{} Harvard University: criticism and credit, Harvard-Heaney linkages

This page includes material on linkages between the Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney and Harvard. In this column, material on Seamus Heaney and his poetry. In the column to the right, material on Harvard and Christianity, Harvard and Israeli-Palestinian relations, including recent adverse publicity, Harvard and 'woke' (DEI) ideology, Harvard and its claims concerning  Seamus Heaney.

The beaver and the mole 

Seamus Heaney's interviews and 'Public Relations'
Harvard's Helen Vendler, uncritical critic
My criticism and {restriction}
Roy Foster and confusion
Seamus Heaney and Parnassian
Seamus Heaney's abstractions
Seamus Heaney's standards of accuracy
 Seamus Heaney's and  semantic force
Seamus Heaney's use of 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
Modernity and modernism
The fascination of what's difficult
The limitations of affability

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.

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


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. 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.

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


'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.'


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


But only then.
Not every time any old bell



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 

'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.


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
of consonants
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,

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

'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

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.


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
'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.


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.







Harvard University


See also these pages:

Sheffield Universities
Cambridge University and Royal Holloway,
University of London


Israeli-Palestinian relations: the case for Israel

Profiles [more to be added]
Francis Clooney RC SJ, Harvard Divinity School: Intra Ecclesiam Nulla Sanitas
Matthew Potts, Harvard Divinity School
Giovanni Bazzana, Harvard Divinity School: Teach Yourself Papyrology

Harvard Catholic Center Chaplains:
George Salzmann, William Kelly, Patrick Fiorillo

Harvard Catholic Center, Boston Archdiocese
Harvard Catholic Forum: Dr Matthew Hall 

Opus DEI. Harvard University Press and Diversity, Equity, Inclusion. A modest proposal.

'Progressive' university staff and students: state and federal law and the death penalty.  Goering, Stalin and the death penalty.


Rochester Catholic Diocese: abuse and bankruptcy

Supplementary: other universities

University of Minnesota's Professor P Z Myers: not just a banning, blocking, censoring, DEI, part-time dilettante  

Background information on other pages


In this page, as in various other pages, including the ones already mentioned, I make use of profiles of people, usually academic staff, but never profiles of students. In the case of Harvard, there will be some general criticism of students -  some students, far more than a few but not a very large number. One notorious issue which is  discussed below:

I have a comprehensive page on Israeli-Palestinian relations  but on this page, in this column,  I include a concise defence of Israel and arguments and evidence which opponents of Israel, including defenders of Hamas - not all opponents of Israel are defenders of Israel, of course - can consult, if they want to, reject, if they want to, and argue against, if they want to, with evidence. I think that a response which takes the form of counter-arguments and counter-evidence is very, very unlikely. For the reputation of the university, if not for their own reputation, which is beyond saving, I think, the ignorant anti-Israel student demonstrators and their faculty supporters, could at least make an attempt to present their case honestly, although their understanding of honesty isn't one I would share.

Not long after the Hamas attack on Israel in October 2023, the Harvard Undergraduate Palestine Solidarity Committee released a statement stating that they 'hold the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence.' Originally, it was signed by many other Harvard student organizations, over 30 of them. The statement was condemned - rightly - by a range of individuals and organizations. Did Harvard University act as vigorously as it should have done? I'll be examining the issues.

This new section will provide a wide-ranging view of Harvard University, with comment on people in this place who have the mistaken and grotesque and horrific belief that Hamas is a force for good. But these people are not the majority. They belong to a a minority, but a minority which isn't insignificant in size, although insignificant in the validity of its views.  It will also include comment on very different groups, with the focus of attention upon individuals, in the profiles of the page, including theologians, some regurgitators of received opinion, people with striking strengths as well as flaws, as I see it. 

In this section, I'll be concentrating my attention on Israeli-Palestinian issues, DEI ('woke')  issues and theological issues. In my page on Cambridge University, I profiled many academics with DEI bias but many of the profiles are of theologians and chaplains.

Harvard too has theologians and chaplains. I argue - mainly in other pages of the site - that their beliefs and convictions are as outlandish as the beliefs and convictions of any DEI people. In past centuries, Christians have committed atrocious acts on a large scale again and again. Not so DEI people - but DEI beliefs are incompatible, generally, with the policies needed to protect free societies against the aggression of unfree societies. I give the detailed arguments and evidence needed to corroborate these claims in other pages of the site.

 The Harvard Divinity School has received  overwhelming praise, on the Website of Harvard Divinity School, https://hds.harvard.edu/ for its 'rigorous scholarship,' for offering 'Harvard's unparalleled educational resources.' 'Harvard University's Faculty of Divinity scholars and practitioners of ministry are 'among the most distinguished scholars of religion and practitioners of ministry in the world. ... experts in a wide range of disciplines and religious traditions,' performing 'vital, creative research.'

I, on the other hand, am just a single individual, with many, many competing demands on my time. Counter-evangelism is one activity among very many.

 A preliminary question: can Harvard Divinity School point to any actions it has taken - or any pronouncements it has issued - which are effectual rather than naive - to counteract the extremism to be found  in the student body and amongst  professors at Harvard? Have the faculty of the Divinity School any opinions worth listening to or reading concerning the cruelties of the Christian centuries? To name a few, the burning of Jews, the persecution of heretics, the suppression  of free thought? The pages of this site give many, many instances, with context, with recognition of complexities when necessary.

Below, the coat of arms of Harvard Divinity School. Some members of the school may interpret 'Veritas,' 'Truth' in theological terms - in the words of the carol, 'Now is the truth sent from above' and the words of the Gospel accounts. This version of truth I regard as debased.

In the case of the 'Seamus Heaney-Harvard connection' mentioned in the heading to the page, 'woke' / DEI issues and theological issues aren't involved. The issue was an error of judgment on the part of Harvard University. It was claimed that the poet Seamus Heaney was one of 'their' Nobel Laureates. The page


includes this:

Harvard's Nobel Laureates in Literature

Our Laureate

Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney was a tenured faculty member of Harvard University for years. He was Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory 1985 - 1997. (Before that, he was a visiting professor.'

If he was quite influential in matters to do with poetry at Harvard, it seems that he wasn't influential enough to influence the decision of the Harvard magazine to stop publishing poetry. From an article published January 12, 1996


'The magazine, Harvard’s alumni publication, has sent letters to its contributors saying that poetry is no longer “central to the Harvard experience,” and that its regular poetry page would be discontinued. It may occasionally publish a poem about Harvard.'

Seamus Heaney didn't give Harvard University his undivided attention. He was also an Honorary Fellow of Trinity College Dublin, a visiting lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley and Professor of Poetry at Oxford.  He had attended Queens University, Belfast and he went on to become a lecturer at Queens.

 It can't be claimed that Seamus Heaney was a 'Harvard University Nobel Prizewinner,' surely Seamus Heaney doesn't appear in the very comprehensive Wikipedia list of Nobel Laureates with university affiliations,


even though the criteria for affiliation are broad.

It would be reasonable to expect academics in departments of literature to examine thoroughly, in detail,  the works of poets, although expectations are very often disappointed. It would be reasonable to expect university literary critics to engage in literary criticism, not reputation management or the promotion of literary fashions.

 It wouldn't be reasonable to expect poets to benefit from an academic connection by writing better poetry. It can't be demonstrated that Seamus Heaney's academic connections, with Queens University, Harvard University, Trinity College Dublin, Oxford University or any other university benefitted his poetry. Poets are, or should be, poets first and foremost. Academic connections are, or should be, strictly subsidiary.

My view is that Seamus Heaney was an intermittently good poet and an energetic self-promoter, aided and abetted by uncritical critics / from time to time quite good critics such as Helen Vendler of Harvard University. I comment on Helen Vendler's very flawed work in the column to the left and in other pages of the site. These pages also include extracts from other critics, with comment. There's a great deal of incisive criticism of Seamus Heaney - not much of it from the Harvard direction, in particular, from Helen Vendler.

Universities have to promote themselves, have to further their own interests - amongst a range of other interests -  but not at the expense of academic values or wider human values. Is the work of Seamus Heaney  being examined, has it been examined,  in a scholarly way at Harvard? Using the term 'scholarly' in a very wide sense, to include much more than the examination of factual evidence and argument based on limited evidence. Attempts to inflate reputations, reluctance to examine reputations, reinforcement of received opinions aren't scholarly in the least.

Israeli-Palestinian relations: the case for Israel

This short account is a copy of the one in my page Advocacy for Israel, which also provides much more detailed argument and evidence.

Human values, humane values can sometimes only be safeguarded by harsh action, including harsh military action. This was the case during the Second World War, a conflict which was obviously more wide ranging by far. But the savagery displayed in the recent terrorist attack on Israel was as bad as any of the atrocities which took place during the Second World War. Allied forces defeated genocidal Nazi Germany not by displays of naive, utopian, superficial thinking but by tactical and strategic thinking which resulted in hard military action, including the use of bombardment.

