In discussing the first of Heaney’s collections, The Death of a Naturalist, Russell speaks of how “Heaney’s in-betweenness is manifested.” He is referring to “how the more ahistorical poems about childhood and manual crafts are counterbalanced by deeply historical poems such as those about the Great Famine of 1845.” While this is one genuine example of Heaney’s in-betweenness, I think Russell touches here on the hermeneutical key to understanding both the poet’s appeal and his place in the larger tradition. Yeats famously said that “out of the quarrel with ourselves we make poetry.” But the betwixt-and-betweenness that pervades Heaney’s life and work is less a quarrel than a deliberate embracing of ambiguities. In his early essay “Mossbawn,” he cites “the mixture of Scots and Irish and English etymologies” and writes about how this “side of the country was redolent of the histories of its owners.” Heaney’s awareness of such mixtures and his hovering in-between them is a fundamental characteristic of his work.
One cause of his being so widely admired is that his poetry draws back from the excesses and fractured quality of literary modernism and instead chooses an amiable accessibility. He is comprehensible, quotable, grounded in the quotidian, and he often offers practical wisdom. The bulk of the poems in this selection have four-, three-, or six-line stanzas; some, particularly the earlier ones, have either full or slanted rhyme. There are at least ten sonnets with varying degrees of strict rhyme schemes. Heaney moved skillfully between the formal and the free, reassuring his readers that this is poetry as they have always thought of it, and yet it is at the same time completely contemporary.
Another expression of in-betweenness is Heaney’s shifting between engaging personal reminiscence and his more Yeatsean side—his public questioning of his poetic vocation against the background of the cruel realities of Northern Irish politics, where he shifts between abhorrence of the violence and a sense of guilt at his lack of committed involvement.
In a world of accelerating change, Heaney was chronicling in beautifully wrought verse the characters, rituals, and accoutrements of his rural upbringing. Russell quotes him as saying in an interview, “What with thatch and well water and horse-drawn vehicles and horse ploughs and so on, when I look back on it, there’s a strong sense that it belonged to another age, really.” All through his work he excavates his memory with painstaking accuracy to recover every sensuous yet realistic detail of his rural background. In the poem “Sunlight” we see an exquisite example of his superb gift for catching in his gaze the lovely minutiae:
And here is love
like a tinsmith’s scoop
sunk past its gleam
in the meal-bin.
He had such an uncanny eye, and indeed ear, for the defining particulars. Another instance, this one from “A Drink of Water”: “The pump’s whooping cough, the bucket’s clatter / And slow diminuendo as it filled.”
Heaney also gives us consoling resonances of traditional motifs. In “Digging” there is the resonance of the traditional choice offered by a father between a spade and a book or pen, signaling the need to decide whether to work at home on the land or to study assiduously at school. In “The Given Note,” we have an echo of the tale of the origin of “Port na bPúcaí” (The Tune of the Fairies), which travellers or fisherman who stayed overnight on Inis Mhic Fhaolain in the Blasket Islands (off the coast of County Kerry) heard coming from the mists. In the poem “Song,” the concluding line—“The music of what happens”—is a translation of a phrase in Irish attributed to Fionn mac Cumhaill.
The thematically more public poems deal with politics, both historical and contemporary. This selection includes an early sonnet titled “Requiem for the Croppies,” one of a few poems dealing with the 1798 rising in Ireland, written in the voice of one who died:
Terraced thousands died, shaking scythes at cannon.
The hillside blushed, soaked in our broken wave.
They buried us without shroud or coffin
And in August the barley grew out of the grave.
Here are also some of Heaney’s finest poems about the menacing political atmosphere of Northern Ireland, such as “A Constable Calls,” “Casualty,” “Two Lorries,” or “Whatever You Say Say Nothing.” In the tension between his political loyalties and his artistic commitment, the personal and the public can merge. In “Punishment” he describes himself as the “artful voyeur” who knows he would have cast “the stones of silence.” In the section from “Station Island” included here the poet speaks to a dead victim: “Forgive the way I have lived indifferent— / Forgive my timid circumspect involvement.”
There is yet another betweenness in Seamus Heaney’s use of language. His voice melds the rich expansive language of Wordsworth, whom he so admired, with the curter Anglo-Saxon feel of Hopkins. We hear the sweeping Wordsworthian tone in “Into Arcadia” from “Sonnets from Hellas,” which opens with: “It was opulence and amen on the mountain road.” And closes with: “Subsisting beyond eclogue and translation.”
