mill of his early schooling, fantasy offers a welcome freedom. No one can meddle in his paradise. It carries no obligations or uncertain consequences. He risks only that his inattentiveness might incur the wrath of a master, though even this would reassure him how little the others actually knew. For the powerless, the resistance of fantasy may be the one power left.

Still, even an opposing performative is not without contradictions of its own. The magic ship's invulnerability could lead to a false sense of safety, its isolation to a neglect of real responsibilities, or its harmony to an intolerance of cultural diversity. It might eventually produce a loss of self-respect, as the fantasist came to see himself as a temporizer or, worse, as one of the faceless They who gather at any act of official cruelty. Given such doubts, the schoolboy's metaphor apparently needed revision or, more precisely, a further shift to a heterotopia within its heterotopia. The father's shoulders as full sail do not rise, expand, billow, swell, or surge, any of which would be consistent with sail as a source domain. Instead they “globed.” This new figuration enacts a further performative, which though related to that of a Renaissance vessel of exploration is also distinct: the scholarly world of mapmaker and navigator. Here the horse plough turned caravel turns once again, but this time to the exacting if unglamorous tools that changed human civilization forever. The father's “eye / Narrowed and angled” as if drawing to scale the jagged precisions of a newly discovered coastline. The coulter sharpens to “the bright steel-pointed” tip of a compass. And when the boy tries “To close one eye, stiffen my arm,” he bears less resemblance to a straining ploughman than to a navigator who fixes a sextant on the horizon and squints to align the star's image.

When early mapmakers reached the limits of their charted worlds, they sometimes wrote “Here be Dragons” and drew what must have seemed hideous monsters, though today their cartouche seems more like grimacing dogs and cats with extravagant tails. Perhaps the schoolboy, now become a young man and himself confronting a world bounded by ignorance and fear, imagined a similar part for himself. He would neither pointlessly defy nor helplessly flee the real monsters of his upbringing, but like a mapmaker patiently plot their demise. The heterotopia works relatively well, especially for a poet intent on social transformation. Both poet and mapmaker work within inclusive spaces. Their parallel arts of word and legend encompass the omniglot signifiers of religious, political, military, philosophical, technical, rural, urban, economic, generational, and ethnic topographies. Both poet and mapmaker devise systems that are complex rather than complicated. Their discrete texts bring about interactions so unpredictable that any final resolution keeps receding beneath the horizon. Their symbols make the invisible visible and the inevitable contingent. Both mapmaker and poet open the circle of nature back into the maze of genealogy. Their fine instruments trace the myopias and terrors of a cultural moment, but in doing so summon the opposing designs on which they are written. And both mapmaker and poet offer a gateway to the future. Their schemes eventually must answer to the unceasing demand of the discoveries they bring into being.

But “Follower” does not actually end with so alluring a prospect. It only defers its end by disrupting the social event with which it begins. A performative criticism can patiently articulate the series of markers that lead from eulogist back to clumsy father, straying child, daydreaming schoolboy, and idealistic youth. No doubt it would be possible to construct a critical narrative that would link these successive heterotopias to the impatience of the final persona. But even in the most ingenious arrangement the seams would still show, and perhaps that is the point. Performative criticism begins in the gap between constative sense and dramatic consequences. The outburst of the final persona may simply serve to mark the permanence of that gap, not only within poetry but also within language itself. Any utterance, literary or otherwise, retains a performative dimension and thus a heretic's map of the heterotopic scenes at work within its meanings.


  1. Heaney's mother and father were both living when “Follower” was first published, which suggests that its speaker is a dramatic character rather than a representation of the poet. In general, Heaney's critics can be divided into romanticists faithful to Wordsworth who assume that the speaker is the poet, and modernists faithful to T. S. Eliot who assume that the poet withdraws into an array of dramatic personas. Both approaches have produced valuable readings.

  2. Given that any event may be further divided into innumerable constitutive events, the potential narrative arrangements of even a simple action become incalculable. “Narrative is the representation of at least two real or fictive events or situations in a time sequence, neither of which presupposes or entails the other” (Prince 4).

  3. The ghost narratives of Ireland often commemorate an irreversible disaster, hence the return of a destructive force beyond human control (Colum iii). On the other hand, the ghosts that later appear in Station Island seem more intent on advice and remonstration (Vendler 94-98).

  4. By the time he gets to lecture 8, Austin has defined his more familiar tripartite terminology: “We can similarly distinguish the locutionary act ‘he said that …’ from the illocutionary act ‘he argued that …’ and the perlocutionary act ‘he convinced me that …’” (102).

  5. One might argue with the qualifier “mainly” on the basis that readers are not blank tablets but complex individuals who have undergone a lengthy process of acculturation. This line of reasoning, however, underrates literature's potential challenges to such conditioning (Rabinowitz 173-93).

  6. Deconstructive theorists such as Barbara Herrnstein Smith have extended Austin's concept of the performative to literary texts by suggesting that they do not refer to actual conditions but to the agents, settings, conflicts, etc., of a fictional world:

    Poems and novels, as opposed to biographies and histories of the Civil War, are linguistic structures whose relation to the world of objects and events is short-circuited. The short circuit operates through a convention according to which certain identifiable utterances are understood to be performances of a verbal action, the occurrence of which as an “action” is entirely confined to such performances.


    I develop performatives in a different direction by exploring how they can enact multiple and opposing social worlds.

  7. Unless that person were a child. It might be that the speaker addresses his own son. If so, the shift in audience would lead to a much different reading, which is the explicit object of a performative criticism: to elucidate variables that may in turn contribute to a growing critical dialogue.

  8. “No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion / Shine …” (30). Gardner glosses “sillion” as a strip of arable land, or a furrow (Hopkins 228).

Works Cited

Austin, John. How to Do Things with Words. Ed. J. O. Urmson. New York: Oxford UP, 1965.

Colum, Padraic. Introduction. Ghosts in Irish Houses. By James Reynolds. New York: Farrar, 1947.

Columbus, Christopher. The Diario of Christopher Columbus's First Voyage to America, 1492-1493. Trans. and ed. Oliver Dunn and James E. Kelley. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1989.

Eliade, Mircea. The Sacred & the Profane. Trans. Willard Trask. New York: Harcourt, 1980.

Foucault, Michel. “Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias.” Rethinking Architecture: A Reader in Cultural Theory. Ed. Neil Leach. New York: Routledge, 1997. 350-356.

Girard, René. Violence and the Sacred. Trans. Patrick Gregory. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1977.

Heaney, Seamus. “Follower.” Selected Poems, 1966-1987. New York: Farrar, 1990. 8.

Hopkins, Gerard Manley. Gerard Manley Hopkins: Poems and Prose. Ed. W. H. Gardner. London: Penguin, 1985.

Lakoff, George, and Mark Turner. More than Cool Reason. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1989.

O'Neill, Charles. “Violence and the Sacred in Seamus Heaney's North,Seamus Heaney: The Shaping Spirit. Ed. Catharine Malloy and Phyllis Carey. Newark: Delaware, 1996.

Prince, Gerald. Narratology: The Form and Functioning of Narrative. New York: Mouton, 1982.

Rabinowitz, Peter. Before Reading: Narrative Conventions and the Politics of Interpretation. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1987.

Smith, Barbara Herrnstein. On the Margins of Discourse: The Relation of Literature to Language. Chicago: U of Chicago P. 1978.

Vendler, Helen. Seamus Heaney. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1998.

Bruce Murphy (review date December 2000)

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SOURCE: Murphy, Bruce. “Seamus Heaney's Beowulf.Poetry 177 (December 2000): 211-16.

[In the following review, Murphy evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of Heaney's translation of Beowulf.]

The Anglo-Saxon scholar Jess Bessinger used to refer to the poem we call Beowulf as the libretto of a lost musical composition. He wanted to draw attention to the fact that the Anglo-Saxon scop, in whom the roles of singer and poet were not yet divided, probably recited this alliterative and mesmerizing poem while accompanying himself on a harp. It is, therefore, an event when the poet of the English language with the best ear of any now living tackles the task of translating this enormously important work. The poem was composed in the West Saxon dialect probably in the seventh century; the unique manuscript copy that survives was made around the end of the tenth. Where it spent the centuries between the turn of the millennium and 1563, when the early Anglo-Saxon enthusiast Lawrence Nowell apparently wrote his name and the date at the top of it, is a mystery.

But what is certain is that Beowulf long ago fell into the same hole that, for Americans, Moby Dick occupies: being a book that everyone “has” to read. Generations of students encountered the poem in nineteenth-century translations like this one by Francis Gummere:

Lo, praise of the powers of people-kings
of spear-armed Danes, in days long sped—

These are only the first two lines, and already Gummere is in trouble, having stumbled over (1) the difficulty of recuperating the alliterative metrics; (2) the Germanic penchant of Anglo-Saxon for compound words (on average in Beowulf there is a compound every other line); and (3) a nineteenth-century folkloric conception of what a Germanic epic about a mighty hero (the strongest man on earth, in fact) who battles monsters and dragons ought to sound like.

Heaney has done a great service by demythologizing Beowulf in this sense, stating that “as a work of art it lives in its own continuous present, equal to our knowledge of reality in the present time.” The second half of the sentence is the key: the poem's cruel realities (political and physical) and its fantastic elements add up to a reality no less valid than the one that, at this moment, is composed of what we know or think we know and what we choose to believe. When the hero escapes from a rout, swimming home carrying thirty coats of mail so that his people will live to fight another day, the marvel is his fealty as much as his prowess. In the first part of the poem, the Geat hero Beowulf crosses the sea from his own land (in southern Sweden) to Denmark to vanquish the hall-ravaging monster Grendel, plague of the Danish court. Eschewing weapons, he rips Grendel's arm off and part of his shoulder; then he dives into a lake wyrm-cynnes fela (“crawling with worm-kind,” i.e., teeming with reptiles) and kills Grendel's equally monstrous mother. In the second part, fifty years later, Beowulf is king, and battles a dragon who is savaging the beleaguered Geatish kingdom because a cup has been stolen from his treasure hoard. It is Beowulf's last battle, and after a spectacular funeral it seems that the unrelenting wars of revenge that haunt the poem are about to break out again.