 After D day, villages, towns and cities in France, Belgium and the Netherlands were liberated by British and other allied forces. Very often, they were liberated by military action which included bombing and artillery fire and very often with civilian casualties. For example, Caen in Normandy was liberated only after being heavily bombed. About 80% of the town was devastated and 3000 civilians were killed. Around 60,000 French civilians had been killed by allied bombing by the time France was liberated. To use only ground forces was out of the question. Nazi occupied Europe could never have been liberated in this way. Anyone who claims that allied forces were 'no better than Nazis' for frequent killing of civilians is failing to take into account Nazi killings of civilians, which belonged to a different order of reality - reprisal executions, the mass executions of the Einsatzgruppen and, of course, the Holocaust, the worst set of war crimes in human history.

In extreme circumstances, to overcome fanatical opposition, the armed forces of democratic states often have no alternative but to use extreme force – but not ‘extremist force,’ the methods used by fanatics. To use slight force would be to guarantee defeat. Although technological advances have vastly increased the precision of bombing, these cannot overcome all difficulties, for example those arising in very densely populated neighbourhoods such as Gaza.

A stark fact: the families of all the terrorists killed or injured in these horrific attacks in Israel will receive large cash payments from the Palestinian Authority, which calls them ‘Martyr payments.’ The families of Palestinian terrorists killed or injured whilst committing previous acts of terrorism already receive these payments, a reward for spreading death and destruction. ‘Martyr payments’ are also made to the families of terrorists imprisoned by Israel for politically motivated violence, often lethal violence.

Basem Naim, Head of Political and International Relations for Hamas, claimed in an interview not long after the attacks on Israeli civilians that none of the people taken hostage at the time by the terrorists (obviously, he never used the word ‘terrorists’) are civilians! According to this tainted source of information, the child hostages are not civilians and neither are the children killed! This is a claim that deserves to be treated with contempt and revulsion.

He also claimed that it was an absolute necessity to attack Israel. The alternative, he said, would be ‘to die silently by malnutrition.’ Later in the interview, he claimed a Palestinian malnutrition rate of 55% He intended to present a deeply distressing picture of starving Palestinians, deprived of food by the Israelis, but he surely knew that the Palestinian malnutrition problem is obesity, not starvation. There have been a number of studies. A study of 2019 found that among adults 18 years and older, 64% of males and 69.5% of females in the Palestinian territories were overweight. Hamas has a record of using distortion, exaggeration, selectivity, general falsification, often taking grotesque forms - tactics which appeal to credulous people.

Badly needed: a deeper and wider understanding of the Palestinian society which gives such widespread support to Hamas. A clear sighted, fair-minded and comprehensive view of Palestinian society should amongst other things take into account information such as  findings of the Pew Research Center. A few examples: stoning to death for adultery may not be practised in the Palestinian territories but 84% of Palestinians support the punishment. The conviction that a woman must always obey her husband is widely held, with 87% support in the Palestinian territories.

Homosexuality is still illegal in Gaza, although not in the West Bank. Homosexuality isn’t illegal in Israel, of course. The Gay scene in Israel is a very flourishing one. The Tel Aviv Gay Pride event is one of the largest in the world. As for Iran, the supporter of Hamas, this is a country in the grip of a horrific regime. Homosexuality, blasphemy, adultery and political dissidence are amongst the many offences which can be punished with the death penalty.

The findings of the Pew Research Center, a reputable polling organization, date from ten years ago. Palestinian society may have changed a great deal since then but I don’t know of any evidence that it’s been transformed, that it has become in any way a liberal, tolerant and open society. A society which is liberal, tolerant and open has to have a whole range of other strengths. Essential: alertness to forces that can damage it very severely, perhaps irreparably. A society has to be willing and able to defend itself or risk being damaged or destroyed by ruthless outside forces - with the exception of states which rely upon other states for their defence, generally mistakenly, but not in the case of very small states such as San Marino.

If, hypothetically, Palestinians were granted a state, is it likely that their relations with their neighbour Israel would be harmonious? If, hypothetically, Israel were ever to be wiped out, the new state would be very vulnerable. Its survival could never be guaranteed. It could easily be invaded by a powerful and ruthless adversary that would like to take its territory. As it is, superior Israeli military power guarantees the security of the Palestinian territories, just as the neutral Republic of Ireland was protected against German invasion by the military power of Britain and its allies during the Second World War. The protection against potential aggressors provided by Israel's superior power is a massive advantage for the Palestinians.

The practical problems now confronting Hamas were avoidable but Hamas chose not to avoid them. Hamas has the responsibility of solving , or attempting to solve, the problems it has created In fact, the problems can only be solved if Hamas is eliminated. Democratic states and organizations should do nothing which helps to save Hamas, directly or indirectly. There are many, many countries in the world facing acute problems to do with basic needs. It’s impossible to give effective help to all of them. The basic economic problem is the problem of scarcity: unlimited wants and finite resources.

Why should Hamas-conrolled Gaza be regarded as not just a deserving cause but a deserving cause which should have absolute priority? Israel and Ukraine deserve the support of the free world, not so Hamas-controlled Gaza. The international community's contribution to the reconstruction of Gaza should only be offered under the most stringent conditions..

Hamas is a basket case and has ruined Gaza, with the support of far too many Palestinians. But in general, they don't deserve a regime as bad as Hamas. The 'they' is a generalization, of course, There are deserving and undeserving Palestinians. 

If, with the aid of the horrific Iranian regime (which sentenced 51 people to be stoned to death for adultery in 2022), Palestinians in Gaza (which, incidentally, punishes homosexuality with imprisonment for up to ten years) had been able to amass a formidable force of multirole combat aircraft, then there can't be the least doubt that they would have done everything in their power to use them for the destruction of Israeli hospitals, homes and schools, as well as Israeli Defence Force positions, without the least concern for 'International Law.'. They have been able, with the aid of the horrific Iranian regime, to equip themselves with rockets and they have used them to attack Israeli civilians on many occasions in previous years and now on a much bigger scale.

The damage from Israeli counter-attacks against Gaza after these previous rocket attacks should have taught Hamas this simple lesson. If you don't want war damage in Gaza and want to protect civilians in Gaza, stop firing rockets and stop breaking ceasefires. But Hamas are very slow learners. I've no expertise in ballistics so I don't comment on the claims and counter-claims regarding the hospital in Gaza, but the claims made by Hamas aren't supported in the least by the expert opinion I've seen, including their clams of the number of casualties. Outrage in connection with the claim that Israel was responsible seems to be unaccompanied by concern for the men, women, children and babies held hostage in Gaza and those massacred in Israel.

If it wanted to, Iran, a big country, could aid the Palestinians not just by providing them with supplies but by offering them some Iranian territory for a new Palestinian homeland. Would the Palestinians be glad to go there, to live in a place free of Israeli influence? I doubt it. If the barbarity of Hamas (and the Iranian regime) is obvious to anyone with any sense, the stupidity of Hamas (and the Iranian regime) should be obvious to anyone with any sense too.


Francis X Clooney SJ, Harvard Divinity School: intra ecclesiam nulla sanitas

This is simply a suggestion, perhaps Francis X Clooney of the Roman Catholic Society of Jesus should have spent less time - far less time - on such issues as the ones mentioned on the page


His primary areas of Indological scholarship are theological commentarial writings in the Sanskrit and Tamil traditions of Hindu India. He is also a leading figure globally in the developing field of comparative theology, a discipline distinguished by attentiveness to the dynamics of theological learning deepened through the study of traditions other than one’s own. He has also written on the Jesuit missionary tradition, particularly in India, on the early Jesuit pan-Asian discourse on reincarnation, and on the dynamics of dialogue and interreligious learning in the contemporary world.

- and far more on the wide-ranging problems which afflict the Roman Catholic Church. Here, I concentrate attention on one problem, but a hideous one, the Roman Catholic Church's problem with abuse but I mention briefly problems to do with belief. In this section, I don't need to elaborate, to give much detail. Other pages of the site on Christian religion provide much more evidence.

Has God, the God he believes in, a being I don't believe in and don't acknowledge, been guiding the Roman Catholic Church, guiding its formulation of  doctrine, adding to its doctrine, for example, by new doctrine concerning the Virgin Mary. Is it still true that 'extra eccesiam nulla salus?' 'Outside the Church - the Roman Catholic Church - no salvation?' The Roman Catholic Church still teaches that during the Mass, the bread and wine become the body and blood of Jesus - not symbolically but actually the body and blood of Jesus - transubstantiation.

The views of anti-Israel activists and others - including the atheist P Z Myers, who has a profile below - would rapidly lead to the invasion of Israel and the annihilation of the Jews who live in Israel, if Israel were to be denied the means to defend itself. But that won't be happening. The recent incursion into Israel was accompanied by savagery on a large scale, but on nothing like the scale of the Nazi holocaust, of course. Somewhere between these two, in terms of scale, is the persecution of the Jews by the Roman Catholic and Protestant Churches.

