I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.


Imperishable Song

Joseph M Hassett

One of the many remarkable aspects of the recent selection of Seamus Heaney’s letters (The Letters of Seamus Heaney, edited by Christopher Reid, published by Faber & Faber) is the recurring echo of WB Yeats’s voice. Heaney frequently used Yeats’s vocabulary and diction when writing to fellow poets or others likely to appreciate the echo.

The practice began in earnest following his transformational year at Berkeley in 1970-71. Conversations in California with novelist and scholar Thomas Flanagan sharpened Heaney’s interest in the literature of Ireland. As he explained in Stepping Stones, he was ‘still a creature of [his] undergraduate degree’ at Belfast’s Queen’s University when he arrived in California. While he ‘knew a certain amount of Irish literature and Irish history’, his ‘head was still basically wired up to English literature terminals’. Flanagan sparked in Heaney a ‘far more charged-up sense of Yeats and Joyce’ and the ‘whole Irish consequence’.

When he returned to Ireland, his charged-up sense of Yeats gave him a language and frame of reference within which to work out his internal struggle to define himself both as ‘a father bewildered by this word poet’ and as a poet grappling with the violence in Northern Ireland. The struggle is apparent in an October 1974 letter telling Flanagan about his decision to create the volume North. The thirty-five-year-old poet implicitly defines the book in terms of Yeats’s 1914 collection Responsibilities. Evoking the epigraph to Yeats’s collection – ‘In dreams begins responsibility’ – Heaney says that North is ‘a pitch towards Responsibilities of a sort of beginning not so much in dreams as the brute ordinariness’ of the violence in the North and his responsibilities as father and poet. Yeats hovers over the scene as Heaney posits that Flanagan is destined to be ‘a father- figure of sorts to me’, and suggests that Flanagan ‘come here and be Yeats’ to ‘all the urgent and undirected energy’ of the Dublin literary scene. Heaney wraps these ideas in a ribbon of Yeatsian diction by ending his discussion with the words ‘Pardon, old father …’ – an echo of the prefatory rhymes in Yeats’s Responsibilities. Yeats’s presence in this letter is so powerful that when Heaney’s infant daughter Catherine Ann cries, Heaney borrows words from Yeats’s ‘The Man and the Echo’ to tell Flannery that her cry ‘Distracts my thought’.

Heaney’s letter-writing practice runs counter to Harold Bloom’s theory that emerging writers are so beset by anxiety about the influence of their predecessors that they misread or distort the predecessor in order to protect their own claim to originality. Heaney’s easy use of Yeats’s phrases and diction bespeaks an underlying confidence that enabled him to embrace his predecessor. Heaney was doing exactly what Eavan Boland suggested in answer to a question about the difficulty of writing in Yeats’s shadow: ‘Why not try writing in his light?’

Even before he began writing in Yeatsian language, Heaney was not disposed to run from his predecessor. One of the earliest letters in the collection shows him comfortably accepting his relation to Yeats. His June 1965 letter to Charles Monteith, the Faber editor who had offered to publish the fledgling poet’s first collection, explains that it was only when he attended the opening of Yeats’s tower, Thoor Ballylee, a few days after receiving Monteith’s letter that he ‘got round to the solitary realization of my incredible good fortune’. Locating his beginning as an internationally recognised poet at Yeats’s tower suggests continuity rather than rejection or distortion.

Heaney’s kinship with Yeats next appears in this collection following his conversations with Flanagan in Berkeley nearly a decade later. Many subsequent letters reflect the continuing influence of Yeatsian diction. A few weeks after his letter to Flanagan about North, Heaney borrowed language from Yeats’s ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’ to make a wry observation to his friend and fellow poet Michael Longley about an invitation to lecture on ‘The Poet and Society’. Knowing that Longley would be familiar with Yeats’s lines ‘Those masterful images because complete / Grew in pure mind, but out of what began?’ Heaney added this echo of Yeats to his letter about the invitation: ‘Grow in pure mind but out of what begin? Och. Aye.’

