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.
Petrarch or Milton could hardly have imagined that this might be the octave of a sonnet. Yet the pretty “rhymes” echo tradition, as line stretches to linen (the clothesline and the sheets), and as them shrinks to hem (a folded sheet in itself). Frost, Heaney’s precursor here, would have recognized the unobtrusive sentence-sounds; the line “Made me think the damp must still be in them” could slip into “Birches” without a hitch. (The “dried-out undulating thwack,” though, is pure Heaney; Frost’s eye was more on Roman moral epigram than on sensual fact.)
The seven-line “sestet” of the sonnet closes with a muted reference to the writing of the poem (the poet is now inscribing his family romance on a different set of folded sheets), but this literary marker is almost invisible in Heaney’s intricately worked plainness:
So we’d stretch and fold and end up hand to hand
For a split second as if nothing had happened
For nothing had that had not always happened
Beforehand, day by day, just touch and go,
Coming close again by holding back
In moves where I was x and she was o
Inscribed in sheets she’d sewn from ripped-out flour sacks.
Taut lines and folded sheets connect mother and son, in art as in life.
Like “Clearances,” the other elegies in this volume combine the density of living with the bleakness of loss, preserving the young, tender Heaney in the present stricken witness. “The Stone Verdict” is an anticipatory elegy for Heaney’s father, who has since died; other poems commemorate his young niece Rachel, dead in an accident; his wife’s mother (“The Wishing Tree”); and his colleague at Harvard, Robert Fitzgerald. Heaney affirms that the space left in life by the absence of the dead takes on a shape so powerful that it becomes a presence in itself. In the elegy for his mother, Heaney’s emblem for the shocking absence is a felled chestnut tree that was his “coeval”—planted in a jam jar the year he was born. Cut down, it becomes “utterly a source,”
Its heft and hush become a bright nowhere,
A soul ramifying and forever
Silent, beyond silence listened for.
Heaney’s sharply etched “nowhere” is a correction not only of Christian promises of heaven, but also of Yeats’s exuberant purgatorial visions of esoteric afterlifes. It returns Irish elegy to truthfulness.
Heaney has said that because people of any culture share standards and beliefs, the artist’s “inner drama goes beyond the personal to become symptomatic and therefore political.”3 To ascribe immense and unforgettable value to the missing human piece, simply because it is missing, is to put the power to ascribe value squarely in the human rather than in the religious sphere. Since institutional ideology everywhere reserves to itself alone the privilege of conferring value, it is all the more important for writers to remind us that control of value lies in individual, as well as in collective, hands.
Heaney directly addresses the question of value in “The Riddle,” the poem placed last in this self-questioning book. His governing image here is the ancient one of the sieve that separates wheat from chaff. Such sieves are no longer in use, but the poet has seen one:
You never saw it used but still can hear
The sift and fall of stuff hopped on the mesh,
Clods and buds in a little dust-up,
The dribbled pile accruing under it.
Which would be better, what sticks or what falls through?
Or does the choice itself create the value?
This is the poem of a man who has discovered that much of what he has been told was wheat is chaff, and a good deal that was dismissed as chaff turns out to be what he might want to keep. Coleridge, remembering classical myths of torment, wrote, “Work without hope draws nectar in a sieve”; Heaney, rewriting Coleridge, thinks that the endless labors of rejection and choice might yet be a way to salvation. He asks himself, at the close of “The Riddle,” to
…work out what was happening in that story
Of the man who carried water in a riddle.
Was it culpable ignorance, or was it rather
A via negativa through drops and let-downs?
The great systems of dogma (patriotic, religious, ethical) must be abandoned, Heaney suggests, in favor of a ceaseless psychic sorting. Discarding treasured pieties and formed rules, the poet finds “drops and let-downs,” and he refuses to take much joy in the task of sifting, though a middle couplet shows it to be undertaken with good will:
Legs apart, deft-handed, start a mime
To sift the sense of things from what’s imagined.
In Heaney’s earlier work, this couplet would have been the end of the poem, breathing resolve and hope. Now he ends the poem asking whether his sifting should be condemned as “culpable ignorance” (the Roman Catholic phrase is taken from the penitentials) or allowed as a via negativa. The latter phrase, which is also drawn from Catholicism, is a theological term connected to mysticism, suggesting that we can know God only as he is not.
