Seamus Heaney: Commentary (2)

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Elmer Kennedy-Andrews: ‘Heaney reduces history to myth, leaving only the timelessness of fundamental acts. By giving himself over to the establishment of myths and the bourgeois ideal of aesthetic autonomy, Heaney is unable to critique traditional concepts of national identity or interrogate the nature and function of acts of violence.’ (Deconstructing Northern Ireland, Four Courts Press 2003, p.27; quoted in Stephen McAllister, PG Dip., UUC 2011.)

File 1
Richard Kell
John Hewitt
Michael Allen
D.E.S. Maxwell
Terence Brown
Ciaran Carson
Conor C. O’Brien
Andrew Waterman
John Byrne
Eavan Boland
D. George Boyce
Tony Curtis
Edna Longley
Paul Muldoon
David Lloyd
W. J. McCormack
Neil Corcoran
Maureen Waters
Henry Hart
Stan Smith
Robert Welch
John Wilson Foster
Susan Shaw Sailer
James Simmons
Derek Mahon
Michael Parker
Patrick Crotty
Mebdh McGuckian
Peter Levi
Oonagh Warke
P. J. Kavanagh
Nicholas Jenkins
Richard Tillinghast
File 2
Robert Crawford
Catriona Clutterbuck
Liam de Paor
Tom Herron
John Bayley
Karl Miller
John Montague
Fintan O’Toole
The Recorder
Benedict Kiely
John O’Donogue
Maurice Harmon
Daniel G. Donoghue
Seamus Deane
A. N. Wilson
James Shapiro
Hugh Denard
Terry Eagleton
Elmer Kennedy-Andrews
Helen Vendler
Robert O’Byrne
Robert Hass
Michael Dirda
Clair Wills
Megan Rosenfeld
Peter McDonald
Eugene O’Brien
Tom Kilroy
Jenny McCartney
Alan J. Frantzen
Colm Tóibín
Kevin Kiely
See also Michael Longley’s valedictory article in The Irish Times (7 Sept. 2013) - attached.

Robert Crawford, ‘The Computer and the Painted Pict’, Times Literary Supplement (Aug. 15 1997), pp.4-5, characterises Heaney as ‘Bog-Bard and Harvard professor’ and remarks on the association between primitive and sophisticated elements in poetry culture since the appearance of Macpherson’s Ossian with Hugh Blair’s notes in 1759-1760 [see further under Macpherson, q.v.]

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Catriona Clutterbuck, ‘Gender and Representation in Irish Poetry’, in Bullán: An Irish Studies Journal (Autumn 1998), pp.43-58, includes account of “Digging”: ‘In the conclusion of the poem (”Between my finger and my thumb / The squat pen rests. / I’ll dig with it”), the valorisation of the artist is generally read as an innocent by-product of the valorisation of the artistic process. However, the fact that this text’s attention to form-as-theme naturalises the status of the speaker as artist is only the first part of its process. Although a sleight of hand is going on, whereby self-projection into the status of artist is disguised as mere self-representation in an already achieved position of authority, the poem at a deeper level wants its bluff to be called. What becomes apparent in “Digging”, if one looks at it closely, is an inversion of the vocational heritage it proclaims. Far from the speaker’s father and grandfather inaugurating a tradition of “digging” into the depths which the poet can follow, it is the speaker who has retrospectively created that “tradition”: he continues to “look down” from his airy vantage point “[un]till” he can imaginatively see his father in the past. He creates the memory to suit his purpose. Such a sleight of hand can only succeed if the author of the poem (the biographical Heaney) is taken by the reader to be precisely coterminous with the speaker of the poem (the “writing self”), and if this speaker is, in turn, taken to be exactly equivalent to the represented ‘I’ in the text (the “written self”, the poet-figure). By fusing these three distinct identity functions and by ignoring the distance between them, the speaker writes himself, apparently conclusively, into the vocation of artist: “snug as a gun”. However, an “innocence” of his self-appointment as bard on the part of Heaney could only ever sustain itself through an equivalently dangerous innocence on the part of his audience. In fact, we and Heaney operate together as readers of the projection of identity on the screen of the text, and if we read what is two-dimensional as though it were full-blown three-dimensional reality after the show has ended, then that is at least as much our responsibility as Heaney’s. The poem suggests as its underlying deepest theme, I think, that the creation of an individual’s public authority is a communal phenomenon which carries dangers with it for everyone if this factor of collusion is unrecognised.’ (p.44.)

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Liam de Paor, ‘The Archaeology of a Poem: Heaney’s “Seeing Things”’, in Landscape with Figures, Dublin: Four Courts Press 1998), pp.[210-16; prev. in The Recorder, Vol. 9, No. 1, Spring 1996]: ‘The poem is a fugue, its counterpoint returning us by “a commodius vicus of recirculation” to that moment of peril, poised between one mode of being and another, which is our human life.’ The claritas is powerful, sexual in its energy (Heaney is like Yeats in this, and like Rilke), and the simple little poem, like a pebble dropped in a pond, sends shining rings ever outwards.’ (p.216); de Paor identifies Tom Delaney as the archaeologist named in Station Island. De Paor also speaks of his work of excavation at Holy Island, Co. Clare.

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Tom Herron, ‘Spectaculars: Seamus Heaney and the Limits of Mimicry’, Irish Review (August 1999), p.183-91: argues that what he terms Heaney’s postmodern, postcolonial productions elude David Lloyd’s criticism of Heaney as a vehicle of essentialist version of national identity; chiefly discusses “On the Frontier of Writing” (poem): ‘it takes us to the verge of writing with all its attendant anxieties an instabilities.’ (p.187); employs Bhabha’s concept of the ‘scopic drive’ and its object of desire in tracing Heaney’s tracing of the complex strategies of ‘insistence and resistance’ (p.189). Quotes David Lloyd, ‘“Pap for the Dispossessed”: Seamus Heaney and the Poetics of Identity’ [1985], in Anomalous States (Duke UP 1993): criticises ‘[the] crucial insufficiency in the poetic itself, one which permits Heaney to pose delusory moral conflicts whose real form can better be understood as a contradiction between the ethical and aesthetic elements of bourgeois ideology. Heaney’s inability to address such contradictions stringently stems from the chosen basis of his poetic in the concept of identity. Since this concept subtends the ethical and aesthetic assumptions that his poetry registers as being in conflict, and yet thoroughly informs his work, he is unable ever to address the relation between politics and writing more than superficially, in terms of thematic concerns, or superstitiously, in terms of a vision of the poet as a diviner of the hypothetical pre-political consciousness of his race.’ (p.14); [‘the aestheticisation of Irish politics’:] ‘an original identity which precedes difference and conflict and which is to be reproduced in the ultimate unity that aesthetic works both prefigure and prepare. The naturalisation of identity effected by an aesthetic ideology serves to foreclose historical process and to veil the constitution of subjects and issues in continuing conflict, while deflecting both politics and ethics into a hypothetical domain of free play. (p.17); ‘[Heaney] uncritically replays the Romantic schema of a return to origins which restores continuity through fuller self-possession, and accordingly rehearses the compensations conducted by Irish Romantic nationalism’ (p.20); ‘Place, identity and language mesh in Heaney, as in the tradition of cultural nationalism, since language is seem primarily as naming, and because naming performs a cultural reterritorialisation by replacing the contingent continuities of an historical community with an ideal register of continuity in which the name (of place or of object) operates symbolically as the commonplace communicating between actual and ideal continua . The name always serves likeness, never difference.’ (p.24.)