The Wikipedia page


gives information about the bleak condition of Roman Catholic belief which blighted Ireland. Seamus Heaney never challenged this situation. None of his poetry treats Roman Catholicism as anything other than an institution embedded in Irish society, particularly rural Irish society. An extract from the page:

The accepted norm in the Irish Church was that its priesthood was celibate and chaste, and homosexuality was both a sin and a crime.The Church forbade its members (the "faithful") to use artificial contraception, campaigned strongly against laws allowing abortion and divorce, and publicly disapproved of unmarried cohabiting couples and illegitimacy.

Does Francis Clooney accept these beliefs, or does he accept the dramatically different secular view?

How does he explain the frequency of abuse in the Roman Catholic Church? Do the cases of abuse - and there are massive numbers of these - influence his view of Catholic teaching, not just the reputation of the Church? 'Reputation management' and doctrinal beliefs belong to separate areas.

More on abuse in the Catholic Church, first in this country - the statement has relevance to other countries - then in the United States and then in Ireland.

A quotation provided in my page Abuse, safeguarding, faith: the Churches and their failures, not in the least a comprehensive account of the issues.

From the report of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, 2022:

'Throughout this investigation, we heard appalling accounts of child sexual abuse perpetrated by clergy and those associated with the Roman Catholic Church. The abuse covers a spectrum of sexual offending including acts of masturbation, oral sex, vaginal rape and anal rape, accompanied on occasions by beatings and other acts of violence. There have been many hundreds of victims and complainants over many decades.'

The Wikipedia page Catholic Church sexual abuse cases includes

' ... revelations about decades of instances of abuse and attempts by Church officials to cover them up.The abused include mostly boys but also girls, some as young as three years old, with the majority between the ages of 11 and 14.

In 2002, an investigation by The Boston Globe,  which later inspired the film Spotlight.

... it was not until the 1980s that discussion of sexual abuse by Roman Catholic clerics began to be covered as a phenomenon in the news media of the United States. 

In 2002, The Boston Globe's Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of sexual abuse cases involving Catholic priests drew the attention, first of the United States and ultimately the world, to the problem.Other victims began to come forward with their own allegations of abuse, resulting in more lawsuits and criminal cases. Since then, the problem of clerical abuse of minors has received significantly more attention from the Church hierarchy, law enforcement agencies, government and the news media. One study shows that the Boston Globe coverage of the cases "had a negative and long-lasting effect" on Catholic school enrollment, and explained "about two-thirds of the decline in Catholic schooling.

From the Wikipedia page


In response to the furore aroused by the media reports, the Irish government commissioned a study which took nine years to complete. On 20 May 2009, the commission released its 2600-page report,which drew on testimony from thousands of former inmates and officials from more than 250 church-run institutions. The commission found that Catholic priests and nuns had terrorised thousands of boys and girls for decades and that government inspectors had failed to stop the chronic beatings, rapes and humiliation. The report characterised rape and molestation  as "endemic" in Irish Catholic church-run Industrial Schools and orphanages.

 In November 2009, an independent report commissioned by the Irish government investigated the way in which the church dealt with allegations of sexual abuse of children by priests over the period 1975 to 2004. It concluded that "the Dublin Archdiocese's pre-occupations in dealing with cases of child sexual abuse, at least until the mid-1990s, were the maintenance of secrecy, the avoidance of scandal, the protection of the reputation of the Church, and the preservation of its assets. All other considerations, including the welfare of children and justice for victims, were subordinated to these priorities. The Archdiocese did not implement its own canon law rules and did its best to avoid any application of the law of the State."

The case against the Society of Jesus is too wide-ranging by far to be addressed adequately here,  as in the case of indictments concerning abuse in the Church and the beliefs of the Church. I'll simply mention one aspect of one issue of one wider issue, the record of the Jesuits in North America, the record of their dealings with native North Amercians, one group of native North Americans. From the Wikipedia page


The concept of going to Hell if one did not convert to Catholicism and the idea that Native practices were evil was a method which the Jesuits used in order to get the Natives to convert. French Jesuit Father Paul Le Jeune, who arrived on Iroquois land in 1632, was one such priest who used this fear tactic. He believed that little by little the Natives would give up their “evil customs.” When Spanish Jesuit Juan Rogel was evangelizing to the Native Florida cacique, or king, in 1565, he told the cacique that the Natives' belief that their ancestors saw God at the time of burials was invalid and that their ancestors actually saw the Devil.In 1600, in the Acaxee territory within Sinoloa, Mexico, Jesuit Father Alonso Santaren, alongside Captain Diego de Avila, used physical punishment and in at least one case, execution, to root out the practices that they believed allowed Satan to maintain a hold on the Indian mind.

Has the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church changed out of all recognition since then? Does the Roman Catholic Church now believe that the groups with which Francis Clooney has been in dialogue, such as Hindus, are in no danger of going to Hell, that there has been a fundamental change in the nature of the Roman Catholic God, who is now a very tolerant God, not the God in whose name heretics were forcibly converted and burned at the stake? What does Francis Cooley believe? In my experience, believers are often very reluctant to state their beliefs. Francis Cooley doesn't stand alone. He has a massive belief network to support him - fellow Jesuits and the wider Catholic Church. Surely he can manage to answer objections to his views and the views of his co-religionists? Or perhaps not.

Matthew Potts, Harvard Divinity School

This is a largely favourable profile, simply because I concentrate on one issue, a very important issue. I regard Christian belief as beyond hope, beyond saving, including the central belief - not held by all Christians, of course - that those who don't accept Jesus as Lord and Saviour will spend eternity in separation from Jesus.

As a matter of strict fact, many, many people with have this belief have been impressive, very impressive, exemplary people. They have held the belief that impressive, very impressive, exemplary people without their belief will spend eternity in separation from Jesus. Christians and non-Christians showed commitment, determination in the allied armed forces during the Second World War and other conflicts and very often enormous courage, often repeated courage.

Now, the threats facing domocracies are very, very serious ones, arising from Putin's Russia, Iran, terrorist organizations in the Middle East and other parts of the world.

There's a huge difference between the mistaken beliefs of Christians and the mistaken beliefs of DEI ideologists, as I see it. The DEI ideologists have turned their back on the realities to do with defence against the aggression of rogue states and terrorists. They are likely to view the United States army, navy and air force as aggressors which are just as bad - a stupid view. People who think differently and do see a need for honour, duty, service should be respected and admired, except when outweighed by other circumstances.

Matthew Potter was an officer in the United States navy and for that he should be commended.

Information from the page


Matthew Ichihashi Potts, MDiv '08, PhD '13, was appointed the Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church and the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals in 2021. Matt has served on the faculty at Harvard Divinity School since 2013, and has focused his teaching on sacramental and moral theology, ministry and pastoral theology, religion and literature, and preaching ... He served as both an officer in the United States Navy and as a college administrator before being ordained a priest in the Episcopal Church. 

Giovanni Bazzana: Teach Yourself Papyrology

Giovanni Bazzana is Frothingham Professor of the History of Religion and Professor of New Testament and Early Christian Studies at Harvard Divinity School.

The profile of Professor Bazzana on the Harvard Divinity School site can not just serve as the basis for the profile here - I think a minimum of effort is needed to show that his theological interests are irrelevant to present-day concerns, crises - important and legitimate concerns, real and massive crises - and that his theological interests are unimportant. From the Harvard Divinity School profile:

Bazzana’s writing is centered on gospels and apocalypses (both those who became canonical and those that were ultimately excluded from the canon). The research on these texts is conducted in constant reference to the broader social, political, and economic developments that impacted the Mediterranean world between the Hellenistic period and Late Antiquity. [These aren't irrelevant but only some aspects have any real relevance]. Ultimately, any study of the past originates from interests and passions of the present. [Not so: the marginal interests and passions of some people may lead them to study the obscure issues which preoccupy Professor Bazzana. In this site, I often examine thoroughly  and in detail wide-ranging contemporary issues. In some cases, I refer to antiquity as in the case of the Roman gladiatorial games and Greek and Roman slavery, but to suppose that there are close, important linkages between ancient and modern in a very wide range of matters is simply untrue.] Thus, Bazzana’s work does not strive only to interrogate ancient texts and practices in order to address current issues, but it is mindful of the ways in which our understanding and even imaginations of antiquity are profoundly shaped by present concerns. [Present concerns make the study of obscure non-canonical materials irrelevant, except to specialists. By spending so much time attending to these materials, the specialists necessarily neglect materials which really are important. The specialists are generally forced to be dilettantes outside their own field.]

