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Poet Beyond Borders

Seamus Heaney

by Helen Vendler
Harvard University Press, 188 pp., $22.95

In the first five poems in Opened Ground, Seamus Heaney’s comprehensive new selection from the first thirty years of his career, the reader is arrested by the words “gun,” “grenades,” “armoury,” “blood,” and “bombs.” Since Heaney comes from Northern Ireland, a place that is only now emerging from decades of violent conflict, this hardly seems remarkable. These poems, however, were first published in 1966, three years before guns and bombs began to dominate the politics of Northern Ireland. They are, moreover, poems whose ostensible subject is a rustic childhood and whose universe is the enclosed domain of the Heaney family’s house and farm in County Derry in Northern Ireland, where he was born in 1939 into a Catholic household. The gun, in fact, is a simile for the poet’s pen. The grenades are frogs. The armory contains only some familiar farmyard implements. The blood is the juice of a blackberry. Crocks full of cream about to be churned into homemade butter, a nostalgic image, one might think, of old-fashioned abundance, are “large pottery bombs.”

The evocation of violence in these phrases is not untypical of the early Heaney. Time and again, fear, murder, and sexual disturbance insinuate themselves into what seem, at first glance, to be innocent idylls. The poppy, which we might expect to be a poetic emblem of sun and summer, is, in “Mid-Term Break,” the “poppy bruise” on the temple of the poet’s four-year-old brother, lying in his coffin after being struck by a motorcar. Children who have been picking blackberries have “palms sticky as Bluebeard’s,” linking them to a legendary mass murderer. “The Barn” begins with a pleasant vision of heaps of threshed corn but ends with the child lying face-down on the floor, terrified of the dark spaces and the unseen movements of bats, birds, and rats.

In “Death of a Naturalist,” the transformation of frogs from “nimble-swimming tadpoles” to “great slime kings/…gathered there for vengeance” represents the passage from childhood to the obscene, feverish sexuality of adolescence. In “Churning Day,” the making of butter acquires a surreal sexuality as “the four crocks, spilled their heavy lip/of cream, their white insides, into the sterile churn.” It is, indeed, these dark undercurrents that gave Heaney’s voice its power. Without sex and violence, his memories of a rustic childhood would be clichéd and sentimental. If there had not been a personal sense of disturbance in his early work, it is unlikely that he would have been able to connect so powerfully with the political violence that engulfed Northern Ireland after 1968.

From whence, then, do those early unsettling intimations come? In part, the force and physicality of Heaney’s poems is a memory of hard labor. Their world is archaic, even in Irish terms. They commemorate and celebrate activities and trades that were, in the 1940s, already on the way out: farmers plowing with horses, thatchers making roofs from rushes, diviners finding hidden sources of water, black-smiths working in their forges. Helen Vendler, in her splendidly lucid account of Heaney’s life and work, rightly describes “The Wife’s Tale” as “Brueghelesque in its portrayal of the threshers taking their midday meal in the fields.” Indeed, in a later poem, “The Seed Cutters,” the analogy with the great Flemish painter’s images of preindustrial peasant life is made explicit by Heaney himself:

They seem hundreds of years away. Brueghel,
You’ll know them if I can get them true.

It would have been all too easy for such evocations of an obsolete world to be merely picturesque and phony. What rescues them is the tang of sweat and the ache of toil. In “Churning Day,” the women making butter “set up rhythms/ that slugged and thumped for hours. Arms ached./Hands blistered….” In “Follower,” his father plowing with horses has his shoulders “globed like a full sail” with the strain of the work. The horses sweat. Even when Heaney is imagining the ancient world that underlies the present, he cannot forget the sheer drudgery of rural life for the ordinary toilers from whom he springs. In “Anahorish,” when he evokes his distant ancestors, they come burdened with work and discomfort:

With pails and barrows
those mound-dwellers
go waist-deep in mist
to break the light ice
at wells and dunghills.

For Heaney, the soil is not a grand metaphor for immemorial belonging, but a physical element that touches and is touched by human presence. In “Bann Clay,” it stains the boots and dungarees of the laborers. In “Wheels within Wheels,” the poet as a child rides his bicycle through “the muddy, dungy ooze” of a field and the turning wheel “showered me in my own regenerate clays.” In “Bogland,” the soil becomes, in the imagination, domestic and edible: the “ground itself is kind, black butter.” In his poems inspired by the Bog People, ancient bodies preserved in the peatlands of Denmark, the wet soil and the human remains seep into each other, so that it is impossible to say where one ends and the other begins. There is “the peat-brown head” of the Tollund Man, and the Bog Queen whose hair is “a slimy birth-cord/of bog.” The Grauballe Man

As if he had been poured
in tar, he lies
on a pillow of turf
and seems to weep

the black river of himself.