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John Bayley, ‘Professing Poetry’, review of The Redress of Poetry (1995), along with Helen Vendler, The Given and the Made: Recent American Poets, and Soul Says, On Recent Poetry, in Times Literary Supplement (20 Oct. 1995), pp.9-10: Redress ‘gives the impression of being adjusted with courtly discretion to an audience who expect the familiar rather than the new’; follow-up on “Hero and Leander” in an Irish context; political correctness [comes] as naturally to him as breathing; Heaney considers Yeats and Beckett, as opposed to Larkin, to be ‘on the side of life’; infallible courtliness; on Dylan Thomas, who finally lacked ‘tonal rectitude … taking tone in the radically vindicating sense attributed to it by Eavan Boland’ originating in ‘a suffered world rather than a conscious craft’; the power of a ‘poet’s undermusic’ comes from ‘a kind of veteran knowledge which has gathered to a phonetic and rhythmic head, and forced an utterance’; ‘it is, for example, the undermusic of just such knowledge that makes Emily Dickinson devastating as well as endearing, and makes the best of John Ashbery’s poetry the common unrarified expression of a disappointment that is beyond self-pity’; Bayley wonders does he possess tonal rectitude as an excuse for political correctness and considers that it dissolves into mere concept confronted with real poetry; “Frontiers of Writing”, final lecture, includes a poem; calls Louis MacNeice ‘an Irish Protestant writer who managed to be faithful to his Ulster inheritance, his Irish affections, and his English predilections’; notices homely touches that humanise the elegantly Ovidian and androgynous antics of Marlowe’s Hero and Leander, ‘the lukewarm place that Leander slips into under the bedclothes was probably never warmed again, in exactly the right way, until Molly Bloom jingled the bedsprings more than three hundred years later.’ (p.10.)

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Karl Miller, review of Opened Ground in Guardian Weekly (20 Sept., 1998), quotes Stockholm address, ‘while the Christian moralist in oneself’ had been ‘impelled to deplore’ the IRA’s atrocities, he had felt that there had to be change in Northern Ireland; but he had also felt that ‘the very brutality of the means by which the IRA was pursuing change was destructive of the trust upon which new possibilities would have to be based.’

John Montague, review of Opened Ground, in Magill (Oct. 1998): ‘In [Heaney’s] second phase, his Northern sensibility turns Nordic: the harshness of the Sagas, the ritual victims of Jutland. Since ritual sacrifice and bog burials bulk so little in Irish history, I find the central myth unsatisfactory, but it yielded poems of loaded grace’. (p.54.)

Fintan O’Toole, ‘Poet Beyond Borders’, review of Seamus Heaney, Opened Ground and Helen Vendler, Seamus Heaney, in New York Review of Books [11 Feb. 1999]: ‘[.. T]he evocation of violence in these phrases [gun, grenades, armoury, blood, bombs ] is not untypical of the early Heaney. Time and again, fear, murder and sexual disturbance insinuate themselves into what seem, at first glance, to be innocent idylls.’ O’Toole quotes Heaney’s account of the effect of the poetry of Ted Hughes in turning him from ‘the private county Derry childhood part of myself rather than the slightly aggravated young Catholic male part.’ ([Crane Bag interview with Seamus Deane, 1977).

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Fintan O’Toole, ‘Poet Beyond Borders’, in New York Review of Books [11 Feb. 1999] - cont.: ‘For Heaney, the soil is not a grand metaphor for unmemorial belonging, but a physical element that touches and is touched by human presence.’ ‘Reading his early poems now, their violent imagery seems at once incongruous and inevitable. That ferocity may seem at odds with the setting, subverting as it does the coziness that usually comes from the territory of childhood, farm and nature. Yet it foreshadows what was to come in the larger society beyond the farm. North of these effects arise from a simple fact of life in County Derry - the way the very landscape is saturated with political meaning.’

Fintan O’Toole, ‘Poet Beyond Borders’, in New York Review of Books [11 Feb. 1999] - cont.: ‘The reader would never know from his early poems that there was a major American air base beside Toomebridge during his childhood’; cites the lines in Heaney’s “An Open Letter” repudiating the label British applied in the Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry [‘My passport’s green./No glass of ours was ever raised/To toast the Queen./To think the title Opened Ground /Was the first title in your mind!/To think of where the phrase was found/makes it far worse!”/To be supplanted in the end/ By British verse!’] […] Heaney’s return to that title for the definitive overview of his achievement carries a certain undertone of defiance. It is a reminder that the ground he has opened is his own, not an outpost of metropolitan culture but a territory with its own particular contours and boundaries.’ quotes “Feeling into Words” [essay]: ‘the problems of poetry moved from being simply a matter of achieving the satisfactory verbal icon to being a search for images and symbols adequate to our predicament.” [see supra].

Fintan O’Toole, ‘Poet Beyond Borders’, in New York Review of Books [11 Feb. 1999] - cont.: O’Toole remarks that the early poems ‘suggest but do not state an analogy between the worker and a male lover and between the land and the woman to whom he is making love. The analogy is unstated for the obvious reason that making it explicit turns it into a cliché. But that is just what Heaney does in a political poem like ‘Act of Union’ from the collection North, where Ireland is envisaged as a maiden and England as an “imperially male” rapist wielding a “battering ram”. Here the fusion of sexual and territorial imagery produces metaphors rich only in the doubts they raise about whether their sexual politics is cruder than their nationalistic rhetoric./Throughout much of North, indeed, there is an enormous sense of strain […]. Cites Ciaran Carson’s review of North [‘it is as if he is saying that suffering like this is natural …’; see supra]. (Cont.)

Fintan O’Toole, ‘Poet Beyond Borders’ (New York Review of Books, 11 Feb. 1999) - cont: notes that Muldoon included only “Mossbawn” from North in Faber Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry; quotes Vendler, summary of the proposition that the Bog Poems contain: ‘that the practice of prehistoric violence, encompassing both the Scandinavian countries and Ireland, accounted for the survival of savage tribal conflict, which fundamentally was neither colonial nor sectarian, neither economic nor class-caused, but rather deeply cultural’; characterises this proposition as ‘glaring absurdity’: ‘[I]f Ireland and Scandinavia still share a cultural predilection towards ritual slaughter which dooms them, regardless of religion, colonialism, or economics, to savage conflict, how come we haven’t heard of the Norwegian Republican Army or the Swedish Volunteer Force? Has there been a thirty-year black-out on the squalid ethnic massacres in Denmark? Or could it be that the differences between peaceful, prosperous Denmark and broken, tormented Northern Ireland, difference precisely of colonial, religious, and economic history, are so vast as to make Heaney’s governing myth in these poems an obscurantist rather than an enabling one?’ [Cont.]

Fintan O’Toole, ‘Poet Beyond Borders’ (New York Review of Books, 11 Feb. 1999) - cont: O’Toole finds no ‘convincing lyrical connection’ between the modern and the early period, as in the lines where the Vikings are said to ‘suddenly’ appear before the poet’s eyes, “warning me [… &c.]” O’Toole calls this vision of shaggy and bellowing raiders ‘suspiciously on cue’, more like pre-scripted Hollywood epic than an ‘epiphany of authentic Heaney.’ Further: ‘These North poems are untypical in any case of Heaney’s overall approach to violence. Much more characteristic is the sheer anguish of living through the brutal murder of friends and acquaintances’; ‘evasion in a broader sense, slipping away from the relentless and apparently inescapable logic of ethnic conflict has been the post pressing political task’; ‘he has, first and foremost, fulfilled the poet’s responsibility of language’; ‘If Heaney subverts cultural separatism, he also breaks away from the other way of defining “our Crowd” - religion’; ‘any sense of religious orthodoxy in his poetry is merely residual’; cites contemptuous images of Catholicism such as “fasting spittle of our creed” and comparisons of priests to skunks’. [Cont.]

Fintan O’Toole, ‘Poet Beyond Borders’ (New York Review of Books, 11 Feb. 1999) - cont: ‘Heaney’s attraction to the figure of Mad Sweeney … is also linked to this religious scepticism’; ‘also moves away from [Catholicism’s] stereotyping of the Protestant enemy’; ‘There is, as well, an openness to England in his use of language and form and the deliberate attempts to escape the stereotypes of Catholic and Protestant’; regards this movement as ‘chiming with’ broader imaginative movement resulting in Agreement; ‘At the heart of that agreement is an attempt to move away from ideas of political sovereignty based on two irreconcilable claims (British and Irish) to the territory of Northern Ireland and towards an acceptance that sovereignty exits in people’s minds, in history, in culture, community and allegiance. It is a shift, in essence, from the physical reality of the land to the imaginative reality of human memories and desires. And this same movement is the course of Heaney’s poetic journey’; quotes from the second essay on Kavanagh: “the word is more pervious to his vision than he is pervious to the world. When he writes about places now, they are luminous spaces within his mind. They have been evacuated of their status as background, as documentary geography, and exist instead as transfigured images, sites where the mind projects its own force […]. The country he visits is inside himself.” Further: “the new spaces was all idea; it was generated out of my sense of the old place, but it was not a topographical location. It was and remains an imagined realm”; ‘In a dark time, Heaney has held open a space for the imagination by showing that people are not necessarily prisoners of the physical reality that seems to doom them to conflict […]. O’Toole ends by urging that ‘just as the incongruous violence of the his early poems foreshadowed terrible events in the real world they described, it is just possible that the transformation of that real world in his later work may also herald a broader change.’

