Seamus Heaney

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Seamus Heaney Nobel Prize in Literature

(Full name Seamus Justin Heaney) Born in 1939, Heaney is an Irish poet, critic, essayist, translator, and editor.

For further information on Heaney's life and career, see CLC, Volumes 5, 7, 14, 25, 37, and 74.

Widely considered Ireland's most accomplished contemporary poet, Heaney was awarded the Nobel Prize for what the Swedish Academy proclaimed his "works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past." In his works, Heaney often considers the role and responsibility a poet should play in society, exploring themes of self-discovery and spiritual growth and addressing political and cultural issues related to Irish history. His poetry is characterized by sensuous language, sexual metaphors, and nature imagery. Many critics agree with Robert Lowell's assessment of him as "the greatest Irish poet since Yeats."

Biographical Information

The eldest of nine children, Heaney was raised a Roman Catholic in Mossbawn, County Derry, a rural community in Northern Ireland. He once described himself as one of a group of Catholics in Northern Ireland who "emerged from a hidden, a buried life and entered the realm of education." At age eleven, Heaney left his family's farm to study at Saint Columb's College in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, where he had received a scholarship. In 1957 he attended Queen's University in Belfast, where he was introduced to Irish, American, and English literature and was particularly influenced by such poets as Ted Hughes, Patrick Kavanagh, and Robert Frost, whose poetry was significantly informed by their childhood experiences. While in college, Heaney contributed poems to university literary magazines under the pseudonym Incertus. After graduating from Queen's University with a first-class honors degree in English language and literature and a teaching certificate, he held 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 in 1966 of Death of a Naturalist, 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 he 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. He returned to teaching in 1975 as head of the English department at Caryfort College in Dublin. Heaney has traveled frequently to the United States to give poetry readings and, from 1989 to 1994, he served as a professor of poetry at Oxford and was appointed Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard University.

Major Works

Heaney's earliest works evince sensuous memories associated with nature and with his childhood on his family's farm. In such poems as "Digging," from Death of a Naturalist, Heaney evokes the Irish countryside and comments on the care and skill with which his father and ancestors farmed the land. Nature is also a prominent theme in his next volume, Door into the Dark (1969) in which several poems focus on the work of rural laborers. Critics have praised the poem "Undine," for example, in which Heaney 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. Included in his collections Wintering Out (1972) and North (1975), for example, are a series of "bog poems" that were inspired by the archaeological excavation of...

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Irish peat bogs containing preserved human bodies that had been ritually slaughtered during the Iron Age. Heaney depicts the victims of such ancient pagan rites as symbolic of the bloodshed caused by contemporary violence in Ireland. In such poems as "Ocean's Love to Ireland" and "Act of Union," Heaney portrays the English colonization of Ireland as an act of violent sexual conquest. Some critics believe that Heaney's most effective poetry emphasizes personal themes of self-determination and poetic imagination. While many of the poems inField Work (1979)—including such elegies as "The Strand at Lough Beg," "A Post-Card from North Antrim," and "Casualty"—continue to address the unrest in Northern Ireland, they incorporate a personal tone as Heaney depicts the loss of friends and relatives to the violence. Irish history and myth are frequently incorporated in Heaney's works, including his prose poem Sweeney Astray (1984), which is based on the medieval Irish tale of King Sweeney, who was transformed from a warrior-king into a bird as the result of a curse. Some critics have interpreted the figure of King Sweeney as a representation of the artist torn between imaginative freedom and the constraints of religious, political, and domestic obligations, reflecting Heaney's concern with the role of the poet in society. Irish history is also an important motif in a sequence of allegorical poems entitled "Station Island," included in his 1984 collection of the same title. 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. Critics have also praised the privately emotional tone of The Haw Lantern (1987), a collection that includes parables of Irish life and a series of poems entitled "Clearances" in which Heaney explores memories of his relationship with his mother. In such poems as "From the Republic of Conscience" and "From the Canton of Expectation," he meditates on spirituality in the context of a menacing political climate. Seeing Things (1991) also diverges from Heaney's previous emphasis on politics and civic responsibility, returning to the autobiographical themes of childhood experience and Irish community ritual. Feelings of loss and yearning are prominent motifs in the collection, as many poems evoke celebratory images of Heaney's deceased father, who appears frequently throughout the volume. Critics have cited "Squarings," a sequence comprising four sections each containing twelve twelve-line poems, as exemplary of Heaney's stylistic and technical virtuosity. Although some commentators have faulted Seeing Things for its presentation of elusive images and themes that eschew critical interpretation, many have praised the volume for its imaginative qualities and its focus on visionary transcendence experienced through ordinary life events.

Critical Response

Critical response to Heaney's work has been predominately positive and enthusiastic. Comparisons between his work and that of other Irish writers—William Butler Yeats in particular—but also James Joyce and Samuel Beckett have proliferated. Harold Bloom called Heaney's poem "The Harvest Bow," which praises marriage, "a perfect lyric." And John Gross has stated that Heaney "has all the primary gifts of a poet, and they are gifts put at the service of a constant meditation on primary themes, on nature and history and moral choice."

Principal Works

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Eleven Poems (poetry) 1965Death of a Naturalist (poetry) 1966Room to Rhyme [with Dairo Hammond and Michael Longley] (poetry) 1968Door into the Dark (poetry) 1969A Lough Neagh Sequence (poetry) 1969Boy Driving His Father to Confession (poetry) 1970Night Drive (poetry) 1970Land (poetry) 1971Servant Boy (poetry) 1971Wintering Out (poetry) 1972Boy Poems (poetry) 1975Fire i' the Flint: Reflections on the Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins (criticism) 1975North (poetry) 1975Stations (poetry) 1975In Their Element: A Selection of Poems [with Derek Mahon] (poetry) 1977After Summer (poetry) 1978The Making of a Music: Reflections on the Poetry of Wordsworth and Yeats (criticism) 1978Robert Lowell: A Memorial Address and Elegy (nonfiction) 1978Field Work (poetry) 1979Hedge School: Sonnets from Glanmore (poetry) 1979Ugolino (poetry) 1979Poems: 1965–1975 (poetry) 1980; also published as Selected Poems 1965–1975, 1980Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968–1978 (essays) 1980Sweeney Praises the Trees (poetry) 1981An Open Letter (poetry) 1983Hailstones (poetry) 1984Station Island (poetry) 1984Sweeney Astray: A Version from the Irish [translator and adaptor] (poetry and prose) 1984Verses for a Fordham Commencement (poetry) 1984From the Republic of Conscience (poetry) 1985The Haw Lantern (poetry) 1987The Government of the Tongue: The 1986 T. S. Eliot Memorial Lectures, and Other Critical Writings (essays) 1988; also published as The Government of the Tongue: Selected Prose, 1978–1987, 1988The Cure at Troy: A Version of Sophocles' Philoctetes (drama) 1990New Selected Poems: 1966–1987 (poetry) 1990The Place of Writing (prose) 1990The Tree Clock (poetry) 1990Seeing Things (poetry) 1991The Redress of Poetry (essays) 1995


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Mary Kinzie (essay date Fall 1988)

SOURCE: "Deeper than Declared: On Seamus Heaney," in Salmagundi, No. 80, Fall, 1988, pp. 22-57.

[Kinzie is an American poet, critic, and educator. In the following excerpt, she analyzes the imagery and syntax of Heaney's poetry, focusing on the epic poem, "Station Island."]

"Was there a 'misalliance,'" asks Seamus Heaney of Robert Lowell, "between the gift and the work it was harnessed to do?" [see Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968–1978]. To ask the question is to suggest an affirmative reply: The vivid occasion in Lowell was ever straining toward meditation, the verbal breakdowns toward a state of Horatian health (and, one could say, vice versa). Heaney's sensitivity to this "misalliance" is revealing, since he, too, the best known poet to come out of Ireland since Yeats, hankers after a species of court dress and bardic intonation, for which almost everything in his unconscious music automatically disqualifies him. So, too, do Heaney's authentic gifts as a chronicler of the rough, marshy landscapes and family farms of Ulster ill prepare him to write the large-scale politico-religious work. Yet the misalliance is not without its hard-won triumphs.

"Station Island" is a curious poetic sequence, poignant in parts, powerful in others, but disjointed and bottled up, as if the poet could not commit himself to its deeper drift. Nor is emotion liberated by the liberal confidentiality of some of the poems. Feeling is still largely numbed with remorse, and the poems float in loose, nominal relation to one another despite Heaney's almost anxious reverence for nets and skeins of meaning. Allusions to more thoroughgoing systems of belief than his own are constantly made. Dante is present, both in the nagging background of current politics and in the variable terza rima of four of the twelve poems (the triplets of the fine poem about the young priest are near enough the terza rima norm to serve as a distant fifth); and Dante's presence is also felt in the grotesquerie of the premise that the dead masters and friends and political victims—those violently dead still bearing the marks of their deaths on their bodies—can come forward to speak with Heaney. But he does not judge, or assign his dead to circles, or give them activities that measure their sins, their expiation, or their blessedness. The afterlife is a convenient fiction, and Dante's influence a matter of shards, since his minor premise is honored, that the living may speak with the dead, but not his theism, let alone his theology. [In a Footnote, Kinzie continues: "Field Work is also haunted by Dante. The two longest poems are the Dante translation called 'Ugolino' and 'The Strand at Lough Beg,' which gives us a new 'reading' of Vergil's tender washing of Dante's face with his hands dipped in dew from the grass near the inexhaustible reeds, as Heaney pictures bathing his murdered cousin in the moss strikingly pictured as 'Fine as a drizzle out of a low cloud.' A third poem, 'An Afterwards,' is parodically based on Dante (the poet's wife consigns all poets to hell). There are three further allusions in the volume; the one in 'Leavings' lightly captures the whole Dantean feeling of fatedness—in the crime, the penance, and the instigating personality—as Heaney wonders how Thomas Cromwell will be punished for the crime of smashing the idols, replacing stained glass in all the chapels of England with clear panes: 'Which circle does he tread, / scalding on cobbles, / each one a broken statue's head?'"]

Similarly, Heaney is pursuing a series of expiatory "stations" traditionally aimed at placing the moral weaknesses of the "pilgrim" under avid, pious attack. But although this pilgrim regrets his failings, primarily those that stem from apolitical indifference or disengagement, he is not interested in examining the flawed instrument. He does not aim to school the ego, nor to pacify the will. His penitential guise is almost prideful, as if to prove Johnson's dictum that "All censure of a man's self is oblique praise. It is in order to show how much he can spare."

