The Haw Lantern
by Seamus Heaney
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 51 pp., $12.95
Here are thirty-two new poems by Seamus Heaney—the yield since Station Island (1985). Heaney is a poet of abundance who is undergoing in middle age the experience of natural loss. As the earth loses for him the mass and gravity of familiar presences—parents and friends taken by death—desiccation and weightlessness threaten the former fullness of the sensual life.
The moment of emptiness can be found in other poets. “Already I take up less emotional space / Than a snowdrop,” James Merrill wrote at such a point in his own evolution. Lowell’s grim engine, churning powerfully on through the late sonnets, did not quite admit the chill of such a moment until Day by Day:
We are things thrown in the air alive in flight…
our rust the color of the chameleon.
It is very difficult for poets of brick and mortar solidity, like Lowell, or of rooted heaviness, like Heaney, to become light, airy, desiccated. In their new style they cannot abandon their former selves. The struggle to be one’s old self and one’s new self together is the struggle of poetry itself, which must accumulate new layers rather than discard old ones.
Heaney must thus continue to be a poet rich in tactile language, while expressing emptiness, absence, distance. The Haw Lantern, poised between these contradictory imperatives of adult life, is almost penitentially faithful to each, determined to forsake neither. Here is the earlier Heaney writing fifteen years ago about moist clay:
They loaded on to the bank
Slabs like the squared-off clots
Of a blue cream….
Once, cleaning a drain
I shovelled up livery slicks
Till the water gradually ran
Clear on its old floor.
Under the humus and roots
This smooth weight. I labour
Towards it still. It holds and gluts.1
Image and sound both bear witness here to the rich fluidity of the natural world. Now, in The Haw Lantern, Heaney finds he must, to be truthful to his past, add manufacture to nature. When he looks with adult eyes at his natal earth, he finds machinery there as well as organic matter; and he writes not with fluidity but with aphoristic brevity:
When I hoked there, I would find
An acorn and a rusted bolt.
If I lifted my eyes, a factory chimney
And a dormant mountain.
If listened, an engine shunting
And a trotting horse.
My left hand placed the standard iron weight.
My right tilted a last grain in the balance.
“Is it any wonder,” the poet asks, “when I thought / I would have second thoughts?” (“Terminus”).
The Haw Lantern is a book of strict, even stiff, second thoughts. Such analytical poetry cannot permit itself a first careless rapture. No longer (at least, not often) do we follow the delightful slope of narrative: “And then, and then.” Instead, we see the mind balancing debits and credits. “I balanced all, brought all to mind,” said Yeats, using a scale to weigh years behind and years to come. A poet who began as luxuriously as Heaney could hardly have dreamed he would be called to such an audit. The need for adult reckoning must to some degree be attributed to his peculiar internal exile. Born among the Catholic minority in. British Protestant Ulster, he came young to social awareness; now removed to the Catholic Republic of Ireland, he is part of an Ulster-bred minority substantially different in culture and upbringing from the majority.
The poetry of second thoughts has its own potential for literary elaboration. The Haw Lantern is full of parables and allegories, satires of Irish religious, social, and political life. The blank verse of these allegories is as far from the opulent rhymed stanzas of Heaney’s sensual, Keatsian aspect as from the slender trimeters and dimeters of his “Irish” side. The strangest poem in The Haw Lantern, a blank verse piece called “The Mud Vision,” arises from Heaney’s desire to respect amplitude, even in an analytic poem. I don’t find the effort wholly successful, but I see in it the way Heaney is willing to flail at impossibility rather than divide his believing youth from his skeptical middle age.
This religious-political-social poem begins with a bitter satiric portrait of an unnamed country dithering between atavistic superstition and yuppie modernity. The landscape displays a thin layer of industrial modernization over a desolate rural emptiness; in a typical scene, terrorist casualties are carried, in a heliport, past the latest touring rock star:
Statues with exposed hearts and barbed-wire crowns
Still stood in alcoves, hares flitted beneath
The dozing bellies of jets, our menu- writers
And punks with aerosol sprays held their own
With the best of them. Satellite link- ups
Wafted over us the blessings of popes, heliports
Maintained a charmed circle for idols on tour
And casualties on their stretchers. We sleepwalked
The line between panic and formulae,…
Watching ourselves at a distance, advantaged
And airy as a man on a springboard
Who keeps limbering up because the man cannot dive.
