Seamus Heaney: ethical depth?

See also the pages

Heaney's poetry:  the case against and the 'Harvard Connection,'  with general and specific criticism of Harvard University
Heaney: translations and versions
Heaney's translations and my own translations
Cambridge Companion to Seamus Heaney
Human Chain
Seamus Heaney and bullfighting
Ireland, Northern Ireland: distortions, illusions



See also, my page Ethics: theory and practice


Above, Seamus Heaney, Mary Beard and 9 / 11 Ground Zero, New York City

Above, Seamus Heanedy and bullfighting:  'the banderillero's  'nimble dashes at the neck muscles, conspicuously rapid and skilful
forays ... '

Seamus Heaney was awarded the Nobel Prize 'for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past.' The claim that Seamus Heaney possesses ethical depth is difficult to defend.

The title poem of the volume, 'Human Chain' depicts starving people or hungry people as food is being distributed by an aid agency. These  victims are described as 'the mob.' Other poems show Seamus Heaney responding disproportionately, unable to distinguish between a slight inconvenience and a challenge to the self or even an assault on the self when stopped for a very short time by the British army in Northern Ireland. His attitude to the people who deterred terrorism and prevented a full-scale civil war from developing is completely lacking in insight. (I lived in Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles.)

The poem 'Anything Can Happen' shows Seamus Heaney unable to respond adequately to the outrage of 9/11, responding instead with whimsical mythologizing. Mary Beard's response was different but hideously deficient too.

Seamus Heaney records his failure to make any protest against the public humiliation of girls in the poem 'Punishment.' Seamus Heaney's response to the bullfight (based on his personal experience) is conventional and callous.  I compare his response to another issue to do with animals, in the poem 'The Early Purges,' with the genuine ethical depth of J M Coetzee, writing about a  similar situation. His comments on the Colosseum and its public spectacles of blood-soaked barbarity, like the comments of Mary Beard, the Cambridge University Classics Professor, are very disturbing. Very disturbing too are some lines in Seamus Heaney's 'The Cure at Troy' which concern hunger strikers, presumably intended to show the unbiased breadth of his moral vision. Instead, they show his moral limitations. 

This is Karl Miller, writing in 'The Times Literary Supplement:' 'Critics have clearly been vexed by the thought of his goodheartedness. In an interview in 2000 I brashly asked him if he was as nice as he seemed, and he replied that he’d been 'cursed with a fairly decent set of impulses.' The reply is astonishing, smug and naive, but with some interesting internal conflicts. The word 'cursed' seems to suggest someone with such a developed ethical sense that, like the possession of complex consciousness, it imposes burdens unknown to those at a lower level but the self-deprecating 'fairly decent' may give the impression that humility is yet another of his ethical strengths.

Opponents of bullfighting will respond with disbelief, mockery or outrage to any notion that someone who appreciates this barbarity has a 'fairly decent set of impulses' but I think that Seamus Heaney's reflections on human life and suffering are not always what they seem: to a significant extent confused and coarse.

The 'niceness' and affability of Mary Beard are obvious but are no sign of ethical depth. Seamus Heaney's 'niceness,'  and affability - which are nothing special - have surely been encouraged by his very early recognition and his astonishing reputation, despite so much Parnassian  writing. Although there have been and are detractors, criticism of Seamus Heaney has been generally muted - but not, I'm sure, my own criticism. Heayneyolatry is something I could never feel.

The gifted poets, novelists, musicians, artists and others who have endured vilification, mockery and indifference have tended not to be affable, even if they were very affable before the cumulative blows of disillusioning experience.

Compare Seamus Heaney with Mahler. From Norman Lebrecht's interesting but very flawed book 'Why Mahler:' ' ... Mahler pays for a concert in March 1895 of the First Symphony, the Songs of a Travelling Apprentice and Totenfeier ... The concert is a failure, over-long, poorly attended and sporadically booed.' 'On the one occasion when players agree to perform a work of Mahler's in their prestige series. in November 1900, audience members bray with laughter in the funeral march of the First Symphony. After this debacle, the Philharmonic refuses to play another Mahler work unless its fees are paid by a commercial promoter.'

Of an early performance of the Fourth Symphony, 'there are boos between movements and cries of 'shame!' ' 'He has a chat with Bülow, his colleague at the Hamburg Philharmonic, and wonders if he might spare a few minutes to listen to his music ... 'It occurred to me to look up and I saw Bülow holding both hands to his ears. I stopped playing. Standing at the window, he motioned me promptly to continue. I played. After some time I looked up again. Bülow was sitting at the table with stopped up ears ... When I had finished, I waited quietly for the verdict. My lone listener remained at the table, silent and motionless. Suddenly, with a violent gesture of rejection. he said: 'If that's music, I know nothing at all about music.' 

Of the Second Symphony: 'A lone critic, Oskar Eichberg in the Börsen Courier, detects affinities with Beethoven's Ninth. Mahler writes to him: 'If you knew my life of suffering as a creative artist, if you knew the ten years of rebuffs, frustrations and humiliations, if you could see how many works I put in a drawer as soon as they were written, or imagine the incomprehension I have met when, overcoming all obstacles, I managed to find a public - only then will you fully appreciate the depth of my gratitude to you ... the first and only one in his profession who feels and understands the language I speak and the road I follow.' '

Compare Seamus Heaney with Dostoevsky, some of whose ethical insights I mention below. Dostoevsky had none of Seamus Heaney's winning ways either. His crushing personal experiences - being led out to be shot, then reprieved just in time, his exile in Siberia - had their effect.

Seamus Heaney, and his world-famous niceness and affability, have never been tested to the limit in a comparable way. But Seamus Heaney is no longer world-famous. I think the decline in his (largely undeserved) reputation has been very marked.

Seamus Heaney, Mary Beard and 9/11: Anything Can Happen (District and Circle)

See also, on my page Seamus Heaney: translations and versions, my discussion of Seamus Heaney's version of the poem by Horace (Carmina: 1, 34) and my translation of the poem.

Before I deal with Mary' Beard's outspoken response to a horrific event, the destruction of the Twin Towers by Islamic militants, a brief look at Mary Beard's low-key but favourable response to Jeremy Corbyn.  She wrote,

“Quite a lot of what Corbyn says I agree with, and I rather like his different style of leadership. I like hearing argument not soundbites. If the Labour Party is going through a rough time, and I’m sure it is rough to be in there, it might actually all be to the good.

“He might be changing the party in a way that would make it easier for people like me to vote for.”

If Mary Beard believes - or believed - that Jeremy Corbyn provides argument, then her view of argument is very different from mine.

An honest update to her view of Jeremy Corbyn is badly needed.

This was the reaction of  Mary Beard, Professor of Classics at  Cambridge University and contributor to the Times Literary Supplement (I used to be a subscriber) to the terrorist destruction of the Twin Towers on 9/11, which killed 2, 606 people in the Towers and near The Towers, and  157 people on board the aircraft which had been hijacked. From the ‘London Review of Books’ (Vol. 23 No. 19, 4 October, 2001):

‘ … when the shock had faded, more hard-headed reaction set in. This wasn’t just the feeling that, however tactfully you dress it up, the United States had it coming. That is, of course, what many people openly or privately think. World bullies, even if their heart is in the right place, will in the end pay the price.

‘But there is also the feeling that all the ‘civilised world’ (a phrase which Western leaders seem able to use without a trace of irony) is paying the price for its glib definitions of ‘terrorism’ and its refusal to listen to what the ‘terrorists’ have to say. ‘

Mary Beard may well have modified this view of Islamic terrorism, in the light of later events.  If so, it would be interesting to find out what her view is now. Is she still convinced of the importance of listening to what the terrorists have to say? Does she still claim that  'improved'  definitions of terrorism will offer any protection?

Professor Beard was subjected to indefensible personal abuse, following her appearance on 'Question Time,' a programme on British television, where her views on immigration, specifically the impact of migrants on the town of Boston, Lincolnshire, were contested by a member of the public who lives in the town. Mary Beard had quoted from one questionable source.

Seamus Heaney's poem about the destruction of the twin towers on 9 / 11, 'Anything Can Happen,' is one of his more obnoxious poems. There's a fuller account of this poem, and my translation of the poem, on the page Seamus Heaney: translations and versions.

The setting and the moral circumstances of the atrocity had a simplicity, to an extent - the architecture of the twin towers, their uncluttered lines almost seeming to converge, high in the sky, the sky unclouded, an intense blue, the approaching airliner, the simplicity of the moral situation - fanatics about to inflict death on the innocent, an act which needed tortuous extenuations and intricate falsehoods to justify but none at all to condemn. The aftermath was anything but simple, the snuffing out of so many lives, at once or delayed, after the desperate attempt to survive had come to nothing.

Aluminium-skinned jet aircraft piloted into skyscrapers, the burning of people by jet fuel - this was a theme that called for a fully contemporary poem, one adequate to the reality of technology but adequate too to human realities, the human flaws which make perverted use of technology.

The first two lines of the fourth stanza of Horace's Ode 1, 34, which Seamus Heaney used as the starting point for this poem, describe bringing down the mighty and raising up the lowest. Is this how Seamus Heaney interpreted 9/11: the terrorists - the lowest - bringing down America - the highest?

Horace is 'mindful of raving wisdom.' In the original, this is an interesting conjunction. In applying the poem to the destruction of the twin towers, there's the danger of attributing wisdom to raving fanatics. To commemorate such an event as this, Seamus Heaney's poem, like Caesar's wife, should have been beyond suspicion. It was unwise of Seamus Heaney to choose this poem as his starting-point. Mary Beard was heavily criticized. He got away with it: the benefits of oblique reference and Latin obscurity.

'Anything Can Happen' reveals in stark simplicity the aridity and barrenness of Seamus Heaney's enterprise, its mythological burdens, its evasions and pretentiousness. In a poem of only four stanzas, the whole of the first stanza is taken up with mythological preparation for 'Across a clear blue sky' at the beginning of the second stanza.

The whimsy of the first stanza is as out of place in a poem with this subject as it would be at a Holocaust Remembrance Day:

Anything can happen. You know how Jupiter
Will mostly wait for clouds to gather head
Before he hurls the lightning? Well, just now
He galloped his thunder cart and his horses

Across a clear blue sky ...

As if this isn't enough mythological intrusion into the poem, this is closely followed by another in the next verse-paragraph, the River Styx, all the more obtrusive because the Styx appears in Dante's Inferno as well, in Canto Seven, and is associated with the torments of the damned. Are these torments of the damned associations which any contemporary poet should be risking? The Styx is in the original Latin of Horace's ode but Seamus Heaney was under no compulsion to use this ode at all, or if he did use it as a starting-point, to include this. 'the tallest towers' are not in the original, of course, and although 'Fortune,' 'Fortuna,' is, he gives it his own private interpretation: here, not a principle which makes lives unpredictable, subject to chance, but a bird of prey with a cruel beak who has similarities with 'Crow,' the bird in Ted Hughes' abysmal sequence of poems. This private avian mythology is far removed from the technological / human world of 9 / 11 and is utterly inadequate.

Nature poetry which connects us with the inner beauty or strangeness or otherness of nature isn't improved by demanding for its full appreciation a knowledge of Linnaean binomial nomenclature of the flowers or animals which it presents, even if commentators with specialist knowledge approve. In his edition of the 'Selected Journals of Henry David Thoreau,' Carl Bode distinguishes years in which Thoreau's observations were intense and illuminating from years such as 1853 in which 'science, symbolized by the Latin names for things, plays an increasing role and philosophy grows the less' (by 'philosophy' he means perceptive and interesting comment on human life, not technical philosophy at its most narrow) and 1856, in which 'The range of subjects is still wide. Yet the facts seem smaller and more exact - and there seem to be more of them.'

Poetry dense with allusions which requires detailed knowledge or the help of scholarship to understand is a legitimate form. My admiration for scholarship is practically unbounded. I regard it as one of the most important activities of the human mind. Simplicity isn't adequate in all circumstances. The complexity and intricacy revealed by scholarship are exhilarating, compelling and often indispensable.

But 'Anything Can Happen' is one of those poems which shouldn't demand explanation, explication which demands much in the way of scholarship, knowledge of Jupiter, the Styx or Atlas. This was a poem which demanded directness, intensity, a measure of simplicity, and which instead sank under the burden of its classical mythology and Seamus Heaney's private mythology.

The references in this and other poems are evidence that Seamus Heaney is very well read, but it's ridiculous to claim, as John Wilson Foster does, in 'Crediting Marvels: Heaney after 50,' one of the essays in 'The Cambridge Companion to Seamus Heaney,' that 'he became (unlike Kavanagh) a literary scholar.' There's no trace in any of his published writings that he has the distinctive skills of a scholar, such as the use and critical analysis of a very comprehensive collection of sources, or that he has a particularly detailed knowledge in a necessarily restricted field. As well describe him as a lexicographer because his vocabulary is obviously wide, although not his technical or scientific vocabulary.

He's obviously familiar with the technical word 'telluric,' though. The final line of the poem has a reference to 'telluric ash.' 'Telluric' can refer to 'earth' or 'soil,' too general for 'telluric ash,' or 'of or containing tellurium [an element], especially in a high valence state' (Collins Dictionary), far too specific - but the artistic wrongness of 'telluric ash' should be obvious.

In this poem, Seamus Heaney was far more concerned to impress and to dazzle than to convey death and suffering and the extremism which brought about so much death and suffering.

Seamus Heaney, Mary Beard and the Colosseum: Stepping Stones

Mary Beard, an academic at Cambridge University, has disgraced herself with her comments on gladiators. She has distorted the realities of wounding and killing and tried to transform them into something acceptable. From her television programme, 'Meet the Romans,' where she examines the helmet of a gladiator. ' ... in my mind,' she says, gladiator fighting was closer to 'the sort of charade of wrestling than the real-life combat of boxing.' In fact, gladiator fighting was vastly more brutal and bloody than any boxing match. And, '... more and more often, it was a spectacle, it was theatre.'  I comment on the spectacle, but the atrocious cruelty of the spectacle can't possibly be in doubt. And what of the executions, carried out in a variety of barbaric ways, which were a regular part of the spectacle? The executions of these victims, the 'noxii,' would be even harder for Professor Beard to assimilate. Her view of Roman slavery, not discussed here, is less inadequate, but still grossly inadequate.