Heaney gives the poem back its earthy and unearthly reality. He praises its “mythic potency,” and at the same time its “hand-built, rock-sure feel”: “What I had always loved was a kind of foursquareness about the utterance, a feeling of living inside a constantly indicative mood. … There is an undeluded quality about the Beowulf poet's sense of the world which gives his lines immense emotional credibility.” Though a champion of the Beowulf poet, Heaney's account in his introduction of the genesis of his translation, and especially the cultural-political corona that surrounds the work for him, has brought forth some comment. He sees Beowulf as a “loophole” through which to escape the “binary thinking about language” of his upbringing, in which English is the tongue of the oppressor and Irish is the native language which has been stolen. But this epic poem becomes an escape to “a region where one's language would not be a simple badge of ethnicity or a matter of cultural preference or official imposition.” Looking back toward his early acquaintance with the poem, he remembers his delight in finding in Anglo-Saxon words that some still survive in the English spoken in Ireland today, though they have died out in everyone else's English, and words that are cognate with words in the Irish language itself. And he speaks of his use of “local Ulster” words in his translation as “one way for an Irish poet to come to terms with that complex history of conquest and colony, absorption and resistance.” Yet that Heaney should translate the poem seems peculiarly appropriate, given that the Beowulf poet himself was living in England, writing in Anglo-Saxon about Scandinavian characters, and using Germanic myths as background. He is presumed to have been a scholarly poet at one of the courts of the period, who knew his Bible and had read Virgil and perhaps Homer. Thus, his cultural patrimony was also complex. Curiously enough, it was long ago suggested that the Beowulf poet was resident at the court of the Irish-born King Alfrid of Northumbria, who himself wrote poetry—in Irish.

But whether you want to call gryre-geatwum “war-gear” or like Heaney “war-graith” isn't really the point. It is his linguistic resources that strike one again and again in the translation, and Ulster words comprise only a small part of these. Heaney apologizes for not following “the strict metrical rules that bound the Anglo-Saxon scop”—which, because languages are designed to explain reality and not to explain other languages, is an impossible thing in modern English—but it is amazing how much of the alliterative music of the original he is able to keep alive, and this is because of his own particularly broad and deep idiolect. Thus, when translating the praise of Hrothgar, whose hall Heorot is blighted by Grendel, Heaney writes “Nor did he renege, but doled out rings / and torques at the table.” Dœlan is often translated as “give,” as in E. Talbot Donaldson's prose translation of the poem, but Heaney hits on just the right alternative, and in the next half line (“sinc æt symle”), which literally means “treasure at the feast,” he gives a faithful translation that is also more specific than the original (which is loaded with stock phrases and formulas). He shows versatility and flexibility in cases like the particularly difficult word scriðan, which is often used to describe the dreadful oncoming of the monsters. In his translation, Kevin Crosley-Holland simply uses “shrithing,” which, despite onomatopoetic value (slinking along, gliding), is unavoidably archaic. Heaney translates the word this way one time, and another way the next (one example: “stealthy night-shapes came stealing forth.”

Of course, the Irishisms are noticeable: “They collected their spears / in a seafarers' stook, a stand of greyish / tapering ash.” But Heaney has other reserves as well. Fr. Klaeber, the greatest editor of the poem, remarked that “the large part which the sea played in the life of the Beowulfian peoples, finds expression in an astonishing wealth of terms applied to it”; Heaney, of an island people, makes precise, effective use of nautical language: “They stretched their beloved lord in his boat, / laid out by the mast, amidships”; “Whoever escaped / kept a weather-eye open and moved away.” In both cases, it is this mot juste (amidships, weather-eye) that is the key to replicating rhythm and alliteration. Only once does he fail to take advantage of this nautical element, when Beowulf and his crew are leaving for Denmark:

sand churned in surf, warriors loaded
a cargo of weapons, shining war-gear
in the vessel's hold, then heaved out,
away with a will in their wood-wreathed ship.

The last two lines have a kind of vagueness (how is a ship “wreathed” in wood?) that the Beowulf poet, who takes great relish in the tactile features of seafaring, doesn't have. The words ut scufon beg to be translated almost literally as “shoved off,” enabling a translation something like “the seamen shoved off in their wood-sheathed ship.”

There are some odd things about the translation. The poem begins with the untranslatable word “Hwæt,” calling the listeners to attention (in New Yorkese, it could be translated as “Yo!”), and has been rendered in the past with such stale exclamations as “Lo!” and “Behold.” Heaney comes up with an understated, elegant solution: “So.” He calls it a piece of “Hiberno-English Scullionspeak,” a word that “obliterates all previous discourse and narrative.” But the rest of the opening section is treated rather obliquely; some of the verb expressions, which are rousing, become nounal and adjectival, undercutting the straightforwardness Heaney prizes:

There was Shield Sheafson, scourge of many tribes,
a wrecker of mead-benches, rampaging among foes.

Donaldson's more literal prose translation is “Often Scyld Scefing took mead benches away from enemy bands, from many tribes, terrified their nobles.” (Even this is too mild; Bessinger used to take great glee in how Scyld “snatched away the mead seats”). The chieftan is actually shown doing these actions and frightenening his enemies (and, no doubt, stirring the scop's audience). A few lines later, when dealing with the eloquently simple and forceful “þæt wæs gōd cyning!” Heaney is over-ingenious, rendering it colloquially as “that was one good king,” instead of “that was a good king” (Donaldson). However, one has only to remember Gummere's version (“a good king he!”) to realize how nit-picky this is. It is a feature of this translation that it really only leaves itself open to quibbling.

Beowulf has over 1300 lines devoted to speeches (out of 3182 total) and forty instances of direct address. Heaney is most impressive when delivering dialogue. Klaeber pointed out that the Beowulf poet “takes the keenest interest in the inner significance of the happenings, the underlying motives, the manifestations of character. He loses no opportunity of disclosing what is going on in the minds of his actors.” Heaney has made the most of this, as in his rendering of the subtle play of pride, anxiety, and devotion to duty in the Danish coast guard's considered response to Beowulf's explanation of just what his band, armed to the teeth, think they are doing on his beach:

the coast-guard answered, “Anyone with gumption
and a sharp mind will take the measure
of two things: what's said and what's done.
I believe what you have told me: that you are a troop
loyal to our king. So come ahead
with your arms and your gear, and I will guide you.”

Near the end of the poem, after Beowulf is killed by the poisonous neck-bite of the dragon, the young thane Wiglaf envisions catastrophic consequences for the Geats, doomed to be attacked by their more powerful neighbors. This majestic speech combines the Beowulf poet's pervasive melancholy with spine-tingling realism:

                                                                                Many a spear
dawn-cold to the touch will be taken down
and waved on high; the swept harp
won't waken warriors, but the raven winging
darkly over the doomed will have news,
tidings for the eagle of how he hoked and ate,
how the wolf and he made short work of the dead.”

“At these moments of lyric intensity,” Heaney intuitively understands, “the keel of poetry is deeply set in the element of sensation while the mind's lookout sways metrically and far-sightedly in the element of pure comprehension. Which is to say that the elevation of Beowulf is always, paradoxically, buoyantly down to earth.” His translation is so successful perhaps because the virtues of this poetry are so like those of his own. It isn't a matter of Germanic or Irish moroseness, however; Paul Bauschatz put it well when he said, “If death is gloomy, then the Germanic peoples were gloomy; so, unfortunately, is everybody else.” But that original imaginative leap of faith that grasps the equality between the reality of the poem and that of the present time opens a kind of door, permitting the flow of resonances that are not mere analogies but truth: “the Geat woman who cries out in dread as the flames consume the body of her dead lord could come straight from a late-twentieth century news report, from Rwanda or Kosovo.”

The first duty of the translator is to produce a readable poem, without stepping beyond a certain boundary (which of course everyone sets for himself) into unlikeness. Like all great poets Heaney is willing to push the envelope, so to speak, and comes up with striking lines like “to that far-famed man I bequeath my own / sharp-honed, wave-sheened wonderblade.” He takes risks, and produces the best translation of the poem as a poem that has yet been made. We can honestly say of it what Klaeber said of the original: “It contains passages which in their way are nearly perfect, and strong, noble lines which thrill the reader and linger in the memory.” One comes away with nostrils filled with the smells of smoke, steel, and the sea, and the earth on Beowulf's barrow high on a headland seems as fresh as ever.

William Pratt (review date winter 2001)

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SOURCE: Pratt, William. Review of Beowulf, translated by Seamus Heaney. World Literature Today 75, no. 1 (winter 2001): 119-20.

[In the following review, Pratt champions Heaney's fresh approach to the language of Beowulf.]

The oldest epic in English comes to us anew, like a voice out of the cave of our ancestors. It greets us in the original Anglo-Saxon with Hwaet, usually translated as “Lo!” or “Behold!” but liberally transformed by Seamus Heaney into “So,” which he says he heard when he was a boy on a farm in Ulster, when his family and their friends wanted to start a conversation. “So. We Spear-Danes in days gone by,” his translation begins, and the reader knows immediately that for Heaney this Old English epic is not distant but familiar. Personal intimacy with the past is Seamus Heaney's trademark as a poet, and it gives his translation of Beowulf authenticity, making it an integral part of his own work, not something encountered in a schoolroom and learned in a foreign tongue.

Seamus Heaney's Beowulf has become an international bestseller, surprising everyone including himself, but its popularity is justified, since it is the most accessible version in modern English, which is now a world language. Reading it in a bilingual version, with strange-looking Old English characters on one page and Heaney's well-known Hiberno-English on the other, it presents itself as our first English literary masterpiece, miraculously turned into a contemporary poem intelligible to every literate reader.

As an achievement, it is remarkable enough to be Heaney's greatest work to date. His earlier poems were distinguished for their earthiness, reminding some American readers of Robert Frost and some British readers of Thomas Hardy. The most original of them were the “bog poems” of Door into the Dark,Wintering Out, and especially North, where he dared to make the Irish bog into a symbol of the remote past, preserving memories intact from prehistoric times. In some of these poems one could hear the old Anglo-Saxon drumbeat, the alliterative rhythm of the ancient language, come to life again, making it seem that Heaney had been preparing himself for a long time to adopt the oldest major English poem as his own.

