“Where Does the Spirit Live?”: Seamus Heaney’s Metaphysics
A Memorial Lecture
by Bruce Stewart (UU Emeritus / UFRN)

RELIGIOUS orthodoxies of one sort or another enjoyed something of a field day in twentieth-century Ireland at a period when they being were all but extinguished everywhere else in Europe. Today, with the rapid modernisation of society, secularism has perhaps become the dominant mode of social thought despite frequent caveats from clerics and others regarding the risk of ‘losing touch’ with our Irishness in the process. [1] There is no time here to consider here whether modernisation and spirituality are necessarily opposed or whether the farrago of ideas that styles itself ‘Celtic spirituality’ has any merits [2]. In literary life, however, it is generally clear that scepticism has done away with a religious outlook which passed as normal in the age of Patrick Kavanagh, Denis Devlin, Thomas MacGreevy, and even Flann O’Brien who—as Anthony Cronin has pointed out—stolidly adhered to Irish Catholic orthodoxy even while dismembering the fraudulent ideology of the neo-Gael.

In his introduction to Irish Poetry of Faith and Doubt: The Cold Heaven (1990), John F. Deane offered this account of the situation in the period closer to our own time when the erosion of Catholic orthodoxy was becoming a more or less dominant tendency in Irish intellectual life:

Ireland is known for its tenacious belief in God: our early poetry, in Gaelic or Latin, is rich and lyrical in its response to that God, but that is not my concern here. The theme of this anthology is the vacillation, indignation and occasional rapture that Irish poets have experienced in their response, as poets, to religious faith. [3]

Response to rather than expression of religious dogma is therefore the poet-editor’s theme—who is, incidentally, a former priest. In other words his anthology was compiled in the recognition that Catholic orthodoxy is no longer an option for the Irish intelligentsia (not to say that there cannot be exceptions). In the event Deane’s doggedly ecumenical selection includes poets as various as the Cecil Frances Alexander and Padraic Fallon, John Kells Ingram—here oddly described as the first complete Irish humanist [4]—and Louis MacNeice, whose upbringing in a ‘zealot faith’ (meaning apparently the Church of Ireland) is said to have enduced him to ‘despair [of] any form of humanism’with the effect that his poetry ‘charts his personal decline from faith into gnawing emptiness’—not a portrait that many literary admirers (poets or critics) would easily recognise as a true likeness of the poet. [5] Indeed, such a newly post-Christian caricature suggests how naive the Irish Cathoic mind in the Republic really is compared with its Ulster counterpart as may be seen in the case of Seamus Heaney—a co-religionist with the advantage of and “A” level education who is professionally adept in the language of British secularism and, in Joyce’s phrase, even succeeds in besting them in their own language in wide tranches of his critical writings.

If only as a contemporary whose name is often linked with those of Cecil Day-Lewis, and Auden—as in the composite name MacSpaunday devised by Isherwood—the case of Louis MacNeice is worth considering in a little more detail here. Several passages in his uncompleted autobiography The Strings are False (1965) bear out something like J. F. Deane’s interpretation, though the sense that the former Catholic cleric has extracted from them seems unduly melodramatic:

Man cannot live by courage, technique, imagination—alone. He has to have a sanction from outside himself. Otherwise his technical achievements, his empires of stocks and shares, his exploitation of power, his sexual conquests, all his apparent inroads on the world outside, are merely the self-assertion, the self-indulgence, of a limited self that whimpers behind the curtains, a spiritual masturbation. [6]

This is surely the voice of sceptical humanism rather than Christian chiliasm—yet a plangent acknowledgement of man’s need for spiritual sustenance is definitely sounded in it. Equally, there are equal indications that MacNeice could jog along quite nicely in this bereft condition without reverting to the faith of his fathers while, at the same time, recognising the needful place of mysticism in imaginative life:

Mysticism, in the narrow sense, implies a specific experience which is foreign to most poets and most men, but on the other hand it represents an instinct which is a human sine qua non. Both the poet and the “ordinary” man are mystics incidentally and there is a mystical sanction or motivation for all their activities which are not purely utilitarian […]. [7]