'Spectacles of Death in Ancient Rome' by Donald G Kyle is a good corrective to Mary Beard's grotesquely distorted misinterpretations. For example,

'Contrary to popular opinion, most of the arena's dead victims were not true gladiators but ... men (and women) sentenced to execution, crucifixion, fire, or the beasts ... noxii faced summa supplicia - the worst forms of aggravated capital punishment ... '

'Josephus (BC 6.418) says that, after the fall of Jerusalem, Titus sent great numbers of Jewish captives to provinces as gifts to be killed in theaters by the sword or by wild beasts.'

See also Mary Beard's hideous view of 9/11.


Stepping Stones' is the book of interviews with Seamus Heaney. The interviewer is Dennis O' Driscoll. I discuss above Seamus Heaney and bullfighting. In the section where Seamus Heaney talks about his response to a bullfight (it's unclear whether he attended one bullfight, a few or many) he mentions the Colosseum:

'But gradually, I would find myself in a kind of trance: the choreography in the ring and the surge and response of the crowd with the music going on and on just carried you away. And your focus stayed tight on the man and the bull. There was something hypnotic about the cloak-work ... Once you've been there, you're implicated, you have some inkling of what it must have been like in the Colosseum.'

No great ethical depth would be needed to reject the killing in the Colosseum. Would Seamus Heaney not even have the ethical depth to reject the killing of the Roman arenas? He'd be 'carried away' by 'the surge and response of the crowd?' His focus would stay tight on one man trying to kill another man, or one man trying to kill an elephant, in the case of the animal 'games,' or on Christians being torn apart? There would be something hypnotic about the work of the man with the net swinging the net and trying to trap the other gladiator and then stab him with his spear? He would have watched blood pouring onto the sand of the arena, intestines pouring onto the sand of the arena, wounded gladiators frantically begging for mercy, wounded gladiators having their throat cut after being refused mercy, women fighting, women torn apart, elephants speared - in a trance? Not everyone would have been 'implicated' in all this, not in the least, not everyone would have been without outrage and disgust.

Augustine (or 'St Augustine') recounts the story of a young Christian, Alypius, who met some pagan friends. They forced him to accompany them to the Colosseum. Whilst the men fought, he kept his eyes firmly closed. Augustine describes what happened later:

'In the course of the fight a man fell and there was a great roar from the vast crowd of spectators which struck his ears. He was overcome by curiosity and opened his eyes, perfectly prepared to treat whatever he might see with scorn. He saw the blood ... Far from turning away, he fixed his eyes on it ... he was delighted with the contest, drunk with the lust of blood. He was no longer the man who had come there, but he was one of the mob. He was a true companion to those who had brought him. There is little more to be said. He looked, he shouted, he raved. He took away with him madness which would goad him to come back again and again. And he would not only come with those who first got him there, but would drag others with him.' (Quoted in 'The Age of the Gladiators: Savagery and Spectacle in Ancient Rome' by Rupert Matthews.)

A much better example was set by the writer Seneca. He criticized the gladiatorial combat and those who watched it. He said that those who watched 'come home ... more cruel and inhuman.' 'Seneca did ... articulate a view held by a sizeable minority of Romans. The philosopher and historian Plutarch held government posts under Trajan and took the opportunity to write to provincial governors recommending that they should abolish gladiatorial combats in their jurisdiction.' (From 'The Age of Gladiators.')

But from his comments in 'Stepping Stones,' Seamus Heaney would appear to see himself as more likely to follow the example of Alypius than the example of Seneca and Plutarch.

I quote these words of Seamus Heaney in the section on 'Seamus Heaney and Bullfighting.' He was writing about W H Auden: 'When he faced the bull of reality, he was more a banderillero than a picador or matador: he made nimble dashes at the neck muscles, conspicuously rapid and skilful forays that were closer to the choreographer's than to the killer's art, closer to comedy than tragedy.' Skill and attractive movements (not attractive to anyone revolted by the bullfight) aren't self-justifying. They may have a moral dimension, as they do here, surely.

Consider this, again from 'The Age of the Gladiators.' Rupert Matthews is discussing the different kinds of gladiators, with different weapons and armour and different styles of fighting. The 'Thracian' and the 'murmillo' are different kinds of gladiator, very often made to fight each other in the Roman arenas.

'The Thracian was a more mobile fighter than the murmillo. He was expected to use fancy footwork to back away from or to dart into the attack. His lighter equipment made more nimble movements possible, while the small shield made them essential.'

The 'nimble dashes' of the banderillero in the bullfight have a moral dimension - the banderillero is stabbing an animal which has been already speared, speared two or three times and stabbed with the banderillas six times - and of course the 'nimble movements' of the Thracian had a moral dimension too.

Rupert Matthews continues, 'To inflict injury upon his opponent, the Thracian had a short, curved sword which could be used to slash, but more often in the arena was for stabbing.'

The different styles of bullfighting which are the subject of so much awed comment in bullfighting circles had their counterpart in the Roman arenas. For example, another kind of gladiator, the 'hoplomachus' had a spear which gave him 'a greater reach than other gladiators. No doubt this was combined with his lighter armour to create a fluid, more dynamic style of fighting.' ('The Age of the Gladiators.')

Seamus Heaney and the British army: The Toome Road (Field Work) and From the Frontier of Writing (The Haw Lantern)


 the poem 'The Toome Road,' Seamus Heaney relates an encounter with armoured cars of the British Army:

How long were they approaching down my roads
As if they owned them?


Neil Corcoran comments, 'The possessives are the signal of the outraged native challenge to the colonizing aggressor.' The situations in the two countries aren't comparable, but his comment reminds me of claims that the bombs of the Taliban in Afghanistan (which kill far more civilians than British or Afghan or other soldiers) are, in effect, an 'outraged native challenge to the colonizing aggressor.'

The line 'O charioteers, above your dormant guns' is given this interpretation by Fran Brearton in 'Heaney and the Feminine' ('The Cambridge Companion to Seamus Heaney'): 'the British 'soldiers standing up in turrets' are, in a sense, emasculated - their 'guns' are 'dormant' ...' The fact that these British soldiers were not firing their guns all the time, that almost all the time their guns were 'dormant,' unused, is obvious. To go from the obvious fact that the guns were not being fired to emasculation 'in a sense' is ludicrous - and disturbing, given the large number of British soldiers killed during the Troubles. This is closer to sneering than responsible comment. There are many, many images of Allied soldiers standing up in turrets as their vehicles entered the villages, towns and cities they had liberated with such sacrifices at the close of the Second World War in Europe. They had 'dormant' guns. Had these soldiers been emasculated 'in a sense' too? She claims that in 'The Toome Road' there's 'a collision of versions of masculinity,' the soldiers representing one version of masculinity. When allied soldiers fought against Nazi soldiers (and went on to liberate Belsen and the other camps) was this too 'a collision of versions of masculinity?' Or was there much more to it than that?

An editorial in the Irish Times in May 1945 referred to emasculation too: the policy of de Valera, the President of the Irish Republic, a policy of neutrality during The Second World War, was 'a policy of national emasculation.' 'Moral issues of the highest kind were involved in the war which has just come to an end.' (This was the end of the war in Europe. Japan still had to be defeated.)

From my page Ireland and Northern Ireland: distortions and illusions.

'Nationalists often give the impression that nobody has suffered like the Irish, nobody has exploited others like the English. But in a conflict which was more devastating than any other in history, which inflicted suffering on a greater scale than any other, the English, and the other countries of the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland, a constituent part of the United Kingdom, carried on the war against Hitler alone, for a time, with exiled groups from many countries and volunteers from many countries, including volunteers from the Irish Republic, who served in large numbers. Irish nationalism and the Irish Free State stood aside and did nothing. The IRA actively sought help from the Germans. During The Second World War, the Irish Free State was neutral. After the death of Hitler, condolences were offered from only two sources, Portugal and the government of The Irish Republic.

'Brian Girvin writes, 'Eire did remarkably little to ensure that Germany did not win the war. The government acted in public as if it did not care who won and hinted at times that there was no real difference between the two sides. Yet Germany was a continuing threat to Irish sovereignty. Hitler was contemptuous of neutrality in general and if the Nazis had won the war, the likelihood of any neutral state remaining independent seems very low indeed.'

'There's an implicit claim in the poetry of Seamus Heaney, as in the nationalist ideology, to occupation of the moral high ground. Far too often, commentators on the poetry have accepted this claim. Like Vichy France, but not to nearly the same extent, nationalism showed moral failure in confronting the worst challenge of all. The challenge that many nationalists still prefer to address is completely different in scale and kind: the prejudices of Northern Irish unionism, prejudices which made it less likely for a Catholic to find a job, not the Nazi prejudices which made it overwhelmingly unlikely that the victim of prejudice would escape death, the occasional excesses of the British Army (which generally acted with restraint, given the dangers it faced), such as the shooting of 'the thirteen men in Derry' on Bloody Sunday, not the killing by the Nazis of 642 inhabitants of Oradour-sur-Glane, by shooting, explosion and burning alive, or the killing of countless other civilians.

'The bleakness and harshness of the Troubles were compounded by the fact that the Troubles went on for a very long time, longer than The Thirty Years War, although vastly less devastating. There are still sporadic incidents, intensely painful for those caught up in them. But some Irish people have succeeded in persuading others that the Troubles were almost uniquely bleak and harsh. Anyone who knows just a little about The Thirty Years War, The Spanish Civil War, The Second World War in the East (Stalingrad and other campaigns), The Second World War in the West, the war against Japan on the Pacific islands, the Second World War in all its areas, the First World War - the Somme, Passchendaele and the rest - realizes that with its just over three thousand dead, the Troubles were not the greatest calamity of the twentieth century or previous centuries ... In the city where I live, Sheffield, over 600 people were killed in two nights of bombing. This is much higher than the total number of deaths in the peak year of the troubles for the whole of Northern Ireland, with three times the population ... '

But during the Troubles Northern Ireland became overwhelmingly bleak, even sinister, country lanes as well as the backstreets of Belfast and Londonderry, and if the risk for civilians was generally not acute, the feeling that this was a dangerous time, and not only in the most dangerous places, was constant, for many - most - people. Every car was potentially lethal, even if the risk of an exploding car bomb was small. At their height and even in much quieter years, the troubles were atrocious, of course.

Just two accounts (from Jack Holland's 'Hope against History: The Ulster Conflict' A killing by the group known as the 'Shankill Road Butchers,' led by Lenny Murphy. 'The gang's violence was so indiscriminate that of their nineteen victims, nine were Protestant.' This describes the killing of a Catholic: 'In November 1975, Murphy and two others dragged Francis Crossan, a thirty-four-year old Catholic, into a black taxi driven by Billy Moore, where he was beaten with a wheel brace, kicked, and had a broken beer glass shoved into his face. The gang drove him to an alleyway off the Shankill Road, where his semi-conscious body was laid out. Murphy then set about hacking his way through Crossan's throat with a butcher's knife until the spine was reached.' I visited the Protestant Shankill Road to see the area for myself not long after visiting the Republican Falls Road.  

And an account from the same book about a Provisional IRA fire bombing in February 1978, when the Province was 'safer' than at the height of the Troubles, although by then the year had been marked by more than a hundred explosions.

'The Northern Ireland Collie Club and the Junior Motor Cycle Club were holding their annual prize-giving functions in the La Mon House Hotel' near east Belfast. 'Just before 9 p.m. a warning came that a bomb had been planted. As the staff rushed to clear the dining room, two bombs attached to cans of gasoline and hooked on to security grilles outside the main function room exploded. A huge fireball engulfed everything in front of it as dozens of guests were sprayed with burning fuel which stuck to their clothes and flesh. Twelve people were burned to death. Pictures of their blackened, charred remains - hardly recognizable as human beings - were distributed around the country in an effort to make those who still supported the Provisionals realize the cost of their campaign ...'

This became, in Jack Holland's words, 'a society where the language of condemnation was by now exhausted, and horror grown monotonous.'

Field Work' was published in 1979. By this time, there had been ten years of relentless civil conflict in Northern Ireland. The scale of the conflict was beyond the power of the police to contain and the army was the force which prevented full-scale civil war. Neil Corcoran omits the fact that the majority of the population in Northern Ireland saw themselves as British and wanted the province to remain part of Northern Ireland. A short time before I left the province, I heard a massive car bomb planted by the IRA which killed six ordinary people. In this case, British army patrols didn't succeed in stopping the car which was carrying the bomb and preventing the explosion. The patrols did deter and prevent the planting of many, many bombs. Can Seamus Heaney have advocated the ending of Vehicle Check Points, which would have allowed terrorists to transport bombs whenever they liked? The ending of these minor inconveniences for him would have come at a massive cost. That will be obvious.

The nationalist sentiments of Seamus Heaney here and his dutiful 'critic' Neil Corcoran wouldn't be echoed by all nationalists by any means. There are many nationalists who would like Northern Ireland to be part of a united Ireland who have a far greater regard for complexities and who would flinch from using an expression such as 'my' roads - but many more who would find the language of 'colonizing aggressor' ridiculous and pathetic.

Seamus Heaney, and some of his commentators, could learn lessons in humane feeling from many of the British soldiers they describe in such sneering terms. From Ken Wharton's very fine book of Oral History, 'Bloody Belfast.' (See also his 'Bullets, Bombs and Cups of Tea: Further voices of the British Army in Northern Ireland 1969 - 98.)

