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…
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