In that last image, Heaney catches the “advantaged and airy” complacency of an impotent nation congratulating itself on political flexibility as a way of concealing indecisiveness. The despair brilliantly hidden in this sketch casts up a compensatory vision. What if a dispossessed country could believe not in its useless statues of the Sacred Heart nor in its modern veneer of restaurants and heliports, but in its own solid earth? In the “mud vision” of the title, a whirling rainbow-wheel of transparent mud appears in the foggy midlands of this unnamed country, and a fine silt of earth spreads from it to touch every cranny. Heaney tries to catch the vision and its effect on those who see it:
And then in the foggy midlands it appeared,
Our mud vision, as if a rose window of mud
Had invented itself out of the glittery damp,
A gossamer wheel, concentric with its own hub
Of nebulous dirt, sullied yet lucent.
…We were vouchsafed
Original clay, transfigured and spinning.
The poem runs out of steam trying to imagine how the “mud vision” banishes traditional religion (bulrushes replace lilies on altars, invalids line up for healing under the mud shower, and so on). Eventually, of course, the vision disappears in the “post factum jabber” of experts. “We had our chance,” says the speaker, “to be mud-men, convinced and estranged,” but in hesitation, all opportunity was lost.
“Vision” is meant in the entirely human sense, as we might say Parnell had a vision of a free Ireland, or Gandhi a vision of a free India, but “The Mud Vision” puts perhaps a too religious cast on clay. Can a vision of the earthy borrow its language from the conventional “vision” of the heavenly (“a rose window…lucent…original…transfigured”)?
“The Mud Vision” puts many of Heaney’s qualities on record—his territorial piety, his visual wit, his ambition for a better Ireland, his reflectiveness, and his anger—and attempts somehow to find a style that can absorb them all. However, “The Mud Vision” has none of the sprezzatura and firm elegance of other poems in The Haw Lantern, such as “Wolfe Tone.” In this posthumous self-portrait, the speaker is the Irish Protestant revolutionary (1763–1798) who attempted a union of Catholics and Protestants against England, and was captured in 1798 after his invading fleet was defeated off Donegal. Tone committed suicide in prison before he could be executed for treason. He symbolizes the reformer estranged by his gifts, his style, and his daring from the very people he attempts to serve:
Light as a skiff, manoeuvrable
I affected epaulettes and a cockade,
wrote a style well-bred and impervious
to the solidarity I angled for…
I was the shouldered oar that ended up
far from the brine and whiff of venture,
like a scratching post or a crossroads flagpole,
out of my element among small farmers.
Though the first two lines of “Wolfe Tone” owe something to Lowell’s Day by Day, the poem has a dryness and reticence all its own. The force of the poem lies in the arid paradox—for reformers—that authentic style is often incompatible with political solidarity with the masses (a paradox on which Socialist Realism foundered). The desolate alienation of the artist/revolutionary is phrased here with the impersonality and obliqueness of Heaney’s minimalist style (of which there was a foretaste in Station Island‘s “Sweeney Redivivus”).
I hope I have said enough to suggest where Heaney finds himself morally at this moment, poised between the “iron weight” of analysis and “the last grain” of fertile feeling, between cutting satire and a hopeful vision of possibility. Besides the blank-verse political parables I have mentioned, The Haw Lantern contains several notable elegies, among them a sequence of eight sonnets (“Clearances”) in memory of Heaney’s mother, who died in 1984. To make this hardest of genres new, Heaney moves away from both stateliness and skepticism. Borrowing from Milosz’s “The World,” a poem in which a luminous past is evoked in the simplest, most childlike terms, Heaney writes a death-sonnet that imagines all Oedipal longings fulfilled:
It is Number 5, New Row, Land of the Dead,
Where grandfather is rising from his place
With spectacles pushed back on a clean bald head
To welcome a bewildered homing daughter
Before she even knocks. ‘What’s this? What’s this?’
And they sit down in the shining room together.
Such felicity brings Milosz’s “naive” effect fully into our idiom, and displays the self-denying capacity of the son to write about his mother as ultimately her father’s daughter.
But “Clearances” also touches on the irritability, the comedy, and the dailiness of the bond between sons and mothers. In one of its best sonnets son and mother are folding sheets together; and here I recall Alfred Kazin’s recent memoir of his youth in the Thirties, when he wrote for a freshman English class at City College “an oedipal piece about helping my mother carry ice back to our kitchen, each of us holding one end of a towel”:
This was such a familiar and happy experience for me in summer that I was astonished by the young instructor’s disgust on reading my paper. He was a vaguely British type, a recent Oxford graduate…who openly disliked his predominantly Jewish students. My loving description of carrying ice in partnership with my mother seemed to him, as he tightly put it, “impossible to comprehend.”2
It is useful to be reminded how recently literature has been open to such experiences. Here is Heaney with his mother folding the sheets:
The cool that came off sheets just off the line
Made me think the damp must still be in them
But when I took my corners of the linen
And pulled against her, first straight down the hem
And then diagonally, then flapped and shook
The fabric like a sail in a cross-wind,
They made a dried-out undulating thwack.