'I learned that in any conflict, it is the humblest of society that suffer most; working families, private soldiers, the old, and the lonely.' (Guardsman Peter Miller. Ist Battalion. Coldstream Guards.)

'In 1984 there was a change in me. In the early tours I had taken it all in my stride; riots, shootings, death and the injuries ... I was different in 1984. I saw life as precious. I began to dread the soldiers leaving the base. The sound of explosions and shootings within our 'patch' made me think 'What poor soul is it this time?' I would wait for the contact report to come over the radio. The wait was quite unbearable.

'One night I was working in my office within the base, when suddenly there was a very loud explosion; it was quite near and just outside my office wall. Plaster fell from my ceiling and crashed onto my desk, my ears rang. There was shouting of orders and running feet. A patrol leaving the base had been bombed by a remote control device. A young soldier was down. I knew him well and liked him even more; he was a cheerful and energetic little character. I did all that I could, I left it to the experts and came back into my office and sat down and just looked at the wall. In the silence of my office, tears flowed hot down my face. I knew it was time to leave and that this was best left to younger men.' (Soldier, Welsh Infantry Regiment.)

'A couple of weeks ago one of my grand-daughters came to see me about a project she was doing at school about the Troubles ... I looked at the course work she had been given ... Nothing about us; very little about the enormous death toll, and very little about terrorism, and I couldn't relate to it.

She did ask me about the legacy of the peace process, and I'm afraid I wasn't much help. My own legacy is more personal: a failed marriage, the occasional headache ... two fingers that don't work properly, and a slight limp and some medals lying half forgotten in a drawer. I still reckon I'm one of the lucky ones.' (Mick Hill. Royal Anglians.)

The unbearable pressures which soldiers faced sometimes led to suicide or attempted suicide. This is an account of one soldier who shot himself, in its intensity very remote from the breezy, complacent tone of Seamus Heaney suffering mild inconvenience on The Toome Road:

'The casualty was lying face down; his arms were hanging over the side of the stretcher like a rag doll and the blood poured over the black leather ... The medical officer was kneeling beside the casualty's upper torso, and he was very panicked; he was shouting at the body lying beside us. There was nothing from him, and it was then I noticed his young face, his mouth was open showing his teeth, his eyes were closed and his hair was soaked with blood which was sticking to his face as if he was sweating profusely. His head was lying on his right side, the hole was right at the top of his head and it was nearly four inches across. Strands of his brain tissue lay over the ragged edges of the skull ... He turned his head slightly and stared at me; I had eye to eye contact with him. 'Help me, help me; please help me' ... Here was a boy who knew that he was going to die and he was scared; he was very scared.' (Stuart Wilson, RAMC.)


See also further extracts from 'Bloody Belfast' on the page: 'Seamus Heaney: flawed success.' These give further evidence about the dangers faced by the soldiers who deterred terrorism and prevented civil war in Northern Ireland.)

What about this, as an example of humour and heartening humanity? From Ken Wharton's 'Bullets, Bombs and Cups of Tea:' 'Once, we were driving past the Free Derry Wall, and, as usual, the kids were stoning us when we noticed a small boy at the back crying; we stopped to ask him why, and he replied that he had no stones to throw at us. Naturally, we being idiots, actually got out to collect some for him, and, on our way back out, he was also stoning us, waving to us with a beaming smile on his face.' (Corporal 'B' Royal Signals, Bogside.)

'The Toome Road' is a representative sample of Seamus Heaney's prose-poetry,  prose poetry without even an effective prose rhythm. After Line Removal:

'One morning early I met armoured cars in convoy, warbling along on powerful tyres, all camouflaged with broken alder branches, and headphoned soldiers standing up in turrets. How long were they approaching down my roads as if they owned them? The whole country was sleeping, I had rights-of-way, fields, cattle in my keeping ... '

The opening words give information about time, the ineffectual way of beginning a poem which Seamus Heaney uses in a number of other poems.

The remainder of the poem is Parnassian or sub-Parnassian, hardly worth quoting or discussing. I mention only some classical allusions in the closing three lines,

O charioteers, above your dormant guns,
It stands here still, stands vibrant as you pass,
The invisible, untoppled omphalos.

The omphalos is the navel-stone at Delphi. To understand the significance of the one word 'omphalos,' impossible demands are made of the reader, if Neil Corcoran's claims are correct: knowledge of the Greek background, the associations of the Toome Road, its significance in the 1798 rebellion of the United Irishmen, the significance of the Toome Road, as 'the navel-stone of nationalist Irish feeling' in maintaining 'a persistent, defiant opposition to the colonial power' and acceptance of course of Neil Corcoran's view of Irish history and 'colonialism.' This is commentary well on the way to lunacy.

Seamus Heaney doesn't use 'omphalos' for the centre, supposedly Toome Road, but much more flexibly, with irreverence, light-heartedness, not the reverence supposedly due to the omphalos. Section 1 of his prose piece 'Mossbawn' is titled 'Omphalos' and here he uses it for the pump outside the back door of his house, 'the centre of another world.' The horses drank from buckets 'as the man pumped and pumped, the plunger slugging up and down, omphalos, omphalos, omphalos.

The omphalos at Delphi, the site of the oracle, was an intensely dramatic place: overlooked by the forbidding crags of Parnassos, a rocky chasm from which swirling vapours rose, a priestess above a cleft in the rock, frenzied or ecstatic, questioned and giving an answer interpreted by a priest, an answer on which so much might depend, even the destiny of nations. Seamus Heaney's omphalos has no impact whatsoever, is 'invisible' but described as 'vibrant.' 'Vibrant' has become an overused and empty word. Any city with a good number of night-clubs and smart restaurants tends to be described as 'vibrant' by the city's tourist board. Describing the omphalos as 'vibrant' does nothing to give it any significance at all in the mind.

Fran Brearton comments on the rhythm of the poem. 'The 'armoured cars / In convoy, warbling along on powerful tyres' begin a (rhythmical) duel in the poem, as once again iambic stresses play against the poet's own (often trochaic) assertions: 'I had rights-of-way, fields, cattle in my keeping'.'

'A (rhythmical) duel' sounds interesting and dramatic. It may bring to mind the 'duel of the timpanists' on either side of the orchestra in Nielsen's 5th Symphony ('The Inextinguishable') but there's nothing remotely resembling a (rhythmical) duel in this poem. The claimed effect of iambic versus trochaic rhythm is imaginary. For example, the rhythm of 'In convoy, warbling along on powerful tyres' has as much right to be called trochaic as 'I had rights of way, fields, cattle in my keeping,'

In 'Creating Irelands of the Mind,' Eugene O' Brien gives this example of mindless analysis, worthy of a place in any contemporary version of George Orwell's essay 'Politics and the English Language.' In the essay, he wrote 'In certain kinds of writing, particularly in art criticism and literary criticism, it is normal to come across long passages which are almost completely lacking in meaning.' (though 'normal' here is much too sweeping.) Eugene O' Brien writes of 'The Toome Road:'

'In a perceptive reading of this poem, and indeed of the later poetry as a whole, Molino suggests that one of the most important aspects of this poetry is the exposure of the plurality of identification that constitutes the individual and collective consciousness (Molino, 1994: 190). I would agree but would make the further point that, when taken in context with the thread of self-interrogation which we have been exploring through his work, this poem enacts this very process. As a parable, the poem takes a paradigmatic incident - the stopping of the "I" at a British army checkpoint, and makes it turn back on itself in a parabolic arc so that it becomes symbolic of the developing aesthetic which we have been examining.'

None of the possible meanings and interpretations of 'paradigmatic' known to me have any other effect than drawing attention to the debatability of the 'paradigmatic' incident - the fact that the paradigmatic incident can be turned back on itself in the poem 'in a parabolic arc' is an operation on something which hasn't been clarified in the least. Did Eugene O' Brien have any clear idea of what he meant by 'paradigmatic' and of what paradigms are? Or was this a casual use of a word for effect, like those casual mentions of 'ontology,' 'metaphysics' and 'epistemology,' and the associated adjectives, which can be found in literary criticism of a certain kind?

By far the most discussed use of 'paradigm' is Thomas Kuhn's use in 'The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,' where it's central to his argument. Paradigms contribute to a theoretical framework. He claims that scientific advance occurs in a revolutionary way, by the overthrow of paradigms and their replacement by incommensurable paradigms. The 'paradigmatic' incident which Eugene O' Brien claims is a temporary interpretation which can be replaced by another temporary interpretation, according to this understanding of paradigm.

Karl Popper criticized Thomas Kuhn's use of paradigm.

'A critical discussion and a comparison of the various frameworks is always possible ... A new insight may strike us like a flash of lightning. But this does not mean that we cannot evaluate, critically and rationally, our former views in the light of new ones.' (Normal Science and its Dangers', I. Lakatos and A. Musgrave (editors), 'Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge.' Quoted in Anthony O' Hear, 'Karl Popper.')

The criticism leaves Eugene O' Brien's use of paradigm just as open to question.

The poem 'From the Frontier of Writing' (The Haw Lantern) is about being stopped by the security forces, once and then again. The phrase 'the frontier of writing' appears between the two experiences: 'So you drive on to the frontier of writing / where it happens again.'

When Seamus Heaney wrote this poem, terrorism was a far more limited threat than now but Northern Ireland was obviously an exception. Bombings were very frequent in Northern Ireland and sometimes occurred in the Irish Republic and mainland Britain but a flight across the Atlantic was unproblematic. Nobody gave any thought to the risk of being blown up by a terrorist bomb. Now, apart from the fanatics themselves, nobody could question the role of the people who assess the passengers on transatlantic flights, who examine their luggage to try to prevent terrorist attacks. The growth of terrorism has given a new perspective on Seamus Heaney's poetry, not at all flattering.

I lived in Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles and I was a regular visitor to Northern Ireland and the Republic after I left. Whenever I was stopped by the security forces, I understood why I'd been stopped, as anyone potentially at risk from terrorism, anyone with any common-sense, would. Seamus Heaney wasn't even searched, according to the poem, and his car wasn't searched. All that happened is that he was looked at and questioned and then allowed to go on his way. The delay that Seamus Heaney experienced isn't recorded but if it was anything like my own experience, the delay was negligible. I very much doubt if he was held up for a minute.

Neil Corcoran claims, 'The poem's interrogation ... clearly has its origin in that made of the driver of a car in Northern Ireland by a member of the security forces. The initial encounter might well recall that of 'The Toone Road' in Field Work, and the effect of gross intrusion is similar, conveyed here by a vocabulary of sexual violation ('the quiver in the self' which leaves it 'emptier' and 'spent.' Seamus Heaney, however, uses 'a little emptier' and 'a little spent.' Neil Corcoran's omission of 'a little' is revealing.)

The 'gross intrusion' and 'sexual violation' in Neil Corcoran's account are so distorted that they must make us question his judgment.

Seamus Heaney's poem is exaggerated and distorted too, but to a far lesser extent. It doesn't support Neil Corcoran's obsessive desire to find 'gross intrusion' and 'sexual violation.'

After being given permission to drive on, Seamus Heaney writes about feeling 'a little emptier, a little spent,' which is far removed from the degradation claimed by Neil Corcoran. The 'quiver in the self' isn't, for anyone with normal responses, anything like the experience of degradation. The words 'subjugated' and 'obedient' used by Seamus Heaney don't convey the experience of degradation either. The words are ridiculous, all the same.

The phrase in the poem 'everything is pure interrogation' can only impress as pure sound, devoid of moral content and almost devoid of meaning. So far from being pure and of one kind, interrogations are of the most varied kinds, from the kind common in totalitarian countries which remove finger-nails, smash bones, dislocate joints, break jaws, leave the victim blinded or with face unrecongnizable, with health ruined for life, the kind of interrogation conducted by the Nazi Klaus Barbie, smashing vertebrae with his spiked ball on the end of a chain - to this far less stressful kind of 'interrogation,' amounting to a few questions and a few searching looks by the security forces, with perhaps a search of the car to find out if there's any explosive there which might smash the bones of innocent victims, break their jaws, leave the victim blinded or with face unrecognizable, health ruined for life, or dead.

Anyone routinely questioned for a very short time, like innumerable other people, whether on the roads of Northern Ireland during the Troubles or now at the airports of North America, Europe and other places, in order to prevent bombings, who complains of a 'quiver in the self' or of feeling 'subjugated,' let alone 'gross intrusion' or 'sexual violation' should have their histrionics under better control. At the time when Seamus Heaney wrote and Neil Corcoran wrote, not nearly as many people had actually had the experience of being looked at and questioned by anti-terrorist personnel. Now that far more people have had this experience, not at all a shattering assault on the self, then they are in a better position to see that Seamus Heaney exaggerates and that Neil Corcoran, like Helen Vendler, exaggerates.

Seamus Heaney may have objected to more than being stopped. He may have felt that the security forces were less than courteous. The security forces may well have been markedly more polite to me as soon as I spoke, someone obviously English. The danger that Seamus Heaney faced in those years or the danger I faced was negligible compared with the danger faced by members of the security forces. Just as it's unrealistic to expect the highest standards of courtesy and etiquette in the heat of a battle, it was unrealistic to expect the highest standards of courtesy and etiquette every time from people who knew that they could be shot by a nationalist sniper or blown up by a nationalist bomb.

Helen Vendler's writes about this less than minor episode 'What is certain is that for Heaney's Irish readers, road-blocks are a hated (and intensely remembered) fact of life ...' She must mean here 'Northern Irish.' The generalization is flagrantly false, but  Northern Irish readers with experience of them are unlikely to  to have memories of them at all intense - they were absolutely routine events. They are far more likely to have had intense memories of the sound of bombs, massive or smaller, the devastation caused by bombs, perhaps the sight of body parts on roads, news of shootings, perhaps witnessing shootings. If they were injured themselves, they're even less likely to regard road blocks as an 'intensely remembered' fact of life. I think, for example, of the woman who lost both legs, an arm and an eye in one IRA bomb explosion. One important purpose of road-blocks was to stop terrorists transporting bombs or weapons by road, and the consequences of doing away with the 'hated' road blocks would have been disastrous. The road blocks served the same purpose as the checks at airports now, intended to stop terrorists taking bombs on to aircraft.

