A Bit Like Gulliver
- Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney by Dennis O’Driscoll
Faber, 524 pp, £22.50, November 2008, ISBN 978 0 571 24252 8
- The Cambridge Companion to Seamus Heaney edited by Bernard O’Donoghue
Cambridge, 239 pp, £45.00, December 2008, ISBN 978 0 521 54755 0
It must feel odd – and more than a bit unsettling – to realise that sooner or later, perhaps in your lifetime, somebody will write your biography. Biographers can get lives badly wrong; and even when they get things right, giving attentive accounts with the salient facts in order, they may leave out friendships and discoveries that contributed greatly to a writer’s inner life. How to supplement – or correct, or displace – a future biography without taking years to concentrate on a memoir? Seamus Heaney and Dennis O’Driscoll have found a good way. Stepping Stones is not quite Heaney’s autobiography: it is, instead, a long collection of interviews, revised collaboratively, in which Heaney describes each phase of his life. Only a poet of Heaney’s repute could enable a trade publisher to support such an enterprise; only a poet of Heaney’s temperament, at once gregarious and thoughtful, and an interlocutor such as O’Driscoll, wry, informed and deliberately informal, could agree to collaborate on it, and make it worth reading. Together, the two Irish writers connect Heaney’s poems with the people, places, books and songs that he has known.
Songs matter more than you might think; so do some places, especially California, and so, by the end, do the mixed blessings of fame. The most important place, though, is the first: Mossbawn, County Derry, the farmland where Heaney – the son of a cattle dealer and a housewife, with eight younger siblings – spent his childhood. O’Driscoll and Heaney promise to move book by book, from Death of a Naturalist (1966) to District and Circle (2006), with a postscript about Heaney’s recovery from a stroke; early chapters move, necessarily, place by place, from Mossbawn to St Columb’s College in Derry, where Heaney discovered Wordsworth and Hopkins, and then to Queen’s University in Belfast. ‘When I wrote my first poems as an undergraduate,’ Heaney says, ‘I wrote in Hopkins-speak.’ That early affinity sprang not only from Hopkins’s gorgeous metrics, not only from the familiarity of Hopkins’s Catholic doctrine, but from the austerity of Jesuit life, ‘the cold-water shaves and the single iron beds’ that Heaney knew at St Columb’s. Hopkins’s ‘whole theology of suffering’, his determined enunciations of self-denial, also echoed Heaney’s ‘mother’s situation … doomed to biology, a regime without birth control, nothing but parturition and potato-peeling’, ‘toiling on in the faith that a reward was … in heaven’.
The religious sensibility that led Hopkins, Margaret Heaney and the teenaged Seamus Heaney to Catholic piety emerged in the adult poet as attachment to land, to numinous sites: an attachment analogous to, but never identical with, religious faith. Critics distinguish genres of poems about rural places – ‘pastoral, anti-pastoral, bucolic, eclogue, Doric’, as Bernard O’Donoghue writes in the Cambridge Companion to Seamus Heaney – and Heaney uses them all, though pastoral and georgic, visionary meadow and labour-intensive hay-baling to him seem complementary, even continuous. Mossbawn ‘sounds very idyllic, but it was a small, ordinary, nose-to-the-grindstoney place’. Nonetheless, ‘there was a terrific rightness and lightness about the forks and rakes,’ and ‘the smell of hay still opens a path to the farthest and fondest places in me.’
To read Heaney’s memories of his early life is to find not only rural, familial experience (hauling sacks of grain, buying eggs from ‘the egg man’ and the like) but rural and local words: ‘A “groop” [was] a sunk trench in the concrete floor … to drain the piss and catch the cow dung. Cleaning the byre involved barrowing out the contents of the groop, sluicing it down and rebedding it with clean straw.’ Readers younger than Heaney, especially outside Ireland, may wonder at the gap in sensibility between Heaney (born in 1939) and Paul Muldoon (born in 1951), but to read about Heaney’s first years, his ‘nineteen-fifties/Of iron stoves and kin groups still in place’, is to see that the two poets do come from different generations: ‘I was well and truly formed,’ Heaney says, ‘by 1963.’
Heaney’s years in Belfast – most of his time from 1957 (when he matriculated at Queen’s) to 1972 – encompassed his marriage and the birth of his two sons; his first teaching jobs, in secondary schools and then at Queen’s; his literary life with Seamus Deane, Derek Mahon, Michael and Edna Longley, Philip Hobsbaum, and the workshop that Hobsbaum convened, the Group; and the grisly metamorphoses of Northern Irish public life, from simmering inequality and half-suppressed resentment into the worst of the Troubles. Each of these developments affected Heaney’s sense of the rest; the last two (the Group and the Troubles) have prompted countless books and articles, most recently Heather Clark’s informative, archive-fuelled monograph The Ulster Renaissance. Deane, raised in Derry, was ‘more Manichaean’ in his sense of Ulster, ‘more hard-edged’, Heaney says, because he ‘never had Protestant neighbours in and out of the house’, never knew ‘cheek-by-jowl, lane-by-field, country-neighbour life’.
And yet, when Heaney began to publish poems, ‘I’d gone delving straight away into the sectarian seam’: such a poem as ‘Requiem for the Croppies’ raised ‘a battened-down spirit that wanted to walk taller’. After Bloody Sunday, Heaney ceased to read that poem aloud: ‘It hadn’t been written as a recruiting song for the IRA. No way.’ Heaney’s early experience of Catholic identity foreshadowed a serious goal in his mature poems: they seek pride without aggression, a defiant confidence never designed to harm.
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[*] Cambridge Scholars, 312pp., £34.99, June 2008, 978 1 84718 569 3.