The poetry of Seamus Heaney: flawed success

The poetry of Seamus Heaney: flawed success








 
 
 

 



 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Introduction
The beaver and the mole
Helen Vendler: a critic's advantages and disadvantages
Seamus Heaney's interviews and 'Public Relations'
My criticism and {restriction}
'Ulsterectomy., 'The Guide,' Jon Ihle and Todd Swift
Roy Foster and confusion
Seamus Heaney and Parnassian
Seamus Heaney's abstractions
The meaningless-pointless-grotesque concrete
Seamus Heaney's standards of accuracy
Seamus Heaney's achievements in semantic force
Seamus Heaney's use of line- and stanza-enjambment
Lines, scale and Aristotle's 'megethos'
Prose poetry and prose-poetry
His effective rhythms and contrasts of tempo
Warwickshire and County Derry
The sectarian divide and religion
Archaism
Modernity and modernism
The fascination of what's difficult
The limitations of affability
Conclusion


Introduction

The success of Seamus Heaney in terms of recognition, honours, awards, favourable comment, isn't in doubt. The extent of his artistic success shouldn't be in doubt either - it's surely subject to substantial {restriction}. . So much of his poetry is routine, Parnassian. More often than not there are flaws which restrict the success even of very good poems - as well as magnificent poems. I give many, many instances in my pages on Seamus Heaney, as well as many, many instances  of his poetic successes.

There are many Seamus Heaney skeptics, although you would never realize it from the admiration of the Seamus Heaney believers. I criticize some of the believers in these pages, above all, Helen Vendler, Neil Corcoran and some of the contributors to 'The Cambridge Companion to Seamus Heaney.'

Doubting the existence of God is scandalous or unthinkable to some people, doubting the near perfection of Seamus Heaney's poetic work is scandalous or unthinkable to others. In a review of Ted Hughes' 'Birthday Letters' in the poetry magazine 'Thumbscrew' (issue 18) Edna Longley wrote, 'Is Hughes's reputation being talked up in some mysteriously collective way, and to hell with critical judgment, to hell with poetry?' I feel similarly about the reputation of Seamus Heaney, although I think that Seamus Heaney is a more rewarding poet than Ted Hughes, by far, in his best work, although, obviously, a much tamer poet. (I also find Seamus Heaney a more rewarding poet than Shelley, Byron, Browning and W H Auden, to mention only a few names.) I regard Seamus Heaney as a major poet not a minor poet, but a major poet of fragmentary achievement.

'Taoiseach Enda Kenny has said the death of Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney today has brought a “great sorrow to Ireland” and only the poet himself could describe the depth of his loss to the nation.'

'Mr Kenny said: “For us, Seamus Heaney was the keeper of language, our codes, our essence as a people”.' (Reported in 'The Irish Times' and innumerable other places.) The claim was misguided. In my pages on Seamus Heaney I show why he was unsuited to be a keeper of language, despite his gifts, and I also show why he was unsuited to be a keeper of Ireland's codes and Ireland's essence as a people. Politicians, such as the Taoiseach of the Irish republic, are no more suited to be 'keepers' of literary reputations and arbiters of literary value, although the reasons for the Taoiseach's claim may be understandable enough, in the circumstances.

Some of Ireland's most important writers, such as Yeats, James Joyce and Samuel Beckett,  are probably or obviously amongst the world's most important writers. I'd also say that some of Ireland's most important humourists are probably or obviously amongst the world's most important humourists. (I'd certainly include Flann O' Brien - that is, Myles na Gopaleen - in the list. To me, his linguistic exuberance and inventiveness are far more impressive than Seamus Heaney's. My thanks to John Newman for reintroducing me to his work.) By the 'most important' I'm referring to a broad category, not a select few.

This page should be read in conjunction with the page Criticism of Seamus Heaney's 'The Grauballe Man' and other poems (this provides a wider range of illustrative examples and extends the discussion) and my other pages on Seamus Heaney.

My page On reviewing and criticism outlines the importance of proper sampling in extended reviewing and criticism, of undertaking an adequate ((survey)).  This is ignored very often. Reviewers and critics have often flattered a Seamus Heaney poem by quoting and discussing only what's best in the poem. This may well be superb, but it may only amount to a few lines, or even less. They have often failed to come to terms with the Parnassian in Seamus Heaney. I try to observe proper sampling and to read the poem as a whole.

The beaver and the mole

If Geoffrey Hill is the mole, Seamus Heaney is the beaver who creates backwaters: tranquil backwaters, occasionally beautiful backwaters, backwaters sometimes slightly disturbed, and dull and stagnant backwaters.  A stagnant backwater can suit some moods. A stagnant backwater can have more appeal than a restless, vigorous, fast-flowing stream and is more reassuring than the vast, changeable and often terrifying sea, 'toujours recommencée.'

Seamus Heaney's poetry seems so natural, traces of imposed organization not obvious, but things aren't all they seem. In fact, this is an illusion, like the illusion that leads someone walking in the English countryside to suppose that the woods or moors are natural, when the woods are generally the result of planting and the moors would be woodland if it were not for grazing and human intervention.

Martin Seymour-Smith on Charles Tomlinson: 'he sets about instructing his calm little world in how to organize itself - all ignorant of another, rougher world outside.' Seamus Heaney is less ignorant of the rougher world, but ignorant enough. His treatment of the Troubles in Northern Ireland is evidence that this is so, not evidence against it. (Only in a very few poems, such as 'The Strand at Lough Beg' does he approach adequacy.) The Troubles in Northern Ireland, and not only when they were at their height, were far, far harsher and more brutal than his poetry suggests.

Some of the most heartening lines in his poetry are also reminders that he doesn't reach far into the world of acute disillusionment and disappointment, frustrated hopes and tragic outcomes. They should be appreciated, treasured, even, but they are limited. Someone who has had the good luck to have had an intensely happy marriage or relationship can't, or shouldn't, fail to be aware that the experience of many other people has been bleaker. The possibilities of disagreement, lack of such harmoniousness, are so many. The Roman poet Catullus, with his 'odi et amo,' 'I hate and love' is more our contemporary than Seamus Heaney..

Seamus Heaney's poetry deals with satisfying work, not the world of back-breaking work which has been, and continues to be, the experience of countless people.

These are only some of the ways in which his poetry falls short of greatness, or sometimes even adequacy. It can be enjoyed and appreciated for what it is but vast areas of experience are completely outside his scope.

The mole

Geoffrey Hill has been phenomenally industrious in creating the essays which make up his large volume, 'Collected Critical Writings' but it has been peculiar, obscure, murky, subterranean, mole-like work, largely unrelated to our very different world above-ground.

Peter McDonald, writing in 'The Times Literary Supplement,' claimed critical greatness for the Writings: 'The publication last year of Hill’s Collected Critical Writings (reviewed in the TLS, July 18, 2008) made it clear that he is a thinker about poetry (and of course about more than poetry alone) who can stand beside the very greatest – beside Dryden, Johnson, Coleridge, Arnold, Empson and Eliot – regardless of his status as a poet.' Peter McDonald was making a mountain out of a mole Hill.

The 'Collected Critical Writings' are a challenge to almost any reader, but the above-ground world challenges us in ways that the Collected Critical Writings largely evade (and Dostoevsky's 'Notes from Underground' don't evade.) He's made a labyrinth of tunnels, tunnels that connect with other tunnels and tunnels that lead nowhere. One  tunnel led him to 'Mombert, in the 1884 Preface to his edition of Tyndale's Pentateuch ...' ('Of Diligence and Jeopardy') but there are not enough tunnels that lead to the surface, either directly or indirectly.

As we read, we're being lulled, tranquillized. We are all like Tennyson's lotos-eaters now and again, and welcome the chance to be lulled, particularly if we can be lulled without any feeling of guilt. The difficulties of the book assuage any guilt or misgivings. How can we be lulled and tranquillized if we're reading a book which demands such concentration? But we are.

One of its main deficiencies is  the lack of organizing principles, organizing concepts. The ones he uses are  unsuitable and inadequate. Non-scientific subject matter can't dispense with organizing principles and organizing concepts to make sense of the accumulation of experiences and thoughts, even if it doesn't have available the body of scientific theory which makes sense of scientific data. (Wittgenstein's 'Philosophical Investigations' are a case in point, not a counter-example.)

In 'A Pharisee to Pharisees,' a discussion of the poetry of Henry Vaughan, he makes a comment which shows that his grasp can be very insecure: 'It would perhaps be generally agreed that a 'poetic' use of language involves a release and control of the magnetic attraction and repulsion which words reciprocally exert. One is impelled, or drawn, to enquire whether that metaphysical rapport felt to exist between certain English rhyme-pairings is the effect of commonplace rumination or the cause of it.' And, later, 'In Vaughan's poetry a rhyme which occurs with striking frequency is 'light : night', or 'night : light'. Here, too, basic mechanics assume ontological dimensions.'

Magnetic forces don't in the least constitute an adequate explanation for the linkages and contrasts between words. This is a poor and misguided 'organizing principle.' It involves ignorance of or the ignoring of the vastly more suitable explanations of linguistics. Metaphysics and ontology have a technical meaning and use in philosophy, and again, the use of these concepts clarifies nothing: 'metaphysical rapport' and 'ontological dimensions' contribute nothing but a superficially impressive sound to the discussion.

He turns to theology far more often than to any other study to make spurious sense of the world and his theology is backward-looking - a forward-looking theology would be no more impressive. He even turns to original sin in his exploration of defects in the Second Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (in the essay 'Common Weal, Common Woe' in the 'Collected Critical Writings.') This is the ending of the essay:

'Most of what one wants to know, including much that it hurts to know, about the English language is held within these twenty volumes. [The 'most' here is completely unwarranted. The most comprehensive treatment of any subject of any size is sure to leave out so much that it can't possibly include 'most of what one wants to know.' The treatment is subject to extreme {restriction}.] To brood over them and in them is to be finally persuaded that sematology is a theological dimension: the use of language is inseparable from that 'terrible aboriginal calamity' in which, according to Newman, the human race is implicated. [quoting one 'authority' or to be more accurate one Roman Catholic writer who made very contentious claims about original sin and linked matters, such as venial and mortal sin, shows nothing] Murray, in 1884, missed that use of 'aboriginal'; it would have added a distinctly separate signification ['distinctly' is pleonastic, of course] to the recorded examples. In 1989 it remains unacknowledged.

'In what sense or senses is the computer acquainted with original sin?'

A  substantial reference work such as the Oxford Dictionary can never attain complete accuracy, comprehensiveness and up-to-date information. It's subject to inevitable {restriction}. The concept of sin is irrelevant here. My own concept of {restriction} is vastly more useful in conveying human imperfection, including the imperfection of evil, human error, the human failure which is willed and the human failure which is beyond human control, and the inconveniences and difficulties, including the extreme difficulties, which are inherent in the natural world and beyond human control, such as agricultural difficulties and the difficulties of mining, but its scope is very much wider than that - which can be expressed by quantification of {restriction}:- (scope). My page on {restriction} gives a selection of illustrative instances. Flaws in the poetry of Seamus Heaney are instances of {restriction}:- (poetic success) and flaws in Geoffrey Hill's 'Collected Critical Writings' are again instances of {restriction}.

Helen Vendler: a critic's advantages and disadvantages

A critic always has advantages and disadvantages, strengths and limitations. Where the critic lives or used to live, how the critic lives or used to live, the specialist interests of the critic and the critic's wider interests, what meetings, lectures or exhibitions the critic happens to have attended, and many other factors, may make it harder or easier to do justice to the work, to avoid gross distortion and to arrive at justifiable appreciation, enthusiasm, passion, or justifiable lack of appreciation, dislike, loathing for the work criticized. Seeming advantages may sometimes amount to disadvantages. Later, I discuss some disadvantages of learning and knowledge.

A critic should make use of advantages as well as do everything possible to overcome disadvantages. Of all the advantages which the critic has, or should have, the most important by far is the critical attitude itself - independence of mind, the attempt to overcome critical bias, the refusal to be influenced by reputation - or to be unduly influenced if you've met or know well the writer you're writing about.

The uncritical critic Helen Vendler, the author of  'Seamus Heaney,' is an instructive instance. Helen Vendler may not have had experience of the rural life of County Derry or the Irish Troubles or have seen any mummified bog people 'in the flesh.' These were only slight disadvantages in comparison with the disadvantage of meeting Seamus Heaney at an early stage in his career. 'My own acquaintance with Heaney's work began in 1975. I was lecturing at the Yeats School in Sligo in the summer of that year, and at the school's annual poetry reading a young man in his thirties named Seamus Heaney, wholly unknown to me, stood at the lectern and read some of the most extraordinary poems I had ever heard.' Some of the poems he'd written by then were extraordinary, in some ways but not all ways, but in coming to a considered judgment about his achievement, the critic in Helen Vendler had no chance in competition with the admirer.

Helen Vendler ought to have declared the full extent of her acquaintance with the poet. It went well beyond meeting him in 1975. It's disturbing that she doesn't mention it, in view of her virtually complete admiration for his poetry. At the time she was writing, Seamus Heaney, like Helen Vendler, was a Professor at Harvard University, in The Land of the Lethal Injection, otherwise known as the USA. The book 'Seamus Heaney in Conversation with Karl Miller' contains a long interview and in one of his answers, Seamus Heaney says, 'My friend Helen Vendler at Harvard is a great teacher. It refreshes my belief in poetry just to hear her talk about a poem.' Seamus Heaney's volume 'The Spirit Level,' published two years before Helen Vendler's book on the poet, is dedicated to Helen Vendler! And 'Hermit Songs' in his most recent volume, 'Human Chain,' is 'for Helen Vendler.' Was her critical independence compromised by her friendship with the poet?

'Rosalind Hursthouse's review of Julia Annas's book Intelligent Virtue (December 21 & 28, 2012) is excellent, save for one glaring omission: in the preface of her book, Professor Annas gives thanks to Professor Hursthouse for "long-standing warm friendship and intellectual companionship". This surely should have been disclosed in the review, especially of a book on intelligent virtue.' (Mark Brodrick's letter to the 'Times Literary Supplement,' No. 5728. My own remarks on virtue ethics appear on the page Ethics: theory and practice.)

For Helen Vendler, Seamus Heaney was a poet who wrote extraordinary poems and went on writing extraordinary poems for decades afterwards, instead of being a poet whose work declined markedly. Seamus Heaney was a poet whose limitations in his earlier, sometimes outstanding poetry, went undetected by Helen Vendler. In this book, she obviously considers the poetic career of Seamus Heaney to be almost faultless in all its phases, from County Derry farm to residence in the Irish Republic to American academia. In her book, the only criticism of any consequence is the bog poem 'Strange Fruit,' from 'North:' 'Heaney pursues his archaeology less successfully in the poem on the museum-display of the exhumed head of a girl ('Strange Fruit') which relies too heavily on lavish but conventional adjectives: 'Murdered, forgotten, nameless, terrible / Beheaded girl'. However, this is an inadequate ((survey)) of the poem. The criticism concerns only a line and a half of a poem made up of 14 lines. (The poem isn't a sonnet.) There's also a not so very damning reservation about the poem 'From the Canton of Expectation' ('The Haw Lantern') : ' ... the organization of the poem is perhaps over-schematized by its grammatical armature ...' There seem to be no other criticisms or reservations in the book at all.

