Excusez-moi

Ian Hamilton

  • The Haw-Lantern by Seamus Heaney
    Faber, 52 pp, £7.95, June 1987, ISBN 0 571 14780 1

‘About the only enmity I have is towards pride.’ Seamus Heaney said this in an interview, and since we know him to be the most over-interviewed of living poets, perhaps he shouldn’t be forced to say it again here. Put in its context, though, this too-worthy-sounding protestation has much to reveal about the disposition of Heaney’s work so far, and can even be read as a riposte to those critics who complain that, for all its verbal richness and its moral courage, his work is strangely without personality.

In the interview, Heaney was talking about his Catholicism, about how his sensibility had been ‘formed by the dolorous murmurings of the rosary, and the generally Marian quality of devotion’ afforded by the Roman Church – a Church to which Heaney, even in his twenties, continued to go for confession and which ‘permeated’ the whole life of his Northern Ireland childhood. Thanks to this Church, its doctrines and its rituals, Heaney’s sensibility was from the start centred in relation to what he calls a ‘feminine presence’. It was this presence that induced in him his ‘only enmity’:

A religion that has a feminine component and a notion of the mother in the transcendental world is better than a religion that just has a father, a man, in it. I also – just in my nature and temperament, I suppose – believed in humility and in bowing down, and in ‘we’ rather than ‘I’. I hate a moi situation, an egotism, a presumption, a hubris, and I’m used to bowing down to the mother as a way of saying that. About the only enmity I have is towards pride.

When people complain about the absence of ‘personality’ in Heaney’s work, they are at some level complaining also that the ‘moi situation’ has been skirted or suppressed, and that as a result his poems lack the sort of sharply individual human tone that Larkin has, or Frost, or Lowell. I have heard it said that Heaney’s work is ‘teachable but not memorable’, that lines of his don’t linger in the mind, and it certainly seems to be true that admirers of his do tend to remember images or situations or stylistic brilliances rather than cries from the heart or haunting melodies. He has written few ‘inter-personal’ poems that are any good, and he is better at addressing the dead than he is at confiding in the living.

Of course, when Heaney started writing – in the late Sixties – there was ‘moi-poetry’ aplenty to be haunted by, and we can now see that the literary-historical moment was precisely right for the eventual, if not imminent appearance of a poet for whom none of all that held any magnetism. A new Auden, a new Stevens might have seemed to be the answer, and shortly there were indeed new Audens, new Stevenses to choose from. But neither intellectualism nor playfulness nor mere perfection of technique would be enough to reclaim glamour for the impersonal, or anti-personal. The only real challenge to the over-intimate would have to come from a poetry that risked its opposite: the too-theatrical. A poetry to be listened in on would be most effectively displaced by a poetry that dared to resurrect some of the art’s discredited rhetorical/theatrical presumptions. (These, it should be said, had by the early Seventies been ‘discredited’ not just by the aching whispers of Confessionalism but also by cute performance stars and by sloganisers of the ‘Left’.)

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