There are ample examples throughout this selection of Heaney’s Latinate timbre: “fructified like an aquarium,” “superannuated pageantry” (from “Personal Helicon” and “A Sofa in the Forties,” respectively). But this timbre is offset by his delight in Anglo-Saxon compound nouns and adjectives such as “oak-bone,” “brain-firkin,” “frond-lipped,” “brine-stung,” “glitter-drizzle,” “sud-luscious,” “snotty-guttery”—examples all from poems in this selection. Clearly, some of these adjectives have Latin origins, but the composite usage is in the Hopkins vein. This older Germanic use of language is further seen in his periphrastic formulae for the sea in “Glanmore Sonnets VII”: “Of eel-road, seal-road, keel-road, whale-road.”
This retrieval and renewal of both traditions has an immense attraction for readers. But there is a third important strand to Seamus Heaney’s language. There is the influence of Patrick Kavanagh. Russell quotes Heaney as saying that Kavanagh’s book The Great Hunger “gave me this terrific breakthrough from English literature into homeground.” This was a permission to reflect his own background not only in lifestyle but also in language, in dialect words such as “loaden” (load), “japped” (splashed), “glit” (slimy mud), “glar” (soft mud), “grunt” (perch), “dailigone” (twilight, evening). For this reason and others, Patrick Kavanagh is the poet whom admirers of Seamus Heaney need to read. Both their imaginations were colored by an older rural Ireland. Heaney wrote two essays about Kavanagh. In the first of these, “From Monaghan to the Grand Canal,” he dismissed the wonderful final phase of Kavanagh’s work. In the second, “A Placeless Heaven: Another Look at Kavanagh,” he graciously and humbly writes, “So I would wish to revise a sentence which I wrote ten years ago. I said then that when [Kavanagh] had consumed the roughage of his Monaghan experience, he ate his heart out.” He goes on to quote Yeats on how “the soul recovers radical innocence” and how Kavanagh had “cleared a space” for that. That space-clearing was to occur, although in a more ambiguous fashion, in Heaney’s own work.
Russell writes of Heaney’s “agnosticism, that shades even towards atheism at times.” Heaney, speaking about his childhood Catholicism, said that “part of the mission of the young graduate in my time was to secularize yourself,” and that “the doctrinal observance, the practicing Catholicism, it just went.” Yet gestures toward what might be beyond the ethics of The Haw Lantern or The Republic of Conscience begin to appear in his later work. His well-known phrase “crediting marvels” signals this. And still the ambivalence is there, as though he resists the quality that Kavanagh called “airborne.” In “Postscript” he writes, “Big soft buffetings come at the car sideways / And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.” Yet it feels in “The Gravel Walks” as if he is almost holding out against that lift-off: “So walk on air against your better judgement / Establishing yourself somewhere in between.”
In his first Kavanagh essay, Heaney writes, “Matters of audience and tradition are important in discussing Kavanagh. How do we ‘place’ him?” Now is a good time to ask how we should place Seamus Heaney. The answer might be “somewhere in between.” He is a poet of transition. In the keen-eyed accurate descriptions of his rural past, Heaney is the chronicler of a passing traditional Ireland, a hoarder of both personal and communal memories. Though he traveled widely and had such an international reputation, in much of his work his center of gravity is still Ireland. He was always faithful and deeply attached to his roots and throughout Station Island, where he evokes the Lough Derg pilgrimage, all his Dantean shades are Irish. In a wider sense he was always a conserver, and, particularly in second-order work such as his versions of Sweeney Astray, Beo-wulf, or Aeneid Book VI, he encourages a savoring of the tradition. This hallowing of literary heritage was a counter to the amnesia and shallowness of some of his contemporaries.
On the other hand, in his rejection of violence, in transcending a sectarian divide, in his interest in Eastern European poetry, in his finding new ways to integrate the local and the global, Heaney points forward to a mutually dependent and polyglot world, a new geopolitical reality where all our futures are interwoven and where all human tragedies and achievements are shared. His love of nature prepares us for a global struggle for survival on our damaged planet. In his willingness to credit marvels, in his cultivation of the imagination and a world beyond sheer rationality, Heaney’s work suggests a fresh seeking for faith. He is truly the poet of transition.
It’s not that I can’t imagine still
That slight untoward rupture and world-tilt
As a wind freshened and the anchor weighed.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25, 192 pp.