Fintan O’Toole, ‘One Voice, Two Places’ , interview-article in The Irish Times (30 Oct. 1999): ‘His voice […] comes to us in stereo, one channel issuing from an Irish, Cahtolic, nationalist background, the other from the English language in its most formal, heavily laden guise. In moving between those two registers, and in finding ways to blend them in a personal note, he has managed to be true both to the small community of Ireland and to the larger community of poetry itself.’ (Quotes Heaney on power & culture.).

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The Recorder: Journal of the American Irish Historical Society, Vol. 12, No. 1 (Spring 1999), [q.auth.], review of Opened Ground, pp. 86-92, writes: ‘Perhaps the most natural way to approach this book is as a story of the shaping of the poet’s mind and art. Thus the relatively few poems here from Heaney’s first volumes, Death of a Naturalist and Door into the Dark, have been chosen to emphasise descriptive and emotional fidelities. There are the lovely Blackberries “a glossy purple clot / among [86] others, red, green, hard as a knot’, that Heaney singles out (with a little help from John Clare), and elsewhere the memory of “the think crust, coarse grained as limestone roughcast’, that “hardened in top of the four crocks / that stood, large pottery bombs, in the small pantry.” - this from a poem that leads up to the extraordinary miment music of “the plash and gurgle of sour-breathed milk, / the pat and smal of small spades on wet lumps’. And yet almost from the beginning, Heaney is calso concerned to place his local and personal pieties in a more encompassing, and less consoling, historical and mythical perspective. Thus in “Bogland” (from Door into the Dark ) “the ground itself is a kind of black butter // Melting and opening underfoot, / Missing its last definition / By millions of years …”. // From early on, indeed, Heaney’s vision entails a will to revision. One of the pleasures of watching his gift develop here is to see the restlessness that comes with his gathering confidence. Wintering Out, his third collection, is certainly more controlled and calculated than its predecessors, as the poems shed their gawky ranginess, their ingenuousness, become svelte in their concentrated energies. [.. &c.]’; cites “Toome”: “[…] I push into a souterrain / prospecting what new / in a hundred centuries’ / loam, flints, musket-balls, / fragmented ware, / torcs and fish-bones, / Till I am sleeved in // alluvial mud that shelves / suddenly under / bogwater and tributaries, / and elvers tail my hair.” Comments: ‘Here the composing self presides over its internment in the depths of [87] language to see itself reborn in a worldy strangely timeless. The subject is uncanny, the tone inward, nearly occult, the execution is utterly polished. The poem’s single sentence works a spell, and one admires the self-sufficiency of an art that thus effects, simply through the contemporary and mastery of its own terms, a larger relation to the world’; remarks of ‘the celebrated bog poems’ in North that they rendered the idiom of Wintering Out ‘more accountable to common concerns and current events’ (p.88); ‘an element of self-editorialising enters the poems […]. There is nothing contrived about the lamentation in North, and what makes it exceptionally effective is the disconcerting quality of incantatory exhilaration, even exultation, that accompanies it. [… / ] Heaney, however, would hardly be Heaney if he failed to find such expansiveness in some measure suspect, and North was also designed to register just such a reservation, as the mythological luxuriance of its first section is followed by the dry, tended quatrains of the public-minded second. These now sound rather tinny and wistful, curiously unpersuaded by themselves, and Heaney hasn’t included many of them in Opened Ground, whichis sensible but in a way misleading. For the problematic works in the latter part of North, for more than the bog poems, introduce the preoccupations, formal and imaginative, that have subsequently [88] dominated Heaney’s career.’ Further, cites “Oysters”: “Over the Alps, packed in hay and show, / The Romans hauled their oysters south to Rome. / I saw damp panniers disgorge / The frond-lipped, brine-stung / Glut of privilege // And was angry that my trust could not repose / In the clear light, like poetry or freedom / Leanng in from the sea. I ate that day / Deliberately […]”; comments, ‘At the end the poet’s worry over the inequities and injustices that attend his pleasures and privileges leads him to wish that he might be transformed “into verb, pure verb”, a quasi-Christian gesture that figures perhaps as too neat a contrast to the otherwise pagan preoccupations of the poem. […] As “Oysters” makes clear, the motives of this poetry, unlike that of poetry proper or freedom, remain muddy, both adulterated and unrealised. And yet by opening confronting that opacity, Heaney hopes to convert it into a token, at least, of transparency.’ (pp.89). Further remarks concern the ‘poise and bravery’ displayed in the poet’s “sense of order” in the face of terror and in time of trouble, but also reamrks on ‘a number of irritating stylistic tics’ such as ‘the tendency to ‘bluff, manly injunction’ by means of which Heaney ‘comes off as an improbable hybrid of headmaster and top boy.’ (p.91); further, ‘such writing is ornamental in effect but the highmindedness of Heaney’s preoccupations [92] prevent it from fulfilling its rococo potential. And while Heaney has sought in recent years to open his work to dimensions of the spiritual and the uncanny, this effort has been hampered by the self-consciousness that such titles as Seeing Things and The Spirit Level suggest.’ Further speaks of ‘the aggrieved splendour of the bog poems’ and ‘the nerve-wracking imitations of Field Work ‘ as inventing ‘an image of authority with which we must contend’; ends, ‘One wishes that he would turn again rougher work, further afield.’ ([…] p.92.)

Scott Brewster, ‘A Residual Poetry: Heaney, Mahon and Hedgehog History’, in Irish University Review, 28, 1 (Spring/Summer 1998), pp.56-67: ‘Reflecting on the paradigm of “Digging”, for example, Heaney remarks that “somehow, it had surprised me by coming out with a stance and an idea that I would stand over” (Preoccupations, 1980, p.42). Here the poems surprises the poet, emanating from some unspecified place or time - the unconscious or communal tradition - while remaining part of the “I”. For Heaney, the surprise of poetry acquires the force of divination, accessing a pure, originary source of cultural memory. Yet precisely in its power to surprise, the poem predates, even inaugurates, an authorising self.’ (p.61). [Ciaran Carson’s Honest Ulsterman review of North is also quoted here, p.62.]

Benedict Kiely, ‘Seamus Heaney’ [Chap.], in Raid into Dark Corners, Cork UP 1999), pp.45-54, quotes Heaney: ‘I think this notion of the dark centre, the blured and irratonal storehouse of insights and instincts, the hidden core of the self - this notion is the foundation of what viewpoint I might articulate for mystlf as a poet’ (q. source). Kiely remarks: ‘That is accepable in aesthetics may be a little off-putting in theology, if, that is, one at all desires a theology and heaney here may be a conscious victim of an Irish obsession which he can describe so well. For his childhood and adolesceence, the equivalent of the dark Gallarus was the confessional. […] Of all this, as I have indicated, Heaney is perfectly aware with the strong, balanced, humorous mind that he displays in poetry, in talk and in comment.’ (Kiely, op. cit., p.52.)

John O’Donoghue, ‘In Performance: Seamus Heaney and Liam O’Flynn’, in London Magazine, Aug/Sept. 1999, pp.100-01; review of double act at the Barbican (London); talks up Heaney’s gift as a performer and speaks of his selection of poems for the seisún ; incls. comment: ‘The Celtic Tiger is a curious beast, almost like something out of an illuminated manuscript. It is at once mythical, miraculous, and contradictory.’ (p.101).

Maurice Harmon, Maurice Harmon, ‘Seamus Heaney: Digger of the Middle Ground’, in The Harp, 13 (Japan 1998) [pp.1-13] - on community versus individual in Northern Ireland troubles: ‘[I]t is in the balancing accounts of two funerals, one for the thirteen dead killed in Derry by British paratroopers, the other for the fisherman blown to bits by a bomb, that Heaney raises a question that will pervade his work for many years ... Was he guilty because he refused to obey the curfew but was drawn instinctively to the pub’s warmth? The answer is clear. Heaney is on the side of the individual’s right, including his own, not be commanded “by our crowd”.’ (p.5.) Further: ‘The most sustained engagement with the challenges of the Northern Troubles comes in Station Island (1984) which creates a series of encounters between the self and incidents and figures in the past. What is under scrutiny is the appropriate poetic response to political violence. By confronting certain obsessions and pressing issues the poet hopes to exorcise them from is imagination. The poem puts the self into situations that accuse, drives him into the underworld of guilt, surrounds him with the voices of those whom he is supposed to have failed and for a while exposes his feelings of failure and neglect. Then from the pit of abasement and confessional guilt it rises to an affirmation of the integrity of the artist’s untrammelled state. The rigour of the poet’s penitential journey to St. Patrick‘ ’s Purgatory serves to heighten the sense of self-examination.‘ ’ (Ibid., p.6; the foregoing both quoted in Chloe McKinney, UU Diss., UU 2011.)

