A Coast of Trees: Poems
Only the most gifted poets can start from their peculiar origin in a language, a landscape, a nation, and from these enclosures rise to impersonal authority. Seamus Heaney has this kind of power, and it appears constantly in his Poems 1965-1975. One may enter his poetry by a number of paths, but each joins up with the others. Nationality becomes landscape; landscape becomes language; language becomes genius.
For a poet, language is first; and in considering this, I may clarify my meaning. Speech is never simple, in Heaney’s conception. He grew up as an Irish Catholic boy in a land governed by Protestants whose tradition is British. He grew up on a farm in his country’s northern, industrial region. As a person, therefore, he springs from the old divisions of his nation.
At the same time, the theme that dominates Heaney’s work is self-definition, the most natural subject of the modern lyric; and language, from which it starts, shares the old polarities. For Heaney, it is the Irish speech of his family and district, overlaid by the British and urban culture which he acquired as a student.
The outcome is not merely a matter of vocabularies and accents. Even the smallest constituents bifurcate. In the poet’s ear, vowels are soft and Irish; consonants are hard and English. Heaney once said he associated his personal pieties with vowels and his literary awareness with consonants. So also the vocabularies and etymologies (sometimes fanciful) have their ground. For softness and hardness belong to the landscape of the poet’s childhood, to its bogs and farms, its rivers and mountains. Consequently, we hear lines from poems translating sound into terrain and nationality:
The tawny guttural water
spells itself: Moyola
is its own score and consort,
bedding the locale
in the utterance,
reed music, an old chanter
breathing its mists
through vowels and history….
(“Gifts of Rain”)
Instead of being hemmed in by the old divisions, Heaney lets them enrich his expression. Fundamental to his process of self-definition is a refusal to abandon any part of his heritage. The name of the family farm, Mossbawn, divides itself between the soft Irish bog of “moss” and a word meaning the fortified farm, or “bawn,” of a British settler. The Heaneys’ farm actually lay between a “bog” of yielding peat and the cultivated “demesne” of Moyola Park—belonging to a peer who had served as head of the British establishment. It was bordered as well by townlands with malleable Gaelic names, Anahorish and Broagh. But it looked out on Grove Hill and Back Park, firm with the definitive consonants of a ruler’s voice. What the poet means to accomplish is a union of the two traditions:
But now our river tongues must rise
From licking deep in native haunts
To flood, with vowelling embrace,
Demesnes staked out in consonants.
(“A New Song”)
Heaney incorporates these subtle attitudes into a coherent literary self. He feels eager, as he says of some English poets …