Then Helen Vendler leaves reality even further behind, commenting, about an episode not much more fraught than being stopped at passport control, and no more dangerous, to anyone not transporting a bomb or weapons: 'Its material hellishness and its spiritual purgation are emphasized by its rendition in a version of Dantesque terza rima.' The Dantesque terza rima is used for Paradise as well as the Inferno, but she obviously forgets that.

Terza rima has this rhyme scheme: aba bcb cdc ... The second line of the first 'tercet' gives the rhyme for the first line of the second tercet, the second line of the second tercet gives the rhyme for the first line of the third tercet ... 'From the Frontier of Writing' uses a 'rhyme scheme' with only one point of resemblance with terza rima, the use of 'tercets:' aba cbc ded beb fgf hih jkj lml. But this chaotic rhyme scheme is supposed to emphasize the vision of 'material hellishness' and 'spiritual purgation.'

From the 'Paris Review' interview with Seamus Heaney:


'What about your critics? Is there one you find especially perceptive?



Well, reading Helen Vendler is always a corroboration. She is like a receiving station picking up on each poem, unscrambling things out of word-waves, making sense of it and making sure of it. She can second-guess the sixth sense of the poem. She has this amazing ability to be completely alive to the bleeper going off at the heart of it, sensitive to the intimacies and implications of the words and your way with them, and at the same time she has the ability to create the acoustic conditions where you can hear the poem best, the ability to set it within a historical context and to find its literary coordinates. And then there is just the sheer undimmed enthusiasm. Helen has been a friend to me as well as a critic, and the friendship has been tonic because all that critical élan comes out in her social self as sheer exhilarating intelligence. The great thing about Helen is not just her literary capacity, it's her sense of honesty, justice and truthfulness. I value these things deeply in her as a person and, naturally, they are part of her verity as a critic.'

This interview was published before Helen Vendler's book on Seamus Heaney's poetry but Seamus Heaney has been constant in his admiration for Helen Vendler. For example, this much later comment in 'Stepping Stones:' 'She has intensity, intelligence, perfect pitch - a uniquely gifted listener-in to poems.' This is a very great claim, particularly the 'uniquely gifted ...' It's surely a ridiculous claim. Like so much else that Seamus Heaney says in his interviews and in other places, these comments have the right sound, to many people, but aren't nearly so impressive when examined carefully.

I've much more to say about Helen Vendler in my pages on Seamus Heaney. I give many examples. I've an introductory section, Helen Vendler: a critic's advantages and disadvantages. After introductory comments, I write directly about her uncritical criticism.

The terrorist organizations - of course, the IRA were the most prolific bombers by far - tried to avoid killing 'non-combatants' such as Seamus Heaney and myself, but they were far from perfect, and quite often the non-combatants were blown up. Claims that a group is victimized and that the others are oppressors and morally wrong may be true or not - but the claims have to be considered very, very carefully. Not in every case but in some cases, 'victims' have this advantage over 'oppressors' - they aren't so much more oppressed as more articulate, more energetic in self-promotion, far more inclined to announce their victim status to the world. This poem has to be classified as a 'victim poem,' an inauthentic victim poem, a poem in which Seamus Heaney is uncritical, un-self-critical, complacent - not the authentic victim poetry of, for example, the Holocaust or Stalin's terror.

Neil Corcoran explains that the poem 'takes as its setting a location common in early Auden: the frontier as the transitional zone where clearance involves scrutiny and inspection.' There's no indication at all that the two inspections take place at the frontier between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic and this leaves only the 'frontier of writing,' which is left completely unexplained, unexamined and undeveloped in the poem. The sound of the phrase 'the frontiers of writing' presumably appealed to Seamus Heaney, as it did to Neil Corcoran - it allowed him to bring in early Auden - but the sound signified nothing.

Helen Vendler's comment 'The Haw Lantern's insistence on the equality of presence between the material and the immaterial is brought to geometrical demonstration in the famous poem 'From the Frontier of Writing.' It would need an extended discussion to do justice to all the flaws in this philosophically unformed account. (I use 'philosophically unformed' in the sense of 'not thought through,' 'blissfully ignorant of very comprehensive very relevant, very familiar philosophical discussion.')

Our knowledge of the external world is gained by the senses, according to empiricist philosophers such as Hume. If Helen Vendler was able to argue for the independent existence of tables and chairs, without recourse to the sense of sight and touch, she ought to have argued the case at this point in her book. The phrase 'geometrical demonstration' brings to mind the rationalist philosopher Spinoza's use of the 'geometrical method' in his early work 'Principles of Descartes' Philosophy,' modelled on the 'Elements' of the Greek geometer Euclid, and his 'Ethics.' The geometrical method took the form of propositions with proofs, lemmas and corollaries. I don't think that Helen Vendler intended a 'geometrical demonstration' anything like this. The phrase was probably used just to impress and the words had no clear meaning, or unclear meaning either.

Seamus Heaney and republican punishment: Punishment (North)

Artistically, this is a strong poem, all the stronger for its second section (which, unlike the first, isn't disrupted by flaws of expression), a candid admission which has been attacked by many commentators: the poet's silence and lack of action in the face of punishments he witnessed, even though it would have taken very little courage to have protested:

I who have stood dumb
when your betraying sisters,
cauled in tar,
wept by the railings,

This is moral poorness rather than artistic poorness (or an artistic triumph. This is prose, not poetry. ) Dante, of course, believed that the damned in hell were subjected to torments, if not the particular torments his imagination devised. The 'Inferno' shows moral poorness but not, obviously, artistic poorness. It has deep insight into human frailty and worse, traces of moral grandeur in an artistic design of immense grandeur, and innumerable details - coarse, cruel, repellent, beautiful, fascinating details.

The moral poorness of Dante's Inferno can be appreciated by considering the Introduction and Notes of Anthony Esolen's translation - a fine translation. Astonishingly, this contemporary writer believes in much of Dante's moral theology. It isn't clear if he believes in or approves of the fate of the unbaptized, such as unbaptized babies. He writes, 'because of the taint of original sin they are damned, yet their punishment [described in Canto Four] consists only in knowing that they will never be able to look upon the Lord.' It seems clear that he approves of punishment of the suicides in Canto Fourteen and punishment of the 'sodomites' in Canto Fifteen ('As for the sinfulness of the homosexual act, it follows from Scripture and from Dante's understanding of created nature ...'), if not for the particular brutal but colourful punishments which Dante's imagination devised for them.

'Punishment' shows particularly clearly the misdirected {ordering} of the bog poems: the affectionate diminutive 'little adulteress' and the astonishing 'I almost love you' show a writer who found the victims he explored as a literary archaeologist a more congenial subject for compassionate empathy than the victims of the troubles - except when the victim was a 'character,' as in 'Casualty.' The phrase 'wept by the railings' is vivid, like the vivid descriptions of the damned in Dante, but not compassionate.

The opening lines are effective in their 'micro-phrasing' as well as diction. Showing the boundaries between micro-phrases by brackets.

[ [I can feel] [the tug] ]
[of the halter] [at the nape]
[of her neck,] [the wind]
on her naked front.]

The line break separates 'I can feel the tug' from 'of the halter' and forms separate micro-phrases. Similarly, the next line break separates 'at the nape' from 'of her neck.' The first line, after {resolution} can be separated into smaller components, [I can feel] and [the tug]. 'I can feel' would be effective at the end of a line - 'feel what?' - the answer coming after a slight pause. This is an aspect of effective line enjambment. Here, in the interior of the line, 'I can feel' sets up a similar expectation and creates a slight pause before the answer in the micro-phrase, 'the tug.'

The very short phrases set up a heavy and effective phrase rhythm before the longer phrase with enjambment [the wind on her naked front], appropriately light, has the effect of release, greater amplitude.

There are words and lines which aren't successful, such as 'barked,' which is redundant, the implied contrast between barked and unbarked saplings obviously not tenable. In 'her noose a ring / to store / the memories of love' the ring 'storing' the memories is unexpected, excellent but the memories stored, love, amount to triteness here, and 'tar-black face' is very good, but loose in expression (not 'tar-black' before ' they punished you.') This leaves a succession of lines and images which are good, in phrasing but not in poetic rhythm, such as

her shaved head
like a stubble of black corn,
her blindfold a soiled bandage,

Associations in a poem are often 'ramifying,' to use the word which appears in 'Clearances 8' ('The Haw Lantern'), a reader's individual experiences giving responses not anticipated by the poet or provided for by the poet. The 'frail rigging / of her ribs' and the description of her as 'undernourished' bring to mind for me the large sculpture of the ship carrying emaciated victims of the famine which forms 'The National Famine Monument' in County Mayo, even though the ship has no rigging.

A poem which had only this account of a punishment from long ago would have been quite memorable. The second part, dealing with contemporary punishment and the poet's notorious lack of action, gives a poem with much greater variety, with two time-strata. Like the longer phrase which opens up the poem after the shorter phrases, the contrasting material opens out the poem. In the bog poems, Seamus Heaney's turning to this remote world of suffering and death was a turning away from contemporary suffering and death, and all attempts to argue otherwise fail, I think. It amounted to {substitution}. The claims for contemporary relevance are mistaken or exaggerated. The fact that this second section doesn't show the poet in a heroic light isn't an artistic flaw. Better an inadequate reminder of the contemporary than none at all. But it's a very deep moral flaw.

Seamus Heaney and the hunger strikers: The Cure at Troy

The innocent in gaols
Beat on their bars together.
A hunger-striker's father
Stands in the graveyard dumb.
The police widow in veils
Faints at the funeral home.

(From Seamus Heaney's 'The Cure at Troy.')

In 1978, a bomb exploded under the car of William Gordon, a member of the Ulster Defence Regiment who was taking his children to primary school. He was killed instantly, as was  his ten year old daughter, Lesley, who was decapitated. His seven year old son Richard was severely injured by the blast.

The bomb was planted by Francis Hughes. The year before, he had taken part in an attack on a police vehicle in which one man was killed and another wounded. In 1978, Francis Hughes was captured, after a gun battle in which one soldier was killed and another severely wounded. After his capture, his fingerprints were found on a car used during the killing of a 77 year old Protestant woman.

This is the man, then, who has been described as 'an absolute fanatic,' 'a ruthless killer' who undertook a hunger strike and was the second man to die after the better known Bobby Sands. Francis Hughes came from Bellaghy, County Londonderry (or 'Derry') where Seamus Heaney grew up. The other hunger strikers were violent men too.

The Conservative government refused to grant the paramilitary prisoners political status and the hunger strike followed. Seamus Heaney claimed: 'The Tories were attempting to define the IRA as murderers without any political status whatsoever, attempting to rob their acts of any aura of political motivation or liberation.' ('The Paris Review' interviews.) There was political motivation, that's true enough - but 'the aura of ... liberation' is vile.

In 'Stepping Stones: interviews with Seamus Heaney' the interviewer, Dennis O' Driscoll, asks him,

'Whatever your proper doubts about the ‘propaganda aspect’ of the hunger strikes, had you some sympathy for the men, even some admiration for their courage?

Seamus Heaney answered,

“Of course I had. That was part of the cruelty of the predicament.'

This - the sympathy for the hunger strikers - is more than an inadequate response to the hunger strikers.

At the time of the hunger strikes, Seamus Heaney was about to take refuge in Dante, as he took refuge in Horace to comment on 9/11: Anything can happen. I argue that taking refuge in Dante diminished the impact of his fine poem about a death during the Troubles, The Strand at Lough Beg. At the time of the hunger strikes, he considered using his translation of the Ugolino episode in Dante - Ugolino starved to death. In 'Stepping Stones,' Seamus Heaney says, 'I had toyed with the idea of dedicating the Ugolino translation to the prisoners.' The idea of Seamus Heaney considering the dedication of anything to Francis Hughes and other men of violence is shocking.

The best known of the ten hunger strikers who died is Bobby Sands. From the site ' ... in October 1972 ... he was arrested and charged with possession, after an arms dump containing four handguns were found in a safe house in which he was staying. Sentenced to three years imprisonment ...

'Within six months he was arrested again. This time he and a nine man team had been assembled. Their target - The Balmoral Furniture Company on the Upper Dunmurry Lane.

' ... The IRA had targeted the store, in the full knowledge of the risk to staff and shoppers ... The only reason that Republicans can cite for the attack was “...the extravagantly-priced furniture it sold…”. The plan was to petrol bomb the premises and then to lay explosive charges to spread the flames.'

Information about the other hunger strikers who died - their names, organizations (INLA is 'Irish National Liberation Army) and convictions - by 'convictions' I mean, of course, 'reason for imprisonment,' not 'desire to bring about a united Ireland by shooting and bombing.' These men, like Francis Hughes and Bobby Sands, would have been the beneficiaries of Seamus Heaney's translation from Dante if he hadn't changed his mind.

Raymond McCreesh, IRA. Attempted murder, possession of a rifle, IRA membership
Patsy O’Hara, INLA. Possession of a hand grenade
Joe McDonnell, IRA. Possession of a firearm
Martin Hurson, IRA. Attempted murder, involvement in explosions, IRA membership
Kevin Lynch, INLA. Stealing shotguns, taking part in a punishment shooting
Kieran Doherty, IRA. Possession of firearms and explosives, hijacking
Thomas McElwee, IRA, Manslaughter
Michael Devine, INLA. Theft and possession of firearms.

The INLA is less well known than the IRA but was just as ruthless. Dominic McGlinchey, Chief of Staff of the INLA between 1982 - 1984, had operated with Francis Hughes. 'He once boasted to an Irish reporter that he had murdered at least thirty people.' After the bombing of a pub in Ballykelly, which 'killed seventeen people, eleven of them soldiers and four of them young women ... McGlinchey became the most wanted man in Ireland.' (Jack Holland, 'Hope against History: The Ulster Conflict.')

