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…

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