The elegiac absences and riddles of The Haw Lantern are balanced by powerful presences, none more striking than the emblematic winter hawthorn in the title poem. This poem, by dwelling throughout on a single allegorical image, displays a relatively new manner in Heaney’s work. In the past, Heaney’s imagery has been almost indecently prolific; readers of North (1975) will remember, for instance, the Arcimboldo-like composite of the exhumed cadaver called Grauballe Man:
The grain of his wrists
is like bog oak,
the ball of his heel
like a basalt egg.
His instep has shrunk
cold as a swan’s foot
or a wet swamp root.
His hips are the ridge
and purse of a mussel,
his spine an eel arrested
under a glisten of mud.4
It is hard for a poet so fertile in sliding simile to stay put, to dwell on a single image until it becomes an emblem; it means going deeper rather than rippling on. “The Haw Lantern,” doing just this, fixes on the one burning spot in the blank landscape of winter—the red berry, or haw, on the naked hawthorn branch. At first the poet sees the berry as an almost apologetic flame, indirectly suggesting his own quelled hopes as a spokesman. He goes deeper into self-questioning by transforming the haw into the lantern carried by Diogenes, searching for the one just man. The stoic haw, meditation reminds the poet, is both pith and pit, at once fleshy and stony. The birds peck at it, but it continues ripening. In this upside-down almost-sonnet, the stern haw lantern scrutinizes the poet scrutinizing it:
The wintry haw is burning out of season,
crab of the thorn, a small light for small people,
wanting no more from them but that they keep
the wick of self-respect from dying out,
not having to blind them with illumination.
But sometimes when your breath plumes in the frost
it takes the roaming shape of Diogenes
with his lantern, seeking one just man;
so you end up scrutinized from behind the haw
he holds up at eye-level on its twig,
and you flinch before its bonded pith and stone,
its blood-prick that you wish would test and clear you,
its pecked-at ripeness that scans you, then moves on.
Like other poems in Heaney’s new volume, “The Haw Lantern” reflects a near despair of country and of self.
Heaney’s burning haw can bear comparison with Herbert’s emblematic rose, “whose hue, angry and brave, / Bids the rash gazer wipe his eye.” Forsaking topical reference, the artist writing in such genres as the emblem-poem (“The Haw Lantern”) and allegory (“The Mud Vision”) positions himself at a distance from daily events. Such analytic, generalized poetry hopes to gain in intelligence what it loses in immediacy of reference. (The greatest example of such an aesthetic choice is Milton’s decision to write the epic of Puritan war, regicide, reform, and defeat by retelling Genesis.)
Heaney has several times quoted Mandelstam’s “notion that poetry—and art in general—is addressed to…’The reader in posterity’ “:
It is not directed exploitatively towards its immediate audience—although of course it does not set out to disdain the immediate audience either. It is directed towards the new perception which it is its function to create.5
The social, historical, and religious perceptions of The Haw Lantern, if they should become general in Ireland, would indeed create a new psychic reality there. Such a prospect seems so unlikely now that it is only by believing in “the reader in posterity” that a writer can continue to address Irish issues at all.
I have saved the best of this collection for the last: two excellent poems about the life of writing. The first, “Alphabets,” written as the Phi Beta Kappa poem for Harvard, presents a series of joyous scenes that show the child becoming a writer. The alphabets of the title are those learned by the poet as he grew up: English, Latin, Irish, and Greek. They stand for the widening sense of place, time, and culture gained as the infant grows to be a youth, a teacher, and a poet. Against Words-worth’s myth of a childhood radiance lost, the poem sets a countermyth of imaginative power becoming fuller and freer with expanding linguistic and literary power.
With great charm, “Alphabets” shows us the child in school mastering his first alphabet:
First it is ‘copying out’, and then ‘English’
Marked correct with a little leaning hoe.
Smells of inkwells rise in the class- room hush.
A globe in the window tilts like a coloured O.
Learning Irish, with its prosody so different from those of English and Latin, awakens the boy’s Muse:
Here in her snooded garment and bare feet,
All ringleted in assonance and woodnotes,
The poet’s dream stole over him like sunlight
And passed into the tenebrous thickets.
