- The Government of the Tongue: The 1986 T.S. Eliot Memorial Lectures, and Other Critical Writings by Seamus Heaney
Faber, 172 pp, £12.95, June 1988, ISBN 0 571 14796 8
In an interview given in 1979, Seamus Heaney endorsed a fellow writer’s lament that ‘you feel bloody well guilty about writing.’ To judge by this new collection of critical essays, he still feels bloody well guilty about it. Indeed, the essays make the difficult relation between art and life – ‘let us put it more melodramatically and call them Song and Suffering’ – their main theme. They observe that Nero has sometimes fiddled while Rome burned and conclude, with many reservations, that he should continue to do so. Heaney wishes to dwell on, and perhaps to exorcise, his guilt about being a writer in a place and at a time of trouble. His readers will have to decide whether he has purged the feeling or exacerbated it. For there are moments now when he seems to feel guilty about not feeling guilty.
Vol. 10 No. 14 · 4 August 1988
David Trotter raises some interesting points in his discussion of Seamus Heaney’s The Government of the Tongue (LRB, 23 June), but at times his enquiry seems less than generous, and even quibbling. For example, the notion that ‘lyric action’ can constitute ‘radical witness’ evokes his exasperation and also reduces him to a strange mixed metaphor (‘tricky questions … rocking the vessel of mystification’), though it is scarcely obscure in its context. ‘For him’ (i.e. Mandelstam) ‘obedience to poetic impulse was obedience to conscience,’ Heaney writes, in a paragraph in which he compares the forming of a poem to the formation of crystals in a chemical solution, implying that it is action on the poet as much as, if not more than, action by the poet which makes the poem. By refusing to fake his responses, the poet bears witness both to his art and his society in a far more fundamental way than by setting out to obey the current political prescription or fashionable fad. Mandelstam cannot praise Stalin against his nature, and even his castigations are few, but the daring and heartbreak of trying to be freely alive at that time permeate his work and indeed are part of the density and intensity of its diction. To invoke a once-popular radical truism, which nevertheless embodied a useful insight, the personal is the political, and never more so than in times of public tyranny.
Heaney pursues a related point in his consideration of Chekhov’s visit to Sakhalin Island, both in the essay in question and in the poem ‘Chekhov on Sakhalin’ in his collection Station Island, alongside which the essay should be read. Trotter, rightly, I think, is bothered by such phrases as ‘stink of oppression’ and ‘music of cruelty’. They show a poet paying, uncomfortably, his ‘debt to prose’, though even the poem feels slightly strained:
In full throat by the iconostasis
Got holier joy than he got from that glass
That shone and warmed like diamonds warming
On some pert young cleavage in a salon,
Inviolable and affronting.
Aesthetic judgments aside, however, Heaney’s argument as a whole makes perfectly clear and comprehensive sense. The cognac, quaffed and savoured by Chekhov alone and in private, represents the self-centred pleasure of artistic creation, culminating in what Heaney describes elsewhere as ‘that liberated moment when the lyric discovers its buoyant completion’. Heaney is troubled by this for more reasons than one. Not only is the artist enjoying himself while his fellows suffer, but he may in fact achieve his most truthful, ‘witnessing’ poems through thus selfishly and irresponsibly relishing his own creativity. To put it another way, responsible moral attitudes do not have much relation to great art, a fact very disturbing to the Jesuit-trained moralist in Heaney and perhaps the source of the tone which Trotter rather cruelly, but not wholly unfairly, calls ‘sanctimonious’. In the poem, Heaney, revealingly, absolves Chekhov by invoking the enslaved serfs who were his ancestors and providing him, rather unexpectedly, with a convict-guide out of his past to play Virgil to his Dante. It almost seems as if, through the good fortune of happening to be born of peasant stock, Chekhov/Heaney earns, after, all his right to poetry’s cognac in troubled times. Nevertheless, in the essay he pulls out a more convincing strand of argument in which Chekhov wins his art through an apprenticeship to ‘reality’, a process described as ‘earning the free joy of his fiction by the hard facts of his sociological report’. David Trotter, still fixated, perhaps, on his distrust of the phrase ‘lyric action’, seems to have focused too selectively on the metaphorical flights: it is he who diminishes Chekhov’s purpose in visiting Sakhalin Island, not Seamus Heaney.