Quoting just this passage Terence Brown has written: ‘Ireland […] is associated in the poet’s imagination with mystical possibilities […] The dark shadows of that County Antrim rectory remain to haunt a mind ready to salute an Ireland that could now somehow represent psychological release and spiritual intimations.’ [8] The effect is to provide Ulster poets with an antecedent no less mystical—and, one might add, no less Irish—for being a professed agnostic than W. B. Yeats. When it comes to Derek Mahon this precursor has been a crucial influence as Brown has shown in proffering the epithet ‘secular mysticism’ for the common element in both writers. [9]

John F. Deane limits Mahon to a single poem (“Nostaglias”) and advances Padraic Fallon instead as his beau idéal of the post-Christian Irish mystic. Fallon, he informs us, ‘succeeded in a poetry that is not religious in the traditional sense [but] remained fully alert to the ultimate mystery that remains in any religious faith’ with the result that his verse ‘remains rich and valuable in a perennially satisfying way’. [10] Another poet whose version of spirituality finds favour is Seamus Heaney, many of whose poems are included in the anthology. [11] Strangely, however, Patrick Kavanagh—who features in Heaney’s pantheon much as MacNeice does in Mahon’s—does not appear in the anthology at all. This is all the odder since Heaney explicitly identified the ‘spirit of […] prayer’ and ‘the child’s religious belief that if each action […] is offered up for love, then in the eyes of God it is momentous’ as the central impulse of Kavanagh’s imagination in “The Sense of Place”, a now-classic lecture given in 1977. [12]

A more serviceable guide to the current consensus about spirituality among Irish intellectuals than J. F. Deane’s is perhaps a different sort of anthology more recently compiled by Marie Heaney under the title Sources: Letters from Irish People on the Sustenance of the Soul (1999). This provides a virtual roll-call of contemporary scholars, churchmen, playwrights, novelists, poets, broad-casters, actors, and cultural pundits living and working in Ireland. In her brief Foreword, the editor shrewdly declines to offer any definition of the terms ‘soul’ and ‘spiritual’ which she had included in her letter of invitation to the contributors. Instead she remarks that ‘ [m]any of the correspondents expressed difficulties in defining what “spiritual” meant’, while ‘others admitted disquiet and an understandable reticence about disclosing such deeply private matters’. [13] In the event the only one to make a stab at it was her own husband, who offers this definition: ‘“Spiritual sustenance”, meaning whatever sustains the spirit, supports it from below, maintains its vitality and reinforces its sense of its own validity.’ [14] And he continues: ‘What sustains is more returnable to, less surprising, less intense, more tried and chosen. It fact, it can sometimes seem that your sustenance ends up choosing you rather than the other way around.’ [15]

If the poet strikes a lumbering note in his attempt to rise to the somewhat marmish occasion, he also reiterates in prose something of the theme and the technique of his poetic musings in Seeing Things (1991) and The Spirit Level (1996). In common with an intransitive use of the verb sustain, the striking phrase ‘more returnable to’ displays a neologising impulse to be met frequently in those collections as in the lines describing clear harbour water in his marvellous poem “Squarings” which speaks of the ‘ [u]ltimate / Fathomableness, ultimate / Stony up-againstness’ of watering slapping on a quayside. [16] That sort of coinage marks Heaney’s desire to capture something of the liminal and the numinous in ordinary things through the very exaltation of their ordinariness—there there-ness. (It is also the fruit a constitutional devotion to the act of observation.) The search for essences amid physical qualities, here signalled by the abstract suffix –ness attached to unconventional parts of speech—yet, if darkness, why not unfathomableness or even, by back-formation, ‘fathomableness’?—reveals a determination to see the physical and spiritual as ultimately dependent on each other, or at least to channel them together on the same plane of experience. In this psycho-physical complex there is a distinct trace of an analogy with sexual union as when he writes about ‘the feeling of a gap closing and at the same time, equally and paradoxically, of a space opening’ before adding finally: ‘ [i]t seems at those moments that we are made for illumination’. [17]

In all this there may be room to regret that it remains uncertain whether Heaney’s mephysics stands closer to Varieties of Religious Experiences or The Imitation of Christ—that is to say, whether the poet is more interested in paranormal phenomena or in visionary experience. Or else one might say that ambiguity about that difference stands very close indeed to the intellectual core of his poetic practice.  In the above sentence, ‘seems’ seems to harbour its own lode of scepticism, as if holding the balance—or even oscillating—between psychology and metaphysics were more important to the poet than plumping for any definite meaning. The effect is often to suggest a kind of impromptu theology if not a metaphysics of unbelief; and only in this very real, albeit problematic, sense Heaney can be called a religious poet.