This intimacy with the land and with the labor required to make it fertile is one source of Heaney’s uncanny ability to transcend the clichés of rural nostalgia. The other lies deep in the political circumstances of his native Northern Ireland. Interviewed by the Dublin poet and critic Seamus Deane in 1977, Heaney revealed that the first poems he wrote were direct attempts to confront the sectarian problem in Northern Ireland but that this impulse “went underground” and, under the influence of the late Ted Hughes, he began to favor “the private County Derry childhood part of myself rather than the slightly aggravated young Catholic male part.” But, for a poet, underground impulses can be the most powerful, and it is clear that Heaney’s poetic memories of childhood are informed by the young man’s political aggravation.

Reading his early poems now, their violent imagery seems at once incongruous and inevitable. The ferocity may seem at odds with the setting, subverting as it does the coziness that usually comes with the territory of childhood, farm, and nature. Yet it foreshadows what was to come in the larger society beyond the farm. Both of these effects arise from a simple fact of life in County Derry—the way the very landscape is saturated with political meaning. The farm of Heaney’s poetic reminiscences, Mossbawn, is located between symbols of opposed cultures. To one side is the village of Toomebridge, celebrated by nationalist balladeers as the place where a famous rebel was executed in 1798:

For young Roddy McCorley goes to die
On the bridge of Toome today.

To the other is Moyola Park, the estate of the Chichester-Clarkes, one of the leading families of the old Protestant and Unionist establishment.1 Even though Heaney’s parents were not especially political, and even though relations between neighbors of different religions were generally good, politics could not be escaped. “If this was the country of community,” Heaney recalled in a BBC radio talk in 1978, “it was also the realm of division”:

Like the rabbit pads that loop across grazing, and tunnel the soft growths under ripening corn, the lines of sectarian antagonism and affiliation followed the boundaries of the land. In the names of its fields and townlands, in their mixture of Scots and Irish and English etymologies, this side of the country was redolent of the histories of its owners.

The force of this politically fraught geography is not, in Heaney’s work, merely biographical. It is also aesthetic. In such an intensely territorial society, where a piece of land is regarded as either Catholic or Protestant, either nationalist or Unionist, the natural world cannot be imagined as a space for pure contemplation or untrammeled communion with the spirit of creation. Romantic nature-worship is impossible. So, too, is the pastoral vision of rustic harmony between man and landscape.

Heaney’s achievement, in fact, begins with what he cannot do. If he could have written conventional country-boy odes to life on the farm, he might well have done so. His vision of the place he grew up in is decidedly homely and carefully screened. The reader would never know from his early poems that there was a major American air base beside Toomebridge during his childhood, that forces far larger than the local animosities of Protestant and Catholic loomed over these fields. Not until “In the Beech,” published in the collection Station Island in 1984, is there an explicit acknowledgment that the poet’s childhood was lived not only among cows and trees, but also among tanks and warplanes. But he was, nonetheless, saved from Arcadian conventions by the inescapable presence of history and politics.

Even when, in 1995, he visited the real Arcadia, the Greek Peloponnese, his rapture was held in check by a keen eye for the complexities of belonging. In a recent and as yet uncollected poem, “Into Arcadia,” Heaney is deeply stirred by the vestiges of classical antiquity he finds there. But he also notices that the farmer irrigating his fields in a manner “known in the country, probably, since Hesiod” had “worked in Melbourne once,” and finds the obligatory goatherd “with his goats in the forecourt of the filling station.” Heaney’s natural instinct is to celebrate the archaic survivals from Hesiod’s time and to ignore emigration and filling stations, but the acutely alert sense of place he inherited from his own background won’t let him. From the tension between that desire and that reluctance Heaney generates the energy that makes his poetry alive.