Seamus Heaney's poem 'Station Island IX' is concerned with Francis Hughes in part. He's described as 'Unquiet Soul,' as if he were a restless artist or the kind of interesting person described by a restless artist. Francis Hughes is evoked with 'My brain dried like spread turf, my stomach / shrank to a cinder and tightened and cracked.' There's mention of his 'activities,' it's true: 'A hit-man on the brink' and '... they should have buried you / In the bog where you threw your first grenade,' but the poem is an inadequate portrayal of this 'fanatical and murderous soul' (which isn't a quotation from the poem.)

None of the hunger strikers' fathers, including the father of Francis Hughes, have shown any remorse for the massive damage caused by some of their hunger-striking sons, the atrocious acts of others. The father of Francis Hughes, who was an IRA man himself, but a long time before, has expressed no remorse for the decapitation of a ten year old girl. None of the fathers of the hunger strikers, to the best of my knowledge, have shown any remorse for the crimes of their sons.

The compassion, or the appearance of compassion of the lines from 'The Cure at Troy,' which seems inclusive or even all-encompassing fails to make distinctions, distinctions which are morally essential.

Seamus Heaney's response was inadequate. Some feeling for futility was required, for sacrifices - courage - which were not only made by morally debased people but which achieved nothing. Henry McDonald's 'Gunsmoke and Mirrors: How Sinn Féin Dressed up Defeat as Victory' is an unflinching account of the futility of the armed struggle, how the armed struggle led to nothing. He quotes Ted Grant, the founder of Militant, who, despite his faults, recognized this futility, as Seamus Heaney failed to do.

'In After the Ceasefire ... Ireland, a Marxist Analysis, Grant gets to the point immediately on page one. The declaration of an unconditional ceasefire by the IRA on the 31st of August 1994 represents a crushing defeat for the policy of individual terrorism [and hunger strikes too] ... the IRA has declared a "complete cessation of violence" without having achieved a single one of its goals.'

'Militant's founder also picks up the theme about the squalid futility of the 'armed struggle': 'Many who joined the Provisionals as fourteen- or sixteen-year olds are now middle aged and have spent all their lives fighting with no end in sight. Many are in gaol, serving long sentences ...'

Seamus Heaney lacked this clear-sightedness.

Jack Holland, in 'Hope against History: The Ulster Conflict' has a memorable passage on futility, although he refers to 'political absurdity,' a concept equally alien to Seamus Heaney. It follows his account of the bombing in early November 1991 (one of the much 'safer' years of the Troubles) 'when the Provisionals left a twenty-pound Semtex device inside the military wing of Musgrave Park hospital in South Belfast, killing two army medics and injuring several children in a nearby civilian ward.'

'The day after the IRA bombed the hospital, Gerry Adams, West Belfast's MP, 'made two statements. In the first, he refused to condemn the bomb attack, saying that the hospital was a 'British military installation'. In the second, he criticized a proposal to take Belfast's leading hospital, the Royal Victoria, which was in his constituency, out of Britain's National Health Scheme and turn it into a trust-funded institution. He said such a move 'would be bad for the hospital, bad for workers, but particularly bad for patients.'

'He made this statement just after television news viewers witnessed pictures of rescue workers digging children from the rubble of the devastated ward; even as he spoke, doctors from Musgrave Park hospital were forced to cancel operations because of the bomb. The juxtaposition was a study in contradictions so startling as to make an observer wonder if the republican movement had lost its grip on reality. There is no more serious way of affecting patient care at a hospital than by planting a bomb in it. But the political absurdity, and cost, of the armed campaign were already obvious to the apparatchniks of Sinn Fein. The party no longer celebrated the IRA's terrorism with an Armalite in one hand and a ballot paper; now, its spokesmen more often than not said they could neither 'condone nor condemn' it. Increasingly cornered as apologists, they employed the evasive vocabulary of people who realize they are defending the indefensible. 'Understanding' the reasons for violence was often the best they could do.'

The hunger strikers' action was futile, and was increasingly recognized as futile even whilst it took place. Jack Holland, 'Hope against History: The Ulster Conflict:' 'As the futility of the protest became more and more apparent, relatives often under pressure from the Catholic Church started to intervene, taking their loved ones off the protest as they lapsed into unconsciousness.'

Summer 1969 (North)

Robert McLiam Wilson (a Catholic) has written about Seamus Heaney and 'unpoetic stuff,' 'Those who would maintain that in writing about hedges and blackberries, Heaney has actually treated the manifestations of political violence in a different manner are entirely fraudulent. Anyone who has actually read Seamus Heaney's work can only conclude that, in the main, he has left out that unpoetic stuff, that very actual mess ... '

This poem is an instance of the Northern Irish troubles touched upon in passing, a token gesture. It begins,

'While the Constabulary covered the mob
Firing into the Falls,

and  hurriedly turns to 'the bullying sun of Madrid, the smells, some of the familiar  sights to be seen in Spain, not forgetting 'bullfight reports / On the television.'

 In this poem, the Troubles are treated in a very perfunctory manner, other poems on the Troubles are grossly inadequate, but Seamus Heaney has written enough to make it obvious, to me at least, that of all the Northern Irish poets, he has written the best poetry of the Troubles, but only about one aspect of the Troubles, the civilian victims, more exactly, two civilian victims. 'The Strand at Lough Beg' (Field Work), about the murder of Colum McCartney is an achievement of a high order. 'Casualty,' also in Field Work, is a highly oblique poem on the violence of the Troubles. Its flaws are not to do with its obliqueness, its {distance} from violence, but to do with poetic technique.

In general, it would be a bad mistake to look to poets for the best, the most truthful account of war, violence, any more than for the best guidance on how to live. It would be a very bad mistake to take Seamus Heaney's line and a half on an event in the summer of 1969 as an undistorted or adequate account. In the poem, the 'Constabulary' are the RUC and the mob are Protestants who are protected by the RUC as they attack Catholics in the Falls Road area.

Tony Geraghty's 'The Irish War: The Military History of a Domestic Conflict' is an excellent account of the conflicts of the time, as of the whole course of the Troubles. After describing an incident in Armagh, he turns to Belfast:

'Worse, much worse, was to come in Belfast. Again, the catalyst was a wolfpack of youths apparently beyond the control of the IRA or other stewards at a time when their intervention might have cooled the situation. Using rocks and petrol bombs, they attacked the police station (or barracks) at Hastings Street in the Catholic Lower Falls Road area. The RUC over-reaction was more than any agent provocateur had a right to anticipate. The RUC drove Shortland armoured cars at the crowd threatening the police building.

'The rioters now shifted their attacks to another police station, half a mile away at Springfield Road, and shots were exchanged. More than one person in the crowd was armed. Meanwhile in Republican Leeson Street, Lower Falls, a grenade was thrown at RUC men using batons to repel and attack. The authorities were now certain that a full-scale, pre-planned IRA uprising was in progress ...'

The next day, the Prime Minister Harold Wilson and his Home Secretary, James Callaghan, 'gave their consent for troops to intervene.' If Seamus Heaney gives the impression that Catholics were being terrorized, with the active help of the police, the truth is very different. Northern Ireland was now in anarchy and the police couldn't control the situation. 'Each community believed the other had a massacre in mind.'

The poetic account always needs supplementing, at the least. Anyone whose reading is mainly of poetry is reading a partial account, of course. Anyone who reads Euripides' insights into war and neglects the insights into Thucydides is missing a very great deal. It  would be a mistake to depend on the  poets of the First World War too exclusively and to neglect historians and works of oral history. Most wars have been far less well served by their poets.

From my page on Feminism:

'Wittgenstein wrote in 'Philosophical Investigations,

' 'A main cause of philosophical diseases - a one-sided diet: one nourishes one's thinking with only one kind of example.'

(Eine Hauptursache philosophischer Krankheiten - einseitige Diät: man nährt sein Denken mit nur einer Art von Beispielen.' (Section 593.) )

'This seems applicable to non-philosophical as well as philosophical expression.'

Very many discussions of poets and poetry do seem to me to show the influence of a monotonous diet, not sufficiently invigorated by non-poetic influences or even anti-poetic influences, in the sense of influences which are  difficult or  impossible to treat in poetic terms. I regard the subject matter of humour as subject to {restriction}. Jokes can't or shouldn't be made about anything. The Holocaust should be excluded, for example. Poetry doesn't have unlimited possible subject-matter either, even if it's scope is far wider, far less subject to {restriction} than the Georgians and some other schools have supposed.

Poets have often looked steadily at death and violence, despite La Rochefoucaulds' maxim (No. 26), 'Neither the sun nor death can be looked at steadily.' ('Le soleil ni la mort ne se peuvent regarder fixement.') Commentators on poetry have often preferred to concentrate entirely on what a poet writes about violence, without examining the violence, taking the poet's treatment of violence on trust. (As with a commentator who takes Seamus Heaney's account of one instance of the violence during the Summer of 1969 in Northern Ireland.)

This may amount to taking refuge in the aesthetic. Seamus Heaney's account of some paintings by Goya in the later part of this poem is far from distancing aestheticism: a heartfelt and convincing account, strengthening the poem rather than weakening it and  the strongest part of the poem, except for the last two lines, which are the weakest.

The transition to this emotionally heated section  after the poorness of

    ... celebrities
Arrived from where the real thing still happened. 

is achieved in startling, understated fashion,:

I retreated to the cool of the Prado.

If only the poem had ended with

For honour's sake, greaved in a bog, and sinking.

'Sinking' would have been 'a dying fall,' (Shakespeare, 'Twelfth Night,' I, 1, 4), a cadence to end the poem convincingly. Goya had a strong interest in bullfighting. I discuss the matter not on the page Bullfighting: arguments against and action against but in the section 'Goya and violence' on the page {adjustment}. In this poem, the portrayal of Goya as a matador is unconvincing, unformed, imposed. The image of Goya painting with his elbows would be enough to undermine this close, but a very little thought given to Goya's supposed opponent, the bull, seals the fate of the lines. History is supposed to be the charging bull and Goya is sundered from the history of which he is part. Since the matador goes on to kill the bull, it has to be supposed that Goya goes on to kill history.

One of my aphorisms: 'After giving birth to a new poem, after the mysterious experience of creativity, the poet has to decide whether or not to commit infanticide.' This is applicable to lines in a poem as well as to complete poems. It would have been kinder if the  last two lines of 'Summer 1969) had not have been allowed to survive.

Seamus Heaney makes some comments about the background to this poem in 'Stepping Stones,' Dennis O' Driscoll's book of interviews with the poet.

He mentions the influence of Lorca and Lorca's essay on 'duende:' 'I ... remember being lifted by the glamour and drive of his essay on the duende.' My own view of Lorca's duende is very different. I discuss it in the section Bullfighting and 'duende' in the page 'Bullfighting: arguments against and action against.'

'In answer to the question, 'In 'Summer 1969', you view the Goyas in the Prado while the Troubles are brewing back home. Was your interest in a painter like Goya given an additional impetus by the fact that he confronted political violence head-on?' he says, amongst other things, 'I wasn't there to study examples of art in a time of violence, I was there just to look, to be in the presence of masterworks that stood their ground and, in that way, steadied you and settled you.' This is a far from fatuous comment, but before that, he had said of Goya's painting 'The Shootings of the Third of May' that 'it was Bloody Sunday avant la lettre.'

On 2 May 1808, a rebellion began in Madrid against the French occupation and about 150 French troops were killed. The rebellion was easily crushed. The next day, hundreds of Madrid citizens were shot by the French in retaliation and there were other reprisals in other parts of Spain. Resistance was strengthened rather than weakened and the Spanish turned to guerilla warfare against the French.

What are the objections to the linkage claimed by Seamus Heaney between the French firing squads which executed citizens of Madrid and the British troops which shot 26 people in Londonderry / Derry in 1972?

In the Peninsular War, the British army, regarded by Seamus Heaney and other nationalists as  agents of oppression, can be regarded as liberators. The Peninsular War was a conflict between France and the alliance of Britain, Spain and Portugal. It began when French and Spanish armies invaded Portugal in 1807. In the following year, France turned on its ally Spain. The war ended with the defeat of Napoleon in 1814.

In 1798, the Irish rebels had turned for help to Napoleon. I discuss some aspects of the rebellion - ones which present difficulties for nationalists - in the section The rebellion of 1798, the Vendée and Napoleon in the page 'Ireland and Northern Ireland: distortions and illusions.'

'Desperate people don't, usually, have a wide choice of potential helpers, from the very enlightened to the very unenlightened. The rebels chose France. France was aggressive and militarist, if in a more high-minded way than than some other aggressive and militarist states have been. France declared war on Austria and Prussia in 1792 and on Britain and Holland in 1793. In his essay, 'Place and Displacement: Recent Poetry from Northern Ireland,' Seamus Heaney writes, 'When England declared war on Revolutionary France, Wordsworth experienced a crisis of unanticipated intensity ....' but this is incorrect. It was France that declared war on Britain, on 1 February 1793.

'France was not only the enemy of Britain, it would also have been, in time, the enemy of Ireland. There's no indication at all that a victorious France would have been more enlightened in its relations to Ireland than Britain. The suffering that Napoleon brought to Europe was enormous.  David Gates estimated that about 5 million people were killed during  the Napoleonic wars (in his book 'The Napoleonic Wars.')  Charles Esdaile estimates that between 5 and 7 million people, troops and civilians, were killed. (Napoleon's Wars: An International History.')  Napoleon was an aggressive invader of other countries. Britain feared invasion by Napoleon and prepared against it. If Napoleon had not been defeated, it's very likely that he would have invaded Britain and that if he had been successful, he would have added Ireland to his list of conquests. The rebels of 1798 looked for help to France and the rebels of 1916 looked for help to Germany. Both appeals, for a Britain with survival at stake, amounted to treachery. All these considerations of international power politics are uncomfortable but inescapable.'