Finally, Heaney's "Station Island" poems obsessively fasten on the idea of mortality, without seriously questioning its meaning. Whenever ultimate meaning is required, Poetry automatically steps in. Indeed, it is hygienically described, in a passage where putrefaction and decay are celebrated, as the process of cleaning out life's wounds as by the action of maggots: "another life that cleans our element." But this purifying role of verse is asserted rather than argued. There is some disappointment, therefore, when we catch the notes of disembodied reverence with which the poet-pilgrim "faces into" his stations. For he does not address the redemptive function of this other ritual, either. The nearest he comes to acknowledging the purpose of the Station Island retreat occurs in the young missionary' elliptical suggestion that Heaney must be here on the Island not to humble himself to God but to bid God farewell. "'What possessed you?'" the dead priest asks the poet, his grammar twisting as his thought worms through:

     '… all this you were clear of you walked into      over again. And the god has, as they say, withdrawn.      What are you doing, going through these motions?      Unless … Unless …' Again he was short of breath      and his whole fevered body yellowed and shook.      'Unless you are here taking the last look.'                               ("Station Island," IV)

Nowhere else in the sequence do we find God even nostalgically brought in. Not that the poems lack their Satanic figures. A little-known writer named William Carleton, Protestant convert, angry, bitter, blustering, is one, who undertakes the rough, stressed Anglo-Saxon attitudes familiar from Heaney's earlier volumes:

       hard-mouthed Ribbonmen and Orange bigots        made me into the old fork-tongued turncoat        who mucked the byre of their politics.

Another minor demon is the tinker Simon Sweeney, who first appears with a bow-saw in his arms "held / stiffly up like a lyre," a gesture which should betoken blessing. But he shows his truer form when he reminds the poet of the latter's childhood fear of him in a simile that fairly shudders with the aversion his person inspired. When

       woodsmoke sharpened air        or ditches rustled        you sensed my trail there        as if it had been sprayed.

Yet in the last six stanzas of this poem, which opens the "Station Island" suite, Heaney succumbs to the vaporous apparitions of shawled women moving in wet fields through the rags of moisture that make up this poet's atmospheric element. The women's chaunt convokes his dead in a "loosed congregation." We lose sight of the "old Sabbath-breaker"; a last chaffing command to "'Stay clear of all processions!'" is Simon Sweeney's only attempt to shed light on his encounter with the poet, whose mind he can read. This bending of the poems' design under the weight of tangent and digression is a particular mark of the "Station Island" poems, showing how delicate a task of convocation Heaney has set himself.

Demonic too are the shadowy assassins, both Protestant and Catholic, whose victims confront Heaney with their accusing wounds. In fact, one might conjecture that his real demons are these self-accusations emanating from the world where others act and die. Even his style grows demonic in its exorbitance:

       Strange polyp floated like a huge corrupt        Magnolia bloom, surreal as a shed breast,        My softly awash and blanching self-disgust.

Self-disgust has a political cast, cowardice a wilting reminder of public reticence. "Forgive," he asks, "my timid circumspect involvement"; "I hate how quick I was to know my place." The affairs of Ulster (the older name of Northern Ireland that encodes the indigenous heroic tradition) press upon Seamus Heaney as matters of conscience, but no more strongly than it appears they have been pressed upon him by his more engaged readers. And "Station Island" was to have been the poem where he would "be facing the North and getting shut of it" [see Frances X. Clines, interview with Seamus Heaney, The New York Times Magazine (13 March 1983), p. 99]. Yet he draws a veil of inconclusive poignancy over the IRA killer whose whole life was lived in the context of weapons and guerrilla war. In a sleeping vision framed in elegant, moody pentameter whose unobtrusive and slant rhymes trace an equally unobtrusive sonnet pattern, Heaney sees the dead man laid out, smells the very mildew

       From the byre loft where he watched and hid        From fields his draped coffin would raft through.        Unquiet soul, they should have buried you        In the bog where you threw your first grenade,        Where only helicopters and curlews        Make their maimed music, and sphagnum moss        Could teach you its medicinal repose.                               ("Station Island," IX)

Would his soul thereafter begin to be healed of its rancors, absolved of its crimes? Or would the invading helicopters, their blades slapping the air, drown even the interred one in their looming modern racket? The questions can be answered only by recognizing, first, how tempered the diction is, smoothing the roughness of helicopters by matching its consonants with a semantically more muffled lexicon whose sounds are metallic, but not whose meanings (unquiet, coffin, curlews), just as grenade is softened down among the wet places of bog and sphagnum. Next one would note how the metaphor of ghostly palimpsest lays future over past with an air of visionary mourning; the temporal carrier is the rural landscape, where the underground soldier grew up, and held out: "the byre loft where he watched and hid / From fields his draped coffin would raft through." The uncommon verb raft suggests not only the watery gliding of the bier but also the kindred sluicing audible in more common past participles like reft (bereft) and rift, both of which owe something to tearing, especially as extended to the heart.

Finally, one should remark how the natural world ironically opens to accept even insoluble paradoxes, burning them down to harmonies, recasting itself out of the contraries. The helicopters' cacophony is literally subdued to the level of the curlews' cries, the bog swallows the sound of the grenade, silence falls into the vacuum torn out by combat: "'an ambush / Stillness I felt safe in settled around me.'" At times, it appears the only constant in Heaney's world is the natural landscape, moist, overcast, luxuriant, which lends itself to the individual's terms without infringing on its own enormities. In the moving elegy on Barney Murphy that forms the major part of "Station Island," V (Murphy was Heaney's schoolmaster, whose school was razed to reclaim the land for farming), the old master's asthmatic breath "rushed the air softly as scythes in his lost meadows." The classical and biblical seriousness of the diction gives authority to the kindly overlap of natural with human processes. In a harsher style, the poor insurgent in IX speaks of his spiritual decay in somatic terms equally magnetized by the rural milieu; his tropes go back to Heaney's bog folk whose mummification in the peat was quite literal:

      'My brain dried like spread turf, my stomach       Shrank to a cinder and tightened and cracked.       Often I was dogs on my own track       Of blood on wet grass that I could have licked.'

Here is an overlay of a different sort, as the thirsty, starving, bleeding outlaw changes places with his ravenous trackers—yet another example of nature's polymorphous sway. And in more daring elegiac fashion, the most tawdry items of contemporary technology (car, helicopter, gun, bomb, grenade) are subsumed by the seasonal-natural machine. The first part of "Station Island," IX can stand with "The Tollund Man," "Funeral Rights," and "Kinship"; with the two strong laments in Field Work, "The Toome Road" and "The Strand at Lough Beg"; and, from the more recent volume, with "The First Flight" and the superbly ironic "Sandstone Keepsake," as one of Seamus Heaney's finest politically oriented works.

But the rest of the poem raises the spectre of ambivalence on a second front as well. The entire last half, from the third sonnet to the fifth, makes no reference to the young warrior, but instead breaks into a medley of dream-anguishes with three different tenors and three different styles. First the dream shows the muddy flood of self-disgust (the polyp-breast image, quoted earlier), which is followed by a hiatus during which his heart revives, only to be oppressed by the tangential memory, still within the dream, of an old brass trumpet Heaney found in a barn but was too self-effacing to take ("a mystery / I shied from then for I thought such trove beyond me"—his boyhood persona is almost too good to be true). Then the last sonnet/paragraph, strewn with self-castigations, closes with the abrupt attempt, by means of a shorthand epiphany, to haul the whole complex weight of the preceding 70 lines under a dome of shining sweetness:

       'I hate how quick I was to know my place.        I hate where I was born, hate everything        That made me biddable and unforthcoming,'        I mouthed at my half-composed face        In the shaving mirror, like somebody        Drunk in the bathroom during a party,        Lulled and repelled by his own reflection.        As if the cairnstone could defy the cairn.        As if the eddy could reform the pool.        As if a stone swirled under a cascade,        Eroded and eroding in its bed,        Could grind itself down to a different core.        Then I thought of the tribe whose dances never fail        For they keep dancing till they sight the deer.

To dance until something miraculous happens in the world, or until one drops, is a brave extreme to undergo, but I do not know that Heaney proposes to do this (he merely "thought of" it). Nor do I see the immediate link between the deer-invocation and the need to reform a weak character. There is a little casuistry under the attractive imagery of cascade and woodland dance, just as there is a little evasion in the stylishly flat self-confrontation in the shaving mirror, when Heaney at once mocks and approves his own chagrin. The question of responsibility is deflected, to one side determinism ("As if a cairnstone could defy the cairn"), to the other guilt ("Lulled and repelled by his own reflection").

Although they do not readily imply or support one another, the two halves of this poem do have the dim, infernal relation of photograph to negative. And perhaps what makes the young guerrilla of the first two sonnets attractive to Heaney is his complete lack of self-pity: His self-regard is of a cosmic sort, like the Croppies' of 1798: "The hillside blushed, soaked in our broken wave" ["Requiem for the Croppies," Door into the Dark (1969)]. The two Irishmen touch by virtue of their temperamental exclusions. The barn where Heaney found the brass trumpet eerily reminds us of the bog where the other boy threw his first grenade, one an object of white magic and sentimentality, the other of black magic and damnation. The polyp of self-disgust that luxuriates in sexual folds in the second half is the metaphoric and stylistic and, indeed, spiritual 'positive' of that dried-out brain and stomach tight as a cinder with which the poem strongly begins. It is as if action (dark, desiccated) were being opposed to thought (glistening and spongy).

But such oppositions are perhaps too beguiling in their dialectical neatness; they tend to smother thought. Had Heaney not known his place, for example (and who knows what conditions would have conspired in such a character change?), had he been more forthcoming, less docile ("biddable"), would he have joined the IRA and eschewed poetry? What, then? He hints, I think unconvincingly, that he might have been readier to make something of his tribal knowledge, to act or sympathize, independent of violent cadres—to dance—until he saw justice done. Although this might not have insured that justice was done, it would, the parable implies, have given him an easier conscience. Collaterally, the ambivalences that prompt such cutting of corners in the realm of self-knowledge rather mar this cumbersome second group of sonnets.