He has made something more than a literal translation; it is a heroic story of feats of combat in a primitive culture clothed in modern dress, so that the reader can believe he is present on the scene himself, and can watch Beowulf battle the mythical Grendel and his vengeful mother and the fire-breathing dragon to their deaths as if the events were happening now. The ancient epic tells what is to our ears a most improbable story, yet it comes through with the immediacy of a sensational account one might read about in the newspaper. In fact, Heaney deliberately breaks the regular meter of the Old English poem so that it will sound more like prose, and if his translation has any flaw, it is in being too prosaic rather than too poetic; but that is how he makes it sound current. The reader sometimes flinches at the liberties Heaney takes with the original, but the book would not have become a best seller if he had avoided the catchphrases that give it the contemporary touch. Indeed, the careful work Heaney has done in this translation, which he says took him years to complete, bears comparison with the heroic deeds of Beowulf.

Not that Heaney's translation is perfect, since a classic is a classic, and there is a primeval grandeur in the Beowulf which has been the main reason for its survival for over a thousand years, as the English language was changing so drastically that Anglo-Saxon now seems to us like a foreign language. It would have been a superhuman feat for Heaney to replace the old poem with a modern equivalent that would itself become a classic, but his work is soundly based on the original, and has its own kind of merit. The greatest virtue of Heaney's translation is that he published the original Anglo-Saxon lines on facing pages, so that the reader is constantly reminded that this poem was written in a language quite different from ours, even if he can't understand a word of it. For those who can understand Anglo-Saxon, the translation helps us recover the feeling of our first encounter with Beowulf in all its primitive splendor.

It is enough that Heaney's translation has widened the audience for Beowulf and added to his own reputation as a master poet. Heaney's Irish bog is not the Anglo-Saxon fen where Grendel and his mother lived, but it is remarkably similar, and the symbolism of an ancestral past in an underground lair takes us back to our prehistoric roots. Heaney has dredged out of the Old English epic something that compares with what he has dredged out of his native Irish bog, something beautiful as well as terrifying.

Jonathan Bolton (essay date spring 2001)

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SOURCE: Bolton, Jonathan. “‘Customary Rhythms’: Seamus Heaney and the Rite of Poetry.” Papers on Language and Literature 37, no. 2 (spring 2001): 205-22.

[In the following essay, Bolton analyzes the means and ends of Heaney's poetics, as exemplified by the structure and thematic concerns of what Bolton identifies as Heaney's “station poems.”]

Ceremony's a name for the rich horn
And custom for the spreading laurel tree.

—W. B. Yeats, “A Prayer for My Daughter”

Near the conclusion of his Nobel Prize address, Crediting Poetry, Seamus Heaney speaks of two kinds of “adequacy” ascribable to poetry: “documentary adequacy” and “lyric adequacy.” The former has to do with the impact and emotive power of description and is as old as Homer's account of the Fall of Troy. “Even today, three thousand years later,” Heaney says, “as we channel surf over so much live coverage of contemporary savagery, highly informed but in danger of growing immune … Homer's image can still bring us to our senses. … [It] has that documentary adequacy which answers all that we know about the intolerable” (49). The second kind of adequacy has to do with the poetic process itself, what Heaney calls “‘the temple inside our hearing’ which the passage of the poem calls into being” (49). This interior space is the domain of national conscience and consciousness, a receptacle for personal and racial memory, the etymology of the tribe, the spirit of place, and the ground in which the dead, victims of the Great Hunger, sectarian violence, and the tragic accidents of life are interred. This “temple of our hearing” is exhumed and recovered through the rites or stations of the poem, where truthfulness becomes audible via intonation and cadence. “Lyric adequacy,” Heaney adds, is something that he has always “strained towards” (Crediting Poetry 49), and this desire is borne out by the form and process of his poetic rites, which may begin with the empirical here and now but ultimately delve beneath the merely documentary, the photographic witness that is not the end but prelude to the rite of poetry.

My chief concern in this essay is with the manner in which Heaney's three to four part station poems have come to serve as the formal equivalent of a liturgical rite—a highly-structured, habitually-observed practice that, for him, enacts the temporal and ritualistic steps required to recover and articulate aspects of national consciousness. Although Heaney does not refer to such divisions as stations, nor to such short sequences as station poems, the idea of stations has, since early in his career, a crucial and resonant place in his work, and I believe that “station poem” should serve as a convenient and apt descriptive and critical term for this signature procedure and the religious, archaeological, and historical concerns it helps to formulate. According to Catholic liturgy, a station refers not only to the stations of the cross but also to a stopping point in a procession for the purpose of song, recitation, or ritual action.1 This sense of the station as a stopping point or stage in a devotional rite is especially true of the Lough Derg pilgrimage Heaney imaginatively reenacts in Station Island. As Heaney describes this three-day vigil, “each unit of the contemporary pilgrim's exercises is called a ‘station,’ and a large part of each station involves walking barefoot and praying round ‘beds,’ stone circles which are said to be the remains of early monastic cells” (Station Island 122). “Stations,” as Heaney would also be aware, refers to the rural Irish custom of celebrating Mass at the houses of parishioners on a rotating basis—a custom that conferred honor on each house and reflects a popular, egalitarian spirit of Irish Catholicism that is also evident in Heaney's work.2

In Heaney's work, the ecclesiastical significance of the performance of stations must be enlarged so as to include analogous experiences of discovery and devotion, such as the stages in archaeological excavation, funeral processions, pilgrimages, and other kinds of purposeful walking and doings. The station poem's element of mechanical, psychic action, typically executed in three stages, makes it formally distinct from Heaney's longer sequences, such as “Clearances” and the “Glanmore Sonnets,” as well as unified thematic sequences, such as “Sweeney Redevivus” and Stations, both of which tend to deliver Heaney's discoveries without the procedure used to bring them to light. In other words, one gets the find without the excavation. Describing the series of poems in Stations (1975), Heaney explains, “I think of the pieces now as points on a psychic turas, stations that I have often made unthinkingly in my head. I wrote each of them down with the excitement of coming for the first time to a place I had always known completely” (Stations 3). He also likens such poems to Wordsworthian “spots of time” (3) that he seeks to recover or that arise involuntarily, and so differ from the painstaking, requisite procedures in his shorter station poems in order to uncover or achieve such “psychic turas.” There are, however, significant parallels between the station poems and the organization of the longer sequences. In “Glanmore Sonnets,” for instance, the opening poems follow a procedure similar to the station poems, with acts of verbal digging and plowing early in the sequence serving to open a door to the past in the middle sonnets, then a meditative concentration is attained, and dreams and visions follow. In addition, ritualized forms of action, such as stepping, stirring, and unwinding, open “Sweeney Redivivus,” and the sequence describes numerous journeys and wanderings, both temporal and terrestrial, that lead to dream visions and the attainment of knowledge.3

As Jacob Korg has noted in Ritual and Experiment in Modern Poetry, “ritual communicates through such physical acts as uncovering, uplifting, separating, combining, cutting, and touching … the objects involved in these movements and the place in which they are performed” (11), and Heaney's station poems typically involve some form of physical, usually tactile and ambulatory, action. A mainstay in the Heaney canon, the form is also well-suited to his dual religious and nationalistic impulses in that it serves as a mode of verbal action, or of fusing versification and religious devotion. Catherine Bell, for instance, describes two patterns of ritual in Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice. One pattern of ritual, according to Bell, is “thoughtless action—routinized, obsessive, mimetic—and therefore [is] the purely formal, secondary, and merely physical expression of logically prior ideas” (20). The second pattern, which is closer to Heaney's practice, is “a type of functional or structural mechanism to reintegrate the thought-action dichotomy” (20). In other words, ritual in this second manifestation serves as a means of making thought and idea meaningful in a physical or devotional manner. In addition, the stratified or layered design of Heaney's station poems is particularly useful in his project of recovering aspects of Irish indigenousness, both historical and etymological, and to commemorate the victims of sectarian violence. Moreover, the temporal disjunctions that partition his lyric stations produce startling juxtapositions of a remote Celtic or Viking past and contemporary events, thereby disclosing previously unacknowledged historical continuities. To borrow a phrase from “Bogland,” Heaney's station poems “keep striking / Inwards and downwards” (Selected Poems 22), descending to strata of submerged memory and ascending to the heights of vision.4 As Helen Vendler recently observed, “To enter the megalithic doorway is to go underground, working back into what seems a bottomless pre-history, to a ‘matter of Ireland’” (38), and to reach such depths of racial consciousness, Heaney has recognized, one must perform the necessary lyric-devotional descent. The epode, or “aftersong,” typically involves some form of return, as if from a trance, a resurfacing or unearthing motion that completes the ritual and brings the excavated find or renewed sense of racial consciousness to light.


Heaney has remarked that composing poetry is like “building a trellis and training a vine across it” (qtd. in Foster xxx), and his career is marked by a increasing reliance on the station poem as a “trellis” for his “vines.” He used it once in his first volume, Death of a Naturalist (1966), twice in Door into the Dark (1969), nine times in Wintering Out (1972), seven in North (1975), and so on to the eleven short sequences in The Spirit Level (1995). The title poems of Field Work and Seeing Things are also divided into three stations. The only poem to use this form in Death of a Naturalist, “At a Potato Digging” establishes certain precedents. In the first station of the poem, the sight of the “processional stooping through turf” of the fieldhands conjures an image of the great hunger. In the second station, Heaney proceeds to inspect the potatoes, the image of which, informed by historical consciousness, comes to resemble in his mind the remains of famine victims, “piled in pits; live skulls, blind-eyed.” This recollection of the famine creates a temporal disjunction in station three, transporting him back to “the scoured land in ‘forty five.” He can smell the “putrefied” crop, see the people “grubbing, like plants, in the bitch earth.” The fourth station returns to the present, now considerably altered by an intensified consciousness of the famine, to witness the fieldhands “breaking timeless fasts,” “spill[ing] / Libations of cold tea,” and “scatter[ing] crusts” (DN [Death of a Naturalist] 23).