 If many nationalists find it difficult to imagine a more brutal and oppressive military machine than the British army, then extending their reading beyond Irish history would be very helpful. About 300 000 Spanish people were killed during the Peninsular War. If the French had invaded Ireland and occupied the country and the Irish had resisted like the Spanish people during the Peninsular War (Napoleon's hostility to the Roman Catholic Church would have alienated the Roman Catholic Irish on a massive scale), it's likely that the bloodshed would have been immense.

The British army caused harm during the Troubles, and Bloody Sunday is by far the most serious example, but surely saved many, many lives, preventing bombs from being detonated and protecting Catholics from Protestants as well as Protestants from Catholics. I give a fuller account in the page 'Seamus Heaney: ethical depth?' Seamus Heaney and the British army 1: The Toome Road and 2: From the Frontier of Writing.

In many of the cases where the army of a liberal democracy kills innocent people, there are extenuating circumstances, overlooked by commentators who have the advantage of not facing acute danger, in a situation where momentary miscalculations can have lethal consequences. Seamus Heaney got out of Northern Ireland during the Troubles and went to live in Eire, a much safer place. His judgment delivered against the British army was from a place of safety but not from a morally impregnable position, surely.

Unlike the British army, the army of the Irish Republic has behaved 'correctly' at all times, but it has never been tested like the British army, it has never known a baptism of fire and its record is no cause for undue pride. Some soldiers of the British army failed on 'Bloody Sunday' but the record of the British army during the Troubles is cause for justified pride, despite this failure.

Wolfe Tone (The Haw Lantern)

A full recognition of this poem's badness needs some background knowledge, of the man Wolfe Tone and of Seamus Heaney's development.

In an early poem, '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 stature, on the international and not just the regional stage, his significant disadvantages became clearer. Was his poetic mind, or poetic technique, adequate in the least for portraying the realities which disfigured the twentieth century? Could Seamus Heaney, as poet, 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 which killed or ruined the lives of millions more. 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 ...'

This isn't to say that the same vast areas of human experience lie far beyond the reach of his thinking, reflecting, prose writing. Seamus Heaney's 'Envies and Identifications: Dante and the Modern Poet' is one prose piece among many others which shows the breadth of his thinking, reflecting, prose writing. This particular piece is concerned among other things with Mandelstam and Stalin. Here, it's clear that The Great Terror is within his scope, but not as a poet. In poets who write prose, it would be a mistake to identify the poet and prose writer. There are things the poet can do which the prose writer can't, and vice-versa. The poet and the prose writer are often markedly different people. Sometimes the prose works try to attain some poetic qualities but fail, sometimes they have a different purpose. This is the case with Wordsworth's 'Guide to the Lakes,' which is concerned with the same natural settings as so much of his poetry, but is markedly different - exceptionally sensitive, with aesthetic insights of a high order, but without the poet's insight into the inscape of nature, and practical rather than rapt: 'with a description of the scenery , &c. for the use of tourists and residents.'

The Portuguese poet Pessoa (the 'orthonym') devised three 'heteronyms,' three poets writing contrasting poetry. More often than not, every poet who writes literary prose is an orthonym with at least one heteronym.

Wolfe Tone was no precursor of Stalin or Lenin, but he was an important figure, completely committed to establishing an Irish republic by means of armed rebellion. With others, he founded the Society of the United Irishmen, a militant and secret organization. He claimed to have written a proclamation of the Society ordering that Irishmen found to be armed and in the British service should be shot at once. He supported a plan to land French troops in England which would devastate Bristol. To bring about a republican government in an independent Ireland he relied on French military intervention. A French fleet with 14 000 soldiers appeared off the southern coast of Ireland in late 1796 and Wolfe Tone was with them, but adverse weather prevented a landing. In 1798, he took part in a further raid but was captured by the British. He was sentenced to be hanged, but committed suicide by cutting his throat.

W E H Lecky wrote of him, in 'A History of Ireland in the Eighteenth Century,' Vol. V, 'He rises far above the dreary level of commonplace which Irish conspiracy in general represents.' Although ruthlessness was part of his complex personality, F MacDermot wrote in 'Theobald Wolfe Tone and his Times' that he was 'the most lovable as well as the most talented of Irish nationalists. Richard English, in 'Irish Freedom: The History of Nationalism in Ireland,' described him as 'the most convivial of Irish revolutionary heroes' and 'energetic, dynamic, lively, quick-minded and engaging.' And 'Tone saw himself as a lover of liberty, a committed opponent of tyranny.'

This is an example of Wolfe Tone's forceful style, from his 'Memoirs.' It's described in Seamus Heaney's poem as 'well bred. He wrote that ' it had been his aim 'To subvert the tyranny of our execrable government, to break the connection with England, the never failing source of all our political evils, and to assert the independence of my country - these were my objects. To unite the whole people of Ireland, to abolish the memory of all past dissensions, and to substitute the common name of Irishman, in the place of the denominations of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter - these were my means.'

This may sound convincing, but was based on wishful thinking. See my section The rebellion of 1798 for further discussion. Despite his personal qualities, Wolfe Tone was lacking in political sense. He has a secure place in  the pantheon of Irish nationalists who were lacking in political sense. Tony Geraghty, in his fine book 'The Irish War,' writes well about the wishful thinking: 'Tone had dedicated himself to an illusion about he nature of Ireland. This was that the nation's route to independence required violent Republican revolution on the French model. A military incompetent, he refreshed British paranoia about the Irish at a point in time when Ireland's opportunity clearly lay - through Cathelic Relief - in supporting England against its enemies rather than exploiting England's danger.' 

The poem 'Wolfe Tone' is a poem of trivia, not a poem which explores the contradictions of Wolfe Tone:

I affected epaulettes and a cockade,
wrote a style well-bred and impervious

to the solidarity I angled for,
and played the ancient Roman with a razor.

The style of the poem is well-bred and impervious to any insights of any importance.

To describe the courageous man who cut his own throat when faced with certain execution as 'playing the ancient Roman with a razor' is contemptible. It's surely Seamus Heaney's own style which is 'well bred' in this poem, and impervious to any deeper demands.

He addressed the court martial in these terms:

'I entered into the service of the French republic with the solve view of being useful to my country. To contend against British Tyranny, I have braved the fatigues and terrors of the field of battle; I have sacrificed my comfort, have courted poverty, have left my wife unprotected, and my children without a father. After all I have done for a sacred cause, death is no sacrifice. In such enterprises, everything depends on success: Washington succeeded - Kosciusko failed. I know my fate, but I neither ask for pardon nor do I complain. I admit openly all I have said, written, and done, and am prepared to meet the consequences.

He knew that he had no hope of avoiding the death sentence but asked to be shot, as a soldier. The request was refused and he was sentenced to be hanged. He cut his throat on 11 November 1798 and died on 19 November.

Given the deeply flawed nobility of Wolfe Tone's life and the unequivocal nobility with which he faced death, the tone of Seamus Heaney's poem is shocking, and Helen Vendler's tone-deaf interpretation of the poem (in her review, 'Second Thoughts: The Haw Lantern) is shocking. She understands the tone of the poem very well, but fails to understand its frivolity: ' ... the poem has a dryness and reticence all its own.'

This Travesty of a poem ends with an evocation of the storm at sea which prevented a French landing and the landing of Wolfe Tone. The last line is feeble but at least Seamus Heaney puts the poem out of its misery after relatively few lines.

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

Seamus Heaney and bullfighting: Tate's Avenue (District and Circle) and writing on
W H Auden

Bullfighting: arguments against and action against gives a comprehensive statement of arguments against bullfighting.

Seamus Heaney's poem 'Tate's Avenue' includes the lines

Laid out by the torrents of the Guadalquivir
Where we got drunk before the corrida.

I claim that in 'Tate's Avenue,' it's Seamus Heaney and not someone else who is planning to attend a bullfight. Jonathan Reekie claimed that this is ' ... a piece that Seamus Heaney wrote about somebody else.' I now have decisive evidence that the part of the poem 'Tate's Avenue' set in Belfast has an autobiographical basis and no reason whatsoever to suppose that the part of the poem set in Spain - before the bullfight - is anything other than autobiographical.

In the poem, there's a description of lying on a rug in Belfast in the warmth:

A walled back yard, the dust bins high and silent

In 'Stepping Stones: interviews with Seamus Heaney' (published by Faber and Faber, the publisher of his poetry) Seamus Heaney, in his own words, tells the interviewer, Dennis O' Driscoll, that

' 'Death of a Naturalist' I wrote in one of the flats on a Sunday afternoon, after lying out in the sun with Marie [his future wife] and her flatmates at the back of a place they had in Tate's Avenue. The dead heat in their little back garden and the reek of litter bins in the alley behind the houses reminded me of the stink of flax in the dam years before.' Tate's Avenue is a road in Belfast. For most of the time he lived in Belfast, Seamus Heaney lived in a street which runs in parallel with Tate's Avenue and about 100 metres from it. (He lived at 16 Ashley Avenue.)

Does Seamus Heaney claim that the Belfast episode in 'Tate's Avenue,' lying out on a rug, is autobiographical, the Spanish episode - lying out on a rug before attending a bullfight, the rug

Laid out by the torrents of the Guadalquivir
Where we got drunk before the corrida.

not at all autobiographical, conveniently fictional?

If the lines in 'Tate's Avenue,' supposedly, aren't about Seamus Heaney at all but about other people, then he could just as well have written

... by the torrents of the Guadalquivir
Where they got drunk before the corrida.

My italics, of course. This would have entailed no artistic disadvantages at all. Seamus Heaney might be advised to put out a statement with information as to who these people were who were preparing to attend a bullfight, if they weren't purely fictional - after first putting out an unambiguous statement that he was not preparing to attend a bullfight, as described in 'Tate's Avenue' and did not go on to attend a bullfight. But he can't possibly deny that he hasn't attended at least one bullfight, in view of what he says in 'Stepping Stones,' and perhaps a number of bullfights or even a large number.

Seamus Heaney's poem 'Summer 1969' has

We sat through death counts and bullfight reports
On the television ...

This is one of those instances of 'we' which have been in existence for a long time, the subject of commentary for a long time, and it can be fairly assumed, assumed with a very high degree of probability, that the 'we' here includes Seamus Heaney. It can be fairly assumed that he had ample opportunity to see bullfight reports on Spanish television. These would have supplemented the experience of attending at least one bullfight, and possibly far more than that. At just one bullfight, he would have witnessed something like fifty stabbings, six or more sword thrusts and probably a number of blows intended to sever the spine of the bull, enough blood to satisfy all but the most bloodthirsty of spectators, and horses terrorized, or worse. Anyone who had seen these and actually opposed bullfighting would be overwhelmingly unlikely to write so casually about attending a corrida, fictionally or non-fictionally.

In a prose piece, he writes of W H Auden, in a failed and laboured attempt at vivid imagery. (For my study of imagery see the page Metaphor.) He writes:

'When he faced the bull of reality, he was more a banderillero than a picador or matador: he made nimble dashes at the neck muscles, conspicuously rapid and skilful forays that were closer to the choreographer's than to the killer's art, closer to comedy than tragedy.

'Yet in the beginning, this metaphor invoking the panache of the corrida would not have served.'

So, he thinks that the six barbed banderillas thrust into the neck of the bull are light relief. The bull in the image above has been treated to those six 'nimble dashes' with the banderillas (one of them has been detached) - this is after the picador's lance has been thrust two or three times into the neck - in a choreography 'closer to comedy than tragedy.'

See also my discussion of Rilke's poem Corrida: In memoriam Montez, 1830

in which the bull, according to Rilke,

... took the stubbornness of the picador
and the beribboned barbs as a game.'

There was comedy in the bullfight for Ernest Hemingway too, similarly perverse and perverted comedy, but not in connection with the stabbing of the bull with those six barbed darts. He wrote in 'Death in the Afternoon,' 'I believe that part of the bullfight which inflicts most pain and suffering, some of it useless, on the bull is the placing of the banderillas.' In connection with the 'nimble dashes' of the banderillero, see my comments on the nimble movements  of gladiators in the next section.

Seamus Heaney's response in 'Stepping Stones: interviews with Seamus Heaney' to Dennis O' Driscoll's question, Did you take to the bullfight?

' ... it's still hard to know, even after you've been in attendance [he doesn't make clear how many bullfights he's attended]. I'm not sure what I'd feel about it nowadays ... I'm not saying it was without its cruelties, especially the goring of the bull by the picadors: a big iron-headed spear driving into the neck muscles and then the sweaty bleeding; that was brutal stuff.' I point out that it's common for bullfight supporters to acknowledge the brutality of the picador's spearing of the bull. This is no evidence of moral insight at all. 'I'm not saying it was without its cruelties' is half-hearted. Many bullfighting supporters have greater reservations than are expressed here. They acknowledge the suffering to the bull when lanced by the picador (but maintain that this is necessary so that the bull's head will be lowered in the final act) but they also acknowledge the suffering of the picador's horse when charged by the bull - not mentioned by Seamus Heaney.

Seamus Heaney continues with a passage which is indistinguishable from the writing of a bullfight supporter - the mention of 'choreography' and the rest. The tourists who walk out in disgust from a bullfight (A L Kennedy mentions some of them in her book 'On Bullfighting) show greater ethical depth than Seamus Heaney. He writes,

'But gradually, I would find myself in a kind of trance: the choreography in the ring and the surge and response of the crowd with the music going on and on just carried you away. And your focus stayed tight on the man and the bull. There was something hypnotic about the cloak-work ... Once you've been there, you're implicated, you have some inkling of what it must have been like in the Colosseum.'

I discuss

 Seamus Heaney and the Colosseum below.

