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Heaney Agonistes

Station Island

by Seamus Heaney
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 123 pp., $11.95

After the heavily accented melodies of Yeats, and that poet’s elegiac celebrations of imaginative glories, Seamus Heaney addresses his readers in a quite different key. He does not overwhelm his subjects; rather he allows them a certain freedom from him, and his sharp conjunctions with them leave their authority and his undiminished. There are none of Yeats’s Olympians about; the figures who appear in Heaney’s verse have quite human dimensions. Nature for him does not mean the lakes, woods, and swans visible from the big house. Instead, a farmer’s son, Heaney sees it as the “dark-clumped grass where cows or horses dunged, / the cluck when pith-lined chestnut-shells split open” (the latter a line that Hopkins would have welcomed). These and much else are things to remember “when you have grown away and stand at last / at the very centre of the empty city.” Nature is “sheep’s wool on barbed wire,” equipment such as a harrow pin, sledge-head, or trowel, as if its center were protrusive objects and not recessive vistas.

Auden complained that Yeats was willing to sacrifice sense to sound. Heaney escapes such an imputation: his sounds are contained, clipped, unlingering, “definite / as a steel nib’s downstroke, quick and clean.” Even his lyrical passages are tightly reined:

Windfalls lay at my feet
those days, clandestine winds
stirred in our lyric wood:
restive, quick and silent
the deer of poetry stood
in pools of lucent sound

ready to scare,
as morning and afternoon
Brigid and her sisters
came jangling along, down
the steep hill for water,
and laboured up again.

Rhymes, when he uses them, are resolutely unemphatic, more obvious effects being shunned. He is fond of assonance, which, as Austin Clarke said, “takes the clapper from the bell of rhyme.” Irish poetry since Yeats has been at pains to purge itself of the grand manner, and Heaney austerely excludes it except on state occasions. He likes tough words that sound like dialect, though they are respectably lexical, such as flenge or loaning or slub silk or scutch or Joyce’s tundish. Occasional Irish words such as “aisling” (vision) make their appearance. (There were more in previous books.) Compared with Yeats, this contemporary poetry marks its difference by subdued rhythms, less clamant philosophy, less prophetic utterance. “Glimmerings are what the soul’s composed of.” Heaney declares.

Although unpretentiousness is characteristic of Heaney’s verse, the term is not adequate to describe his assured reticences, his unearthing of apt and unexpected images, his proneness to see the visible world as a substance compounded from materials no longer visible but still suspended in it. Behind facts lie myths, not airy ones but myths so durable they seem facts too. In his new collection, his sixth, the opening poem is a brilliant example. It is entitled, ominously, “The Underground.” Poet and wife, on their honeymoon, are rushing to a concert in the Albert Hall. She runs ahead, losing buttons from her coat on the way, as he pursues her. On their return to the London underground it is he who leads:

Honeymooning, moonlighting, late for the Proms,
Our echoes die in that corridor and now
I come as Hansel came on the moon- lit stones
Retracing the path back, lifting the buttons

To end up in a draughty lamplit station
After the trains have gone, the wet track
Bared and tensed as I am, all attention
For your step following and damned if I look back.

The bridegroom, not only Hansel but Orpheus (as the bride is not only Gretel but Eurydice) in this new Phlegethon, claims his rights as pursued as well as pursuer.

Heaney has always been fond of myth, of what in “Gifts of Rain” in an earlier book he called self-mockingly “my need for antediluvian love.” He feels inside him “a whole late-flooding thaw of ancestors,” including the Tolland man and the Grauballe man. Not anthropological ancestors only. A little room is found for godlike presences, of Diana or Venus, of the Irish Niamh and the fertility sprite, the brazen sheelagh na gig. A cornfield becomes the cornfield of Boaz where Ruth labored. Ghosts belong to the congeries of backgrounding selves, and so he praises Hardy, whose grave he visits in one poem, for “the unperturbable ghost life he carried.” Looking at a pump in “Changes,” Heaney hears its prehistory, “the bite of the spade that sank it,” and all that has happened to it since.