The ending is, in many ways, a bit too pat, but the procedure is important, and the poem answers Heaney's aesthetic imperative that poetic process be used to develop “a new level of consciousness” and, more ambitiously, to “forge the uncreated conscience of the race” (Preoccupations 60). The poem also involves two levels of experience that are crucial to Heaney's sense of Ireland: first, the experience that is “lived, illiterate and unconscious” and, second, the “learned, literate, and conscious” historical and cultural knowledge of place derived from books, both of which contribute vitally to the poem's “lyric adequacy” (Preoccupations 131). Although “At a Potato Digging” is a crude antecedent of the more elaborate station poems to come, the poem does suggest Heaney had come to realize that consciousness-raising entails stages or stations of excavation and that his promise to dig with his pen perhaps required a formal, liturgical method. One senses this need clearly in his description of the “processional” steps of the fieldhands, which anticipate how such deliberate, ritualistic actions lead to a vision in his later verse.

The more ambitious and increasingly “ungoverned” lyrical rites in Wintering Out mark a crucial point of departure in Heaney's career. As poetry critic Blake Morrison notes, Heaney was attempting to devise a form “more suited to archaeology” in order to “draw on previously repressed psychic and mythic material” (45), and the critic Elmer Andrews recognizes in these poems a “move away from the childlike world [of his first two books] into the harsh adult world” (48). In addition, Heaney had also tried to incorporate into his verse “the piety of objects” that he found evident in P. V. Glob's photographs in The Bog People.5 As a result, the station poems of Wintering Out exhibit a devotional and ritualistic element missing in his earlier work, particularly the kind of integration of thought and action essential to religious rites. “Tollund Man,” for instance, is an archetypal station poem. It involves in the first station a pilgrimage, or in this instance the promise of one, made convincing by the performative, “I will go to Aarhus,” that imagines the bog working the corpse into a “saint's kept body” (SP [Selected Poems, 1966-1987] 39). The opening section also involves the same kind of minute inspection used in “At a Potato Digging,” but with a more pious, sensuous attention to details, such as the “peat-brown head,” the “mild pods of his eye-lids,” and the “gruel of winter seeds / Caked in his stomach” (SP 39). The second station enacts a devotional rite, consecrates the “cauldron bog / Our holy ground” (SP 39-40), fuses past and present, and forges a connection between Jutlander and Celt. The third station involves a similar resurfacing gesture to that found in “At a Potato Digging,” but to it Heaney adds an element of incantation, spiritual empathy and vision:

Saying the names
Tollund, Grauballe, Nebelgard
Watching the pointing hands
Of country people,
Not knowing their tongue.
Out there in Jutland
In the old man-killing parishes
I will feel lost,
Unhappy and at home.

(SP 40)

Heaney scholar Neil Corcoran has argued that Wintering Out “gestures towards” the realities of the [then] present historical moment rather than attempting to address them with any specificity or intimacy” (64). “Tollund Man” does in fact respond to the present, but it does so in a manner typical of Heaney's indirection, invoking Irish history, past and present, via a lyrical rite that digs “inwards and downwards” (literally away from Ireland and into the continent) toward a distinctly national concern—the victims of sectarian violence. The liturgical procedure in “Tollund Man” invokes the fertility rites of the Jutes in order to sanctify the victims of the current struggle and to offer the hope that single deaths would prevent multiple deaths, that those “Stockinged corpses / Laid out in the farmyards” (SP 40) like scarecrows would protect against further acts of violence. As cultural theorist René Girard has noted, the “objective of ritual is the proper reenactment of the surrogate-victim mechanism; its function is … to keep violence outside the community” (92), and Heaney is clearly invoking violence in order that it might be curtailed.

The formal procedures observed in Wintering Out, in fact, become quite formulaic. Heaney walks, comes to rest, performs some act, is transported back in time, and returns enlightened. This simple formula is highly versatile, however. His steps, like a dowsing rod, can lead in infinite directions, the actions vary, as do the historical moments he revisits, and his epiphanies are never exactly the same. As poetry critic Maurice Harmon has noted, the basis of Heaney's archaeology is “a Jungian concept of the Irish past and of the Irish psyche as richly tapered and opening inwards in a series of endless discoveries” (71). Indeed, many of the station poems in Wintering Out may well have been exercises designed to strike such deep wells of personal and racial unconsciousness. Heaney pays homage to “The Last Mummer,” who, in station one, roams the land with “a stone in his pocket, / an ashplant under his arm” (WO [Wintering Out] 18). In station two, Heaney laments the passing of the bardic tradition and canonizes the tramping poet in station three: “The moon's host elevated / in a monstrance of holly trees, / he makes dark tracks … / into the summer's grazing” (WO 20). In “Land,” Heaney ambles across “the outlying fields,” builds a cairn, and likens the writing of a poem to footsteps across “blank acres,” “ready to go anywhere” (WO 21). His ritualistic steps direct him, somewhat magically, to a spot amidst “grass and clover” and “shifting hares” in which he sounds the silence, ear to ground, imagining himself snared and pending in air (WO 23). Again, the poem follows the same “inwards and downwards” trajectory and concludes, literally, in an elevated state of mind. “Gifts of Rain” traces, in stations one and two, the steps of farmer and animal, wading through flooded terrain, to dig for or root out food. In the third section of the poem, the burgeoning of the river is internalized, a trope for racial continuity (the archetypal river of time) that unites him with ancestral ways of life in which the river was both a means of survival to the community and a potential agent of its destruction. “Cocking [his] ear / at an absence,” Heaney hears in the “Soft voices of the dead” (SP 31-32) a reproach to his fear and anger at the flood, at the days of rain, ruined crops, and muddy terrain. In the final station, the river rises to “pleasure him” with its music and with the sound of its name:

is its own score and consort
bedding the locale
in the utterance,
reed music, an old chanter
breathing its mists
through vowels and history.

(SP 32)

Taken as a whole, the station poems in Wintering Out constitute a formal and procedural breakthrough in Heaney's career as he discovered that perhaps the most effective means of sounding the depths of racial consciousness, of imagining and revisiting crucial historical moments, and of addressing national political crises lay in the liturgical action of his poetic stations.


In “The Poet as Christian,” Heaney recalls that, during his formative years, the experience attending wakes and funerals, with their “inner system of courtesy and honour and obligement,” had a “definite effect” on him.6 The ritualistic observances of Catholic burial—the stationary observation at the wake, the rhythmic steps of the funeral procession, and the downward motion of interment (what poetry critic Jonathan Hufstader has referred to as “coming to consciousness by jumping in graves”)7—appear to be intimately connected with Heaney's development of the station poem. One of his earliest station poems is “Elegy for a Still-Born Child,” and he uses a three part division in all of his major elegies: “Funeral Rites,” “Triptych,” and “Casualty.” As the critic Bernard O'Donoghue has noted, Heaney's formal decisions are “never only formal, but at once formal and also emotional” (ix), and his station poems reflect emotional as well as liturgical stages of mourning. In “Funeral Rites,” for instance, the first station revisits the wakes of dead relatives, recalling in sensuous detail their “glistening” eyelids and “dough-white hands / shackled in rosary beads,” and how he “knelt courteously” and “kiss[ed] their igloo brows” (SP 65). In station two, Heaney returns to the violence and murder of the present, and pronounces a deep need to revive public ritual, those “customary rhythms.” His ideal is to “restore // the great chambers of the Boyne” (SP 66), at New Grange, site of Neolithic burial mounds, for a mass burial that would draw thousands and lay violence to rest for once and all.

The second station concludes with a vision of a long, sinuous funeral procession, like a serpent with its tail in Ulster and its head in the South, about to pass through a megalithic doorway—a funeral procession that would unify Ireland by invoking an ancient pagan ritual. Station three returns to the present, but it is a present enlightened and informed by a consciousness of the past and of the unifying potential of ritual. The poem ends, appropriately enough, at the tomb of Gunnar, the epic hero of Njal's Saga, whose death at the hands of enemies remains unavenged. Although in the saga Njal's son swears vengeance, for Heaney “arbitration / of the feud [is] placated” (SP 67) by the death of Gunnar, and the ritualistic sacrifice of the hero terminates the cycle of violence, just as Heaney's ritual form is designed to heal and placate. “Triptych,” from Field Work, is Heaney's somewhat belated but nevertheless powerful response to the Bloody Sunday massacre, generated retrospectively following a later, isolated killing. The first station, titled “After a Killing,” shrinks from an expansive vision of Ireland, “that neuter original loneliness / From Brandon to Dunseverick” (SP 108), to a particular vision of a stone house by a pier where the ancient rural economy of fishing and planting survives. In station two, “Sybil,” Heaney asks the oracle: “What will become of us?” The Sibyl predicts a change for the worse “unless forgiveness finds its nerve and voice” (SP 109). The oracle goes on to reproach the habitual reticence of the people, who discuss the weather and fail to confront political reality, and who are seduced by the promise of economic gain away from nationalistic imperatives. “My people,” says the Sibyl, “think money / And talk weather. Oil rigs lull their future / On single acquisitive stems” (SP 109). Station three shifts to the monastic sites at Devenish, Boa, and Horse Island, the silence of which is disturbed by an Army helicopter patrolling. The poem concludes with Heaney being overwhelmed by a ritualistic impulse, a compulsion to act, physically and verbally, in order to disturb the silence:

                                        Everything in me
Wanted to bow down, to offer up,
To go barefoot, foetal and penitential,
And pray at water's edge.
How we crept before we walked! I remembered
The helicopter shadowing our march at Newry,
The scared, irrevocable steps.

(SP 110)

Once again, “Triptych” attests to the versatility of the station poem. In this instance, the ritualistic steps occur at the end instead of the beginning of the rite (steps that normally initiate the pilgrimage here serve to end it), and instead of being transported back to a remote past, Heaney returns to a recent event, the march at Newry in protest of the Bloody Sunday massacre. The poem returns to incidents that Heaney had failed to consecrate in verse as they occurred, not in a distant past but during his own lifetime. The line, “How we crept before we walked,” is especially revealing about Heaney's poetic response to political crises, as the contemplative, reflective procedure of the station poem redirects the more volatile impulses that instigated the poem.