There are a few reservations in Helen Vendler's other writings about the poet. This is perhaps the least reserved reservation, in the essay 'Second Thoughts: The Haw Lantern' (published in 'The Art of Seamus Heaney,' edited by Tony Curtis.)

'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 to divide his believing youth from his skeptical middle age ... The poem runs out of steam trying to imagine how the "mud vision" banishes traditional religion ...

' ...  'The Mud Vision' has none of the sprezzatura and firm elegance of other poems in The Haw Lantern, such as 'Wolfe Tone'. '

This seems to me a very complacent and superficial view of the many failed poems in 'The Haw Lantern,' including Wolfe Tone, a poem which Helen Vendler interprets in a tone-deaf way.

Shakespeare is less than magisterial in such works as 'Titus Andronicus' and 'The Comedy of Errors,' Wordsworth wrote vast quantities of mediocre poetry in the later part of his career (and vast quantities of 'Parnassian' poetry in his early work of genius, 'The Prelude.') Mozart wrote vast quantities of perfunctory music (alongside - but largely before - music which was anything but perfunctory) in the opinion of Donald Francis Tovey, and sometimes 'bonus dormitat Homerus' ('the good Homer is drowsy') according to the Roman poet Horace. The supposition that Seamus Heaney's poetic career, early, middle and late is almost faultless has to be examined very carefully.

My objection is less to Helen Vendler's 'positive' assessment than to her abandonment of the values of the critic-scholar - who usually does have a great deal of confidence in one interpretation rather than the the competing interpretations but is fully aware of the competing interpretations, states them and takes care to consider them carefully, even if they are rejected. To put it bluntly, Helen Vendler's book on Seamus Heaney is a critical disgrace.

I quote from and discuss Neil Corcoran's 'The Poetry of Seamus Heaney: a Critical Study' frequently, but mainly on the page Criticism of Seamus Heaney's 'The Grauballe Man' and other poems. The book gives some useful background information but his critical standards are almost always of a low order. I don't provide amplification here but I do in many places on that page. As I think it's so important for reviewers and critics to declare anything which might have a bearing on favourable or unfavourable comments they make, although they should do their utmost to eliminate bias as far as they possibly can, I have to say that Neil Corcoran is one writer I've talked to, a long time ago. I found him an impressive person, his personal qualities very much in evidence.

Patrick Crotty, in 'The Context of Heaney's Reception' ('The Cambridge Companion') claims that 'Three monograph studies distinguished by their combination of depth, critical flair and textual responsiveness may be described as indispensable to the serious student of Heaney. These are Bernard O' Donoghue's Seamus Heaney and the Language of Poetry (1994), Helen Vendler's Seamus Heaney (1998) and Neil Corcoran's The Poetry of Seamus Heaney: A Critical Study (1998). Patrick Crotty refers to Neil Corcoran's 'interrogative intelligence.' 'Corcoran brings a sensibility steeped in modern poetry to bear on Heaney's output ...' 'One of the most attractive things about his treatment of the writing is his willingness to come to evaluative conclusions ...' (This is to regard evaluation as almost a luxury, or at least an 'extra,' instead of central.) 'He is particularly persuasive on the symbiotic relationship between the prose and the poetry.' I don't accept this 'symbiotic' relationship and I explain why in my analysis of Wolfe Tone ('The Haw Lantern.') I don't discuss Bernard O' Donoghue's 'Seamus Heaney' and the Language of Poetry' but my estimate of his critical powers - as a critic of Seamus Heaney - is that they are very, very modest. Patrick Crotty's claims for the 'depth, critical flair and textual responsiveness' of Helen Vendler and Neil Corcoran are not just inflated but amount to {reversal} of the truth.

Seamus Heaney's interviews and 'Public Relations'

Seamus Heaney was a tireless self-promoter. Public Relations propaganda is generally presented as 'objective information,' 'useful information.' Critical thinking (often in short supply) is needed to detect the underlying bias. Seamus Heaney's thoughts on his own poetry and so many other topics have been made freely available in so many interviews, but the underlying attempt to control interpretation should be obvious.

The enormous volume of Seamus Heaney Interviews should make us suspicious. From the Introduction to 'Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney,' where the interviewer is Dennis O' Driscoll:

'Ian Hamilton, the English critic and poet, regarded Heaney as 'the most over-interviewed of living poets.' Yet what initially prompted me to undertake this book was precisely the opposite view: a conviction that he was under-interviewed in more sense than one. It seemed to me that a major poet [this is pure assertion: it can be argued that he's one of the best minor poets rather than, as F R Leavis regarded Gerard Manley Hopkins, one of the less important major poets] who has been a consistently engaging literary interviewee should be encouraged to expound his ideas and expand his recollections beyond the meagre word-counts of a newspaper or literary journal; also, that a broader range of themes should be explored than was usual in the past ... Heaney interviews, though fascinating in themselves, have been too narrow in scope to present a comprehensive portrait of the man and his times.'

The importance of 'background information' can be exaggerated. To assess artistic value, the greatest poems and the worst poems generally require hardly any, or none at all. No poem becomes any better as a result of an answer to an interviewer's question.

Without the basic critical foundations, an interviewer's questions are of limited value. From my review of The Cambridge Companion to Seamus Heaney:

'The claims made for Seamus Heaney are often very radical, not including the power of miraculous healing but including miraculous gifts of language and in the world of ideas. Dennis O' Driscoll, in 'Heaney in Public,' one of the essays in The Cambridge Companion, claims that 'Every idea is examined afresh, as every word is coined anew.' Every idea is examined afresh! Every word is coined anew! Are all these five words in 'Gifts of Rain,' 'could monitor the usual / confabulations' coined anew? Bernard O' Donoghue ought to have had a few words with Dennis O' Driscoll and made it clear that this claim couldn't possibly be justified and shouldn't appear in any self-respecting book, and certainly not one published by the Cambridge University Press. The Press had its reputation to consider, and so did he, as editor, and as an academic at Wadham College, Oxford University.'

There's a massive contrast between the critical vigour of so many interviews with politicians and the critical feebleness of Dennis O' Driscoll's interviews with Seamus Heaney. This is despite the fact that many, many useful and interesting questions are asked and many, many useful and interesting answers are given, that the book impresses in so many ways. The discussion seems so very thorough - surely nothing of major significance has been left out? But the gaps and omissions are major ones.

In my section Seamus Heaney and the hunger strikers, I provide evidence that Seamus Heaney's attitude to Francis Hughes and the other hunger strikers was inadequate or worse at the time. Clear-sightedness came much later. His comments in 'Stepping Stones' are with the benefit of hindsight: 'Francis Hughes was a neighbour's child, yes, but he was also a hit man and his Protestant neighbours would have considered him involved in something like a war of genocide against them rather than a war of liberation against the occupying forces of the crown. At that stage, the IRA's self-image as liberators didn't work much magic with me.' Seamus Heaney has often been not nearly as clear-sighted as this in his comments on the Troubles.  The inconvenience of Vehicle Check Points seems to have preoccupied him to an equal extent. One of the main objects of these was to prevent terrorists transporting bombs and preventing other terrorist actions. See my discussion of his poems The Toome Road and From the Frontier of Writing.

I point out in 'Seamus Heaney and the hunger strikers' that he was preparing to dedicate his translation of the Ugolino episode in Dante (Ugolino died by starvation) to the hunger strikers, including Francis Hughes (whose bomb decapitated a girl, killed her father and severely injured her brother.) This was inexcusable, vile. In 'Stepping Stones,' Seamus Heaney says that he felt 'sympathy' for the hunger strikers.

'Genocide' is a word which is often misused. Seamus Heaney's misuse here has to be criticized severely. The republican terrorists, of course, never tried to achieve the destruction of an entire people, the protestants of Northern Ireland. They targeted the police and the army and a wide range of civilians, including suppliers of porcelains to the army. They targeted loyalist paramilitaries and sometimes fellow-republicans. Dominic Cliché, who had been Chief of Staff of the Irish National Liberation Army, for example, was shot dead by South Armagh republicans. They shot dead ordinary civilians by mistake and their bombs often killed ordinary civilians by mistake, but they were never 'genocidal.'

My criticism and {restriction}

In my pages on Seamus Heaney, whenever I criticize any commentators, such as Helen Vendler, Neil Corcoran and contributors to 'The Cambridge Companion to Seamus Heaney,' the criticisms relate strictly to their discussion of Seamus Heaney. (This amounts to {restriction}: - (scope of the criticism.) ) My criticism isn't intended to be general, to deny any achievement in their other writing. Helen Vendler, for example, is more than the indulgent commentator on Seamus Heaney.

I think, for example, of her interesting and generally accomplished review in the 'London Review of Books' (Vol. 27 No. 17) of 'Dante in English,' edited by Eric Griffiths and Matthew Reynolds, and entitled 'Can we conceive of Beatrice ‘snapping’ like a shrew?' She takes issue with the introduction written by Eric Griffiths. An extract:

'Were you aware that the Vulgate ‘had itself been when it was composed an exercise in dumbing-down such as the Comedia in part aims to be’? Does your recollection of the Paradiso portray Dante ‘mute and about to weep before Beatrice and the encircling blessed, harrowed with embarrassment, like a man who convivially declares “My shout!” and then finds he has forgotten his wallet’? Remembering the entrance to the infernal city, would you say that ‘having made the tricky entrance into the city of Dis, Virgil rests – to take the weightlessness off his feet a while’? Would you, in commenting on the hideous episode in which Ugolino and his sons are starved to death in an ‘orribile torre’, remark that ‘a tower is a Mr Big’? ... when Beatrice, after cataloguing Dante’s transgressions in the Purgatorio, asks him ‘Che pense?’, would you say: ‘She waits only a moment before snapping “Che pense?”’ Can we conceive of Beatrice ‘snapping’ like a shrew? ...

'There is desperation behind such a manner – the terror that nobody will pay any attention to Dante unless he is jazzed up in contemporary slang.'

The link gives Eric Griffiths' letter of reply. He doesn't deny the criticism of his style, although he does take issue with other matters: 'Helen Vendler (LRB, 1 September) does not like the way I write; I can’t blame her, there are days I don’t like it myself. But there it is, we can’t all have her style. I in my turn deplore the way she reads.'

The contradictions of critics may reflect the contradictions of life. Below, I give a brief quotation from Richard D. Cureton, of the University of Michigan, writing in 'Versification: an interdisciplinary journal of literary prosody' (Vol. 1, No. 1). The essay is entitled 'Helen Vendler and the Music of Poetry, a Review of Poems, Poets, Poetry: an Introduction and Anthology by Helen Vendler.' The quotation is concerned with rhythm and its neglect by so many critics but the first section of the essay is concerned with 'Lyric Poetry and the New Criticism.' This section is accomplished, so much of his comment on Helen Vendler is accomplished - but not all. Some of it is deranged, as the quotation of the last paragraph of the essay will show. He goes so far as to grant Helen Vendler exemption from criticism, or, as he puts it 'speaking ill' (even though in the section which immediately precedes it he does criticize her: 'the approach to the poem that she recommends can never achieve the scope and explanatory power of those dramatic and/or novelistic theories of the poem that she refutes.') But this is Richard D. Cureton writing not as critic but anti-critic. Richard D. Cureton writing on Vendler brings to mind Helen Vendler on Seamus Heaney. His claims are very radical and sweeping.

'The great accomplishment of Vendler's work, both professional and pedagogical [he's earlier described the book he's reviewing as 'the best poetic pedagogy that has ever been written] is to advance beyond the efforts of any of her peers the observation and description of the "poeticality" that remains to be explained. The breadth of her analyses, the depth of their insight into aesthetic structuration in poetry and its relation to human subjectivity, is unparalleled. We feel the critical force of her analyses and therefore, to what Vendler accomplishes, we can - and should - say nothing ill.' He continues with a long and fatuous analogy. 'For those concerned with poetry as an art, rather than with their professional advancement or the quick satisfaction of their students in the classroom, what Vendler gives us is a precious fruit, and the eating of that fruit should spur us on to both desire and pursue a full repast. The difficulty of this pursuit, however, should not be underestimated. The distance that we must traverse to enjoy that full repast will belong indeed. At a time when the road to that repast had been washed away, Vendler strikes a path that avoids that washed out road and puts us again (and, I hope, forever) on a more productive way. She deserves both thanks and praise.

The editors of 'Versification' should have protected him from himself here.

There are no mechanical ways to arrive at an estimate of a poet or a critic. The best single guide has a linkage, I think, with a good scientific theory, which is able to withstand the 'criticism' of observations and experiments. There are significant differences. A poem or a poet can't possibly withstand all criticisms. This would be to ignore factorization. The factors that can be claimed as important in good, or more than good, poetry, are very varied, including emotional depth as well as emotional range, rhythm and metre, inventiveness in form (the need for this can be disputed), vivid diction (the need for this can be disputed). In music, Beethoven easily withstands criticism for so many factors, but not all. (It can be claimed that in many of his early and middle works, the emotional range, though great, was restricted by a kind of simple-minded optimism which brushed aside harsher emotions. His third period, though, gave not just a new sound world but a new emotional world.)

'Withstanding' is better than 'the verdict of posterity' or appeals to poetry which has lasted. The poetry which has lasted has often, but not always, withstood criticism. There are still poems, whole poetic careers, which have certainly lasted, but which have been spared effective criticism. Their reputations have been perpetuated unthinkingly. They have been granted 'exemption.'

'Ulsterectomy,' The Guide' and other misgivings

Some interesting criticism of Seamus Heaney  comes from much less prominent critics than Helen Vendler. This is unextended criticism, but this isn't an overwhelming disadvantage here.

Andrew Waterman is a poet and critic and a former lecturer in English at the New University of Ulster. His essay 'Ulsterectomy' appeared in an early edition of PN Review (No. 3, 1977). By then, Seamus Heaney had published 'Death of a Naturalist,' 'Door into the Dark,' Wintering Out,' 'Stations' and 'North' volumes which contain much or most of his strongest poetry, I would claim - although 'Field Work' (1979) contains some strong poems.

Andrew Waterman writes of Seamus Heaney, '...one understands Heaney's desire to take his unmistakable gifts beyond the superb naturalism which in his early work got rural Derry so tangibly on the page; but his subsequent attempts to concoct myth through which to articulate Ireland seem less than compelling: most of his son-of -bogwoman solemnities and place-name ruminations are portentously not what life's all about. I question not the sincerity of Heaney's impulse here, but the burden of nationality which has foisted it on him, and wonder with interest what he will do when he has dug through to the end of this tunnel. North smacked too much of a Bord na Mona literary show-factory...' A footnote explains, 'Bord na Mona:' Republic of Ireland nationalized authority for the manufacture, etc., of peat brickettes.'

Just over a year later, he expanded his comments. 'Best of the Poetry Year 6, edited by Dannie Abse and published by Robson Books gives excerpts from the original review and his later discussion.

'Heaney I was in my first context somewhat hard on, true to my irked reaction to the clogged poetry of most of his last volume North, where his remarkable talents seemed put to mistaken repetitious use self-consciously quarrying preoccupations marginal to the central human experiences. The more relaxed openly topical poems of Part II of North are hardly preferable: Heaney worrying that

While the constabulary covered the mob
Firing into the Falls, I was suffering
Only the bullying sun of Madrid

is limp liberal-guilt stuff.