The same confrontation between beauty of thought and efficacy of deed—perfection of the work or of the life—occurs in the second half of another "Station Island" poem devoted to Heaney's cousin Colum McCartney, arbitrarily killed by Protestants. A kind youth who shied away even from the spent cartridges left by hunters, he accuses the poet of manipulating "artistic tact" until it becomes "evasion." He claims that his cousin, in his splendid elegy in Field Work, "The Strand at Lough Beg,"

       '… whitewashed ugliness and drew        the lovely blinds of the Purgatorio        and saccharined my death with morning dew.'

The deprecatory judgment is half-hearted: It is undercut by Heaney's style. The beauty for which he has his dead cousin castigate him irrepressibly enters the rhetoric and the stately prosody of the condemnation itself. Reminiscent of Robert Lowell's dismissal of his high rhetorical mode in "The Dolphin" as mere "set-piece, set-piece," McCartney's speech in "Station Island," VIII is an attempt on the poet's part to devalue all fine speech, for it is not true grief. Then, as if to prove that he is not putting himself above his own experience, Heaney as the pilgrim lets his guard down and invites into the poem a note of whining and a flawed prosaism. When McCartney claims that even strangers showed more agitation than his cousin did, the poet replies in dialogue made doubly brittle by the recuperated grand cadences of the second pair of lines:

           'But they were getting crisis        first-hand, Colum, they had happened in on        live sectarian assassination.        I was dumb, encountering what was destined.'

Heaney countenances this patent ineptitude of emotion, and of style, in an effort to absolve himself of the finished flourish of his earlier elegy and, by "standing up for life against art, implicitly defend [ ] the bulk and flux of the less finished work."

Like Lowell, whom he thus describes, Heaney also has phases in which he would commit himself to the fragmentary over the finished. For anything more than fragments will falsify the brokenness and insolubility of experience—and do so in a way that amounts to complicity with the forces of repression, inactivity, and decay. (The only poem acceptable to the Left may eventually be the completely ill-written and inchoate one. Memory, tradition, and especially the literary memory, are suspect: Over a dismantled lobster in "Away from It All," another poem of postprandial funk like the "Oysters" of Field Work, "quotations start to rise / / like rehearsed alibis.") Heaney is clearly ambivalent toward the grand modes and the traditional genres like elegy that permit breadth and sweep of utterance, because there one speaks from a stable position that can risk general statements, uphold with moderate confidence social and moral standards, relish aesthetic design, and reside in a context of literary history, hence comfortably make allusions. Ironically, it is these modes, designed to permit the poet to say what is possible on the categorically impossible occasions (of war, death, love, awe), which now indict the writer of conservatism. "The political implications of lyric art are quite reactionary," Heaney says. "You are saying to people, 'Everything's all right'" [Clines interview, p. 104].

But even in the beginning of Seamus Heaney's own lyric art, everything was not, in this sense, all right. His poems are not straightforward heterocosms, attentive solely to their own purity of form and feeling. Even when most absorbed in the lyrical moment, he has often been impelled to thicken and adulterate the brew. To label this impulse with political motives is to ignore the longstanding urge to roughen, which early on had personal rather than chauvinist motives. Heaney has always been drawn two ways, toward high rhetoric and toward low, toward expansive meditation and toward crippled epigram, toward standard speech and dialect. His poetry grounds itself in dichotomy—which has a decidedly unbalancing effect on the verse, like that of an unpaved track on a fragile carriage—yet the unbalancing itself falls pleasingly on his ear. This is a sign of the authenticity of his divided attention, torn between the attitudes of adult reason and childlike genius, between the sounds of English and of Irish speech, the claims of tradition and the individual psychology, and, as the well-known pair of poems in North embodies the dichotomy, between the figures of Hercules and Antaeus.

In one of the most splendid examples of poetic criticism by any writer since Eliot, Heaney in his prose collection Preoccupations constructs elegant and persuasive tension-emblems to elucidate the work of his forbears and contemporaries. Yeats and Wordsworth beautifully offset one another as examples of the combative and the entranced poet. Hopkins is countered by Keats, Dylan Thomas, even Blake, as if, whatever the angle he is seen from, Hopkins cannot help sounding artificial—however seductive one finds the artifice, as Heaney admits that he does. He opposes allegory to symbol as waking to sleeping consciousness, fire and flint to oozing matrix, Christian man to natural man, Latin to Celtic thinking, and the polysyllable to the monosyllable. To this roster of paired antinomies from the pages of Preoccupations, we can add:

reason versus feeling
assertion suggestion
discourse pre-verbal intimation
acting out listening in
concept imagination
proposition incantation
England Ireland
adult child
consonants vowels
male female
the arched back the copious lap (of language)
disciplina pagus
library lair
literacy (intellect) illiteracy (instinct)
Patrick Oisin
empire local piety
flint ooze
poem as conductor poem as crucible
honeycomb swarm
craft (tradition) technique (individual)

"Poetry of any power," he writes in his essay on Irish nature poetry, "is always deeper than its declared meaning." According to the pattern of contraries above, the "declared meaning" of any work would be opposed to something like its "whispered meaning"—something hummed under the breath that makes the passage of the breath itself more touchingly apparent. For it is the gift of the undeclared and undeclarative poetic instinct to hear how it will say as the precondition to what.

Note that it is the author who identifies himself primarily with a fluent, feminine, pre-conscious, oozing, yielding mentality who is responsible for this tight trellis of opposing categories. I don't think this is unusual. Like many who live in tempo with the deeps (symbol, instinct, ooze, crucible), Heaney also thinks according to a few old dualisms collapsed into each other like a honeycomb, with surprisingly little intellectual resistance. Although not all the left-and right-hand items match up—for example, Patrick was not English, incantation is not audition—nevertheless, Catholicism shares with Protestantism a rigor which Oisin the natural man opposes: The convinced pagan recoils at the dank chill of disciplina. And in the context of the strong, active, masculine traits of acting-out and proposition-making, the right-hand items incantation and listening-in share the quality of receptive patience. Nor is Irish a vowel-oriented language; Heaney remarks that the Ulster accent is especially consonantal and Hopkinsian. Yet that fluidity, which the vowel requires the consonant to shape and to bound, is like the naive and passive aspects of the national character, which the English were so ruthless in exploiting. There is no doubt that the left-hand column is construed pejoratively.

So the Englishman in Heaney, the well-read, discursive, persuasive if not imperious and form-loving poet—the one who approved the antinomies on the list, the one who makes elegies and sonnets, whose poems are sharp and edged and inter-nested with meaning—is constantly being ambushed (to his own applause) by the woodkern who is all sound irrespective of sense, whose words are runes, magical but serrated, who was just born, hence remembers the oceanic feeling that links him with the ages prior to, or ignorant of, writing.

So which self is it who writes, in "Old Pewter" (Station Island):

Glimmerings are what the soul's composed of, Fogged-up challenges, far conscience-glitters and hang-dog, half-truth earnests of true love?

The theme of evanescent soul-stuff and the pile-up of nonce-phrases could almost suggest Robert Browning, although the third line would then not come on us so sharply; Browning was more rangy and circumspect about his soft climaxes. Heaney has a similar way of secreting qualities, layer upon deeply embroidered layer, in the line. Now that his lines are so much longer than they were in North, the layering of descriptive design may sound more Victorian than it once did. Or which kind of poem is it—the poem that commands and transmits, or the poem that swarms and bubbles—in which the poet fondly relishes the mixed series that abound in Station Island: "Granite is jaggy, salty, punitive / / and exacting"; a woman's low neckline is "inviolable and affronting"; Thomas Hardy has a "ghost life" that is "unperturbed, reliable"; morning has a "distancing, inviolate expanse"? Or consider the simply baffling reference to "sexprimed and unfurtherable moss-talk." Clearly, these packed polysyllabic clusters engage the poet, at some level, in the process of ratio, the root of the propositional and conceptual column. But it is as if he wished to borrow from that range of speech-acts only the rhythms and nuances of diction, not the words' denotative function (although obviously meaning is not altogether ignored). Perhaps Heaney is hoping to reform these polysyllables by tumbling them down the ragged cataract of his lists. Reform them, that is, from their bureaucratic flatness, undo the process by which they were first compounded—paganize them. Unfortunately, as long as meaning clings to these polysyllables, sense will count, and the fancily involuted sound of "inanition" will not warrant its use in the recondite mixed metaphor, "between / balance and inanition," applied to "the light at the rim of the sea" in "Away from It All." On the level of ratio, the phrase is pedantic and obscure; on that of inspiratio (to coin a counterfeit etymology), it is part of some indigenous rhythm that goes on forever, deeper than what is being declared, when this poet works, and which elsewhere falls into happier synchrony with his rhetoric.

Heaney's sound has ever been hard rather than musical or melodic, just as his discursive authority had tended to extrude into density rather than strike through it. He is a poet of feelings that are the emotional counterpart to a regional dialect in speech, for he is entrained to very particular kinds of place, texture, tone, color, mood, weather, soil, and light, and able to say how their nuances relate, almost as a geologist might. The bond to his favorite locales would seem much deeper—for it seeps out everywhere—than the sympathy upheld by Auden in his "In Praise of Limestone." Heaney also sounds in his work remarkably good-tempered, despite the toughness of many poems. They are tough in their elocution, not in their sentiment. (The reverse is true of Ted Hughes, from whom he takes fire in many of his first poems.) So it is easy to see why Heaney is fired by contraries, for they provide a drama that is not inherent in his character. To the poems that otherwise tend toward exclamation and the hyperbole of repetition (the early "Churning Day," with its lavish play on the short u among plosive consonants, is a good example), they add the electricity of argument-with-the-self (as happens in "Blackberry-Picking," where the hard facts and the muffled antithetical claims of the couplet pull him out of the thick tangle of vegetative life toward general precept).

Thus at the same time as these tensions are honestly come by, they do have their redolence of the lamp. Heaney's solutions to what he perceives as a basic division in his being may differ from book to book, yet the forces between which he must negotiate remain surprisingly constant, almost as if refueled and refurbished from time to time. The "Station Island" sequence is riddled with ambivalences of theme and tone pursuant to the effort to challenge the private being in light of the public, to make the intuitive self the measure of the learned public man.

Henry Hart (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: An introduction to Seamus Heaney: Poet of Contrary Progressions, Syracuse University Press, 1992, pp. 1-8.

