On Seamus Heaney 
by R.F. Foster.
Princeton, 228 pp., £14.99, September 2020, 978 0 691 17437 2
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When​ the posthumous Collected Poems of W.H. Auden appeared in 1976, Seamus Heaney wrote an appreciative review for the magazine Hibernia in which he told

a story about a Ballymena listener calling the BBC one morning in 1969, after the Northern Ireland news had given a lot of coverage to speeches by civil rights leaders the previous evening. ‘Tell us this,’ he said, ‘are yez unionists or are yez not?’ At the centre of Auden’s work, an equally categorical question is implicit: ‘Tell us this, are yez civilised or are yez not?’

You could be forgiven for feeling caught up in some private argument here, but there is a covert link to be made between the case of Auden and what Heaney called ‘the matter of Ireland’. The immediate point at issue was the way Auden’s mind showed itself tugged in quite different directions. No modern poet could begin to rival him, especially in his later phase, for an idiom of Horatian poise, a sustained mode of civility within which his generous and undeluded intelligence could celebrate what Heaney called ‘the human achievements of art’. But this same poet, especially the earlier Auden, was also imaginatively drawn to a desolate and tussocky Northern world of doom and epic feuds and ancestral violence, where human lives weren’t shaped by civilised self-acquaintance but by what he darkly called ‘powers we pretend to understand’. The ‘categorical question’ at stake is, as the title of one of Auden’s poems put it in exemplary fashion, ‘Which Side Am I Supposed to Be On?’

The dilemma had particular force for Heaney at that time because of his own recent experience. His most controversial book, North, had appeared the previous summer. Several of its most striking poems grew from a fascination with the Iron Age bodies that had been exhumed from the peat bogs of Northern Europe: the subject became, as he later recollected, ‘a completely instinctive obsessional thing’. In 1969 Faber published The Bog People, the English translation of a book by the Danish archaeologist P.V. Glob, which was full of striking black and white images of their strange, patient faces – ‘Donatello-like’, Bernard O’Donoghue once said – the beauty of which Glob celebrated in what was in the English version slightly fruity prose: ‘Majesty and gentleness still stamp his features as they did when he was alive,’ he says of the Tollund Man. Their state of preservation was remarkable and oddly disorientating: one peat-cutter who found such a body, according to Glob, said that ‘if he had known the man in life he would certainly have recognised him,’ a fine instance of the kind of non sequitur that used to be called an ‘Irish bull’. Heaney bought Glob’s book the year it appeared: opening it, he told Dennis O’Driscoll, the most assiduous of his very many interviewers, was ‘like opening a gate … the minute I opened it and saw the photographs, and read the text, I knew there was going to be yield from it.’

Heaney had already been drawn to write boggy things. In the delightful poem ‘Bogland’ in Door into the Dark (1969) he had eulogised the preservative genius of the land: ‘Butter sunk under/More than a hundred years/Was recovered salty and white.’ His sodden pastoral allegorises a distinct mode of consciousness: that of a mind which never lets things go. ‘Bogland’ is as much an ode to national character as ‘Rule Britannia’, its winning and wholly characteristic self-deprecation stemming from Heaney’s awareness that he is reworking a cliché about Irishness. As Oliver MacDonagh put it, quoting Lloyd George, in States of Mind (1983), his magnificent study of the mutual bewilderment that has chiefly constituted Anglo-Irish relations, ‘while the English do not remember any history, the Irish forget none’ – a ‘familiar facetiousness’, he went on, which nevertheless contains ‘a profound truth’.