Maurice Harmon, ‘“We Pine for Ceremony”: Ritual and Reality in the Poetry of Seamus Heaney, 1965-75’, in Seamus Heaney: A Collection of Critical Essay, ed. Elmer Andrews (Basingstoke: Macmillan 1992), remarks: ‘The sounds of this personal world in which words such as Brroagh”, “anahorish”, “Moyola”, “Mossbawn and Castledawson” form a literary landscape that like a Braille text has to be felt to be known’ (Harmon, p.73.) Further: ‘By attending to the fidelities of spoken words he can touch upon history and culture in an intimate and unspectacular way. It is a less histrionic means of expressing an identity with place and ancestry.’ (Harmon, p.72; quoted in Patrick Blumer, ENG507, UUC, 2000.)

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Daniel G. Donoghue, ‘Beowulf in the Yard: Longfellow, Alfred, Heaney’, in Harvard Magazine (March 2000), pp25-32, writes: ‘[…] Heaney’s Beowulf succeeds in preserving the flow without sacrificing the vigorous alliterative rhythm of the original lines.’ (p.28); ‘The “Irish thumbprints” can be subtle: mosts of the lines use a poetic idioom that would be at home in any variety of English. In the first 150 lines, only two words that can be considered distinctly Hiberno-English appear, but they are enough to serve as important reminders. The first, “tholed” , is a very meaning “suffered” , which Heaney remembers that “older and less educated people” used when he was a child. The second is “bothies” , an Irish [29] word that Heaney uses for the small huts or cottages outside Hrothgar’s main hall, Heorot. Each of them signals in different ways what might be called Heaney’s reappropriation of English. It turns out that “thole” has Old English roots, and that it was introduced into Ireland through the English of the Ulster plantation in the seventeenth century. […] “Bothy” , by contrast, is a straighforward borring from the Irish. Between the two, Heaney signals that his Ulster dialect is both ancient and innovative, a viable medium that has as much affiinity with the Old English spoken in Winchester or Kent or Northumbria as any other variety of English.’ (pp.29-30.) [Cont.]

Daniel G. Donoghue (‘Beowulf in the Yard: Longfellow, Alfred, Heaney’, in Harvard Magazine, March 2000): The “Alfred” of the title is William Alfred (PhD 1954), who produced a prose translation of Beowulf. Donoghue remarks that, ‘while Heaney may not have the philological credentials of William Alfred, he has done his homework well. He worked from his own word-for-word translation of the original, and the final version never strays far from it.’ (p.31.) Also notes Heaney’s ‘gift for conveying direct speech’, and concludes: ‘if Beowulf has an overarching message it is not about the hero’s bravery or virtue, but rather the collective imperative to sustain culture in the face of human and supernatural forces of disintegration […] In spite of Beowulf’s exemplary status, the poem refuses to end with reassuring optimism and instead casts a cold eye on the capacity of humanity to live according to their ideals. For Seamus Heaney, Beowulf is not merely an opportunity to show-case his prodigious talents as a poet. What he chose to translate also matters a great deal. It shows that he is “deeply schooled” in many things beyond the art of poesy.’ (End; p.32.)

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Seamus Deane, ‘The Famous Seamus: the author recalls growing up with Ireland’s Nobel laureate in Literature’, in New Yorker (March 2000) [“Life and Letters”], pp.[58]-79: ‘Each of us could caricature himself happily: Heaney, slow, calm, solid, country-cunning; Deane quick, volatile, city-smart. Musically, he was hopeless: he liked comic ballads and knew all the words, and did the céilí dancing - a kind of traditional crossroads dancing - whereas I liked anything from Peggy Lee to the jazz of Django Rheinhardt and Cannonball Adderley and the arias of Caruso, Björling, and Tagliavini. I knew the opera music from 78 r.p.m. records belonging to one of my father’s brothers. Each could be the other’s Other, the other Seamus.’ (p.59.) Speaks of really beginning to know each other in the last two years when, having received university scholarships, they delayed taking them up to study a transitional year unser Sean B. Kelly, ‘a man of such sweetness and enthusiasm that even at sixteen or seventeen years of age we appreciated how fortunate we were to have him.’ (p.61.) Gives an account of reading phrases of Hardy, and adds of their different responses: ‘I recognised then - also for the first time - why Heaney responded so fully, with such timbre, to Wordsworth. Like Wordsworth, Heaney was of the healing school of readres and writers.’ (p.62.) Gives an account of life in the period when the IRA resumed its campaign in 1957: ‘discrimination, with a Sten gun behind it, was what we knew of British democracy - with one glorious exception. That was the introduction of the welfare state [which] guaranteed secondary education for every British subject up to the age of fifteen [… &c.]’, and adds that the Unionists resisted this, though in the end it was London not Belfast that ruled Northern Ireland: ‘Quite appropriately, it was education that delivered the first serious injury to the unionists’ blind bigotry […]’. [Cont.]

Seamus Deane (‘The Famous Seamus [... &c.]’, in New Yorker (March 2000) - cont: Taught by Laurence Lerner at QUB: ‘Lerner didn’t teach us anything that was in itself news, but, being South African, he reordered the local tyranny in our mins, by showing how deeply introjected the sour hegemony of our sectarianism had become.’ (p.63.) Deane and Heaney shared digs at Mrs Clifford’s in Park Road; speaks of Heaney as ‘“well in” with those in power - teachers, professors, and the like [but a]t the same time, he was conspiratorially against them, holding them at arm’s length by his humour, his gift for parody […] it was Heaney’s way of dealing with his own contradictory sense of himself: his authority and his uncertainty. The balance between these was not delicate.’ Speaks of poems of his ‘unfortunately’ published in the Belfast festival series. Remarks that ‘the early poems [of Heaney] are like acoustic autobiography’ and adds: ‘Heaney dwells on the names of places and people, their formal and official titles, their informal and demotic variants. Like any Irish countryman, Heaney has to lock a personal name into a place-name so that he can get a fix on the whole history and geography with which each is freighted. Names, titles, accents, nicknames, pronunciations are like a syrup in which a complex politics is suspended; they indicate class, sectarian divisions, family lineage, belongingness, even degrees of intelligence.’ (p.64.) [Cont.]

Seamus Deane (‘The Famous Seamus [... &c.]’, in New Yorker (March 2000) - cont: ‘Throughout the first four volumes, he remained formally conservative. His poetry was concerned with retrieval, rediscovery, reenactment. But it was clear, too, that eveyr disinterred memory, eveyr recaptured sensation, came in a nimbus of radiant light and feeling that made it seem new. […] with North, he got out of Irish bogs and into Viking ones. All the Viking corpses and artifacts so beautifully Brailled [sic] onto the page were also relics of tribal revenge and violence. The poems are both repressing atrocity and acknowledging it. Their bearing upon the Northern Irish landscape was sadly vivid, vividly sad, for they mutate suddely into an image of a living girl, tarred and feathered […]’. (p.64.) Deane carries his narrative forward to the presentation of the Nobel Award, taking in a car accident occasioned by Heaney’s inebriated driving of a motor-cycle on the way.