Quite noticeably, the metaphysician is in the ascendant in the later poems, even if an accent of intellectual self-deprecation tends to dampen the impression of literal faith in a spiritual dimension.

Where does the spirit live? Inside or outside
Things remembered, made things, things unmade?
Which came first, the seabird’s cry or the soul?
(Set questions for the ghost of W. B.) [18]

The vision of W. B. Yeats as a seminarian sitting down to his Theology Finals prevents Heaney’s questions from sounding too portentous yet can there be any doubt that a sincere concern with the questions raised informs the poem—as it does the whole collection in which it appears? What stands behind that concern finds its biographical equivalent in another presence, here unuttered: the ghost of the poet’s father, Patrick Heaney, who died shortly before the collection was published.

The dotted line my father’s ashplant made
On Sandymount Strand
Is something else the tide won’t wash away.

These verses from “The Strand” later appeared on a personal greeting card printed for Heaney by Peter Fallon’s Gallery Press in 1995 along with an illustration in watercolour by Felim Egan. This shows a faint horizon with a muzzy stick rising from it—an effect not unlike Peter Pearson’s paintings of the Pigeon House viewed from a standpoint not far from Heaney’s home on Strand Road in Dublin. On the left of Egan’s picture can be seen a column of equidistant dots, three in dark blue and two in off-white and placed respectively under and over the horizon. The effect is to suggest a tenuous alchemy involving earth and air; and this reflects the commonly held idea that Heaney’s poetical development crucially involved taking flight with Sweeney Astray (1983)—departing from the earth-bound to the aerial.
Heaney’s father was not of course the first to trail a stick along the foreshore of Dublin Bay. The honour—as far as literary record goes—belongs to Stephen Dedalus, whom Joyce showed ‘walking into eternity along Sandymount Strand’ in the “Proteus” episode of Ulysses. [19] Later in the novel at the self-same spot Leopold Bloom employs a piece of flotsam to scrawl the words: ‘I AM A ….’—and there he stops, leaving that self-reflexive sentence incomplete for the same reason as anyone else might. ‘Mr Bloom with his stick gently vexed the thick sand at his foot. Write a message for her. Might remain. What? […] Some flatfoot tramp on it in the morning. Useless. Washed away.’ [20] That of course is the simple truth of it. The trace that Heaney père’s walking-cane has left in the ribbed flats of Dublin Bay was washed away directly the tide came in and thereafter had no existence outside his son’s poem. The same might be said Stephen’s or Bloom’s scrawls which exist only in the novel Ulysses—an exemplary case of what W. B. Yeats in “Sailing to Byzantium” called ‘the artifice of eternity’.
To those who long for the immortality of the soul in a conventionally religious sense, an artistic after-life is hardly enough and there are hints in Heaney’s elegies for his father that the latter at least believed in such an outcome as many older Irish people did and doubtless still do today. It is, however, quite improbable that Seamus Heaney himself shares such beliefs in any literal sense: if he did, his contribution to Sources would hardly be so cryptic. Yet in his poetry he allows the Christian doctrine of salvation to supply a solution to the problem represented by his father’s imminent ‘ghosthood’ [21]:

And lightenings? One meaning of that
beyond the usual sense of alleviation,
Illumination, and so on, is this:
A phenomenal instant where the spirit flares
With pure exhilaration before death —
The good thief in us harking to the promise!