What Glob added to the mix was violence, something that, with dreadfully good timing, Northern Ireland was shortly to add to the mix too. Heaney’s next great bog poem, ‘The Tollund Man’, appeared in a volume called Wintering Out towards the end of 1972, by which time hell really had broken loose. Under fire, something happened to the metaphor: the bog remained a place of unforgetfulness, but what was now being preserved wasn’t butter but atrocity. The bog people had been murdered for a cause: Glob describes at length the religion of the mother goddess to whom the Tollund Man and his luckless counterparts were offered up in the hope that their deaths might persuade her to restore fertility to the land in the spring. ‘They were sacrificed and placed in the sacred bogs,’ Glob puts it, rather brightly, ‘consecrated for all time to Nerthus, goddess of fertility – to Mother Earth, who in return so often gave their faces her blessing and preserved them through the millennia.’ When Heaney contemplated the photo of the majestic, gentle Tollund Man he saw a victim of ritual killing, a ‘bridegroom to the goddess’, who in some way mirrored or anticipated the sectarian killings going on in Belfast, Derry and Aldershot. The metaphor wasn’t at all subliminal: it was ‘something that was repressed and held under, but which has forced itself to the surface again’, as Heaney described it on Danish radio, ‘and I’ve tried to make a connection lately between things that came to the surface in bogs, in particular Danish bogs, and the violence that was coming to the surface in the North of Ireland.’ In the poem he imagines paying a visit to the Tollund Man at Aarhus University museum: ‘Out here in Jutland/In the old man-killing parishes,’ he ends, ‘I will feel lost,/Unhappy and at home.’

To suggest a parallel between Iron Age fertility rites and bombs on the Shankill Road was to raise some striking implications, which the book’s Irish reviewers weren’t slow to point out. In an enlightened spirit, Richard Murphy thought the point was that Ireland might be encouraged to shake off such atavism, the book freed ‘us from the myth by portraying it in its true archaic shape and colour, not disguising its brutality’. Other reviewers took the opposite view, most vehement among them Ciaran Carson in The Honest Ulsterman. ‘It is as if he is saying, suffering like this is natural; these things have always happened; they happened then, they happen now, and that is sufficient ground for understanding and absolution’, he wrote: ‘It is as if there never were and never will be any political consequences of such acts; they have been removed to the realm of sex, death and inevitability.’ And it is true that the bog poems make political agency seem beside the point. ‘I have read many pessimistic analyses of “Northern Ireland”,’ Conor Cruise O’Brien wrote in sombre admiration, ‘but none that has the bleak conclusiveness of these poems.’

Heaney had made a remarkably successful debut with Death of a Naturalist (1966) and his subsequent books had been well received, but it was North that really established him: it prompted Robert Lowell to declare him the best Irish poet since Yeats, and he was widely celebrated by the London reviewers, who seemed on the whole untroubled by the suggestion that the Irish might be constitutionally disposed to killing one another. Heaney didn’t feature in the first version of Peregrine Prykke’s Pilgrimage (1974), Clive James’s satire on British literary life; but in the ‘improved version’, just two years later, he has become a fixture of the scene, ‘SEAMUS FEAMUS’, pictured tucking into a pub lunch of ‘two slabs of peat around a conger eel’ (‘Clive was very quick off the mark,’ Heaney drily recalled in an interview with Karl Miller). There is an interesting account of the reception of North in R.F. Foster’s new study, a compact but comprehensive guide to Heaney. Foster is well attuned to the shifting contexts, as one would expect of a leading historian of modern Ireland, but he is also an extremely astute reader, and the book provides a shrewd portrait of Heaney’s literary personality, especially of what Foster calls its ‘watchful independence’. The book is admiring but judicious: speaking of North, for instance, Foster criticises the ‘reductionist line’ of those readers who took it to be a mythologised acquiescence to the fact of killing, but notes the ‘unrepentant decisiveness’ and ‘shocking panache’ with which Heaney handled the ‘mythic and atavistic treatments of violent antagonisms’.

The seeming common identity of ancient and modern violence had been inadvertently suggested by Glob, who recounted the trouble archaeologists sometimes experienced in persuading the local police that their latest bog find was not a recent murder victim, so well preserved was the corpse. But Foster makes the good point that, in literary terms, what lay behind Heaney’s splicing of contemporary unhappiness and prehistoric savagery was the example of T.S. Eliot. The Waste Land mingled the desolations of Lower Thames Street and Margate sands with the ancient fertility cults involving human sacrifice that he had read about in James Frazer and Jessie Weston. Heaney’s late modernist credentials are strong and nowhere more clearly visible than in the long perspectives of his historical vision. Everyone could recognise that the intensity of the political violence in the North had some sort of ‘religious’ explanation, but what really mattered was something much deeper in the bog than visible sectarian distinctions. ‘To some extent the enmity can be viewed as a struggle between the cults and devotees of a god and a goddess,’ Heaney explained in a lecture delivered before the Royal Society of Literature in October 1974.

