Knowing the Score

Seamus Heaney
Seamus Heaney; drawing by David Levine

De la musique avant toute chose.

—Paul Verlaine

The just man justices…

—Gerard Manley Hopkins


It is gratifying, as well as convenient, to have this generous assemblage of Seamus Heaney’s essays (a good number of which appeared in various earlier collections) now brought together in one volume. Some have been slightly abridged, but all retain a lucid and incontestable coherence, and display a mind of delightful agility: delicate, robust, discriminating in its love for every topic it addresses. Heaney’s title is half of the old, familiar playground taunt that in this country concludes, “Losers Weepers.” It rejoices not only in possession, but in the appropriating of what had once belonged to another. But Heaney has rendered the first half innocent by applying it solely to the work of authors he so deeply admires and so thoroughly understands that they have become possessions that chime with and quicken his sensibility. In fact, he makes the same claim regarding Osip Mandelstam’s feeling for and knowledge of Dante’s Divine Comedy: “He possesses the poem as a musician possesses the score, both as a whole structure and as a sequence of delicious sounds.”

This acoustical sensitivity and musical faculty Heaney exhibits everywhere as he addresses poetry, and he delights to find others who share what Eliot called “the auditory imagination.” To one essay he affixes Joseph Brodsky’s statement:

Poets’ real biographies are like those of birds…their real data are in the way they sound. A poet’s biography is in his vowels and sibilants, in his meters, rhymes and metaphors…. With poets, the choice of words is invariably more telling than the story they tell….

He quotes, with relish, some lines of his countryman W.R. Rodgers:

I am Ulster, my people an abrupt people
Who like the spiky consonants in speech
And think the soft ones cissy…

Of Robert Lowell’s style in his early book Lord Weary’s Castle, Heaney comments:

The percussion and brass sections of the language orchestra are driven hard and, in a great set piece like “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket,” the string section hardly gets a look-in. Distraught woodwinds surge across the soundscape; untamed and inconsolable discords ride the blast.

And in regard to a lovely passage in Macbeth:

The poetry…is to a large extent in the phonetics, in the way the English words waft and disseminate their associations, the flitting of the swallow being airily present in phrases like “they most breed and haunt” and “The air is delicate,” while the looming stone architecture is conjured by the minatory solidity of terms like “masonry” and “buttress.”

Of Ted Hughes’s Wodwo: “His dic-tion is consonantal, and it snicks through the air like an efficient blade.” And of Geoffrey Hill: “There is in Hill something of Stephen Dedalus’s hyperconsciousness of words as physical sensations, as sounds to be plumbed, as…

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