Before interviewer and interviewee leave the subject of bullfighting, there's this reply from Seamus Heaney which is as complete a claim for the transcendental importance of bullfighting as you'll find anywhere. It even has the Hemingway-endorsement:

'I ... felt that I'd been beyond my usual self ... You'd been taken up to a high mountain and shown things in yourself and the world, things you couldn't deny because - like Hemingway - you had been there.'

A reminder of the starting point for Seamus Heaney's transcendental experiences: the image at the top of this page of a bull speared by the picador, with three of the six 'comic' banderillas visible, with the third 'act' (a stabbing or multiple stabbings) still to come, a very harrowing and often protracted affair, to anyone without the capacity for higher, transcendental vision.

From the Website of the French anti-bullfighting organization 'Alliance anti-corrida,' 'Bullfights use the very perverse effects of seduction: colours, costumes full of light, brass bands, sunshine. Everything is set up in order to mask the bloody reality.' But the bloody reality is only masked for people who are easily deceived.

Bullfighters and bullfighting supporters aren't 'Nazis' - this is a word that has to be used very carefully - but there are linkages in their use of seduction and propaganda and in their mythologizing. Nazi Germany understood very well how to seduce the senses and mask the reality of its brutal and degraded regime: torchlit processions, the vast displays of might at Nuremberg. Leni Riefenstahl's film 'Triumph of the Will' shows the Nuremberg uses Wagner's 'Götterdämmerung, the beating of drums, the singing of the Horst Wessel-Lied, the shadow of Hitler's plane, the consecration of Nazi Party flags, a giant swastika, silhouetted men, vast numbers of men. Ethical depth so often requires looking beyond the seductive appearance and if most Germans at the time never did so, some Germans were never fooled, and often paid with their lives.

Nazi Germany used classical music too to mask its crimes. The great conductor Furtwängler tried to assert his independence but by the mid 1930's had effectively lost it. From Norman Lebrecht's 'Facing the Dictators' in 'The Maestro Myth: 'For the remainder of their Reich, the Nazis were able to do with him virtually as they pleased. He was the last internationally recognized conductor in Germany - Erich Kleiber had quit over the Hindemith case - and they used him blatantly for propaganda purposes. He conducted at party functions and, in two occupied countries, was driven to his concerts in an SS motorcade. 'He has done us great service abroad,' noted a satisfied Goebbels. Months into the War he added: 'Furtwängler reports on his trips to Switzerland and Hungary. He met with triumphal success everywhere. We can put him to good use, and at the moment he is very willing. He intends now to keep an eye on the music world in Vienna. And to go to Prague to raise our musical prestige.'

Whilst the regime took good care to manipulate the image, its regime of terror didn't spare the world of classical music. Jewish members of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra were sent to the gas chambers. William L Shirer, 'The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,' of the purges of June 1934, not directed at classical musicians but with this casualty: 'One other murder deserves mention. At seven-twenty on the evening of June 30, Dr Willi Schmid, the eminent music critic of the Muenchener Neueste Nachrichten, a leading Munich daily newspaper, was playing the cello in his study while his wife prepared supper and their three children, aged nine, eight and two, played in the living-room of their apartment in the Schackstrasse in Munich. The doorbell rang, four S.S. men appeared and without explanation took Dr Schmid away. Four days later his body was returned in a coffin with orders from the Gestapo not to open it in any circumstances. Dr Willi Schmid, who had never participated in politics, had been mistaken by the S.S. thugs for Will Schmidt, a local S.A. leader, who in the meantime had been arrested by another S.S. detachment and shot.'

The mythologizing of Nazi Germany was flagrant and pervasive, based on lies which were known to be lies. The mythologizing of the bullfighting world is romanticized mythologizing. I discuss it in my pages on Bullfighting and my review of A L Kennedy's 'On Bullfighting.'

Seamus Heaney says in the interview, of attending a bullfight, 'I had to go ...' Anti-bullfighting organizations do all they can to undermine the finances of the bullrings and the whole bullfighting industry. They point out again and again that tourists, people curious about the bullfight who attend bullfights are supporting the bullfight with their money.

An editor who was compiling a book of quotations in favour of bullfighting would surely be very, very interested in securing Seamus Heaney's permission to include what Seamus Heaney says about bullfighting in 'Stepping Stones.' The reservations in the book are minor compared with the fact that Seamus Heaney claims rapt, intense, deeply significant experience at a bullfight.

When Seamus Heaney said of the bullfight, 'You'd been taken up to a high mountain and shown things in yourself and the world ...' it's very unlikely that there was a conscious reference to the third temptation of Christ: 'Again, the devil took Him to a very high mountain, and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world ...' (Gospel according to Matthew, 4: 8) but the similarity in wording is very striking. In The Paris Review interview with Seamus Heaney he says that he doesn't know if he believes in the devil or not, an answer which will surprise many readers with a secular world view. (He also elaborates on a comparison he had made between the work of the poet and Jesus writing in the sand.)

Seamus Heaney would have done better to have acknowledged that he'd attended a bullfight or more than one bullfight - if he's attended twenty or thirty then he should be honest and say so, of course. If the account can be trusted in 'Stepping Stones,' he last attended a bullfight a long time ago, and he could have asserted that this was so. (As I only recently found out about the account, this is a claim I haven't been aware of for very long.) I don't, however, see it as 'disrespectful' to call for a little fact-checking, some corroboration, for this. In the controversy that followed by leafletting, he failed to admit that he'd attended a bullfight, despite the clear evidence of his answers in 'Stepping Stones.' People have already been given the impression, surely, that Seamus Heaney has never attended a bullfight. The image of Seamus Heaney as someone with such a high degree of 'ethical depth' has to be preserved. I don't think it's impossible that Seamus Heaney has attended a bullfight, or bullfights, more recently than the 1960's.

I don't think that Seamus Heaney's answers to the questions of interviewers were always as straightforward as they seem. Often, his answers, for all the appearance of uninhibited freshness, have a caution, a prudence, a discretion which I've good reason to think aren't virtues. Some literary people have been very outspoken on topics such as Moslem extremism, the drastic action taken against Salman Rushdie (I'm trying at the moment to find out if Seamus Heaney was one of the writers who signed the statement in his support - I've no reason to think that he didn't) to confine attention to just one set of issues. In general, Seamus Heaney is neither outspoken nor, course, one of those writers who are intensely private, who only rarely speak about their art, let alone other issues. 'The most public of burials for the most private of men.' This heading of a report in 'The Irish Times' on the funeral of Seamus Heaney' is purely and simply a product of the word-sphere. Its falsity should be obvious.

In a review of 'Stepping Stones' published in 'The New Criterion,' William Logan wrote 'The poet needed few excuses for moving out of Belfast in 1972, during some of the worst of the sectarian murders; but those offered (“The apprenticeship was over …” he says. “The required thing was to step away a bit”) prove no less shifty and unconvincing than Auden’s for emigrating to America in the shadow of World War II.'

Jeffrey Side, in an essay published in 'Jacket Magazine' with the title The Dissembling Poet   comments on the distortions he finds in Seamus Heaney's response to the avant-garde in poetry and claims that he's 'practised in casuistry and dissembling.' Seamus Heaney's statements shouldn't necessarily be taken at face value. Seamus Heaney's response to a very different matter, bullfighting, has to be examined very carefully, sceptically rather than unthinkingly. If a politician claims 'I support X' or 'I don't support Y,' interviewers, unless completely uncritical, don't regard that as the end of the matter and report that obviously the politician supports X or doesn't support Y. The claim has to be scrutinized. I think that Seamus Heaney, who has certainly cultivated his public persona, is quite often speaking as the poet-politician. I don't in the least regard all politicians with cynicism. There are many politicians I respect and admire, but complete acceptance of everything politicians say is obviously unwise. Some of what Seamus Heaney had to say was humane and well-informed and I see no reason to regard everything he says with cynicism. I see no reason, though, to accept completely everything he had to say. This is a very radical idea to some people in the literary world and the world of literary journalism.

I'd say that I'm suspicious of 'the trance' which Seamus Heaney mentions in his reply. 'The trance' is a perfectly possible response at a bullfight but all the accounts known to me which have a bearing on the matter - by bullfighting supporters - agree on the rarity of such an experience: for the stabbing and killing of a single bull, even, but certainly for the stabbing and killing of all six bulls at a bullfight. If the cape work at the 'faena' has brought about a trance, it's more likely than not to be dissipated at the time of the killing.

Again and again, the sword thrust fails to kill the bull. The sword hits bone or is embedded in the bull without killing it. In the image at the top of this section, the sword intended to kill the bull can be seen embedded in the bull with its handle protruding but the bull is still on its feet. The bull is encouraged to turn so that the sword rips its internal organs, but often this fails to work. The sword is pulled out and plunged in again or the spine is hacked with a knife or a sword with a broad blade, the 'descabello,' before the bull is dragged out of the arena.

In 'Death in the Afternoon,' Hemingway describes the killing of a bull, the first bull he ever saw killed, claiming high emotion. He describes the killing of the second bull at this same bullfight: ' ... when, on the next bull, I watched closely the emotion was gone and I saw it was a trick.' The other four bulls at this bullfight likewise. 'I saw fifty bulls killed after that before I had the emotion again.' But again, I refer to my discussion 'skepticism and the emotions' to make clear my view of the 'emotion' Hemingway felt when he saw this first bull killed.

Such transcendental emotions may seem to be very powerful arguments in favour of bullfighting (which is why an editor of a pro-bullfighting book would be very interested in securing permission to print his words) but when they are examined carefully, it's found that they are ineffective arguments. See my discussion of scepticism and the emotions in my page on Bullfighting: arguments against and action against.

From that section: 'Nietzsche, 'Thus spake Zarathustra,' Part 3: 'For man is the cruellest animal. At tragedies, bullfights and crucifixions, he has hitherto been happiest on earth...' People are denied the intense emotions of a crucifixion for very good reasons: not due to modern squeamishness or sentimentality, but due to a real modern advance. Moral advances in our attitude to animals make the strong emotions of the bullfight just as wrong.'

The reservations concerning bullfighting in Seamus Heaney's 'Stepping Stones' interview are very muted in comparison with the reservations expressed in this account (from the Website of Alexander Fiske-Harrison: 'Whether or not the artistic quality of the bullfight outweighs the moral question of the animals’ suffering is something that each person must decide for themselves ...

'I spent most of last year travelling with bullfighters to watch them work in bullrings and ranches of Spain, France and Portugal. Following a couple of forays into the ring myself – including running with the bulls in Pamplona – this year I am training with the matador Eduardo Dávila Miura in order to kill a single bull so I can finish the project with a true sense of completeness.

'Although many will argue that this destroys any semblance of impartiality in my writing, that does not mean I do not understand – and write about – the horrible cruelties involved in bullfighting.

'There is simply no denying that watching many bullfights in a row inures one to the spectacle of the fight, and undoubtedly to the suffering of the animal.'

It would be difficult to describe a man who recently ran with the bulls at Pamplona and has been training as a bullfighter as a 'don't know' rather than a supporter of the bullfight.

Seamus Heaney and 'pests:' The Early Purges

Prevention of cruelty' talk cuts ice in town
Where they consider death unnatural,
But on a well-run farm pests have to be kept down.

The 'pests' are unwanted kittens and pups. The poem describes the drowning of some kittens. It could be claimed that Seamus Heaney is simply conveying the attitude of the man who carried out the drowning, Dan Taggart, but it can also be claimed that in this poem, there's insufficient {distance} between Dan Taggart and the poet.

Here is J M Coetzee writing in his direct and unadorned way about dogs, some of the reasons which lead an animal lover to destroy dogs, and a tragic dilemma presented unflinchingly, without sentimentality, in a way well beyond the scope of Seamus Heaney in this poem or in any of his poetry. This is from J M Coetzee's novel 'Disgrace:' 'The dogs that are brought in suffer from distempers, from broken limbs, from infected bites, from mange, from neglect, benign or malign, from old age, from malnutrition, from intestinal parasites, but most of all from their own fertility. There are simply too many of them. When people bring a dog in they do not say straight out, 'I have brought you this dog to kill,' but that is what is expected...'

The contrast here between Seamus Heaney's poem and J M Coetzee's prose writing is very marked. E M Forster used this method of instructive contrast in 'Lecture 7: Prophecy,' later published as part of 'Aspects of the Novel.' He compared a passage from George Eliot's 'Adam Bede' with a passage from Dostoevsky's 'The Brothers Karamazov' and said, ' ... the differences between them will define itself at once exactly if I read two passages from their works. To the classifier the passages will seem similar [these are the linkages, to the classifier]: to any one who has an ear for song [but this stresses melodious rather than moral-aesthetic depth] they come out of different worlds.' E M Forster could have chosen Prince Myshkin's words on the guillotine, from Chapter V of Dostoevsky's 'The Idiot,' which would have put into even sharper focus the limitations of George Eliot's presentation of Hetty in 'Adam Bede,' 'condemned to die for the murder of her illegitimate child' and Dostoevsky's presentation of the man who was soon to die under the guillotine, altogether superior, not just superior as 'prophecy.'

To return to the subject of animal killing, for a time, I worked with an animal rescue organization. The organization started out with a determination to put down no healthy animal. Then the secretary, an uncompromising animal rights activist, put the bleak facts before the committee. There was a dog which had been in the kennels for a very long time. Its chances of adoption were vanishingly small. As long as it occupied kennel space, dogs which could well be adopted would have to be turned away. Putting down this dog would almost certainly allow other gods to have a chance of being rehomed and of living. The organization was offering subsidized spaying and neutering to reduce the problem of unwanted puppies and kittens but when they had already been born, a decision had to be made about what to do with them - and allowing them to die by starvation or disease, the Malthusian solution, was the worst solution of all. We voted to have the dog put down. Once, when I was at the offices, there was a litter of kittens which the Secretary had just put down, using a lethal overdose.