There is an indigenous territorial numen, a tutelar of the whole island, call her Mother Ireland, Kathleen Ni Houlihan, the poor old woman, the Shan Van Vocht, whatever; and her sovereignty has been temporarily usurped or infringed by a new male cult whose founding fathers were Cromwell, William of Orange and Edward Carson, and whose godhead is incarnate in a rex or caesar in a palace in London.

‘The fury of Irish Republicanism is associated with a religion like this,’ he had said a year or two earlier, referring to the Mother Earth paganism described in The Bog People. ‘I think the Republican ethos is a feminine religion, in a way.’ One wonders what the Royal Society of Literature made of all this. ‘I realise that this idiom is remote from the agnostic world of economic interest whose iron hand operates in the velvet glove of “talks between elected representatives” and remote from the political manoeuvres of power-sharing,’ Heaney conceded to his audience without sounding all that concessive, ‘but it is not remote from the psychology of the Irishmen and Ulstermen who do the killing, and not remote from the bankrupt psychology and mythologies implicit in the terms Irish Catholic and Ulster Protestant.’ Bankrupt mythologies and killing don’t sound very admirable, but he isn’t very positive about economics or politics either, even if they seem the only alternatives on offer: you can see why critics drew very different morals from poems articulating such a complicated frame of mind.

The most famous piece of modern writing about Kathleen Ni Houlihan, the embodiment of Mother Ireland, is a play written in 1902 by Yeats and Lady Gregory in which she turns up, a mysterious old woman, in a County Mayo village at an opportune moment during the United Irishmen rising of 1798. The sole business of her visit is to exercise her eerie powers of thought control and inspire a fresh young man to throw himself into the British firing line, an action without the faintest chance of achieving anything other than the terrible beauty of its sacrifice: ‘They that have red cheeks will have pale cheeks for my sake,’ Kathleen intones, ‘and for all that, they will think they are well paid.’ (As Foster says, Heaney’s own United Irishmen poem, ‘Requiem for the Croppies’, memorialised the fallen by imagining them being absorbed back into the fertile life of Mother Nature: ‘And in August the barley grew up out of the grave.’ Heaney stopped performing it at readings when its proximity to the blood sacrifice myth became too obvious.) That the testing model of maternal affection represented by Kathleen should have appealed so powerfully to the Anglo-Irish Yeats shows that you didn’t need to be brought up a Catholic to feel her deadly allure; but, Heaney suggests, it certainly helped. He often spoke about the culture in which he grew up as a feminine religion which fell only coincidentally within the precincts of the Roman Church. ‘I don’t think it’s much to do with Christianity,’ he cheerfully explained to John Haffenden in an interview, ‘Irish Catholicism is continuous with something older than Christianity.’ That had been a powerful idea in earlier literary nationalism: Daniel Corkery’s The Hidden Ireland (1924), for instance, posited an underlying echt ‘Irish Ireland’ created and sustained by the bards whose poetry kept alive pagan ways of thinking and united the island through a kind of tribal imagination. Corkery’s book, at once exuberant and elegiac, mattered a good deal to the young Heaney, but the long continuities Heaney invoked were also informed by the quite different anthropological vision of the modernists. Frazer’s Golden Bough had linked fundamental Christian doctrines such as the scapegoat killing of Christ with the murderous fertility cults of Adonis and Attis, an idea Eliot prominently remarked in the notes to The Waste Land. But of all the brands of Christianity on offer, it was Catholicism with its Marian devotions, and the Irish version in particular, that ‘managed to preserve part of the old feminine religion in its structure’, or so Heaney thought, as though a tenacious and primitive part of the human spirit had managed to cling on in spite of the best efforts of civilisation to tidy it up.

