Seamus Heaney is a Foreign Member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He was Professor of Poetry at Oxford from 1989 to 1994. In 1995 he received the Nobel Prize in Literature. Heaney has lived in Dublin since 1976. Since 1981 he has spent part of each year teaching at Harvard University, where he is a Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory. Writing about Heaney in 1968, Jim Hunter, said:
“His own involvement does not exclude us: there are few private references, and the descriptive clarity of his writing makes it easy to follow…Heaney’s world is a warm, even optimistic one: his tone is that of traditional sanity and humanity.”
You can see whether, and how far, this is true of all the poems in the Anthology, some of which were written after these words. While at St. Joseph’s he began to write, publishing work in the university magazines under the pseudonym Incertus. During that time, along with Derek Mahon, Michael Longley, and others, he joined a poetry workshop under the guidance of Philip Hobsbaum. In 1965, in connection with the Belfast Festival, he published Eleven Poems. In August of 1965 he married Marie Devlin. The following year he became a lecturer in modern English literature at Queen’s College, Belfast, his first son Michael was born, and Faber and Faber published Death of a Naturalist. This volume earned him the E.C. Gregory Award, the Cholmondeley Award in 1967, the Somerset Maugham Award in 1968, and the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, also in 1968. Christopher, his second son, was born in 1968.
Robert Lowell has deemed Heaney “the most important Irish poet since Yeats.” Critics have been largely positive about his verse, and he is undoubtedly the most popular poet writing in English today. His books sell by the tens of thousands, and hundreds of “Heaneyboppers” attend his readings. His earliest influences, Robert Frost and Ted Hughes, can be seen throughout his work, but most especially in his first two volumes, where he recollects images of his childhood at Mossbawn. Other poets, especially Gerard Manley Hopkins, William Wordsworth, Thomas Hardy, and even Dante have played important roles in his development.
Cultural context and stylistic fashions
In Heaney’s remembered landscape, he situates the rural Northern Ireland of his youth at the center. It links with the imagined rural Roman scene of Virgil. It stretches outward to touch Spain, the Balkans, the Greece of his lifetime and of antiquity.
Electric Light is in two parts. The second part softens the light on the particulars of place and highlights the people the poet knew who have gone through that blank wall ahead of him. An elegiac mood thus suffuses the later pages of this book.
Heaney marks his loss of famous fellow poets–Ted Hughes, Joseph Brodsky, Zbigniew Herbert. “Would they had stay’d,” he laments, quoting Shakespeare, also mourning others less famous–Norman MacCaig, Iain MacGabhainn, Sorley MacLean, George Mackay Brown. Differing images of deer remind him of them, the animals’ varieties of behavior suggesting the unique quality of each friend gone. A poem is in memory of one Rory Kavanagh; another of one Mary O Muirithe–names I do not know. Heaney remembers one David Thomson for “the glee of boyhood” he embodied, a blithe survivor like the shipwrecked Arion–whose story Heaney gives us as a kind of footnote to David Thomson in a translation from Pushkin.
These are not my remembrances. At my age, though, I know why they matter to Heaney at his age. I know why he reaches for them as the materials for poems that may come to matter to his readers. A time comes when the remembered dead outnumber the remaining people with whom one still traffics. They gain rather than lose position in the aging memory.
I also know why his poems take well-formed shape. My sense of form, like his, developed when the modern poem–even the free-verse form established by William Carlos Williams–was tightly crafted. Heaney has this modernist predilection to merge sound, sense, and structure. He wants to make thoughtful and shapely patterns of words and lines and stanzas, to construct endings that create an impression of completeness, because he matured before postmodernists attacked the inviolability of self and the certainty, however obscure, of the objective world occupied by the self.
He strives for well-wrought poems because he learned to think of the self as a persistent presence in a deep-structured universe that ultimately could be purposeful. If you think of the self and the world that way, you will strive to represent it accordingly in the forms of your art (and if not, not).
Does Heaney then propose a high modern world view explicitly in these poems? Seldom. They owe much of their flavor to the very diffidence about generality that marks typical high modern art. This diffidence combines with a predilection for using the particular materials of remembered experience. His use of them seems to suggest the unspoken generality. In this deliberate employment of selected details from a finite personal repertoire, of course, Heaney is practicing the poetics of high modernism. The ambiguities and subtleties of high modernist style gave poets the tools for meeting an established standard. Those qualities did not mean that the world was meaningless–only that it was hard to grasp and better approached aslant.
I don’t know how thirty something poets would read Electric Light. I have to guess that these poems would seem somewhat irrelevant to them. They would miss the flow, the constructivist freedom, the open-endedness, the rhizomatic exuberance of poems that identify current artistic priorities and philosophical world views. Meaning for them emerges from the moments going forward; they would not tend to look for it in a reflection of what was finished.
I do know how a seventy something reader takes the poems in Electric Light. Their familiar formal precision combines with their familiar reflective subjects to make me feel that I am reading something by someone with whom I share a common vision of the why and what of art. That is so even though his experience as an Irishman and mine as an American differ greatly in detail.
If my sense of seeing a vision in common with Heaney makes my reading of him look like a quaint anachronism to some, who cares? Heaney certainly knows that he is working now within a Western cultural environment quite different from that within which he grew up in the 1950s; and he certainly knows that that older experience still predisposes him to write a certain way, though times have changed. The interesting thing about Heaney’s book is that popular commentators take it for what it is and not for what it is not. The lesson, I suppose, is that a Nobel Prize (won in 1995) confers continuing relevance on a writer’s work even after styles and attitudes change.
More important, the seriousness given Heaney’s book in various reviews suggests that the dominant note of the current artistic moment is not totalitarian. It will not crush what is not the fashion, since the fashion itself is deliciously changeable and wonderfully unfettered by ideological purity.