Heaney’s March 1980 letter to his editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux reveals how deeply Yeats’s phrasing was embedded in his memory. Referring to his use of the words ‘quarrel with ourselves’ in jacket copy for Preoccupations, he suggests that his words should be preceded by the phrase ‘As he writes, echoing Yeats’. He explains that he was ‘half -quoting Yeats there, and since I cannot  exactly remember where the lines come from, I cannot check them’. In effect, Heaney recognises that Yeats’s words have become his own, and live in his mind untethered from their source. The Yeats aphorism that he had internalised but couldn’t quite quote verbatim appears in the essay ‘Anima Hominis’: ‘We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.’

The phrase ‘finished man among his enemies’ from Yeats’s ‘A Dialogue of Self and Soul’ was another locution that took on a life of its own in Heaney’s mind. Yeats’s poem declares that he is content to be re-incarnated – ‘to live it all again’ – through life’s various stages:

What matter if I live it all once more?
Endure that toil of growing up;
The ignominy of boyhood; the distress
Of boyhood changing into man;
The unfinished man and his pain
Brought face to face with his own clumsiness;

The finished man among his enemies?—

The last line lodged in Heaney’s memory and was ready to be deployed in a letter to Joseph Brodsky, the exiled Russian poet whom he had met at the 1972 International Poetry Festival in London. Apologising for having failed to offer condolences on the death of Brodsky’s mother, Heaney explained that he had never thought of Brodsky as having parents, but assumed that he existed in a spiritual state of ‘beyond-ness’ akin to ‘Yeats’s “finished man among his enemies”’.

Heaney’s letters suggest that Yeats’s words could be so powerful as to constitute a ‘numen’, defined by Oxford Dictionaries as ‘the spirit or divine power presiding over a thing or place’. The letters show him using that powerful word when writing to his friend and fellow poet Tom Paulin in February 1989, shortly after speaking at an event marking the fiftieth anniversary of Yeats’s death. Forwarding drafts of what became ‘Squarings’, Heaney explained their form by saying that ‘swooping in on impulse and getting out’ was the ‘Only way I could “address the Yeats numen in verse”’. ‘Squarings’ opens with lines that Heaney has identified as the result of ‘gleams of unextinguished thought’ from Yeats’s ‘The Cold Heaven’ breaking into his mind as he emerged from the National Library where he had been working on his essay about Yeats for The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing.

It’s easy to see how the energy of ‘The Cold Heaven’ still sizzled seventy-five years after its birth:

Suddenly I saw the cold and rook-delighting heaven
That seemed as though ice burned and was but the more ice,
And thereupon imagination and heart were driven
So wild that every casual thought of that and this
Vanished, and left but memories, that should be out of season
With the hot blood of youth, of love crossed long ago;
And I took all the blame out of all sense and reason,
Until I cried and trembled and rocked to and fro,
Riddled with light. Ah! when the ghost begins to quicken,
Confusion of the death-bed over, is it sent
Out naked on the roads, as the books say, and stricken
By the injustice of the skies for punishment?

Heaney expressed the Yeats numen at the outset of ‘Squarings’ this way:

Shifting brilliancies. Then winter light
In a doorway, and on the stone doorstep
A beggar shivering in silhouette.

So the particular judgement might be set:
Bare wallstead and a cold hearth rained into—
Bright puddle where the soul-free cloud-life roams.

The numen emanating from Yeats’s poems ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ and ‘Byzantium’ guided Heaney the letter-writer. Heaney explained his own understanding of these difficult poems by noting that, in a draft of a talk for the BBC, Yeats explained that he ‘symbolize[d] the spiritual life by a journey’ to Byzantium. Yeats’s follow-up poem ‘Byzantium’ describes the destination of that spiritual journey. An image from ‘Byzantium’ that became part of Heaney’s mental landscape was Yeats’s account of spirits arriving in Byzantium:

Astraddle on the dolphin’s mire and blood,
Spirit after spirit! The smithies break the flood,
The golden smithies of the Emperor!
Marbles of the dancing floor
Break bitter furies of complexity,
Those images that yet
Fresh images beget,
That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea.

The image of a mosaic on an April 1989 postcard showing a winged sea-god on the back of a dolphin evoked one of the above lines with the result that the line opens Heaney’s message to Joseph Brodsky on the back of the card: ‘Astraddle on the dolphin’s mire and blood’.