So,to return to where I began, there was a rich Heaney joke in play when the question to be asked of Auden, ‘Is yez civilised or is yez not?’ was associated with the voice of Unionist Protestantism sniffing out something dodgily republican and Catholic. Auden himself did not conceive of the question in such terms, needless to say, but he too was often exercised by the thought that the deepest energies and excitements of poetry might prove to be at odds with the civil and Christian virtues of which, as a citizen and a moralist, he thoroughly approved (‘I love the sagas,’ he said, ‘but what a rotten society they describe’). He was not alone in such mixed feelings: it is an often noted paradox of modernism that so incorrigibly highbrow a movement should have been so preoccupied by the primitive and belligerently unlettered. ‘Poetry begins, I dare say, with a savage beating a drum in a jungle,’ Eliot reflected urbanely in a lecture delivered at Harvard. Poets were defined not, as Matthew Arnold might have said, by their high culture but on the contrary by their ability to keep alive a taproot connection with pre-civilised modes of consciousness, so that, as Eliot put it, ‘hyperbolically one might say that the poet is older than other human beings.’ The young Heaney was very taken with the thought that poetry might draw on ‘older and deeper levels of energy’; indeed, you could say that one of his achievements was to grasp such modernist ambivalences and to reimagine them in his own terms, setting them within an Irish imaginative space made habitable largely by the example of Patrick Kavanagh, and finding a thick, costive, consonantal music for the task (‘the squelch and slap/Of soggy peat’). He was especially struck by a book called The New Poetic (1964) by the New Zealand poet C.K. Stead that portrayed an Eliot very different from the forbiddingly cerebral writer of popular reputation. Stead’s Eliot spoke of the origins of poetry in the unconscious and the irrational, its material breaking through ‘from a deeper level’ of the poet’s mind, growing from what Eliot called ‘that dark embryo within him which gradually takes on the form and speech of a poem’. Heaney often cited that ‘dark embryo’ in his own accounts of the poetic process, and the related concept of the ‘auditory imagination’, by which Eliot meant ‘the feeling for syllable and rhythm, penetrating far below the conscious levels of thought and feeling, invigorating every word; sinking to the most primitive and forgotten, returning to the origin and bringing something back’, magically fusing ‘the most ancient and the most civilised mentality’. Poems began in a part of the mind so primeval as to be pre-linguistic even. These remarks of Eliot’s were, Heaney said solemnly in one interview, ‘most important’. ‘Eliot was the one whom I entered into and who entered into me.’

The idea that poems are less things you make and more things that occur to you is a venerable one, a version of ‘inspiration’ as Stead pointed out and as Heaney himself recognised: ‘That old-fashioned notion of poetry as a visitation has been a determining one for me,’ he once said. Of course, like Eliot, he had to recognise that the conscious part of the mind did play some role in the making of a finished work, and so his essays repeatedly invoke a dualism between what’s given and what’s made, setting dark intuitive powers against the worked-out deliberations of craft. It was the darkness that really grabbed him: ‘I rhyme/To see myself, to set the darkness echoing,’ he writes in ‘Personal Helicon’. ‘All I know is a door into the dark,’ he says in ‘The Forge’, a marvellous description of a blacksmith glimpsed within his gloomy shed, not merely an artisan practising his craft but a magician enacting a religious rite: the anvil is ‘an altar/Where he expends himself in shape and music’. The poem is an oblique poetic manifesto, one of many in Heaney’s long career, reiterative acts of self-instruction in which poetry is what he called ‘a point of entry into the buried life of the feelings or as a point of exit for it’.

