A review of On Seamus Heaney by Roy Foster
Although known for his active support of the South African anti-Apartheid movement and for his open opposition to the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, Irish poet and Nobel-prize winner Seamus Heaney was not famous for his politics. This has led some sceptics to dismiss the political content in the poems of Seamus Heaney on the grounds of his willing proximity to centres and figureheads of power: from his tenureships in Oxford and Harvard Universities to his warm relations with American Presidents, including Bill Clinton and Barack Obama (although footage can still be found of a fresh-faced Seamus Heaney expressing his sympathy for the socialistic tendencies of the early civil rights movement in Northern Ireland).
Such critiques are valid in shining a light on the embedded nature of the arts, at least at an institutional level, in the power structures of capitalism, as well as the risks that trail in the wake of creative endeavour as a result, whereby after a period of time (as Adrienne Rich once wrote) the artist “simply decorates the dinner table of power which holds it hostage”, becoming a kind of living fig leaf to cover the “radical disparities of wealth and power” in their society. In this case, however, it would be a mistake to oversimplify or overlook the poems of Seamus Heaney in which political ideas are present and important. This is the weakness of an otherwise insightful new book by Roy Foster on the poems of Seamus Heaney.
Imperialism, Roy Foster and Seamus Heaney
In some ways, Foster is an unlikely candidate for elucidating the development and concerns of so complicated a cultural force as Heaney. Deeming Dublin’s 1916 Rising against British imperialism an act of righteous folly, an event he views as derailing the proper course of constitutional nationalism from achieving its promised reward, Foster has long been in the habit of articulating establishment positions on history (and revolution) with a consistency and quasi-literary aplomb that are in themselves impressive, if hardly winning. Such a tendency may partly be seen remarks such as: ‘the advent of apocalypse after 1968 is … an avoidable lurch into violence rather than the inevitable bursting of a boil’; and in the lapidary aside that the conflict in Northern Ireland ‘fed on ancient antipathies as well as recent injustices.’
Foster’s intention is to offer sympathetic clarification of Heaney’s evolving predicaments as a conscientious nationalist averse to armed violence, which these comments partly do, but they also bear hints of a cosmopolitan sanctimony entirely Foster’s own. We might qualify and contextualise Foster’s historicising by reference to another historian, Daniel Finn: ‘Ancestral voices do not call out to people from beyond the grave: they have to be summoned by the living to legitimize a present-day political stance.’ Foster’s reflexive urge to associate Irish anti-imperialism in general, and however subtly, with the “ancient antipathies” of religious prejudice is as much an act of de-legitimizing as any, and should itself be subject to critical scrutiny.
In a similar vein, it’s surely notable that Foster’s criticism, in Modern Ireland: 1600-1972, of United Irishman Wolfe Tone for his supposed ‘inability to recognise the sectarian underpinning of all political activity in Ireland’ in the lead-up to the 1798 rebellion, conflating revolutionary nationalism once again with religious sectarianism, stands in stark contrast to Heaney’s simmering memorial of the same in ‘Requiem for the Croppies’, whose propulsive beginning is:
The pockets of our greatcoats full of barley
No kitchens on the run, no striking camp
We moved quick and sudden in our own country.
Although Heaney would later refrain from public readings of this piece, lest it be interpreted as an endorsement of the IRA’s armed campaign (to which he was opposed), its atmosphere of inspired anti-imperialism still retains a quivering power and assurance, while the poem’s seemingly instinctive joy in the mass agency of the rebels (‘We moved quick and sudden in our own country’) immediately calls to mind the stirrings of civil disobedience in Northern Ireland, and elsewhere, in the late 1960s when it was written.
Seamus Heaney’s politics misread
If Heaney vacillated between a disdain for British imperialism as such and a distaste for the tactics and righteous rhetoric of the Provisional IRA, the combative spirit and perception of dignity in struggle that animates ‘Requiem for the Croppies’ persisted in his work, finding a guarded echo in his collection of a decade later, Field Work. In ‘The Toome Road’, Heaney (or at any rate, the expressive conscience that permeates his poems) meets:
In convoy, warbling along on powerful tyres
This patrol disturbing the natural soundscape as well as the political ecosystem of a locale that, nonetheless, remains an ‘untoppled omphalos’, as the British forces swerve into view,
approaching down my road
As if they owned them.
