The Spirit Level
The Redress of Poetry
Crediting Poetry: The Nobel Lecture
In 1982, when Blake Morrison and Andrew Motion published their Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry, Seamus Heaney exploded. He had had enough. He was not British, and he was fed up with being called British, or anything other than Irish. But since his work had first appeared with Faber in 1966, it had regularly been called British, and it had appeared in such anthologies as Edward Lucie-Smith’s British Poetry Since 1945 (1970), Jeremy Robson’s The Young British Poets (1971), Michael Schmidt’s Eleven British Poets (1980), and even, in 1968, Karl Miller’s Writing in England Today: The Last Fifteen Years. It was time to set the record straight.
Heaney’s riposte to Morrison/Motion took the form of a 198-line poem, “An Open Letter,” headed by a quotation from Gaston Bachelard: “What is the source of our first suffering? It lies in the fact that we hesitated to speak…. It was born in the moment when we accumulated silent things within us.” And the poem itself tells us that Heaney had thought about this matter for weeks, months, that he was embarrassed to bring the whole thing up because Morrison had been his “good advocate” in writing a book on him, that he was disappointed particularly because he had understood that the anthology was going to be called Opened Ground, a phrase from one of his poems. He had wondered whether to let the matter drop:
Anything for the quiet life.
Play possum and pretend you’re deaf.
When awkward facts nag like the wife
Look blank, go dumb.
To greet the smiler with the knife
Smile back at him.1
But Heaney felt that if he dithered, Hamlet-like, he would pay for it in Act Five, that silence was an abdication, that he had to refuse the adjective “British.” And so he administered a “simple lesson”:
Caesar’s Britain, its partes tres,
United England, Scotland, Wales,
Britannia in the old tales,
Is common ground.
Hibernia is where the Gaels
Made a last stand
And long ago were stood upon—
End of simple history lesson.
As empire rings its curtain down
This “British” word
Sticks deep in native and colon
Like Arthur’s sword.
Heaney was unhappy with the Burns stanza he had chosen, which leads him into many awkwardnesses, as here where he seems to overlook the fact that there were also Gaels who made their last stand in Scotland. And do we imagine that, writing in prose, he would have distinguished Catholic from Protestant by calling one lot native and the other colon? It seems unlikely.
There were twenty poets in Morrison/ Motion, six of whom came from Northern Ireland. Heaney specifically says that he is speaking only for himself, not on behalf of the whole group:
(I’ll stick to I. Forget the we.
As Livy said, pro se quisque.
And Horace was exemplary
He threw away his shield to be
A naked I.)
This has more grandeur and passion than the context might seem to justify, but the decision to speak only on his own behalf was an important one for Heaney in another respect. For years he had been resisting the pressure to speak for the Republican movement. In his new collection, a poem called “The Flight Path” recalls meeting a Republican on a train in 1979 during the “dirty protest” at Long Kesh and being challenged with:
“When, for fuck’s sake, are you going to write
Something for us?” “If I do write something,
Whatever it is, I’ll be writing for myself.”
He will not, he is saying, put his poetry at the service of the cause. He will only speak as an individual. Nevertheless, in “An Open Letter,” he comes close to flag-waving when he says:
My passport’s green.
No glass of ours was ever raised
The vehemence of this refusal to be called British took many people by surprise and made Morrison/Motion look a little foolish. Heaney was the star show in their anthology, the one they deliberately placed first, the one they hailed as the most important new poet of the previous fifteen years. Nor was it the only time that Morrison had written of Heaney as being British. In his book, also published in 1982, he said that Heaney “grew up in the North of Ireland, which technically at least makes him British.” He calls his blend of sexual passion and domestic affection “unique in modern British poetry” and, writing about Field Work (1979), he says the sequence “marks Heaney’s return not just to the countryside but to the mainstream of English Poetry: having begun in imitation of Ted Hughes and then looked more to his own countrymen, he now takes his place in an English lyric tradition that includes Wyatt at one end and Wordsworth at the other.”2
Morrison and Motion had naturally hoped that their anthology would be seen as a kind of landmark. They wanted it to be, for its time, what Al Alvarez’s The New Poetry had been in its day. “British poetry,” they said in their introduction, had taken “forms quite other than those promoted by Alvarez,” and a part of the reason for this was the “emergence and example of Seamus Heaney…. Heaney is someone Alvarez could not foresee at the time and someone he has attacked since.” And they contrasted the nakedness of the style of poetry Alvarez admired with the obliquity they detected in Heaney.