Heaney saw the general applicability of a Yeats line about charting a new course. Analogising his poems to a coat embroidered with old mythologies, Yeats responded to his imitators by writing in his poem ‘A Coat’:

Song, let them take it,
For there’s more enterprise
In walking naked.

Sympathising with Thomas Kilroy’s decision to resign from the Field Day Theatre Company, Heaney wrote a supportive note in June 1992 saying, ‘There’s more enterprise in walking naked …’

Yeats’s aphorism about poetic tradition became part of Heaney’s aesthetic. Yeats expressed his credo this way in ‘A General Introduction For My Work’: ‘Talk to me of originality and I will turn on you with rage … Ancient salt is best packing.’ Heaney used Yeats’s dictum when writing to Ted Hughes in July 1996 about their anthology Rattle Bag. Heaney says that his note in the anthology will state, ‘We think of our readers as people in search of the ancient salt which Yeats declared to be the best salt for the survival of poetry.’


Heaney had been a great admirer of the work of the Polish poet Czesław Miłosz, even before they met at a celebration of the anniversary of the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program in 1987. Years later, Heaney borrowed a line from Yeats’s ‘Vacillation’ in writing to thank Miłosz and his wife in February 2002 ‘for the books with their ever-to-be-cherished inscriptions’, adding: ‘I felt like Yeats in his state of bliss: “I was blessed and could bless”.’

‘All Souls’ Night’ sets the scene for Heaney’s November 2008 letter to Ted Hughes’s widow. Yeats’s poem dramatically leaps into existence with the assertion that ‘Midnight has come, and the great Christ Church Bell / And many a lesser bell sound through the room; / And it is All Souls’ Night.’ Yeats then alerts the reader, ‘A ghost may come’. Heaney’s letter to Carol Orchard begins: ‘Dear Carol— And All Souls Night tonight … He’ll be around. As Yeats says in the poem – A ghost may come.’ Heaney then continues quoting from ‘All Souls’ Night’.

Lines from two Yeats poems guide Heaney’s letter to Donald Fanger, a Russianist whom Heaney had known since 1989, when, reflecting on his candidacy for the Oxford Professorship of Poetry, he echoed the ‘sixty-year-old smiling public man’ of Yeats’s ‘Among School Children’ by describing himself as a ‘Fifty-year- old, smiling, self-doubting man’. Writing to Fanger in 2009, Heaney drew on Yeats’s description of Maud Gonne in ‘No Second Troy’ to praise a review by Fanger as ‘a matter of beauty and love that is not – to quote W.B. – “natural in an age like this”’. Then, after making a pun based on Yeats’s so-called ‘monkey gland’ operation, Heaney draws on  a line from ‘The Municipal Gallery Revisited’: ‘To quote the gland old man again, “Heart-smitten with emotion, I sink down” – only to rise up.’

The echo of Yeats’s voice in Heaney’s letters is a fascinating example of the way in which a poet’s words can achieve a form of immortality by virtue of their adoption by successor poets. Heaney’s words will endure in the same way. The third century BC poet Callimachus, librarian at Alexandria, captured this poetic communion in an elegy for his friend Heraclitus in which the voice of the deceased poet can be heard in the nightingale’s song. Constantine Trypanis gives us this ‘plain prose’ translation of Callimachus’s elegy in the Penguin Book of Greek Verse: ‘Someone spoke of your death, Heraclitus, and it moved me to tears, and I remembered how often we put the sun to sleep as we were talking. You, my friend from Halicarnassus, lie somewhere, long long ago gone to dust; but your nightingales are living, and Hades who snatches everything will never lay his hand upon them.’

Here is the magic Michael Longley works with the nightingale metaphor:


Callimachus joins me at your grave
Who shed tears for Heraclitus
And said his poems were nightingales
That death would never lay hands on.
There are no nightingales in Ireland
But sedge-warblers sometimes sing at night
And are mistaken for nightingales,
So death that snatches at everything
Will leave untouched in Bellaghy
Your poems, the sedge-warbler’s song.


Joseph Hassett’s latest book, Under the Metal Man: Sligo in Yeats, was published by Lilliput in March. Lilliput also published his Yeats Now: Echoing into Life in 2020.



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