'...his is a poetry of limited scope, notably weak, despite a poem like 'Exposure', on the inner spiritual questing and self-questioning that is so central and defining a strength of most of our finest poetry from George Herbert through Wordsworth and Hardy to Edward Thomas and beyond...There's a spacious hole in the heart of Heaney's oeuvre: but his talent for verbal realization of the subject-matter with which he does engage is a magnificent one, and if, in the best sense, 'minor', still irreplaceably distinctive.'

Martin Seymour-Smith's 'Guide to Modern World Literature' ('The Guide') has long been out of print, although it wasn't when Helen Vendler was meeting Seamus Heaney for the first time. It's a book which is often unreliable and wrong-headed but I think this isn't so in the general estimation of Seamus Heaney. His criticism is unextended. Extended analysis isn't always perceptive and very perceptive unextended criticism is obviously better than very unperceptive extended criticism, but a critic may be very perceptive in some ways, very obtuse in others. This is certainly applicable to Martin Seymour-Smith, very perceptive, I think, in connection with Seamus Heaney, Tom Stoppard and Ted Hughes, but sometimes wide of the mark. Martin Seymour-Smith writes,

'In Death of a Naturalist (1966), his first collection (there had been a pamphlet, Eleven Poems, in the previous year), he wrote some sensitive, original rural poems in traditional verse. Some of these were moving and striking; clearly the work of a poet whose metaphors (often yoking writing with farm or manual work) were unforced and natural to him. He tells in the poems of this volume of how the world of nature menaced him as a child, and of how hard he found writing poetry to be. But it was an un-self-conscious book, whose complexities were not imposed from outside, or from reading, or from critical ideas. It looked as if Heaney was going to be a true poet: true, that is, to his own voice, and to his own sense of the rightness of his words in describing his experience. There were many good poems, too, in Door into the Dark (1969). But the successive volumes, Wintering Out (1972), North (1975) and Field Work (1979), showed him departing from his old principles, and becoming 'literary' in the wrong sense...In his first book Heaney could write (it is the first stanza of 'Poem'):

Love, I shall perfect for you the child
who diligently potters in my brain
Digging with heavy spade till sods were picked
Or puddling through muck in a deep drain.

This was felt and genuine - and the rest of the poem is as good. By the time of North he can, too, still write a very good poem - for example, 'A Constable Calls', a memory of a policeman calling on his father to check that his farming is 'correct'...But there is a disturbing new note, here, too, as in 'Exposure':

How did I end up like this?
I often think of my friends'
Beautiful prismatic counselling
And the anvil brains of some who hate me

As I sit weighing and weighing
My responsible tristia.
For what? For the people?
For what is said behind-backs?

The poem ends with a peculiarly pretentious line, 'The comet's pulsing rose' - and, although a poetic impulse was there, peters out into something that a likely critic might describe as 'deepening into a new complexity.' Heaney himself does not feel in the way he pretends here: with his own voice he would never say 'My responsible tristia'. And this 'continental manner' which Heaney increasingly adopted, causes a naturally concrete poet to become abstract and meaningless.'

Peter McDonald is a 'Student at Christ Church, Oxford.' For those not very familiar with the language of Oxford, or this particular college, he's not an undergraduate at a Church but an academic - a fellow - at the Oxford college (even though it doesn't contain 'College' in its name) with that name. I hope this clarifies the matter.

For Peter McDonald, there seem to be high-status and low-status critics, on the evidence of a letter to the impressive and much-missed poetry magazine 'Thumbscrew,' and only high-status critics have the necessary authority to be taken seriously. This is one of those fallacies which are illegitimate modes of reasoning and persuasion. Perhaps the best-known of these fallacies is the 'argumentum ad hominem' but the fallacy here is the 'argumentum ad verecundiam,' mentioned by Locke in the 'Essay concerning Human Understanding.' (Both fallacies, in {theme} theory, instantiate {substitution}.) Peter McDonald's reasoning is fallacious when he claims that Carol Rumens' 'weight and reputation as a critic are not such as to make ex cathedra judgments ... immediately impressive.' Alternatively, this can be viewed as a pompous attempt to put Carol Rumens in her place:

'Carol Rumens (Thumbscrew 14) shows no lack of confidence in her own judgment when she dismisses Geoffrey Hill’s poem ‘Genesis’ as “that galvanised corpse”, an “adolescent” piece full of “second-hand imagery and rhetorical swagger”. Of course, confidence can be something which, in criticism as in poetry, issues as readily from failure as from success; while Rumens does not explain exactly how she has arrived at these opinions about Hill’s poem, it is not, I hope, impertinent to observe that her weight and reputation as a critic are not such as to make ex cathedra judgments like these immediately impressive. Edna Longley’s positive reference to ‘Genesis’, also made in passing, has behind it a critical authority to which – by any possible reckoning – Ms Rumens cannot lay claim; an impartial reader might think that Professor Longley has earned the benefit of even Ms Rumens’s doubt, but such impartiality would be, of necessity, naive.'

He doesn't explain exactly how he has arrived at these opinions about Carol Rumens' lack of critical gravitas. He seems to assume that he has the necessary weight and reputation as a critic to make an 'ex cathedra' judgment about her.

T
he review of 'Human Chain' by Jon Ihle in the Irish newspaper 'The Sunday Tribune is perceptive, even if it fails to do justice to the strengths of the book

Extracts:

'If Human Chain were Seamus Heaney's first book of poems, it would be easy to praise ... But this is Heaney's 12th collection. For a poet of such stature, security and accomplishment, it is reasonable to expect some progress, formal invention and daring to emerge from his new work. Yet Human Chain might as well be 1966's Death of a Naturalist for all it yields on these counts.

'By the third poem, 'The Conway Stewart', we are already in over-familiar territory. The piece, a reprise of Heaney's iconic 'Digging', lovingly describes the fountain pen he received from his parents on the eve of his departure for secondary school ... its only hint of menace ... is notable less for its echo of an earlier work than for how impotent the threat really is.

' ... as Heaney circles back in Human Chain to old subjects, it seems as if he is brightening the same old corners without once peering into our darker crevasses.'

In 'Eyewear,' a 'Blogzine,' Todd Swift gives a preliminary look at 'Human Chain' not a full review, but one that is very thoughtful. Extracts:

'Of the poets of the last 110 years, who have ploughed his furrow, others have done better. He is excellent, others are, I think, superior. Indeed, Frost, Edward Thomas, Housman, Hardy, and Larkin, are to my mind greater. Ted Hughes perhaps, perhaps not: I am not sure. I do not find Heaney's poems as inviting, moving, or warm, as the best of lyric poetry in the great Frost-Thomas line. Rooted as they are in his memories, his politics, his reading of the Classics (all humane and intelligent) and his sense of the communicable values of language, experience and value - his poems grate on me, at times. They resonate with their intent. They telegraph their import, even, paradoxically, their modesty. How many poems about Virgil, about the underworld, do we need? How many carts, wagons, bails of hay, can any one reader stomach? I do not find Heaney's pastoral images, his tropes, in this new collection, universally engaging, as Frost's birches and boulders are, as the flowers of Thomas are.

... I feel that there is a ponderous, rhetorical, cultural-keeper-of-the-flame feel about this late work, this late style - so that the poetic that is emerging is both comfortingly sturdy, and solid, but not either surprising or entirely delightful.

'When do Heaney's new poems take us out of themselves, out of ourselves? When do his new poems rise beyond the scrupulous making and reflection on making that marked his very first well-staring and pen-gripping? ... if poets are beyond criticism, they are also beyond appreciation - which is different from adoration.'

Roy Foster and confusion

'RF' is Roy Foster, a Professor of Irish History at the University of Oxford, 'the TLS' is the Times Literary Supplement and 'SH' is, of course, Seamus Heaney. On the cover of issue No. 5812/5813 is a short description, 'Roy Foster: Seamus Heaney, one year on.' The paper gives Roy Foster no less than three pages to ruminate on the subject and at the end of this extended rumination is the information: 'This is the edited text of a lecture delivered at a Commemoration and Celebration of Seamus Heaney held at Magdalene College, Cambridge, on March 4, 2014.'

So, this is a prestigious project: Oxford, Cambridge, the Times Literary Supplement, and Seamus Heaney: names to reckon with. Unfortunately, it's an abject display of mediocrity amounting to a few routine pieties. I haven't counted the number of words in the article, but it's a large number. The ratio of fresh insights to words is very low: 0: a large number. I wonder what was excised during editing. Although I'd like to think that routine, deadly-dull phrases were excised - 'and so forth,' 'here I must issue a caveat,' - this is unlikely, but perhaps the piece as delivered was even more somnolent and stagnant than the piece as printed here: it has been improved slightly for publication, and for  that, many thanks. If so, we've been spared some tedium at least.

The title given to the piece in the 'Commentary' section of the TLS bears no relationship to the content: 'A stay against confusion: Seamus Heaney and the Ireland of his time.' A stay against confusion? The most obvious confusion by far is Roy Foster's own confusion, but this is surely not meant. What was meant is unclear, and completely unimportant. But it's likely that the title wasn't given by Roy Foster but by some ultra-low-wattage luminary, or some good person working against a publishing deadline whose mind was on other things.

Roy Foster's piece is nothing if not 'reasonable.' Some of the most tedious and most distorted pieces in the TLS are 'reasonable,' like the reviews of books on Islamism which make Islamism 'reasonable.' So much in the world is unreasonable that attempts to depict it as reasonable amount to grotesque distortion. Seamus Heaney's relationship with Irish nationalism was reasonable, according to Roy Foster.

In fact, it can easily be shown - as I show on the pages of this site, that his stance was much more problematic, much less impressive, and only reasonable as the policy of a man who was never courageous enough to risk the condemnation of nationalists, a man never courageous enough to risk unpopularity, and whose success is the success of someone who never took the risk of isolation. He seems to have instinctively realized that an image of 'reasonableness' would avoid this fate.

More on 'reasonableness' from my page on Israel and Palestinian ideology:

'Philosophers tend to emphasize reason, which should be sharply contrasted with 'reasonableness.'  Philosophers have used reason to question the common-sense reasonableness of the commonly accepted world, pointing out the pitfalls of sense perception. Reasoned arguments, such as arguments which make use of the phenomenon of optical illusions, cast doubt on the 'reasonable world.' In the ethical world, philosophers like Jeff McMahan often use reason to exclude the unreasonable. Writing in 'Tablet,'  Lee Smith writes exceptionally well about the pitfalls of reasonableness: 'What's Wrong With Being Reasonable About the Middle East? Nicholas Kristof's totally reasonable, utterly delusional recipe for peace.'


http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-news-and-politics/179742/kristof-reasonable-middle-east

'A stay against confusion' [sic] begins with a notable example of 'Shakkei.' This is the practice of borrowed scenery in Japanese garden design. Attractive or otherwise impressive scenery outside a garden is incorporated into the design.

The piece begins with an extended quotation from Yeats' essay on J M Synge, including such magnificent flights of fancy as 'a dread of all that has salt and savour,' 'minds, whose patriotism is perhaps great enough to carry them to the scaffold,' 'the morbid persistence of minds unsettled by some fixed idea,' 'makes the mind barren because it kills intellectual innocence,' 'the mere spectacle of the world.' The Shakkei gives what follows added weight and importance, perhaps - or perhaps not.

Yeats had a contempt for 'reasonableness,' which is why he has such an advantage over the colourless  reasonableness of Seamus Heaney (sometimes touched up, to give the illusion of colour) in all but the obvious places. The Heaneyan garden gains in grandeur, obviously, when extended by the vastly more compelling Yeats Landscape: a few shrubs and flower-beds compared with a view of Ben Bulben.

Roy Foster is carried away, unfortunately, by an elementary mistake in the first sentence of his long tract: mistaking Yeatsian grandeur for Yeatsian sense, appearance for reality. He writes of 'Yeats's meditation on how the artist retains intellectual independence in the face of a tide of popular sentiment that tries to carry him or her elsewhere ...' Later in this first paragraph: 'Yeats's great essay is ... a meditation on the way that a writer reflects and reacts to the political and social context of his or her times, retaining integrity while responding to the flux of contemporary history.'

Yet Yeats shared in the 'popular sentiment' that accompanied the tidal waves of fascism and Nazism! He was so in tune with 'the flux of contemporary history,' rather than preserving detachment, or showing disdain for its coarseness and cruelty, that he supported fascism - or 'Yeats the man was as near to being a fascist as his situation and the conditions of his own country permitted,' as Conor Cruise O' Brien writes in 'Passion and Cunning: Notes on the Politics of Yeats.' He goes on to write, 'His unstinted admiration had gone to Kevin O' Higgins, the most ruthless 'strong man' of his time in Ireland, and he linked his admiration explicitly to his rejoicing at the rise of fascism in Europe - and this at the very beginning, within a few weeks of the March on Rome. Ten years later, after Hitler had moved to the centre of the political stage in Europe, Yeats was trying to create a movement in Ireland which would be overtly fascist in language, costume, behaviour and intent.'

'He would certainly have preferred something more strictly aristocratic than fascism, but since he was living in the twentieth century he was attracted to fascism as the best available form of anti-democratic theory and practice. Mr Frank O' Connor, who knew him well in his last years and - politics apart - greatly admired and liked him, has told us plainly that 'he was a fascist and authoritarian, seeing in world crises only the break-up of the "damned liberalism" he hated.'

A more recent treatment of Yeats' fascination with fascism is Blood Kindred: W.B. Yeats, The Life, The Death, The Politics' by  WJ McCormack. It documents, for example, his  approval of the Nazi laws which deprived Jews of their property in 1938.

The contrast between the far  less charismatic Seamus Heaney and the far more charismatic (and far more deluded) Yeats is my own formulation. Roy Foster, however, finds Seamus Heaney's pedestal very much to his liking. Astonishingly - or predictably - his image of Seamus Heaney is the familiar one, a man without faults and a poet without faults. If Roy Foster does find any faults in Seamus Heaney's life and work, none are recorded in this meretricious piece. His attitude is much the same as that of Dennis O' Driscoll: Heaneyoalatry. I write,

'The claims made for Seamus Heaney are often very radical, not including the power of miraculous healing but including miraculous gifts of language and in the world of ideas. Dennis O' Driscoll, in 'Heaney in Public,' one of the essays in The Cambridge Companion, claims that 'Every idea is examined afresh, as every word is coined anew.' Every idea is examined afresh! Every word is coined anew! Are all these five words in 'Gifts of Rain,' 'could monitor the usual / confabulations' coined anew? Bernard O' Donoghue ought to have had a few words with Dennis O' Driscoll and made it clear that this claim couldn't possibly be justified and shouldn't appear in any self-respecting book, and certainly not one published by the Cambridge University Press. The Press had its reputation to consider, and so did he, as editor, and as an academic at Wadham College, Oxford University.

Roy Foster dismisses criticism of Seamus Heaney by fiat: 'Many of these critiques are now forgotten, and several of his critics tended to self-destruct - either through pretentiousness, obscurantism, vindictiveness, or the envy of the second-rate.' He needs to be reminded that there's such a thing as the uncritical admiration of 'the second-rate,' although as a literary critic, Roy Foster obviously doesn't reach 'second rate' standards in the least.