Bazzana has a secondary interest in papyrology, which is reflected in his first book, Kingdom of Bureaucracy: The Political Theology of Village Scribes in the Sayings Gospel Q, 2015. Papyrology discloses a wealth of largely neglected evidence on the early history of the Christ movement and of Christianity, ranging from the origins of Christian books to crucial information on the socio-economic location and practices of the earliest groups of followers of and believers in Christ. [The study of papyrology is of no help at all in understanding issues of contemporary war and peace. The subjects which are illuminated by a study of papyrology are few and far between. Can Professor Bazzana point to documents written by papyrologists which play an important and significant role in the understanding of these contemporary issues? Anyone with an interest in papyrology would be best advised, perhaps, to teach themselves papyrology rather than study it at a university.]

Bazzana’s latest book, Having the Spirit of Christ: Spirit Possession and Exorcism in the Early Christ Groups (Yale 2020), starts form the observation that the earliest Christian writings are filled with stories of possession and exorcism, which were crucial for the activity of the historical Jesus and for the practice of the earliest groups of his followers. Most critical scholarship, however, regularly marginalizes these topics or discards them altogether in reconstructing early history of the Christ groups. [There are potential dangers, dangers which are not minor, if people act in accordance with these 'stories of possession and exorcism.' In various places on the site, I discuss the harmful effects of the New Testament texts on demons and demonic possession.]

Having the Spirit of Christ approaches the study of possession from a different methodological angle by using a comparative lens that includes contemporary ethnographies of possession cross-culturally. Possession, besides being a harmful event that should be exorcized, can also have a positive role in many cultures. Often it helps individuals and groups to reflect on and reshape their identity, to plan their moral actions, and to remember in a most vivid way their past. When read in light of these materials, these ancient documents reveal the religious, cultural, and social meaning that the experience of possession had for the early Christ groups. [Does he attempt to give alternative explanations for possession, the forms he claims to be beneficial as well as the harmful forms - explanations in terms of psychology, explanations which take in to account manipulation of people?]

Bazzana is currently pursuing two long-term research projects. The first one is focused on apocalyptic literature broadly conceived and the influence of its ancient motifs and ideas on contemporary popular culture, political discourses, and art. The persistence and success of apocalyptic imagination is particularly evident in current events and invites one to reflect on themes such as the ethics of resilience in the time of the end or the ambiguous value of catastrophic prophecy in a world facing the existential threat of climate change. ['The time of the end' has linkages, presumably, with the second coming of Jesus, predicted in New Testament documents and expected in the lifetime of the hearers, but which failed to occur.' This is not a fruitful line of research at all.]

Bazzana’s other project deals with the economic thought and practices of early Christian groups. Most scholarship on these themes in New Testament books has traditionally repeated the tropes of ethical exhortation to the “good use” of wealth. However, it seems that time is ripe for a more apt historical appreciation grounded on the evidence provided by papyrological sources, the theoretical paradigms elaborated by scholars of the ancient economy, and a renewed interest in critical political economy. This may generate not only a more adequate historical knowledge, but also more effective tools to face the serious ethical and socio-political challenges of late capitalism. [The 'serious ethical and socio-political challenges of late capitalism' will not be solved by 'historical appreciation grounded on the evidence provided by papyrological sources' and it is surely ridiculous to suppose otherwise.]

Any student who has spent a great deal of time preoccupied with such issues as these, in the ways suggestedf by Professor Bazzana, has wasted his or her time. The time should have been spent on issues which are vastly more important. A degree based on these and similar studies is effectively worthless. When this section is revised, I'll be able to present the evidence.

Harvard Catholic Center: Chaplains
George S. Salzmann OSFS, William T. Kelly, Patrick J. Fiorillo

These chaplains are listed on the page https://www.harvardcatholic.org/staff

George Salzmann is the Graduate Chaplain, William Kelly is the Senior Chaplain and Pastor. Patrick Fiorillo is the Undergraduate Chaplain

The academic record of George Salzmann is very impressive. The profile on the page of the Harvard Catholic Center includes this,

'Although he began graduate school at Yale in molecular biophysics, Fr. George completed the Ph.D. at Harvard Medical School in biochemistry, during which time he was in residence at St. Paul’s ... After a brief period of research in early mammalian development at Hoffman-la Roche in northern New Jersey, he was appointed Visiting Fellow in Molecular Biology at Princeton University, where he worked on the tumor suppressor gene, p53 ... '

This academic record is almost completely irrelevant to his work as a chaplain. The case against his work is almost identical with the case against the other two, William Kelly and Patrick Fiorillo. The material concerning objections to Roman Catholic belief on this page is found in different sections of the page but the material in any of the sections is completely relevant to the others. In the profile of the Harvard Catholic Center there's material on the Roman Catholic Church's dealings with the Jews and material on the doctrine of transubstantiation. In this section, there's material on another sacrament, baptism and brief material on pastoral work, obviously relevant to the work of a chaplain. The material has to be supplemented with the more extensive material to be found in other pages of the site.

The page Church donations   includes, in the column on the right of the page, material presented in a graphic and uncompromising form. It gives argument and evidence as to why it's mistaken to give money to the Church. I obviously advocate withholding money from the Roman Catholic Church, and make it clear why I view the church as a completely undeserving cause, but one which has accumulated vast resources of money and property - and an institution in steep decline.

My page on Christian religion is another general page with material which is largely relevant to the Roman Catholic Church. There are differences to be taken into account, in particular, differences to do with doctrites of redemption. It has a preminent section on Christianity and slavery.

Dr Salzmann's distinction as a scientist, or former scientist, offers no support at all to the doctrines and dogmas he believes. Dr Salzmann has achievement in science to his credit but scientific achievement - including achievement at the highest level - has been made by scientists with a very wide range of personal beliefs, and far more often by non-believers than by Catholics. To suppose otherwise, to suppose that a Catholic's achievement in science offers any support whatsoever to Catholicism, is to make an elementary mistake. In this field, as in so many others


'He wrote many works that would now be classified as occult studies,   and he wrote religious tracts that dealt with the literal interpretation of the Bible.   He kept his heretical beliefs private ...  by his thirties Newton held a Christian faith   that, had it been made public, would not have been considered orthodox by mainstream Christians. Scholars now consider him a Nontrinitarian Arian.'

Below, diagrammatic representation of the Trinity:

Does Dr Salzmann believe in a God who subjects one of the greatest of all scientists to damnation because of heretical beliefs? Does he believe that the many, many great scientists with no belief in God at all are sentenced to damnation by the God he believes in? Perhaps Dr Salzmann could outline his views - or perhaps not. I see no reason to spare him embarrassment, or his fellow chaplains, for that matter.

From a humanist site, the entry on Francis Crick:

Francis Crick, with James Watson, discovered the double-helix structure of D NA in 1953. It became one of the most influential discoveries of our time – providing an explanation for the mechanism of genetic inheritance, and the basis of biotechnology, gene therapy and the forensic uses of DNA .

Crick lost his religious faith as a boy: “I realised early on that it is detailed scientific knowledge which makes certain religious beliefs untenable,” he said. His atheism was a strong influence on his life and career.

In 1960 Crick accepted a fellowship at Churchill College, Cambridge on condition that no chapel was built in the college ...

James Watson is an atheist too.

For more than 400 years, well into the twentieth century, the Roman Catholic Index Librorum Prohibitorum (Index of Forbidden Books) was a list of publications held to be heretical or contrary to morality. The changing list included scientific works, including works by Galileo, Descartes, Pascal and Copernicus. An edict of 1940 made it clear that all the works on the index at the time were banned without exception.

Science and religion are far from being incommensurable. The gulf between scientific theory and practice, an immense achievement, and the shambles of Catholic doctrine is immense.

How do these chaplains explain baptism to parents? If they feel no embarrassment, they should.

The history of Roman Catholic doctrine is to a significant extent a history of retreats from doctrinal positions which were once regarded as certain, impregnable. The truth is that they took no account of realities. The indissolubility of marriage, the impossibility of divorce, took no account of marriage entered into by vulnerable people, people without the maturity to realize that they were mistaken. Do George Salzmann, William Kelly and Patrick Fiorillo make it clear to the young people and the others they advise that contraception is out of the question, that the only methods which don't amount to a grave sin are natural - and ineffectual - methods?

The Roman Catholic Church can claim to make progress, to move on - but only after a long period, a period often amounting to centuries, of damage, lives ruined, sometimes lives ended, sometimes lives ended when the victims were burned alive.

The Sacrament of Baptism has been developed and 'refined' to leave behind some of the stupidities, but some of the stupidities are far more than that - despicable cruelties. An example, the 'teaching' of 'St' Augustine (Augustine of Hippo) that the unbaptized cannot be saved - that unbaptized babies cannot be saved. The  'teaching' can be found in Augustine's 'A Sermon to Catechumens on the Creed, Paragraph 16.

