Excusez-moi

Ian Hamilton

  • The Haw-Lantern by Seamus Heaney
    Faber, 52 pp, £7.95, June 1987, ISBN 0 571 14780 1

‘About the only enmity I have is towards pride.’ Seamus Heaney said this in an interview, and since we know him to be the most over-interviewed of living poets, perhaps he shouldn’t be forced to say it again here. Put in its context, though, this too-worthy-sounding protestation has much to reveal about the disposition of Heaney’s work so far, and can even be read as a riposte to those critics who complain that, for all its verbal richness and its moral courage, his work is strangely without personality.

In the interview, Heaney was talking about his Catholicism, about how his sensibility had been ‘formed by the dolorous murmurings of the rosary, and the generally Marian quality of devotion’ afforded by the Roman Church – a Church to which Heaney, even in his twenties, continued to go for confession and which ‘permeated’ the whole life of his Northern Ireland childhood. Thanks to this Church, its doctrines and its rituals, Heaney’s sensibility was from the start centred in relation to what he calls a ‘feminine presence’. It was this presence that induced in him his ‘only enmity’:

A religion that has a feminine component and a notion of the mother in the transcendental world is better than a religion that just has a father, a man, in it. I also – just in my nature and temperament, I suppose – believed in humility and in bowing down, and in ‘we’ rather than ‘I’. I hate a moi situation, an egotism, a presumption, a hubris, and I’m used to bowing down to the mother as a way of saying that. About the only enmity I have is towards pride.

When people complain about the absence of ‘personality’ in Heaney’s work, they are at some level complaining also that the ‘moi situation’ has been skirted or suppressed, and that as a result his poems lack the sort of sharply individual human tone that Larkin has, or Frost, or Lowell. I have heard it said that Heaney’s work is ‘teachable but not memorable’, that lines of his don’t linger in the mind, and it certainly seems to be true that admirers of his do tend to remember images or situations or stylistic brilliances rather than cries from the heart or haunting melodies. He has written few ‘inter-personal’ poems that are any good, and he is better at addressing the dead than he is at confiding in the living.

Of course, when Heaney started writing – in the late Sixties – there was ‘moi-poetry’ aplenty to be haunted by, and we can now see that the literary-historical moment was precisely right for the eventual, if not imminent appearance of a poet for whom none of all that held any magnetism. A new Auden, a new Stevens might have seemed to be the answer, and shortly there were indeed new Audens, new Stevenses to choose from. But neither intellectualism nor playfulness nor mere perfection of technique would be enough to reclaim glamour for the impersonal, or anti-personal. The only real challenge to the over-intimate would have to come from a poetry that risked its opposite: the too-theatrical. A poetry to be listened in on would be most effectively displaced by a poetry that dared to resurrect some of the art’s discredited rhetorical/theatrical presumptions. (These, it should be said, had by the early Seventies been ‘discredited’ not just by the aching whispers of Confessionalism but also by cute performance stars and by sloganisers of the ‘Left’.)

In terms of the desirable ‘next step’ for British poetry, Seamus Heaney had some obvious natural advantages. After all, confessional poetry was unlikely to seduce a Catholic. And, for the wishing-to-be-humble, there was no great allure either in the mock-humilities of the Larkinesque. Even so, Heaney did not at first seem to offer much of a challenge to anything, or anyone – he was too like Ted Hughes, minus the Lawrentian, black-magical ingredients, and he was a shade too youthfully delighted with the plopping, slopping, thwacking sounds of spade on soil, or milk in pail, etc. (Donnish critics have always loved this onomatopoeic side of Heaney, though: maybe because it gives them the chance to exhibit their own ‘sensibilities’ – ‘You’ll notice how the “thwa-” of “thwack” is shyly answered by the “plu-” of “plump”.’)

And yet, if one looks back now at Heaney’s first two books, Death of a Naturalist and Door into the Dark, it becomes evident that he had already there commenced a sort of rebellion against the moi, against the autobiographical ‘I’, the nervously-wracked victim ‘me’. The voice he spoke in, or rather the voice in which his poems spoke, already had a tinge of bardic anonymity, a suggestion that the self had indeed been humbled, but momentously: Seamus Heaney the man was being elected, so it seemed to him, into the role of Seamus Heaney, poet.

If this makes him sound like George Barker, it absolutely shouldn’t. What is attractive about Heaney’s response to his vocation is that he is never entirely happy that it is he who has been called: a childhood spent wondering how to avoid the priesthood had perhaps ill-prepared him for such singularity. And it is the marvelling near-reluctance with which he acknowledges his own election that silences, or ought to silence, any post-Movement tendency to scoff.

