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’.

The Irish earth as devouring goddess of Irishmen: Heaney, the turf-cutter, has spaded up this perfect metaphor for our current unease. There is an exhilarating lucky-dip element in his diggings, for his poetry begins in the sort of observation which brings a shock of recognition, in a glimmer of feeling which surfaces with a touch of mystery, rather than in opinions à parti pris. He believes that ‘poetry of any power is always deeper than its declared meaning. The secret between the words, the binding element, is often a psychic force that is elusive, archaic and only half-apprehended by maker and audience.’ Among his excellences is his refusal to employ his batterie de poésie for Statements rather than states of feeling. In a review of Osip Mandelstam’s poetry, he writes: ‘We live here in critical times ourselves when the idea of poetry as an art is in danger of being overshadowed by a quest for poetry as a diagram for political attitudes.’

Heaney has flown past this net as he has avoided others – in particular, the Irish/English net which the writer must rise above if he is, ultimately, to ‘create his own importance’:

I speak and write in English, but do not altogether share the perspectives and preoccupations of an Englishman. I teach English literature, I publish in London, but the English tradition is not ultimately home. I live off another hump as well.

From this dichotomy, others arise. Later, in the same essay, Heaney writes: ‘At school I studied the Gaelic literature of Ireland as well as the literature of England, and since then I have maintained a notion of myself as Irish in a province that insists that it is British.’ Within the Irish hump is the Ulster hump; within the Ulster hump is the Ulster Catholic hump. Minority positions proliferate. But the beginning and end of difference is the fact of Irishness.

For the great majority of writers born and brought up within its shores, Ireland is a harsh literary jailer. It is a terrain whose power to capture and dominate the imagination makes them its prisoner, forcing them, no matter how far away they wander, to return again and again in their writing to the place which in some atavistic way they believe to be the source of their literary powers. It is partly a matter of a different use of language: for they write an English which is infected by the rhythms of another tongue, a tongue most of them no longer speak.

Of course, there have been those – Farquhar, Goldsmith, Sheridan, Wilde and Shaw come to mind – who have made a triumphant transition to London and to an English fame. But it is as though Ireland releases these writers on their own recognisance that, henceforth, they will write and speak and live as Englishmen, leaving behind a body of work which shows few traces of their Gaelic origins. For other less fortunate, or less Anglophile, writers it is the work which must go into exile. For while Ireland has now a few small publishing houses, notably the excellent Poolbeg Press, and two national newspapers, the Irish Times and the Irish Press, which produce literate book-review pages, it is still true that the Irish writer must send his manuscript on a pilgrimage to London, knowing that his reputation will rise or fall largely on the strength of his English reviews. It is unlikely that this situation can change. Ireland, with a total population, north and south, of under four million people, is a land which offers international and native authors a tax-free haven but has not yet managed to provide its poets and novelists with a taxable income. Unlike other former British Dominions such as Canada and Australia, it does not have the resources to finance elaborate arts programmes or offer subsidies to promising young artists. And as its literary history is as old as, or older than, England’s, it is not likely to experience a nationalistic naissance such as Canada’s, where books by Canadian authors now sell as many as 30,000 hard-cover copies within Canadian borders.

Thus the Irish writer writes knowing that his audience is largely English and that the economics of British publishing and the politics of English reviewing will determine whether or not his work will see print and stay in print. The singularity of his experience and of his use of the English language sets him off from the British authors who crowd publishing lists, and is at once his strength and his handicap. His readers and the critics who judge his work may not understand it. Like Blanche Dubois, he will always have to rely on the kindness of strangers.

There remains, theoretically it not actually, the alternative of first publication in the United States. It seems odd that America, traditionally hospitable to Irish political aspirations and home to so many people of Irish descent, has not become the literary mecca to which Irish writers turn. It is, however, a sad truth that American publishing houses and American literary reviews confirm rather than create the reputations of non-American writers. Irish writers are welcome in America only after they have achieved publication in England and been blessed by the imprimatur of better-than-average English reviews. And while it is true that some American magazines, notably the New Yorker, have welcomed the talents of John McGahern, Seamus Heaney, Brian Friel, Edna O’Brien and Benedict Kiely, among others, one could give long odds against a manuscript by an unknown Irish novelist or poet seeing the light of first publication in Boston or in New York.

So it’s back to London and the old Anglo-Irish alliance. As we Irish were England’s first colony, now it seems likely that we will be her last literary colonials. The union will continue, and a full declaration of Irish literary independence seems remote. There are, of course, some who resent this dependence and rehash old wrongs and misunderstandings. Joyceans cite Joyce’s excruciating difficulties with a prudish and craven British printer, but in the telling it is often forgotten that Grant Richards, the English publisher, having read a book of stories called Dubliners posted to him from Trieste by an unknown Irishman, liked it, and when his reader Filson Young agreed, accepted it and speedily signed a contact for its publication. As for the charge that those steely trimmers, the English critics, prefer ‘safe’ Irish writers and are hostile to writers in the modernist tradition, one can instance the London reviewers’ enthusiastic reception of Flann O’Brien’s At-Swim-Two-Birds, a book as Irish as it was vanguard and written in a language that the Strangers do not know.