It may be pure fidelity to the religious expectations of his father that leads the poet to continue: ‘So paint him on Christ’s right hand’—before ending the poem by quoting the familiar Scriptural promise: ‘This day thou shalt be with Me in Paradise’. [22] Pius Aeneas could do no less if he were an Irish Catholic; yet the poem also manages to suggest a positive faith in the hereafter and in the idea of eternal justice and reward. This is a religious conviction that Seamus Heaney has never yet entrusted to prose and probably never will. Nor, one imagines, will he subject the scriptural verse to the rough treatment that Samuel Beckett lavished on it in Waiting for Godot: ‘One of the thieves was damned and one of the thieves was saved: not a bad percentage!’

A subtler conception of matter of spiritual transcendence is happily conveyed in the poem “The Ash Plant” in the same collection. Here the poet envisages his father taking ‘an upstairs outlook on the whole country’ from the vantage-point of the sick-room where is imminent departure (‘He’ll never rise again but he is ready’) and confers on him a share in the mystery of his present state (‘the whys and wherefores of his lofty station’). The effect is distinctly witty—even ludic—as when the poet invites his father to come downstairs in terms associated with St. Patrick (‘ [...] come / Walking again amongst us’)—after whom, of course, Heaney père is named. [23] In such a context it is hardly tactful to labour the question whether the afterlife of those who have ‘passed away’ is actual or merely a mode of remembrance conferred by the survivors. Yet this paradox is nevertheless the dominant preoccupation of Seeing Things (1991), a collection bounded by translations from the Aeneid and the Inferno and concerned throughout with the whereabouts of the dead and the nature of our continuig relation to them.

Within that context the poet engages in a series of ontological reflections conducted under the form of a jejune play of gerunds (in retrospect, the most pervasive fad of writers and publishers in the 1990s). “Lightenings”, “Settings”, “Crossings”, and “Squarings”. [24] As with the earlier deposition on spirituality, each of these idiosyncratically pluralised nouns—another hallmark feature of Heaney’s lexicon since Preoccupations (and perhaps owing to Yeats’s own propensity for unusual plurals like ‘mythologies’)—is conceived of as both ‘the door and what came through it’. Considered thus, they exist in the outside world as formal entities that have their proper being only when the mind gets them into focus like the “markings” on the unmarked football pitch which invade the boys’ consciousness with such force that they continue ‘playing in their heads’ after the twilight falls:

Breathing in the dark and skids of grass
Sounded like effort in another world.
Some limit had been passed,
There was fleetness, furtherance, untiredness
In time that was extra, unforeseen and free. [25]

Such a relation between internal and external ingredients of perception involves a kind of psychic immanence that dispenses with the necessity for metaphysical entities per se (that is, in the realm of the absolute), finding sufficient grounds for the existence of the spiritual world in the workings of consciousness itself. Heaney’s boys are caught up in a process which fully requires them for its realisation. Hence, in Yeatsian terms, it becomes impossible to distinguish the dancer from the dance—just as it is impossible to separate the bubble from the spirit level or the knot from the tie in the ensuing collection. [26] Indeed, all such coinages belong to an order of being that has no existence as apart from the encounters with reality that bear it up. As such it participates in a species of transcendence akin to that which constitutes a tune from its successive notes (a haunting exception to the law of structures that Levi-Strauss remarked in the brilliant coda of Tristes Tropiques.) From this it might be inferred that spirit is always present in so far as it is realised in the human imagination. If so, Heaney’s metaphysics of perception are not unworthy to put beside Aristotle’s De Anima, Joyce’s Portrait or Yeats’s Vision.

An earlier but hardly less lucent approach to this philosophical nexus can be met with in the first in Heaney’s moving elegy “Sunlight”, part of the diptych “Mossbawn: Two Poems in Dedication” in North (1975), written for Mary Heaney, the much-loved aunt who lived with the Heaneys and died about that time. [27] The poem speaks of a visit to the farmhouse in which her death has left ‘a sunlit absence’, and then reconstructs ‘things remembered’ from a quotidian episode in childhood:

Now she dusts the board
with a goose’s wing,
now sits, broad-lapped,
with whitening nails

and measling shins:
here is a space
again, the scone rising
to the tick of two clocks.

