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.
In Belfast, in 1972, Heaney planned to record some poems and songs with his friend, the singer David Hammond. While they were on their way to the studio, a number of bombs exploded in the city: casualties were reported. Hammond decided not to perform: ‘the very notion of beginning to sing at that moment when others were beginning to suffer seemed like an offence against their suffering.’ Heaney doesn’t tell us how he felt at the time. But the essays he has collected here suggest that he now thinks Hammond was wrong. The writers they celebrate dared to offend against suffering: Wilfred Owen, for example, who thought the poetry was in the pity, but went on writing poems; or T.S. Eliot, who admitted he found it hard, in London in 1942, ‘to feel confident that morning after morning spent fiddling with words and rhythms is justified activity,’ yet chose in ‘Little Gidding’ to give the anxiety of influence precedence over a more widely influential anxiety, about bombs exploding.
Nero fiddled. Eliot fiddled. Chekhov got drunk. He visited Sakhalin, a prison-island off the coast of Siberia, to witness and publicise the appalling conditions in which the prisoners lived. He had decided to earn ‘the free joy of his fiction by the hard facts of his sociological report’. Heaney himself seems less interested in the hard facts of the report than in the joy Chekhov earned by it, or rather by being about to write it. His Moscow friends had given him a bottle of cognac, which he consumed on arrival, thus demonstrating his freedom from guilt. Drunken Chekhov becomes a symbol of the heroically guiltless writer, ‘unabashed by the suffering which surrounds him because unflinchingly responsible to it’.
Most heroic of all, in Heaney’s eyes, are those East European poets who have not flinched from the hard facts of totalitarianism. ‘I keep returning to them because there is something in their situation that makes them attractive to a reader whose formative experience has been largely Irish.’ Poets like Zbigniew Herbert, ‘neither vindictive against art nor occluded to pain’, or Miroslav Holub, whose awareness of the ‘bounded condition’ of life in the Eastern bloc ensures his ‘inner freedom’, can teach us not to be abashed. The terms of Heaney’s own reckoning with Irish experience are revealed by his tribute to Holub. ‘There is a charmer in this poet, certainly, but the charmer is kept in line by a sort of parental rectitude in another part of himself which is inhabited by a giver of good intellectual example.’
‘We live here in critical times ourselves,’ Heaney declared in a 1974 review of Osip Mandelstam’s Selected Poems, ‘when the idea of poetry as an art is in danger of being overshadowed by a quest for poetry as a diagram of political attitudes.’ Mandelstam remains for him the most compelling instance of a poet whose art was his diagram, even or especially in critical times. ‘He was the vessel of language. His responsibility was to sound rather than to the state, to phonetics rather than to five-year plans, to etymology rather than to economics.’ Chekhov attended to suffering so that he might thereafter please himself, and us. Mandelstam’s response to suffering was to ignore it, to please himself despite it, to become the ‘vessel of language’: ‘lyric action constituted radical witness.’ The faintly sanctimonious tone of Heaney’s remarks is a sign of unease. There are some tricky questions about, rocking the vessel of mystification. What is lyric action? How does it constitute radical witness? And why do they always seem to have more of it than we do?
Heaney raises these questions in a fascinating essay on ‘The Impact of Translation’. ‘What translation has done over the last couple of decades,’ he argues, ‘is not only to introduce us to new literary traditions but also to link the new literary experience to a modern martyrology, a record of courage and sacrifice which elicits our unstinted admiration.’ Western writers have felt able to admire and emulate the ‘faith in art’ displayed, under ‘extreme conditions’, by their East European counterparts. Why they should have done so, and to what effect, is indeed a matter of some importance. But in dealing with it Heaney doesn’t address the unworthy suspicion, aroused by his survey of barely distinguishable poems about pebbles whose ‘pebbly meaning’ is a saturnine resilience and wooden knockers whose knockery meaning is, well, a saturnine resilience, that the faith in art may be more stirring that the art itself. Does an unstinted admiration for the record of courage and sacrifice require an unstinted admiration for the writing? Apparently it does. Nobody will say a word against the poems for fear of slighting the martyrdom. Yet to exempt a writer from criticism is to devalue him or her.
Heaney evades this problem. He suggests, rather cunningly, that the British poets who have admired and emulated the ‘new literary experience’ are resuscitating a native Modernism (shakily embodied by early Auden and Edwin Muir). The strangeness secreted within British traditions has been re-invigorated by the East European example, he thinks, and now permeates texts such as Christopher Reid’s Katerina Brac (or, one might add, his own Audenesque reports ‘From the Frontier of Writing’ and ‘From the Land of the Unspoken’, both printed in The Haw Lantern alongside more familiar material). Heaney is back on safe ground. He can examine our strangeness, our ‘lyric action’, rather than theirs. He seems to regard lyric action as a literary effect with social implications, which sets sound against meaning, ‘pure being’ against ‘discourse’, pleasure against duty, the autonomy of art against the need to conciliate an audience. Heaney listens for moments of truancy or rebellion in the poems he admires, when an ‘inner cadence’ seems to break ranks and speak directly to ‘our intuitive being’. His attention to such cadences is at times exhilaratingly effective, particularly in its wildcat juxtapositions (Larkin and Shakespeare, Auden and Ralegh, Walcott and Langland).
