English Fame and Irish Writers

Brian Moore

  • Selected Poems 1956-1975 by Seamus Heaney
    Faber, 136 pp, £3.95, October 1980, ISBN 0 571 11644 2
  • Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968-1978 by Seamus Heaney
    Faber, 224 pp, £7.95, October 1980, ISBN 0 571 11638 8

In Ireland it often seems that the great world is too little with us – that all issues are reduced to the level of the parish pump. Yet, as Patrick Kavanagh warned, Irish writers turn outward at their peril. Disgusted by the loud quarrels of his Monaghan neighbours, he wrote:

That was the year of the Munich bother. Which
Was more important? I inclined
To lost my faith in Ballyrish and Gortin
Till Homer’s ghost came whispering to my mind.
He said: I made the Iliad from such
A local row. Gods make their own importance.

Seamus Heaney might agree. Here is the first paragraph in this, his first collection of prose pieces:

I would begin with the Greek word omphalos, meaning the navel, and hence the stone that marked the centre of the world, and repeat it. omphalos, omphalos, omphalos, until its blunt and falling music becomes the music of somebody pumping water outside our back door. It is Co. Derry in the early 1940s. The American bombers groan towards the aerodrome at Toomebridge, the American troops manoeuvre along the road, but all of that great historical action does not disturb the rhythms of the yard. There the pump stands, a slender iron idol, snouted, helmeted, dressed down with a sweeping handle, painted a dark green and set on a concrete plinth, marking the centre of another world. Five households drew water from it. Women came and went, came rattling between empty enamel buckets, went evenly away, weighed down by silent water. The horses came home to it in those first lengthening evenings of spring, and in a single draught emptied one bucket and then another as the man pumped and pumped, the plunger slugging up and down, omphalos, omphalos, omphalos.

The clarity of this omphaloskeptic vision is, I would suggest, one of the major reasons for Seamus Heaney’s emergence as the most internationally-acclaimed Irish poet since W.B. Yeats. For he has demonstrated once again that there are more ways of making it new than are known to those critics of poetry who simply follow current fashions. He possesses in a high degree what Robert Lowell called ‘the grace of accuracy’, and his work often echoes those early Irish nature poems he admires – poetry which, as he points out, belonged to a tradition which did not undergo Romance influences and which ‘registers certain sensations and makes a springwater music out of certain feelings in a way unmatched in any other European language’.

To make the local, the particular, universal and Homeric has been a central preoccupation of modernist Irish writers: Yeats, Joyce, Flann O’Brien, and, arguably, Beckett, have all made Iliads of local rows. Heaney, in a somewhat different manner, shares this preoccupation, as these Selected Poems, chosen by himself from the volumes of poetry he published before Field Work, attest. For when he fixes his gaze upon quotidian Irish life he brings before us, not only its surface, beautifully observed, as in the passage of prose just quoted, but also its hidden depths: a land long overrun, a nation conquered, a tradition fragmented, a tongue lost. Beneath the simple concrete plinth of the village pump his vision discerns the bog, that ‘black butter earth’ which has yielded up, almost at random, symbols of another civilisation: the golden treasures of early Irish art, the shields of long-dead warriors, the antlers of the great Irish elk. His pen digs down to a symbol, older than the cross – a severed human head, Celtic pagan sacrifice to ‘the goddess of the ground who needed new bridegrooms each winter to bed with her in her sacred place, in the bog, to ensure the renewal and fertility of the territory in the spring’.

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