Comprised of the lectures Seamus Heaney delivered as professor of poetry at Oxford, this book is evidence not only of the commitment of the new Nobel laureate to his craft, but of the generosity of his spirit and the eloquence of his tongue. The apparently casual and unsystematic nature of the approach, with lectures on poets as diverse as, among others, Christopher Marlowe, George Herbert, Brian Merriman, John Clare and Elizabeth Bishop, serves only to emphasise the coherence and integrity of his view of poetry.
He says that he felt that “a reliable critical course could be plotted by following a poetic sixth sense”. That sixth sense is by now utterly trustworthy, and one of the great pleasures of the volume is to see how heterogeneous poets are yoked so stimulatingly together, not by violence, but by a lovely unforced sensitivity. The lectures examine different ways in which poetry may redress the imperfections of our state (and of our states) and yet remain stubbornly itself: “the idea of poetry as an answer, and the idea of an answering poetry as a responsible poetry, and the idea of poetry’s answer, its responsibility, being given in its own language rather than in the language of the world that provokes it” this is how Heaney sees his central theme.
Heaney’s belief and faith
Heaney’s basic belief is that poetry helps us to have life and have it more abundantly. There is nothing grandiose or solemn in his advocacy: the more abundant life may be derived from our attention to John Clare’s old mouse bolting in the wheat, or to the tender eroticism of Marlowe’s “Hero and Leader”, as much as from our respect before the sonorities of Yeats. Heaney’s vision of poetry is, nevertheless, religious in the wider sense of the term, and this book is his defence of poetry in terms which Joyce, another priest of the imagination, would have approved: “the imaginative transformation of human life is the means by which we can most truly grasp and comprehend it”.
Dancing alongside the gravitas, as has also been the case in Heaney’s recent volume of poetry, Seeing Things, there is a high-spirited celebration of the sheer pleasure of poetry. Indeed, Heaney himself insists on the correct priority: “the movement is always from delight to wisdom and not vice versa”. There is throughout the lectures a most attractive insistence on the freedom of poetry from all kinds of political correctness, on the way in which the achieved or fully imagined poem is “a great unfettered event”.
Thus he speaks generously about Dylan Thomas, of his desire to “affirm his kind of afflatus as a constant possibility for poetry, something not superannuated by the irony and self-knowing tactics of the art in postmodern times”; thus he praises the “spirit of hilarity and transgression” in the extravagance of Merriman’s “The Midnight Court”. The essay on Merriman is especially fine in its unforced demonstration of the truth of Heaney’s belief that great poetry should “answer” to the conditions of the world (in this case, 18th-century Ireland suffering under the penal laws), yet remain unconstrained in the imaginative largeness of its procedures, so that “it represents not a submission to the conditions of the world, but a creative victory over them”. One thinks of many great poems by Heaney himself, such as “The Other Side”, “Casualty”, and “The Strand at Lough Beg”, which offer the redress of poetry to the intransigent conditions of his own province.
His tone and style
Heaney’s tone is celebratory, but he cannot be confused with a chit-chat show. While duly praising the “inspirational” qualities of Hugh MacDiamid, he also speaks of his “linguistic overweening”, of his doctrinal extremism, his anglophobia, and his “vindictive nativism”, and even, woundingly, says that “the blether of William McGonagall” sporadically overwhelms MacDiarmid’s own voice. Dylan Thomas was the “in-house bohemian” of the literary establishments on both sides of the Atlantic, offering himself too readily as a form of spectator sport. Oscar Wilde’s “literary tragedy was that he did become like his mother” in the fervency of the rhetoric of parts of “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”.
Heaney never gives in to malice pure and simple, however, and one keeps returning to the sense of his openness to many different types of literary experience. His most telling rebukes are aimed at trends in contemporary criticism which are producing a narrowing of the reader’s arteries. Here is his sturdy defence of the “untrammelled climb” of Marlowe’s verse in Tamburlaine: “Though I have learned to place this poetry’s expansionist drive in the context of nascent English imperialism, I am still grateful for the enlargements it offered, the soaring orchestration, the roll-call of place names and of figures from classical mythology. . . It is necessary to find a way of treating the marvellously aspiring note of his work as something more than a set of discourses to be unmasked.”
Heaney’s religious Redress
For Seamus Heaney, as it is for many who originate from Northern Ireland, religion is closely allied to politics. Heaney’s religious ideals, however, extend beyond the divisiveness of sectarianism, and stem from the desire for unity, balance and redress. He finds these religious and social ideals voiced by Simone Weil, the religious writer and social activist. The religious nature of Heaney’s early poems originates in part from his regard for the landscape as a sacramental book that offers an alternative reality beyond the covert level of meaning. By naming or renaming a place, one has written or rewritten one’s meanings onto it, endowing it with an alternative reality. Hence, the first task of historical redress is to recover the poet’s alternative or Celtic heritage beneath the Anglicisation of place names. The second task, which balances and interrogates the first, is to seek out the linguistic heritage shared by the Celts and their British colonisers. Heaney’s etymological endeavours, therefore, work to uncover and unite the different and yet interrelated cultural identities of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Likewise, his desire for equilibrium enables him to reread and interrogate the wounded text-bodies of sectarian ‘martyrs’, thereby challenging their apotheosis. He compares the poet to a medieval poet-scribe whose function was to negotiate between two differing visions of reality, the ‘pagan’ and the Christian. Similarly, he believes the present-day poet may offer the middle way of peace and redress.
Heaney is a great critic because he is a great reader, ever alert to “minor points of major importance”. He speaks of “the immaculate ballet of courtesy and equilibrium” in that poem of Herbert which begins “Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back”; he writes of Clare’s “totally alert love for the one-thing-after-anotherness of the world”. The humanist theme of the great essay comparing the attitudes of Larkin and Yeats to death has already been much commented upon, but not its beautiful sensitivity to the contrast between the rooks of Yeats’s cold heaven, Hopkins’s dapple-dawn-drawn falcon, the carolings of Hardy’s darkling thrush, and the silence of the birds in Larkin’s dawn-song. Here is where the poet-critic does his real work. Reading Heaney on poetry makes one want to say with George Herbert, one of the poets celebrated in these lectures, “I once more smell the dew and rain, /and relish versing”.