And here is love
like a tinsmith’s scoop
sunk past its gleam
in the meal-bin. [28]

The two clocks given here denote the two periods of time involved in the setting of the poem. Taken together, they jointly sound the power of poetry to epiphanise the past and bring it back to life in the present—the kind of only immortality that only an elegy can confer. In the last stanza, the poem ventures further into the domain of metaphysics in pointing to the reality of invisibilia regarding which St. Paul had something to say in his epistle to the Corinthians. That tin scoop with its hidden ‘gleam’ wonderfully captures a sense of something no less real and perhaps more real—or at least untarnished—because it is unseen. Heaney’s climactic resort to utter simplicity in the indicative phrase ‘here is love’ inaugurates an eternity in a way that carries the image into a temporal dimension where past and present are variable expressions of timeless being.

It is in the title poem of the collection Seeing Things that the juncture between nation and spirit is most tellingly asserted and it is here, too, that he most pointedly averts to James Joyce’s celebrated reflections on perception in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The fulcrum of Heaney’s thinking on the matter is a somewhat specious application of Joyce’s Thomistic loan-word claritas. The whole falls into a triune—if not actually a trinitarian—pattern, much as Joyce’s theory does (viz., ‘wholeness, harmony, radiance’). In the first stanza, Heaney recalls a moment of heightened consciousness that visited him in boyhood during a school-trip to an Inisboffin. The treatment, though very different, inevitably suggests comparison with a famous Wordsworthian boat-trip and it is hard to think the similarity is accidental. In the second, he expatiates upon Joyce’s term claritas in the somewhat improbable context of medieval iconography (‘… the stone’s alive with what’s invisible’). In the third, he narrates an occasion when his father almost died in a farm-accident (‘Once upon a time my undrowned father …’). [29]

What is most striking about the first section is the way in which the synaesthetic evocation of boat-travel largely conveyed by Hughesian epithets such as ‘shiftiness and heft’, ‘bouyancy and swim’ merges with the Irish lore of boats in Celtic and more modern sources. One such is the tale of the Clonmacnoise community who assist a sailor from an other-worldly ship to disentangle his anchor from their altar-rail. (It is the poem that Heaney best likes to read in public.) 

‘The man can’t bear our life here and will drown him’
The abbot said, ‘Unless we help him’. So
They did, the freed ship sailed, and the man climbed back
Out of the marvellous as he had known it. [30]

The subtext of that fable has more than a little of the Smargadine tablets about it: that which is above and that which is below are mutually dependent aspects of reality though strangely unfamiliar to each other. It is also happily an ecumenical idea in that sense that the abbot recognises the plight of the stranded visitant but asks no questions as to his doctrinal baggage.

Another other-wordly boat in Heaney’s repertoire is to be met with in “The Settle Bed” (also in Seeing Things), where the children ‘reimagine’ a tattered piece of furniture as a tall-ship, and so prove the rule that ‘We are free as the lookout […] Who declared that by the time he had got himself down / The actual ship had stolen away beneath him.’ [31] In this rendering of the trope, Heaney’s own craft is clearly implied but others are remembered also—notably the eel-boat in which his murdered cousin wins free from the contemporary conflict in Ulster: ‘As you find a rhythm / Working you, slow mile by mile, / Into your proper haunt / Somewhere, well out, beyond …’. [32] Aside from its elegiac character, the poem functions as an admonition to the poet to stick to his last. Indeed, all vehicles and crafts in Heaney are anagogical enactments of the craft of writing with its requirement of trust in the unplumped depths of the perilous medium itself: ‘The gunwale’s lifting ear—/ The trusting the gift, / Risking gifts’ undertow’. [33]

Likewise in “Seeing Things” the poet is on shipboard and ‘sailing evenly across / The deep, still, seeable-down-into water’. In this condition, he conjures an image of self-awareness that embraces not only his imperilled self but also a community of selves which permissably suggests a national community to the reader, both by virtue of its character as a troop of boys from a ‘maintained’ school in Northern Ireland as well as through a topical recall of Thomas Moore’s famous lines “On Lough Neagh’s Bank” which speak of ‘the Round Towers of other days / In the waves beneath him shining.’Heaney corresponding vision places the present company in the object position: 