Over the past decade, Heaney's work, in volumes such as The Haw Lantern (1987), Seeing Things (1991), and The Spirit Level (1995), has entered a new phase in which personal recollections, often nostalgic preoccupations with his own past, have supplanted the broader national and historical concerns of his early to mid career. In these volumes, generally, Heaney has tended to focus on the numinous and mnemonic qualities of individual objects, odd ordinary things such as thimbles, hailstones, a sofa, a swing, jackets and footballs, pitchforks and schoolbags—anything with associations potent enough to reconstitute a submerged past. Although Heaney's focus has changed, his exploration of personal memory represents a new form of digging, with the station poem providing a formal demarcation of mnemonic processes. As he writes in “The Poet's Chair,” the poem is “a ploughshare that turns time up and over” (SL [The Spirit Level] 57). Heaney's excavation of personal history, as in his poetic rites, is performed in three stages. First, the sight of a numinous object (i.e. “seeing things”) opens a door into the past. This opening into the past prompts a mental pilgrimage—whether it be a journey to the underworld or the proverbial stroll down memory lane—that terminates in a return journey. The cycle is completed as the poet climbs to light or is roused from a trance with a cache of memories and a newfound awareness of personal history, “a revelation of the self to the self” (Preoccupations 54), and of the atemporal existence of objects and people.

Heaney has come to view memory and the space-time continuum in terms of the relation between absence and presence, and he has come to acknowledge that certain things, presences that exist in the here and now, uncover or disclose absences that exist in past time. In this sense, in his later verse, certain phenomenal objects, provided that one really sees them and apprehends their numinous potential, serve as passports to an otherwise inaccessible underworld of buried memories. Two poems from The Haw Lantern serve to illustrate Heaney's notion of memory as a stockpile of absences that can be retrieved via a presence. In “Hailstones,” Heaney confides, “I make this [poem] now / out of the melt of the real thing / smarting into its absence” (SP 241). The sting of hailstones in the present involuntarily triggers a sensation not felt for forty years, what Heaney describes as “the truest foretaste of your aftermath” (SP 242). A similar idea appears in sonnet 8 from “Clearances,” a moving elegy to his mother in which Heaney registers a desire to circle the empty space that used to contain a chestnut tree, planted on his birthday but chopped down when the farm changed hands. The tree's existence, however, is preserved in the poet's memory, its absence “A soul ramifying and forever / Silent, beyond silence listened for” (SP 253). For Heaney, then, what is lost is never irretrievable, but rather exists on an immaterial plane, a “spirit level,” that can be recovered, reincorporated via a three-part process of remembrance.

In many ways, the personal void created by such absences as the chestnut tree, a symbol of his own life and inevitable absence from it, has led Heaney to use lyric ritual in order to recover an absence through an intense concentration on a presence, to recompose the unseen via the seen. As the critic Catherine Malloy has noted, “his recollections of these things inform his way of seeing and knowing, enhancing his vision as he moves onward” (159). Hence, the act of remembering is often cast figuratively in the form of a miniature epic in three stations that reenact the cycle of journey and return. The translation of the golden bough section from Book VI of The Aeneid at the beginning of Seeing Things is especially significant and aptly chosen. As the Sibyl tells Aeneas, who is seeking his dead father, the way down is easy and the gateway stands open, but the return journey is perilous for, by entering the underworld, one has gone “beyond the limit” (ST [Seeing Things] 5). Moreover, the golden bough must be procured in order to gain passage, hence the bard (Heaney) rises to the status of epic hero.8 Heaney's invocation of Aeneas's journey to the underworld at the opening of Seeing Things prefigures his own search for his father in the title poem. Here, once again, the past is visited through careful observation of “things” that serve as his golden bough and the vessel that will carry him across the Stygian Lake to the fields of the blessed.

In “Seeing Things,” Heaney repeats Aeneas's journey in three lyric stations. The first station of the poem recounts a pilgrimage to a monastic site off the coast of Donegal, beginning with a sensual composition of place: “Inishbofin on a Sunday morning. / Sunlight, turfsmoke, seagulls, boatslip, diesel” (ST 18). As the Sibyl had said, the journey down is easy, and the sea, as Heaney recalls, was calm and the boat skimmed the surface. Yet the journey is not without a sense of foreboding and danger. The craft shifts and sways, “the gunwales sank” beneath the trough of the waves, and Heaney, in a transcendent moment, as if sailing in the air above their craft, notices “How riskily we fared into the morning” (ST 18). Throughout the first station, the solemnity of the pilgrims' crossing is apparent, as if Charon himself were the ferryman: heads are bared and bowed; they sit on cross-benches as if in church pews; and silence is reverently observed.

Heaney writes, near the end of station one, of the “seeable-down-into water,” which anticipates the “Claritas” (ST 19), or moment of mnemonic clarity, described in station two. Heaney likens this transparency of past time to a church relief in which carved stone is cut expertly so as to appear liquid, the water John the Baptist pours over Christ's head—a rite of initiation as well as purification. Heaney notes that “The stone's alive with what's invisible” (ST 19), an image of memory as something real, extant, though submerged as in water, “a shadowy, unshadowed stream” that constitutes “the zigzag hieroglyph for life itself” (ST 19).

Station three of the poem shifts to a vision of his father's ghost emerging “undrowned” from the river, an imagined resurrection authenticated by the “claritas” attained through this ritual of remembrance. The resurrected image of his father is divined, magically, through a clairvoyant window of memory. As Heaney writes,

                                        I was inside the house
And saw him through the window, scatter-eyed
And daunted, strange without his hat,
His step unguided, his ghosthood immanent.
When he was turning on the riverbank,
The horse had rusted and reared up and pitched
Cart and sprayer and everything off balance,
So the whole rig went over into adeep
Whirlpool, hoofs, chains, shafts, cartwheels, barrel
And tackle, all tumbling off the world,
And the hat already merrily swept along
The quieter reaches.

(ST 20)

This scene is described in such a way as deliberately to confuse the time preceding and succeeding the drowning and “undrowning”—a reversal of time and mortality. Looking through the window, Heaney is seeing his father's ghost, “immanent” not “imminent,” and because he is bareheaded, his death has already occurred—his hat was swept downstream with the current—but because he did not witness the drowning, he does not admit the possibility of his father's death. Likewise, the poem concludes with Heaney meeting his father that afternoon, not of his death but the afternoon of the Inishbofin crossing. As he gazes down into the paradoxically dark yet clear, “shadowy, unshadowed” waters of the North Atlantic, this memory rises up to meet him, face-to-face, “with his damp footprints out of the river” (ST 20). This is to say, memory and vision, combined with the ritualistic power of the lyric sequence, enables Heaney to resurrect his father, to replace his absence by recovering his presence, as he emerges through this window of time on a boat off the coast of Donegal.

The station poem has been a crucial component of Heaney's versification almost from the outset of his career, and it constitutes what is arguably his most distinct, though widely unacknowledged, contribution to the modern poetic sequence. And, although Heaney's career has culminated in a set of longer poetic sequences, the early station poems were, I believe, essential to the evolution of lengthier projects, such as “Glanmore Sonnets,” which enact similar ritualistic procedures, and “Station Island,” which is essentially an epic repetition of the shorter lyric rites in twelve stations. But perhaps most significantly, the kinds of temporal disjunction, ritual action, and cultural and historical excavations facilitated by such a sequential form have enabled Heaney to articulate aspects of Irish historical and racial consciousness, commemorate victims of Ireland's troubled history, mine the darker regions of personal memory, and achieve the formal perfection he modestly calls “lyric adequacy.”


  1. See John Harper's Forms and Orders of Western Liturgy from the Tenth to the Eighteenth Century: A Historical Introduction for Students and Musicians (New York: Oxford UP, 1991) 128-29.

  2. In his notes to J. M. Synge's The Aran Islands, Tim Robinson describes stations as “an annual custom—still practiced in many rural western parishes—of hearing confessions and celebrating Mass in a parishioner's house, the honour passing from house to house in rotation within each community” (146).

  3. This three-part structure is also evident in the organization of Heaney's books. Gale C. Schricker has identified a tripartite method of organization in Station Island,The Haw Lantern, and Field Work, particularly a three part temporal division between past, present, and future. See “‘Deliberately at the Centre’: The Triptych Structure of Seamus Heaney's Field Work” (Eire-Ireland 26. 3 [Fall 1991]: 107-20).

  4. All subsequent quotes of poetry are from Selected Poems, 1966-1987 (SP) unless otherwise indicated by DN (Death of a Naturalist); WO (Wintering Out); ST (Seeing Things); and SL (The Spirit Level).

  5. The influence of Glob's book on Heaney is well-documented. As Heaney suggests in his essay “Feelings into Words,” Glob's photos merged in his mind with recent atrocities in Northern Ireland (see Preoccupations 57).

  6. Also, in “The Poet as a Christian,” Heaney recalls, “I remember after writing ‘Tollund Man’ I began to think, if I were to go to an analyst, he would certainly link the outlined and pacified and rigor mortis with all that submerged life and memory [of funerals]” (qtd. in Corcoran 15).

  7. In his essay “Coming to Consciousness by Jumping in Graves,” Hufstader identifies Heaney's “ritual procedure [as being] one of sequence: entrance rite, central action, and the subjects emergence form the ritual in a new state of mind” (61-62).

  8. This status has long been crucial to Heaney's ideal of the poet as, in the Latin, Vates, someone with “a gift for being in touch with what is there, hidden and real, a gift for mediating between the latent resource and the community” (“Feelings into Words,” Preoccupations 47-48).

Works Cited

Andrews, Elmer. Seamus Heaney: All the Realms of Whisper. London: Macmillan, 1988.

Bell, Catherine. Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice. New York: Oxford UP, 1992.

Corcoran, Neil. Seamus Heaney. London: Faber and Faber, 1986.

Foster, R. F. Yeats: A Life. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1997.

Girard, René. Violence and the Sacred. Trans. Patrick Gregory. Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 1977. Harmon, Maurice. “‘We Pine for Ceremony’: Ritual and Reality in the Poetry of Seamus Heaney, 1965-75.” Seamus Heaney: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Elmer Andrews. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992. 67-86.