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A. N. Wilson, ‘Beowulf? He wasted years of my life’, in Sunday Telegraph (20 Feb. 2000), complains about award of Whitbread to Seamus Heaney for his translation of Beowulf: ‘[…] The Beowulf poet was created by Victorian and early 20th century Eng Lit scholars who wanted to show that, just as we could build better battleships than the Germans, so we could produce better epics than the Nibelungenlied. / Heaney, like the Beowulf poet, is a minor talent, grossly overpraised for political reasons. His talents as a poet wouldn’t, in a sane world, have taken him further than the parish magazine, but he is hailed as a Nobel Prize winner because he’s - Glory be to the Father - a Catholic from Northern Ireland. It was no accident that he was “discovered” by a guilt-ridden Ulster Protestant editor at Faber, the bachelor Charles Monteith, who died some years ago […. &c.] Further alleges that the award was denied to J. K. Rowling (author of the Harry Potter books) because Anthony Holden threatened to make a row […]

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James Shapiro, ‘A Better Beowulf: Seamus Heaney strives for a close translation that is also good poetry in its own right’, in NY Times (27 Feb. 2000), quotes: ‘On a height they kindled the hugest of all / funeral fires; fumes of woodsmoke billowed darkly up, the blaze roared / and drowned out their weeping, / wind died down / and flames wrought havoc in the hot bone-house, / burning it to the core. They were disconsolate / and wailed aloud for their lord’s decease. / A Geat woman too sang out in grief; with hair bound up, she unburdened herself / of her worst fears, a wild litany of nightmare and lament: her nation invaded, / enemies on the rampage, bodies in piles, slavery and abasement. Heaven swallowed the smoke.’ Shapiro remarks, Though he never says so, it will be obvious to anyone with the sketchiest knowledge of recent Irish history that the Troubles have also given Heaney access into the Beowulf poet’s profound understanding of internecine strife. A striking example occurs when Beowulf predicts what will happen at a wedding feast intended to reconcile two peoples locked in an unyielding cycle of violence: “Then an old spearman will speak while they are drinking, / having glimpsed some heirloom / that brings alive / memories of the massacre; his mood will darken / and heart-stricken, in the stress of his emotion / he will begin to test a young man’s temper / and stir up trouble.’ Quotes Heaney: ‘Putting a bawn in Beowulf seems one way for an Irish poet to come to terms with that complex history of conquest and colony, absorption and resistance, integrity and antagonism, a history which has to be clearly acknowledged by all concerned.’ (pp.6-7.)

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Elmer Kennedy-Andrews, Seamus Heaney: A Reader’s Guide to Essential Criticism [Icon Critical Guides] Cambridge 1998, 2003 edn.) - on The Haw Lantern: ‘“Transportation”, at both the carnal and spiritual levels, is one of the book’s main themes; and its pages are therefore crowded with vehicles. Among other things, Heaney looks increasingly like one of the great travel writers – writers, that is, who relish the physical sensations of travel. From the early “Night Drive” to the relatively recent “From the Frontier of Writing”, has anyone else, even Proust, even Kerouac, written as sensually about the modern experience of being in a car?’ (p.173; quoted in Chloe McKinney, UG Diss., UUC 2011.)

Further (Kennedy-Andrews, Seamus Heaney: A Reader’s Guide to Essential Criticism, 1998): ‘But it remains unclear whether the best poetry engages politics and society on their own terms, even tactically or provisionally. It is unclear how far the imagined boat-builder whose craft (vessel and art) lifts clear has actually met the challenge of the storm. In “From the Frontier of Writing” (The Haw Lantern), freedom for poetry requires “clearance” (i.e. permission to proceed) from some part of the poet’s psyche corresponding to, and imaginable as, society in its starkest form, a soldier at a checkpoint of the kind with which inhabitants of Ulster are familiar.’ (Idem [sic]; quoted in McKinney, op. cit., 2011 [p.22].)

Elmer Kennedy-Andrews on “Mycenae Lookout” by Seamus Heaney, in Irish University Review: A Journal of Irish Studies [Special Irish Poetry Issue, guest ed. Peter Denman] (Sept. 2009): ‘[...] The title of the collection in which the poem appears, The Spirit Level, alludes to the importance of balance, equilibrium, flow, redress. Against the pressure of history and politics, Heaney reasserts eternal values of order, meaning, and beauty. “Mycenae Lookout” is a poem that matters because it demonstrates the audacity of hope, the courage to challenge nihilism and despair, to affirm an unquenchable human spirit in the face of death and destruction. It is a poem with the power to do good, to encourage, and to heal. This power derives from the poet’s faith, not religious faith in any conventional sense, but faith in a transcendent, ethical order of being which is anterior to, independent of, our-all-too fallible human models of reality and meaning. Countering the contemporary distrust of the word, the poststructuralists’ rejection of the possibility of truth and meaning, Heaney reasserts the metaphysics of presence. His poem is informed by belief in a transcendent metaphysical order which is pre-literary, pre-rational, and ultimately mysterious. In an age obsessed by the historical corruption of language and dominated by the corrosive influence of cultural relativists and postmodern sceptics, Heaney refuses to give up on the possibility of truth and meaning, however difficult they may be to come by. He re-works an old-fashioned vocabulary of the sacramental and the mystical which he first absorbed through his Catholic upbringing and education. “Mycenae Lookout” is a great poem because it succeeds in making that faith real and convincing (at least for the duration of the poem), even for readers who may not think of poetry in terms more usually associated with religion - as redemption, solace, healing, redress, transcendence. “Mycenae Lookout”, Heaney himself has said, was expressive of “a rage for order”.’ (Citing Dennis O’Driscoll, Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney, London: Faber and Faber 2008, p.350). [See full-text version in RICORSO Library, “Library > Journals > Critical > IUR”, via index, or attached.]

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Hugh Denard, ‘Seamus Heaney: Colonialism and the Cave’, in PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, Vol. XXII, No. 3 (Sept. 2000) [var. No.66], p.1-18, remarks on The Cure of Troy :‘When seen in the context of colonial discourse, these divergent but equally plausible allegorical readings illustrate how the version [of Sophocles’ Philoctetes ] may represent the independence of the South of Ireland as [being] profoundly affected the colonialist consciouness, with serious reamifications for the colonised’ (p.5).

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Terry Eagleton, ‘Hasped and Hooped and Hirpling: Heaney Conquers Beowulf’ [review of Beowulf, 1999], first published in London Review of Books (11 Nov. 1999, pp.15-16), and rep. in The Guardian (3 Nov. 1999): "The celebrated “materiality” of a poet like Heaney is really a linguistic trompe l’oeil, a psychological rather than ontological affair, a matter of association rather than incarnation. The density of his discourse does not “embody” material process, as we post-Romantics are prone to think; it is just that the one phenomenon brings the other to mind. Poetry is a sort of trick, whereby an awareness of the textures of signs puts us in mind of the textures of actual things. But the relation between the two remains quite as arbitrary as in any other use of language; it is just that some poetry tries to “iconicise” that relation, make it appear somehow inevitable. This - what Paul de Man referred to as the “phenomenalisation of language” - is the mark of ideology, and it is ironic that poets should typically regard themselves as the antidote to ideologists, giving us the feel and pith of things rather than the delusory abstraction. It is hard to imagine, however, that de Man is bedside reading for the theory-allergic Heaney. /Words may not be things, but the poet, like the small child making its first sounds, is one who invests them as though they were. There is thus something regressively infantile as well as dauntingly mature about poetry, rather as the grandeur of the imagination is embarrassingly close to libidinal fantasy. Does language transport the writer to the heart of reality, or does messing about with the stuff substitute for that reality like a child’s Plasticine? How can the erotic mouth-music of the babbling toddler become somehow cognitive" [Cont.]

Note - Epigraph quotes Heaney: ‘Words may not be things, but the poet, like the small child making its first sounds, is one who invests them as though they were...’.

Terry Eagleton, ‘Hasped and Hooped and Hirpling: Heaney Conquers Beowulf’ [review of Beowulf, 1999], first published in London Review of Books (11 Nov. 1999, pp.15-16) - cont. "If the poem salvages the use-value of words from their tarnished exchange-value, then it becomes an organic society all in itself. It is thus not surprising that the Cambridge English version of language should go hand-in-hand with a nostalgia for a non-alienated community, in which objects had yet to lapse into the degraded condition of commodities. Hence, perhaps, the rural-born Heaney’s affection for Beowulf’s burnished helmets and four-square, honest-to-goodness idiom, its Ulster-like bluffness and blood-spattered benches. He likes the poem’s blend of directness, ornateness and obliquity, unsurprisingly for an Ulsterman who is given to verbal opulence and is notoriously elusive in some of his opinions. He is also attracted to the way it floats somewhere between formulaic oral tradition and self-conscious artistry, a metaphor for his own in-betweenness as an intellectual sprung from the common people. In terms of Irish stereotypes, Beowulf seems like a Gaelic rather than Celtic piece of art - canny, virile and earth-bound rather than dreamy, spiritual and involuted. [...] Within Heaney’s writing, the civic and the chthonic have always slogged it out, and this magnificent translation is no exception. [...] there has been a ferocious tension between the elemental and the educated in his work. If he is allured by the bleak seascapes of the Norsemen, he is even more seduced by the mellow Hellenistic warmth of more southerly Europe. There is a similar tension between the Derry nationalist culturally alien to literary London, and the Heaney who can sometimes sound, politically speaking, like he might have been raised in Dorking. [...] The polarities of Irish and English, Celtic and Saxon, are momentarily collapsed, in what Heaney, borrowing a phrase from his poetic compatriot John Montague, describes as an escape from the “partitioned intellect” into some larger-spirited, unsectarian country of the mind.’ (See full-text version in RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, via index, or attached.)