On the farm in County Derry, Dan Taggart drowned the kittens. He wouldn't have been able to give the kittens a lethal overdose. My argument is not with the putting down of animals, when there's no feasible alternative, but with Seamus Heaney's avoidance of any creative tension between the harshness of reality and humane values, and the stupidity of his supposition that this harshness is recognized in the country but not in towns. In a recent case in this country, a man was convicted of drowning a squirrel he'd trapped. Squirrels are pests, I see the need to cull - kill - them, in some circumstances, but by the recommended method of a blow to the head. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals recommends that trapped squirrels should be taken to a veterinary surgeon for humane, but very expensive, destruction. This particular ethical stance has the disadvantage of being impractical.

Seamus Heaney and the starving  (Human Chain)

From my review of Human Chain.

'The 'rougher world outside' makes an appearance in this volume as in previous volumes, but only briefly. The opening stanza of the title poem 'Human Chain' has

Seeing the bags of meal passed hand to hand
In close-up by the aid workers, and soldiers
Firing over the mob ...

but we are back in familiar territory even before the end of the stanza:

... I was braced again

With a grip on two sack corners,
Two packed wads of grain ...

Seamus Heaney has such obvious strengths in the rendering of some aspects of physical experience, and such obvious weaknesses in the rendering of other aspects (not back-breaking work which ruins the health of the worker, for example). He can render the Great Famine in Ireland long ago, but not famine now, famine in a distant country. His compassionate imagination, his compassionate empathy, are severely limited. His imagination isn't wide reaching.

Noticeable in '... soldiers / Firing over the mob' is Seamus Heaney the Recycler. This is all too similar, of course, to 'Summer 1969' ('North'):

While the Constabulary covered the mob
Firing into the Falls ...

but far more importantly, the phrase ' ... soldiers / Firing over the mob' is disturbing. The obvious interpretation is that 'the mob' is made up of starving people or hungry people who are trying to get at the meal. The starving or hungry people are 'the rabble.' If it's now claimed that the callous soldiers viewed the starving or hungry people as 'the mob,' then I'd make the obvious point that there was a simple way of showing this:

Seeing the bags of meal passed hand to hand
In close-up by the aid workers, and soldiers
Firing over 'the mob' ...

See also my poems on The Great Famine in the section The distortions of Irish history: 'The Irish Famine: Doo Lough' and 'The Irish famine: The Potato Eaters.'

Seamus Heaney and Victor Hugo

Victor Hugo was a writer who had public prominence and made use of it for furthering the causes which he felt had a moral claim on him. I only discuss this aspect here, not ethical depth in his literary work. Victor Hugo's character wasn't 'saintly' (using the word for convenience and interpreted in a strictly secular way) but his imperfections were surely far less important than his strengths.

Compare the tone of this, far more heartfelt than anything in Seamus Heaney (from 'The Essential Victor Hugo,' new translations by E H and A M Blackmore: very comprehensive and impressive.)

'A Prayer (the title supplied by the translators)

... I'm thinking about a poor ragged creature I met yesterday near Fort Regent. She's very young and looks old. She was holding hands with a little girl (aged 7 or 8) less tattered than herself. I gave her some money and asked her how old she was. She replied: 'Seventeen.' She prostitutes herself to the soldiers for two sous. It's dreadful.

O Lord, have mercy on everything that suffers, on everything that has stumbled or could stumble, on earth and beyond our earth; on all those who are fortunate, all those who are righteous, all those who are unfortunate; on my poor daughter Adèle, on my little darlings Georges and Jeanne, on all those who are innocent, on all those who are guilty, on all those who are unjust, on all those who are downcast, on Louis Bonaparte, on myself. Have mercy on my poor little Adèle. Have mercy. Release, forgive, redeem, transfigure! Have mercy on her and on me, and on my dear son Victor, and on me, and on everyone, and on me. Have mercy!'

Compare the tone of this, markedly similar in tone and theme to Victor Hugo's 'A Prayer,' and again remote from the world of Seamus Heaney. It comes from Dostoevsky's 'Summer Impressions:'

'In the Haymarket I noticed mothers who brought their little daughters to make them ply that same trade. Little girls, aged about twelve, seize you by the arm and beg you to come with them. I remember once among the crowd of people in the street I saw a girl, not older than six, all in the rags, dirty, barefoot and hollow-cheeked; she had been severely beaten, and her body, which showed through the rags, was covered in bruises ... what struck me most was the look of such distress, such hopeless despair, on her face that to see that tiny bit of humanity already bearing the imprint of all that evil and despair was somehow unnatural and terribly painful. I went back and gave her sixpence. She took the small silver coin, gave me a wild look of frightened surprise, and suddenly ran off as fast as her legs could carry her, as if afraid that I should take the money from her.'

The translators explain in their notes the allusions in 'A Prayer' and give information about Victor Hugo's political activity in their introduction. Fort Regent is a fort on Jersey. Victor Hugo was in exile in the Channel Islands from 1852 to 1870. The background is this:

'In April 1845 the government of King Louis-Philippe awarded him a peerage, and on 19 March 1846 he made his first speech in the House of Peers, advocating support for the people of Poland in their struggles against Tsarist Russia. During the next couple of years, the political situation in France itself became more and more critical; in February 1848 a revolution broke out, and the monarchy was overthrown. Hugo stopped work on Les Misérables and, as a member of the new republican government, devoted most of his attention to politics. His concerns were characteristic. He spoke against the imposition of martial law (2 September 1848), against capital punishment (15 September 1848), against censorship of the press (11 October 1848). Over the next three years, as the main body of the Assembly became more reactionary, Hugo was increasingly associated with the left-wing minority, the radicals and reformers. On 17 June 1851, he publicly accused the Assembly,s president, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, of plotting to seize absolute power. His speech was greeted with almost constant heckling; 'Nobody here is thinking of an empire', shouted one member of the right-wing majority. Four and a half months later, however, the predicted coup occurred. Louis-Napoléon became dictator of France, and Hugo slipped away to the Channel Islands, where he was joined by his family and friends.'

Adèle, by this time permanently psychotic, and Victor were his children, Georges and Jeanne his grandchildren. 'her' is Juliette Drouet. 'His wife had become romantically involved with his friend Sainte Beuve ...In the wake of this, the poet himself began a liaison with the actress Juliette Drouet, whom he met at the beginning of 1833. Nineteenth-century myth-makers glorified and aggrandized the great man's sex life ...As usual, the truth, were it can be established, turns out to be neither as glamorous nor as scandalous as the legends. We now know that the relationship was sexual only in its earliest years ... Moreover, as early as mid - 1834 Hugo had already established a partial reconciliation with his wife. The resulting situation was rich in tensions and complications - Adèle and Juliette were not to meet for more than twenty years, though by that time they had long been living in adjacent houses - yet it must have had a fundamental stability, because it endured.'

An ethical sense and ethical action are far from being one thing, which all writers can be expected to understand in a similar way. I've written in this site about the holocaust and about the terror in Stalinist Russia. These are amongst the moral issues of particular importance, but writers who think ethically should be expected to engage with many more issues. Some of them are the subject of differences of opinion and need very close examination. In this site, I argue for and discuss in detail the ethical importance of opposing the death penalty Victor Hugo was a committed opponent of the death penalty. From my page on the death penalty:

'The French senator and former Minister of Justice Robert Badinter spoke to honour Victor Hugo's opposition to the death penalty. Robert Badinter dedicated himself to the abolition of the death penalty after a man he had defended as a lawyer was executed, even though the man had not killed anyone. He was very closely involved in the movement that finally ended the death penalty in France. He continues to fight against the death penalty. Robert Badinter also has a place of honour in this section. He said of Victor Hugo:

'While Hugo is renowned for his literary genius, the French writer also had a lifelong opposition to the death penalty.' He began by noting that Hugo was a man who, unlike many other people, became less conservative with age.


Hugo's approach to fighting the death penalty was different from both those who preceded him and his contemporaries, in Badinter's view.

'Hugo went beyond the use of intellectual discussion to make his point. He decided that he would put the reader in the condition of a man who was sentenced to death and is waiting for his execution,' Badinter said. An example of this is Hugo's novel The Last Day of the Condemned.

'Literature, however, was not Hugo's only means of expression. Whenever he found out that an execution was to take place or if someone ever requested his help, Hugo immediately took action by giving speeches and writing letters. Badinter said Hugo came to the aid of American abolitionist John Brown when he was sentenced to death.

'What made Hugo's efforts so remarkable, according to Badinter, is the continuity of his struggle. His work was constant and always done with passion. Badinter said that Hugo never had doubts about his position, even when the person sentenced had committed atrocious crimes. "For me, the assassin is no longer an assassin, the arsonist no longer an arsonist, and the thief no longer a thief. He is a quivering human being who is about to die," Badinter said while quoting Hugo's work.

'Later in Hugo's life, he became a senator...His final political move was presenting a proposal for abolishing the death penalty in which he wrote, "happy is he of whom it one day may be said in leaving this world he took with him the death penalty."'

To my knowledge, Seamus Heaney has paid no attention at all to the death penalty. For many years, he lived part of the year in The Land of the Lethal Injection - The United States - at a time when executions have been taking place regularly, including the execution of the mentally ill, and, until not so long ago, juvenile offenders. Most other writers from the British Isles who have lived in the United States or still live there have been just as unconcerned, such as Geoffrey Hill, Paul Muldoon and Christopher Ricks. The writer Christopher Hitchens is an exception, and exceptional, a very committed opponent of the death penalty.

In December 2010 December 22, 2010: The United Nations General Assembly approved a new resolution in favour of a universal moratorium on the death penalty. The groups who had called for a moratorium on the death penalty included many Nobel Prize Winners, who issued a statement - Seamus Heaney not amongst them. These are the Nobel Laureates who did sign:

Peter Agre, Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 2003, United States
Paul Berg, Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1980, United States
Gunter Blobel, Nobel Prize in Medicine, 1999, United States
Arvid Carlsson, Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, 2000, Sweden
Steve Chu, Nobel Prize in Physics, 1997, United States
Mairead Corrigan Maguire, Nobel Prize in Peace, 1976, Ireland
James Cronin, Nobel Prize in Physics, 1980, United States
Paul Crutzen, Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1995, Netherlands
Robert Curl, Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1996, United States
Jean Baptiste Dausset, Nobel Prize in Medicine, 1980, France
Shirin Ebadi, Nobel Prize in Peace, 2003, Iran
Manfred Eigen, Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1967, Germany
Richard Ernst, Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1991, Switzerland
John B. Fenn, Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 2002, United States
Edmond H. Fisher, Nobel Prize in Medicine 1992, United States
Val Fitch, Nobel Prize in Physics, 1980, United States
Dario Fo, Nobel Prize in Literature, 1997, Italy
Walter Gilbert, Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1980, United States
Sheldon Lee Glashow, Nobel Prize in Physics, 1979, United States
Mikhail Seergeevich Gorbachev, Nobel Prize in Peace, 1990, Russia
Paul Greengard, Nobel Prize in Physiology, 2000, United States
Roger Guillemin, Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, 1977, France
Tenzin Gyatso (DALAI LAMA), Nobel Prize in Peace, 1989, Tibet
Leland H. (Lee) Hartwell, Nobel Prize in Medicine, 2001, United States
Herbert A. Hauptman, Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1985, United States
Dudley Herschbach, Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1986, United States
Avram Hershko, Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 2004, Israel
Roald Hoffmann, Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1981, Italy
John Hume, Nobel Prize in Peace, 1998, United Kingdom
Sir Aaron Klug, Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1982, United States
Walter Kohn, Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1998, Poland
Arthur Kornberg, Nobel Prize in Medicine, 1959, United States
Sir Harold W. Kroto, Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1996, United Kingdom
Anthony J. Leggett, Nobel Prize in Physics, 2003, United Kingdom
Jean-Marie Lehn, Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1987, United States
Rita Levi Montalcini, Nobel Prize in Medicine, 1986, United States
William Lipscomb, Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1976, United States
Wangari Maathai, Nobel Prize in Peace, 2004, Kenya
Erwin Neher, Nobel Prize in Medicine, 1991, Germany
Paul Nurse, Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, 2001, United Kingdom
Douglas D. Osheroff, Nobel Prize in Physics, 1996, United States
Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, Nobel Prize in Peace, 1980, Argentina
John Polanyi, Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1986, Canada
Jose Ramos-Horta, Nobel Prize in Peace, 1996 - Presidente della Repubblica Democratica di Timor Est,
Richard J. Roberts, Nobel Prize in Medicine, 1993, United States
Reinhard Selten, Nobel Prize in Economics, 1994, Germany
Jens C. Skou, Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1997, Denmark
Jack Steinberger, Nobel Prize in Physics, 1988, Switzerland
Desmond Tutu, Nobel Prize in Peace, 1984 Anglican Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town, South Africa
Lech Walesa, Nobel Prize in Peace 1983, Poland
John Walker, Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1997, United Kingdom
Elie Wiesel, Nobel Prize in Peace 1986, United States
Betty Williams, Nobel Prize in Peace 1976, United States
Jody Williams, Nobel Prize in Peace, 1997, United States
Carlos Felipe Ximenes
Belo, Nobel Prize in Peace, 1996, Chile

Seamus Heaney never, so far as I know, expressed an opinion (or if he has - but I've not been able to find any information that he has - with nothing like Christopher Hitchens' courage and boldness), on many other matters which Christopher Hitchens has addressed. To mention just one set of issues, the threats to free speech, free thought and sometimes survival posed by some - many - Islamists.

I regard 'ethical depth' as very different from 'ethical purity.' Ethical depth frequently involves compromises, recognition of harsh realities. Ethical purity isn't on a higher plane, it belongs to an artificial, ineffectual plane which is never 'contaminated' by the need to confront an issue such as demographics and the Islamization of Europe. Christopher Hitchens  confronted this issue. Seamus Heaney was able to preserve his spotless reputation by finding more congenial subjects for his ethical explorations as a very cautious and prudent 'poet-politician.'

     Seamus Heaney: ethical depth?