Peter McDonald, ‘Faiths and Fidelities: Heaney and Longley in Mid-Career’ (2001).

Bibliographical note : Peter McDonald, ‘Faiths and Fidelities: Heaney and Longley in Mid--Career’, in Last Before America : Irish and American Writing: Essays inHonour of Michael Allen, ed. Fran Brearton & Eamonn Hughes (Belfast: Blackstaff Press 2001), pp.3-16.


Discussion of Heaney’s artistic ambitions has tended to be confused with discussion of his artistic situation, but the two things are not the same; indeed, it might well be argued that a central ambition for Heaney is to writing beyond the possible restrictions of his work’s historical context. Like Longley, Heaney understands this ambition in terms of an ultimately religious conception of poetry; unlike Longley, his religious sensibility is a Catholic one, and this has implications for the ways in which his poetry sees itself. The long poem “Station Island”, which occupies more or less the centre of Opened Ground, is Heaney’s artistic confession of faith, as he meets ghost after ghost on his artistic visit t o a place of religious penance. As well as their specific identities, these ghosts are also importantly the ghosts of a faith which the poet can no longer actually share; a young priest’s spirit, for example, accused by the poet of being like ‘some sort of holy mascot’ to the local community, who ‘gave too much relief’ to them, gives back as good as he gets:

‘And you,’ he faltered, ‘what are you doing here
but the same thing? What possessed you?
I at least was young and unaware

that what I thought was chosen was convention.
But all this you were clear of you walked into
over again. And the god has, as they say, withdrawn.

What are you doing, going through these motions?
Unless ... Unless ...’ Again he was short of breath
and his whole fevered body yellowed and shook.

‘Unless you are here taking the last look.’
[Opened Ground, p.251.) [11]

Once the god has withdrawn, only the reflexes, instincts, and habits of the communal act remain, and “Station Island” situates itself within a community all of whom, the living and the dead, are ‘going through these motions’ without much confidence or hope, and apparently principally for Heaney’s benefit, as though they were somehow investing in his artistic future.

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.
[Ibid., 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. On the face of it, this seems odd in a poet of Longley’s evident humane feeling, imaginative compassion, and openness of interest. But the ambition which Longley’s poetry has made good, especially since Gorse Fires, is one for precision and fidelity rather than an ambition for some achieved and verifiable authority: authority, in these terms, is not the poet’s business, and can be of no productive interest to his poetry. Put in this way, this tells only half the story, for the formal medium of the writing is crucially important, and Longley has perfected a voice which combines an instinct for natural expression with an extraordinary elegance, economy, and suppleness in its range. Furthermore, Longley’s insistence on the individuality of perception and perspective does not drive his poetry towards a position of human or social isolation; on the contrary, an insistence on a broadly conceived civility and human openness has become more and more explicit in his writing in recent years. In terms of religion, Longley accepts the situation faced more bluntly by Heaney, that ‘The god has, as they say, withdrawn’, and his poetry, again like Heaney’s, comes to terms with the human spaces left by this deus absconditus. However, where Heaney tries, in effect, to do this by strengthening what Yeats called ‘the infallible Church of poetic tradition’, Longley allows his poetry to take more direct, spontaneous, and apparently improvisatory routes, in which the issue of the poet’s function, powers, or responsibilities is never the poems’ central concern.

The artistic effort, for Longley, remains essentially that of making the mind believe the eyes; and that belief, in its way, demands artistic work analogous to religious faith in its realisation. Here, the poetry’s identity as pastoral is still relevant, and has continued to deepen and complicate for Longley in ways that Heaney’s pastoral modes have not really kept pace with: Heaney’s remembered County Derry remains in thrall to one (comparatively narrow) mode of writing, whereas Longley’s west of Ireland has become more strange as it has accrued more detail, and it continues to challenge, rather than confirm, the poet’s sense of his own place in things. The same could be said for the two poets’ literariness, for Longley’s absorption of Homer and Ovid has galvanised his poetry, and taken it to new places, where Heaney’s use of Virgil, Greek tragedy, or even perhaps Dante, has been more in the nature of grafting on supporting evidence for his own achievements.

Longley’s attraction to the miniature, to short poems and poems that work [14] in short units of expression, might give a misleading impression of a poet who works on a small scale. In fact Longley’s writing, especially since Gorse Fires, has established large, albeit unfixed, structures of association and reference, in which shifting patterns of recapitulation and development give his volumes their own kind of resonance and intensity. In this way, the Longley of the 1990s has achieved what the Heaney of the 1980s failed to do, creating a poetry of high ambitions in which those ambitions can remain implicit. A poem like “The Ghost Orchid” brings such issues close to the surface, but at the same time it knows all about keeping them in their place:

Added to its few remaining sites will be the stanza
I compose about leaves like flakes of skin, a colour
Dithering between pink and yellow, and then the root
That grows like coral among shadows and leaf-litter.
Just touching the petals bruises them into darkness.
[Selected Poems, p.123.]

To call poetry like this programmatic, or to identify it as a kind of manifesto, would be to ruin the poem itself, or kill it in critical translation. Of course, that is the point; but the poem’s success, like its delicacy, is also a pointed business. The perception, acuteness, and restraint of this poetry are those of a voice which can face loss, love, public and private murder, and a century’s history with the same absolute attention to the individual detail; its faith lies in fidelities like these.

Already, both Heaney and Longley have proved themselves central to any reading of contemporary poetry, and they will go on being centrally significant not only to the satisfaction and challenge, but to the critical arguments and artistic provocations that good poetry ought to generate. By comparing Heaney and Longley, one is in fact taking account of different kinds of success. The very limited nature of much criticism of poetry means that Longley tends to be seen as a failed Heaney (or, indeed, Heaney to be read as a failed Longley); neither poet is well served by such attention, nor by the tendency to see their poetry in over-defined relation to the ‘context’ of Northern Ireland. Nevertheless, both Opened Ground and Longley’s Selected Poems contain poetry which is stronger and more resourceful than the critical attention it has often received, and which can outlast the more modish varieties of contemporary celebration. And both books, remarkably, seem to prepare the ground for what is still in store - this is the rarest of feats for poets in mid-career, and one which needs to be welcomed. Heaney ends his book, not with “Postscript” and its Yeatsian swans, but with his Nobel lecture on “Crediting Poetry”, and its Yeatsian anxieties: this feels like the last word on a topic Heaney knows must now be dropped. In Longley’s Selected Poems too, the momentum of fresh achievement in the last pages seems unstoppable. Perhaps both poets, in selecting their poems and reading themselves, acting younger than they are and thinking older, are properly prepared for the poetry that is still to come.


[ back ]

[ top ]