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Terry Eagleton, ‘Unionism and Utopia: Seamus, Heaney’s The Cure at Troy’, in Theatre Stuff: Critical Essays on Contemporary Irish Theatre, ed. Eamonn Jordan (Blackrock: Carysfort Press 2000), pp.172-76: ‘[...] For utopia to be conceivable at all it must, in Habermasian terms, be somewhere prefigurable in the flesh-and-blood of the present, in the shape of an instinctive creaturely response to mother’s needs. But the fullest realisation of this humanity is equally, ineluctably deferred to the just city of the future, which only political practice can bring about. For Heaney, this means deferring it not beyond the threshold of history, but (in terms of the myth) to the conquest of Troy and the final transcendence of all the old sectarian strife. It is on this glimpse of utopia that the play’s Epilogue boldly, beautifully touches [quotes “Human beings suffer, [... &]” - as in Quotations - attached.] / If there’s a moving utopian hope here, there’s also some notable confusion at the level of allegory. Is it really going to take a miracle to dislodge the British from Ireland? That was well enough for the Greeks, who had a magic bow conveniently at their disposal, whereas we just have Seamus Mallon, Sinn Fein and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. The myth, in other words, covertly determines its own kind of contemporary political stance, which amounts to an openness, to the utterly inconceivable as nebulous at it is courageous. Resolution, as Heaney’s naturalising imagery intimates (’tidal wave”, “sea-change”, arrives as miraculous gift rather than as political construct, iturficulable epiphany rather than political strategy.’ (p.174.)

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Helen Vendler, review of Seamus Heaney, Electric Light (Faber & Faber), in The Irish Times [Weekend] (24 March 2001), gives an account: the volume contains 38 poems and two trans. of Virgil’s Ecologue IX with another from Old Irish; elegies for Ted Hughes, Joseph Brodsky, Zbigniew Herbert, Norman MacCaig, Sorley MacLean, George Mackay Brown; quotes: ‘The helmsman and the sailors perished. / Only I, still singing, washed/Ashore by the long sea-swell, sing on, / A mystery to my poet self, / And safe and sound beneath a rock shelf / Have spread my wet clothes in the sun’. Further speaks of the first poem “Toomebridge” as ‘an inventory of memory at a single site’ and ‘memory cluster[s]’ where ‘negative ions in the open air / Are poetry to me [Heaney]’. Further, ‘Increasingly, Heaney has found that an expansive sequence ranging over a wide terrain is the rightvehicle for such memory-layers. … These poems do not aim at the crystal-lattice effect of the brief lyric, nor at the expository-narrative effect of, say, “Station Island”. Instead, they show us the ruminative associations that surprise even the thinker as, in later life, one moment recalls another, and another.’; ‘Heaney is Wordsworthian in his determination that peotry must include the ordinary language of the day, but he is equally Wordsworthian in his affirmation of the right to compose a pure lyric of the natural world.’ Quotes from poem written at Olympia, seeing a bas-relief of Hercules preparing to divert a river to clean the Augean stables: ‘And it was there in Olympia, down among the green willows, / The lustral wash and run of river shallows, / That we heard of Sean Brown’s murder in the grounds / Of Bellaghy GAA Club. An imagined / Hose-water smashing hard back off the asphalt / In the car park where is ahtlete’s blood ran cold.’ Concludes: ‘What is surprising is that Heaney, post-60, continues to hold tenaceously to his gladder intuitions of “summer, shimmer, perfect days” (as his translation from the old Irish puts it).’ Vendler characterises the book as marking the end of a ‘full harvest of the 1990s [which] records, for the future, how the closing chapter of the century was experienced by one extraordinary sensibility.’ [END].

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Robert O’Byrne, review of The Rough Field, 2 CDs (Claddagh Records), in The Irish Times (21 July 2001), Weekend, p.12: ‘At times the performances, no doubt in response to the immediate audience, how have the effect of making the poet’s satire appear a little too broad, his inherent romanticism seem dangerously tinged with sentimentality - surely Montague is being slightly disingenuous when he declaires “No Wordsworthan dream enchants me here”?; praises ‘glorious richness of diverse Ulster accents.’

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Clair Wills, reviewing Seamus Heaney, Finders Keeper (London: Faber & Faber), 416pp.; in Times Literary Supplement, 3 May 2002, writes: ‘It’s hard not to view this reluctance to be seen to be behaving badly as of a piece with Heaney’s sense of the writer’s responsibility, his stress on the duties of reflection and balance’; ‘For all its perceptiveness about other writers, the real interest of the book lies in its laying out a life of reading’; speaks of the influence of Kavanagh (‘When I opened his book, I came up against the windowpane of literature’) and the alien Eliot, sent to him at boarding school ‘and never properly assimilated’. Further, ‘[…] though he is never less than insightful, it’s tempting to divine a special quickening when Heaney writes about his countrymen. Engaged by Yeats, or his contemporaries, Mahon, Longley, Muldoon, he is clearly in his element, whereas encounters with Marlowe, or John Clare, say, seem the result of a more deliberate process of discovery./The common thread is a spontaneous, insistent relating of poetry to his own experience.’ Notes that ‘fidelity’ is a recurrent term and central to the way he makes his poets his own; speaks of the essay “Last Things” (Larkin and Yeats) in which ‘the poet’s plumbing of “metaphysical need” corresponds to Yeats’s hope of “hold[ing] in a single thought reality and justice” rather than Larkin’s ‘inconsolability in the face of the surest fact of all’; Heaney is alert to the danger of wish-fulfilment, flimsy consolation but remains confident that “a good poem allows you to have your feet on the ground and your head in the air simultaneously”. Recounts Heaney’s shared conviction with Brodsky that the only thing poetry and politics have in common is the letters P and O and quotes outspoken essays of 1971 and 1994 hope in which he writes that we must take a leap beyond the present and open “a space where hope can grow”, remarking that Heaney’s political vision thus sounds very like his definition of poetry [viz., transcendence]; ‘And, just as, for Heaney, a rhyme “must be earned”, so hope grows from “the conviction that something is worth working for, however it turns out”. Concludes: ‘It is this compound of caution and adventurousness, of dignity and daring, which makes for Heaney’s spirited sense of the poet’s responsibility.’ Also quotes Heaney on Milosz: “the felicity of th eart was in itself a heartbreaking remindeer of the desolation of the times.” (p.5.)

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Megan Rosenfeld, ‘Going Gaga for the aga’: Seamus Heaney’s Translation Makes Beowulf a Bestseller’ [NY Review of Books ] (6 March 2000), Arts, C1, C6; marking the fifth and sixth printings (ringing total to 45,000), and notes that more than 2 million copies of Angela’s Ashes have sold at date; the Heaney translation became part of the Norton anthology a year ago and is used by Patrick Connor of the West Virginia University to teach the ancient poem. ‘I had a fixe purpose whenI put out to sea./As I sat in my boat with my band of men,/I meant to perform to the uttermost/what your people wanted or perish in the attempt,/in the fiend’s clutches. And I shall fulfill that purpose, prove myself with a proud deed,/or meet my death here in the mead-hall.’ Notes that Tolkien revived interest in Beowulf in an essay of 1936, while John Gardner prepared an audience for Heaney by telling the story from Grendel’s viewpoint in 1971. A “Comparison” with the translation by Robin Katsua-Corbet and the original (Hwaet we Gar Dena, &c.) is also printed; ‘So, The Spear-Danes, in days gone by and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness. / We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns. / There was Shield Sheafson, scourge of many tribes, / a wereakcer of meadbenches, rampaging among foes. This terror of the hall-troops had come far. / A foundling to start with, he would flourish later on / as his powers waxed and his worth was proved. / In the end each clan on the outlying coasts / beyond the whale-road had to yield to him / and began to pay tribute. That was one good king.’