The boy becomes a teacher, and the verse makes gentle fun of his self-conscious and forgivable vanity:
The globe has spun. He stands in a wooden O.
He alludes to Shakespeare. He alludes to Graves.
“Alphabets” closes with a hope for global vision, based on two exemplary human images. The first is that of a Renaissance humanist necromancer who hung from his ceiling “a figure of the world with colours in it,” so that he could always carry it in his mind—
So that the figure of the universe
And ‘not just single things’ would meet his sight
When he walked abroad.
The second figure is that of the scientist-astronaut, who also tries to comprehend the whole globe:
…from his small window
The astronaut sees all he has sprung from,
The risen, aqueous, singular, lucent O
Like a magnified and buoyant ovum.
Heaney implies that whatever infant alphabet we may start from, we will go on to others, by which we hope to encompass the world. Ours is the first generation to have a perceptual (rather than conceptual) grasp of the world as a single orbiting sphere—“the risen, aqueous, singular, lucent O”; and the almost inexpressible joy of sensuous possession lies in that line, a joy Heaney sees in the cultural and intellectual possession of the world, whether by humanist or scientist. “Alphabets” combines a humorous tenderness of self-mockery with an undiminished memory of the vigilant vows of youth, proving that middle age need not mark a discontinuity in life or writing.
The other brilliant poem here, “From the Frontier of Writing,” offers a vie de poète altogether different from that of “Alphabets.” Written in an adapted Dantesque terza rima, “The Frontier” retells a narrow escape from a modern hell. It takes as its emblem the paralyzing experience—familiar even to tourists—of being stopped and questioned at a military roadblock in Ireland. The writer, however, has not only to pass through real roadblocks but to confront as well the invisible roadblocks of consciousness and conscience. In either case, you can lose your nerve: in life, you can be cowed; in writing, you can be tempted to dishonesty or evasion. I quote this report from the frontier in full.
The tightness and the nilness round that space
when the car stops in the road, the troops inspect
its make and number and, as one bends his face
towards your window, you catch sight of more
on a hill beyond, eyeing with intent
down cradled guns that hold you under cover
and everything is pure interrogation
until a rifle motions and you move
with guarded unconcerned accelera- tion—
a little emptier, a little spent
as always by that quiver in the self,
subjugated, yes, and obedient.
So you drive on to the frontier of writing
where it happens again. The guns on tripods;
the sergeant with his on-off mike repeating
data about you, waiting for the squawk
of clearance; the marksman training down
out of the sun upon you like a hawk.
And suddenly you’re through, ar- raigned yet freed,
as if you’d passed from behind a waterfall
on the black current of a tarmac road
past armour-plated vehicles, out between
the posted soldiers flowing and receding
like tree shadows into the polished windscreen.
This poem is so expressive of the present armed tension in Ireland that it is political simply by being. It produces in us an Irish weather—menacing, overcast, electric—so intense that for a while we live in it. It has the allegorical solidity of the déjà vu, and the formal solidity of its two twelve-line roadblocks.
But formal solidity is not the only manner in which Heaney composes good poems. He has always had a talent and an appetite for the organic (growing and decaying at once), for which he invented the “weeping” stanzas of the bog poems. The elusive short couplets in “Wolfe Tone” and “The Riddle” suggest a third temper in Heaney, one represented neither by commanding masonry nor by seeping earth but rather by rustling dust, leaves, and feathers. The epigraph to The Haw Lantern epitomizes this third manner as the poet waits for a sound beyond silence listened for:
The riverbed, dried-up, half-full of leaves.
Us, listening to a river in the trees.
In deprivation, the poet trusts the premonitory whisper from the stock of unfallen leaves. The Haw Lantern suggests the trust is not misplaced.
April 28, 1988
“Bann Clay,” Poems: 1965–1975 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1980), pp. 83–84. ↩
From An Apple for My Teacher, Louis Rubin, Jr., ed. (Algonquin Press), quoted in The New York Times Book Review (June 24, 1987), p. 23. ↩
Seamus Heaney, comments during a symposium on art and politics at Northeastern University, 1986, printed in Working Papers in Irish Studies, issued by Northeastern University, 1986, p. 33. ↩
Poems: 1965–1975, p. 190. ↩
Working Papers, p. 36. ↩