The first poem in Death of a Naturalist, ‘Digging’, was printed first in all the selections Heaney made from his work over the years, as though announcing a vocation for the buried: his genius, as Seamus Deane said, was ‘excavatory’. ‘Compose in darkness,’ Heaney counselled himself in another manifesto poem, the title poem of North, and the organising metaphor of that volume, the bringing up to the surface of things that lay hidden, just like Corkery’s Ireland, is as much a description of its own imaginative process as it is an anthropological account of the Troubles. Indeed the two are oddly intertwined: that ‘the dark presides in the Irish Christian consciousness’ was no doubt destructive for Ireland’s political subconscious but enabling for its poetical one. ‘I have always listened for poems,’ Heaney wrote on one occasion, ‘they come sometimes like bodies come out of a bog, almost complete, seeming to have been laid down a long time ago, surfacing with a touch of mystery.’ As Czesław Miłosz, whom he greatly admired, said, ‘a thing is brought forth which we didn’t know we had in us.’ The originatory darkness is often figured in Heaney as feminine, mysterious and divinatory, ‘the unburdening of the indefinable through pangs that are indescribable’, and the architectonic business of bringing verses to completion as masculine, the ‘conscious quelling and control of the materials, a labour of shaping’. The gender politics at work in such metaphors have not gone unnoticed, but much more telling for Heaney himself, an Irishman writing in English, was the curious and perhaps disturbing analogy between the way he thought about the rival elements of his own creativity and the warring gods he perceived in the stricken North. ‘I suppose the feminine element for me involves the matter of Ireland, and the masculine strain is drawn from the involvement with English literature,’ he said – one of many such formulations.

‘There is always the question,’ Heaney said to Deane in a conversation printed in the first number of the Irish cultural journal The Crane Bag (1977), ‘whether the rational and humanist domain which produced what we call civilisation in the West should be allowed full command in the psyche, speech and utterance of Ulster’: that is to say, ‘Is yez civilised or is yez not?’ Deane responded that renouncing irrational atavisms in an enlightened way was all very well but that ‘the thing about poetry is that to survive it cannot renounce them.’ ‘Yes, I agree partly,’ Heaney replied. ‘But I think there is a dialogue. I think the obstinate voice of rationalist humanism is important. If we lose that, we lose everything too, don’t we?’ A wholly admirable answer, it seems to me, as well as a good example of what he once called ‘an Ulster sort of answer’, as in ‘Well … we did and we didn’t.’

The poems that take the impress of both these forces are some of his most morally impressive. In ‘Hercules and Antaeus’ from North, for instance, the enlightened Hercules lifts earthy Antaeus above the ground, away from ‘the cradling dark,/the river-veins, the secret gullies/of his strength’ and into powerlessness – a symbolic licking that, Heaney anticipates, will become more fodder for a wearisome cult of noble defeat, ‘pap for the dispossessed’. Anglo-Hercules comes out of the poem as right but repulsive, as 1066 and All That described the Cromwellians, those exemplary adherents of England’s male god. Even better is the poem ‘Punishment’ from the same volume, a real masterpiece, in which one of the bog people is likened to the young women in Northern Ireland who were tarred and feathered for consorting with the other side. It ends with a passage of characteristic self-reproach as Heaney addresses the girl killed (or so Glob speculated) for her infidelity:

I who have stood dumb
when your betraying sisters,
cauled in tar,
wept by the railings,

who would connive
in civilised outrage
yet understand the exact
and tribal, intimate revenge.

‘Imaginatively, he is with the revenge, morally, with the outrage,’ Deane glossed those lines, which has all the right elements but organises them into too neat an antithesis: the imagination also has its part to play in moral judgment, and, for Heaney at least, part of that broader imaginative life was a positive resistance to what he elsewhere called ‘the tribal dirt that lies around the roots of all of us’. ‘Punishment’ sets the civilised against the tribal and uncomfortably admits the currency of both.

Much of​ the extraordinary power of Heaney’s literary personality stemmed from what Christopher Ricks identified as the capacity to earn our trust; and that trustworthiness is in large part a product of his readiness to suspect the worst of himself. His shortcomings are sometimes self-cast as the ducking of a political obligation, a failure to speak adequately to the urgencies of the historical moment through some over-nice disinclination to commit or engage. For example, in ‘An Afterwards’, from Field Work (1979), the volume that followed North, Heaney imagines his wife casting all poets into a Dantesque hell, where he finds himself damned with her faint praise: ‘You weren’t the worst. You aspired to a kind,/Indifferent, faults-on-both-sides tact.’ That volume also contains a beautiful poem in memory of Colum McCartney, a cousin of Heaney’s, which honours a victim of brutal political murder with the gracious formulae of pastoral elegy: ‘And gather up cold handfuls of the dew/To wash you, cousin’. You could not imagine it done more tenderly, but in the title sequence of his next collection, Station Island (1984), Heaney meets the dead man, who reproaches him for the elegy: ‘You confused evasion and artistic tact,’ he tells him, ‘you whitewashed ugliness …/and saccharined my death with morning dew.’ Elsewhere in that sequence Heaney speaks to another victim of sectarian butchery and surprises himself by saying: ‘Forgive the way I have lived indifferent –/forgive my timid circumspect involvement’ – as Foster says, this language clearly shows the lasting impact of the fracas provoked by North.