He does allow that some criticism is legitimate, if unacceptable, although not much of it is given any amplification at all. He gives a mere mention of the 'adversarial analysis' of Edna Longley. Her criticism is substantial and deserves much better than this and 'adversarial' amounts to a clumsy dismissal. Criticism and appreciation - which may be part of the same critic/admirer's response - are two adversaries making a case for and against.

Criticism which it was essential to include is never allowed to intrude, such as criticism of the inertness, the disappointing decline which, according to many critics, makes the later volumes, with exceptions, so much less important than the earlier volumes of poetry.

Roy Foster has a liking for the template and seems happy to stuff the ready-made device with  anything. The template, for example, which shows the artist developing from unpromising beginnings or very promising beginnings to mastery and maturity. In the case of substantial poets, the template fits, to a certain extent, although there are likely to be poor works written by the mature artist which are an inconvenience, but locating the time of maturity can be problematic. In the case of Beethoven, the time of greatest maturity can be identified: the late works. In the series of string quartets, Op 131 and  132 are incomparably greater than Op 18 No 2 or Op 18 No 3. In the case of Heaney, the sequence is more akin to an upward and downward arc. The later volumes in general are acutely disappointing.

An astonishing example of Roy Foster's ignorant misuse of the template is this: 'And to read Heaney, the prose and the interviews but above all the collections of poems as they succeed each other, is to acquire a sense of the growth of the poet: as with Yeats, or with Wordsworth's Prelude.' Wordsworth as well as Heaney are surely evidence to the contrary, not, as in the case of Yeats, evidence for any growth in mastery and maturity. My page Criticism of Seamus Heaney's The Grauballe Man and other poems includes poems from all parts of his career, and a reading of some of the page will give my own reasons for thinking that there was no cumulative increase in his powers. If Roy Foster believes that Wordsworth's later poems marked an advance, then he's very much mistaken. No critic believes such a thing and although people in full agreement may be mistaken, in this case, surely they are not. Comparison of the 1805 and the 1850 versions of the Prelude will make this clear. When the 1850 version is full of poetic splendour, this is generally because it preserves the poetic strengths already apparent in the earlier version, poetic strengths which Wordsworth was now unable to match in the least. Generally, the 1850 version marks a decline. At Book First, lines 372 - 382 (the beginning of the episode of the stolen boat on Ullswater in the 1805 version) are clumsy and excessive. The 1805 version is simpler and stronger here, but this required no act of creation but simply the recognition of a fault and the ability to remove the verbiage.

Some idea of Roy Foster's notion of Seamus Heaney's maturity is gained by looking carefully at this statement: 'A further, vital aspect of the expansion, interrogation and inclusiveness that mark Heaney's maturity is also his celebration and possession of the inheritance of English poetry.' None of these are 'vital,' none are even plausible. All these activities are interesting to document but have nothing to do with the central act of poetic creation. Poets can expand, interrogate, include, celebrate and possess inheritances without creating poetry of any importance. This is the language of the Academy - and not the academy at its frequently superb - like the 'negotiating' he employs in the previous paragraph, in connection with 'that "rooted cosmpolitanism" advocated by Kwame Anthony Appiah, as a way of negotiating civic identity in a society with a history of internal divisions.' This is standard stuff. The whole of the article would be standard stuff if it were not for the flourishes and embellishments. Later, there's mention of 'some key poems' (left unidentified). If these are taken to be Very Important Poems, the effect is undermined by the next phrase, 'as will as his play The Cure at Troy. For my extended discussion of the exceptionally dire play, see my page on Seamus Heaney's translations.

In general, Roy Foster's reading of Seamus Heaney seems to have been carried out in less than ideal circumstances, or at times when he wasn't at his most alert. How else to explain such a puzzling claim as this, not so much the claim that North placed the poet in the conning tower as that this is 'the kind of image which would recur in Heaney's poetry. Or that 'meshes' is a word that Seamus Heaney loved. To give these examples, to go out of his way to give these examples, seems curious.

The pietistic tone he adopts in his discussion of the poems is just as much in evidence in his discussion of the life. An example: 'Heaney wrote often of the sanctuary of the cottage at Glanmore in Co Wicklow that he and his family rented and later bought: a tranquil space for writing, but also a refuge from war.' Heaney has been criticized for his timidity in getting out of Belfast and going to live in a safer place. At the very least, Roy Foster's account is naive, as naive as it would be to write of Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears living a tranquil life in the United States, after abandoning war-torn Britain. At the very least, Seamus Heaney's decision shown not a trace of moral grandeur, although I don't equate Belfast during the troubles with Britain during the Second World War. Northern Ireland was a very violent place, but there was never a war there.

Seamus Heaney and Parnassian

'Parnassian' is the weak, routine, relatively mediocre work of a poet who is capable of much stronger work, not the mediocre work of a poet who never writes above a mediocre level. Parnassian work should not be confused with abysmal work, such as the abysmal work to be found in profusion in Seamus Heaney's 'A Herbal' ('Human Chain.') Examples from the poem:

Was graveyard grass
In our place
Any different?

Different from ordinary
Field grass?

And:

And, to be fair,
There is sun as well.

And:

But only then.
Not every time any old bell

Rings.

And:

If you know a bit
About the universe

It's because you've taken it in
Like that,

The reader is also informed that the secrets of bracken are:

The best kept
Upon earth.

Letter of Gerard Manley Hopkins to A W M Baillie, September 10, 1864

I think then the language of verse may be divided into three kinds. The first and highest is poetry proper, the language of inspiration. The word inspiration need cause no difficulty. I mean by it a mood of great, abnormal in fact, mental acuteness, either energetic or receptive, according as the thoughts which arise in it seem generated by a stress and action of the brain, or to strike into it unasked ...

The second kind I call Parnassian. It can only be spoken by poets, but is not in the highest sense poetry. It does not require the mood of mind in which the poetry of inspiration is written. It is spoken on and from the level of a poet's mind, not, as in the other case, when the inspiration, which is the gift of genius, raises him above himself. For I think it is the case with genius that it is not when quiescent so very much above mediocrity as the difference between between the two might lead us to think, but that it has the power and privilege of rising from that level to a height utterly far from mediocrity ... [Poets] have each their own dialect as it were of Parnassian, formed generally as they go on writing, and at last, - this is the point to be marked, - they can see things in this Parnassian way and describe them in this Parnassian tongue, without further effort of inspiration. In a poet's particular kind of Parnassian lies most of his style, of his manner, of his mannerism, if you like.

Now it is a mark of Parnassian that one could conceive oneself writing it if one were the poet ... in Parnassian pieces you feel that if you were the poet you could have gone on as he has done, you see yourself doing it, only with the difference that if you actually try you find you cannot write his Parnassian ... I believe that when a poet palls on us it is because of his Parnassian. We seem to have found out his secret. Now in fact we have not found out more than this, that when he is not inspired and in his flights, his poetry does run in an intelligibly laid down path ... judging from my own experience I should say no author palls so much as Wordsworth; this is because he writes such an 'intolerable deal of' Parnassian.

There is a higher sort of Parnassian which I call Castalian, or it may be thought the lowest kind of inspiration. Beautiful poems may be written wholly in it. Its peculiarity is that though you can hardly conceive yourself having written in it, if in the poet's place, yet it is too characteristic of the poet, too so-and-so-all-over-ish, to be quite inspiration. E.g.

Yet despair
Touches me not, though pensive as a bird
Whose vernal coverts winter hath laid bare.

This is from Wordsworth, beautiful, but rather too essentially Wordsworthian, too persistently his way of looking at things.

Identifying the mediocre work of a poet with the best work is common. Bernard O' Donoghue claims as much for Seamus Heaney's poorer poetry, I claim later.

My own interpretation of Seamus Heaney's 'career' is opposed to the interpretation of Bernard O' Donoghue. Seamus Heaney had authentic, unreflective, uncomplicated gifts for vivid description in traditional, unadventurous poetry. His gifts were so great in some of his earlier work that they assured him a place in any history of English poetry. His poetry will last. This is a very great deal. But the poet who created such memorable works had greater ambitions.

He'd created memorable works in a genre that includes Laurie Lee's 'Cider with Rosie', the nostalgic story of growing up in rural Gloucestershire, as well as Wordsworth's  'The Prelude.' Seamus Heaney's early poetry has far greater literary value than Laurie Lee's prose but is vastly less important than Wordsworth's 'The Prelude,' despite the Parnassian in 'The Prelude.'

Despite the critical acclaim for this work, I think it likely that he was dissatisfied with it, that he felt acutely the limitations of the genre, or more exactly his achievement in the genre. The restless dissatisfaction of the creative writer is creditable, but not all the attempts of writers to extend their range, to explore new aspects of experience, are artistically successful, even if they are sometimes commercially successful.

Seamus Heaney turned to more 'complex' and prestigious themes, ones which allowed greater opportunities for 'explication.' He turned to archaeology, for example. The bog poems are more successful than unsuccessful. They gave him the opportunity to continue to use his enormously impressive descriptive gifts. At the same time, he continued his earlier work in natural description and the description of people, although this never amounted to a complex characterization. His own consciousness is far too limited for that.

I think it likely that he had made a conscious decision to try to join the ranks of the poets - Eastern Europeans and others - whose prestige wasn't based on local strengths. He never forgot his roots in County Derry, but he found them  confining. Soon, his authentic voice began to fail. He was no longer able to create language with very much semantic force. His work in a genre which carries more prestige fell far short of his earlier work in a genre which carries less prestige. For a very long time, he did his reputation no favours. The poetry was poor, Parnassian. 'District and Circle,' a fairly recent volume, has heartening and significant examples of non-Parnassian writing, but these are fragmentary. 'Human Chain' is in general more accomplished. It amounts, not to a return to his early style but a 'mimesis' of his early style: 'neo-Heaney.' Neo-gothic architecture and neo-classic architecture include wonderful successes but in general falls below the achievement of so much Gothic architecture and classical architecture. 'Neo-' often means ' good but worse.'

There are vast quantities of Parnassian in the poetry of Seamus Heaney. Parnassian may be found in what I call expanses, whole poems or whole books of poetry, or there may be strong and weak, routine writing in close proximity, frequent transitions into and from Parnassian.

Gerard Manley Hopkins distinguishes the poetry of inspiration from Parnassian. His account of inspiration is very accomplished but his account has to be supplemented, to take account of the fact that the poetry of inspiration - or 'unforced poetry,' or 'non-factitious poetry' or poetry arising from the unconscious as well as conscious mind - may well be imperfect and to approach or attain perfection often needs revision. In my pages on Seamus Heaney, I point out evidence of his serious weaknesses in revision.

By the time of The Haw Lantern, Seamus Heaney was writing predominantly Parnassian. He went on writing predominantly Parnassian. Much Parnassian is harmless and relatively inoffensive. Seamus Heaney's Parnassian is sometimes shockingly bad.

One of the contributors to 'The Cambridge Companion to Seamus Heaney,' Patrick Crotty, in 'The Context of Heaney's Reception,' describes the editor's views in the book he wrote, 'Seamus Heaney and the Language of Poetry:' 'O' Donoghue's book is notable, among other things, for identifying the centre of gravity of the career in the collections from Station Island onwards; it nevertheless has many interesting observations to make about the early work, not least among them that the opaque, cultivatedly unmelodious language of Death of a Naturalist is to a degree foreign to Heaney's nature and that an underlying urge towards the claritas and airiness of Seeing Things is evident in the verse from the beginning.'

Bernard O' Donoghue's estimate is surprising. We have to negate his main assertions to arrive at a better estimate of Seamus Heaney's poetry. 'Station Island' was a prominent landmark in the drastic decline in the quality of Seamus Heaney's poetry. The 'unmelodious' but not at all opaque language of 'Death of a Naturalist' is the native idiom of Seamus Heaney, or was  for some years. There's no sign of 'claritas and airiness' in the book.

There's the need to attend not just to obvious contrasts of success in a poem and between one poem and another but to much smaller contrasts, to attend not just to widely separated contrasts of success but to contrasts in proximate lines and within the same line. To give one example, 'To a Dutch Potter in Ireland,' ('The Spirit Level') has

In that slabbery, clabbery, wintry, puddled ground

There's a gradient of success in the adjectives here, I think. 'Slabbery' and 'clabbery' are only successful if someone gives extreme importance to 'using the full resources of the English language,' which might justify calling upon 'pulchritude.' 'Wintry' is much better, though inferior to Blake's 'wintry' in 'To my Mirtle,'

He scents thy footsteps in the snow
Wheresoever thou dost go
Thro the wintry hail & rain
When wilt thou return again

'Puddled,' far from being quirky, has a degree of exactness. It describes one significant aspect of the Irish, and British, winter, more often than not a winter lacking in harsh sensuousness.

My page on Seamus Heaney's The Grauballe Man and other poems gives many more examples of {restriction}: achievement.

Seamus Heaney's abstractions

The trend to meaningless abstraction was a process liable to get out of hand in some of the volumes published since  Martin Seymour-Smith wrote. There are many examples of the intrusion of the ineffectual abstract, for example 'possibility' in 'The Wool Trade,' ('Wintering Out.')

Smell the tidal Lagan:
Take a last turn
In the tang of possibility.

'Strange Fruit' in North has 'outstaring axe / And beatification,' concrete linked ineffectually with ineffectual abstraction.

The mistaken idea that Seamus Heaney is always or usually a poet of vivid concreteness is easily dispelled by very many lines (but not in his first volumes) such as these, from 'Act of Union,' also in 'North:'

Conceding your half-independent shore
Within whose borders now my legacy
Culminates inexorably.

- although this particular poem becomes far more concrete and far better in Part II, even if there is the line

Whose stance is growing unilateral.

'Summer Home' ('Wintering Out') has

More and more I postulate
thick healings ...

The ineffectual abstract followed by the ineffectual concrete, 'thick.'

Writing about Yeats' poem 'Prayer for My Daughter' (in 'Yeats, The Master of a Trade,' an essay in 'The Integrity of Yeats' edited by D. Donoghue) Donald Davie comments that a 'young poet' can notice '... how many of the words are abstract words - 'arrogance', 'hatred', 'custom', 'ceremony', innocence', beauty'. To be sure, it's no accident that this cluster of abstractions comes in the last stanza out of ten: the preceding nine stanzas have given these words the meaning that the poet can now take for granted; he's earned the right to use them. All the same, the 'prentice poet can learn from this that he almost certainly has an excessive fear of abstract words; that his efforts to be always concrete, always specific, never to state a thing but always to embody it in an image - these efforts too, like his efforts to be original at all costs, are largely superfluous.'

But the examples which Donald Davie gives are abstract words with rich connotations, unlike, for example, Seamus Heaney's 'postulate.' A word such as 'postulate' can be assimilated successfully into a poem, but it requires great care. I'd claim that I'm able to achieve this with very similar abstract words from logical thought in one of the poems in Relationships in trouble:

Propositions, arguments, terrible proofs,
shouted syllogisms, punishing logic:

Seamus Heaney's word 'beatification' had concrete connotations in the past to a far greater extent than now. It surely no longer belongs to the world of live thought and language. Sometimes, the abstract words he uses in his poetry are unassimilated, jarring and obtrusive. Unlike Yeats, he hasn't prepared the way for them. More often, ineffectual abstract words don't ruin lines which are otherwise inspired: the ineffectual abstract words belong with ineffectual concrete words in completely ineffectual lines.

