A Voice of Peace in Two Ages of Barbarism; Seamus Heaney. by Helen Vendler (Harper Collins, Pounds 15.99). Reviewed by Nigel Hastilow

By Hastiltow, Nigel | The Birmingham Post (England), November 28, 1998 | Go to article overview

A Voice of Peace in Two Ages of Barbarism; Seamus Heaney. by Helen Vendler (Harper Collins, Pounds 15.99). Reviewed by Nigel Hastilow


Hastiltow, Nigel, The Birmingham Post (England)


There must be something remarkable about a school which manages to produce not one but two Nobel prize winnners - or remarkable about where it is, anyway.

St Columb's College is in Londonderry and has given us both John Hume, the leader of the SDLP and Northern Ireland peace-maker, and Seamus Heaney, the Ulster Catholic poet.

Hume's long struggle to bring peace to the province has been chronicled over the pages of the newspapers for many years, culminating in his award, with Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble, of the Nobel Peace Prize earlier this year.

Seamus Heaney won the Nobel Prize for Literature three years earlier and, as Helen Vendler makes clear in this book, the poet has struggled to reconcile the warring factions in contemporary life as hard as the politician.

Heaney's approach has, of course, been quite different from his one-time school fellow. He has struggled throughout his writing career to reconcile in his own mind the conflicting loyalties and pressures which must inevitably assail a compassionate man w ho finds himself caught up in events beyond his control.

In fact, there are surprisingly few direct public references in Heaney's early work to "the troubles" which began at about time he published his second book of poetry, Door into the Dark. But his poems are actually filled with anxieties over the inhumani ty of the whole thing.

Vendler takes us through Heaney's development as a poet, from his first outing to his most recent work. She describes this as moving from "the matter of Ireland" to "what was the matter with Ireland".

Certainly it is a persuasive view of his work. The early poems are to a great extent nostalgic reflections on the agrarian world Heaney was brought up in but which was disappearing even before he started to write about it.

At the same time, though, he is constantly aware of his own position in the social context of Northern Ireland. And equally aware of the history of struggle between the Catholics and the Protestants throughout Ireland's history.

In Requiem for the Croppies, he describes how Irish soldiers "shaking scythes at cannon" were killed by the English army.

And as he came to write about the discovery of "bog people" - victims of Iron Age ritual killings whose bodies were being unearthed - he found a way of expressing himself on the subject of Ulster violence while avoiding the danger of descending into jour nalese.

Vendler says: "The bog bodies persuaded him that ritual killing had been a feature of Northern tribal culture... that immediate history alone did not begin to explain the recrudescence of violence in Northern Ireland.

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