Academic journal article Eire-Ireland: a Journal of Irish Studies

Anger and Nostalgia: Seamus Heaney and the Ghost of the Father

Academic journal article Eire-Ireland: a Journal of Irish Studies

Anger and Nostalgia: Seamus Heaney and the Ghost of the Father

Article excerpt

EVEN BEFORE Seamus Heaney won the Nobel Prize (1995) and then delivered a bestselling translation of Beowulf(1999), he was for Irish, American, and English readers the most admired and lovable of poets. He won that wide affection both by being the best of all possible ambassadors for his own poetry--one of the most popular readers since Frost--and by the interest and beauty of his poems. Asked to give a lecture on Heaney and Yeats at an American university, I reread the poems collected in Opened Ground (1998) and part of the immense commentary on his work. Surprisingly, the poems seemed bristling with anger and political commitment, far more than I recalled from reading the collections as they were published. Turning to the critics, I found that many (but not all) saw the poems as evasive of politics, as written in sorrow not in anger when the subject was "the Troubles," evenhanded in their representations of conflict, and inclined to assert that poetry was utterly different from and perhaps helpless before politics. In such commentaries on Heaney's work the imagined ethos of the speaker of the poem sometimes appeared to dictate how the poetic speech itself was interpreted, and that ethos was the beloved, genial, Irish ambassador for the art of poetry. Perhaps the public personality of Seamus Heaney was overriding the private self that manifests itself over time in the particular poems.

So I gave a lecture on Heaney's anger with father-figures (mainly his own father, Patrick Heaney, and Yeats) and his emotional identification with the generation of angry young Catholic males who came of age in the 1960s in the North. Many members of the audience, readers and teachers of Irish literature, were quite unwilling to go along with the general tendency of my talk. The question period went on and on, one objection after another: "anger" was not a word for how Seamus Heaney felt about his father or Yeats. His father was a quiet gentleman, affectionate with the young boy whom he rode about on his shoulders (see "Follower," Opened Ground, 10), and Seamus Heaney was a good son. (1) Heaney did not have feelings in common with those who joined the IRA; poetry isn't part of all that. Heaney did not see Yeats as a Protestant, just as a great poet. One should not use words like "republican" and "nationalist" in the neighborhood of the name "Seamus Heaney"--this was loose and dangerous talk. It was also best not to say that the poetry of Seamus Heaney is rooted in nostalgia.

These are not quotations, just recollections and interpretations of the lines of objection offered by the audience. In a quick summary of a free-flowing discussion, it is difficult to do justice to each of them, but the questions were good ones and the paper has been reworked, perhaps strengthened, as a result of them. Taken together, they suggest that either the talk was wrong-headed from the start, or that it had touched a nerve, perhaps even a truth that was inadmissable. My point is not that either the character of Seamus Heaney or his poetry should be debunked, but that a public image of the poet, a whatever-you-say,-say-nothing-plainly attitude about the North, and a dogma about the relation between literature and politics may be enforcing certain readings of poems that are actually open both to alternative readings and to mystery. The ancient philosopher Lao Tzu once ranked the kinds of great men: the lowest was the one who was despised, next the one feared, higher still the one known and loved by people, but highest of all was the man barely known. Heaney may be more mysterious than readers who know and love him take him to be.

I. HEANEY'S RELATION TO YEATS, 1977

I do not know Seamus Heaney well, but I did meet him once, and it may be worth it to some future biographer for me to record the little incident. One reason for giving it here is to exemplify how little such anecdotes may actually reveal. In mid-September 1977 I visited Seamus Heaney, then thirty-eight years old, in Dublin. …

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