[Hart is an American critic and educator. In the following essay, his introduction to Seamus Heaney, he examines Heaney's development as a poet, focusing on his position in—and his reactions to—Ireland's literary and political history.]

Few twentieth-century poets writing in English have been able to secure a wide audience among general readers and critics alike. After W. B. Yeats, only Robert Frost achieved such bipartisan acclaim, although for many years scholars denigrated Frost beside the intellectually more sophisticated modernists. In a culture where films, television shows, and compact discs have usurped the monopoly on communication that books once enjoyed, a popular poet is rare. Maintaining an "international reputation," as a writer in The Observer recently commented, "is a tricky business…. It takes a special gift to win hearts on both sides of the Atlantic and no one now possesses it quite like Seamus Heaney" [21 June 1987, p. 7]. With the publication of each new volume, the critical consensus grows that Heaney is not only the most gifted poet in Ireland and Britain, but also the most critically respected poet writing in English today.

The anonymous Observer writer, echoing claims made by Robert Lowell, Helen Vendler, and Harold Bloom, entitled his article "Poet Wearing the Mantle of Yeats" and mischievously drew attention to those among the Irish who "suspect he's already a better poet than Yeats." Mantles obfuscate as well as illuminate, and Yeats's mantle on Heaney is both burden and honor. As Heaney's readers and critics proliferate, so do his different mantles—his different masks and identities—and so do the conflicting appraisals of his work. Those who suspect that Heaney's popularity lies in the common demand for one Irish bard per generation argue that he is a minor Dylan Thomas whose talent as a poetic "ornamentalist" with "a fine way with language" lacks substance [see A. Alvarez, "A Fine Way with the Language," New York Review of Books, 6 March 1980, pp. 16-17]. For others he is a pastoralist whose homely portraits of rural Irish life attract both curiosity and sympathy but are ultimately sentimental. Others believe his appeal arises from his position as political spokesman for Northern Ireland's perpetual Troubles, while those in the opposite camp claim that his poetry amounts to a culpable escape from those Troubles. For some he writes a romantic poetry of transcendence, for others a classic one of principled social engagement. With regard to the Catholic religion in which he was reared, some say his poetry is still regressively steeped in sacrificial symbols and rituals; others declare that, like James Joyce, he has flown above the nets of religion for a more objective anthropological view. For those critics who demand allegories from their writers Heaney obliges by making his poems speak for religious, political, linguistic, sexual, and literary matters all at once. For those who believe allegory is mechanical and simplistic, bastardizing rather than legitimately representing history, Heaney is just the latest mythmaker in a long line of Irish mystifiers.

His complexity, understandably, leads to debate about what he stands for, what kind of poet he really is, and whether the ethical and aesthetic standards exemplified in his verse are meritorious or meretricious. He is so elusive, in fact, that while his wife can attest to his "magical ring of confidence" and his sense of security which, to her, is "like an egg contained within a shell, without any quality of otherness, without the sense of loss that this otherness brings" [see Polly Devlin, All of Us There, 1983, pp. 16-17] other less intimate observers declare that the personality behind the poems is wracked with anxiety, uncertainty, fear, anger, and painful self-consciousness. Heaney may not like wearing Yeats's mantle. Nevertheless, his poetry vacillates between antinomies as persistently as his precursor's. Like the Irish history that saturates it from beginning to end, his poetry is a battleground of competing affiliations. In a passage Heaney likes to quote from Yeats, and one that applies to much of his own work, his countryman remarked: "We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry. Unlike the rhetoricians, who get a confident voice from remembering the crowd they have won or may win, we sing amid our uncertainty" [Mythologies, 1959, p. 331]. Yet for Heaney poetry and rhetoric, art and politics, are entangled rather than distinct, merging and emerging as rhythmically as the uncertainty that underlies them.

At the root of his work is a multifaceted argument with himself, with others, with sectarian Northern Ireland, with his Anglo-Irish heritage, and with his Roman Catholic, nationalist upbringing on a farm in County Derry. As he follows Yeats in striving for "unity of being," mapping out the embattled factions in his nation and psyche, he is descriptive as well as prescriptive. He diagnoses Irish ills, suggests cures (like dismantling his country's archaic hierarchies so that different religious and political groups can engage creatively rather than murderously), then withdraws to let legislators and law enforcers put the plan into practice. He realizes his agenda may be utopian and that his personal renunciation of overt political action may be taken as a cop-out (at least by "the noisy set / Of bankers, school-masters, and clergymen / The martyrs call the world" in Yeats's "Adam's Curse" [in The Poems, 1983, p. 80]). Nevertheless, he stands by the artist's right to choose one devotion over another. With Stephen Dedalus he will "forge the uncreated conscience of his race" [A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, 1916] in art rather than in government, although the blueprint for better governance will be scored into his poems for anybody to examine.

Behind Heaney's noble principles, however, is the worry that, as W. H. Auden proclaimed, "poetry makes nothing happen," that "it survives / In the valley of its making where executives / Would never want to tamper" [Selected Poetry of W. H. Auden, 1971, p. 53], that art rather than reform only exacerbates the dominant authorities. So Heaney's poems, to borrow current critical terms, are assiduously self-reflexive, self-consuming, self-deconstructing. They search for images and answers for Irish problems and submit them to intense critical scrutiny. What they set up they tend to knock down. Deploying a different metaphor, Heaney likes to quote Robert Frost on this process of composition by decomposition: "like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting." Similarly, "the poem … a linguistic exploration whose tracks melt as it maps its own progress" [Preoccupations, pp. 80-1]. The moral value of this poetry that vigilantly investigates cultural dilemmas but then dissolves its solutions and that deconstructs the ancient hierarchies and oedipal struggles between "patriarchal" British Protestants and "matriarchal" Irish Catholics bothers Heaney because it fails to articulate concrete political resolutions for Ireland. Of Yeats, Auden elegiacally commented in "In Memory of W. B. Yeats," "Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry" [Selected Poetry, p. 53]. Looking back on his career, which gained momentum during the Catholic civil rights movement in the sixties and the resurgence of I.R.A. attacks and Protestant counterattacks in the early seventies, Heaney intimates that if "Mad Ireland" had hurt him into politics he would feel less anxious. Politics, for better or for worse, makes things happen.

This kind of argument in which opposite views compel and repel Heaney with equal force begins with his first book, Death of a Naturalist. Here and in some of the uncollected poems printed when he was a student at Queen's University in Belfast he expresses a bittersweet nostalgia for his childhood on the farm in Derry. As in the pastoral tradition that stretches from Frost and Dylan Thomas (two of Heaney's early models) back to Virgil and Theocritus, Heaney depicts his rural, agrarian home ground as his golden age or Eden. As soon as pastoral enchantment wells up in him, however, he represses it with grim recognitions of farming in Ireland and the sectarian battles erupting or about to erupt just outside the farms' ditches and hedges. As he struggles to free himself from Mother Ireland's womblike pastures and reconcile himself with the historical facts of Father Britain's depredations, Heaney imagines himself as both an Adam falling from Eden into a knowledge of agonizing divisions and an oedipal child contending with both biological and cultural parents. His quest for fatherhood and poethood travels a dialectical path between pastoral and antipastoral traditions. Although he elegizes his early, innocent naturalism, which is traditional pastoralism thinly disguised, its death prepares the way for a more mature naturalism in tune with the struggles raging all around him.

Without the recognition of rural hardship, Heaney's poetry of agrarian ways would have floundered in the mists of another Celtic Twilight. Similarly, his meditational via negativas in Door into the Dark would have seemed solipsistic or narcissistic if they did not illuminate the psychological motives and consequences of meditation. While Heaney draws on the sort of Catholic meditation institutionalized by such divines as St. Ignatius Loyola and St. John of the Cross and updated for him by Evelyn Underhill and Thomas Merton, and while he sympathetically records sacred moments in the mystic's "dark night" (the altarlike anvil wreathed with sparks in "The Forge," the grass flaming in "In Gallarus Oratory"), his spiritual marriages are between imagination and unconscious rather than soul and Christ. His argumentative and iconoclastic way is to counter orthodox Catholic meditations by emphasizing their secular correlatives. As poetry replaces religion, Heaney demystifies the divine Word by transforming it into the poetic word. If Platonic and Judeo-Christian tradition has tended to denigrate writing as a cumbersome, improper medium for communicating sacred mysteries, Heaney, like his poststructuralist peers, contradicts that bias by deploying writing as a principal way to excavate the ground from which mysteries and prejudices have always burgeoned.

Realizing that pastoralism and mysticism have flourished primarily because of linguistic conventions and their power to evade or transcend the real world's troubles, Heaney in Wintering Out plunges even more methodically into language in order to expose its collusions with those troubles. In his poems on Northern Irish place names, etymology recapitulates history. An archaeologist of language, Heaney unearths signs of Scottish and English invasions lingering in the lexicon and pronunciation of his Irish compatriots. Focusing on British words transported to Ulster by colonizers and often fused with native Gaelic words, Heaney devises miniature allegories in which even the different syllables radiate political, religious, literary, and sexual significance. As he composed these poems, Heaney felt increasing pressure from the Catholic, nationalist community in his homeland to act as its propagandist. Yet his poems subvert partisan jingoism and strive to fashion in its place new emblems of sectarian cooperation.

As the bombs began to explode once again in the early seventies in Northern Ireland, Heaney responded with North, his most gruesome account of the tragic and mythical aspects of the sectarian hostilities. Some critics accused him of wallowing in rituals of sacrificial purgation and sexual renewal, as if he were emulating Yeats's more bellicose moods. Rather than clamber after the apocalyptic rapacity of Yeats's Zeus or Jehovah, Heaney typically identifies with and elegiacally mourns the victims of such myths. He repeatedly invokes ancient fertility cults and apocalyptic expectations to implicate them in the apocalyptic atrocities that have afflicted his country for centuries. Because Protestant and Catholic paramilitary groups shed blood in order to preserve their sacred ideals of Mother Ireland, she emerges more as a femme fatale or "terrible beauty" than as a benevolent fertility goddess. Heaney understands the devotion to the Mother among Catholics and the I.R.A., and sympathizes with their anger over her repeated desecration at the hands of Britain's Protestant Fathers. Still, he hopes for an oedipal resolution that is as political as it is psychological. To move toward civilized compromise, he suggests, both sides must realize that Ireland can be an old sow that eats her farrow, a tyrannical patriarch devouring sow and piglets alike, and also the androgynous, ecumenical humanist envisioned by Joyce in Leopold Bloom.