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Michael Dirda, review of Heaney, Beowulf, in Washington Post, Book World (20-26 Feb. 2000), p.3: ‘[Heaney] admits to being a little free at times - Enlgish schoalrs have already cracked his knuckles a bit’. Dirda notes that Heaney has previously translated the Irish epic [sic] Sweeney Astray and the ‘macabre Ugolino episode of Dante’s Inferno’ and Sophocles’ Philoctetes. He writes of the ‘Gothicky passage’ introducing the villains - Grendel and his mother - as ‘one of the most famous set-pieces in Old English poetry’ but finds Tolkien’s Smaug ‘far more terrible and element’ than Heaney’s Grendel, and adds a ‘quibble’ about occasional descents into bathos: ‘It was the worst trip the terror-monger had taken to Heorot’, and ‘I devastated them’, which he compares with the Cowardly Lion [viz., The Wizard of Oz].

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Robert Hass, ‘Beowulf as an Ecological Epic’ (US source), writes: ‘Seamus Heaney’s poems of the bogs and soaked turfs of the farm country around Belfast brought him to the world’s attention, and so did his language’; ‘turned his attention to archaeology, to the bones mercilessly preserved in the green carbon-rich earth of the north country [sic], and he used language like a spade to meditate on the ancestral roots of human violence […].’ Further: : ‘The temptation to read Beowulf as an ecological poem is deepened by the final battle […] Beowulf is a poem of the end of the first millenium. It is also both for its themes of intra-tribal violence and the troubled human relation to the eart strangely contemporary.’

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Peter McDonald, ‘Faiths and Fidelities: Heaney and Longley in Mid-Career’, in Last Before America: Irish and American Writing: Essays in Honour of Michael Allen, ed. Fran Brearton & Eamonn Hughes, Belfast: Blackstaff Press 2001): . ‘[...] The poetry in which Heaney has tried to register a kind of secular faith is not always his strongest, and some of the more programmatic pieces in The Haw Lantern (1987) are dull affairs by comparison with the luminous sonnets of the “Clearances” sequence in that volume, or with the long series of poems grouped as “Squarings” in Seeing Things (1991) – a series which is unfortunately cut down in length for Opened Ground (unlike “Station Island”, included in its entirety). It may well be that Heaney as self-editor is doing himself few favours here. More and more, it comes to seem that Heaney’s most startling successes require quantities of largely programmatic, or sometimes slightly obvious poetry as back-up material, or limbering-up exercises; wonderful poems in The Spirit Level, like “Mint” or “Postscript”, stand dramatically apart from a good deal of their surrounding material. It is in the most successful of his poems, though, that Heaney reaps the benefits of the religious sensibility which his more routine work registers more dutifully: the lyric medium at these points can seize as its own moments of visionary brilliance, or make such moments out of the given material in life, without need for validating theory or any voiced ambition. In “The Skylight”, in Seeing Things, a loft conversion triggers an unlofty, but utterly convincing conclusion: “But when the slates came off, extravagant / Sky entered and held surprise wide open. / For days I felt like an inhabitant / Of that house where the man sick of the palsy / Was lowered through the roof, had his sins forgiven, / Was healed, took up his bed and walked away.” [Opened Ground, p.350.] / Poetry like this is completely sufficient to itself, and is not a promise of something else to come hereafter; its authority as poetry (to use for a moment a concept of which Heaney has been perhaps too fond over the years) comes from its ease with the authority of its biblical source-text, and its satisfaction with that text as something shared with others, and held in common rather than believed in exclusively. / Longley’s poetry is not capable of this kind of comfort, partly because it draws so much of its strength not from the shared and communal, but from the unique and the unrepeatable.’ (p11-12; for longer extract see RICORSO Library, “Criticism”, via index or attached.)

Eugene O’Brien, Seamus Heaney: Creating Ireland of the Mind (Dublin: Liffey Press 2002); incls. remarks on the whole narrative of Irish republicanism, which has been ‘hardwired in Heaney’s system and which his ongoing poetic project has attempted to disconnect, to some degree’; and further: ‘The ability to reimagine the past, to make present that which was absent, and to make real that which does not exists, has become hugely important to Heaney in terms of how and why he writes’. (See review by lexis Guildbridge, Books Ireland, March 2003, p.57f.)

Thomas Kilroy, ‘A Young Girl Before the King’ [review-article], in The Irish Times (10 April 2004), Weekend. ‘[…] It is best, I think, to look upon The Burial at Thebes as a contemporary poet’s possession of a classic in which he makes something new and personal out of the material, writing, in effect, a play for our time […] beautifully written, filled with lines of arresting pithiness and the exchanges of sister and sister, niece and uncle, father and son, have a true freshness to them.’ Looks at ‘the relationship of the new play to its original’ and noting that that Heaney has created in The Cure at Troy ‘some memorable, consolatory lines (“hope and history rhyme”) which were taken up by Bill Clinton as part of the Peace Process’ and attributing ‘this warmth’ to ‘the benevolence of the man himself, to the capacious humanism of the poet’ and ‘a particular view of what these tragedies have to say’. Discusses George Steiner’s view of the simplicity of Antigones, and also the conflict between father and daughter which has read been variously read over the centuries as: ‘the ultimate expression of the conflict between the private and the public, between the call of personal feeling and the call of duty, between the domestic and the political, the traditional and the modern, between female and the male’ and remarks that it is ‘extremely difficult for us to get back to the Greek play itself, especially its language’, exemplifying the problem in relation to the first stasimon or choral ode, translated by Heaney in a ‘splendidly phrased couplet’: ‘Among the many wonders of the world / Where is the equal of this creature, man?’ Kilroy points to the problematic word “wonders” for which the original in deina with ‘the added connotation of terror or horror’ and notes that the ‘choral list of great human attributes’ is ‘found in a play of human savagery, incest (the womb-brood of Oedipus and Jocasta), fratricide, a putrefying corpse, live immurement in a cave and triple suicide’. Further: ‘As the chorus offers its list of great human attributes, Sophocles puts two stoppers in place. One is that for all his achievement man remains subject to death. For some reason Heaney omits this. At the end of the passage Sophocles pulls up the flow of praise once again with a reminder of man’s evil and the need of civilised society to shun the perpetrator. Maybe because of his benign tone, Heaney’s ending of the ode, to these ears at least, carries something less bleak than this human capacity for monstrous violation. […]’ Kilroy commends Heaney for reinstating the drama of Antigone’s exit two-thirds of the way through the play, ‘after which we’re left with the retribution visited upon Creon’ - a problem for modern audiences ‘[s]aturated, as we are, with simple-minded narratives’: ‘By skilful tightening of the original he [Heaney] seems to bring Antigone’s exit and Creon’s suffering closer together. This creates a powerful frisson, something close, I’m sure, to the effect originally intended.’ Further remarks equate Heaney’s Creon, with ‘the current White House’ and compares the allegorical effect with the ‘famous “political” Antigone’ of Jean Anouilh [1944] which ‘electrif[ied] both collaborationists and members of the Resistance movement’. [&c.; see full text.]