The poem encapsulates Heaney’s groundedness in the landscape of his origins (it is not, contra Foster’s interpretation of Irish nationalism above, an expression of sectarian pride), as well as striking a clear chord of collective, political defiance against colonial incursion. Importantly, however, in its recourse to classical tradition – in ancient Greek, omphalos means, roughly, a navel and the centre of a social order – Heaney is also making legible and understandable, for an insulated intellectual elite typified by Foster as much as for onlooking political communities in Dublin and London more broadly, the feelings of anti-colonial resentment and communal pride-of-place that define the hinterlands of his first home, in the Derry/Antrim area.
Foster, then, is sometimes inclined to miss or misread the anti-imperialistic charge animating crucial sections of Heaney’s oeuvre.
The experience of empire, Civil Rights and republicanism creates a tension in Heaney’s career and legacy, about which Foster has little to say beyond suggesting that increasing demands on the poet’s time in later years had a debilitating effect on his personal well-being, and citing (fascinatingly, if without further comment) an interview in which the bard indicates his interest in new academic trends that stress, in his own words, ‘the connivance between the promotion of art and the prevailing structures of capitalist society’. No doubt a compelling study could be made of Heaney’s evolving attitude to such issues, and the spectrum of political stances his career incorporated, but they form only a peripheral part of Foster’s focus in this volume.
A richness in Heaney’s poems that escapes narrow politics
By following the line of critique outlined above too rigidly, of course, we risk diluting the richness of Heaney’s work, as well as overlooking the strong current of self-interrogation and self-reproach that courses through it. One of Heaney’s recurring fixations is that of the implication of the poet in the violences (and silences) of history: the sharded nature of his own reflective life. ‘I am the artful voyeur’, he famously writes, in pained remorse,
who would connive
in civilized outrage
at sectarian killing and sacrifice,
yet understand the exact
and tribal, intimate revenge.
For all the rootedness and consistency of its motifs, Heaney’s work refuses any easy faith in its own rituals, or in the integrity of his own position. I…
gather up cold handfuls of the dew
To wash you, cousin
Green scapulars to wear over your shroud
… reads ‘The Strand at Lough Beg’, an elegy for his murdered relative, Colum McCartney, whose ghost returns in another poem a decade later to ‘accuse’ the poet: ‘“…for the way you whitewashed ugliness [and] saccharined my death with morning dew.”’ Questions of ethical complicity and redress, of failure and rebuke, haunt and define this most acclaimed of literary laureates, who never presumed to take the accomplishments of his craft for granted.
Where Foster’s study is exemplary is in its praise and foregrounding of the nuanced nature of the work, and its human value. Such qualities have not always given their due.
The development of Seamus Heaney as a poet
‘There is a Proustian exactness in [Seamus Heaney’s] evocation of the texture and detail of his early life’, writes Roy Foster, an ‘unerring memory’ that lends his every reminiscence a living gleam. Here, Foster’s interpretation of Heaney’s work is commendable for its clarity and concision, and noteworthy for its close-focussed appreciation of the skill and achievement of a figure widely regarded as Ireland’s national poet. The compressed format of the Princeton Writers on Writers series, it should be said, is a comfortable fit for Foster’s style, which favours suggestive aphorism over in-depth analysis (which would, in this case, perhaps be cumbersome anyway). As such, the volume serves as a fluent personal response to Heaney on Foster’s part, while also offering an accessible and stimulating reader’s guide to the work: elegant, career-spanning, and lucid, if also somewhat breezily assured of the durability of its own impressions.
Heaney emerges from Foster’s account as ‘a poet’ possessed of ‘a novelist’s perception of circumstance and psychology’, a writer ‘whose complexities stretch far beyond the charm of his early poems’, a ‘charm which itself is never simply what it seems’, an artist whose Catholic upbringing and ground-breaking explorations of his own memory and shaping landscapes Foster finds comparable, intriguingly (although sadly without elaboration), to those of Italian film director, Federico Felini.