There are, of course, Irish writers who have not received their due. In an essay on the work of Patrick Kavanagh, Heaney points out that the first sentence of Kavanagh’s Author’s Note to his Collected Poems (1964) is this: ‘I have never been much considered by the English critics.’ As Heaney says, ‘it is hard to separate the bitterness from the boldness of “not caring”.’ But Kavanagh was a difficult man, and as Heaney notes, ‘too often the doctrine that “poetry is a mystical thing and a dangerous thing” was used as a petrified stick to beat the world with.’ Yet Kavanagh’s was a true omphaloskeptic vision and in his essay Heaney quotes his cri du coeur, which could stand as a paradigm for something else: for the Irish writer’s unease in exile, for that sense that he will never feel at home writing of any other place than Ireland, that, for the sake of his literary soul, he must go back there:

Parochialism is universal; it deals with the fun damentals. It is not by the so-called national dailies that people who emigrate keep in touch with their roots. In London, outside the Catholic churches, the big run is on the local Irish papers. Lonely on Highgate Hill outside St Joseph’s Church I rushed to buy my Dundalk Democrat and reading it I was back in my native fields. Now that I analyse myself I realise. that throughout everything I write, there is this constantly recurring motif of the need to go back ... So it for these reasons that I return to the local newspapers. Who has died? Who has sold his farm?

Heaney sums up this painful life: ‘If I feel that the man who has suffered was not fully recompensed by the man who created. Kavanagh felt it too. Without myth, without masters, “No System, no Plan”, he lived from hand to mouth and unceremoniously where Yeats – and Sidney – fed deliberately and ritually, in the heart’s rag and bone shop. And one might say that when he had consumed the roughage of his Monaghan experience, he ate his heart out.’

The need to go back, the need to develop at last a literary parish in Ireland itself, is most strikingly exemplified in the career of Brian Friel. Ireland’s finest living playwright, whose uncompromising and innovative theatre pieces have been met in both London and New York at times with enthusiastic acclaim, and at other times by misunderstanding bordering on incomprehension. Discussing his recent decision to open his new play in a new theatre in Derry which he has helped to found, Friel said: ‘In Ireland we are still talking to ourselves in theatrical terms and for very good reasons. If we are overheard – as we often are – then that’s fine.’ For Friel, some Irish writers ‘now pitch their voices to be overheard by the world elsewhere when they should be talking to their own people.’

He may be right. Seamus Heaney’s own decision to remain in Ireland despite many attractive academic offers from abroad is possibly due to his belief that there is a special nurture to be received by writers who live and work among their own people. On the other hand, there are those who must flee Ireland to see Ireland plain. Some of us, writers of an earlier generation, were far from being literary ‘patriots’. Eliot, not Yeats, was the most significant poet of our youth. We bitterly remember the book-banning Ireland of the Twenties through to the Fifties, and respond to the fine anger in the poems of Derek Mahon, Heaney’s most talented Ulster contemporary, when, in poems like ‘Glengormley’ and ‘Ecclesiastes’, he reminds us that the awful Ulster of our youth is far from dead. With these memories we would put our trust in the objectivity of English rather than Irish reviewers. Lastly, if Heaney is right, then English poets, at least, may be drawing closet to our Irish omphaloskepsis. In a fine essay on the work of Philip Larkin. Ted Hughes and Geoffrey Hill. Heaney notes that they now seem to feel that the England they once knew is disappearing, and this has ‘driven all three of these writers into a kind of piety towards their local origins’. ‘All three,’ he writes.

are hoarders of what they take to be the real England. All three treat England as a region – or rather treat their region as England – in different and complementary ways. I believe they are afflicted with a sense of history that was once the peculiar affliction of the poets of other nations who were not themselves natives of England, but who spoke the English language. The poets of the mother culture, I feel, are now possessed of that defensive love of their territory which was once shared only by those poets whom we might call colonial – Yeats. MacDiarmid, Carlos Williams. They are aware of their Englishness as deposits in the descending storeys of the literary and historical past. Their very terrain is becoming consciously precious. A desire to preserve indigenous traditions, to keep open the imagination’s supply line to the past, to receive from the stations of Anglo-Saxon confirmations of ancestry, to perceive in the rituals of show Saturdays and race meetings and seaside outings, of church-going and marriages at Whitsun, and in the necessities that crave expression after the ritual of church-going has passed away, to perceive in these a continuity of communal ways, and a confirmation of an identity which is threatened – all this is signified by their language.