Heaney's year at Berkeley between 1970 and 1971 reinforced his liberal sentiments and loosened his early formalist constraints. In California he tried to incorporate the expansive American forms of Walt Whitman, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Robert Duncan, and Gary Snyder. If historically poetry has been an aristocratic art and prose a more democratic one, Heaney, following the experiments of the Americans, sought to yoke the two in a series of prose poems called Stations, which he published in pamphlet form in 1975. The title recalls the Stations of the Cross, but rather than focus on Christ's agonizing Passion and Crucifixion, Heaney dwells on personal and political crises. Again he secularizes the cross so that it refers to his own multifarious crossings—between Ireland and America, Ulster and the Republic, Protestantism and Catholicism, and even between prose and poetry. Although his sequence of prose poems can be read as a spiritual autobiography in imitatione Christi, it is more specifically a confessional narrative of a boy growing up in Northern Ireland after World War II and gradually recognizing that for centuries the Christian cross has inspired rancorous division rather than divine unity.

After the controversial move from Belfast to Glanmore in 1972, Heaney seemed prepared to shut his "door into the dark" and open "a door into the light" [see "An Interview with Seamus Heaney," by James Randall, in Ploughshares, Vol. 5, No. 3, 1979, pp. 7-22]. In essays and interviews he spoke of trusting a more lucid, conversational voice and of trusting his new, more enlightened audience in the South (which was predominantly Catholic, unlike the predominantly Protestant society in the North). Christopher Ricks in a penetrating review of Field Work ["The Mouth, the Meal and the Book," London Review of Books, November 8, 1979, pp. 4-5], the book that grew out of this transition, rang the changes on this theme of trust. In poetry, politics, and marriage Heaney elevates trust to the status of faith. Still, his faith in a recently acquired freedom, voice, and audience in the South is nevertheless undermined at nearly every point by doubt and distrust. In the North he sought to transcend political responsibilities imposed on him; in the South he equates transcendence with political escapism. Accepting Dante and Robert Lowell as his models, he places his trust in art's ability to confront conflicts between freedom and responsibility, private craft and public involvement, but continually chastises himself for evading commitments and failing to have more impact on the situation he left behind.

The medieval Gaelic poem, Buile Suibhne, which he translates as Sweeney Astray during this period, provides an ancient mask for his contemporary dilemma. Confronted by the horrors of the battle of Moira in Ulster (A.D. 637) and cursed because of his contempt for the invading Christian empire, Suibhne Geilt metamorphoses into a guiltridden bird and, like his Icarian heir, Stephen Dedalus, attempts to fly over nation, religion, and language and to survive by silence, exile, and cunning. He resembles the stock character of medieval iconography, the pagan wild man, although at the end he is converted by his friend, St. Moling, and comes to resemble that other stock figure of medieval Irish lore, the ascetic saint negotiating a penitential peregrinatio through the wilderness. For Heaney, Sweeney acts as a half-pagan, half-Christian persona that, especially in his "Sweeney Redivivus" poems, allows him to dramatize his own guilty feelings aroused by his flight from Ulster to the woods of Wicklow. But if Suibhne takes a penitential journey to atone for his murderous sins against insurgent Christians, Heaney's sin is that he takes a journey—that he abandons his embattled homeland. Once again he seizes on a character and narrative, implicates his own experience in ancient paradigms, and then critically assails them.

The same ironic sense of sin and guilt predominate in that other long poem based on medieval precedents, "Station Island." In Dantesque tones and stanzas, Heaney records his early pilgrimages to the island in Lough Derg where St. Patrick supposedly initiated a three-day vigil of fasting, praying, and mortification. Imitating Dante's journey through the circles of hell and purgatory, Heaney traipses over circles of rocks on the island, communing with tutelary ghosts as he goes. In typical self-reflexive fashion, his pilgrimage engenders an argument about pilgrimages; he journeys to a holy island in order to purge the guilt and anxiety that such journeys create. As he fares forth, most of the prominent figures he summons from the dead (Simon Sweeney, Patrick Kavanagh, William Carleton, Joyce) accuse him of groveling through old rituals that are masochistic, life-denying, meaningless, or simply distracting. They form a formidable opposition but really speak for Heaney's artistic conscience, which is painfully at odds with those two other internal gorgons, his political conscience and his religious conscience. Divided against himself, he once again launches an ambitious investigation into his ambivalent motives, assaulting his ideals and then shoring their fragments into a brilliant poem.

For a postcolonial poet who feels that the religious, political, and linguistic hierarchies imposed on his country by a foreign empire still watermark his psyche, deconstruction is as much a gut response as a well-thoughtout strategy of exposure and demolition. In The Haw Lantern, Heaney mounts his most sustained attack on the binary oppositions that have stratified and oppressed his society in the past, tracing them, as Jacques Derrida and others have done, back to the Platonic and Judeo-Christian origins of Western civilization. Addressing such loaded terms as presence and absence, speech and writing, he deploys his deconstructive maneuvers along a via negativa that negates age-old prejudices in order to affirm the productive interplay of differences. In a country where one sectarian faction pretends to hold a monopoly on truth and justice and historically has chosen to kill those who oppose the "one true way," deconstruction is not simply an abstract hermeneutic strategy designed for clever critics. It has ethical relevance for the reorganization of all aspects of culture.

In The Haw Lantern, however, Heaney criticizes deconstruction, as others have done, for its reckless flirtation with nihilism and frivolous play. As he reinscribes absences with new presences and makes marginal cultures (like Northern Ireland's) central rather than peripheral, he also argues for reconstruction. The book, he proposes in terms borrowed from Mercea Eliade, charts the deconstruction of sacred by profane space. He uses an architectural metaphor of decentering to represent the cultural metamorphosis that he and his generation in Ireland witnessed: "I watched it happen in Irish homes when I first saw a house built where there was no chimney, and then you'd go into rooms without a grate—so no hearth, which in Latin means no focus. So the hearth going away means the house is unfocused … it represents a reality: the unfocusing of space and the desacralizing of it" ["An Interview with Seamus Heaney," by Randy Brandes, in Salmagundi, Fall, 1988, pp. 4-21]. The generic deconstructionist applauds the unfocused, the decentered, and the indeterminate, concluding that all reading and writing is a ludic exercise of negative capability. Heaney responds by celebrating affirmative capability. He seeks "images of a definite space which is both empty and full of potential" and principled ways of tapping and governing that potential. His collection of essays, The Government of the Tongue, elaborates on these poetic preoccupations, speaking eloquently of the always difficult balance between linguistic constraint and freedom, orderly space and unleashed potential, political dictate and private rebuke.

Heaney's former status as a "noncitizen" in Protestant-dominated Northern Ireland derived at least in part from his decision to choose writing as his mode of expression rather than the more customary political organ, speech. Domestic and social authorities repressed his will to speak out; poetry became the oracle for his impassioned sense of justice and injustice. His poetry notebook records a passage from the late French philosopher, Gaston Bachelard: "What is the source of our first suffering? It lies in the fact that we hesitated to speak. It was born in the moment when we accumulated silent things within us" [quoted in "Poet of the Boys: Seamus Heaney, Ireland's Foremost Living Poet Commands a Growing Audience," by Francis X. Clines, in The New York Times Magazine, March 13, 1983, pp. 42-3, 98-9, 104]. He told Francis Clines from the New York Times, "If I could make poetry that could touch into that kind of thing, that is what I would like to do." Few other poets today articulate as self-consciously and judiciously the difficult issues of language and silence, and especially how they relate to poetic expression and political repression. In a century when major writers have espoused nazism, fascism, monarchism, and other antidemocratic creeds, Heaney's hesitancy to speak out politically seems noble rather than culpable. That his writing dramatizes bipartisan arguments in which historical differences continue to clash gives it an urgency that much contemporary poetry lacks and makes it even more worthy of attentive study.

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William Grimes (essay date 6 October 1995)

SOURCE: "Irish Poet Wins the Nobel Prize in Literature," in The New York Times, October 6, 1995, pp. B1, B18.

[In the following article, Grimes summarizes Heaney's life and career.]

The Irish poet Seamus Heaney has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. In conferring the prize, the Swedish Academy praised Mr. Heaney "for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past."

It also praised Mr. Heaney, a Roman Catholic, for analyzing the violence in Northern Ireland without recourse to conventional terms.

The poet (whose name is pronounced SHA Y-muss HEE-nee) will receive the award on Dec. 10 at a ceremony in Stockholm, along with the Nobel winners in physics, chemistry, economics and medicine, who will be announced next week. This year the prize is worth more than $1 million, the highest it has ever been.

The poet Derek Walcott, who won the Nobel Prize in 1992, issued a statement through Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Mr. Heaney's American publishers: "As the guardian spirit of Irish poetry, Seamus Heaney has, like his predecessor Yeats, received his just recognition."

Paul Muldoon, an Irish poet teaching at Princeton University, said, "This is a great day for Irish poetry and for poetry throughout the world."

Mr. Heaney's son, Michael, said in Dublin that his father was on vacation in rural Greece and that not even family members had been able to reach him.

Mr. Heaney, 56, was born on a farm west of Belfast in County Derry, Northern Ireland, the eldest of nine children. He received a bachelor's degree in English language and literature at Queen's University, Belfast, and after earning a teaching certificate from St. Joseph's College of Education, taught at a secondary school in Ballymurphy and at St. Joseph's.

He began publishing poems as a student, using the pseudonym Incertus. In Belfast he became associated with the Group, a circle of young writers that included Derek Mahon, Michael Longley and James Simmons.

His first poetry collections, Death of a Naturalist (1966) and Door Into the Dark, (1969), immediately marked Mr. Heaney as a gifted lyric poet. In pared-down, tactile language, his verse gave off the scent and savor of his rural surroundings. The comparisons to William Butler Yeats and Robert Frost came early and often.

In an almost literal sense, Mr. Heaney's poetry is rooted in the Irish soil. He has often written of the poet as a kind of farmer, digging and rooting, as though Ireland's wet peat were a storehouse of images and memories. At the same time, Mr. Heaney moves easily from the homely images of farm and village to larger issues of history, language and national identity, creating what he once called "the music of what happens."