All the time […]
It was as if I looked from another boat
Sailing through the air, far up, and could see
How riskily we fared into the morning,
And loved in vain our bare, bowed, numbered heads. [34]

‘In vain’: some disturbance appears to qualify the efficacy of the poet’s love in relation to his peers, few of whom would remain untouched by the coming events in Northern Ireland. Yet if the Troubles provide a hidden occasion of anxiety, then the political allegorical is whispered at a near-inaudible pitch. That the ‘we’ who sit ‘obedient, newly close’, on the ‘short cross-benches’ of the boat are representatives of the nationalist community afloat on the tide of Irish history can be inferred from their destination, a ‘western isle’ which maps the poem onto a topography of the Irish spirit: Inisboffin, Aran, Achill, Tir na nÓg are all sacred locations in the nationalist imagination. At the same time, the obviously classical reference to ‘our ferryman’ enlarges the metaphoric of the poem scope to include the journey that we all must take; and thus the poem assumes a wider metaphysical concern.

The second section, dealing expressly with the Joyce’s theory of perception, can be read as an exercise in quasi-theological aesthetics along lines that Heaney obviously considers consonant with the treatment of the subject in A Portrait. On that point he is demonstrably mistaken since Joyce has no allegory of the spirit in mind but only the epistemological ratio between the perceiver and the thing perceived in acts of adequate cognition. In Heaney’s version of the argument, a wavy line carved on the tympanum of a medieval French cathedral is taken as an instance of claritas in as much as it signifies the life-giving properties of water (presumably including baptism). This image is then found to resemble the convection effect that produces the mirage on summer afternoons in France; that in turn suggests the upward transcendence by which we pass from earth to air and comparably from matter into spirit. Hence the symbol of the medieval sculptor who carved water upon stone supplies the poet with an answer to the quandary represented by the loss of religious faith and a way of recuperating the spiritual without submitting to the confessional dictation (especially in Ireland).

In the third section of the poem, Heaney deals directly with his hopes and fears for his lately-deceased father. Shifting from the Inisboffin narrative to another in which his father is accidentally thrown into a watery ditch, he makes his language reflect the emotions of the child on finding that his father has survived the accident. But other language and other intimations are hinted at as well:

                                      That afternoon
I saw him face to face, he came to me
With his damp footprints out of the river,
And there was nothing between us there
That might not still be happily ever after. [35]

Here the force of ‘be’ is ontological rather than purely childish, while ‘ever after’ takes on the accent of eschatological thought rather than the idiom of a fairy-tale suggested by ‘ever after’. Equally, ‘face to face’ evokes the scriptural promise that post-mortal existence affords an encounter with the essence of the persons known and loved in this ‘lower’ life where we see ‘darkly as through a looking-glass’ in the Pauline formula (per aenigmate ad speculum).

To state the matter somewhat pointedly, Seeing Things—both the collection and the title-poem—are about the afterlife. While such matters might easily be interrogated in purely metaphysical (or even theological) terms, it is in terms of Irish historical consciousness that Seamus Heaney habitually chooses to examines it. In this the political dimension is chiefly apparent in the analogy with Thomas Moore’s “Lough Neagh” poem on which Heaney has commented in an introduction to that poet where he remarks on ‘his own sense that an Irish past was woven out of those melodies’. [36] Nothing reveals the pervasiveness of the past in Heaney’s view of Irish landscape more effectively than the programme note he wrote for T. P. Flanagan’s water-colours of Irish bog exhibited in 1971—paintings that inspired his own poem “Bogland” when he first viewed them in Flanagan’s studio in 1968. In it he asserts:

The pictures are the afterlife of experience. They advance and retire along the brink of the actual, sometimes close enough to be tinged with the bolder presences of colour, sometimes haunting the canvas like luminous mists. Occasionally the manifestations are dramatic and yearn openly back towards their local habitation, more often it is the name that reminds us that the ghosted forms once possessed the lineaments of place. [37]