For a poet, of course, politics and history make their presence felt most powerfully through language. Heaney transmutes his awareness of the way the terrain of his childhood is shaped by division into a feeling that the land itself has an argumentative voice. In “Anahorish,” the place named in the title is a “soft gradient/of consonant, vowel-meadow.” In “Gifts of Rain,” the local river is full of “tawny guttural water.” In “Toome,” the town becomes a sound formed in the poet’s mouth, lying “under the dislodged/ slab of the tongue.” The soft ground becomes a page to be written on in another place-name poem, where the mark left by a heel in the soil is imagined as the “black O in Broagh.” In “A New Song,” to make the political derivation of this imagery more explicit, the River Moyola, flowing through the estate of Sir James Chichester-Clarke, prime minister of Northern Ireland when the poem was written, becomes a voice of Catholic protest:

But now our river tongues must rise
From licking deep in native haunts
To flood, with vowelling embrace,
Demesnes staked out in consonants.

When consonants are the threatened demesnes of the old Protestant ascendancy and vowels are the waters of “native” Catholic rebellion rising to flood them, politics can never be entirely absent from Heaney’s topographical vocabulary. Even the title of his new collection, though it sounds earthy and innocent, has a hidden polemical edge. The phrase comes from the first poem of the Glanmore sonnet sequence in the 1979 collection Field Work. But it was also the intended title of an anthology of poetry edited by the English poets Blake Morrison and Andrew Motion, which included some of Heaney’s work. When the latter was instead published in 1982 under the title The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry, Heaney objected in the verse pamphlet An Open Letter to his inclusion under the rubric “British.” He pointed out that he is in fact a citizen of the Republic of Ireland:

    …My passport’s green.
No glass of ours was ever raised To toast The Queen.

Heaney expressed, in the pamphlet, his particular annoyance at the abandonment of the original title:

To think the title Opened Ground
Was the first title in your mind!
To think of where the phrase was found Makes it far worse!
To be supplanted in the end By British verse.

So Heaney’s return to that title for the definitive overview of his achievement carries a certain undertone of defiance. It is a reminder that the ground he has opened is his own, not an outpost of metropolitan culture but a territory with its own particular contours and boundaries. It harks back to Heaney’s decision when he was named the outstanding student at Queen’s University, Belfast, in 1961 to spend his prize money on books by the Irish writers Louis McNeice, John Millington Synge, and Oscar Wilde, the choice, as he later recalled, “representing a kind of looking for one’s own crowd, you know, after all the English literature.”

The outbreak of the Troubles in Northern Ireland in 1968 changed the terms on which he could write, and such gestures made it easy to read Heaney as a cultural representative of his “own crowd” of Irish Catholic nationalists. He had to find what William Butler Yeats in “Meditations in Time of Civil War” called “befitting emblems of adversity.” As Heaney himself put it in the essay “Feeling into Words,” “the problems of poetry moved from being simply a matter of achieving the satisfactory verbal icon to being a search for images and symbols adequate to our predicament.”

The first part of that problem, though, was deciding who that “our” referred to. Was it the predicament of Northern Irish Catholics, stranded in a state to which most of them owed no allegiance? Or was it the broader complex of irreconcilable aspirations which included Northern Irish Protestants, the British government, and the increasingly ambiguous or indifferent Republic of Ireland, to which Heaney moved in 1972? In the small world of Northern Ireland, what you are not is more important than what you are, and Heaney is emphatically not a British writer. He is fond, indeed, of the reply given by another Irish writer, Samuel Beckett, to the question “Vous êtes anglais?“: “Au contraire.” For it is only in the negative that such certainty is possible. When a more positive identification with his own crowd comes into view, Heaney has tended to veer away from it. In “Station Island,” he banishes the ghost of Francis Hughes, a County Derry neighbor and an IRA killer who died on hunger-strike in prison. In “The Flight Path,” an IRA sympathizer has his demands for political commitment refused:

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.”

The drama of Heaney’s position as a public poet, indeed, lies in the way he has orbited the conflict in Northern Ireland, held in place by equal and opposite forces of attraction and repulsion. Or in the more homely metaphor of “Terminus”:

Two buckets were easier carried than one.
I grew up in between.

He has kept his poetic balance, not by being politically weightless, but by allowing himself to be burdened on each side with a heavy load of uncertainty. In one hand is the guilt he feels when he retreats from the violent reality of his native place into pure aesthetic pleasure; in the other the loss he suffers when he moves too far from that sensual pleasure and too close to rational political statement. From early on, even when political questions are deeply buried beneath the surface, Heaney’s poems are delicately poised between the rational and the sensual. Their key words—savour, hover, pry, finger—suggest at once the tactile indulgence of touching and feeling and the intellectual pleasure of abstract contemplation. One of the most successful features of Helen Vendler’s book is the way she ends each chapter with a passage on Heaney’s “second thoughts,” showing how each position that he has elaborated is later reconsidered. The tendency to hover between the physical and the psychic, the visible and the invisible, commitment and detachment, is Heaney’s characteristic mode and it carries over into the best of his political poems.