The 'teaching' of the Roman Catholic Church on the liquids which are valid and invalid for performing the sacrament are stupid rather than vile. What do the Chaplains make of this?|

The code of canon law explains that "true, clean, and natural water" is necessary for baptism (canon 849). Liquids can be assessed in three categories: Those that are certainly valid, those that are doubtfully valid, and those that are certainly invalid. Certainly valid liquids include water as found in rivers, oceans, lakes, hot springs, melted ice or snow, mineral water, dew, slightly muddy water (as long as the water predominates), and slightly brackish water. 'Doubtfully valid liquids are those that are a mixture of water and some other substance, such as beer, soda, light tea, thin soup or broth, and artificially scented water such as rose water.The last category is of liquids which are certainly invalid. It includes oil, urine, grease, phlegm, shoe polish, and milk. 'The rule of thumb is that, in emergency situations, you should always try to baptize with certainly valid liquids, beginning with plain, clean water. If plain water isn't available, baptize with a doubtfully valid liquid using the formula, "If this water is valid, I baptize you in the name of the Father . . ." ... Never attempt to baptize anyone with a certainly invalid liquid.'   So, in an emergency, baptizing a baby with beer or thin soup (but not thick soup) will be adequate or more than adequate, providing the priest says 'I baptize you in the name of the Father ... ' But attempts to baptize a baby with shoe polish won't work, even if the priest says 'I baptize you in the name of the Father ... ' Canon law makes this absolutely clear.

Chaplains have to do far more than explain Catholic doctrine, of course. Are Catholic chaplains a force for good in their communities or an irrelevance and ineffectual?

What did these chaplains do in the aftermath of the disastrous publicity which Harvard University received before and after the resignation of its President. Have the Chaplains done anything of any consequence to aid Jewish students at Harvard or do they view the plight of Jewish students as an irrelevance. Is their interest confined to Catholic staff and students and Catholics beyond the university? Do they have any comment to make on the charge of Deicide, which was made against Jews over a period of centuries? This is yet another relic of the past which should not be overlooked or forgotten, just because the Church has moved on.

From the article, 'Jewish deicide,'


The accusation that the Jews were Christ-killers fed Christian antisemitism  and spurred on acts of violence against Jews such as pogroms, massacres of Jews during the Crusades, expulsions of the Jews from England, France, Spain, Portugal  and other places, and torture during the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions.

Catholic chaplains are surely not the best people - not suitable people - to attempt to defuse tensions in cases which involve Jews, Palestinians, accusations of genocide (supported by evidence or unsupported by evidence), Hamas, terrorism. The church is a deeply compromised institution which still, unsupported by evidence, claims to be a source of truth, a guide to conduct, with an inescapable history of gross cruelty and ignorance.

I repeat: money donated to the Church is money wasted.

Harvard Catholic Center and the Boston Archdiocese

The Harvard Catholic Centre is part of the Archdiocese of Boston College Campus Ministry. The Director of the Campus Ministry is the priest Eric Cadin. The Archbishop of Boston is Seán Patrick O'Malley. He succeeded Bernard Francis Law as Archbishop, who had comprehensively failed to take effective action against sexual abuse in the Archdiocese. There's information about the abuse scandal below. The profile of Francis Clooney S.J. includes some background material on other sexual abuse cases in the Roman Catholic Church. The supplementary material on Rochester NY Catholic Diocese is about cases of sexual abuse in the diocese which led to the bankruptcy of the diocese

The criticisms in this section are relevant in general or to a certain extent to  Harvard Catholic Forum, the Boston Archdiocese and, of course, the wider Roman Catholic Church.

Above, Jews being burned alive under the auspices of the Roman Catholic Church

Above, German woodcut, c. 1480: the alleged desecration of the Host in Passau, Bavaria, 1478. The pictures which make up the woodcut aren't numbered above but the numbered episodes here can easily be matched up with the pictures. The descriptions are extracts from a book in the series, 'A Popular History of Jewish Civilization,' the volume, 'Germany.' The very concise material in square brackets is my own. The account presents the events without qualification - in many cases, 'allegedly' has to be understood. The claims and accusations are generally false.

1. Christoff Eisengreisshamer, a Christian, steals  eight consecrated wafers from St Mary's Church.
2. He sells them, for one gulden, to the Jews, who are identified by their circular badge. [The Nazis used a different identification, of course, the Star of David.]
3. The Jews take the Host to the synagogue.
4.In reenactment of the crucifixion they stab the wafers, out of which blood flows. [These are 'facts,' non-facts which were obtained by means of torture.]
5. They send some of the wafers to Prague and Salzburg.
6. When they try to the remaining wafers, in which the face of a child appears, two angels and two doves fly out of the oven. [There is superstition and delusion without extreme consequences and superstition and delusion with horrific consequences, as in this case.]
7. The Passau Jews are arrested.
8. Two are beheaded.
9. Others are tortured and then burnt.
10. All the Jews who knew of the desecration are burned to death.
11. Christoff is torn to pieces with glowing pincers. [A form of torture and execution which was common in Roman Catholic jurisdictions for a long period of time.]
12. The synagogue is converted into a church.

Above, painting 'Pogrom de Strasbourg 1349' by Emile Schweitzer. About 2,000 Jews were burned alive on a platform in the city.  Protection had been offered to them by Pope Clement VI but in this time of the Black Death, the Jews were accused of plotting against Christians and poistoning water sources. The people in the grip of mass hysteria, the people who demanded that the Jews should be executed and the people who carriod out the burning, it can safely be assumed, were orthodox Roman Catholic believers. Prejudice against Jews  - and extreme action based upon prejudice - has been fostered by the accusation of 'deicide,' the view that Jews are collectively responsible for the killing of Jesus, believed to be God as well as man. It took a very long time for the Roman Catholic Church to repudiate this view - the 1960's, when the Second Vatican Council issued 'Nostra Aetate.'

The Roman poet Lucretius:

'Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum.' ('De Rerum Natura,' 'On the Nature of Things,' Book 1, 101.) 'So much evil could religion bring.'

The Website of Harvard Catholic Center
includes an image of a priest lifting up what is either bread and a glass of wine or the actual body of Christ and a glass containing the actual blood of Christ. The wafer of bread / the body of Christ has a very long history in Roman Catholic doctrine, bitterly opposed by Reformers and like-minded Christians in later centuries, who have opposed the doctrine of transubstantiation. The doctrine has also led to gruesome torture and execution of Jews, as in the case in Passau and other places.  Above, I provide information about one notorious case.

A contemporary dilemma which is far more than a 'dilemma' for anyone who suffers from coeliac disease. Coeliacs must eat no foods containing gluten at all, including, of course, bread made with wheat flour. The Roman Catholic Church forbids the use of gluten-free bread, which it claims will not allow the performance of the 'miracle' of transubstantiation. Other churches allow the use of gluten-free bread.

The site 'Catholic Answers'


gives this information - but no information of the least use to people with coeliac disease.

The doctrine of transubstantiation states that the substantial reality of bread changes into the substantial reality of Jesus (body, blood, soul, and divinity). In other words, the whatness of bread changes into Jesus. What is bread before the words of consecration is Jesus afterward.

Highly processed, mass-manufactured supermarket bread is valid - by the 'miracle' of transubstantiation it becomes, according to this grotesque set of beliefs, the body of Jesus.

So much the worse for the doctrine of transubstantiation. The alleged divine masterplan of revelation took no account of such practical difficulties as gluten intolerance, or the practical difficulty that future priests  might well need to avoid alcohol or prefer to avoid alcohol. Roman Catholic believers aren't offered wine, but are in the Anglican and Episcopalian churches.


The Roman Catholic Church will not allow its congregations to be given gluten-free wafers (called hosts), or bread, for celebrating the Eucharist during Mass, according to its latest directive at the behest of Pope Francis.


Below,  I outline some other events in the Roman Catholic's long history of persecution of the Jews and the long history of Roman Catholic antisemitism, with full awareness, obviously, that the situation has changed out of all recognition in the Church, even if it retains its poisonous influence remains in some places, in fact, in many places.

 I also outline my views on the failure of the church, in general, to offer effective help to Jewish students at universities. As I see it, the Church has failed, just as it failed for the most part in a vastly more extensive case, the anti-semitism of the Third Reich, the Holocaust. Far too many Roman Catholics failed, just as so many Protestants failed, and far too many people with no Christian faith failed.

The Boston Sex Abuse Scandal. An extract from the Wikipedia entry for Bernard Francis Law, the previous Archbishop of Boston:

Law was proven to have ignored or concealed the molestation of numerous underage children;Church documents demonstrate that he had extensive knowledge concerning widespread child sexual abuse committed by dozens of Catholic priests within his archdiocese over a period of almost two decades, and that he failed to report these crimes to the authorities, instead merely transferring the accused priests between parishes.  One priest in Law's archdiocese, John Geoghan, raped or molested  more than 130 children in six different parishes in a career which spanned 30 years. Law was widely denounced for his handling of the sexual abuse cases, and outside the church his public image was irreparably tarnished in the aftermath of the scandal.

The article makes no comment on whether or not his reputation was irreparably tarnished inside the church.

Two years after Law resigned from his position in Boston, an act which Bishop William S. Skylstad called "an important step in the healing process", Pope John Paul II appointed him Archpriest  of the Basicica di Santa Maria Maggiore   in Rome ...


gives a much longer account, with information about many more cases.