From this it might be inferred that the spiritual survival of those ‘ghosted forms’ is actually predicated on a history of colonial dispossession for which the bog stands in the poem mentioned as a politically-charged icon. The ‘sense of place’ in Heaney’s terminology—for which Shakespeare’s ‘local habitation’ is a most fortuitous equivalent—includes the notion that those formerly associated with it ‘yearn back’ for the land they formerly occupied before being overtaken by colonial dispossession. This is, of course, a familiar trope in Land-league politics and nationalist ideology generally. Yeats or (more properly) Lady Gregory’s play Cathleen Ni Houlihan serves as the locus classicus for the idea in modern Irish literature though post-colonial critics have found it equally located in places as disparate (and oddly similar) and the final story in James Joyce’s Dubliners and in Bram Stoker’s Gothic late-comer Dracula (1897). In Heaney’s celebrated series of “Bog Poems” the idea of post-mortal survival by petrification in the acids of an Irish bog, or else in the amber of a nationalist remembrance—incorporating the cult of patriotic martyrdom that Joyce, in Finnegans Wake, calls ‘heroticism’—is cognate in meaning with the word ghost and similarly connected, through by subterranean channels in the consciousness of the Irish people to the ‘spirit of the nation’. Here, in fact, we enter into a large question: how far the persistence of spirituality as an intellectual fixation or a form of religious practice is causally related in Ireland to historical considerations compassed by the polarity between ‘nationalism’ and ‘unionism’ or equally by that between ‘colonial’ and ‘imperial’ (or any other such pairing).

‘Where does the spirit live?’, Seamus Heaney asks in Seeing Things. It was the great virtue of that collection of 1991, duly noted by critics such as John Wilson Foster, that it marked a growing indifference (even a resistance) to nationalist shibboleths—a shift widely registered among younger contemporary Irish writers and here exemplified by the absence of any reference to ‘nation’, ‘territory’, ‘soil’ or ‘bog’ in the catalogue of likely resting-places for the immaterial principle which instils life in us all. How far and in what ways ‘the spirit of the nation’—an epithet deriving from the Young Irelanders’ ballad collection of 1842—has informed Irish writing in English and how far the postnationalist literature at this moment has broken free from its overwhelming influence are vital questions as regards the history of modern Irish literature. Whether a conception of spirit independent of the idea of nation has truly emerged or has been, instead, replaced by a general indifference to metaphysics of any kind is a question of some moment in regard to contemporary Irish writing and society. How far W. B. Yeats believed in spirit and under what forms he supposed it to exist and manifest itself is a question that lies beyond the scope of this paper, though I might as well admit that it was that question which kick-started my interest in Heaney’s poem. Perhaps the answer is sufficiently implied in the great poet’s last poem: ‘Many times man lives and dies / Between his two eternities, / That of race and that of soul, / And ancient Ireland knew it all’, Yeats wrote in “Under Ben Bulben”. In our own time, for better or worse, those eternities look infinitely remote, the space they occupied having been taken over by a phenomenology of perception—that is, ‘seeing things’ in its literal sense—which may or may not address the metaphysical question of the human spirit in its ontological self-standing.  I have suggested today that Seamus Heaney holds open the space formerly occupied by spirit with a kind of impromptu theology and a metaphysics of unbelief.


[1] I am thinking of an obiter dicta by the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin Dr Martin reported in the papers.

[2] Viz, ‘The world of Celtic spirituality is competely at home with the rhythm and wisdom of the senses. When you read Celtic nature poetry, you see that all the senses are alerted [sic]: you hear the sound of the winds, you taste the fruits and above all you get a wonderful sense of how nature touches human presence. Celtic spirituality also has a great awarness of the sense of vision, particularly in relation to the spirit world. The Celtic eye has a great sense of that interim world between the invisible and the visible. [..&c.]’ (John O’Donohue, Anam Cara: Spiritual Wisdom from the Celtic World, London: Transworld 1997, p.105.)

[3].J. F. Deane, Irish Poetry of Faith and Doubt: The Cold Heaven (Dublin: Wolfhound 1990), p.12.

[4] Idem.

[5] Ibid., p.14.