Not for nothing, indeed, is Heaney, perhaps surprisingly for a poet so closely identified with images of a pre-industrial world, the great laureate of the motorcar. To follow his career in the expansive new volume is to be struck by how often, from his second volume, Door into the Dark (1969), onward, key poems place the poet behind the steering wheel. Helen Vendler rightly notes the importance of one poem in that volume, “The Peninsula,” in which he instructs himself, as she puts it, to root his work in “the primary senses and…memory founded in the senses.” These sense impressions, though, are gathered from behind the windshield:

When you have nothing to say, just drive
For a day all round the peninsula.

This instruction is followed throughout his subsequent work, so much so that the lyrical impulse in Heaney could be said to be charioted not by Bacchus and his pards or even on the wings of Poesy but by the internal combustion engine. In “Night Drive,” “Westering,” “On the Road,” “Postscript,” and other poems, the poet at the steering wheel is the primary device. Even in a mythological poem like “The Tollund Man,” steeped in ancient rituals, he suddenly imagines himself “driving,/Saying the names/ Tollund, Grauballe, Nebelgard.” And the attraction of the driver’s point of view for Heaney is obvious: it is another way of hovering, a perfect way of placing the poetic self “in between,” of being in the landscape but sealed off from it, close to the ground, but not touching it, alert to the immediate texture of reality but mobile and free to escape. Significantly, this is also, at times, Heaney’s preferred approach to the rude presence of the Northern Ireland conflict. In “Whatever You Say Say Nothing,” when he catches a glimpse of the Long Kesh internment camp for suspected terrorists, it is from his car on the motorway. In “From the Frontier of Writing,” British soldiers at a border crossing are “flowing and receding/like tree shadows into the polished windscreen.”

Even when he is not literally seeing the Troubles from the driver’s seat, Heaney often introduces them most effectively in a hit-and-run style or as if they were being glimpsed momentarily and unexpectedly from the window of a rapidly moving vehicle. In “Casualty” a conversation in a bar between the poet and a fisherman has its apparent banality shattered by a single word:

I would manage by some trick
To switch the talk to eels
Or lore of the horse and cart
Or the Provisionals.

The sudden twist out of the folksiness of horse and cart and into the violence of the Provisional IRA has the force of an ambush, reproducing for the reader the shock of the poet’s discovery that this same fisherman “was blown to bits/Out drinking in a curfew.” In “The Backward Look,” the poet’s contemplation of a bird, the snipe, and its old Gaelic names takes an equally sharp turn into political violence when we view its “flight/through the sniper’s eyrie,” and suddenly enter a dangerous landscape where armed men are keeping watch. In “High Summer” (not, regrettably, included in Opened Ground, though Helen Vendler gives it ample room in her study) he forgets, on a holiday in France, a bag of maggots bought as fishing bait until the flies swarm out and suddenly metamorphose into repulsive reminders of the Troubles back home. They appear

like newsreel of a police force run amok,
sunspotting flies in gauzy meaty flight,
the barristers and black berets of light.

The very swiftness of these glancing blows from the conflict indicates his fear that, if he lingers, he will be caught up in it. Heaney’s fear of involvement is a fear, not for his life, but for his art. And it is rooted in real artistic experience. In his most political volume, North (1975), there is strong evidence of the damage his work could sustain from too close an encounter with the atavistic roots of the violence. In the preceding volumes, for instance, images of men working the land are often subtly sexual. These early poems suggest but do not state an analogy between the worker and a male lover and between the land and the woman to whom he is making love. The analogy is unstated for the obvious reason that making it explicit turns it into a cliché. But that is just what Heaney does in a political poem like “Act of Union” from the collection North, where Ireland is envisaged as a maiden and England as an “imperially male” rapist wielding a “battering ram.” Here, the fusion of sexual and territorial imagery produces metaphors rich only in the doubts they raise about whether their sexual politics is cruder than their nationalist rhetoric.