Like Dylan Thomas, like Graves, Heaney assumed the noble vestments, but he did so with an engaging awkwardness, a persuasive lack of flourish. One of the fascinations of Heaney’s work, read from the beginning until now, is in observing how he shifts this way and that to find a genuinely comfortable fit, a non-fake, non-proud way of living in the sacred robes he knows he has the obligation and the right to wear. He can neither fling them off nor swap them for the more workaday gear which, in certain moods, he might feel more ‘at home in’. But there is always a touch of ‘Why me?’ in his sometimes effortful transcending of the ‘me’, and this has given him a rare sturdiness of posture – rare, that is, for the ‘chosen’ sort of poet he’s become. Indeed, it could be said that one of Heaney’s principal achievements is that he has redignified the bardic stance.

There are those who would say that he has been helped in this by having something to be bardic about, by having arrived on-stage at a place and time when it was possible for him to say: ‘To forge a poem is one thing, to forge the uncreated conscience of the race ... is quite another and places daunting pressure and responsibilities on anyone who would risk the name of poet.’ Certainly, it is hard to think of how an English poet could get away with saying this: but with Heaney ‘getting away with it’ does not arise.

A Heaney without the Troubles that erupted just as he was finishing his second book, Door into the Dark, would maybe have been all vocation and no job: archaeological, etymological, nostalgic, literary-grandiose and ‘good on nature’. He might even have fallen victim to some Irish version of the thin-spined Californian-meditative which showed faint signs of enticing him around the time of his third volume, Wintering out. From his first two books, it’s hard to tell. These were much concerned with the discovery of his vocation, with measuring the distances between his sort of digging and that of the farm-folk he’d grown up with, and with registering a sense of awe at the mysteries which seemed to lie ahead. When he has spoken of this period he has usually portrayed himself as almost-passive: the poems were already in him, he would say, and his task was to uncover them, to excavate, or even just to make himself available to their arrivals. He was also reading a lot of modern poetry, late in the day and in something of a hurry, it might seem, as if to seek directions, signs. The dark behind the Door in the Dark was, simply, dark.

The Troubles did erupt, though. Heaney wintered out the first few months, tinkering with place-names and imperilled Irish crafts, but he sensed from the start – from 1969 – that the bard’s moment had almost certainly arrived, that from now on ‘the problems of poetry’ had changed ‘from being simply a matter of achieving the satisfactory verbal icon to being a search for images and symbols adequate to our predicament’. Again, it is ‘our’ predicament, not his, although as a liberal, bloodshed-hating Northern Ireland Catholic with strong ties to the British, both personal and cultural, he could hardly have felt all that ‘representative’. The ‘we’ at this point could so easily have surrendered to the moi, and Heaney could respectably have withdrawn to the margins of his maddened tribe. He could even have done this without handing in his robes.

But he didn’t, and his poetry since then has been a moving drama of discomfiture, of trying to reconcile the ‘magic’ aspects of his calling with, so to speak, the ‘duties’ of the tribal bard. He has never been confident that the two can be reconciled and whenever he has had to make the choice he has almost always chosen to safeguard the ‘mystery’ of his vocation. There have been wobbly moments, as in the second part of North, where he has tried to confront the ‘Irish thing’ in ordinary speech, as Seamus Heaney, but all in all he has held honourably fast to the objective he set himself at the beginning of the Seventies: ‘to discover a field of force in which, without abandoning fidelity to the processes and experiences of poetry ... it would be possible to encompass the perspectives of a humane reason and at the same time grant the religious intensity of the violence its deplorable authenticity and complexity’. These words must have been arrived at with some anguish, and much care. It is not easy, perhaps not even possible, to speak of ‘deplorable authenticity’ without seeming to favour the ‘authenticity’ aspect of that formulation.

Heaney has looked for his ‘field of force’ in some out-of-the-way places, as remote sometimes from the present tense as he could reach: not in order to seek comfort from the past – unless there is comfort in knowing that history is comfortless – but to bring back ‘befitting emblems of adversity’. Befitting they have been, and delivered with a curt or stoic shrug, as if to say: ‘What can I say?’

I am Hamlet the Dane,
skull-handler, parablist
smeller of rot

in the state, infused
with its poisons,
pinioned by ghosts
and affections,

murders and pieties,
coming to consciousness,
by jumping in graves,
dithering, blathering.