At moments this sense of objects as being like people dragging their histories with them moves toward allegory, as in “A Kite for Michael and Christopher,” where the soaring kite reminds the poet humorously of the soul, and the sudden feeling of the kite’s weight makes him feel “the strumming, rooted, long-tailed pull of grief.” He reminds his beloved that their bodies are temples of the Holy Ghost in order to compare the feeling of her underbreast to that of a ciborium in the palm, as if Christianity existed to supply him with erotic imagery. He hunts for precedents for his own feelings, and lights on Milosz’s sense of being caught between participating actively in history and contemplating a motionless point, and on Chekhov’s recognition of slavery on Sakhalin even as he tries to waken the free man in himself.

The new book has three sections. The lyrics in the first exhibit Heaney’s ability to blend recollection with immediate feeling. Wry, spare, compressed, subtle, strange, they have a furtive intensity and excitement. “Poems that explode in silence, / without forcing; without violence,” are what he aims at here. He gives only fleeting glimpses of himself, often mocking, as when, in “Sandstone Keepsake,” he is “a silhouette not worth bothering about, / out for the evening in scarf and waders,” and “from my free state of image and allusion” looks across at watchtowers in Northern Ireland.

The situation in Ulster plays a large part in these poems. Though Heaney apologizes in one for “my timid circumspect involvement,” and in another explains, “I have no mettle for the angry role,” he cannot for long, as an Ulsterman, take his eyes off the victims on both sides. Yet he acknowledges, as Yeats did, a certain bewilderment, and in one poem, “Away from It All,” presents that with indirection, using a lobster “fortified and bewildered” as it reaches the boiling pot. In a no-win situation, the poet’s duty is to register compassion, not partisanship.

In the other two sections of his book Heaney offers, as he has not before, two series of connected poems. One of them is based upon Sweeney Astray, his translation published last year of the Buile Suishne. The original tale, one of the most extraordinary in Irish, dates from the late seventeenth century, although it has its origins in the seventh. Heaney was attracted to it, he says, by “the bareness and durability of the writing.” The tale is of Sweeney, an Irish king, who is furious to learn that the priest Ronan is building a church in his dominions. He confronts Ronan and throws his psalter in a lake. An otter fishes it out and returns it to Ronan unspotted. Sweeney continues to dispute until the exasperated priest curses him and ordains that he be a bird-man, with a bird brain, exiled to the trees. During his subsequent arboreal flitting Sweeney, only as mad as Cassandra, composes lucid poems. Heaney is less interested in the confrontation of paganism and Christianity than in Sweeney as the type of the poet, “defying the constraints of religious, political and domestic obligation,” and, moreover, “displaced, guilty, assuaging himself by his utterance.”

The act of translation suggested a kinship of souls as well as of sounds between Heaney and Sweeney, and he exploits this in his new book. The series of poems with the general title “Sweeney Redivivus” offers glosses on the original, somewhere between the point of view of the legendary king and that of the contemporary poet. Hence has a lyric earlier in the book which he calls “Making Strange,” and the effect of these new poems is to take the poet out of the sphere of being in which he usually locates himself so firmly. He looks at once familiar surroundings, now quite changed,

and even the range wall of the promenade
that I press down on for conviction
hardly tempts me to credit it.

He has “rent the veil of the usual” and is “incredible to myself.” He has to unlearn and learn again from this new perspective of Sweeney among the starlings. He can even reconsider Ronan’s exiling curse and wonder whether it was not rather that he himself chose to desert the ground and groundlings, so “pious and exacting and demeaned.” He says of Ronan,

Give him his due, in the end

he opened my path to a kingdom
of such scope and neuter allegiance
my emptiness reigns at its whim.

As in his flight he masters “new rungs of the air,” his coffers are “coffers of absence.” He delights in his function as “a lookout posted and forgotten.” The Sweeney persona enables Heaney to overcome the earth’s gravity, to reconsider all things from the vantage point of weightlessness. The solid Heaney world melts a little. At the same time, though no longer “mired in attachment,” Sweeney never really leaves the earth behind, and subjects it to sharp and undetached scrutiny, relieved by playfulness.