Again and again, this poet of great gifts allows very strong poems and passages to be undermined by weak words and weak lines which stayed because he's so obviously weak in revision of a poem, the conscious process that should follow the unconscious, unless the unconscious has provided a perfect poem. This isn't usually the case, even for naturally gifted poets.

Seamus Heaney the translator is no more assured. From my criticism of Mycenae Lookout in 'The Spirit Level' ('Mycenae Lookout isn't a translation but the short quotation is):

'Before 'The Watchman's War,' there's a short quotation, presumably from Aeschylus' 'Agamemnon,' the source which lies behind 'Mycenae Lookout.' He translates it as 'The ox is on my tongue.' If so, 'is' is a weak and colourless translation of βέβηκεν in the phrase in lines 36 - 37:

...  βοῦς ἐπὶ γλώσσῃ μέγας 
βέβηκεν: 

'a great ox stands on my tongue.'  He's not offering a translation or even a 'version' of Aeschylus in the rest of 'Mycenae Lookout' and he could have made far more of this ox: instead of the inert, static weight of the animal in Seamus Heaney's translation, the weight of the animal in motion, clumsy, blundering, or unable to avoid stepping on the tongue or treading on the tongue, far more vivid.'

The meaningless-pointless-grotesque concrete

Seamus Heaney's poetry contains not just meaningless abstraction, pointless abstraction and grotesque abstraction but the meaningless concrete, the pointless concrete and the grotesque concrete. His weaknesses in concrete language have to be set against his obvious strengths. One recurrent failure is the grotesque linkage of massive natural features with human anatomy, some other aspects of the human or a much smaller natural feature.

He has a thing about those massive rivers of ice, white, more or less, flowing, but very, very slowly, called glaciers. In his work they become black, are easily moved or speeded up. This might work in a surrealist poem but not in this traditional poetry. 'Waterfall' in 'Death of a Naturalist,' has, in connection with water,

It appears an athletic glacier
has reared into reverse...

'Funeral Rites' in 'North' has

...the black glacier
of each funeral pushed away.

'Bog Queen' in 'North' has

My sash was a black glacier

The Irish poet Eavan Boland shows that although it's difficult, it's not impossible to use 'glacier' effectively in poems that aren't about such themes as high mountains, Alaska, the Antarctic. The closing lines of 'In Her Own Image:'

the room had been shocked into a glacier
of cotton sheets thrown over the almond
and vanilla silk of the French Empire chairs.

Although the lack of any rhythmic energy is obvious.

See also my discussion of Mallarmé: 'Le vierge, le vivace et le bel aujourd' hui.' and the following section, 'One-many functions' in my discussion of 'Metaphor.'

Glaciers are an intrusion into the Seamus Heaney poems where they appear, in jarring contrast with the rest of the poem-world. They could be well integrated into almost any surrealistic poem. Although it would be expected that they would fit into symbolist poetry, in the example from Mallarmé which I discuss in my page on Metaphor, the glacier seems to me badly integrated and not a good source of contrast either, unlike the blow of the 'drunken wing' of the swan. I'm familiar with the principles which underlie the construction of his poetry - poetry which I read with intense interest - but what compels me to accept these principles in this poem, in extenuation? My discussion in the page on Metaphor, technical to an extent, explains more fully my reasons.

'Act of Union' has

Your back is a firm line of eastern coast

In 'Bog Queen:'

I knew winter cold
like the nuzzle of fjords
at my thighs -

John Donne's 'Elegy XVIII,' 'Loves Progress' blunders in the same way - 'the glorious Promontory, her Chin,' 'a Cheek, a rosie Hemisphere,' and much more. C A Patrides, writes in his edition of the complete poems 'a promising journey across the female body founders in risibly excessive analogies.'

Not all the linkages between very large things and parts of the body in the poetry are misguided. In 'Strange Fruit,'

Her eyeholes blank as pools in the old workings.

is  effective. The pools are much larger than the eyeholes, but in this case it's the common blankness which forms the linkage.

'Oysters' in 'Field Work' has

My tongue was a filling estuary,
My palate hung with starlight

followed a little later by wonderful lines, such as the informal

Orion dipped his foot into the water.

and (particularly for 'damp' and 'disgorge,' I think)

I saw damp panniers disgorge
The frond-lipped, brine-stung
Glut of privilege.

Faulty imagery is very common in his work. For example, 'Mycenae Lookout' in 'The Spirit Level' has

... I would feel my tongue
Like the dropped gangplank of a cattle truck

Here, there's more than a simile. The tongue and the gangplank are treated almost as literal equivalents, so that what applies to a gangplank applies to the tongue and a tongue is as capable of bearing heavy traffic as a gangplank. This is literalness rather than imagery.

'Viking Dublin' ('North') has a similar fault.

a swimming nostril.

This later abandons swimming for travel by boat, becoming part of the boat:

so that the nostril
is a migrant prow
sniffing the Liffey,

This isn't Seamus Heaney as a surrealist or Dadaist or successor of Gogol (who wrote 'The Nose,' a story in which a nose escapes from the face of a civil servant - eventually the police catch it and return it to its owner) but simply Seamus Heaney miscalculating.

Seamus Heaney's standards of accuracy

I think that if we read his work with critical faculties intact, rather than under the influence of his  his fame and prominence, then we find that his use of language is sometimes far from sure, is sometimes very inept. Many commentators on Seamus Heaney have failed to detect these instances. Poets, and critics and commentators too, have sometimes been seen as 'guardians of language.' Who will guard the guardians?

Factual accuracy is often irrelevant in poetry, but not always. Poets do make factual claims and write about matters of fact where the accuracy of the fact isn't irrelevant. Seamus Heaney does, and his standards of factual accuracy are often poor.

My page Criticism of Seamus Heaney's 'The Grauballe Man and other poems gives many instances of his carelessness. In Memoriam Francis Ledwidge  has an extraordinary factual error, not in the  poem itself but after the title of the poem.

In general, the errors are less blatant but important, evidence of a carelessness in his use of language which has to be set against his remarkable strengths. Some further instances of his carelessness, from poems not discussed in 'Criticism of Seamus Heaney's 'The Grauballe Man and other poems.'

In 'The Forge,' ('Door into the Dark') he writes of 'the hammered anvil's short-pitched ring.' Notes are shorter or longer in length but pitches are higher or lower.

In 'The Flight Path' (The Spirit Level) Seamus Heaney chose to use a scientific term and he had a responsibility to use it accurately:

Like starlight that is light years on the go
From far away and takes light years arriving.

A quick look in an English dictionary, with no need for extended research, would have told him that 'light years' are measurements of distance, not time. Collins English Dictionary: 'a unit of distance used in astronomy, equal to the distance travelled by light in one mean solar year ...' Helen Gardner discusses 'The Flight Path,' as do Neil Corcoran and two of the contributors to The Cambridge Companion but none of them mention this mistake: a significant mistake, not a minor one.

Whereas professional scientists and historians of repute are expected to show and almost always do show impressively high standards of accuracy in giving factual information (and the volume of factual information they deal with is massive) it's often assumed that poets shouldn't be expected to show any particular care for the very few technical terms they decide to use. Who cares? The most glaring mistakes can go undetected or uncriticized. Seamus Heaney's mistake here encourages this casual and negligent attitude.

Compare Sean O' Brien in his translation of Dante's 'Inferno,' Canto XIII, 40 - 42:

And just as when one end of a green log's
Ablaze, the hissing sap and oxygen
Come bubbling from the other, I watched

As Dante lived many centuries before the discovery of oxygen and oxygen obviously isn't in the original, using 'oxygen' here was ridiculous, all the more ridiculous because oxygen isn't a product of combustion but the gas carbon dioxide is.

In 'Weighing In,' also in The Spirit Level, there are these inert lumps of meaningless non-science, non-mathematics and non-poetry:

The 56 lb. weight. A solid iron
Unit of negation.

and:

Gravity's black box, the immovable
Stamp and squat and square-root of dead weight.

The first verse paragraph of 'Holding course' ('The Haw Lantern') is about 'the big ferries' and it begins 'Propellers underwater, cabins drumming ...' Except when the ferries are in dry dock or are lying on their side or upside down after catastrophic damage, the propellers can be assumed to be underwater. That's where propellers are.

'Bone Dreams' in 'North' has

'...the iron
flash
of consonants
cleaving
the line.

Unlike stainless steel, iron is a dull metal, very easily corroded, so 'flash' is wide of the mark.

'From the Canton of Expectation' ('The Haw Lantern') has a similar failure, but in a far less accomplished context: 'intelligences / brightened and unmannerly as crowbars.' Crowbars aren't 'brightened.' The image should have been revised or better still, excised.

I discuss one confused line in detail on the page metaphor and {theme}.

The closing line in 'Summer Home' (Wintering Out') has an impressive ring to it, it sounds well.

Our love calls tiny as a tuning fork.

It's the ring of the tuning fork, its tiny sound, which is intended, not the small size of the tuning fork, the instrument which makes the sound, but more importantly, another factor is insistent, the fact that the tiny sound produced by a tuning fork is short-lived. The poet concentrates on one factor, expressed by 'tiny,' but 'tuning fork' has other factors. A factor in an image, such as size, may be excluded or denied by the poet, who may make it clear that another factor, such as colour, is what counts in a simile - but the associations of the excluded factor may be impossible to overlook.

Seamus Heaney's achievements in semantic force

I think that Seamus Heaney's use of language with semantic force (but often in close proximity with inert and ineffective language) is his greatest single strength. The claim that his language often has 'sensuousness,' 'vividness,' 'muscularity' or 'sinews' is true enough, but doesn't quite do justice to his powers - he's even able to animate prepositions on occasion, to give them semantic force - and at the same time exaggerates the importance of sensuous and vivid language in poetry - as I show, I hope, by a comparison with music.

From my Glossary: poetry and poetics:

Words, phrases (and concepts) with semantic force are used, heard, or read with an accompanying experience of intensity or forcefulness, for example, in a visceral or sensuous, an elevated or deeply anxious way. Although a person knows the meaning of many words, or can use many words meaningfully, words with semantic impact are particularly 'meaningful.' The primary linkage of 'semantic' here isn't with the very interesting academic study of semantics.

A person's active vocabulary and passive vocabulary are distinguished in linguistics. A person's active vocabulary (words which the person actually uses) is smaller than the person's passive vocabulary (words whose meaning is known but which the person does not use.) Words with semantic force are few in comparison with the active vocabulary and are subject to change in a more striking way. Words which once had semantic force for the person may no longer possess it. Words may acquire semantic force quite suddenly. Words may be used with semantic force on one occasion and not on another, owing, perhaps, to distraction or preoccupation. Words may be read or heard as well as used with semantic force.

These words are of the most varied kind. Examples are 'danger,' 'snow,' 'poignant,' 'classification' and 'mathematical set.' Where a word has rich connotations - 'danger,' for example - then using it with semantic force involves using the word with its more intense connotations. So attention is focused on more immediate, real dangers, such as the experience of being in an active war zone, rather than more distant, if still real dangers, such as 'the dangers of smoking.' It may be direct and intense personal experience which gives a word semantic force, such as the experience of being shelled or shot at, but this is not a necessity..

The use of words with semantic force is one, but only one, factor in a good poem. are used with greater semantic force. In a poor poem, words are used with no semantic force, in a routine or inert way. Deviance or deviation (established terms in stylistics, associated with the Prague school of linguistics) is particularly associated with poetic language. However, deviance can characterize mediocre poetry. Semantic force is a better 'indicator' of good poetry than deviance. This is not to imply that the more vivid the language, the greater the poem. There is a vividness in Seamus Heaney's poetic descriptions of growing up on a farm in Ulster, and a vividness in some of Robert Frost's descriptions of rural New England, which cannot be matched in the work of, for example, Rilke.

I don't argue here for the greater stature of Rilke, but I simply state my conviction that a great poet conveys wider semantic force than a lesser poet, or conveys aspects of semantic force which, it can be argued, are more fundamental. It is for this last reason that I myself regard Kafka as so important amongst twentieth century imaginative writers of prose, despite his restricted range. He has given massive semantic force to such an unexpected word as 'Unzugänglichkeit,' 'inaccessibility,' 'un approachability,' which appears in the section 'Before the Law' in 'The Trial' and which underlies the whole of his novel 'The Castle.' Another, more familiar example in Kafka is 'overate,' 'arrested.' The writer, however, who used words with greater semantic force than any other is, of course, Shakespeare.

The examples I've given vary very much in intensity. There's no necessary positive linkage between intensity and importance or artistic success. In fact, the idea of semantic force has to be extended, to include 'semantic significance.' A linkage with taste: many people crave more and more intense flavours, more and more highly spiced food, and neglect subtleties of flavour. I'm impressed by a passage from John Ruskin, who in Lecture 3 of 'The Queen of the Air' compares a Persian manuscript and a Turner drawing, the Persian manuscript intense in colour, the Turner drawing drab by comparison: 'One of the ruby spots of the eastern manuscript would give colour enough for all the red that is in Turner's entire drawing.' But it's the Turner drawing which he claims has more 'semantic significance' in my term.

Seamus Heaney's achievement in semantic force is very great. In classes of students studying art, it's often found that one or two will have that unmistakable ability to make sketches consisting of not much more than a few lines convey an image which seems to leap from the paper vividly or sensuously, an ability far more likely to be innate than taught. Not all students have the ability to extend that ability to produce a complete work which gives the same evidence of extreme talent. Seamus Heaney was like an art student who can do just that, and despite any fluctuations in his poetic career can still achieve that. He has the unmistakable talent of a born writer.

Almost all those gifted art students will never become major artists. Their work is traditional and fails to recognize such developments as the challenges to simple representation, the revolutions which began to transform art as early as Cezanne and which were very radical, in the work of the cubists and the abstract expressionists amongst others. The breakdown of musical tonality in the work of Schoenberg and others is analogous. Seamus Heaney is fortunate in that the technical inertia and backwardness which would be criticized severely in a modern artist or composer are readily tolerated in poetry.  I give great weighting to formal accomplishment in poetry and I claim that semantic force is not enough. From my Glossary: poetry: 'Alain Robbe-Grillet wrote that 'form in the novel has to move to stay alive.' This is surely true of the novel, and equally true of poetry. I make the point that the artist should 'transform form.' I stress the exhilarating variety of forms available to the poet and the need for a wide variety of forms - free verse as well as strict forms of many different kinds, forms from the past which are still useful and completely new forms. I emphasize form here, but not at the expense of content.'

Seamus Heaney can give semantic force not just to nouns, adjectives and verbs but even to prepositions. I underline words and phrases in which I think have marked semantic force.

'A Hagging Match' from 'District and Circle' has

Axe-thumps outside
like wave-hits through
a night ferry:

This is very notable without being unforgettable. The rhythmic inertness of the lines, a recurrent problem in Seamus Heaney, is a {restriction} on the power. But the ability here of water not just to cause jarring but, as the one word through expresses, a force felt the length of the vessel, is well conveyed.