[6] Quoted in Gerald Dawe, ‘Anatomist of Melancholia: Louis MacNeice’, in Against Piety: Essays in Irish Poetry (1995), pp.82-87, p.85.

[7] Poetry of W. B. Yeats [1942] (Oxford: OUP 1967), p. 16; quoted in Terence Brown, ‘Louis MacNeice’s Ireland’, in Brown & Nicholas Grene, eds., Tradition and Influence in Anglo-Irish Poetry (Macmillan 1989), pp.87-88.

[8] Ibid., pp.92-93.

[9] Brown, Introduction to Derek Mahon, Journalism (Oldcastle: Gallery Press 1996), p.19. The epithet ‘secular mystic’ arises from Mahon’s account of Philippe Jaccottet. For a full account of this, see my essay ‘Solving Ambiguity’: The Secular Mysticism of Derek Mahon’, in Elmer Andrews, ed., Derek Mahon: A Collection of Critical Essay (Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe 2001), pp.29-52.

[10] Idem.

[11] Viz., “Docker”, “Poor Woman in a City Church”, “In Gallarus Oratory”, “The Other Side”, and “In Illo Tempore” (pp.155-58).

[12] ‘The Sense of Place’ [1977], in Preoccupations (London: Faber 1980), pp.141-42.

[13] Sources: Letters from Irish People on the Sustenance of the Soul (Dublin: Town House 1999), p.ix.

[14] Sources (1999), p.160.

[15] Idem.

[]16 Opened Ground (1991), p.366.

[17] Sources (1999), p.160. The poem that Heaney suggested for inclusion was William Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence”.

[18] [Poem] xxii of “Settings”, in Seeing Things (London: Faber & Faber 1991), p74; Opened Ground (1991), p.372.

[19] Ulysses (London: Bodley Head 1967), p.45.

[20] Idem. Bloom has just previously said, ‘I am a fool perhaps’ but here stops short with ‘AM. A.’

[21] Vide the phrases, ‘strange without his hat / His step unguided, his ghosthood immanent’, in “Seeing Things, III” (Seeing Things, 1991, p.18).  Here there seems to be a play on ‘immanent’ and ‘imminent’ rather than a malapropism.

[22] Opened Ground (London: Faber & Faber 1998), p.367.

[23] Seeing Things (1991), p.19.

[24] These are the section-titles of “Crossings”, being Part II of the collection, and ending with the poem “The Crossing” which renders lines 82-129 of Dante’s Inferno, Canto III.

[25] “Markings”, in Seeing Things (1991), p.9; also Opened Ground (1998, p.335).

[26] The Spirit Level (London: Faber & Faber 1996) [q.p.]

[27] Mary Heaney was the widow of an uncle from whom Seamus’s father Patrick inherited a farm to which he moved his family from Mossbawn in 1953.

[28] North (London: Faber & Faber 1975), pp.8-9; Opened Ground (London: Faber & Faber 1998), p.93-94.

[29] Seeing Things (1991), p.17; Opened Ground (1998), p.339-41. In this context the ‘dry-eyed Latin word’ claritas is called ‘perfect for the carved stone of the water’ (ibid., p.339).

[30] Seeing Things (1991), p.62; Opened Ground, p.364.

[31] Opened Ground (1991), p.346.

[32] “Casualty”, in Field Work (London: Faber & Faber 1979); rep. in Opened Ground (London: Faber & Faber, 1991), p.157.

[33] Idem.

[34] The lines as given here are taken from the ‘Thomas Moore’ page of the Princess Grace Irish Library “EIRData” website at www.pgil-eirdata.org.

[35] Opened Ground (1991), p.341.

[36] See David Hammond, ed., A Centenary Selection of Moore’s Melodies, with foreword by Seamus Heaney (Skerries, Dublin: Gilbert Dalton 1979).

[37] Quoted in Brian O’Doherty, ed., The Irish Imagination 1959-1971 [Rosc Exhibition Catalogue] (1971), p.58; see also Heaney’s Foreword to S. B. Kennedy, T. P. Flanagan (Dublin: Four Courts 1995).