Throughout much of North, indeed, there is an enormous sense of strain. Searching for a metaphor that might allow him both to dig into the violence then raging in Northern Ireland and to find some aesthetic distance from it, Heaney presents a series of poems—“Funeral Rites,” “North,” “Viking Dublin: Trial Pieces,” “Bone Dreams,” “Bog Queen,” “The Grauballe Man,” “Punishment”—proposing, by way of the ritually slaughtered Bog People preserved in a museum in Silkeborg, Denmark, an analogy between the sectarian violence and Viking death rites. These poems clearly affect many readers deeply. Helen Vendler writes in her book on Heaney that she heard the poet, then “wholly unknown to me,” recite them in Sligo in 1975 and thought them “some of the most extraordinary poems I had ever heard.” Yet, her chapter on North, in which she stands by this view, seems curiously defensive and lacks the magisterial command of the rest of her book. This may be partly because she is not completely at home with Irish politics, believing, for instance that Monaghan, birthplace of the poet Patrick Kavanagh, is in Northern Ireland when it is actually in the Republic, and that Theobald Wolfe Tone, founder of Irish republicanism in the eighteenth century and subject of a Heaney poem that bears his name, was an “aristocrat” rather than a middle-class lawyer.2 But it is surely also because the poems, mesmerizing as they are on first hearing, cannot bear the weight of intense intellectual scrutiny.

Against Vendler’s judgment might be set that of the most brilliant of Heaney’s successors in the extraordinary flowering of poetry in contemporary Northern Ireland, Ciaran Carson and Paul Muldoon. Carson, reviewing North on its first appearance, remarked of Heaney’s anthropological and archaeological approach to violence in the poems,

It is as if he is saying that suffering like this is natural; these things have always happened; they happened then, they happen now, and that is sufficient ground for understanding and absolution. It is as if there never were and never will be any political consequences of such acts. They have been removed to the realm of sex, death and inevitability.

Less directly but no less damningly, Muldoon, though he published a large selection of Heaney’s work in his Faber Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry, saw fit to include just one poem from North, the nonpolitical “Mossbawn.”

The problem with the North poems is partly intellectual and partly aesthetic. Making the case for them, Helen Vendler accurately sums up the political proposition they contain:

that a wide practice of prehistoric violence, encompassing both the Scandinavian countries and Ireland, accounted for the survival of savage tribal conflict, which fundamentally was neither colonial nor sectarian, neither economic nor class-caused, but rather deeply cultural.

It is, perhaps, a testament to the mesmeric power of Heaney’s eloquence in these poems that so rigorous a judge of rhetorical strategies as Helen Vendler seems not to notice the glaring absurdity of this argument. If Ireland and Scandinavia still share a cultural predilection toward ritual slaughter which dooms them, regardless of religion, colonialism, or economics, to savage conflict, how come we haven’t heard of the Norwegian Republican Army or the Swedish Volunteer Force? Has there been a thirty-year news blackout on the squalid ethnic massacres in Denmark? Or could it be that the differences between peaceful, prosperous Denmark and broken, tormented Northern Ireland, differences precisely of colonial, religious, and economic history, are so vast as to make Heaney’s governing myth in these poems an obscurantist rather than an enabling one?

The ultimate answer is in the poems themselves and in the telltale signs that even Heaney’s miraculous technical and intellectual powers cannot transform the hollow analogy into a convincing lyrical connection. In the poem “North,” for example, the poet is standing on the edge of the Atlantic

…and suddenly

those fabulous raiders,
those lying in Orkney and Dublin

…were ocean-deafened voices
warning me…

That “and suddenly” is a crude conjunction between the Irish poet and the fabulous Viking raiders who seem to emerge, shaggy and bellowing, suspiciously on cue, from a pre-scripted Hollywood epic. The electrifying spontaneity, the sudden, organic epiphany of the authentic Heaney, are completely absent. Likewise, “The Grauballe Man” from this sequence compares poorly to the magnificent “The Tollund Man,” published three years earlier in Wintering Out. The latter poem has the shocked, enraptured immediacy of an unexpected discovery as the ancient body accidentally brings to mind the contemporary atrocity of

The scattered, ambushed
Flesh of labourers,
Stockinged corpses
Laid out in the farmyards.

But in “The Grauballe Man,” for all its formal virtuosity, this connection feels preconceived. The ancient body is interrogated too methodically, prodded until it yields the political analogy that readers of “The Tollund Man” will have been primed to expect.