Heaney, Seamus. Crediting Poetry: The Nobel Lecture. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1996.

———. Death of a Naturalist. London: Faber and Faber, 1966.

———. Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968-1978. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1980.

———. Seeing Things. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1991.

———. Selected Poems 1966-1987. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1990.

———. The Spirit Level. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1997.

———. Station Island. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1985.

———. Stations. Belfast: Ulsterman Publications, 1975.

———. Wintering Out. New York: Oxford UP, 1973.

Hufstader, Jonathan. “Coming to Consciousness by Jumping in Graves.” Irish University Review 26.1 (Spring/Summer 1996): 61-74.

Korg, Jacob. Ritual and Experiment in Modern Poetry. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995.

Malloy, Catharine. “Seamus Heaney's Seeing Things: Retracing the Path Back. …” Seamus Heaney: The Shaping Spirit. Ed. Catharine Malloy and Phyllis Carey. Newark: U of Delaware P, 1996. 157-73.

Morrison, Blake. Seamus Heaney. London: Methuen, 1982.

O'Donoghue, Bernard. Seamus Heaney and the Language of Poetry. New York: Harvester, 1994.

Synge, J. M. The Aran Islands, with Essay and Notes by Tim Robinson. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1992.

Vendler, Helen. Seamus Heaney. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1998.

Adam Newey (review date 15 April 2001)

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SOURCE: Newey, Adam. “A Scratchy Woollen Jumper That Doesn't Quite Fit.” New Statesman 130, no. 4533 (15 April 2001): 53-4.

[In the following review, Newey offers a negative assessment of Electric Light, noting that “the compressed textures of the language tak[es] primacy over just about everything else.”]

All those grant-givers, Arts Council grandees, intellectual-wannabe celebs and assorted boosters who, every so often (usually around Poetry Day), crawl out of whatever piece of bureaucratic woodwork they normally inhabit to proclaim that poetry in Britain has never been more vibrant, diverse and popular should remember two things: that Britain's greatest living poet is actually a soi-disant Irishman, and that, of all sales of poetry books by living writers in Britain, the same man. Seamus Heaney, alone accounts for almost two-thirds.

Those two factlets spell a grave crisis in British poetry. The latter for fairly obvious reasons: because of its perennially low sales figures, poetry is desperately unattractive to bookshops, which naturally prefer to stick with established authors: and while the number and quality of reviews for new poetry in the mainstream press have declined to the point of invisibility, publishers are failing to back up their books with decent PR. When was the last time you walked past a Waterstone's or Borders and saw some grand point-of-sale promo for a new volume of poetry? The result is a vicious circle of neglect for new work, unless it be by one of the very few big names that the form can boast. Poetry thus becomes the furtive preserve of those who would gladly let the likes of Heaney and Ted Hughes (dead, but still selling well) have what little limelight there is so that they can indulge their gecky, cultish obsession with the difficult and the wilfully obscure.

The other factor is related, but more complex, and it has to do with the current fetishisation of the Celtic fringes as a kind of ur-culture from which the British (for which read English) mainstream has been diverted. Nowhere is this embodied more clearly than in the arc of Heaney's charmed career. Born into a Catholic farming family in Coanty Derry, Heaney was described early on by no less a figure than Robert Lowell as “the most important Irish poet since Yeats.” He has been garlanded with prizes, including the Nobel, and laden with acclaim.

All criticism of his lack of political engagement with the land of his birth evaporated in 1975 after the publication of North, with its combination of pastoral imagery and political encryptions. Then, in the early 1980s, Heaney refused permission for his work to be included in a Penguin anthology of British verse. By way of explanation, he wrote the following lines in a pamphlet at around the same time: “Be advised my passport's green / No glass of ours was ever raised / To toast the Queen.”

On the surface, it was simply a statement of his own reconfigured national identity, a planting of a flag and, as such, appealed to those in Britain, particularly on the left, who were ashamed of the way the British State went about defending its sway in Ulster. But it was also an act of recreancy, because, in the glib opposition it set up, it disavowed any possibility of ever recasting the British state in non-monarchical terms.

The ultimate accolade came in 1995, with the award of the Nobel Prize. That set the seal on the whole “Famous Seamus” phenomenon, whereby every droning pub bore boasts of being on nodding terms with the bard from the valley of the Bann. Heaney himself seems highly uncomfortable with this—he is unable in interviews to utter the word Nobel, referring to it as “the Stockholm thing” or “the N-word”—and clearly sees it as an impediment to the privacy and anonymity that a poet needs to do his work.

Yet, unwitting as it may be, he has taken an important place in the construction of a new romanticised Oirishness that is now all-pervasive, through the proliferation of themed pubs, the endless export of pretty boy bands, newspaper paeans to the Celtic Tiger economy and the idea of the Irish as the new Jews—with their historic burden of oppression to shoulder, representing an authenticity, a connection to the land and to their own story that we cynical metropolitan sophisticates have long since lost. Ah sure, tis an improvement on the old view of thick Paddy Murphy, but it is no less a stereotype for that.

Electric Light is the second original work from Heaney since he won the Nobel. In between, he has produced little apart from his acclaimed translation of Beowulf, that foundation stone on which the edifice of English literature is built. Taking their cue from a phrase in that translation, critics have talked swooningly ever since about Heaney's “word-hoard,” in much the same way people used to go on about Linford Christie's “lanchbox,” citing it as an emblem of his poetic virility. No doubt, they will find much to praise in these poems, which return again to the Bann Valley of the poet's childhood, but which also range throughout Europe, to the Balkans and to Greece, as well as through time, particularly to the classical world. And like some 1960s Vegas show host, Heaney gives the obligatory nods to departed greats such as Ted Hughes, Joseph Brodsky, Zbigniew Herbert, so that one can almost hear the ripple of audience applause at the mention of each name.

Reading Heaney, I have often felt as if I were being forced by some crusty old uncle to wear a particularly scratchy woollen jumper that doesn't quite fit under the arms. This book is no exception, the compressed textures of the language taking primacy over just about everything else.

Take these lines, which begin the title poem: “Candle-grease congealed, dark-streaked with wick-soot. / The smashed thumb-nail / Of that ancient mangled thumb was puckered pearl, / Rucked quartz, a littered Cumae.” Or these, in a poem about perch in the Bann river, where Heaney writes of “little flood-slubs, runty and ready,” of watching them “guzzling in the current, against it, all muscle and slur / In the finland of perch, the fenland of alder, on air / That is water.” This, surely, is poetry that has had half a bottle of whiskey too much: one certainly admires the artistry in the wreathing of the words, but one fears to get too close to the man that breathes them.

The sense of emotional disengagement—which for me is ever-present in Heaney's work—is heightened by the use of easy-seeming classical references. Here, they appear in Areadian abundance, from Virgil walking in the Bann Valley to six sonnets from Greece (or “Hellas,” as the sequence title insists). Faber's blurb writer tells us that this is Heaney exploring “the places where things start from, the ground of understanding.” But equally it reads like a claim being staked, a self-conscious demand for a place within the canon that stretches back to Virgil and beyond. Well, perhaps Heaney has done enough to earn that; but for those toiling eternally on the lower slopes of Parnassus—the ones who make up the other third of the British poetry market—it begins to look as if he doesn't have to try too hard any more.

Paul Mariani (review date 23-30 April 2001)

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SOURCE: Mariani, Paul. “The Mother Tongue.” America 184, no. 14 (23-30 April 2001): 25-6.

[In the following review, Mariani celebrates the influence of both famous and non-famous authors on the poems in Electric Light.]

Because Seamus Heaney and I are of an age, and because he has been my secret talisman and guide now for over 30 years, he an Irish Catholic from Derry, I a mongrel Catholic from New York, every book he has published since his first, Death of a Naturalist, has been an event for me. The question I keep asking myself is how he has done it and continues to do it. Each new book offers new surprises, and these take time to digest and absorb. Surprises in terms of language, in terms of metaphor, in terms of new gains in poetic consciousness, Electric Light is no exception.

Three books of critical prose, a play and this—his 17th book of poetry (if you include his two Selected Poems and his masterful translation of Beowulf). It's a Janus-faced book, elegiac, heartbreaking even, like Heaney's friend and predecessor, Robert Lowell, in his posthumous Day by Day, published in his 61st year. Here's Heaney, the world-trotting poet among his fellow poets—Rafael Alberti, Caj Westerburg, Hans Magnus Enzenburger at the Struga Poetry Festival in Macedonia in 1978; here too that Harvard Nestor, Robert Fitzgerald, as well as two of his poet-friends, both ghosts now; the Russian expatriate and fellow Noble Laureate, Joseph Brodsky, and Zbigniew Herbert.

Here too, threaded throughout the book, are some of his literary influences, friends as well. W. H. Auden (as in “Audenesque,” which remembers the British poet's elegy for the great Anglo-Irish poet). Or Yeats, everywhere, of course, but in particular in the way he duplicates and updates Yeats's displacement of civilizations in “Lapis Lazuli” with his own guttural, physical, bruised list of refugees in Macedonia:

Come loaded on tractor mudguards and
                    farm carts.
On trailers, ruck-shifters, bax-barrows,
On sticks, on crutches, on each other's
I see its coil again like a syrup of Styx. …

Other influences too, as he himself honors them in his poem “The Bookcase”: the Scots poet, Hugh MacDiarmid, the American Elizabeth Bishop, with her roots deep in New Brunswick, Hardy, Frost, Stevens, Dylan Thomas, Faulkner, the Venerable Bede, John Synge. And painters: Giotto's rendering of St. Francis receiving the stigmata, Hygo Simberg's haunting “The Wounded Angel.” Hopkins too is everywhere to be found here, in Heaney's compound epithets. Perch—in the poem of that name—“Near the clay bank in alder-dapple and waver,” “grunts,” “little flood-slubs, runty and ready,” “adoze, / Guzzling the current.” Or the internal chiming and epithets in these lines:

As ferries churned and turned down
                    Belfast Lough
Towards the brow-to-glass transport
                    of a morning train,
The very “there-you-are-and-where-
                    are you?”