Again, though, the high-flown terms used to describe lyric action (‘the purely poetic fidelity of the poet to all words in their pristine being’) suggest that the ground has been made safe by a heroic refusal to acknowledge its instability. At times – when reading Larkin, for example – Heaney wants to say that the tongue may govern or be governed, that ‘inner cadences’ exist only in relation to the semantic conventions they elude; Larkin’s epiphanies interrupt an accommodation to experience they never outstrip or belittle. At other times, reading other poets, he wants to say that the freedom won by lyric action is absolute, transcendent. He mystifies that freedom by denying it any relation to discourse. A dichotomy is established in poetic language, rather than a relation, between cadence and meaning, the pure and the impure. Heaney ends up admiring what he cannot define and defining what he cannot admire.
This is particularly evident in the essay on Auden. Heaney prefers the sound of early Auden to the sense of late Auden, a view for which there is much to be said. He does not say it because he insists on drawing a sharp distinction between the productive enigma of a handful of poems written in 1929 and 1930, and the variously compromised remainder. The former voice the pristine being of words, the latter conciliate. It follows that to pass any comment at all about the early work would be to infringe its ‘otherness’. ‘I take pleasure in its opacity and am ready to accept its obscurity – even if it is wilful – as a symptom of the poet’s deliberate insistence on the distance between art and life.’ This assumes too readily that Auden’s obscurity is symptom rather than strategy. What causes confusion in the early poems is that life fights back. They take as their subject the relation between what we might call, without altogether abusing Heaney’s terms, ‘pure being’ and ‘discourse’. A transcendent voice addresses us, mocking our conventions, predicting absolute change. Yet its apocalyptic warnings only make relative sense, as we absorb them into elaborately-coded memories which thereby acquire a new meaning: that new meaning, a tiny revision or intensification, is all we will ever know about apocalypse.
Seekers after happiness, all who follow
The convolutions of your simple wish,
It is later than you think; nearer that day
Far other than that distant afternoon
Amid rustle of frocks and stamping feet
They gave the prizes to the ruined boys.
Revolution generates fantasies about what it will put an end to. The transcendent voice does not offer a vision of pure being. Rather, its surplus authority – the sheer presumption of its overtures – can be recognised as a discourse, a patter (it is later than you think, the game is up, and so on). Its very lack of originality frees Auden to improvise, to re-live dull memories as startling escapades. Revolution belittles bourgeois experience, only to be in its turn belittled, outstripped: a handy-dandy which characterises not only the ‘phantasmagorias’ of 1929 and 1930, but later and more accessible poems like ‘Spain’. Where Heaney sees dichotomy, perhaps hierarchy, Auden sees a relation which can be reversed: a lyric action which acts by reversing relations.
The weakness of Heaney’s whole argument is its refusal to admit that lyric action involves relation rather than transcendence, and can therefore be analysed. The East European example can be used to conceal that weakness precisely because it is an example, rather than a literary effect, and need not be analysed. The fact that these writers wrote at all, in such difficult circumstances, vindicates writing. ‘Utterance itself was self-justifying and creative,’ he says of Mandelstam, ‘like nature.’ The dichotomy between art and life remains intact, without rendering art ineffectual. Contemplating East European faith in art, Heaney is able to say what he would not otherwise have been able to say, that David Hammond was wrong: ‘It gives absolution to poet and audience alike, provided that true penitence, namely an abjuration of poetry as self-indulgent ornament, has occurred. In other words, I am inclined to think that if Herbert had been in the studio with us in 1972, he would have encouraged us to stay and make the tape.’
Some Western intellectuals now fellow-travel not with Stalin, but with Stalin’s victims and opponents, who do indeed elicit admiration. Even so, it is not clear that they have avoided the deception inherent in fellow-travelling: getting someone else to do your guilty work for you.
Heaney’s essays reproduce in their shifts of tone the dichotomy between art and life which is their subject. Many of those collected in The Government of the Tongue originated as lectures or conference papers, and are correspondingly deferential to academic expectation. Yet they don’t enjoy the role. They are not happy to conciliate, to be prosaic. They constantly aspire to a lyric action which would absolve their most important insights from discursiveness. Chekhov’s drinking-bout, for example, is absolved from any kind of sense at all. ‘I have often thought of that as an emblematic moment: the writer taking his pleasure in the amber cognac, savouring a fume of intoxication and a waft of luxury in the stink of oppression and the music of cruelty – on Sakhalin he could literally hear the chink of convicts’ chains.’ It isn’t just the thought of Paul Hogan and his ‘amber nectar’ which makes one baulk at this. It’s the way lyric action generates the hyperbolic ‘music of cruelty’, which must then be justified by the quite unnecessary assurance that Chekhov did actually hear the sound of chains. The statement never finds its own level. Heaney’s over-investment in metaphor reproduces his over-investment in gestures of unabashedness; what gets left behind is Chekhov’s purpose in visiting Sakhalin, and the pedestrian critical discourse which might do justice to it.
The poems do find their level, of course. They show that Heaney is quite capable of doing his own guilty work. ‘Casualty’, for example, insists that art and life stand in a mutually critical relation. It addresses lyrically a man whose allegiance to habit had caused his death, reconstituting this creature of ‘discourse’ in the realm of ‘true being’. Yet it never obscures the values embodied in such allegiance, including a pedestrian fidelity to pedestrian words. By the conclusion of the poem –
Plodder through midnight rain,
Question me again
– the power of elegy has brought someone back: brought him back to voice his own, rival power. It is very much to Heaney’s credit that he still encourages Ulster’s casualties to question him, as he did recently when accepting a Sunday Times Award for Excellence. He doesn’t, for all the fiddle of these essays, make a very convincing Nero.