Harvard Catholic Forum: Dr Matthew Hall

See also the section

Rochester Catholic Diocese: abuse and bankruptcy

Dr Hall holds various positions. One of them is as Associate Director of Cornell Catholic Community. Cornell University is in the Rochester Catholic Diocese.

The criticisms in this section are relevant in general or to a certain extent to  Harvard Catholic Center, the Boston Archdiocese, the Rochester Diocese and, of course, the wider Roman Catholic Church.

From the Harvard Catholic Forum Website:

The Harvard Catholic Forum seeks to share the riches of Catholic thought and culture with the academic, professional, and artistic worlds of Cambridge, Boston, and beyond.'

But can the Harvard Catholic Forum defend its views, can it defend the doctrines it supports against objections based on argument and evidence? It has vastly more resources available to it than I have, in numbers of people, not just the members of Harvard Catholic Forum, of course, but the massive resources of the wider Church - and other advantages too, of course, vastly more financial resources than the ones available to me, which are close to non-existent, vastly greater access to the media, so many opportunities I don't possess. Similarly for the other organizations I discuss, non-Catholic and non-Christian organizations as well as Catholic, and the individuals I discuss.

The Forum's Website page 'Our People'


gives a list which includes

Deacon Tim O' Donnell (Executive Director)
Shani Agarwal (Program Director)
Douglas H. Zack (Director of Advancement)
Emily Theisen (Director of Marketing and Media)

A Music Director, Harvard Catholic Schola at St. Paul's and an Area Advisor - Sacred Music are also listed. if there seems to be a shortage of people with skills in the demanding (to be more accurate: hopeless) task of defending Roman Catholic belief and doctrine against informed criticism, the Forum can call upon the vast resources of the Roman Catholic Church, of course. And the Forum has Matthew Hall, the 'Area Advisor - Sacred Music.'  He's also a staff member of Ithaca College.


The page lists this opinion of his:

I love discussing the beauty and depth of Catholic theology, especially as it is expressed in the sacred liturgy: the coherence, breadth, and comprehensiveness of Catholic teaching are reflections of God's own perfect beauty.

The page also gives this information:

I oversee the community's spiritual formation, liturgical life, and sacramental preparation.

This seems a big claim to make, although 'overseeing' may not be too demanding, far less demanding than making an effective contribution, for instance.

Also mentioned, 'individual pastoral counseling' and Bible study. I do provide many examples of Bible criticism in the pages of the site. I'll just mention one instance here. In the page Church donations  (which gives reasons for not donating to Churches, whether Protestant or Catholic, for withholding money from Churches), I quote this, from Psalm 137:

'Babylon, you will be destroyed.
Happy are those who pay you back
for what you have done to us-

who take your babies
and smash them against a rock.

Of course, a variety of evasive techniques are available in Biblical exegesis, such as taking an embarrassing passage to have a symbolic meaning. Christian believers have so much invested in the Christian belief system that they can readily overlook issues which call for a far more serious approach.

I provide far less material on theologians, Protestant and Catholic, than on Biblical matters and Jesus himself. I've had to neglect, in large part, a whole massive dimension of Christian belief. I do discuss Augustine (Augustine of Hippo, that is), who taught that unbaptized babies go to Hell. What does Matthew Hall think of that? I'm not likely to find out.

In his Letter to Jerome, Augustine wrote,

Likewise, whosoever says that those children who depart out of this life without partaking of that sacrament shall be made alive in Christ, certainly contradicts the apostolic declaration, and condemns the universal Church, in which it is the practice to lose no time and run in haste to administer baptism to infant children, because it is believed, as an indubitable truth, that otherwise they cannot be made alive in Christ. Now he that is not made alive in Christ must necessarily remain under the condemnation, of which the apostle says, that "by the offense of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation."That infants are born under the guilt of this offense is believed by the whole Church.

In 'Against Julian,' however, Augustine said of non-baptized infants, 'I cannot define the amount and kind of their punishment.'

In 2007, the International Theological Commission of the Roman Catholic Church  published 'The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die without Being Baptised,'  which contained this:

'Our conclusion is that the many factors that we have considered above give serious theological and liturgical grounds for hope that unbaptised infants who die will be saved and enjoy the Beatific Vision.  We emphasise that these are reasons for prayerful hope, rather than grounds for sure knowledge.'

To give some concrete examples now, do  Matthew Hall and his fellow Catholics at Ithaca College and Harvard University hope that the unbaptized Jewish babies who went into the gas chambers with their unbaptized mothers and fathers will be saved? Or do they believe that there's no possibility of hope? Do they believe that the non-Catholic unbaptized students and faculty members at Ithaca and Harvard spend eternity in separation from God? Do they believe that non-Catholic baptized students and faculty spend eternity in separation from God? (with the exception, of course, of students and faculty members who go on to become Roman Catholics later, becoming baptized later, if not already baptized.)

The section on Harvard Catholic Center on this page includes more on the sacraments, more reasons why his views on Catholic teaching are untenable.

An elementary mistake would be to claim that sublime music and outstanding architecture offer support to the Roman Catholic faith, if the musical works are settings of the mass and the architecture is the architecture of a Roman Catholic cathedral or church. Another elementary mistake would be to assume that Bach's B minor Mass offers any support at all to Roman Catholic doctrines concerning the Mass, such as transubstantiation. Bach didn't believe in these particular doctrines, of course. Another mistake: to assume, as Matthew Hall does, that the ceremony, the ritual guarantee the truth of the doctrines.

As for the claim that Catholic teaching has coherence, breadth and comprehensiveness, this is a claim that can only be made by someone who has refused to face the realities and who has drastic deficiencies in historical knowledge. I don't provide further evidence here for the good reason that I do provide detailed, wide-ranging evidence in my pages on Christian religion.

Opus DEI. Harvard University Press and Diversity, Equity, Inclusion. A modest proposal for this and other university presses

Above, an imprimi potest, nihil obstat and  imprimatur on a book published by Random House in 1953 - an English translation of the book 'De Christiana expeditione apud Sinas by Matteo Ricci and Nicolas Trigault.

'Progressive' university staff and students: state and federal law and the death penalty.  Goering, Stalin and the death penalty.

The popularity of an issue, the prominence of an issue is no guarantee that the popularity and the prominence can be justified. Issues with no claim to  preeminence can be inflated, are often inflated. 'Progressive' views and preferences have to be justified by argument and evidence, not by simply labelling them as 'progressive.' Neglected issues may well be issues which are very, very important.

'Progressives' are obviously far more likely to oppose the death penalty than conservatives but opposition to the death penalty can be one more form of lacklustre 'virtue signalling,' promotion of self rather than promotion of an important cause.

Organizations which do make an effort can be  ineffectual or worse. Amnesty International is  hideously misinformed in whole areas of policy and action. The worst current example concerns its attitude to Israel. This is a state which has executed only once in its modern history: Adolf Eichmann.

From my page on the death penalty:

It's astonishing to discover impulses to humanity in two of the worst monsters of the Twentieth Century, Stalin and Goering, and none, in one restricted sense, to someone who wouldn't  be regarded as a monster at all: Arnold Schwarzenegger, a former Governor of California, replaced by Jerry Brown. An opponent in one respect may well be an ally in another, and so it is here. I criticize him in this section but commend him for his support for the Israel Defence Force (IDF). He attended the Western Region Gala on November 6, 2014 which raised over  $33 million for the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces. See also, on my page on Israel.

Goering, when he became Minister-President under Hitler, took on the prerogative of clemency in Prussia. It's an extraordinary fact that when the condemned had been sentenced to death for any length of time he hesitated about allowing the execution to take place. The historian Richard J Evans writes in 'Rituals of Retribution: Capital Punishment in Germany 1600 - 1987'

'Goering, a man not generally known for his sensitivity to human suffering, indeed went on to grant reprieves to a number of these prisoners, precisely on this ground; a telling contrast to the equanimity with which other judicial authorities, in other places and at other times, have regarded the confinement of condemned prisoners on death row not for months, but for years, while awaiting a final decision on whether they should live or die.'

To await death for any length of time seemed to Goering intolerable. On 5 May 1933, Goering pointed out

'that in all the cases which are now before me, it is extraordinarily difficult to allow justice to take its course after the condemned, as a result of the uncertainty under which they have already been labouring, some of them for an extraordinarily long time [this was perhaps a year or two, not two decades or more, as it sometimes is and has been in the United States], have in any case had to undergo spiritual martyrdom.'

Compare this with...

Arnold Schwarzenegger, the former Governor of California, who denied clemency to Clarence Ray Allen, who had been on death row for - 23 years! Justice Stephen Breyer had earlier filed a dissent, pointing out that the man had not only been on death row for 23 years but 'is 76 years old, blind, suffers from diabetes and is confined to a wheelchair.' So, Clarence Ray Allen went to his death.