These North poems are, in any case, untypical of Heaney’s overall approach to the violence. Much more characteristic is the sheer anguish of living through the brutal murders of friends and acquaintances. Field Work, the volume that followed North in 1979, is dominated by elegies for specific, vividly evoked individuals. Some—Robert Lowell, the composer Sean O Riada, the poet Francis Ledwidge—died in circumstances unconnected to the Northern Ireland conflict. But the strongest of the elegies is “The Strand at Lough Beg,” a fierce lament for Heaney’s cousin Colum McCartney, murdered in a sectarian attack. The poet is literally haunted by his dead kinsman:

I turn because the sweeping of your feet
Has stopped behind me, to find you on your knees
With blood and roadside muck in your hair and eyes….

The poem is an attempt at exorcism, ending with the poet washing the corpse, trying to assuage the horror with the power of immemorial ritual. But, contrary to the implications of the North poems, old rituals prove inadequate to the reality of the present-day viciousness. Five years later, in “Station Island,” Colum McCartney’s ghost is still not at rest. Not only does he return to haunt Heaney, but this time he explicitly attacks “The Strand at Lough Beg,” the poem that was meant to honour his memory:

You confused evasion and artistic tact.
The Protestant who shot me through the head
I accuse directly, but indirectly, you
who now atone perhaps upon this bed
for the way you whitewashed ugliness and drew
the lovely blinds of the Purgatorio
and saccharined my death with morning dew.”

But this self-accusation is too harsh, and there is a part of Heaney that knows it. For, in the circumstances of Northern Ireland over the last thirty years, evasion has been at times a necessary gesture, even a form of courage. To deny or ignore the awful fate of over 3,500 people murdered along with Colum McCartney throughout the Troubles would indeed be shameful. But evasion in a broader sense, slipping away from the relentless and apparently inescapable logic of ethnic conflict, has been the most pressing political task. And Heaney has taken it on in various ways.

He has, first and most important, fulfilled the poet’s responsibility to language. When he and others like Michael Longley, James Simmons, and Derek Mahon began to write in Belfast in the early 1960s, it was an innately political act. As Heaney later recalled,

the fact that a literary action was afoot was itself a new political condition, and the poets did not feel the need to address themselves to the specifics of politics because they assumed that the tolerances and subtleties of their art were precisely what they had to set against the repetitive intolerance of public life.

Poetry, then, can be imagined not as a shunning of politics, but as a corrective to political rhetoric. The development of a language full of tolerance and subtlety is itself a rebuke to the dangerous clichés of so much political speech. In that sense, Heaney’s commitment to the independence of his art, to the pursuit of shape and richness and abundant ambiguity, is also a profound commitment to the quality of public life.

The tolerance and subtlety of his verse, aside altogether from its content, is embedded within its form, a form unthinkable without what he calls the “double reality” of Ireland and Britain. Catholic Irishman that he is, he is also a true inheritor of English culture. Helen Vendler rightly points out that while the predecessors with whom his work converses include the Irishmen Yeats, Joyce, Patrick Kavanagh, and the anonymous author of the Sweeney epic, English poets like Wordsworth, Keats, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Ted Hughes, and the anonymous Anglo-Saxon author of Beowulf (which he is currently translating) are no less important to him. Some of Heaney’s early poems read like pastiches of Ted Hughes, and his first successful effort, “Digging,” reproduces the feel and situation of the latter’s “The Thought Fox.” The childhood self of his early poems owes a great deal to Wordsworth. The complex interplay of sound and rhythm in a poem like “Death of a Naturalist” is, among other things, an exploration of the possibilities opened up by Hopkins. The hard consonants and compound nouns of many of the North poems—“love-den,” “oak-bone,” “blood-holt,” “flint-find”—are direct echoes of Anglo-Saxon verse.

In the Glanmore Sonnets, one of the finest of Heaney’s sequences, the English achievement in the sonnet is acknowledged by allusions to “Dorothy and William” (Wordsworth), to “Lorenzo and Jessica” (Shakespeare, by way of The Merchant of Venice), to “my apology for poetry” (Sir Philip Sidney), and to Thomas Wyatt, when the poet asks his wife “how like you this?” touching as he does so the tender skin of Wyatt’s “They flee from me,” where this phrase so memorably lingers. And these are not merely abstract allusions. They are used in the most intimate ways, turned into snatches of domestic conversation, brought into the private sphere of marital joy and discord. It is not too much to say that these pieces of English tradition are made at home in contemporary Ireland. Written at a time when “Brits Out” was the catch-cry of the IRA and its supporters, this kind of poetic tolerance, however marginal its subtleties might be to the political conflict, has a force of its own.