But that presence is there especially in the poem about the death of Heaney's father, “Seeing the Sick,” where the title itself and the language play off “Felix Randal”; “Anointed and all,” “None of your fettled and bright battering sandal,” the “tendered” morphine. That language played against the hard realities of death come to a man he remembers dressed in “Cowdung coloured tweed and ox-blood leather,” a Moorland man,

Who had walked the streets of Hexham
                    at eighteen
With his stick and task of bringing home
                    the dead
Body of his uncle by cattle-ferry.

It's that which Heaney does so consummately well, this man of the people, who has never forgotten his roots (bless him), a man who has had to negotiate the paths of the King's own English, the Siren call of the dominant American idiom and all that that idiom steamrolls under with it, as well as his allegiance to his own Irish language and customs, even as he has become a citizen of the wide world beyond Derry.

But there's something more he's done here that I want to point to at least. It's something I think Heaney has been after since his early poem “Digging,” which identified his own preoccupation with language with his father's digging for potatoes. I'm talking about the place from which language originates, a place that shapes us from the beginning and that stays with us, no matter how far we advance on the world's stage. I think it is this humility in Heaney that we find in his loving tribute to those Irish boys who acted in Shakespeare's Tempest and Macbeth and The Merchant of Venice put on in Derry back in 1954. It's the Irish kids—farmer's sons, mostly—learning their English, the humor and plangency of it all, and of the real names given in tribute behind the characters they played upon the raised boards at prep school:

Enter Owen Kelly, loping and growling,
His underlip and lower jaw ill-set,
A mad turn in his eye, his shot-putter's
Neck and shoulders still a schoolboy's
                                                                                The hard sticks
He dumped down at the opening of the
Raised a stour off the boards, his turnip
Swung low out of his tipped tarpaulin
I won't forget his Sperrins Caliban,
His bag-aproned, potato-gatherer's
And I with my long nails will dig thee

Julia Kristeva speaks of the chora, a kind of pre-conscious linguistic world that we all as infants inhabited, that in time gives our language its particular cast, and in Heaney's case gives it a kind of consonantal clustering, the heavy internal chiming that has long been Heaney's signature. Behind it darts a silver-quick intelligence that is three steps ahead of the consonants as we taste them and speak them. For if his language has something of the Caliban about it, it is Ariel who directs from the wings. It's an amazing combination, really, and it produces a music of immense pleasure, an erotics of place, one might almost say, language itself—as William Carlos Williams understood, speaking the language of New Jersey—physical and final in its own right, gravid, earth-bound, as fresh as the soil that gave rise to it. It is the world Heaney navigates in the title poem of the book, “Electric Light,” a poem that recalls the first electric light Heaney remembers seeing, in London, during the war and the blackouts. The mystery of flipping a light switch on and off and the light obeying his hand. That world, pointing to the uncertain future, and that other world, the world of the old crone sitting him in his parents' absence (his Muse?), knitting, his four-year-old eye on

The dirt-tracked flint and fissure of
                    her nail,
So plectrum-hard, glit-glittery, it
                    must still keep
Among beads and vertebrae in the
                    Derry ground.

How brilliant of Heaney to have come back at the very end to his beginnings once more, to new life, a new generation, but also to reflect on his parents gone, so many of his classmates gone, his poet-friends gone. At 60 the elegiac befits us, and befriends us too. He is one of the handful writing today who has mastered that form as well.

Gerald Mangan (review date 4 May 2001)

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SOURCE: Mangan, Gerald. “Like Peat-Smoke Mulling.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5118 (4 May 2001): 24.

[In the following review, Mangan praises Heaney's impeccable pairing of words to things and his ability to elevate poetry to the level of myth or religion in Electric Light.]

Seamus Heaney has mapped out his own territory so clearly and thoroughly, over the past thirty-odd years, that we are liable to fall into the comforting illusion of knowing him from every angle, as if he were already a sort of walking monument. He paces the same ground habitually, with all the sharp-eyed fondness of a crofter inspecting a fertile inheritance; and he is constantly enriched by the mineral resources he finds under his feet. But he has never ceased to expand, and his very rootedness allows him to absorb the most far-fetched influences without fear of changing shape. Although bounded in a nutshell and a prey to occasional bad dreams, he behaves increasingly like a king of infinite space; and his tribute to Auden in this new collection might now be applied aptly enough to himself: “The definite growth-rings of genius rang in his voice.”

The core of those growth-rings is of course Mossbawn, the County Derry farm of his childhood, where the sap of inspiration seems to rise without fail; and Electric Light reminds us how readily he will retire into that centre of his imagination, when he is not being called out to comment on boundary disputes. Its calm and leisurely mood plainly reflects an optimism due to the ceasefire in his native province, which has since been looking sadly premature. “Bann Valley Eclogue,” one of three longish exercises in Virgilian pastoral, is a celebration of childbirth with Messianic overtones, in which the doom-laden atmosphere of the recent solar eclipse (“millennial chill, birdless and dark”) is brushed aside with a creamily eloquent vision of peace and plenty:

                                                            . … when the waters break,
Bann's streams will overflow, the old
Will avail no more to keep east bank from
The valley will be washed like the new baby.

More than half of the poems focus on his early life, at the farm or at college; and the themes are announced in “Out of the Bag,” a subtle collation of separate strata of memory, which opens with a crisp portrait of the family doctor who delivered the poet and his siblings: “All of us came in Doctor Kerlin's bag. …” From the child's surrealistic misconceptions of the event, the poem shifts forward to an adolescent pilgrimage to Lourdes, and culminates in a meditation amid the ruins of Epidaurus—“a site of incubation,” where the godlike figure of the doctor-midwife blends with the Aesculapian figure of the poet:

Poeta doctus Peter Levi says
Sanctuaries of Asclepius (called asclepions)
Were the equivalent of hospitals
In ancient Greece. Or of shrines like Lourdes,
Says poeta doctus Graves. Or of the cure
By poetry that cannot be coerced,
Say I. …

The conception of poetry as salve and salvation is not unfamiliar in Heaney, who has given other evidence of a residual belief in miracles; and the ground he shares with Keats in this respect is highlighted by the Greek background, which is glowingly updated in a sequence of six sun-ripened “Sonnets from Hellas” (“there in Olympia, down among the green willows / The lustral wash and run of river shallows …”). But it is one of several signs of a deepening mystical sense of his own vocation, perhaps most apparent at the end of an elegy for Ted Hughes:

Soul has its scruples. Things not to be said.
Things for keeping, that can keep the small-
                                                                                                                        hours gaze
Open and steady. Things for the aye of God
And for poetry.

Heaney has perhaps not quite reached the point of nominating the poet as the unacknowledged priest of mankind; but his long absorption in his craft has clearly developed habits of thought which reify language, in a sacramental sense. There is more than a hint of the hieratic, Mallarmean poetics admired by Yeats; but Heaney's more Catholic temperament seems to conceive it as a form of transubstantiation, whereby the unleavened bread of the world is consecrated as the flesh of the word. In “The Loose Box,” it emerges in a debatable proposition, where he sounds faintly intoxicated by the exuberance of his own virtuosity:

                                                                      Sandy, glarry,
Mossy, heavy, cold, the actual soil
Almost doesn't matter: the main thing is
An inner restitution, a purchase come by
By pacing it out in words that make you feel
You've found your feet in what “surefooted”
                                                                                                                        means. …

It is hard to imagine any real tiller of the soil who would not be grateful for the “almost” in that sentence. But Heaney very rarely fails to make sense, and a heightened perception of the thingness of words has certainly not impaired his capacity to match words to things—whether a bookcase “planed to silkiness, / mitred, much-eyed-along,” a fly-paper that is “honey-strip and death-trap, a barley-sugar twist / of glut and loathing,” or an old woman's thumbnail like “puckered pearl / rucked quartz … / Plectrum-hard, gilt-glittery.” His recent immersion in Anglo-Saxon has evidently concentrated his archaeological sense of English as a precious, time-resistant legacy; and the shadow of Beowulf falls most heavily over the elegy for Hughes, “On His Work in the English Tongue,” where a leaden echo reminds us of the Anglo-Saxon influence on Hopkins:

Passive suffering: who said it was disallowed
As a theme for poetry? Already in Beowulf
The dumbfounding of woe, the stunt and stress
Of hurt-in-hiding is the best of it.

The preoccupation throws an illuminating sidelight on the roots of Heaney's own native dialect, in that other old English we call Scots—a thriving pre-Norman relic, whose diffusion around the northern half of Ireland is probably due as much to common fisheries as to colonization. Words like stour, lug, fank, glarry, birl, dreep, gowl, oxter and coolth offer a special pleasure of recognition to a Scottish reader like myself; and they are prominent among the luscious, lovingly weighed fricatives that inject so much tactile particularity into the texture of his verse. They seem to be childhood friends most often, buried under layers of education and time; and their deployment is a restitution of the kind enacted in the longest poem, “The Real Names”—a semi-narrative memoir, which unearths the identities of former schoolmates from their roles in Shakespeare plays: “Enter Owen Kelly, loping and gowling. …”

Heaney's friendships with several recently deceased Scottish poets are commemorated in a sequence of elegies, fetchingly linked by a cervine motif (“Norman MacCaig, come forth from the deer of Magdalen / Those startlers standing still in fritillary land …”); and they appear amid a clutch of requiems that give the collection an increasingly bookish and valedictory tone. The most movingly fluent is “Clonmany to Ahascragh,” which traces a favourite trajectory from water into light, as a figure of hope (“If ever tears are to be wiped away / It will be in river country, / In that confluence of unmarked bridge-rumped roads / Beyond the Shannon …”). The wittiest is an affectionate is an “Audenesque” addressed to Joseph Brodsky:

Meting grief and reason out
As you said a poem ought.
Trochee, trochee, falling: thus
Grief and metre order us.

Nostalgia is a concomitant of grief, of course, and Heaney at sixty-two has plainly entered a period of life where the pangs swell into a flood. Several autobiographical pieces succumb to it without shame, with an assurance born of long practice in the art of hindsight. The most intriguing read like stray fragments of memory gently polished into a state of luminosity (“The Clothes Shrine”). Among these is the title-poem, which returns to a point of departure in a memory of a first journey to England, and a forbidding old lady whose house in Belfast boasted the first electric light he saw as a child:

                    We were both desperate
The night I was left to stay, when I wept and
Under the clothes, under the waste of light
Left turned on in the bedroom. “What ails you,
                                                                                                                        child … ?”