These poems have their curious effect of stepping backward and forward at once as tanks and steering wheels appear before the twice-born Sweeney’s eyes. Good as they are, they are surpassed by the other section, “Station Island,” which gives its name to the book. The connected lyrics here represent Heaney’s most ambitious work. Station Island, sometimes known as St. Patrick’s Purgatory, is an island in Lough Derg, County Donegal, to which for hundreds of years people have made pilgrimages. Among these were two writers, William Carleton and Patrick Kavanagh. In The Lough Dearg Pilgrim (1829), Carleton described making his way to Lough Derg at the age of nineteen, when he was still an ardent Catholic. (He became a Protestant later.) On the road he catches up with an old woman pilgrim by whom he is eventually fleeced, and Heaney speaks of passing the point where the meeting must have occurred. Carleton concludes with an attack on the “blind, degrading and disgusting idolatry,” “the swindling pilgrims, and juggling priests.” Kavanagh’s poem, written in 1942, also gives an ironic picture, with much attention to the attractions of women pilgrims. Both these predecessors appear to Heaney in the course of the poem, for at Lough Derg, as Yeats says in “The Pilgrim,” “All know that all the dead in the world about that place are stuck.”

Heaney, no longer a believer, has had the happy thought of making the pilgrimage an all souls’ night, with frequent use of Dantean terza rima. The poet encounters a series of familiar ghosts, a woodcutter he has known, an old master from his Anahorish School, a priest friend who died of fever in a mission compound, an athletic schoolfellow killed by the IRA and a second cousin killed by a Protestant, an archaeologist, his mother, a first girlfriend. They tell their stories to this Irish Dante, and tell them well, and implicate him in their replies. But the main burden is carried by Carleton at the beginning, and by Joyce, no Lough Derg pilgrim, at the end. Carleton, whom Heaney respects for “hammering home the shape of things,” explains why things must be known and understood:

All this is like a trout kept in a spring
or maggots sown in wounds—
another life that cleans our element.

We are earthworms of the earth, and all that
has gone through us is what will be our trace.”

Kavanagh makes a brief appearance, too, rough-hewn and mocking:

Sure I might have known
once I had made the pad, you’d be after me
sooner or later. Forty-two years on
and you’ve got no farther!…”
And then the parting shot. “In my own day
the odd one came here on the hunt for women.”

But Joyce is assigned a role like that of the ghost whom Eliot summons up in Little Gidding. The tall man who “seemed blind, though he walked straight as a rush” does not need to be named.

His voice eddying with the vowels of all rivers
came back to me, though he did not speak yet,
a voice like a prosecutor’s or a singer’s…

Joyce completes Heaney’s pilgrimage by rejecting it: “Your obligation / is not discharged by any common rite,” he tells him. When Heaney raises the question of the Irish using the English language, Joyce is impatient:

The English language
belongs to us. You are raking at dead fires,

a waste of time for somebody your age.
That subject people stuff is a cod’s game,
infantile, like your peasant pilgrimage.

You lose more of yourself than you redeem
doing the decent thing. Keep at a tangent.
When they make the circle wide, it’s time to swim

out on your own and fill the element
with signatures on your own frequency,
echo soundings, searches, probes, allurements,

elver-gleams in the dark of the whole sea.”
The shower broke in a cloudburst, the tarmac
fumed and sizzled. As he moved off quickly

the downpour loosed its screens round his straight walk.

Dante paid a loftier tribute, when he spoke of Brunetto Latini running off like one racing at Verona and about to win, not lose, the prize. But Heaney’s restrained compliment has its force.

The dead poet whom Eliot encountered in Little Gidding, also based upon the Dantean passage, is primarily Yeats, who speaks grandly of large matters. In Heaney’s poem, Joyce confines himself to the question of the artist’s career. There is much to be said for this unportentous vision. It seems fitting that Heaney should find his model not in Yeats, constantly trying to break through the façade of what is, but in Joyce, who “found the living world enough” if sufficiently epiphanized. Joyce’s message is a reaffirmation, with the authority of an immortal, of what Heaney has meant in speaking of himself as “an inner émigré” and claiming “a migrant solitude.”

Many of these poems have a tough rind as though the author knew that for his purposes deferred comprehension was better than instant. Obliquity suits him. Heaney’s talent, a prodigious one, is exfoliating and augmenting here.

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