In 1972, he moved from Belfast to the Irish Republic, eventually settling in Dublin, and his poetry from the 1970's, collected in North (1975) and Field Work (1979), bears witness to the political turmoil in Northern Ireland, although from after. "He took a lot of flak for moving," said Henry Hart, an associate professor of English at William and Mary College and the author of Seamus Heaney: Poet of Contrary Progressions. "The Catholics saw it as a betrayal, and he himself experienced a great deal of guilt over it."

Although all his works have been well received, he won lavish critical praise for Station Island (1984), the title poem of which, a narrative sequence, drew on Dante to dramatize the torment of Irish politics and history.

In a review of Station Island in The New York Times, John Gross enumerated Mr. Heaney's poetic arsenal: "powerful images; compelling rhythms; a distinctive palette; phrases packed tight with meaning." Mr. Heaney, he said, "has all the primary gifts of a poet, and they are gifts put at the service of a constant meditation on primary themes, on nature and history and moral choice."

Mr. Heaney's most recent poetry collections are The Haw Lantern (1987), Selected Poems 1966–1987 (1990) and Seeing Things (1991). The Spirit Level, a new collection of poetry, is to be published in May 1996 by Farrar, Straus.

His essays have been collected in two volumes, Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968–1978 (1980) and The Government of the Tongue (1989). The Redress of Poetry, consisting of his poetry lectures at Oxford, is scheduled to be published in the United States next month by Farrar, Straus.

Mr. Heaney has also ventured into translation, beginning with Sweeney Astray (1984), a version of the medieval Irish narrative poem Buile Suibhne, about an ancient Irish king who, cursed by a Christian cleric, wanders the countryside as a mad outcast, half-man, half-bird.

He also rendered Sophocles' Philoctetes into blank verse under the title The Cure at Troy (1990).

Laments, a translation of elegiac poems by the 16th-century Polish poet Jan Kochanowski that Mr. Heaney undertook with Stanislaw Baranczak, is also to be published this fall.

Mr. Heaney is a member of the Irish Academy of Letters. His many awards include the E. M. Forster Award of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.

He was professor of poetry at Oxford University from 1989 to 1994.

He is currently on a leave of absence from Harvard University, where he has been Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory since 1985.

Mr. Heaney is the third Irishman to win the Nobel Prize. Yeats was awarded the prize in 1923 and Samuel Beckett in 1969.

James F. Clarity (essay date 9 October 1995)

SOURCE: "Laureate and Symbol, Heaney Returns Home," in The New York Times, October 9, 1995, p. B4.

[In the following article, Clarity reports Heaney's reactions to winning the Nobel Prize.]

Seamus Heaney, the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, arrived home last night and was welcomed not only as a great poet in a land that loves writers and writing, but also as a symbol of hope for lasting peace in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Heaney, who was born in Northern Ireland 56 years ago but now lives in Dublin, was on vacation in Greece when his award was announced on Thursday. For a full day, neither his children nor the scores of reporters seeking interviews could find him. He was invited to a dinner party on Friday at the residence of the American Ambassador, Jean Kennedy Smith, but did not appear.

But when he arrived at Dublin's airport on Saturday night, after cutting his trip short upon learning about the prize, Prime Minister John Bruton was there to praise him as a literary symbol of the Northern peace effort, and to have the poet autograph a book of his lectures.

Asked at the airport how he felt about joining the other Irish Nobel winners, William Butler Yeats, George Bernard Shaw and Samuel Beckett, he said: "It's like being a little foothill at the bottom of a mountain range. You hope you just live up to it. It's extraordinary." He did not mention Ireland's literary giant, James Joyce (a figure in his poetry), who never won the Nobel.

Mr. Heaney and his wife, Marie, were whisked from the airport to the residence of President Mary Robinson for champagne and more praise. He has been the main story on national television since Thursday, and he read three of his poems on the radio today at the start of the main afternoon news program.

"It was entirely bewildering," he said in an Irish television interview before he left the Greek port of Kalamata, "and still a bit incredible. It's an awesome dimension." Asked how he felt about being considered a peace symbol, he showed none of the annoyance of some of his friends, who thought he should have won solely as a poet. Mr. Heaney has dealt with Northern Ireland in his work and acknowledges that his point of view supports Roman Catholic charges of harsh discrimination by the Protestant majority. He left the British-ruled province in the early 1970's after he was threatened by Protestant paramilitary guerrillas.

"There has been a new mood in the country since last year," he said, clearly referring to the peace effort that accelerated when the Irish Republican Army declared a cease-fire more than 13 months ago. "It's a very precious mood because it promises new energy. I'm also gratified that I've been honored as part of that. I've a very strong sense of belonging to the North, and of course I insist on being Irish." Referring to the province of his birth and the 25 years of sectarian warfare between Catholics and Protestants there, he added, "One doesn't want one's identity coerced. But I've said the British Irish in the North shouldn't be coerced out of their identity, either."

When the award was first announced, Mr. Heaney's childhood friend, John Hume, the Roman Catholic political leader instrumental in starting the current peace effort, said he hoped the prize was for poetry, not politics. Mr. Hume has been nominated for this year's Nobel Peace Prize, as has former Prime Minister Albert Reynolds, also for his work toward peace.

The Irish Times said in an editorial: "No doubt there will be mutterings from many quarters that the Nobel committee has once again made a political choice by awarding the prize to an Irishman at the end of a year which has been one of the most hopeful yet perilously balanced periods in the history of our two states. Such begrudgery, though typical of us as a nation, will only shame us in the eyes of an admiring world."

At the airport, Prime Minister Bruton said that in the peace effort, "I draw encouragement and inspiration from Seamus's writing."

Mr. Heaney, recognized in the streets of Dublin by his frizzy white hair, spoke about growing up in the North, where his friends, in addition to Mr. Hume, included the playwright Brian Friel and the poet Seamus Deane, who is now a lecturer at Notre Dame University in Indiana. "Teen-age lads rampant," he said. "There was a lot of energy, but there was no sense of a future of destiny or anything like that.

"I'm very moved to hear about the pleasure in the country at home. I feel myself part of something. Not only being part of a community, but part of an actual moment and a movement of Irish writing and art. That sense of being part of the whole thing is the deepest joy."


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Seamus Heaney with The Economist (interview date 22 June 1991)

SOURCE: A conversation in The Economist, Vol. 319, June 22, 1991, pp. 98-102.

[In the following interview, Heaney discusses his philosophy of language and the influence his father and his home in Ireland have had on his poetry.]

Seamus Heaney is one of the best known and most widely read of modern poets. His latest collection of poems, Seeing Things, has been both praised and damned: the Spectator has called it "a glass precipice without toehold". In conversation recently, he explained himself to The Economist.

[The Economist]: You were raised a Catholic in County Derry, one of nine children, and your father was a cattle dealer. Were words revered in your household?

[Heaney]: Not in any conscious way at all, no. There was no self-consciousness about the use of language. But there was an unself-conscious relish of excellence in it. I wouldn't say this was particular to the family. It was common to a kind of rural subculture—remarks made were reported. It wasn't the felicity of adjectives that was relished, more the aptness and succinctness and usually slightly elegant cruelty of the remarks.

Your father, who died five years ago, is evoked very vividly in this new collection—and yet you seem to be circling his memory somewhat warily. How would you describe your relationship with him?

For the first ten or 12 years of my life it was uncomplicated but distant. In my teens it was not hostile, but it was definitely complicated … It was just that he was completely wordless …

You mean he was taciturn

Yes, he was, but he was not a sour person at all. He was simply in terror of misrepresenting things by speaking of them. In a sense I think he believed—he never expressed this, but all his activity bore witness to such a belief—that to speak a thing out, to confess it, to name it, in some way disabled it.

Time and again in your new collection you begin by describing the very simple, almost thoughtless, excitements of childhood and adolescence—fishing, playing football, sliding on ice—and then they are weighed in the mind and seem to take on a totally different kind of significance.

You describe very exactly the desire I would have for a reader—this suspension in an element that is hallucinatory; that is both weightless and weighty. The idea of free fall. The idea of that buoyancy in the spacecraft, of getting light and at the same time retaining a relationship with gravity … One of the earliest poems I wrote in the collection, "Fosterling", includes the words, "me waiting until I was nearly 50 to credit marvels", and that too is about things going up, lifting and lightening, in spite of sluggish surroundings. In my first book, Death of a Naturalist, the whole effort of the writing was to solidify the thing in language, block it out, make it embossed, until it became a kind of language braille of sorts … In this case, I think you could say I was trying to call it in … not to make it insubstantial, but to do something akin to beaming it up, like in "Startrek".

There is not much politics in this book, but there is a more generalised eschewal of violence, particularly at the end of"The Pitchfork."

That poem and one other, "The Ashplant," were the earliest poems written and I worked on them in County Derry, in the house where my father was dying. It contains an image of space which I meant to be silent and eerie—but it could, as you say, be sinister and aggressive. The pitchfork becomes a sort of missile—as well as everything else. But I wanted to bring the pitchfork through even that, you know. The last stanza is quite explicit. It says: let's keep going to another set of experiences. The opening hand is meant to be an image of unclenching and generosity … as Czeslaw Milosz says, "Open the clenched fist of the past." Hard to do.

The other poem that has political possibilities, this time more explicit, is "The Settle Bed." A settle bed is a very heavy thing, a very Ulster, rural thing, a burdensomely heavy inheritance. But you don't have to be utterly burdened. There are ways of handling this, you know.

The book contains a very affectionate sequence of poems about Glanmore, your home in the country—the second time you've written about the house.

The house came back to me—quite unexpectedly. When we lived in it first [after leaving Belfast in the early 1970s] we were only tenants, and it was a moment of our lives which was provisional and temporary anyway. There was that sense of being in transition, at the edge, feeling slightly menaced and slightly free, more than slightly free.

The relationship with Glanmore is completely different now. I got into a good situation in terms of breadwinning, in terms of parent-and-citizen life. I'd go four months to the States, able to earn my keep there, and come back home. But by being between an apartment in Harvard University and a family home in Dublin, and the family house getting constantly invaded by telephone calls, the balance of where I was—you know: was I in America? Was I in Dublin?—became upset. I found the needles wavering, you know. And when I was able to get to Glanmore, I found true north again. I felt completely in place. I felt secure. I felt I had a starting point and an ending point.

