Field Work is Seamus Heaney’s fifth collection of verse. He published his first in 1966 and since then his output has been steady and discreet. Like his poetry: steady, discreet, reliable, and highly successful. He has won all the prizes and the reviews of his books have been so unanimous in their praise that now the question of his excellence is no longer discussed; the reviewers content themselves with explicating the subtleties of his textures or his references, as if he were some younger Eliot or Yeats.
It is all very peculiar, particularly in England where new voices have a notoriously hard time in being heard. Even more peculiar is the fact that recognition and success happened to Heaney instantaneously. The British jacket of his second book quotes five rave reviews of his first, three of them by university professors. This in itself would be extraordinary for any young poet anywhere. In England, where the divorce is absolute between the academies and what is called in the US “creative writing,” it was more or less unprecedented. Maybe Rupert Brooke did as well, but it didn’t happen to Ted Hughes at first, or even to Philip Larkin, however unassailable his status seems now; it still hasn’t happened in Britain to Sylvia Plath.
Why, then, was Heaney an exception? Perhaps it has something to do with his being an ‘Irishman. Since Congreve and Sterne there has always been at least one major Irish star on the British literary scene. Yeats and Joyce are long dead; Patrick Kavanagh outlived them but was too patchy and Dublin parochial; the gifted, underrated Thomas Kinsella departed for America, disappeared into the interior, and has scarcely been heard from since. The only obvious and natural contender is Beckett, but he has exiled himself to Paris, writes in French as much as English, and is experimental in a radical, forbidding way which many British academics, as well as the Great British Public, find hard to love. Heaney, if nothing else, is far less unsettling. Moreover, he comes from Northern Ireland and has written eloquently about that troubled and troublesome sore on the British conscience. But so, too, has Michael Longley, who comes from the same province and is also an excellent poet. Yet his books sell the usual derisory few hundred, while Heaney, like Larkin, numbers his admirers by the thousand. It would be good to believe that craft and restraint can still be so spectacularly rewarded, but I suspect, alas, that his popularity says less about these modest virtues than about contemporary English taste.
Heaney has in abundance a gift which the English distrust in one another but expect of the Irish: a fine way with the language. What in Brendan Behan, for instance, was a brilliant, boozy gift of the gab is transformed by Heaney into rich and sonorous rhetoric. He is a man besotted with words and, like all lovers, he wants to display the beauties and range and subtleties of his beloved. Unlike most, however, he disciplines his passion, reining it in for better effect. It is an admirable procedure, although there are times when the urge to make a nice noise gets the better of him:
I dreamt we slept in a moss in Donegal
On turf banks under blankets, with our faces
Exposed all night in a wetting driz- zle,
Pallid as the dripping sapling birches.
Lorenzo and Jessica in a cold climate.
Diarmuid and Grainne waiting to be found.
Darkly asperged and censed, we were laid out
Like breathing effigies on a raised ground.
The last two lines are purely ornamental; they add nothing except a solemn, reverberating, Tennysonian grandeur.
It is something of a miracle for a poet writing at the latter end of the twentieth century to sound so Victorian without, at the same time, sounding merely pompous and secondhand. Heaney’s skill in bringing off this difficult balancing act is, I suspect, the clue to his extraordinary popularity. The British have never taken easily or willingly to Modernism. Apart from Joyce and Beckett, the great experimental movement in literature was largely an American concern: Eliot, Pound, Crane, Moore, Stevens, Williams, all of them attempting in their different ways to break the links with English poetry and make it new in distinctly American or cosmopolitan ways. Modernism, in other words, was a literary Declaration of Independence. In contrast, the British adjusted to the times by a process of seepage, gradually adapting the old forms to the rhythms of twentieth-century speech: Yeats, Auden, Graves, and so on, down to Larkin. So they are comfortable with Heaney because he himself is comfortably in a recognizable tradition.
He is also a rural poet, born and brought up in the country and now wisely retired to it from the hurly-burly of literary life. Like Wordsworth, he suggests in one poem; whereupon his wife “interrupts: ‘You’re not going to compare us two…?” She’s right, of course. Nevertheless, he is squarely in a hallowed tradition running from Crabbe and Clare, through Hardy and Edward Thomas, to excellent contemporary minor poets like Norman Nicholson and the dour R.S. Thomas.
Heaney’s position in it, however, is far from countrified. He is an intensely literary writer: his poems on the Irish troubles sound like Yeats, his elegy on Lowell sounds like Lowell; he brings in heroes and heroines with beautiful names from Irish myth, and quotes Wyatt and Dante, whom he also “imitates,” Lowell-fashion. There are, in fact, moments when his literariness turns into downright pedantry. For example, his third collection, Wintering Out, contained a four-line poem called “Nerthus”:
For beauty, say an ash-fork staked in peat,
Its long grains gathering to the gouged split;
A seasoned, unsleeved taker of the weather,
Where kesh and loaning finger out to heather.
It is a kind of latter-day Imagism, a rhymed and rhythmical celebration of one of the common, unassuming objects of this world in the spirit of William Carlos William’s love poem to a dishmop or his red wheelbarrow on which so much depended. The difference is in the title and the last line, which send the conscientious reader scurrying to his reference books. Without, as it happens, much joy. Neither “kesh” nor “loaning” figure as such in the biggest Oxford dictionary, although they seem to be dialect variants of words which do: “kex: an umbelliferous plant with a hollow stalk”; “loan: an open uncultivated piece of ground near a farmhouse or village.” “Nerthus” defeats all the encyclopedias on my shelves. No doubt I will be scornfully put in my place either for ignorance or for missing the point. But in a poem as brief, unsubstantial, and apparently simple as this, these verbal affectations get in the way; they themselves are ways of missing the point.