Another case comes from the state of Georgia, USA (Georgia the former Soviet republic is much more enlightened in this respect.) In September 2008, Jack Alderman was executed after an even longer stay on death row. Some facts about the case. His codefendant, John Brown, confessed to the murder but then changed his story to implicate Alderman, in accordance with a deal made with prosecutors. This allegation was the only evidence against Alderman. Forensic evidence was completely lacking. Both Alderman and Brown were sentenced to death but Brown later pleaded guilty in return for a prison sentence but was freed after serving only 12 years. Jack Alderman, on the other hand, was given an execution date after being on death row for - 34 years. What is it about the 'Justice' system in Georgia, what deranged and disgusting state can it be in, that it could consider an action that would have troubled even the Nazi Goering? Stalin's punishment for murder after abolition of the death penalty was imprisonment for a maximum term of 25 years. In Georgia, USA, on the other hand, the punishment can be much, much harsher: imprisonment for 34 years followed by execution.

In Alabama, Thomas Whisenhant was executed in May 2010 after 32 years on death row.

Back to Schwarzenegger. Environmentalists, green campaigners - and I do favour the green cause myself, but with
very critical tendencies - will support Arnold Schwarzenegger's efforts to curb emissions, to minimize the contribution California makes to climate change. But even if environmental protection is one of the most important of all issues, there are issues of humanity and human decency which are even more important. 'If, in twenty years, all Californians are riding in electric vehicles, vehicles powered by biofuel, if Californians are recycling, reusing, reducing the products they use on an unprecedented scale, but the killing centre at San Quentin is still in operation, then the state will be grotesquely at fault.' This was what I wrote in an earlier version of the page. Gavin Newsom, the governor of California, issued a moratorium on the use of the death penalty in 2019 - a heartening, wonderful decision.

Stalin, surely the second worst monster of the Twentieth Century, after Hitler, abolished the death penalty in the Soviet Union on 26 May 1947. (Richard J Evans, 'Rituals of Retribution,' Page 806. Also mentioned in Solzhenitsyn, 'The Gulag Archipelago 1,' Page 439.) The death penalty was replaced with a maximum term of imprisonment of 25 years. The law didn't apply in occupied Germany, but even here, "the Soviet Military Administration in Germany declared its extreme reluctance to pass or carry out death sentences from this moment on." (Page 806.) The death penalty was reintroduced in 1951 for treason and espionage. It wasn't restored for murder until 1954, after Stalin's death.

This is a striking demonstration, I think, of the power of tradition and history, not of Stalin's humanity. Long after the death penalty was abolished in the United Kingdom, there were frequent calls to reintroduce it, particularly in England. The long period of legal neck-stretchings had entered into popular consciousness. Now, though, the calls to 'bring back the rope' are far fewer and weaker, aided, perhaps, by high-profile cases in which the wrong person was sentenced, even executed. In the United States, this particular tradition is still strong, though. Only the method of execution has changed - instead of the call to 'fry the bastards,' the call to 'inject the bastards.' But Russia has a very long history of abolishing the death penalty and opposing it. See the information in the 'Admiration' section of this page, about the Empress Elizabeth, who in the middle of the 18th century never once made use of the death penalty. The Empress Catherine made no use of the death penalty for non-political offences. Solzhenitsyn: '...the yielding up of one's God-given life because others, sitting in judgment, have so voted simply did not take place in our country even for crimes of state for an entire half century - from Pugachev to the Decembrists.' [that is, from 1775-1825] In Tsarist times, the death penalty was used very sparingly. When the Provisional Government came to power after the Russian Revolution, it abolished the death penalty completely. It was reinstated but abolished again in 1920. Stalin had this tradition and history to draw upon.

Arthur Koestler, the Hungarian who played a leading part in the campaign to abolish the death penalty in this country (he was under sentence of death himself during the Spanish Civil War) wrote in his book 'Hanged by the Neck:' 'There is a poisoned spray coming from the Old Bailey [where many of the death sentences were passed] which corrupts and depraves; it can be stopped only by abolishing its cause, the death penalty itself. Two centuries ago, visitors to this country were puzzled to find the road to London dotted with grisly gibbets. They are still puzzled by the same contradiction between the Englishman's belief in the necessity of hanging and his proverbial virtues of toleration to man, kindness to animals, fussing over plants and birds. They fail to understand the power of tradition, his reluctance to abandon any of his cherished prejudices.

'Tradition has a hypnotic effect which commands blind belief, an instinctive recoil from any new departure as a 'dangerous experiment', and an unwillingness to listen to reasoned argument.'

I share Arthur Koestler's view that the death penalty amounts to moral pollution, in effect, that not all pollution consists of chemicals and radiation.





Supplementary: Rochester NY Catholic Diocese and abuse

The material in this section simply takes the form of an extract from the Wikipedia page 'Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester,' 'Sexual abuse allegations.'


See also the profile of Dr Matthew Hall, who amongst other posts is Associate Director of Cornell Catholic Community, which falls within the Diocese of Rochester. In the profile, I quote these words of Dr Hall:

I love discussing the beauty and depth of Catholic theology, especially as it is expressed in the sacred liturgy: the coherence, breadth, and comprehensiveness of Catholic teaching are reflections of God's own perfect beauty.

Below, information about some Roman Catholic priests who had available to them 'the beauty and depth of Catholic theology' and the benefits of the sacraments. Extracts from the Wikipedia article:

In September 2019, the diocese filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the wake of multiple sexual abuse lawsuits.

In August 1985, Brother John Walsh, vice principal of Cardinal Mooney High School in Greece, New |York,  was arrested on kidnapping  charges. Mooney had forced two boys he encountered on the street in Rochester into his car at gunpoint and tried to pay them for sex. He later released the boys unharmed.  Walsh pleaded guilty in January 1986 to coercion and unlawful imprisonment and was sentenced to six months in jail ...

Reverend Gerard Guli of Holy Rosary Parish in Rochester was arrested in April 1989 on first-degree sexual abuse charges. He was accused of fondling the breasts of a nursing home patient with severe Alzheimer's disease.   He pleaded guilty later that year and was sentenced to five years of probation.  The Vatican later laicized Guli at his own request.

Reverend Eugene Emo was arrested in February 1996 on charges of sexually abusing a man with developmental disabilities in Cohocton.  The diocese had removed Emo from St. Januarius Parish in Naples, New York, in 1993 after he tried to cover the theft of parish funds by some boys and after a housekeeper found handcuffs and pictures of young men in his residence. Emo was sent away for treatment, then returned to work in a different parish. Emo pleaded guilty to one felony count of first-degree sexual assault and was sentenced to six months in jail and five years probation. By this time, the diocese had received several other complaints of sexual abuse by Emo.In 1999, he violated his probation by having contact with a 16-year-old boy and was returned to prison.

In May 2002, two men sued the Diocese of Rochester, stating that they had been sexually abused by Reverend Robert O'Neil, pastor of St. Christopher Parish in Chili, New York.   The plaintiffs said that O'Neil took them in the 1970s to his cottage in Chaumont, New York, where he plied them with alcohol and abused them. They later complained about O'Neil to Auxiliary Bishop Dennis Walter Hickey. The diocese sent O'Neil away for treatment, then reassigned him to pastoral work. A week before the lawsuit was filed in 2002, the diocese stripped O'Neil of his ministerial duties and banned him from diocesan housing.

Reverend Dennis Sewar of Annunciation Parish in Rochester was arrested in July 2005 on charges of sexual abuse and endangering the welfare of a child.The male accuser said that Sewar groped him numerous times between 1999 and 2001.After a judge removed the more serious charges, Sewar pleaded guilty in August 2006 to attempted endangering the welfare of a child and was sentenced to one year of probation.

The diocese revealed in June 2018 that it had paid $1.6 million in compensation since 1950 to 20 individuals who had been sexually abused by diocesan clergy.[56] Most of the payments occurred after 2002, although some were decades old. In June 2019, a Rochester man sued the diocese alleging sexual abuse by Reverend Francis Vogt between 1969 and 1971. The plaintiff said that Vogt started abusing him when he was five years old and that the diocese shielded Vogt from potential prosecution.


The diocese announced in April 2021 that 300 more sex abuse lawsuits were filed against the diocese between August 2019 and December 2020 under the Child Victims Act.

University of Minnesota's Professor P Z Myers: not just a banning, blocking, censoring, DEI, part-time dilettante

Above, Professor Myers in action at Skepticon 7 in 2014. At Skepticon events, guest speakers are  expound topics which include Christianity science, education and activism. The events are sponsored by American Atheists and the American Humanism Association. I appreciate very much what Professor Myers has achieved in combating Christian views, for reasons I give in detail in so many pages of the site. I loathe some of his other views, particularly his views on Israeli-Palestinian relations. Here, he writes as a dilettante. By profession, he's a biologist and he can be relied upon to observe professional standards. In his criticisms of Israel, he's simply ignorant, and I can easily show that he's ignorant, stupid, ridiculous - to an extent, with the material in this column, particularly the section

Israeli-Palestinian relations, Harvard and Hamas which includes material on civilian casualties.

