On Seamus Heaney, by RF Foster, Princeton University Press (Writers on Writers series), 228 pp, £14.99, ISBN: 978-0691174372
Karl Miller always disclaimed credit for being the first person – first in the UK anyway – to spot the merit in Seamus Heaney’s early work. Others had got there before him, he said. But, in 1964, and in defiance of opposition from colleagues at the New Statesman, where he was literary editor, Miller published three Heaney poems, including “Death of a Naturalist” and “Digging”. The poems were subsequently read and admired by Charles Monteith of Faber (coincidentally, a fellow Ulsterman), who wrote to Heaney inviting him to submit a manuscript. Death of a Naturalist duly appeared, and hindsight shows its publication to be a momentous event in literary history. From this point on, you might say, Heaney never looked back.
But of course looking back was precisely what had brought him into the limelight, and looking back remained central to his literary impetus. However, as time went on, the process was negotiated with increasing virtuosity, density, and transformative power. “Remember everything and keep your head.” This line, attributed to the ghost of William Carleton in Section Two of the “Station Island” sequence, is advice the poet always abided by, with his new-minted “themes of locality and memory” and his rural minutiae, down to the ox-eye daisies and dandelions in the middle of the road to school, or the milk poured for cats in a rank puddle-place in a stone kitchen floor. The “scraggy farm and moss” aspect of Heaney’s Co Derry childhood is recreated with an intensity and assurance as far removed as possible from the picturesque or facile associations of country – and in particular, Northern Irish country – verse. If “bogs, bulls and buckets” persist in the Heaney lexicon (as one faintly sarcastic reviewer of Wintering Out had it), they are tied up with the observer’s complex motivations and visionary brevity of style.
Indeed there was nothing about Seamus Heaney’s early life, or his wonderfully throughother boyhood environment, to indicate the route his astonishing career would follow. “By the 1990s,” writes RF Foster in his astute new study, Heaney’s “work and reputation were positioned at the centre of the English canon, while operating emphatically from a base in Ireland (North and South).” How Heaney arrived at this position is a story of steady progress, of an unparalleled gift for illumination and evocation, of a way of being orthodox and utterly independent at the same time. (“At once complete insider and odd man out” in Paul Muldoon’s words.) The independence in is the output, the orthodoxy in the list of honours, awards and academic posts which piled up over the years and culminated in the Nobel laureateship in 1995. It should be said that nothing about his immense celebrity went to the poet’s head: he remained calm and down-to-earth in the midst of all the brouhaha and kept a steadfast demeanour – though at what cost to his psychological wellbeing one can only surmise.
It was not, of course, a matter of uninterrupted acclaim. There were stumbling blocks as well as stepping stones along the way, and some of these had a distinctly local character. It was felt in some Northern Irish circles – and especially while his career was taking off – that Heaney needed constant reminding not to get above himself. If he’d been singled out – well, it was a lucky chance: others existed who were equally deserving of fame. There were subtle, and not-so-subtle, put-downs. Even his future friend and admirer Brian Friel, Foster notes, took a somewhat acerbic line about Heaney’s “easy manipulation [at the time] of a new audience in England”. But Foster’s most searing criticism is directed at the poet and founder of The Honest Ulsterman James Simmons, whom he accuses of harbouring a “festering jealousy” and of being “lazily obtuse” in his assessments of the Heaney oeuvre. Foster really does not like Simmons, and nor is the HU’s brand of bare-faced irreverence greatly to his taste.
He has a point – though perhaps he misses Simmons’s occasional elan and fluency in his own poetry – and he is right to draw attention to the various misreadings, including Simmons’s, of Heaney’s pivotal collection North (his fourth). Hailed internationally as “a vital achievement” and enshrining its author as “the best Irish poet since W.B. Yeats” (Robert Lowell’s phrase), the book encountered a certain disparagement, not to say outright hostility, in Heaney’s home territory. Some of this had a political dimension. On the strength of one or two poems (in particular the desolating and striking “Punishment”), some Irish critics chose to attribute to him an excessive solidarity with the Catholic North and republican grievances (just to even things out, he was later taken to task for eschewing a supportive role in relation to republicanism). In fact, of course, Heaney is far from condoning violence or dissociating himself from any of his inherited allegiances. He did, as a poet, want to stand apart from both sides, he said, while acknowledging the inescapable, and inspirational, circumstances of his early life and times. Terence Brown, reviewing Stepping Stones in 2008 (the remarkable series of questions posed by Dennis O’Driscoll and answered comprehensively by Heaney), sums up the ways in which poetry – any poetry ‑ is a product of “life situations … cultural contexts … intellectual preoccupations and involvement with public issues”.
Cultural contexts and public issues. These, during Heaney’s lifetime, were emphatically bound up with the thirty-year conflict known as the Troubles; and part of the poet’s driving force involved a quest – as he famously put it – “for images and symbols adequate to our predicament” (echoing Yeats’s “befitting emblems of adversity”). Not obvious images and symbols, indeed, but those which would carry the utmost resonance and work their effect at different levels. Some he found in an enlarged idea of “Northernness”, taking in iron-age excavations and a pared-down Viking connection. When he was questioned by O’Driscoll, many years later, Heaney stood by the poems in North, which he judged to be appropriately “odd and hard and contrary”.