Unless, of course, the point is other than what it seems: Heaney is not rural and sturdy and domestic, with his feet planted firmly in the Irish mud, but is instead an ornamentalist, a word collector, a connoisseur of fine language for its own sake.
The exception is North, his fourth and best book, which opened with an imposing sequence of poems linking the grim Irish present with its even grimmer past of Norse invasions and ancient feuding. The tone was appropriately stern, but also distanced, the language spare, as though stripped back to its Anglo-Saxon skeleton. For the space of these dozen and a half poems Heaney seemed to have found a theme so absorbing that charm and rhetoric were irrelevant. The poems were as simple, demanding, and irreducible as the archaic trophies from the bog which they celebrated. And like an archaeologist, he pared away the extraneous matter and kept himself decently in the background.
That reticence and self-containment have largely gone from Field Work. He is back with the seductions of fine language, the verbal showman’s charming sleights of hand. Consider, for example, the first stanza of “Oysters,” the opening poem of the book:
Our shells clacked on the plates.
My tongue was a filling estuary,
My palate hung with starlight:
As I tasted the salty Pleiades
Orion dipped his foot into the water.
First there is a verbal discovery, “clacked,” the right and precise word to set the scene; then a precise evocation of the seawater taste of the creatures, “My tongue was a filling estuary”; after that, Heaney takes off into graceful, expanding variations on the same theme. In other words, the poem does not advance into unknown territory, it circles elegantly around and around on itself until it ends where it began, with language: “I ate the day / Deliberately, that its tang / Might quicken me all into verb, pure verb.” This is a twentieth-century expression of a nineteenth-century preoccupation, old aestheticism and new linguistics, Gautier filtered through Barthes.
Heaney’s real strength and originality are not, I think, in his flashy rhetorical pieces, or in the poems where he takes on the big themes that are unavoidable for a serious poet living in Northern Ireland. They are, instead, in modest, perfect little poems like “Homecomings,” or the short sequence which gives this book its title, or the closing stanzas of “The Skunk”:
After eleven years I was composing
Love-letters again, broaching the word “wife”
Like a stored cask, as if its slender vowel
Had mutated into the night earth and air
Of California. The beautiful, useless
Tang of eucalyptus spelt your absence.
The aftermath of a mouthful of wine
Was like inhaling you off a cold pillow.
And there she was, the intent and glamorous,
Ordinary, mysterious skunk,
Snuffing the boards five feet beyond me.
It all came back to me last night, stirred
By the sootfall of your things at bedtime,
Your head-down, tail-up hunt in a bottom drawer
For the black plunge-line night- dress.
Heaney’s originality lies in his aroused, free-floating sensuality which pushes at the language, mingling the other senses—smell, sound, touch, taste—in visual images: “The sootfall of your things at bedtime.” It is like one of those witty, elegiac conceits Herrick or Henry King would have been proud of: softness, silence, and a vaguely erotic darkness, all lovingly fused in a single image. When Heaney is at his best he maintains a tender, fruitful muddle between the body of the natural world and the body of his wife. It is beautifully done in a way perfected most recently by poets like Snodgrass and Wilbur: pure and expert and deliberately lowkey. It is also a different universe, less disturbed and disturbing, from the vivid, ominous, undeniable visitant in Lowell’s “Skunk Hour” who “jabs her wedge-head in a cup / of sour cream, drops her ostrich tail / and will not scare.”
But that can only increase Heaney’s standing with the custodians of contemporary British culture. Lowell once criticized American artists for what he called “the monotony of the sublime.” He meant their fierce ambition, their continual all-out striving toward the ultimate Great American Novel/Poem/ Painting, as though it were ignoble to settle for anything less than greatness. They order these things differently in England. There the prevailing vice is a monotony of the mundane and artistic ambition is thought to be slightly off, as though it were not quite gentlemanly to settle for anything more than the minor.
Heaney’s work fits smoothly into this tradition. It challenges no presuppositions, does not upset or scare, is mellifluous, craftsmanly, and often perfect within its chosen limits. In other words, it is beautiful minor poetry, like Philip Larkin’s though replacing his tetchy, bachelor gloom with something sweeter, more sensual, more open to the world—more, in a word, married.
It is, however, precisely these reassuring qualities which have been seized on by his champions as proof of the fact that in Heaney Britain has, at last, another major poet. This seems to me grossly disproportionate both to the fragility of the verse and also to Heaney’s own modest intentions. After all, he does not often come on like Yeats reincarnated and much of his excellence depends on his knowing his own range and keeping rigorously to it, no more, no less.
In the circumstances, his current reputation amounts, I think, to a double betrayal: it lumbers him with expectations which he may not fulfill and which might even sink him, if he were less resilient; at the same time, it reinforces the British audience in their comfortable prejudice that poetry, give or take a few quirks of style, has not changed essentially in the last hundred years. If Heaney really is the best we can do, then the whole troubled, exploratory thrust of modern poetry has been a diversion from the right true way. Eliot and his contemporaries, Lowell and his, Plath and hers had it all wrong: to try to make clearings of sense and discipline and style in the untamed, unfenced darkness was to mistake morbidity for inspiration. It was, in the end, mere melodrama, understandable perhaps in the Americans who lack a tradition in these matters, but inexcusable in the British.
These, as I understand them, are the implications of Heaney’s abrupt elevation into the pantheon of British poetry. Few well-established critics care to cope with work outside a correspondingly established tradition and even fewer, in the words of the margarine advertisement, can tell Stork from butter. But their current dedication to safety, sweetness, and light seems, at this late stage of the game, a curiously depressing refusal of everything that is mysterious and shaking and renewing in poetry. They remind me of Ophelia in her madness:
Thought and affliction, passion, hell itself,
She turns to favor and to pretti- ness.
Kesh & Loaning May 15, 1980