'Home Fires' in 'District and Circle' has an almost identical effect, in this case the pain of Dorothy Wordsworth's toothache felt through her body, through jaw-bone and neck-bone, as far as her wrist-bone. This effect is outstanding here. The first three lines are surely Parnassian, not to be justified by claiming that they are a necessary and effective contrast to the intensity of the rest of the stanza.

Dorothy young, jig-jigging her iron shovel,
Barracking a pile of lumpy coals
Carted up by one Thomas Ashburner,
Her toothache so ablaze the carter's name
Goes unremarked as every jolt and jag
Backstabs her through her wrist-bone, neck-bone,
jaw-bone.

The importance of sensuous and vivid language in poetry can be exaggerated. More precisely, it's important to stress how important the superficially unpromising and unimportant can be in poetry, as in music. In classical music, melodies with sensuous scoring are far from being all-important. Tchaikovsky could write these melodies, but his achievement as a symphonist was limited because he couldn't develop superficially unpromising material. Compare this, from the opening of Haydn's String Quartet Op. 50 No. 1:

In his superb book 'The Classical Style: Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, Charles Rosen writes of this opening, 'The first movement of the Quartet in B flat major op. 50 no. 1 is built from almost nothing at all: a repeated note in the cello [ '(a)' ] and a six-note figure in the violin. [ '(b).' This is the first violin - I omit the second violin part here.]

'One could say that in this exposition Haydn treats the six-note figure as a row [the 'tone-row' of serial composers such as Alban Berg] except that his procedure has nothing to do with serial technique. The way its shape is twisted, while remaining always recognizable, shows us that Haydn may be said to work topologically - his central idea remaining invariant even when its shape is deformed - while a serialist works geometrically. More to the point, however, is that (b) alone is not the source of the piece, but rather the tension between (b) and the calm one-note ostinato up against it as a series of sequences, from which all the rhythmic animation of the work comes.'

'This movement, with its obsessive use of one six-note figure, may seem atypical (although there are many such pieces in Haydn, whose material could be even more laconic) ... '

There's no counterpart in poetry for the remarkable harmonic development which Haydn provides in this movement, as so very often, and which Charles Rosen explains at length, but poetry is capable of some of the other effects here- rhythmic effects, 'topological' effects, and others. Poetic material which at first sight is unpromising - not sufficiently sensuous or vivid - can offer more opportunity for development of this kind than the sensuous and vivid material. I don't think that the poetry of Seamus Heaney is well adapted to purposes such as these.

Seamus Heaney's use of line- and stanza-enjambment

I use the term 'line-enjambment,' for the carrying over of material from one line to the next. I use the term 'stanza-enjambment' for the carrying over of material from one stanza (or verse paragraph) to the next. These terms refer to the boundary which is crossed, the end of a line or the end of a stanza. In the page on metre I extend the classification of enjambment to include the different kinds of material which may be carried over, such as a sentence, phrase and metre.

Seamus Heaney uses stanza-enjambment very often, as in the poem 'North' from the volume 'North,' the verse paragraph ending with the botched line

The longship's swimming tongue

(compare the 'swimming nostril' in 'Viking Dublin')

followed by the verse paragraph beginning with the botched line

was buoyant with hindsight

This is an effect not generally used in prose. Prose writers generally regard what's within a prose paragraph as having a degree of unity. The next paragraph gives continuation, very often, of subject or argument but not of phrase or sentence.

Stanza enjambment can be justified as a conscious technique but its use requires great skill. Seamus Heaney uses stanza enjambment very effectively in only a few places.

An understanding of stanza enjambment requires an understanding of some aspects of the poetic line, of the eventfulness of moving from line to line and the emphasis given to the beginning of a new line. Christopher Ricks provides a very good treatment of these, in his essay 'Wordsworth: "A Pure Organic Pleasure from the Lines"' (Essays in Criticism, volume 21.) Some extracts:

'The punctuation of which poetry or verse further avails itself is the white space. In prose, line-endings are ordinarily the work of the compositor and not the artist. [and in prose-poetry and the prose which results after the Line Removal Test has been applied.]...the poet has at his command this further 'system of punctuation'. The white space at the end of a line of poetry constitutes some kind of pause...

'The language is deployed, just as the episodes are in a story, so as always to provoke the question 'And then?' - to provoke this question and to answer it in unexpected ways...here syntax is employed so as to make the most of each word's eventfulness, so as to make each key-word, like each new episode in a well-told story, at once surprising and just.'

Christopher Ricks's understanding of the transition from line to line can be extended to include the transition from one verse paragraph to the next, in cases of stanza enjambment. The effect here is much more marked. The white space between stanzas forms a more substantial space than the one between one line and the next. What is placed first in the new verse paragraph acquires great emphasis from the greater delay in reaching it from the previous paragraph. It's difficult or impossible to make the transition by enjambment from line to line marked in every case by significance (using 'marked' in the sense used in Stylistics.) These transitions are bound - the poet has no alternative but to make them, if enjambment is used at all. Transitions by enjambment from stanza to stanza are generally free - and far fewer. The poet has a far greater responsibility to make something of them.

The pause can be lengthened by means of stanza enjambment and by another effect - interposing a line between statement expecting {completion} and {completion}. In this example, from Derek Walcott's 'Midsummer,' the statement expecting {completion} is 'there's that island known ...' and the {completion} is 'for making nothing:'

So, a hole in their parchment opens, and suddenly, in a vast
dereliction of sunlight, there's that island known
to the traveller Trollope, and the fellow traveller Froud,
for making nothing. Not even a people ...

Seamus Heaney isn't accomplished in line enjambment. Again and again, he's inept. An example, from the otherwise very successful poem 'A Constable Calls,' in 'North:'

His bicycle stood at the window-sill,
The rubber cowl of a mud-sp lashed
Skirting the front mudguard,
Its fat black handlegrips

Heating in sunlight, the 'spud'
of the dynamo gleaming and cocked back,
The pedal treads hanging relieved
Of the boot of the law.

If the last two lines here had been

The pedal treads hanging
relieved of the boot of the law.

then 'hanging' would have made an effective pause-point at the end of the line and the reader would have had the experience of hanging in suspense before the pause, wondering what comes next. What would come next in this revised version is a full, sonorous and weighty phrase in a strongly marked rhythm, 'relieved of the boot of the law' and not the truncated and ineffective 'Of the boot of the law.' This is a line with insufficient scale, which I explain in the next section. In his poetry, lines beginning with 'of' are usually meagre in scale.

In his essay, Christopher Ricks discusses the passage in Wordsworth's 'The Prelude' where the boy at Windermere imitates the owls (Book 5, lines 364 - 388, 1850 edition) and emphasizes the effectiveness of 'hung' at a line-ending :

...and, when a lengthened pause
Of silence came and baffled his best skill,
Then sometimes, in that silence while he hung
Listening, a gentle shock of mild surprise
Has carried far into his heart the voice
Of mountain torrents...

'Then sometimes, in that silence while he hung

- and there is the silence before us, and he and we hang upon the brink of it. A dozen lines later, there is a literal counterpart which conveys its different sense of suspension:

Fair is the spot, most beautiful the vale
Where he was born; the grassy churchyard hangs
Upon a slope above the village school,'

And a little later in the essay, he quotes this

Oh! when I have hung
Above the raven's nest, by knots of grass
And half-inch fissures in the slippery rock'

I regard 'far into the heart' in the first lines of Wordsworth quoted here as an instance of {distance}.

Lines, scale and Aristotle's 'megethos'

Seamus Heaney often seems to vacate the line to move on to the next for no clear reasons. I think that in general, each line of a poem should generally have sufficient substance or weight, unless the line has {direction}, has structural importance as transitional. I'm well aware that many poets and readers of poetry would disagree with my view.

See my page on the aphorism form for an extended discussion of Aristotle's 'megethos' and of what I call scale. In the 'Poetics,' Aristotle wrote that 'Tragedy is an imitation of an action that ...possesses magnitude.' (Section 4.1) The word he uses for 'magnitude' is μέγεθος ('megethos') and it expresses the need that the dramatic action should be imposing and not mean, not limited in extent. I use 'scale,' which is a wider term than 'megethos.' Scale is a term with less {restriction}. I use it in cases of excessive scale, as in some architecture, as well as in cases of insufficient scale. The application-sphere of scale is very varied. It includes single words and aphorisms, always concise, as well as large artistic works.

Seamus Heaney's lines often have the defect of insufficient scale. He uses short lines and very short lines very often. A short line may have sufficient substance and weight (I would claim this for the one word closing line of my poem Sailing from Belfast, at the time of the troubles.) Considering the linkage between a poem and a piece of structural engineering - of course, a poem is far more than a structure - then many Seamus Heaney poems are made up of very strong and sturdy beams and very weak and flimsy members.

Some poems are made up almost entirely of these weak and flimsy members and to that extent defective as examples of structural poetics. 'Bone Dreams' in 'North' is an example. Most of the lines are lacking in scale. Lines of Seamus Heaney's beginning with 'of' tend to be lacking in scale, as here:

As dead as stone,

flint-find, nugget
of chalk,

and later

There was a small crock
for the brain,
and a cauldron

of generation
swung at the centre:

Lack of scale is a common weakness in poetry, of course. An example from another poet, Pauline Stainer. The first verse paragraph of her 'Sighting the Slave Ship' has the poetically poor giving of information in the fourth line,  which is lacking in scale, although the line before is no better.

We came to unexpected latitudes -
sighted the slave ship
during divine service
on deck.

Using the concept of scale (or 'megethos') we can find uses other than significant continuity for the significant pause of stanza enjambment. If the last line of one stanza and the first line of the next stanza have great scale, as well as showing some degree of significant continuity, then {separation} allows for a kind of 'framing effect.' (For a very interesting and comprehensive book on framing, see 'The Rhetoric of the Frame: Essays on the Boundaries of the Artwork,' edited by Paul Duro, although this is almost entirely concerned with visual art.) The lines are given greater, and deserved, prominence on account of the inter-stanza gap. This is the case, I think, with two very strong lines in 'Bogland' ('Door into the Dark.')

The ground itself is kind, black butter

Melting and opening underfoot,

unfortunately followed by a poorer line with an ineffective abstraction,

Missing its last definition

Prose poetry and prose-poetry

In the form usually called 'prose poetry,' writing laid out on the page as prose but with poetic diction, Seamus Heaney is nothing special and generally dismal. There are slightly better pieces than 'England's Difficulty,' (in 'Stations') but none that excel, in any of his volumes. 'England's Difficulty,' which was resuscitated for its appearance in the 'New Selected Poems 1966 - 1987' has

'I moved like a double agent among the big concepts.'

'The word 'enemy' had the toothed efficiency of a mowing machine. It was a mechanical and distant noise beyond that opaque security, that autonomous ignorance.'

Here, 'toothed efficiency,' 'opaque security,' 'autonomous ignorance' read as if composed by a 'random phrase generator.'

Seamus Heaney's achievements are in a different form, which I call 'prose-poetry,' poetry printed as poetry in the published volumes which isn't truly poetry. Setting the lines out as prose makes this clear. This is a classic test, quite often mentioned, which deserves a name. I call it 'The Line Removal Test.' This is the removal of the lines specified by the poet. There are lines left, of course, but only the lines whose length depends upon the compositor, not the poet. There are difficulties in applying The Line Removal Test, but as a preliminary approach to a poem it has value, I think.

Seamus Heaney is usually determined to make it clear that in his published works we are supposed to be reading poetry, not prose. He usually capitalizes the first letter of each new line, but he's not consistent in his use of capitalization, for no obvious reason. In 'Death of a Naturalist,' all the poems have capitalization except for 'Churning Day,' 'Cow in Calf,' 'Trout' and Synge on Aran. In later volumes, most poems have capitalization. I see no need for capitalization at all. As the beginning of a new line is unambiguous, capitalization is unnecessary.

I think that very often, Seamus Heaney's 'poetry' doesn't survive The Line Removal Test. It's prose written as poetry, its claim to be poetry dependent above all on poetic diction and sometimes rhyme. A few examples, after line removal.

(1) 'Blackberry picking,' from 'Death of a Naturalist.'

'We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre. But when the bath was filled we found a fur, a rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache. The juice was stinking, too. Once off the bush the fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour. I always felt like crying. It wasn't fair that all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.'

(2) Section IV of 'Bone Dreams' from 'North.'

'Come back past philology and kennings, re-enter memory where the bone's lair is a love-nest in the grass. I hold my lady's head like a crystal and ossify myself by gazing: I am screes on her escarpments, a chalk giant carved upon her downs. Soon my hands, on the sunken fosse of her spine move towards the passes.'

(3) 'A Daylight Art,' from 'The Haw Lantern.'

'On the day he was to take the poison Socrates told his friends he had been writing: putting Aesop's fables into verse. And this was not because Socrates loved wisdom and advocated the examined life. The reason was that he had had a dream.'

I don't classify as prose-poetry all those poems and passages in his work where expression is laboured or inert and feeling as a result seems laboured or inert, with not a trace of poetic intensity. After all, prose can approach the intensity of poetry. Instead, I refer to these poems and passages as non-expressive. Some prose-poems are genuinely expressive.

His effective rhythms and contrasts of tempo

As for effective rhythms, there are not many worth mentioning. In most of his work, there's a plodding, hardly ever a personal, rhythm. The accomplished diction, particularly, but not exclusively, in the earlier work, has deflected attention from the rhythmical inertness. Edna Longley was mistaken, very much mistaken, in describing Seamus Heaney as a 'rhythmic prodigy' ('North: "Inner Emigré" or "Artful Voyeur"?')

On the page metre I discuss my approach. Amongst the illustrative examples, there's a short discussion of the opening of Seamus Heaney's 'Exposure.'

An extract from my page The Grauballe Man and other poems:

'Seamus Heaney's lack of rhythmic sense and his deficiencies in metre are a liability in much of his poetry, or at least they diminish the impact of the poetry.  'Digging' begins with two lines with genuine rhythm, except that the effect is undermined:

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a
gun.

'The first line sticks out like a sore thumb. It's undermined by 'my' before 'thumb,' which gives three unstressed syllables in a row, shown here as faint print. This second instance of 'my' is superfluous for the meaning of the line and blunts the impact of the metre. This is metre and meaning not integrated but going their own way. The light and tripping unstressed syllables go on almost to the end of the line. They would be appropriate if the line concerned something held lightly, which could easily be dropped, but the secure hold requires a strong and secure rhythm, one without any unnecessary unstressed syllables. The firm hold on the pen has already been established by the meaning of the first line but not its metre. The strong second line, separated from the fragility of the first line by the pause of the line ending, comes as a jarring and pointless contrast with the first line. Seamus Heaney is hopeless as a reviser of his work. Simply cutting out the second 'my' would have given a far more effective line, rhythmically far stronger:

Between my finger and thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

'The light syllables before 'finger' and within 'finger' too (the strong stress of the first syllable of 'finger' is only relatively strong. It isn't as strong as the strong stress on 'thumb') would have given an effective contrast of meaning as well as metre: a finger isn't as broad or as sturdy as a thumb.'