One turns to Alvarez’s review of Field Work,3 which was not only an attack on Heaney but also an attack on his English admirers in academe, people like Christopher Ricks and John Carey, who had recognized Heaney’s gifts from the beginning of his career (I think that what they were recognizing was a successor to Ted Hughes) and were now declaring that in Heaney “Britain has, at last, another major poet.” This seemed grossly disproportionate to Alvarez. Heaney’s current reputation amounted 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.
And now comes the passage which, if he read it, would most have stuck in Heaney’s craw:
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.
In other words, Heaney’s “abrupt elevation into the pantheon of British poetry” was a symptom of what was wrong with British culture. Our critics were dedicated to “safety, sweetness and light.” They showed “a curiously depressing refusal of everything that is mysterious and shaking and renewing in poetry.” And they reminded Alvarez of Ophelia:
Thought and affliction, passion, hell itself,
She turns to favor and to prettiness.
There is an interesting example, in what Alvarez says, of the use of Eliot for purposes of cultural intimidation: if it is right to admire Heaney, then Eliot must have lived in vain, and not only Eliot but Lowell and Plath as well. This is the line. This is the tradition. This is the canon being wheeled into action. Astonishingly absent is any interest in the Irish dimension, except in this: Alvarez tells us that “since Congreve and Sterne there has always been at least one major Irish star on the British literary scene.” At the time he is writing, it should be Beckett, but Beckett is too radical and experimental. Heaney is “far less unsettling.”
The implication seems to be that that is therefore all Heaney is—an Irish entertainer on the British cultural scene, a symptom of what is wrong with British culture. It must have been exasperating to Heaney. If you look at what Alvarez had recommended, in the influential introduction to The New Poetry, as a “new seriousness”—defined as “the poet’s ability and willingness to face the full range of his experience with his full intelligence”—and you see how Alvarez preferred the example of Hughes to that of Larkin, you might well have expected him to recognize in Heaney the sort of poet he had had in mind, had campaigned for. One might have predicted that North at least would have appealed to him.
Most exasperating of all, though, would be to feel that these misapprehensions about your nationality were, in part, your fault. For it would never have been so easy for the British to take whatever they liked from Ireland and call it British if a protest had been lodged a little earlier. That was the significance of the quote from Bachelard. Heaney was in a weak position, and knew it, which is one reason why “An Open Letter” is not a good poem (the other being that its versification is atrocious).
“An Open Letter” was a poor poem but an important event. It made its point and its point was not forgotten. It made its point on behalf of one writer, but established that point on behalf of a whole group. One no longer assumes—this is the crucial difference between then and now—that the political geography of the United Kingdom is coterminous with the cultural geography.
In the last of his Oxford lectures, given in 1993, Heaney says
…I wrote that my passport was green, although nowadays it is a Euro-, but not an imperial, purple. I wrote about the colour of the passport, however, not in order to expunge the British connection in Britain’s Ireland but to maintain the right to diversity within the border, to be understood as having full freedom to the enjoyment of an Irish name and identity within that northern jurisdiction. Those who want to share that name and identity in Britain’s Ireland should not be penalized or resented or suspected of a sinister motive because they draw cultural and psychic sustenance from an elsewhere supplementary to the one across the water.
This represents a considerable rewriting of “An Open Letter.” The notion that there might be such an entity as Britain’s Ireland was specifically ruled out by the insistence that Britannia is Britannia and Hibernia is Hibernia and that’s that. The lines “No glass of ours was ever raised/To toast The Queen” have an aggressive Republican tone quite different from the statement: I draw cultural and psychic sustenance from an elsewhere supplementary to the one across the water, as if, for the Northern Ireland Catholic, his Irishness were a kind of wheat germ which he sprinkled every morning on his—what would it be? on his Britishness?