Major Themes and Functions of Heaney art
Heaney’s work is filled with images of death and dying, and yet it is also firmly rooted in the life of this world. His tender elegies about friends and family members who have died serve many purposes: they mourn great losses, celebrate those who have gone before us, and recall the solace that remains to us, our memories. When asked recently about his abiding interest in memorializing the people of his life, he replied, “The elegaic Heaney? There’s nothing else.”
You were silly like us: your gift survived it all;
The parish of rich women, physical decay,
Yourself; mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
For poetry makes nothing happen:
W H Auden’s sad lament for William Butler Years, deepened as it is by Auden’s sorrow at the fall of Barcelona and his own pessimistic view of British political life, is mitigated in its melancholy by the poet’s moving defence of the lasting power of his art. He continues,
… it survives
In the valley of its saying…
… it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.
The relevance of this passage to today’s ceremony lies in the word “survives”. Seamus Heaney, Nobel Prize Winner, one of the most accomplished poets of our century has, in his poetry, prose and teaching led us to hear and read the word-hoard of our country with the informing power of his acute responsiveness, to renew and repossess the world about us; his vision, fulfilling Auden’s hopes that Years’ work may live on, has ensured the survival of poetry in these challenging and difficult days; or, to quote his own essay on Czeslaw Milosz, his subject is “the responsibility of each person to ensure that survival”. (The Government of the Tongue).
Seamus Heaney’s concern to articulate the healing properties of art, its strength in holding differences in harmony is at the centre of his recently published Oxford lectures, The Redress of Poetry. In a series of incisive and thoughtful discussions on topics ranging from the poetry of George Herbert and Christopher Marlowe to the Irish writers Brian Merriman and Oscar Wilde, Seamus Heaney concludes with a meditation on Ireland now:
“… whatever the possibilities of achieving political harmony at an institutional level, I wanted to affirm that within our individual selves we can reconcile two orders of knowledge which we might call the practical and the poetic; to affirm also that each form of knowledge redresses the other and the frontier between them is there for the crossing.” (The Redress of Poetry).
This sensitive approach to the Irish question is a hallmark of Seamus Heaney’s continued probings into the historical and cultural constructions of Ireland. His appreciation of the complex identities of Ireland has earned him a respect that transcends the division of the nation. A deep sense of the past and a remarkably wide knowledge of what Eliot calls “the dialect of the tribe” provides his work with a magical, indefinable core, an inscape of the history of a people.
In his recent Nobel Prize acceptance lecture, Seamus Heaney suggests that poetry can make an order that is both “true to the impact of external reality” and “sensitive to the inner laws of the poet’s being”. This two-sided conception of order links his work – and his strenuous defence of poetry – with earlier practitioners and theorists. Sir Philip Sidney, for instance, tells us that the poet “… cometh unto you, with a tale which holdeth children from play, and old men from the chimney corner. And, pretending no more, doth intend the bringing of the mind from wickedness to virtue: even as the child is often brought to take more wholesome things by hiding them in such others as have a pleasant taste”.
Such views of poetry possess a special meaning within the academy where poetry is indeed seen as a philosophical and aesthetic agency in our teaching. And it is also as an inspired teacher that we honour Seamus Heaney today. He has recently completed a five year appointment as Professor of Poetry at Oxford; he has, since 1982, held the Boylston Chair of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard University. His work for the Field Day Company, his many broadcasts, articles and patient explanations of the history, importance and methods of his chosen art are well known.
In a discussion of the apparent “uselessness” of the imaginative arts, Heaney circles around the issues raised in the Auden elegy quoted earlier:
“Faced with the brutality of the historical onslaught, they are practically useless. Yet they verify our singularity, they strike and stake out the ore of self which lies at the base of every individuated life. In one sense the efficacy of poetry is nil – no lyric has ever stopped a tank. In another sense, it is unlimited. It is like the writing in the sand in the fact of which accusers and accused are left speechless and renewed.” (The Government of the Tongue)
This teaching reminds us that sanity, coherence and order can only be achieved through those rehearsals of the fulfilled life made possible by art. For Sidney, Nature’s world is brazen, “the poets only deliver a golden”.
In his 1983 volume, Sweeney Astray, Seamus Heaney considers the medieval text of Sweeney as a fluid figuration of the crossing-point. Sweeney is Christian and Celtic, British and Irish, a creative poet and a responsible citizen. Sweeney’s kingdom on the Down/Antrim border and his final resting ground in Wicklow provided a guiding shape for the poet’s own sense of place. In the lyrical close of that poem, we hear a current of feeling that pulls together place, companionship and loss in a single harmony:
“I am standing beside Sweeney’s tomb
remembering him. Wherever he
migrated in flight from home
will always be dear to me.
Because Sweeney loved Glen Bolcain
I learned to love it, too. He’ll miss
the fresh streams tumbling down,
the green beds of watercress.”
In his discussion of this text, Seamus Heaney clarifies an issue that will be immediately apparent to his readers. Poetry is in the detail, the “local power” of Glen Bolcain, the streams and watercress; we learn of a Sweeney family of tinkers at St Mullins in Wicklow which the poet associates with the text. These are the elements that delight, energise and involve the reader.
Seamus Heaney’s ability to produce lasting and notable images of Ireland, “Islands riding themselves out into the fog”, “the squawk of clearance”, the “bonded pith and stone” of the haw, has radically altered the world’s perception of this island: his grasp of history, the professional resources he is able to deploy in his work and his strong moral commitment to a peaceful world order have made him an unofficial and much-welcomed cultural ambassador for Ireland. The values that flow from his poetry, prose, drama and teaching are those of generosity, toleration and courtesy.