It's important to examine cross-linkages as well as the most obvious linkages. The linkages between the rhythm of a line of poetry and the rhythm of some bars of music are obvious linkages. The linkage between the rhythm of a line of poetry and some harmonic aspects of the music is a cross-linkage, specifically, a cadence or cadences which give resolution, a satisfying {completion}. (Compare the comment that the adagio molto introduction of Beethoven's First Symphony presents harmonic tensions which achieve resolution with the beginning of the allegro con brio.) This meaning is different from 'resolution' used as the name of a {theme}, {resolution}.

In the lines

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a
gun.

the resolution comes too late, in the second line, after the line boundary, rather than in the first line: with the partial resolution, 'The squat pen rests;' and the full resolution, 'snug as a gun.' If 'unresolved' material is what resolution resolves, and there are degrees in 'unresolved' - there surely are, so that 'largely unresolved' would be more accurate - then these degrees are increased in the first line. These degrees as well as the delay in resolving are open to objection. Since the meaning of the first line is clear, resolution should be established by the end of the first line. It's essential that the snugness of fit of the pen between finger and thumb in the first line should be established if the snugness of fit between gun and hand in the second line (or gun and shoulder: again, the ambiguity is artistically poor) is to have full impact as a simile.

As his poetry became in general more routine, more 'Parnassian,' his metrical skills didn't worsen. They actually improved, in a few places. By the time of the almost completely Parnassian book 'The Spirit Level' his use of metre was quite tight and taut in some places, such as 'Flight Path' and 'Mycenae Lookout.'

However, the later volume 'Human Chain' marks no advance in rhythmical energy or rhythmical subtlety and deciding which is the least rhythmical poem or passage isn't easy. I'd select these lines, perhaps, from 'A Herbal.' After 'Line Removal,' to make more clear their essential prosiness:

'We had enemies, though why we never knew. Among them, nettles, malignant things, letting on to be asleep. Enemies - part of a world nobody seemed able to explain but that had to be put up with. There would always be dock leaves to cure the vicious stings.'

The opening of 'A Herbal' is impressive and reads like poetry but only because diction is poetic rather than prosy and the use of capitalized letters at the beginning of the separate lines. The contribution of metre is negligible.

After Line Removal:

'Everywhere plants flourish among graves, sinking their roots in all the dynasties of the dead.'

This is succeeded by the poor

'Was graveyard grass in our place any different? Different from ordinary field grass?'

The distribution of material within the lines of 'poetry' in the original, before Line Removal, lacks any compellingly obvious reasons. For example,

Different from ordinary
Field Grass?

The line divisions often seem arbitrary in Seamus Heaney's poetry. They certainly seem so here.

Discussion of rhythm, the acknowledgement of rhythm, are absent again and again in criticism of contemporary poetry: rhythm is absent from the ((survey)). Earlier, I criticized Richard D. Cureton for his grotesque comments on Helen Vendler but in the same essay, published in 'Versification: an interdisciplinary journal of literary prosody' Vol. 1, No. 1, his comments on the importance of rhythm in lyric poetry seem to come from a different compartment of the mind altogether. This is exemplary by comparison: 'Most detailed studies of poetry pay little attention to rhythm, and when it is attended to, it is often discussed as merely a handmaiden to meaning and dramatic situation [though 'dramatic situation' isn't the aptest of phrases, in a section entitled 'Lyric poetry and the New Criticism] ... Contrary to what theorists such as Frye would claim, rhythm in the lyric is usually considered to be an "external architecture," a kind of frame/container for the real business of the genre: meaning, reference, semantic nuance, dramatic situation, etc.'

As for contrasts of tempo, Seamus Heaney gives a largely unvarying, all-purpose approximation to forward momentum. The welcome exceptions, short though they are, include 'taps a little tune,' an effective  accelerando in his prose-poetry (after Line Removal):

'But now I stand behind him in the dark yard, in the moan of prayers. He puts a hand in a pocket or taps a little tune with the blackthorn shyly, as if he were party to lovemaking or a stranger's moaning.' ('The Other Side' III, 'Wintering Out.')

There are innumerable examples in poetry of tempo handled with incomparably greater variety and skill than in the poetry of Seamus Heaney, and, of course, in music.  Consider this discussion, for example, of a tempo with a linkage to the steady stroll of a characteristic S.H. poem but at very great {distance}, and at an incomparably higher artistic level. It comes from Donald Francis Tovey's analysis of Beethoven's Waldstein Sonata for piano, Op. 53. His comments on the 'Introduzione' include this: 'Bars 10 - 16 will give the tempo of this wonderful movement which crowds into its 28 bars the profoundest harmonies of the whole sonata,' the comment on bar 21, 'In the bass arpeggios we begin to feel that the music strains at the leash of the slow tempo ... now there is a danger of stiffness. It would be better to put up with stiffness than to hurry.' This is preparatory to the beginning of the wonderful rondo, marked allegretto moderato. 'Allegretto indicates a moderate tempo, and moderato intensifies the warning; very necessarily, for this movement is often played in public far too fast. Players who are bored by its breadth and who wish to speed up its climaxes should leave Beethoven alone.'

This is the transition from the  Introduzione to the serenity of the Rondo:

The sonata ends with the tempo of 'prestissimo.' The human voice, in such forms as song and opera, is incapable of matching the range of tempos in instrumental music, in particular the tempo of 'prestissimo.' The human voice, speaking or reading poetry, likewise. Poetry is confined to the middle and slower range of tempos, although not the slowest. But this still leaves a great range of possibilities, possibilities which Seamus Heaney has left almost entirely unexplored. His general failure to achieve rapidity is particularly noticeable. I never feel that the poetry is 'straining at the leash,' that the poet is technically able to give a more rapid tempo and will give a more rapid tempo, but that this is deferred, to produce tension of artistic value which will be released when the contrast of tempo comes.

If Seamus Heaney's poetry often suggests a dog being taken for a walk on a leash, Beethoven's music often suggests, not straining at the leash, but something more thrilling: Dionysian outbursts, sustained outbursts, all the more thrilling for being sustained, as in the long development section of his Eighth Symphony - this in a Symphony 'written in a mood of relaxation after the immense triumph of the Seventh.' 'With grand modulations this continues for what is surely the longest sustained ff in any classic, matched only by Brahms in his double concerto ...' (Basil Lam, 'Ludwig van Beethoven' in 'The Symphony Vol. 1.')

Basil Lam writes well about the Seventh Symphony too, and the overwhelming, heaven-storming momentum of its last movement. He points out (without using the term) that the driving rhythm of this last movement uses a dactylic rhythm. Seamus Heaney's weakness in metre has a close linkage with his weakness in tempo. He's unable to write a sustained series of dactyls or any other metrical units, and so he's generally unable to produce any sustained generation of tension, thrilling momentum.

Stanley Sadie writes of Mozart's 40th Symphony in G minor: 'The G minor symphony may be an outburst, but only within well understood limits ... it seems that his musical language, so much more complex than anyone else's at that time, texturally and harmonically, was widely found bewildering in such works as this, or Don Giovanni, [although this was appreciated very much in Prague] or some of the late chamber music. Indeed, the next generation too failed to come to terms with these works, since from Beethoven's time onwards the expression of strong emotion took forms altogether more overt and more violent.'

Seamus Heaney's metre (more accurately, his unmetricality) is useless for achieving either power or subtlety, or the union of the two, useless for giving momentum. David Cairns writes of Don Giovanni, in 'Mozart and his Operas,' that 'No other opera equals its sense of headlong momentum, of moving in a single continuous impulse from first note to last.'

Painting can give the illusion of movement, just as it can give the illusion of spatial depth by means of perspective. In the same way, artistic forms subject to time, such as music and poetry, can give the illusion of stillness. In music, this demands the use of forms other than sonata form or counterpoint, which are inescapably dynamic, such as the use of variation form. Beethoven achieves this stillness in the second movement of the piano sonata Op. 111, after the energy and momentum of the first movement. In the second movement, Beethoven seems to reduce movement and at one point almost eliminates it. (See the analysis in 'The Piano Music - II,' Philip Barford, 'The Beethoven Companion.'

Seamus Heaney is able to achieve a degree of stillness. In 'Sunlight,' the first poem of 'Mossbawn,' ('North') he achieves remarkable effects, all the more remarkable in that the stillness, an almost contemplative stillness, emerges from a poem about someone who is busy.

Warwickshire and County Derry

Seamus Heaney grew up in rural County Derry. Shakespeare grew up in Warwickshire, in a place more rural than urban, by modern standards. Elizabethan Warwickshire had, of course, communications with the wider world far less well developed than those of twentieth century County Derry. The curiosity, adventurousness and restless intelligence of Shakespeare overcame these difficulties with ease. Shakespeare's world is incomparably wider than Seamus Heaney's, even though Seamus Heaney has been such a frequent traveller by jet aircraft and Shakespeare never left this island. To give only a few, very well known examples, the setting of Hamlet in Denmark, Twelfth Night in Illyria, The Merchant of Venice in - Venice - and the fact that in The Winter's Tale, Leontes is the King of Sicilia and Polixenes is the King of Bohemia, that in The Tempest, Alonso is the King of Naples.

Shakespeare wasn't content to give an indelible portrait of rural Warwickshire, as Heaney in his earlier books was content, on the whole, to give an indelible portrait of rural Ireland, with a few perfunctory foreign visits, such as the visit described in 'Night Drive' in 'Door into the Dark:'

The smells of ordinariness
Were new on the night drive through France:
Rain and hay and woods on the air
Made warm draughts in the open car.

Signposts whitened relentlessly.
Montreuil, Abbeville, Beauvais
Were promised, promised, came and went,
Each place granting its name's fulfilment.

And so on.

Seamus Heaney's Northern Ireland is a generally land-locked interpretation. Nowhere in Northern Ireland is far from the sea. Much of Northern Ireland's coastline is magnificent. A poor poem, 'Wolfe Tone' ('The Haw Lantern') has an unmemorable  mention of the sea:

men in their shirts mounting through deep water
when the Atlantic stove our cabin's dead lights in

and the big fleet split and Ireland dwindled
as we ran before the gale under bare poles.

By far the best treatment of the sea in Seamus Heaney's poetry is this, the first stanza of the title poem of 'North:'

I returned to a long strand,
the hammered curve of a bay,
and found only the secular
powers of the Atlantic thundering.

And, also, the treatment of the sea in 'Postscript' ('The Spirit Level.')

The sea in Seamus Heaney's poetry has wildness, on occasion, but not to any great extent. To return to Shakespeare, although Warwickshire, unlike County Derry, has no coastline, Shakespeare was evidently fascinated by the sea. There's the shipwreck at the beginning of Twelfth Night and the setting of the beginning of The Tempest on a ship at sea. (For the seamanship of Act I, Scene 1 of The Tempest, see A F Falconer, 'Shakespeare and the Sea.')

Shakespeare, unlike Seamus Heaney, could face the destructiveness, changeableness and unpredictability of the sea, which is almost entirely beyond human control.

The sectarian divide and religion

Seamus Heaney was never a particularly independent-minded poet, was never an untameable and uncompromising poet, more complacent than daring, in poetic technique and in his views.  He wasn't the kind who transcended the sectarian divide and defied anyone who tried to categorize him. Seamus Heaney was far too timid. Like an English person who doesn't go to Church or believe in God but puts down 'Church of England' when asked to declare religion on an official form, he took the conventional and feeble line of least resistance. The first and last verse paragraphs from the first section of 'Out of This World,' in the fairly recent 'District and Circle:'

'Like everybody else, I bowed my head
during the consecration of the bread and wine,
lifted my eyes to the raised host and raised chalice,
believed (whatever it means) that a change occurred.

The loss occurred off-stage. And yet I cannot
disavow words like "thanksgiving" or "host"
or "communion bread". They have an undying
tremor and draw, like well water far down.'

The Catholic belief alluded to in the first verse paragraph is that during the consecration, the bread becomes literally, not metaphorically, the body and blood of Christ. 'The loss' is the loss of faith. Vague and routine allusions to deep well water may satisfy the poet, but he either believes in transubstantiation or not. Probably not, but this partial loss of faith is completely humdrum, and expressed in humdrum form: 'And yet I cannot disavow words like...'

I'm an atheist and opposed to Christian belief (and I studied theology for a year), but I don't oppose all Christians in the same way. So many of the Christians I've known or know of are outstanding. Catholicism in Seamus Heaney's poetry isn't the passionate faith of outstanding Catholics, but something lacklustre, a matter of externals, such as mention of 'scapulars.' Whereas Seamus Heaney can infuse externals with passion so often, he generally fails to infuse the externals of Catholicism with the least passion.

Archaism

Seamus Heaney's use of archaisms is a study in itself. 'Funeral Rites' in 'North' slips into this mode easily, from funerals and brief mention of terrorist murders to the safe world of remote history. Of Gunnar:

Men said that he was chanting
verses about honour

It's as if all the intellectual ferment which has challenged faith has passed him by, as if Nietzsche and Darwin had never been. The outward forms of traditional Catholicism, with a modicum of inner significance, are frequent in his books, but so also are classical allusions which have no more life left in them, for the purposes of contemporary poetry, at least. Christianity, as in the authorized version of the Bible and the Catholic missal, and Greek and Latin learning, were often pursued together in past centuries, but always made a heterogeneous pair. Seamus Heaney continues this curious tradition. Some examples of the classical tradition in his poetry. Here, 'libations,' surely, can have no contemporary resonance: From 'A New Song,' 'Wintering Out.'

A smooth libation of the past
Poured by this chance vestal daughter.

This comes immediately after the wonderful

Vanished music, twilit water -

in which the associations of 'lit' are in beautiful tension with the crepuscular associations of 'twilit,' the word of which 'lit' is a part.

'At a Potato Digging' in 'Death of a Naturalist' has as its closing lines

Then, stretched on the faithless ground, spill
Libations of cold tea, scatter crusts.

'Bye-Child,' again in 'Wintering Out' has

Vigils, solitudes, fasts,
unchristened tears,

Modernity and modernism

To pass from archaism of reference and quotation to archaism of technique and attitude - contemporary art and contemporary  music (contemporary serious music, that is) would be unlikely to value very highly an equivalent of the traditionalist Seamus Heaney.

Writers don't and can't, in general, approach in words the radical experimentalism of artists and composers Even if Joyce's 'Finnegans Wake' isn't evidence to the contrary, words don't allow many other experimental alternatives: radical innovation is simply easier in non-verbal art forms. Modernity of technique is of less importance in writing, surely, than modernity of attitude. Baudelaire is a crucial instance. His technique was not in the least revolutionary - he used rhyme consistently and used the sonnet form again and again - but his modernity of attitude is astonishing.

The excellent Website of A S Kline, http://www.poetryintranslation.com contains not just a vast amount of poetry in translation but writing of his own -   poetry and aphorisms - as well as critical material, amongst which is the long essay, full of valuable insights, Voyage to Modernity: The Poetry of Charles Baudelaire.

This is from the first section, 'Dante1: Introduction: The Invitation To The Voyage.'

'Baudelaire learnt from Dante. The Earthly Paradise, since there is no heavenly one for the adult mind, is entered into, if anywhere, from the summit of the Mount of Purgatory, after the long hard climb. There, if anywhere, is the gateway to a higher state of being. There the Romantics, there all of us, must go in search: and if the Earthly Paradise is not to be found, if there is no Mount except in the human mind, if where we are is more akin to the Inferno, then mind itself must create its own mountain, fashion its own wings, plant its own Garden, re-win its lost innocence, invoke the Idyll.  