Electric Light extends Heaney's myth-hoard notably into the classical domain; but its brightest treasures are drawn from a copious memory-hoard, which shows no signs of exhaustion. It dwells more minutely than ever on a pre-industrial past, for the benefit of a post-industrial readership, and its relative tranquility draws attention to the fact that even the sectarian conflict, which has drawn him out most frequently into the glare of modernity, is itself more ancient than the spinning jenny. The tribute to George Mackay Brown prompts me to wonder if Seamus Heaney himself, raised in a parish as remote and untroubled as Orkney, might not have been satisfied to draw on the same kind of unpolluted wells, in a world whose mythology has been

Polished till its undersurface surfaced,
Like peat-smoke mulling through Byzantium.

Lee Oser (review date winter 2002)

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SOURCE: Oser, Lee. Review of Electric Light, by Seamus Heaney. World Literature Today 76, no. 1 (winter 2002): 110-11.

[In the following review, Oser offers a positive assessment of Electric Light.]

Like all of Seamus Heaney's work, Electric Light owns up to a modernist inheritance. Anyone who argues that modernism is merely an extension of romantic poetry will not understand where Heaney starts or where he might lead us. It is not merely the case that Heaney adopts the form and diction of the High Modernists—Yeats, Eliot, Pound, Joyce, and Auden (as well as Robert Lowell, their immediate heir)—but that he partakes of their problems, most specifically the task of establishing a voice in the face of distinct conditions: coming late in a culture, being massively learned, being exposed to multiple pasts and violent histories, knowing many languages, and facing the withering self-consciousness of modern man. In the face of unrelenting displacement from a simpler, more traditional life, to forge a style is to confront the cosmos nakedly, in an unironic manner, whether you find your salvation in art or religion. Heaney continues to find it in both.

Not to be ungrateful to a poet whom I warmly admire, I find Electric Light to be just a touch complacent. In particular, Heaney's line is sometimes a little too lazy for my taste. Craving an urgent or a patient mastery, I recoil from the diffuseness of “The room I came from and the rest of us all came from / Stays pure reality where I stand alone, / Standing the passage of time, and she's asleep.”

The same problem of complacency, on the broader level of poetic structure, emerges in Heaney's bent for associative thinking. Too often he turns a sonnet or develops a poem by an association of thought, as if his second thought merely lay contiguous in his mind to the original thought, and he had progressed by this easy step rather than through the difficult work of achieving logical and imaginative unity. He can walk a fine line between being a metaphysical poet, yoking together dissimilar objects, and being a poet of fancy, carving small works from materials readily at hand. The metaphysical poet (“Known World”) can achieve a sense of inevitability; the poet of fancy (“Out of the Bag”) has not raised the stakes high enough to achieve the same effect.

There is a huge amount of fine writing on display in Heaney's exquisitely beautiful rendering of Virgil's ninth eclogue. Heaney's own “Glanmore Eclogue” is fertile, wonderfully understated, confident and expressive of much feeling. “On His Work in the English Tongue” is a strong elegy for Ted Hughes, the third section, in an idiom like the Anglo-Saxon “Wanderer,” being especially memorable. Much ignored, Pushkin's “Arion” finally receives some justice here. But it is Yeats, not Pushkin, who recedes before Heaney's own use of the Arion myth, as the poet describes a fellow writer's delight in the world: “like Arion / Arriving in off the waves, off the dolphin's back, / Oblivious-seeming, but taking it all in / And glad of another chance to believe his luck.” Blessings to the man who can say such things.

John Taylor (review date February 2002)

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SOURCE: Taylor, John. Review of Electric Light, by Seamus Heaney. Poetry 179, no. 5 (February 2002): 296-98.

[In the following review, Taylor appreciates Heaney's examination of the past in Electric Light, but laments the poet's apparent emotional distance from his subjects.]

Although Seamus Heaney includes fine lines celebrating landscape in Electric Light, this is not his most impressive collection. Several bookish poems enfeeble the overall impact of a volume comprising, even more than descriptive nature poetry, some engaging, thought-provoking reminiscence. This irregularity is a pity. The Irish poet's particular way of looking back merits attention. One wishes that he had produced a more unified collection devoted to recovering vanished events from his past.

He notably attempts, as an aging man, to re-experience childhood and early-adulthood perceptions in all their sensate fullness. When (in the opening poem) he looks down at water “pouring over the weir out of Lough Neagh,” he recalls a few telling incidents associated with the site. He then significantly yearns for the “slime and silver of the fattened eel” to reappear—a manifold symbol moreover involving his desire to enjoy “as once before” this synaesthetic perception. When a poet willingly seeks out this state of consciousness, wherein the past becomes present, and when he furthermore makes recovering lost time an integral part of the poem's theme and narrative structure, then certain emotions—melancholy, say, or regret—necessarily emerge. They need not even be made explicit. For Heaney, otherwise not an emotional poet, these implied feelings are crucial not only to the warmth, but also to the enduring psychological interest of the poem.

Several reminiscing verses are moving in this subtle, withheld way. Elsewhere, however, Electric Light veers into virtuosity. Alongside travel poems and clever adaptations from Dante and Virgil, for instance, are learned elegies to Joseph Brodsky, Zbigniew Herbert, and Ted Hughes. Composed with Heaney's sure craftsmanship, these elegies for his friends seem, in places, more exercises than deeply-felt memorials. The Brodsky remembrance employ, the same trochee meter as Auden used in the third part of his famous eulogy for Yeats—just one of several eye-winks to literary history. And in passages vividly sketching camaraderie (“In a train in Finland we / Talked last summer happily, / Swapping manuscripts and quips, / Both of us like cracking whips”), Heaney's bravura technique nonetheless vies for attention. Similarly, when he commemorates Herbert, he grandiloquently imitates Greco-Roman epitaphs. The homage to Ted Hughes is more complex. Still, distancing effects—a versified disquisition on Beowulf, a quotation from Czeslaw Milosz at the very end—compromise the poignancy.

In this regard, Heaney remains remote. Wit, erudition, and technical mastery distract him from the too-intimate; or rather, give him license to avoid it. For some readers, this stance may well represent a superior poetic strategy. Ever since Eliot's essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” it has of course been a prevailing modernist dogma that poetry is “not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.” In some poems of Electric Light, Heaney puts this idea to work quite brilliantly, yet at the expense of penetrating no further into mysterious castles, as it were, than their decorous, well-lit entryways.

Michael Glover (review date 6 April 2002)

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SOURCE: Glover, Michael. “A Force for Good.” Spectator 288, no. 9061 (6 April 2002): 32.

[In the following review, Glover offers a positive assessment of Finders Keepers: Selected Prose, noting that Heaney's poetry and criticism “has helped to keep the craft of poetry on the right, tight track.”]

Another year, another Heaney, ho-hum. I counted up 20-odd titles on the shelf just now. And this time it's not exactly a new book either. This hefty doorstop [Finders Keepers: Selected Prose] takes in material from three earlier collections of his prose published by Faber over the last three decades: Preoccupations,The Government of the Tongue and The Redress of Poetry. All these books were an appealing mixture of autobiographical reminiscence and literary criticism (the second and third were edited transcriptions of whole series of lectures)—and, unsurprisingly, that's pretty well what the new one is too.

Of course, there's some extra stuff—no self-respecting editor would want Heaney's old and faithful readers to go away gnashing their teeth and feeling cheated, would they?—a few more lectures, some reviews, various appreciations of writers … And a bit more about the relationship between literature, language and politics too this time, a subject about which Heaney has been a touch reticent in the past.

It's difficult to write about a poet like Heaney. So much has been said already, and at great and tedious length. He's so famous that he's almost an icon. If he were Warhol he'd have photographed himself in a scary white wig by now. Having won the Nobel Prize some years ago and, more recently, single-handedly breathed new life into the deadest and most unapproachable of the classics—I refer, of course, to that common scourge of literature courses, Beowulf—what else is there to be said about him?

Well, a recent approach has been to attack him on various grounds—his oft talked of (and up), somewhat soft-centred Irish rurality, for example (did he not spend far too much time breaking the skin on the pool of his tenderly recalled childhood self, and mooning over the assuaging effects of bogland?); the fact that, not noticeably being a woman himself, he seems to have shown scant regard for gender studies and the like. In fact, he's altogether pretty conventional in some respects really, isn't he, the way he scrutinises particular poems and particular poets with his microscopically finicky eye? Shouldn't we be doing something altogether different these days? Shouldn't we be raising our eyes from all those hard-to-read, dry-as-dust texts and taking in that dreadfully shaming post-colonial picture?

No, we should not, as it happens. Heaney, it has to be said, has been, and continues to be, a great force for good. While the last three decades have seen the visual arts descend into the modishness and cant of conceptualism, Heaney's example has helped to keep the craft of poetry on the right, tight track. He has kept his eye on the object: poems. As a champion of craft and close reading—savour, for example, his brilliant and exemplary explication of the poetry of John Clare in this book—he has helped to remind all lovers and practitioners of verse that there is no short cut to excellence, and that the past is of passionate importance to us. Without the past, the present is indefinable, almost unknowable, a wallow of mind-numbing particularities.

Admire the turns of phrase that he uses to describe Clare's great achievements: ‘its random swoop upon the momentary,’ for example. This happens all the time with Heaney, this seemingly effortless ability to coin the apposite turn of phrase. Why should we value Clare? he asks, and then proceeds to provide some cogent and convincing answers. Clare should be valued because of his undemonstrative, casual rightness, the sureness and the seeming nonchalance of the best of his short, rural poems, which run so counter to the accepted poetic speech of his times.

And why, in short, should we value the example of Heaney? Because he has argued for—and demonstrated through his own work—the importance of the art of poetry as a stay against what Joseph Brodsky once called ‘the vulgarity of the human heart.’ And how do poems get written anyway? The mind implodes; words, images rush into the vortex …

And that is as much as we need to know, brethren.


Heaney, Seamus (Vol. 14)


Heaney, Seamus (Vol. 5)