It wasn’t only in Irish literary circles that the odd swipe was directed at Heaney and his poetry. Among prominent anti-Heaneyites Foster names Ian Hamilton of The New Review, for example, along with A Alvarez, who scrutinised Field Work for “verbal affectations” (he found a few), and blamed the poet for cultivating an overdone “charm and rhetoric”. And he didn’t stop there, going on to mock Heaney’s “fine way with the language” – a phrase suggesting a showiness and slickness of which the poet was incapable. Actually, the Alvarez appraisal (in the New York Review of Books), and others in the same mode, suggest nothing more than a wilful declaration of independence from the laudatory chorus. Some critics were exasperated by what they considered the undue elevation of Heaney – the “Heaney Phenomenon”, as they dubbed it, investing the phrase with a sardonic intonation.
This is what Foster is referring to when he mentions “the half-suppressed current of begrudging comment”. But the expression of misgivings died away as Heaney’s place in the canon of contemporary literature became unassailable. Those who had spotted something strong and original and compelling in his work from the start – who had simply noticed “how good Heaney’s poems were” (Karl Miller) – could congratulate themselves on their discernment. For Michael Longley – for example – reviewing Death of a Naturalist in 1966, Heaney’s childhood landscapes had already acquired “the validity of myth”, while the collection as a whole announced the inauguration of “a true poet of considerable importance”. Heaney was not the only one, of course: there was Longley himself, and Derek Mahon; and, in the eyes of the poetry-reading public, the three newcomers on the scene were soon to coalesce into a poetic triumvirate, before its separate components went their separate, and superlative, ways. Things, in the cultural sphere, were astir in mid-1960s Belfast, after the doldrums of the previous decade; and the Heaney household, up until 1972, was a particular centre of ebullience and expansiveness.
On Seamus Heaney treats the poet’s life and work with thoroughness and dispassion. The story of what happened to Heaney is deftly retold by RF Foster, and retold in a way that makes sense of the poet’s prodigious journey, from Bellaghy to Belfast to Berkeley, and onwards and upwards thereafter to a kind of poetic apotheosis. The year Heaney spent (with his family) as a visiting professor at Berkeley in California was crucial to his development in all sorts of ways – “Something changed, all right,” he told Dennis O’Driscoll – and it’s likely that the experience deepened his dissatisfaction with goings-on in Belfast, once he had returned to the city. At any rate, within a year or so, Heaney had taken himself, with his wife and children, out of the North and into a cottage in Co Wicklow. The cottage at Glanmore was rented from the Canadian academic and Synge scholar Anne Saddlemyer, and – although the Heaneys bought it later – it represented a staging post on the way to Dublin, eventual international renown, and endless demands on the poet’s time and stamina.
There were many distractions – but through it all, the poetry continued to work its spellbinding effect. It is wonderfully idiosyncratic in its rhythms and allusions and cross-currents. We have the celebrated sequences, the Bog Poems, the Glanmore Sonnets, the Station Island encounters with significant revenants. And the farm at Mossbawn in Co Derry, the childhood abundant in grace and exhilaration and plentiful food for thought, the sectarian dimension and neighbourly accommodations worked out expediently, the ultimate wreckage of the North, with – for the poet – attendant implications including guilts, political or familial guilts. What Foster calls “the themes of locality and memory” persist, alongside the radical departures into translation (say) or impersonation (Sweeney, etc.). Heaney was always conscious of his good fortune – along with the Yeats of “Vacillation”, who claimed that he “was blessed and could bless” – and went out of his way to spread it around. When his friend Karl Miller wondered aloud if Heaney was really as nice as he seemed, Heaney’s wry rejoinder, that he supposed he’d “been cursed with a fairly decent set of impulses”, delivers a true riposte with charm and aplomb. And when, to be faithful to his origins, he needed to disown the designation “British” – following his inclusion in Blake Morrison and Andrew Motion’s Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry (1982) – he did it politely, regretfully and humorously, but also firmly, in a set of verses titled “An Open Letter”. It ends with the lines:
Need I go on? I hate to bite
Hands that led me to the limelight
In the Penguin book, I regret
But British, no, the name’s not right,
Yours truly, Seamus.
Like that of Conor Cruise O’Brien (who had praised his poetry), Heaney’s instinctive courtesy held up even in the face of obtuseness or impertinence – and unlike the stereotypical Ulsterman, he was the least aggressive, opinionated or rancorous person imaginable.
He was also immensely good company. What sometimes isn’t sufficiently stressed is his droll, high-spirited streak. Karl Miller, along with a younger friend, Andrew O’Hagan, was among those, especially simpatico, who brought out the light-hearted side of Heaney. Miller’s last collection of essays, Tretower to Clyro (2011), comes with a preface by O’Hagan, describing the cheerful “excursions” undertaken by the three of them, to various places of literary significance throughout the British Isles. They visited Wales (Henry Vaughan), Scotland (James Hogg, etc), the Aran Islands (JM Synge). It was at the birthplace of Burns that they encountered something called the Tam O’Shanter Experience, and Heaney was told jokingly that there’d soon be a Seamus Heaney Experience.
Heaney: That’s right. It’ll be a few churns and a confession box.
Such blithe interludes attest to a ready capacity for merriment and relaxation, along with all the gravitas, the intellectual rigour, felicity of touch, immensity of learning and so forth, inseparable from Heaney’s breathtaking achievement. RF Foster’s study considers all the elements of an incomparably rich life and makes a great introduction to the entire “Seamus Heaney Experience”. But what is likely to resonate most strongly with the multitude of Heaney devotees (along with his friends and acquaintances) is the one plain line in Paul Muldoon’s masterly, foot-off-the-ground and intricate elegy, “Cuthbert and the Otters”. Here it is, in its poignant simplicity: “I cannot thole the thought of Seamus Heaney dead.”
Patricia Craig is an author and critic. Her books include A Twisted Root: Ancestral Entanglements in Ireland.