It was with his fifth book, Field Work, that Heaney found a voice that is neither bleakly antiquarian nor awkwardly portentous. By this time the Troubles really had become his troubles. Friends and relatives of his were being killed: the moi could no longer be prevented from intruding some of its own nervous cadences. In poems like ‘The Strand at Lough Beg’ and ‘A Postcard from North Antrim’, Heaney sounds that ‘heartbreak’ note which Robert Lowell used to talk about. Maybe Lowell talked to him about it. Field Work has an elegy in memory of Lowell (‘the master elegist’), and the two poets saw each other often during the mid-Seventies. In this book, even the ‘love-poems’ (a genre Heaney says he hates the sound of) are unaffectedly meant to be listened to by the beloved – and thus listened-in to by the rest of us. But it’s Heaney’s Irish elegies that hurt the most:

Across that strand of yours the cattle graze
Up to their bellies in an early mist
And now they turn their unbewildered gaze
To where we work our way through squeaking sedge
Drowning in dew. Like a dull blade with its edge
Honed bright, Lough Beg half shines under the haze.

I turn because the sweeping of your feet
Has stopped behind me, to find you on your knees
With blood and roadside muck in your hair and eyes,
Then kneel in front of you in brimming grass
And gather up cold handfuls of the dew
To wash you, cousin. I dab you clean with moss
Fine as the drizzle out of a low cloud.
I lift you under the arms and lay you flat.
With rushes that shoot green again, I plait
Green scapulars to wear over your shroud.

Field Work, to my mind, is the book of Heaney’s which we ought to remember (how can we not?) when there are grumbles about ‘anonymity’ or ‘suppression of the self’. His moi poems are all the stronger, all the more hard-won, it seems to me, not because they go against his notion of a tribal role but because – at their best – they don’t: it’s just that, in these poems, the ‘I’ lurks behind the ‘we’, and vice versa. And the elegy is, of course, the perfect form for such lurking, or entwining: an intimacy meant to be made public.

In Station Island (1984), Heaney returned to pondering the ‘poet’s role’, but with a new despondency. He enlists the assistance of other artists, from Dante to James Joyce, and yearns guiltily for the ‘clumps’ and ‘clunks’ and ‘clogs’ of his most youthful verses. Not so guiltily, though, that he cannot welcome some jeering Joycean advice:

‘Keep at a tangent.
When they make the circle wide, it’s time to swim
out on your own ... ’

After all, what had those grand elegies in Field Work actually done, except perhaps to ‘saccharine’ with literature the suffering of those they claimed to mourn? The Dantesque apparitions contrived by Heaney in Station Island are accusatory, and our instinct (also contrived by Heaney?) is to spring to the defence of the accused, to tell him to

Let go, let fly, forget.
You’ve listened long enough. Now strike your note.

In the ‘Sweeney’ versions and translations which appeared in this country at the same time as Station Island the central fantasy is one of flight – of elevation and liberation.

Heaney’s new book, The Haw Lantern, does strike one or two new notes, but it is slight and low-powered, by his standards. It shows signs not so much of high vocation as of obedient professionalism: a Phi Beta Kappa poem for Harvard, a poem for William Golding on his 75th birthday, a poem for Amnesty International, Irish Section, on Human Rights Day, 1985. And there are signs, too, that Heaney has set himself to learn from the oblique, clandestine parables and allegories which poets of Eastern Europe use to fox the censors. I am not sure that he has a light enough touch for modes like these (and in any case does their ‘lightness’ not thrive on necessity?), but perhaps for the moment they offer a relaxing middle path between the druid and the moi. A sense of exercise prevails throughout the book, except in the group of sonnets written in memory of the poet’s mother, who died in 1984. These are touchingly uneven: fondly anecdotal, with some strongly sentimental moments, but sometimes almost breathtakingly ill-made:

She’d manage something hampered and askew
Every time, as if she might betray
The hampered and inadequate by too
Well-adjusted a vocabulary.

Or is Heaney himself attempting to avoid a similar betrayal? Certainly, throughout the sequence, there is a reluctance to reach for anything that might be thought of as poetic grandeur.

‘Silence’ and ‘emptiness’ are what these sonnets register, and one senses that silence and emptiness are at the emotional centre of this book. Weariness, also. Dutifully, mechanically almost, Heaney continues to be full of words, and full of worries about what to do with them. But he has been tired of such worries for some time: those robes, it seems, will never fit. In a poem called ‘From the Frontier of Writing’ he describes being stopped at an Army road-block where ‘everything is pure interrogation.’ When he is eventually let through, he feels

a little emptier, a little spent
as always by that quiver in the self,
subjugated, yes, and obedient.

The same kind of thing happens, he says, at the ‘frontier of writing’: the writer is interrogated, guns are aimed at him, data about him are checked out, he could easily get shot. If all goes well, though, he’s allowed to cross the frontier, ‘arraigned yet freed’. Seamus Heaney has been arraigned often enough, by himself and by others’ expectations of him. Why is it so hard to think of him as ever being ‘freed’ – he who has dared to ‘risk the name of poet’?