If Heaney subverts cultural separatism, he also breaks away from the other way of defining “our crowd” religion. Heaney is a Catholic poet only in the sense that the language and rituals of the church he was raised in are a store of metaphor too rich to be ignored. But any sense of religious orthodoxy in his work is merely residual. “Habit’s afterlife” he calls it in “Station Island,” barely concealing his contempt for the Church. Elsewhere, he doesn’t bother with concealment. In “The Stations of the West,” he refers to “the fasting spittle of our creed.” In “The Skunk,” he hazards as a simile for that putrid animal’s tail the priest’s “chasuble/At a funeral Mass.” Even in “Station Island” itself, a long sequence which takes the apparently religious form of a pilgrimage to the holy island of Lough Derg, he is careful to make it clear to the reader that the pilgrimage is metaphorical, rather than literal, by including a scathing description of the “fawning relish” with which the faithful greet a newly ordained priest who shines with smugness, “glossy as a blackbird.” Heaney’s attraction to the figure of the Mad Sweeney (he made a fine translation from the Gaelic of the medieval epic in which this legendary figure first appears, and uses him as an alter ego in the sequence “Sweeney Redivivus”) is also linked to this religious skepticism. Sweeney is a pagan archetype cursed and banished by the Christian saint Ronan.

If Heaney distances himself from his own church, he also moves away from one of the defining characteristics of Irish Catholicism—its stereotype of the Protestant enemy. Some of his earlier poetic images of Protestants—“Docker,” which is left out of Opened Ground, and “Orange Drums, Tyrone, 1966,” which is included—are accurately characterized by Helen Vendler as “hard, cartoonlike renditions.” In the first, the subject is clearly a shipyard worker rather than a docker, and the uncharacteristic imprecision is telling, for the man seems barely human. He is almost completely assimilated to his trade:

The cap juts like a gantry’s cross- beam,
Cowling plated forehead and sledgehead jaw.

The second, a member of the Orange Order beating the traditional lambeg drum in the annual July 12th parade, is likewise a mere adjunct to this well-worn symbol of supremacy:

It is the drums preside, like giant tumours.

Yet there are also poignant glimpses in the poems of the cross-community civility that makes coexistence possible. Especially when he is on home ground in rural County Derry, Heaney is able to view his Protestant neighbors more precisely and more sympathetically. In “Trial Runs,” a prose poem from a sequence called Stations, written mostly in 1970, but previously published only in pamphlet form, a Protestant returns from fighting with the British army in Europe during World War II bringing a gift of rosary beads to his Catholic neighbors: “‘Did they make a papish of you over there?’ ‘Oh damn the fear! I stole them for you, Paddy, off the Pope’s dresser when his back was turned.”’

In “An Ulster Twilight” (not included here), he recalls a Protestant whose father was a member of the special constabulary, for which Catholics had a particular loathing, making a wooden boat as a child’s Christmas present. Most memorably, in the gentle, elegiac “The Other Side,” written after the outbreak of the Troubles but evoking a more peaceful time, a Protestant neighbor, calling at the Heaney home, waits shyly at the outer door while the family inside finishes praying the rosary. The tenderness of this poem is often noted, but what is most startling about it is the way Heaney subtly identifies with this man from “the other side” rather than with his own Catholic family. At the start of this section of the poem, Heaney and his family are the “we” who hear the Protestant’s step outside. But a few lines later, Heaney the older infidel has moved to the literal other side of the wall, from the room filled with the murmur of Catholic devotions to the yard outside where he seems closer to the Protestant than to his own crowd:

But now I stand behind him
In the dark yard, in the moan of prayers.

The whole tone of the piece is shaped by an acute awareness of how fragile and perhaps evanescent this moment of closeness must be in a landscape whose contours are shaped by a history of possession and dispossession. But that momentary quality heightens the effect. A cultural and political border, marked at the time by outrageous brutalities, is crossed with such lightness and grace that it seems, for an instant, not to exist.

