Academic journal article Parnassus : Poetry in Review

Steady under Strain and Strong through Tension

Academic journal article Parnassus : Poetry in Review

Steady under Strain and Strong through Tension

Article excerpt

Seamus Heaney. Electric Light. Farrar, Straus & Giroux 2001. 98 pp. $20.00

In Seamus Heaney's collections, the last shall usually be first. Many critics over the years have observed that the final poem in a Heaney volume will serve advance notice of what may be expected in the following book. Blake Morrison, who in his 1982 study of the poet pioneered this prognostic or divinatory approach to the Heaney canon, wrote of Field Work (1979) that it begins "not at the beginning but, as is Heaney's custom, with the last poem of the book that preceded it." The critic is not reproving the poet for repetition but admiring Heaney's orderly transfer of power from book to book, as-in Morrison's words-he "takes up and develops" the theme of the final poem of the previous collection. Thus Field Work probed artistic and political dilemmas adumbrated in "Exposure," the closing poem of North (1975). In turn, the "Ugolino" episode from Dante's Inferno, with which Field Work ended, pointed the way forward to the penitential purgatorio of the title-sequence of Station Island (1984). Then the "bare wire" poetry plaited into the "Sweeney Redivivus" sequence, the third and final section of Station Island, ushered in the plain-speaking parables of The Haw Lantern (1987). "And so on," as Heaney himself writes in the final line of "The Thimble" in The Spirit Level (1996).

But "The Thimble" was not the last word in The Spirit Level. The collection ended with one of Heaney's most affecting poems, "Postscript", which retraces a drive along Ireland's west coast, during which the light and the foam and the sight of "a flock of swans" (maybe even a Yeatsian "nine-and-fifty" of the birds) left him inwardly as well as outwardly shaken:

Useless to think you'll park and capture it

More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,

A hurry through which known and strange things pass

As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways

And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.

As early as 1979, when he turned forty, Heaney expressed concern that, as one gets older, the "space occupied by the instinctual life" contracts. Nearly twenty years later, "Postscript" rejoices not only in the vision that he has been momentarily granted, but also in inspiration itself, the capacity of an aging heart to be caught "off guard" and, in an image used irenically and almost ironically by an Ulster poet, blown open.

I am not sure that "Postscript" can be said to offer clues to Heaney's next collection, Electric Light, except in the general sense that it affirms his determination to keep his imaginative arteries open for the next hoped-for flush of afflatus. Yet even if "Postscript" fails fully to conform to the soothsaying theory of Heaney's work, it does find an exact companion piece in "Ballynahinch Lake." Beginning briskly with "so," the much-discussed opening word of Heaney's Beowulf translation, a word strongly suggestive of an ongoing narrative, the poem is a postscript to "Postscript." The setting again is a lake with "waterbirds" in western Ireland, but it is no longer "useless to think you'll park and capture" the scene: "this time, yes, it had indeed / Been useful to stop." If the swan-bearing lake of "Postscript" has its literary antecedent in "The Wild Swans at Coole," "Ballynahinch Lake" may owe something to Wordsworth's "uncertain heaven received / Into the bosom of the steady take." In neither "Postscript" nor "Ballynahinch Lake," however, does Heaney's respect for his literary elders stifle his own voice; pace, phrasing, and imagery all conspire to reveal his authorship:

So we stopped and parked in the spring-cleaning light

Of Connemara on a Sunday morning

As a captivating brightness held and opened

And the utter mountain mirrored in the lake

Entered us like a wedge knocked sweetly home

Into core timber.

Heaney's acknowledgement of his literary peers and forebears, principally confined to his essays and interviews at first, has increasingly spilled over into his poems through citation, homage, dedication, and elegy. …

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