Barra Ó Seaghdha reviews Stepping Stones, the late Dennis O’Driscoll’s volume of interviews with Seamus Heaney, for the Dublin Review of Books in 2009. (Dennis O’Driscoll died in December 2012.)
To think about the span of life encompassed in Stepping Stones is to realise just how easy it would be for someone like Heaney to consider the past another country. It was open to him – through some happy intertwining of ability, personality, application and luck – to move, step by step, away from his childhood world. Already, for someone of his background to go to boarding school was to be marked out as different. To go to university was a further step away. Then there was third-level teaching, a steadily expanding reputation as a poet, international fame, prestigious positions at Harvard and Oxford, friendships with some of the most eminent writers and intellectuals of his time, a string of honours culminating in the Nobel Prize for Literature … At this stage, we are far indeed from the boy perched in a tree overlooking a road in South Derry, the boy fascinated by frog-spawn or collecting blackberries. It would be easy to think of that childhood world as the accidental beginning of a self-shaped and highly successful career. Instead, Heaney chooses to return endlessly to his beginnings.
Was it right to list luck alongside ability, personality and application in the paragraph above? Or is it a combination of the triad of ability, personality and application that makes some of what happens to Heaney appear like luck? Whatever the truth of the matter may be, it seems that people have always been happy to give to Heaney. A primary school teacher offered to give him lessons in Latin outside of school hours, thus helping him on his way to boarding school and university. It was hinted, while he was at Queen’s, that the path to postgraduate study at Oxford might be made smooth for him. (It was Heaney himself who failed to follow through on the matter, for various reasons.) Not only did Heaney have a book published ahead of some slightly senior contemporaries but he was taken up by Faber as a relative unknown at a time when the Faber poetry list was the one that mattered.
It was Heaney’s luck that the young Helen Vendler, soon to become an influential voice in the American literary critical world, was entranced by his work in the early 1970s and was to become a major interpreter and advocate, as well as a friend. Towards the end of the same decade, Elizabeth Bishop having reached retirement age, Heaney was offered some teaching at Harvard at just the right moment for him. And so it goes – friendly hands helping Heaney towards the top, with few if any bodies left in the bushes along the way (though envious mutterings may be heard here and there).
Some of what Heaney has had to deal with – the scrutinising of every line for what it says about the state of the nation, the world, the relations between men and women; the distance between the home ground of his imagination and the world in which he operates as a writer – may be the price of success. There is a limit to the sympathy that will be felt for carriers of that burden, but it cannot be denied that Heaney has carried it with more grace than most. Should we simply say that he has managed the journey and the burden well? The language of management – with its hint of manipulation or calculation – does not quite do justice to what is involved.