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Jenny McCartney, ‘Seamus Heaney: He’s seen it all’, in Telegraph (9 Sept. 2007): ‘[…] The Nottingham Playhouse Theatre Company is currently staging The Burial at Thebes, Heaney’s 2004 translation of Sophocles’ Antigone. The play describes the clash between Creon, the Theban king, and Antigone, the daughter of Oedipus, that unfurls after Antigone’s brothers Eteocles and Polyneices die fighting one another. The plot seethes with timeless questions about the conflict between public order and private honour. / Heaney’s translation was originally commissioned by Dublin’s Abbey Playhouse, just as what Heaney calls “the deplorable Iraq/Bush business” was underway, and inevitably the poet glimpsed parallels between Creon’s blinkered rigidity of purpose and the stance of President Bush. “The New Yorker was looking for something to publish so I gave them the chorus and called it Sophoclean, but it could equally have been called An Open Letter to President Bush.” Heaney is wary, however, of labouring the application. “I didn’t want Creon to be a figure of mockery, because in the end there’s a kind of head prefect in me, too. But Antigone goes too far and Creon goes too far. I have a kind of Sophoclean position in between them all.’ It is small wonder that Heaney is so expert at navigating the play’s shades of grey in Sophocles: its matter - honour, death, the friction between family custom and the mores of the state - has been the very stuff of his life and poetry. […] In his 1995 Nobel address, Heaney related a story about the 1976 Kingsmills massacre, at which masked men stopped a bus full of workmen going home, lined them up outside, and asked each to declare their religion. There was only one Catholic in the group, and it was presumed that the gunmen were loyalists. One Protestant worker squeezed the Catholic’s hand, as if to say ‘we’ll not betray you’ but he declared himself anyway. He was promptly thrust aside, and the Protestants were gunned down: the gunmen were from the IRA. Heaney remarked that the future of Ireland lay, not in the gunfire, but the hand-squeeze.’ […]. Quotes The Cure At Troy: ‘But then, once in a lifetime / the longed-for tidal wave / Of justice can rise up. / And hope and history rhyme.’] Heaney scrunches his face up slightly in recognition when I cite the lines, as though they are too artlessly positive to feel entirely comfortable: “That at least is choral stuff. I would never have allowed myself that in propria persona. It’s a chorus speaking so you have to have that class of rhetoric and uplift and so on. Hope. I quoted with great pleasure Vaclav Havel on hope. His view is that it’s not optimism but it’s something worth working for.” What does he make of the new set-up in Northern Ireland, I ask, with Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness in government together? “It’s the best that can be managed, and possibly workable,” he says, cautiously. “Nobody’s going to start being amorous with each other, but institutions, the polis, might have a chance.” (Online; supplied by Kevin Whelan, NDU Irish Studies Program; at date.) [See full text, in RICORSO, “Library > Criticism > Reviews”, via index or attached. - incls. remarks on Ted Hughes.]

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Allen J. Frantzen, “Beowulf”, in Oxford Encyclopaedia of British Literature, 5 vols. (2006): ‘[.] A burst of Beowulf translations marked the millennium, the most famous being that by the Irish poet Seamus Heaney. Many older translations, including the prose version by E. Talbot Donaldson and the dual-language edition of Howell Chickering, offer better guides to the poem’s language and themes. Heaney’s translation attempts to reshape the poem into a commentary on the history of relations between Ireland and England. Heaney claims in his preface that the poem is “part of his voice-right” and that he was “born into its language . and its language was born into me.” Employing deliberately archaic diction, Heaney attempts to reverse the nationalism that colored the early reception of Beowulf and to align the poem with a culture oppressed by the British rather than with a culture that contributed to English identity. It is a mark of the poem’s power that, so many years after Beowulf first entered the public realm, it should continue to voice conflicts of interest nearly as old as the poem itself.’ [Accessed online; 28.07.08.]

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Colm Tóibín, review of Human Chain, by Seamus Heaney, in The Guardian (21 Aug. 2010): ‘In the early 1990s Seamus Heaney began to contemplate how to deal with time passing and the death of family and friends. In a lecture, he contrasted Philip Larkin’s poem “Aubade”, in which death comes as something dark and absolute and life seems a trembling, fearful preparation for extinction, with Yeats’s “The Cold Heaven”, which allowed a rich dialogue between the ideas of life as a cornucopia and life as an empty shell. Heaney saw poetry itself, no matter what its content or tone, standing against the dull thought of life as a great emptiness. “When a poem rhymes,” Heaney wrote, “when a form generates itself, when a metre provokes consciousness into new postures, it is already on the side of life. When a rhyme surprises and extends the fixed relations between words, that in itself protests against necessity. When language does more than enough, as it does in all achieved poetry, it opts for the condition of overlife, and rebels at limit. / In his 1991 collection Seeing Things he included a poem, “Fosterling”, which seemed like a blueprint for how he himself might proceed, speaking of a “heaviness of being” producing “poetry / Sluggish in the doldrums of what happens”. And then writing of a change which had come: “Me waiting until I was nearly fifty / To credit marvels. Like the tree-clock of tin cans / The tinkers made. So long for air to brighten, / Time to be dazzled and the heart to lighten.” / The blueprint, however, has turned out not to open the way for an easy lightness, or a tone of bright hope [...] The most ambitious poem in the book [Human Chain] is an ingenious and moving encounter with Book VI of the Aeneid, with a description of finding a used copy of the book in Belfast and taking it on Route 110 across Northern Ireland (”Cookstown via Toome and Magharafelt”). Slowly the poem moves into the underworld (“It was the age of ghosts”), where it meets, among others, Louis O’Neill, one of the murdered dead in the Troubles, who is the subject of Heaney’s earlier poem “Casualty” and wanders in a world of shady memory to emerge in a final poem about the birth of a first grandchild. / Sometimes, it seems, it is enough for Heaney that he remembers. Throughout his career there have been poems of simple evocation and description. His refusal to sum up or offer meaning is part of his tact, but his skill at playing with rhythm, pushing phrases and images as hard as they will go, offers the poems an undertone, a gravity, a space between the words that allows them to soar or shiver.’ [...; see full-text version in RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, via index, or attached.)

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Kevin Kiely, ‘Books: Digging for the real worth of Seamus Heaney: Kevin Kiely offers a possibly controversial view of the ­Nobel Prize-winning poet’, in Irish Independent (9 Nov. 2014): ‘[...] It is this reviewer's opinion that it is high time for a new assessment of Heaney, not least because his work has also influenced Irish poetry. For better or worse, is the question. And there are many questions about the poet, the poetry and the reputation that need objective assessment. / Above all, Heaney was a poet of nostalgia for home and hearth, the turf-fire, the hen house and the bicycle. With the farmyard as subject matter, his poems are like exhibit notes in an agricultural museum. One of the results of this was to give his work an accessibility that compared well to Maeve Binchy, although her popular fiction was slightly more modern in content. / Another fundamental aspect of Heaney’s appeal was that although he was a poet from Northern Ireland who was writing during the Troubles, he managed to keep his distance from the sectarian horror, like most of his readers. Instead he adopted mythology and archaeology. He chose to write about ancient bog bodies rather than the more recent burials in Northern bogs of the bodies of victims of the “war”. / In “Exposure” he admitted having moved to Wicklow in 1972 and “escaped from the massacre” in the North. His preoccupation with pre-history and bogs distanced him from the sectarian war. “I found it more convincing to write about the bodies in the bog and the vision of Iron Age punishment”. / Heaney was always repressed and reticent about the North, as in “Summer 1969”. “While the Constabulary covered the mob/Firing into the Falls, I was suffering / Only the bullying sun of Madrid.” That poem concludes with his retreating for the “cool of the Prado” to look at Goya’s painting Shootings of the Third of May. This pretence to sympathy while on holiday, cooling off in exotic cities, was typical of his lazy political content. Thus a Heaney poem entitled “Thatcher” is not about politics. [...]’

Further: Kiely notes that those who criticised Heaney (Desmond Fennell, James Simmons) have been rebuked and remarks: ‘His work is definitely not major’ and opines that ‘His great flaw is “a nostalgia I didn’t know I suffered until I experienced its fulfilment”.’ (Available online; see also full-text version, see RICORSO Library, ‘Criticism > Reviews’ - via index or as attached.)

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Christopher Benfey, ‘What Seamus Heaney Taught Me’, in New York Review of Books (1 Sept. 2013) - on his Harvard poetry seminars: ‘[...] He didn’t try to turn his students into copies of himself. He rarely mentioned his own poems. Instead, he tried to find poets further along the path that the student seemed to be following. One day, I brought in a poem about a couple skipping stones on a cow-pond. I remember only one line: “Mine skipped three times and burrowed in.” It wasn’t the deliberate cows (the adjective comes back) or the pond that interested him, even though his own poems are full of such pastoral props. It was the notion of divination, of trying to guess the future by how the stones struck the water. “You might look at Robert Graves’s ‘The Straw,’“ he murmured, which begins:

Peace, the wild valley streaked with torrents,
A hoopoe perched on his warm rock. Then why
This tremor of the straw between my fingers?

Looking at that tercet now, I suddenly remember Heaney’s most famous lines, from “Digging”: “Between my finger and my thumb / The squat pen rests.” The pen as divining rod. (Available online; accessed 06.08.2017.)


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