Poetry and Terror


by Seamus Heaney
Oxford University Press, 73 pp., $5.95

Visitors to Ireland have often remarked that we seem to live in the past. They note our strong attachment to beliefs which were held in the Dark Ages and our inability to end a conflict which goes back to the religious wars of the seventeenth century. Our moist green landscape charms them, where it remains unpolluted by modern industry. They see fields full of cattle, which have been a source of wealth since the mythical wars of Cuchulain and Maeve. The oceanic island atmosphere takes away their sense of time, and gives them instead an illusion that the past is retrievable, perhaps even happening today. Clergy strengthen this illusion by teaching in churches and schools that the dead will be resurrected. Our earth itself, with those vast wet bogs in the center of the island, seems to absorb the present and preserve the past. Here funerals draw much larger crowds than weddings. Ruins and buried remains are so plentiful that archaeologists have an endless future digging back through time. In this climate poetry flourishes, and the poet who has shown the finest art in presenting a coherent vision of Ireland, past and present, is Seamus Heaney.

He was born on a farm in a townland called Mossbawn, near Lough Neagh between Belfast and Derry, thirty-seven years ago, the eldest of nine children in a Catholic family. After six years at St. Columb’s College, run by the Diocesan priests, in Londonderry, he studied English language and literature at Queen’s University in Belfast, where he began to write poetry under the spell of Gerard Manley Hopkins. His first volume, Death of a Naturalist, was published ten years ago in 1966. “Words as bearers of history and mystery began to invite me,” he has said about this period in his life. By birth and upbringing he belonged to the ancient world of the Irish countryside and traditional culture, with roots in a pre-Christian legendary past: but his education brought him into the modern world, where he discovered English poetry. The tension you can feel in Ireland between the two cultures, you also feel in his poetry.

He is the antipode of Yeats, who extended English poetry out beyond the demesne walls into the Irish countryside to appropriate its legends. Heaney brings the Irish countryside through his own voice into English poetry.

Those hobnailed boots from be- yond the mountain
Were walking, by God, all over the fine
Lawns of elocution.

The result is a new and exciting sound. Granted he has Irish antecedents—Patrick Kavanagh, for example—and granted he has learned the craft of being true to his own Irish voice from a number of English and American poets, such as Edward Thomas, Robert Frost, and Ted Hughes. His original power, which even the sternest critics bow to with respect, is that he can give you the feeling as you read his poems that you are actually doing what they describe. His words not only mean what they say,…

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