I'd like to ask you about the poem in which you're addressing questions to Yeats's ghost, the one that begins, "Where does spirit live?"

It began completely whimsically. All these 12-line poems were written swiftly. They were like plunges in. They were … experimental, always, almost always, and a number of them didn't survive their own experiments. The poem addressed to Yeats ends with the line: "What's the use of a held note or held line / That cannot be assailed for reassurance?" And I think that is one of the functions of a certain kind of art—form, the abstract, the platonic type, the thing, the original and last shape, all this is a necessity, and we want it to be there. We want it to withstand our scepticisms, you know. And some of the satisfactions that a Yeats poem gives include the feeling of being empowered and thrilled by all that. It's like getting on a bronze horse, almost of becoming a bronze horseman. Yeats's music is overbearing in that way and resonantly so. And you want to—another part of you, the flesh and blood part of you wants to—refuse that, but it will sustain, it will survive all refusals.

Does it worry you that some regard you as an ambassador for poetry, as a type of representative English-language poet? Can you cope with this?

It is indeed an anxiety. I mean I hadn't anticipated or envisaged the amount of representative status or eye-catching profile that, for example, the Oxford professorship would yield. I had a strong sense of previous Oxford professors being there—but not actually being noticed. You know, it was a nice skyline further away, but it wasn't a hill in the foreground. And I suddenly feel that it has been foregrounded, you know … but at the same time it's not an area where I want to wear my heart on my sleeve or have my heart bleed or indeed to plead about it.

What is your own apology for poetry? What is poetry good for?

To quote my friend Derek Mahon, they keep the colours new. They rinse things …

What sort of things?

Well, first of all rinse the words, yes. But also perhaps rinse—and hang out again on the line—values, values of freedom of spirit and play, but also values which are fundamental to the culture, the myth values of the culture … You see, I think poetry's also domestic. It lives within certain cultural borders. It can transcend them, it can broadcast beyond them, but its first life is within its language borders and then maybe within a certain domain of that language … The kind of poet who founds and reconstitutes values is somebody like Yeats or Whitman—these are public value-founders. Then you can put beside Whitman in 19th-century America Emily Dickinson, who is a reconstitutor of an inner metaphysic for human creatures … The poet is on the side of undeceiving the world. It means being vigilant in the public realm. But you can go further still and say that poetry tries to help you to be a truer, purer, wholer being, you know. This doesn't mean that each poem has to be something like Eliot's "Four Quartets" … It can mean a haiku such as "Twilight / Farmer pointing the way / With a radish". You suddenly see the world renewed.

The kinds of truth that art gives us many, many times are small truths. They don't have the resonance of an encyclical from the Pope stating an eternal truth, but they partake of the quality of eternity. There is a sort of timeless delight in them. And it's that timeless delighting, the timeless rightness of 2 little thing or the resonant rightness of a bigger thing—that's what it can do. Let a blind up for a moment.

You've talked about the public role of poetry, but you have also said that poetry can't afford—as it did in the 19th century—to indulge in exhortation any more.

Yes. That is true, I was talking about the suspicion that Irish poets in particular had had induced in them by the scoldings of Patrick Kavanagh against a national theme. And Kavanagh said: there's nothing as damned as the important thing. But then there was also the caution that came upon us in the late 1960s, early 1970s because of the collusion between high national rhetoric and possibly low, dangerous activities—the IRA and so on … The appetite for uttering a big truth shouldn't be altogether rebuked, you know. But how is it to be uttered? That is the question.

To go back to the present collection, you seem to use bigger words than you've ever dared use before—soul and spirit, for example. There is one line in particular where the soul is hung out like a white

… handkerchief, which, in a sense, goes back to the very beginnings of religious instruction, to the school catechism, where the innocent soul was a white handkerchief—and then sin came along like a stain of soot or a piece of tar and the soul had to be cleansed at confession. It was pretty coarse stuff … I think that those primary images retain—as Wordsworth would have said—a vivifying force, but they can also be constricting—in a subliminal way—right throughout your life. And that poem was a discovery of a delight in realising that eternal life is credible, you know … One associated it, first of all, with a mystery, and it was, in the first world. The religious language was entirely radiant and mysterious—but it was unquestioned. Then you come to the detached, self-secularising period, and you say: eternal life? It's all language, you know. There's no afterlife. There's no paved floor of heaven. The seraphim aren't there.

And then, suddenly, you say: well, wait! Eternal life can mean utter reverence for life itself. And that's what there is. And our care in a green age, so to speak, in an age that's conscious of the ravages that have been done to the planet, the sacred value is actually eternal life. So that language is perfectly proper. It can be used again. It can be revived. It's not necessarily a mystifying language. It's a purifying language. And I suppose that's what I would like to do … This was not an ambition, but it is a kind of apologia for using words like soul and spirit. You want them to … yes, to be available, to purify possibilities again.

Jonathan Bing (essay date 4 December 1995)

SOURCE: "Seamus Heaney: Vindication of the Word 'Poet'," in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 242, No. 49, December 4, 1995, pp. 42-3.

[In the following essay, which is based on an interview with Heaney, Bing discusses the poet's early work and the ideas that led to his book, The Redress of Poetry.]

There is a Gaelic superstition still associated with Seamus Heaney's ancestral home in County Derry in Northern Ireland. According to Heaney, a St. Muredach O'Heney once presided over a monastic site affiliated with his family. It's said that if soil is dug from the ground of that site by a Heaney, it carries an aura of magic and beneficence.

Heaney, too, has an aura, if not a star power, shared by few contemporary poets, emanating as much from his leonine features and unpompous sense of civic responsibility as from the immediate accessibility of his lines. Since Robert Lowell dubbed Heaney "the most important Irish poet since Yeats," his poems have entered the core curricula of schools around the world. Listeners jam the rafters at his readings. He has published more than 10 volumes of poetry in 30 years, as well as three collections of essays, one play and a host of translations, chapbooks and other ephemera.

Commanding a great range of voices, idioms and metric conventions, Heaney's poetry nevertheless remains rooted in the soil of his native country-side, in the clash of ancient myth and modern politics, in domestic rituals and elegies for friends, family members and those lost to sectarian violence in Northern Ireland. Despite his oft-invoked pet name, "Famous Seamus," Heaney prefers the solace of his phoneless Wicklow cottage and the toilsome pleasures of teaching to the glare of the limelight. His new volume of critical prose, The Redress of Poetry, is a collection of lectures delivered at Oxford, where he is the Professor of Poetry.

Citing Heaney's "works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past," the Nobel committee announced on Oct. 5 that Heaney is to receive this year's prize of $1.1 million. On that day, however, the 56-year-old poet was vacationing with his wife, Marie, in Greece, well beyond the reach of the international media. "We had just passed from Argus into Arcadia," he recalls, when—two days after the announcement—he happened to phone his children in Dublin (there are three, Michael, Christopher and Catherine, all in their 20s). "They were under siege."

When [Publishers Weekly] meets Heaney in Cambridge, Mass., a month later, the public's enchantment with him is unabated. The previous night, 2000 admirers waited in the rain in Harvard Yard to see Heaney read at the centenary celebration of the Harvard art museums.

There's clandestine air to our late-morning rendezvous. Slouched in a chair in a heavy tweed suit in his secluded room in the Harvard Inn, Heaney looks a bit haggard. Under his unruly plume of white hair, his face is tinged with apprehension. As a vacuum cleaner sounds in the hall, he confesses a "weariness" about the "pure publicity" associated with the prize, preferring instead to discuss the poetry itself and the landscape from which it emerged.

The eldest of nine siblings, Heaney was born at Mossbawn, a farm in Derry, 30 miles outside of Belfast. "It was a farming household," he recalls, "with enlightened values [and] a special sense of worth." He attended boarding school from the age of 12, and there he met Seamus Deane, now the Keough Professor of Irish Studies at the University of Notre Dame and the editor of The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing; the two became fast friends, both entering Queen's University in Belfast in the same class. For 10 years, that intimacy shaped and sustained both writers' formative love of the written word ("Deane was the star in our literary firmament," Heaney recalls). In the early 1960s, Heaney taught literature at Queen's University and began placing poems in the New Statesmen, whose editor was Karl Miller ("one of the great editors of our time," notes Heaney), leading to a solicitation from Charles Monty, an editor at Faber & Faber in London. The publisher of Eliot, Auden, MacNeice and Lowell, Faber "was a much more translunar address in 1965," Heaney points out. "It was like getting a letter from God the Father."

Faber brought out Death of a Naturalist in 1966; it won several prizes, including the Somerset Maugham Award. Evincing the influence of Frost, Hopkins and Ted Hughes, these poems evoked his early years at Mossbawn, the tactile fluidity of the farmland, a fascination with buried things and the delights and terrors of childhood. He was to revisit that landscape often in subsequent books, but with Door into the Dark (1969), Wintering Out (1972) and, especially, North (1975), another Heaney emerged: an allegorist of national politics and mythology. In a series of "bog" poems, Heaney wrote of the mummified, iron-age corpses exhumed from the bogland, emblems of Ireland's first conquerors and martyrs. Other poems dealt with the politics of Ulster, its ethnic humiliations and poetry's role in confronting its terrible history.

In 1972, Heaney moved his family from Belfast to a cottage in Wicklow in the Irish Republic. As North took shape, he stopped teaching for three years. It was then, he recalls, resolutely raising his fist, that the full import of a life devoted to language and poetry grew clear. "I felt that I had vindicated poetry in myself and vindicated the word 'poet' for myself, and when I stood up, it was with the full force of my being," he says. The critic Helen Vendler, among the academy's staunchest Heaney fans, believes North is "one of the greatest of 20th century books of poetry, right up there with Prufrock or Harmonium."

Heaney marked the 1970s with teaching stints at Berkeley and Carysfort College in Dublin, and in 1981, he became a visiting professor at Harvard. Early on, he notes, "I made a choice, for better or worse, to work in the university in order to preserve a kind of nonchalance with regard to publication. I have an old-fashioned ethic of earning my keep. I also have a kind of poetic, protective notion that the poetry should not be a meal ticket."

Heaney also turned out prose—lambent memoirs of Mossbawn and critical essays on poetry—the first collection of which, Preoccupations, appeared in 1980. Asked about the difficulties involved in switching gears from poetry to prose, Heaney shrugs. "It's a different part of your being. That's what the muse means. To some extent [the essays] are my persona as teacher. They're my job. Poetry is completely different. It's a force that feeds off everything else," he says.