There is, as well as the openness to England in his use of language and form and the deliberate attempts to escape the stereotypes of Catholic and Protestant, a final political movement in Heaney’s poems, one that seems abstract but that chimes with the broader imaginative shift that eventually led to last year’s Belfast peace agreement. At the heart of that agreement is an attempt to move away from ideas of political sovereignty based on two irreconcilable claims (British and Irish) to the territory of Northern Ireland and toward an acceptance that sovereignty exists in people’s minds, in history, culture, community, and allegiance. It is a shift, in essence, from the physical reality of the land to the imaginative reality of human memories and desires. And this same movement is the course of Heaney’s poetic journey.

The best summary of the shift from Heaney’s early work to his most recent volumes—The Haw Lantern, Seeing Things, The Spirit Level—is that provided by Heaney himself in a lecture on one of his most important Irish forebears, Patrick Kavanagh. Heaney’s description of Kavanagh’s career is especially interesting because Kavanagh blazed the trail that Heaney himself followed, from a small Ulster farm to a poetic career in Dublin. In the early Kavanagh, he writes, “the experienced physical reality of [rural] life imposes itself upon the poet’s consciousness so that he necessarily composes himself, his poetic identity, and his poems in relation to that encircling horizon of given experience.” In the later work, however, written as it is at a distance from the original territory of childhood,

the world is more pervious to his vision than he is pervious to the world. When he writes about places now, they are luminous spaces within his mind. They have been evacuated of their status as background, as documentary geography, and exist instead as transfigured images, sites where the mind projects its own force…. The country he visits is inside himself.

The documentary geography of Heaney’s given experience in his early poems is that of a political minefield in which sectarian animosities, memories of conquest and dispossession, lie just beneath the soil. In his later work, however, there is a more luminous, more imaginatively open, sense of place. The sources of this change, of course, are not political but personal: the deaths of both his parents in the mid-1980s, the onset of middle age, the increasing distance between the internationally celebrated writer and the farm boy of the 1940s. But the effects are profound. They can be seen most explicitly in the last poem of the sequence “Clearances,” written in memory of his mother. Here, the poet remembers a chestnut tree planted on the farm in the year of his own birth, so that it became a natural, physical image of his own growth. Later, after the family moved away, the tree was cut down, and in the poem he is drawn to the spot where it once stood, now “Utterly empty, utterly a source”:

Its heft and hush become a bright nowhere,
A soul ramifying and forever
Silent, beyond silence listened for.

Here, the image of being rooted in one’s native soil, an image with deep political resonances in contested territory like Northern Ireland, is transformed into a sense of pure possibility. The tree no longer stakes a claim but rather holds open a blank yet boundless space. “The new space,” as Heaney puts it in his Kavanagh essay, “was all idea; it was generated out of my sense of the old place, but it was not a topographical location. It was and remains an imagined realm….”

A similar transformation, moreover, is evident in many of the best poems from these later collections. Marks on the landscape, borderlines, rigid definitions of territorial ownership become light and imaginary. In “Markings” from the 1991 volume Seeing Things, for example, he ponders the way youngsters play football even as darkness falls so that the lines that mark the field become invisible and they are “playing in their heads.” In the same sequence, he recalls the “imaginary line” along which his father plowed a field. In “The Strand,” from the volume The Spirit Level, that line has become “the dotted line my father’s ashplant made on Sandymount Strand,” a mark so ineradicable in the poet’s memory that the sea cannot wash it away. In “At the Wellhead” in the same volume, the well into which, in the early poem “Personal Helicon,” the poet’s childhood self peered with eyes hungry for physical detail is now an image in the mind of a blind neighbor who, when he reads the poem to her, says, “I can see the sky at the bottom of it now.”

That power to transform things as they are into things as they might be conceived is the poet’s true property. In a dark time, Heaney has held open a space for the imagination by showing that people are not necessarily prisoners of the physical reality that seems to doom them to conflict. He has turned borders and dividing lines into rich frontiers. Just as the incongruous violence of his early poems foreshadowed terrible events in the real world they described, it is just possible that the transformation of that real world in his later work may also herald a broader change.

  1. 1

    One of its members, Sir James Chichester-Clarke, became prime minister of Northern Ireland in 1969, at a time when Seamus Heaney was active in the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, demanding equality for Catholics against the resistance of that government.

  2. 2

    Vendler, most uncharacteristically, also misquotes the poem “Oracle,” turning “lobe and larynx/of the mossy places” into “the lobe and larynx/of the leafy places.”

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