'Baudelaire is a Dante in whom the Vision fades, for whom the Paradiso is no more than a distant passing gleam, a spirit who has fallen, with Satan the Angel of Pride, into the pit, le gouffre, and must wind his way to Satan’s presence, climb that monster’s shaggy hide in reverse, and then begin the toil of ascending the slope of the self-created Mount but without faith or hope, with no Virgil as companion to lead him to Beatrice. It is a journey of the heart and spirit: it is the voyage of a Ulysses past un-fortunate Isles, the journey of a pilgrim, the stumbling steps of the Individual, under the glare of History, and then no History. It is an endless setting sail, but not towards Byzantium. Here, in Hell, even in the crowd, especially in the crowd, we are alone. Hell is a place where we can go neither forward nor back, where language is corrupted by the swarm, where the voice and cries fail to communicate anything but their madness or pain, where community is lost, and nothing can be given while all must be taken.  

'Baudelaire read Dante. And he too is a Classicist: that is an artist who sets his work within the context of symbols derived from past art, and for whom art itself is a means of knowledge and self-justification, beyond mere entertainment. He is a traditionalist too in that his great concern is with the moral centre, with the question of how to live, how to be, in a universe that reveals itself as ultimately intention-less and without recourse. In his hands the mud of despair must somehow be fashioned, through art’s alchemy, into the gold of poetry, the mud of the abyss must somehow become the clear water and green fields of the Idyll, of the childhood paradise, yet he is a Romantic first of all, one who has nothing but his own mind and spirit to begin with, and then, ultimately, a Modern, perhaps the first true Modern, who has nothing but his own mind and spirit to end with also.

'Unlike Dante, Baudelaire is denied an ascent. The old certainties evaporate. It is pointless to claim Baudelaire as a lapsed believer, as a seeker after the faith, temporarily separated from it. What does he himself say, late on in his life (Rockets XXII) ‘As for religion I consider it useless to speak of it, or to search for any remains of it, since in such matters the only thing that nowadays gives rise to scandal is to take the trouble to deny God.’ He may have despised the casual indifference of the freethinkers to faith, his own life may have ended in some kind of ironic Catholicism, but if so, that was a weakness, a failure, not the success of his life. His heart and his mind do not believe, despite his great longing for the lost paradise, the lost solace of the religion of his childhood. His poetry is modern precisely because it rejects that for which there is no evidence. And so, for Baudelaire’s art, there are only the worlds of one’s own creation, never the Empyrean created by another. And ultimately he does not even believe in his own Satan. Earth is not, for him, ruled by some divine manifestation of evil, rather it is a landscape devoid of all divine or satanic meaning. The paradise we long for is not tangible anywhere, the fall we experience is from the flight of our own making for which we finally lack the strength, evil is mere banal repetition, an obsession, an addiction; and purgatory, which is a repetition in the mind of the inferno of actuality, leads not to salvation and paradise but at best to an embittered or exhausted quietude.'

A S Kline's insights and arguments here are wide-ranging, including the comments on Baudelaire's relationship to Dante - very different, and very much more interesting, than Seamus Heaney's relationship to Dante, which amounts to more than cutting and pasting, but not very much more.

The fascination of what's difficult

Knowledge and learning can easily be a disadvantage rather than an advantage. A critic who knows about 'libations,' mentioned in the previous section, may be more likely to approve of Seamus Heaney's references to libations in his poetry. But the poetic effectiveness of 'libations' in contemporary poetry is very much in doubt.

'From the Canton of Expectation' ('The Haw Lantern') begins with the line,

We lived deep in a land of optative moods,

I'm familiar with the grammatical category of 'mood,' which expresses the kind or degree of reality associated with an assertion. It's not well developed in English, and there's no 'optative mood' in English at all, despite this line. Helen Vendler shares the misconception. She writes about 'the speaker, realizing the weakness of the old optatives, yet disliking the new imperatives,' (which are obviously not in the least 'new') and the 'nationalist exhausted optatives.' The grammatical category of mood is well developed in classical Greek, which has an optative mood. I discuss one use in Thucydides' 'History of the Peloponnesian War,' iii, 22, in connection with {distance}:

The subjunctive and optative forms of the verbs are used here to express degrees of {distance}, less and more remote:

ὅπως ἀσαφῆ τὰ σημεῖα τῆς φρυκτωρίας τοῖς πολεμίοις  καὶ μὴ βοηθοῖεν,

' ... the subjunctive form often expresses the more immediate or more certain contingency, and the optative form the more remote or more uncertain contingency' and 'the historians, especially Thucydides, seem often to have thrown themselves so completely into the past events which they recorded that those events became as present to them, and hence a form of the subjunctive group follows a historic tense. Sometimes indeed forms from both groups occur in a clause dependent on the same historical sense ...' (Clyde, 'Greek Syntax, section 40, obs. 2, quoted in the edition of Thucydides Book IV, edited with notes by C E Graves.)

[ After Thucydides has written that the Plataeans displayed fire signals ] 'so as to make the enemy's signals unclear and to prevent help from coming.' (My translation.) Here, making the enemy's signals unclear was the more immediate objective, preventing help from coming had more remote {distance}.

Nietzsche wrote of Thucydides - a writer I revere - 'One must turn him over line by line ...' ('Twilight of the Idols,' Section 2.)

 Quite apart from the lack of an optative in English, I don't allow the fact that I understand the allusion, like the classical allusion of 'libations,' to influence my estimate of the poetic success of this line - non-existent, I think.

I don't deal with his prose here or on other pages, except incidentally. This sometimes seems the work of two very different writers. The less accomplished and more pretentious of the two can perpetrate this kind of sentence, from 'The Redress of Poetry:' 'And yet, limber and absolved as linguistic inventiveness may seem in poetry, it is not disjunct from or ever entirely manumitted by the critical intelligence.' 'Manumitted,' meaning 'freed from slavery' or 'emancipated' should have been cut out, before cutting out the whole sentence. In his poetry, his own 'linguistic inventiveness' shows every sign of being 'disjunct from' his 'critical intelligence' and is much more impressive.

See also my discussion of allusions in the page where I review the 'Cambridge Companion to Seamus Heaney.'

Like Geoffrey Hill's prose, Seamus Heaney's poetry makes demands, to a lesser extent and intermittently, but sufficient, sometimes,  to make many readers feel they are reading quite difficult material and can't possibly be lulled.

He writes, in 'Hermit Songs' V of 'Human Chain,'

Neque, Caesar says, fas esse
existimant ea litteris
mandare.
'Nor do they think it right
to commit the things they know to writing.'

He writes in 'The Riverbank Field,'

... the grass so fully fledged

And unimprinted it can't not conjure thoughts
Of passing spirit-troops, animae, quibus altera fato
Corpora debentur ...

And, in the first line of the same poem, 'Ask me to translate what Loeb gives as ...' and readers know that 'Loeb' refers to the parallel text series which gives the Latin or Greek on the left and the English on the right, or they don't. If they don't, they may congratulate themselves for choosing to read a book as reassuringly difficult as this from a writer as reassuringly erudite as this.

Seamus Heaney sometimes undoes his  heartening insights into heartening humanity with his academicism. Not every poet-academic's poetry is the worse for involvement in university life but Seamus Heaney's is certainly the worse for it, I think. (There may be readers unaware of Seamus Heaney's academic employment and even readers who  imagine that he has spent a great deal of time digging peat and planting potatoes.) The first lines of 'Album V:'

It took a grandson to do it properly,
To rush him in the armchair
With a snatch raid on his neck.

But very quickly, academicism takes over:

Of whatever erat demonstrandum.
Just as a moment back a son's three tries
At an embrace in Elysium.

And in the last stanza, mention of 'the Latin stem itself' and more Latin allusion, 'Verus.'

The limitations of affability

To begin with some comments about Seamus Heaney's characterization in connection with his poem Wolfe Tone. I give an extract as well as this link to the page:

'Early readers of Seamus Heaney's earliest books probably felt uneasy, some of them at least, about his treatment of people. In 'The Forge,' the blacksmith 'leather-aproned, hairs in his nose' 'expends himself in shape and music.' This is less vivid than

The unpredictable fantail of sparks
Or hiss when a new shoe toughens in water.

and less vivid than the description of his father in 'Follower.'

'He added before very long some tender and homely portraits, but as it became clearer that he wanted to become a poet of great stature, his significant disadvantages became clearer. Was his mind, or poetic technique, adequate in the least for portraying the realities which disfigured the twentieth century. Could Seamus Heaney ever have portrayed a Stalin, for instance? It would have required far more than Stalin 'expending' himself as he opposed the Germans at Stalingrad and organized the Ukrainian famine or the terror. It would have required far more than a vivid description of Stalin's facial hair.

'It's clear from his later work as well as his early work that there are vast areas of human experience which lie far beyond the reach of his poetry. Martin Seymour-Smith comments on Tom Stoppard's play 'Travesties,' 'this farce suddenly collapses when it has to deal with the personality of Lenin - Stoppard cannot deal with such people ...'

These comments only touch upon Seamus Heaney's weaknesses. He can describe, or at least mention, violent events, such as the man 'blown to bits / Out drinking in a curfew / Others obeyed, three nights / After they shot dead / The thirteen men in Derry.' But he lacks the resources, personal and technical, to convey the interminable and bitter futility with which fanatics attempted to bomb into a united Ireland people resolutely opposed to joining a united Ireland, the likelihood of their eventual failure, their actual failure, the spilling of so much blood for no gain at all - reminiscent of equally futile but far more violent conflicts in history - which again, he would have lacked the resources to convey.

In his prose writings, he's able to adopt the pose of a poetic statesman, commenting on such matters as 'the government of the tongue' - at a safe distance from the trivialization of life, the moronic ways of acting, talking and thinking, which don't seem to disturb very much his composure, at least outwardly.

His home for a time, The Land of the Lethal Injection - the United States of America - has so many examples of grossness that would concern, enrage a more sensitive and a more critical person, some of them shared with Europe, some of them transmitted to Europe, some of them dividing it from present-day Europe - for example, in some states, executions. Early in the new millennium, the state of Virginia executed some juvenile offenders. Practically no other countries were still executing those aged under 18 at the time. Recently, Tennessee executed someone who had been on death row for 29 years. Seamus Heaney's ethical sense has never recoiled from such acts, or if it has, he's been very quiet about it. See also my page on the death penalty and the section admiration in which I praise some writers who have spoken or acted differently.

Missing from Seamus Heaney are responses which go well beyond simple-minded affability. Affability should be valued but isn't nearly enough. Much deeper feeling, much deeper reserves of justified anger, dismay - contempt - should also have modified his safe and traditional techniques, made his syntax less tame and his diction - so extensive, but not extensive enough - abrasive as well as vivid. His reputation will be as a gifted regionalist, surely, not much more, once the adulation has died down, as it surely will.

Conclusion

Helen Vendler writes that 'The terms of reproof against Heaney have been almost entirely thematic.' For example, the political journalists who 'argue that though he overtly deplores violence, in fact his poetry covertly supports Republican attitudes.' I agree with Helen Vendler in her view that these thematic arguments about poetry, as she calls them, are 'beside the point. Lyric poetry neither stands nor falls on its themes.' She continues, 'it stands or falls on the accuracy of language with which it reports the author's emotional responses to the life around him.'

Seamus Heaney's strengths are obvious and include the sensuous rendering of nature, the warm emotional rendering, in some places, of a good marriage, warm renderings in a few places of friendships and meetings with people. But a fuller survey shows his limitations, personal limitations as well as poetic limitations.

My own objections to his poetry aren't thematic, in the sense used by Helen Vendler. It will be clear enough what my objections to his poetry are. They include carelessness and sometimes incompetence in the techniques which a good or great poet should be expected to use well (since poetry, although to a lesser extent, has, like musical composition, techniques) and in restricted vision, restricted interests: a tame and not particularly interesting poet, despite his enormous strengths. His poetry very often 'falls on the accuracy of language with which it reports the author's emotional responses to the life around him.'

Seamus Heaney has fame and prominence. These can make it difficult to detect the most glaring weaknesses for some people, including some critics. In some quarters, there's almost a 'cult of veneration' for Seamus Heaney, as if he's granted exemption. Similarly, Harvard University has such prestige that the work of Helen Vendler, of Harvard University, may be granted exemption too, exemption from criticism. No matter what the prestige of Harvard University, Helen Vendler's book on Seamus Heaney is very inadequate.

As for an overall 'placing' of Seamus Heaney, this depends upon weighting. This is an unsystematic term to be interpreted in terms of systematic {ordering}.  If we give more weighting to rhythm than to diction, then Seamus Heaney is inferior to such poets as Shelley and W H Auden. These poets have abilities in poetic rhythm, whereas Seamus Heaney has practically none. Writers of doggerel generally have more developed abilities in rhythm, of a simple and monotonous kind, than Seamus Heaney. But Seamus Heaney's talent for language which has semantic force is surely higher than that of Shelley or W H Auden. Although Yeats is  a greater poet than Seamus Heaney, he's not a better poet in every respect. I give great weighting to 'rootedness' in poetry, a quality obviously to be found in the poetry of Seamus Heaney, although not everywhere by any means. The 'soaring' which I find in Yeats (and in Rilke) is a weakness as well as a strength, I think. I provide no amplification here, but my page on Rilke will make it clearer what I mean by 'soaring,' the poetic 'aerial view,' and the contrast between 'soaring' and rootedness.

The soaring of Yeats and Rilke conceals very effectively instances of emotional stupidity, which in Seamus Heaney and other poets is liable to be exposed to view, but Seamus Heaney is in not-so-good company here. I think, for example, of Paul Muldoon's emotional stupidity in writing about Nerval:

... he hanged himself from a lamp-post
with a length of chain, which made me think

of something else, then something else again.

Whatever satisfactions this brings to readers of poetry prepared to overlook the stupidity, the satisfactions are surely very mild and temporary.

In 'The Public v. the late Mr William Butler Yeats,' (Partisan Review vol. 6, no. 3) W H Auden argued the case against the poetry of Yeats and the case in favour. In this page and my other pages on Seamus Heaney I argue the case against the poetry of Seamus Heaney but the case in favour as well. My appreciation for his fragmentary but substantial poetic achievement isn't in question, I hope.

See also the pages

Criticism of Seamus Heaney's 'The Grauballe Man' and other poems
Seamus Heaney: ethical depth?

His responses to the British army during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, bullfighting, the Colosseum, 'pests,' 9/11, IRA punishment, the starving, the hunger strikers in Northern Ireland. Includes analysis of

The Toome Road (Field Work), From the Frontier of Writing (The Haw Lantern), Tate's Avenue (District and Circle), The Early Purges (Death of a Naturalist), Anything can Happen (District and Circle), Punishment (North)

Seamus Heaney: translations and versions


from Dante, Horace, Rilke, Cavafy,
J M Bloem
, Jan Kochanowski, Sophocles


The Cambridge Companion to Seamus Heaney
Ireland and Northern Ireland: distortions and illusions
Metaphor 
Metre

Supplementary material below is in italics