Seamus Heaney: The Crisis of Identity

Seamus Heaney: The Crisis of Identity

Seamus Heaney: The Crisis of Identity

Seamus Heaney: The Crisis of Identity

Synopsis

This book traces Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney's development as a poet, from his first book of poetry through his most recent, Electric Light. Each chapter examines a particular phase of Heaney's poetic career, with close, careful readings of those poems that best dramatize his crisis of identity.

Excerpt

AFTER TEN YEARS OF ARMED CONFLICT BEFORE THE GLEAMING CITADEL of Troy, and after another ten spent wandering the timeless Aegean, Odysseus returns to his island kingdom, Ithaca, forewarned that scores of suitors daily besiege his wife in the great hall. Fearing for his life and the patrimony of his son, Telemachus, the master strategist enters his own megaron disguised as a ragged wayfarer obliged by an evil fate to beg for alms among the tables. The callow young aristocrats force Odysseus to box with an idler and lout named Iros for a portion of the blood-pudding. To their surprise and abiding irritation, the older man easily proves the better pugilist. Even after dispatching his rival, Odysseus must endure the company’s black caprice, as enmity deepens within the hall. Antinoös strikes the “famished tramp” on the shoulder with a stool, and K’tesippos pegs a cow’s hoof at his head. Those female servants whose pubescent beauty allows them to grace the beds of the more dominant suitors offer Odysseus insults and abuse. But the grizzled veteran bides his time, concealing his identity and his rage from all save a trusted few. Only when Penelope brings out the great horn bow of Odysseus and bids the contestants shoot through “iron axe-helve sockets, twelve in a line,” does the wise Ithacan make his presence known. For the first time in Western literature, the identity of the hero and the poet fuse in one sublime gesture:

But the man skilled in all ways of contending,
satisfied by the great bow’s look and heft,
like a musician, like a harper, when
with quiet hand upon his instrument
he draws between his thumb and forefinger

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