At other times, however, Heaney berates himself for failing quite a different moral vocation, one which is difficult to name without sounding portentous but which has something to do with inwardness and individuality and freedom, an existential authenticity that inheres in particular experiences and is imperilled by certain ideological casts of mind. The tribal allegiances that Heaney recognises in poems such as ‘Punishment’ are real, but there’s real and real. ‘The myths of identity are only one domain of reality’, he once said in a lecture, contrasting such political myths with the ‘deeply lodged intimacies’ of childhood memory. He returned repeatedly in his poems to ‘this phenomenological conditioning of the personal life, as crucial to the salvation of our human souls as the conditionings we undergo from our myths of identity’. The phrasing there (as elsewhere) may borrow from religion but the meaning is entirely psychological and personal and turns on Heaney’s growing conviction that communal consciousness is a kind of false consciousness: ‘The real problem in Northern Ireland’, he told Miller, ‘is that the spirit is doomed to be bonded into some solidarity and then the solidarity becomes a calcification.’

When yet another interviewer asked him to define his religious and political position, he winningly volunteered: ‘Probably Jungian in religion, torpid in politics’. The Jung that mattered wasn’t much to do with archetypes or alchemy, but was the author of a narrative of self-invention: ‘There is a second command besides the command to solidarity,’ as Heaney paraphrased it, ‘and that is to individuate yourself, to become self-conscious, to liberate the consciousness from the collective pieties.’ The possibility of emancipation from what Miłosz called ‘the captive mind’ is the story of ‘Station Island’, the most definitive of all his acts of self-instruction (Heaney called it ‘a poem of self-accusation’). It is comprised of a series of exemplary encounters with the dead, set on a holy island in Lough Derg to which the pious make pilgrimage, as indeed Heaney himself had done as a young man; but in the poem, the communal life of Catholic ritual is replaced by an intensely individual progress towards writerly autonomy. (‘The Catholic Church wisely recognised that faith is more a matter of collective suggestion than of individual conviction,’ Miłosz observes in The Captive Mind, adding: ‘The Party has learned this wise lesson from the Church.’)

On his reinvented pilgrimage Heaney meets two exemplary authors. The significance of the first, William Carleton, is probably lost on most British readers, but it is a striking choice: Carleton’s short story ‘The Lough Derg Pilgrim’ (1828) portrays the business of the pilgrimage as, in Foster’s words, ‘a squalid racket’, depicted with the special vehemence of one who had been raised in the Catholic faith but abandoned it for the better bet of the established church. ‘I made the traitor in me sink the knife,’ Carleton tells Heaney, ‘And maybe there’s a lesson for you too.’ Heaney declines such belligerence, but the second author he meets, James Joyce, offers a more palatable vision of self-defining individuality, which is not so dissimilar: ‘Your obligation/is not discharged by any common rite,’ Joyce tells him, ‘What you must do must be done on your own.’ It was a brave idea to invoke Joyce as a mentor, but in its context the passage does not seem vainglorious; and Joyce’s appearance in the poem reflected the importance that A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man had for the young Heaney. Corkery had offered an encompassing idea of deep Ireland, but Joyce brought something more: an idea of independence. Joyce wasn’t remotely troubled, as Corkery was, by the thought that writing in the coloniser’s language was a problem; on the contrary, he usually gives the impression that English had been twiddling its thumbs waiting for him to come along and make something of it. Having freed himself from a myth of Englishness, as Heaney put it, Joyce was not about to sign up to ‘the prescriptive myth of Irishness which was burgeoning in his youth and which survives in various sympathetic and unsympathetic forms to this day’. ‘You talk to me of nationality, language, religion,’ Stephen Dedalus, Joyce’s surrogate, says, ‘I shall try to fly by those nets.’ ‘Are you Irish at all?’ one of his nationalist friends asks.