Tenured in the halls of academe, however, Heaney was not insulated from the unrest in Northern Ireland, which came to a head in the hunger strikes of the early 1980s. Prompted by the staging in Derry in 1980 of Brian Friel's play, Translations, which showed English surveyors traveling through 18th-century Ireland Anglicizing all the place names, Heaney cofounded the Field Day Theater Group with Friel, Deane, the actor Stephen Rea and others. "That play was a play of wondrous discovery and renewal," recalls Heaney. "It did what theater should do in a society. It was an intravenous shot for people." A pamphleteering campaign followed, as Heaney and Deane began publishing Field Day chapbooks on Irish politics and culture.

While cautiously optimistic about the ongoing peace process, Heaney credits Ulster's poets with a subtler grasp of the dualities of Irish history than the diplomats in Dublin and London. "I think the poetry is ahead of the peace. If you take writers like [Paul] Muldoon and [Ciaran] Carson who live there, their language, their plays and their ploys as writers have to do with outstripping the binary condition that they were offered," he says. "Through changing the language, opening trap doors inside every statement and going into a postmodernist double-take, they have in a sense prefigured the kinds of society that's called for."

If the vitality of Northern Irish literature springs, in part, from political friction, does Heaney worry that the poetry will slacken, as ancient enmities are soothed? "Peace talks don't necessarily mean the disappearance of the causes of the collisions," he says. "It means the onset of civilized ways of handling it, you know, rather than barbaric ways of handling it." He pauses. "I think that every writer in Ireland, North and South, has gone through elegy and tragedy. Stylistically speaking, the challenge is to move it on forward into adept and skeptical playfulness. A post-Beckettian poetics is called for."

It is in the context of Heaney's vexed relationship to art and politics that The Redress of Poetry is best appreciated. When Heaney's tenure at Oxford began in 1989, he says, "I know I was expected to do a kind of postcolonial resentment of English literature, which seems to me predictable, and other people are doing it better than I can."

Heaney chose instead a less fashionable plan: to redeem a few canonical, British and Irish poets from the simplifications and neglect of academic ideologues. Heaney's thesis: that poetry of the highest order shouldn't be fettered to political crusades. Through its "fine excess," its power to outstrip the circumstances it observes and broaden the horizons of its readers, great poetry redresses the profounder spiritual imbalances of its age. This credo is delineated in Redress in chapters on Herbert, Wilde, Yeats, Dylan Thomas and others.

"I think literature is there to open the spaces, not to erect tariff barriers," Heaney explains. "The notion of balance, of one form of life redressing another, of the imagined redressing the endured, that is just a central trope. But it also seems observably true that the sense of proportion, the sense of joy, the sense of irony, depends upon a certain amphibiousness between what we can conceive of and what we have to put up with."

His favorite chapter, on Christopher Marlowe, recovers Tamberlaine and "Hero and Leander" from critics whose sole interest has been to read these texts as complicitous in the bloody legacy of English imperialism. "It's just a corrective to a kind of constricting panic in people that they will give offense," Heaney says. "The language that people are offered in the academy is totally a language of suspicion. Of course, that was a very salubrious language from my generation. But if you teach suspicion to people who have nothing within their minds to suspect, I think it proceeds toward the nihilistic." He pauses, his eyes atwinkle. "The idea that anything that amplifies the spirit can be tied down with a dainty, politically correct label—it's damning, it's deadly. Rapture is its own good."

In the U.S., Oxford published Heaney's first five volumes before he was discovered by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, which now handles all of his work. His editor is Jonathan Galassi, who succeeded Michael di Capua and Pat Strachan. Faber serves as his American agent. No appearances are planned to mark publication of The Redress, but come January, Heaney, who teaches at Harvard one semester each year, will again be stationed in his office at Widener Library, and wending his usual way through Harvard Square. "I keep dropping in on the Grolier Poetry Book-shop, run by Louisa Solano," he says. "She valiantly keeps going in what I think is a perilous enough situation for poetry-only [booksellers]."

Meanwhile, he hopes that the Nobel Prize money (which is untaxed in Ireland) will buy him some solitude. With five days a week at his Dublin home and two at the cottage in Wicklow, "I have a fairly constant domestic life," he says. But the creative spirit demands sufficient time for germination and slow revision. "I'm not a kind of spillage system of verse," he laughs. In May, FSG will issue The Spirit Level, Heaney's first volume of poetry in five years. The poet is only middle-aged, after all, and the level of his spirit remains very high, indeed.

Review Of Heaney's Most Recent Work

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John Bayley (review date 20 October 1995)

SOURCE: "Professing Poetry," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4829, October 20, 1995, pp. 9-10.

[In the following review of The Redress of Poetry, Bayley maintains that though Heaney's criticism is sound and fair, it offers no new startling insights.]

Seamus Heaney's slim book of offerings as Oxford Professor of Poetry gives the impression of being adjusted with courtly discretion to an audience who expect the familiar rather than the new. His most interesting essays are an introduction on the The Redress of Poetry, and its follow-up on Hero and Leander in an Irish context. Later pieces on MacDiarmid and Dylan Thomas, Brian Merriman and John Clare, are sound but conventional, as if Heaney as a poet can only be saying the proper things about other poets, as he does in passing about contemporaries like Holub, Brodsky and the Europeans. The poet as diplomat is an honourable and unusual role (and Heaney's success in it has been suitably and deservedly recognized, along with his achievement in poetry, by the Nobel Committee); but the critic exercising the same kind of function runs the risk of giving pleasure without surprise or illumination.

And yet the essays are rich in good things, one of the best being Heaney's discussion of Marlowe's erotic verse, in which he points out that "the reader is enticed towards a tolerant attitude by having his or her sexual preferences toyed with, and having the opposite preference discreetly insinuated at the same time". Heaney's own enticements are equally admirable, as if political correctness, in sexual as in other matters, came as naturally to him as breathing. It seems even to come to him naturally on the matter of death. Though never censorious, he cannot stomach Larkin's great "Aubade", in which the hopelessness of the situation is redeemed only by the grim Anglo-drabness of work that has to be done and the hope of receiving letters—"postmen like doctors go from house to house". Heaney prefers the rhetorical consolations of Yeats ("O Rocky Voice / Shall we in that great night rejoice?") and, more surprisingly, of Samuel Beckett, both of whom he considers, in contrast to Larkin, to be "on the side of life".

Heaney's infallible courtliness goes none the less with an uninsistent but ultimate criterion, which can seem a bit like a poetic version of political correctness. What was lost in the later Dylan Thomas was a quality that might be called "tonal rectitude", "taking tone in the radically vindicating sense attributed to it by Eavan Boland". The origins of such rectitude "must always be in a suffered world rather than a conscious craft". An ambiguous claim, which might mean much or nothing, and yet Heaney endorses Boland's judgment in a prose as persuasive as his poetry. The power of a "poet's undermusic" should come from "a kind of veteran knowledge which has gathered to a phonetic and rhythmic head, and forced an utterance":

It is, for example, the undermusic of just such knowledge that makes Emily Dickinson devastating as well as endearing, and makes the best of John Ashbery's poetry the common unrarefied expression of a disappointment that is beyond self-pity.

That is eloquently said, although the attribution of "rectitude", of any sort, to these or any other poets may seem superfluous and even dubious. Larkin's sardonic shade is yet once again in the background. Does he, one wonders, possess "tonal rectitude"—TR as it might be called, an excuse for PCness, which he certainly did not possess? Like all other such attempts at a general criterion—Matthew Arnold's "touchstones" for instance—this one dissolves into mere concept when confronted with the realities of poetry.

And yet apart from things which Larkin himself would not have bothered about (he always refused to give any kind of lecture on poetry), both as poets and human beings Heaney and Larkin have much in common. Heaney's rectitude (also a more diplomatic term than correctness) is never nationalistic; as he movingly tells us in his last brief lecture, "Frontiers of Writing", which includes a poem in which he takes leave of his professorial duties, he and Larkin, the English poet who loved Ulster, and once worked over there, "are part / Of some new common-wealth of art" and can salute each other "with independent heart". In the same way, he says, Louis MacNeice was "an Irish protestant writer with Anglocentric tendencies, who managed to be faithful to his Ulster inheritance, his Irish affections, and his English predilections". Still more important is the homeliness and love of domestic detail which Heaney and Larkin share, as poets and as men, including a relish for those "small blameless pleasures" praised by Larkin as typical of the art of Barbara Pym. And it is a fine as well as a humane critic who has noticed, as Heaney has, the homely touches that humanize those elegantly Ovidian and androgynous antics in Marlowe's Hero and Leander:

      If not for love, yet, love, for pity sake       Me in thy bed and maiden bosom take;       At least vouchsafe those arms some little room,       Who hoping to embrace thee, cheerly swum …       Herewith affrighted Hero shrunk away,       And in her lukewarm place Leander lay.

A flagrant case of sexual harassment, but never mind that—Heaney shows just what it is in the scene that is so touching. "The lukewarm place that Leander slips into under the bedclothes was probably never warmed again, in exactly the right way, until Molly Bloom jingled the bedstrings more than three hundred years later."

Further Reading

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Burris, Sidney. The Poetry of Resistance: Seamus Heaney and the Pastoral Tradition. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1990, 165 p.

Analyzes Heaney's work in relation to the tradition of pastoral poetry, a form outwardly concerned with nature but encompassing many other philosophical and social concerns. Burris calls Heaney "a deeply literary poet, one whose consolations often lie in the invigorating strains of the poetic tradition itself."

Guenther, Charles. "Strong, Singular Voice Thrives Amid Turmoil." St. Louis Post-Dispatch (5 April 1992): 5C

Positive review of Heaney's Seeing Things.

―――――――. "Irish Poet Who Chronicled 2 Cultures Wins Nobel Prize." St. Louis Post-Dispatch (6 October 1995): 3A.

Report on Heaney's winning the Nobel Prize.

Tapscott, Stephen. "Poetry and Trouble: Seamus Heaney's Irish Purgatorio." Southwest Review 71, No. 4 (Autumn 1986): 519-35.

Discusses the relation of Heaney's work to that of William Butler Yeats and James Joyce, focusing on their contrasting views of Ireland.


Heaney, Seamus (Vol. 7)