Foster is a sensitive reader of the work, from the ‘lush and winsome wordplay’ of juvenilia to ‘the voice [that is] steadying and readying itself for a journey into another dimension’ in Human Chain (2010), Heaney’s final book. Additionally, On Heaney presents an often compelling trajectory of the poet’s development, emphasising his generosity as a public figure (a trait likewise acknowledged by cultural figures as far-flung as the writer, Dermot Healy, and the anti-apartheid campaigner, Kader Asmal), the emotional and intellectual nuance of both the books and the individual poems he produced, and the sharp, sometimes vexed awareness of cultural status and responsibility that increasingly accompanied his literary fame. Foster interweaves these strands of the Heaney story deftly, concluding he was possessed of ‘a strong sense of the shape of his life’ as well as the ‘completely defensible’, if frequently disguised ‘ambition of the major talent’.
Were Seamus Heaney’s poems influenced by Yeats?
Foster’s apparently effortless savvy and decisiveness in such matters is of course in great part due to his playing to his own strengths throughout. The case for Heaney’s ‘Yeatsian’ qualities and ‘Yeats-like’ development as a poet is made repeatedly, although not, to my mind, entirely convincingly. The Heaney canon is full of probing (and dutiful) responses to Yeats, in both prose and poetry: a landmark piece such as ‘Casualty’, for example, adopts the rhythm of the elder songsmith’s ‘The Fisherman’, albeit as much as a means of demarcating its own difference in approach and historical context as for any accompanying literary resonance.
In fact, the resemblance between the two writers is limited at best: only to the extent that Foster has written a biography of one national poet and now is presenting an interpretation of another (both, of course, having been awarded a Nobel Prize in Literature), does Heaney’s work appear to grow from and comes to mirror that of Yeats. In their sensibilities, their sources, their historical backgrounds and perspectives, they are hardly alike. Yeats, oracular and shape-shifting, is forever taking flight, searching for new myths to illuminate and inhabit, before passing on; Heaney, intuitive and cautious, is always hunkering down, his slow roots thirsting in the dark for something sure and known, whose existence he frequently both doubts and yearns for.
In this and in other respects, as Foster’s commentary suggests, Heaney’s work rings true, entering the world with a palpability and force all its own. The observational intensity of his poems is often unforgettable: from the ‘water’ that,
in the slung bucket
of a sunlit farmyard, to the ‘surface of a slate-grey lake’ that’s been,
By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans.
Heaney’s poetry is as much a mode of memory as an act of imagination, giving dramatic life to the sensuousness of longing, both romantic and elegiac: a longing he often acknowledges as being somehow unreachable, ‘Its heft and hush become a bright nowhere’, impossible to bring to a state of fulfilment or permanent healing. Most people experience a version of this feeling, in love or mourning, in aspirations glimpsed or denied. For revolutionaries, it forms a prelude to the complex hope they carry: a realisation that the world to be won encompasses the irreparable losses of past sacrifice and unsuccess as well as the promised gains of mutuality and a common future: we bring them forward with us as we go. Heaney’s poem in dedication to his sons, ‘A Kite for Michael and Christopher’, captures something of this, blending a hard-edged vision with soft, sad faith:
Before the kite plunges down into the wood
and this line goes useless
take in your two hands, boys, and feel
the strumming, rooted, long-tailed pull of grief.
You were born fit for it.
Stand in here in front of me
and take the strain.
Reading Heaney can be a way of preparing ourselves, and recognising one another; his work clarifies the frequent perilousness and hoped-for (never guaranteed) continuity of our own humanity. We would do well to pay heed.
Gerald Byron says
Before Seamus Heaney won the Nobel prize an Irish intellectual published a pamphlet drawing attention to the fact that Heaney had said nothing strong about the politics of Northern Ireland. The critique attracted a little bit of attention but has not been mentioned much by commentators on the left because the writer is a cultural conservative. Commentators on the liberal-conservative side have shunned the writer because, again, they deem him to be on be a conservative critic of liberalism-leftism as understood. My own view is that poetry is about the human condition. Politics and political theory may be partly about the human condition, but so are love, beauty, tragedy, spirit life, bravery, landscape, farming, work and the transience of life on this earth. If a poet, of whatever political orientation or none, chooses to write memorably about any of these themes, he or she may enter a national and possibly international poetic canon. Heaney’s poetic stature doesn’t depend on politics.