My page on Israel is far more detailed, including much more comment on civilian casualties, much more information from fields which Professor Myers seems to have neglected - military history, international relations, and others.

Before I comment on his ignorant views on Israel and Palestinians, I'll mention his involvement in a stunt to do with the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, the belief that in the mass, bread and wine are converted into the body and blood of Jesus - the actual body and blood of Jesus. This doctrine is discussed in the section in this column

Harvard Catholic Center, Harvard Catholic Forum: desecration of the host, persecution of Jews, anti-semitism

From the Wikipedia entry on desecration of the Host: '

Myers suggested that if any of his readers could acquire some consecrated Eucharistic hosts for him, he would treat the wafers "with profound disrespect and heinous cracker abuse, all photographed and presented here on the web.


Myers pierced a host with a rusty nail, which he also used to pierce a few ripped-out pages of the Quran  and The God Delusion,   put them all in the trash along with old coffee grounds and a banana peel. He provided a photograph on his blog of these items in the garbage and wrote that nothing must be held sacred, encouraging people to question everything.

He doesn't in the least encourage people to question everything. I point out that when a Christian made some points, his response was banning, blocking, censorship. It would have been far better if he'd done what scholarly academics are supposed to do and don't do often enough, outside their own specialism, and sometimes withi their specialism - present a case, supply argument and evidence. Granted, argument and evidence won't convince dogmatic Roman Catholics, but stunts are to be avoided. They may be colourful, to an extent, they may attract the attention of the media, for a short time, but they're best avoided. I won't be going in for stunts to draw attention to the ignorance of Professor Myers in matters to do with Israel and the Palestinians.

The extract below from Professor Myers, published on the page


amounts to facile nonsense (to quote a phrase he uses himself in the extract.) It mentions civilian casualties. His citing of civilian casualties is provided without context, without explanation, without argument or further evidence. My page on Israel provides all these things. The extract makes it clear that Professor Myers followed the banning, blocking and censorship route. He was completely wrong to do that. I've posted many, many critical, very critical comments on the site Conservative Woman, which supports orthodox Christian views. All of the comments I submitted were published. His ethical views on freedom of expression are very defective. An anti-theist shouldn't be descending to this abysmal level.

This is what Professor Myers wrote,

There are jerks on Mastodon, too

' ... I got some comments on this post about the ongoing atrocities in Israel/Palestine on Mastodon that earned someone an instant block. Look at this facile nonsense:

@pzmyers It says in your profile you are an atheist yet you still seem to have been convinced by the religious moralizers that there exists a clearly defined objective standard of good and evil, which there is not.
@pzmyers Also, though many people claim half-heartedly to condemn both Israel and Hamas (which in my view is unjustified), they spend the majority of the time and effort condemning Israel, therefore tacitly endorsing Hamas. They hold rallies against Israel, not against Israel and Hamas. They bring cases to the ICJ against Israel, not against Israel and Hamas.

First, they argue that because I’m an atheist, I can’t recognize good and evil. Those are religious concepts only! As if an atheist can’t have a moral standard based on entirely human values, and as if religious values aren’t totally fucked up and invalid. Checkmate, atheist! You are not allowed to condemn violence and genocide, because you don’t have a holy book telling you what’s right!

Next, now that they have established themselves firmly on the moral high ground vs. the trough of futility and despair that is the atheist position, they go on to read my mind. My condemnation of Israel and Hamas is “half-hearted”? Say what? I despise both with my entire heart — even an atheist and humanist can regard terrorist violence as brutal and cruel. That’s their justification for suggesting that I am “tacitly endorsing Hamas”?

No, I am not. I think both the Hamas leadership and the government of Israel should be dragged before the Hague and receive their just punishment. The difference between the two is that 1) right now, the Hamas leadership is being bombed into bloody gibs, and 2) my country is actively supporting the state-run terrorism by Israel, so I feel that condemning the violence my government is “tacitly endorsing” is more important today. There’s also the fact that the Palestinians are clearly the underdog, with about 24,000 dead citizens so far.

No matter, though: my perspective as an atheist and humanist is that no one should be butchering either Israeli or Palestinian civilians. No one should be arming the butchers, either.

So, he believes that Hamas and Israel are 'butchers' and he believes that Iran and other suppliers shouldn't be arming Hamas and that the United States, the United Kingdom and other suppliers shouldn't be arming Israel. The equivalence he claims is shocking.

To supplement the sources on this site mentioned above with a much shorter explanation of some crucial issues, think of Israel, to begin with, as simply an area of land. (The area of Israel is about 20,770 square km. An area of land belongs to a particular state in most cases, although possession is often disputed. No state 'owns' the land it occupies for perpetuity. The land can be invaded by another state or other states, or by terrorist forces. Some geographical areas are far more volatile than others and the chance of being invaded is much higher. The middle east is one of those areas. Fears - realistic fears - are growing in Europe that the ambitions of Putin's Russia will go far beyond the conquest of Ukraine and that NATO may have to fight at some time in the future to prevent invasion of the Baltic states and other states too - including Poland and Germany.

The land area of Israel is occupied by a state in which women can flourish rather than live in subjugation, a state in which people of various sexual orientations can flourish rather than face persecution, a state which never uses the death penalty, a state which protects freedom of expression, a state with so many other advantages.

If Israel were ever to be denied armaments, it would be occupied very, very quickly, to be replaced with what? A state which not only fails to give these protections? A state which would be vulnerable to invasion by terrorist forces? 

Background information on other pages

(Background information relevant to Seamus Heaney studies and background information relevant to the present troubles at Harvard.)

Ireland and Northern Ireland
(The page criticizes many aspects of radical Irish nationalist ideology. It provides evidence that Seamus Heaney's  response to the troubles in Northern Ireland was disastrously misguided. 
Objections to Christian belief

(In the third column of the page, which gives links to other pages on Christianity.) I argue in various pages of the site that Heaney's view of Roman Catholicism was naive, superficial, uncritical.
The death penalty

Executions never seem to have interested Seamus Heaney, except, occasionally, executions in the distant or very distant past. This page on the death penalty gives background information, particularly on executions in the United States.
Contains discussion of Heaney's poem Summer Home (Wintering Out.)
Heaney's metrical gifts are practically non-existent. In general, his poetry is prosaic.
Israel and Palestinian ideology

Exposing the ignorance of student ignoramuses, academic ignoramuses and others.
Radical feminism
Includes material on slavery.
Cambridge University  

Contains criticism of 'woke,' DEI academics and criticism of academic theologians. Both are a waste of space, except, of course, for such people as mechanical engineers, physical chemists, pure mathematicians and others with obvious strengths who have weaknesses when it comes to ideological claims. 

As for the current troubles at Harvard, my position is clear but my allegiances aren't what might be expected. I oppose 'woke' views, 'DEI' views, wholeheartedly. The President needed to resign. My page on Israel and Palestinian ideology explains my views in detail. I don't share some of the views of some of the people who agree with me on this point. I view the prospect of a Trump presidency with horror, in particular, the prospect of European and worldwide security undermined by someone who sees no particular need to oppose Russian aggression in Ukraine. There are many, many Christian opponents of DEI views but I regard Christianity as deluded. But non-Christians and anti-Christians are not immune to delusion in the least. From time to time, I hear of committed secularists in this country who support, or did support, Jeremy Corbyn, whose far-left political views are as naive as anything to be found in Christianity.

Opponents of Woke / DEI views at universities, including Harvard University, again and again overlook one important fact: most universities are places which carry out teaching and research in a wide range of disciplines, in science, technology, engineering, medicine, pure and applied mathematics and sometimes in other subject areas, such as agriculture - and not only in subjects which are easily distorted by Woke / DEI ideology, such as literature. (I provide argument and evidence in various pages of the site that Woke / DEI ideas do actually distort teaching, research - and reality.) There are attempts to subvert teaching in the sciences, medicine, mathematics and other technical disciplines but they are resistant to reinterpretation.

To mention just one group of subjects, Harvard University, like Cambridge University, has an outstanding record for the award of Nobel Prizes in Physics, Chemistry and Medicine with Physiology. That fact alone - but there are so many others - should deter anyone from generalized criticism.

The underlying fact - and it is a fact - is that to succeed in some ways may involved failure in others, that to fail in some ways is not necessarily to fail in all ways. This applies to individuals as well as to institutions, organizations, societies, countries. An individual may be incompetent in some areas and methodical, efficient and committed in others.

All of these instances illustrate the contradictions of reality, the grotesque contradictions of reality, although there are much harsher realities than these, as I show, I hope, in the pages of the site. Critics are often fully justified in taking a narrow approach, focusing attention on a specific issue but may easily draw the wrong conclusions from their criticisms. These mistakes may well be avoidable. Wide-ranging criticism and very thorough, detailed criticism are too often neglected.

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