North ends with Heaney reflecting disdainfully on his ‘responsible tristia’ and portraying himself as being too preoccupied by stirring around the bleak embers of his times to notice the thing that really matters: ‘The once-in-a-lifetime portent,/The comet’s pulsing rose’. For a volume that has spent so much of its time down in the dark, it is a surprising and inspiriting way to close, looking up at some life-changing luminosity. As befits a comet, it proved a portent. In 1982 Heaney contributed a superb essay to Philip Larkin’s sixtieth birthday celebrations about the way light floods into Larkin’s poetry with a feeling of immense if inexplicable redemptiveness: he might have been describing the trajectory of his own later poetry, increasingly drawn as it is to glimpses of ‘unfenced existence’. Lots of people have noticed that the later books become more and more luminous, ‘astonished and assumed into fluorescence’ (‘The Milk Factory’) and full of a Dedalus-style yearning to ‘repose/in the clear light, like poetry or freedom’ (‘Oysters’). Foster quotes a letter written to Brian Friel while Field Work was gestating: ‘I don’t want any more doors into the dark: I want a door into the light.’ That aspiration tallies with the purposeful change of direction he noted in the typically self-interrogative speech he delivered in 1995 on receiving the Nobel Prize: ‘I began a few years ago to try and make space in my reckoning and imagining for the marvellous as well as for the murderous.’ He is alluding to some lines from Seeing Things (1991), a book full of what it calls ‘shifting brilliancies’ and a collection that, as Foster says, ‘lays out the agenda for much of what followed’:

Me waiting until I was nearly fifty
To credit marvels. Like the clock-tree of tin cans
The tinkers made. So long for air to brighten,
Time to be dazzled and the heart to lighten.

The clever tinkers, I learn from Foster, made the clock-tree to distract the devil from his work, so their invention’s loveliness is also a push back against evil, and its lightening of the air a lightening of the heart. Still, even at his most luminous Heaney continued to acknowledge himself a thing of darkness too: Seeing Things begins with a version of the passage in the Aeneid that describes the golden bough, possession of which permits you to descend to explore ‘earth’s hidden places’. (His last work was a translation of Book VI, in which Aeneas journeys to meet his father in the land of the dead.) The reviewers of the later books were sometimes surprised, Foster notes, by ‘the contained violence and dark vision’ of some of the poems, though, as he goes on to say, those elements had always been there.

‘A good poem allows you to have your feet on the ground and your head in the air simultaneously,’ Heaney once said. You might find an analogy for such an imagination, at once grounded and airy, in Michelangelo’s Prisoners, those extraordinary statues which, thanks to the contingency of not being finished, appear to depict bodies struggling to escape from their stone. The wish of the figures to realise themselves as free and individual is pitched perpetually against the sheer obduracy of the material of which they are made, a materiality which is in its own right no less the subject of the sculptor’s art. ‘The soul exceeds its circumstances,’ or hopes to: Heaney liked that aphorism, originally encountered in an obituary for Miłosz, and quoted it in ‘The Tollund Man in Springtime’ from District and Circle (2006), where he commented, ‘Yes./History not to be granted the last word/Or the first claim’ (this is not to deny it some word or a claim of some kind). ‘The Tollund Man in Springtime’ was a last meditation on the bog people who had moved him so powerfully almost forty years before. This time, by a kindly poetic grace, the resurrected Tollund Man is finally allowed to participate in the spring for which he was originally sacrificed: ‘I reawoke to revel in the spirit/They strengthened when they chose to put me down/For their own good.’ Once restored, he does not find a modern civilisation of ‘checkout lines’ and ‘cash-points’ much to his taste, but he is fortified against its depletions by a tenacious boggy authenticity that Heaney would and wouldn’t like to claim for himself.


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