Seamus Heaney's Regionalism

By Russell, Richard Rankin | Twentieth Century Literature, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Seamus Heaney's Regionalism


Russell, Richard Rankin, Twentieth Century Literature


  Each person in Ulster lives first in the Ulster of the actual
  present, and then in one or other Ulster of the mind.

--Heaney (Place and Displacement 4)
  [W]hile a literary scene in which the provinces revolve around the
  centre is demonstrably a Copernican one, the task of talent is to
  reverse things to a Ptolemaic condition. The writer must reenvisage
  the region as the original point.

--Heaney ("The Regional Forecast" 13)

In ways that are only just now beginning to be realized, the best writers from Philip Hobsbaum's Belfast Group (1963-66), such as Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley, Stewart Parker, and Bernard MacLaverty, have articulated a regional literature that interacted fruitfully with regional literatures all over the British and Irish archipelago, including Scottish, Welsh, and regional English, and with regional writers from America, such as Robert Frost. The literary devolution that comprises the largely untold story of twentieth-century "English" literature suggests the viability of regionalism generally and a decline in the dominance of London-centered literature. The imaginative efforts of a series of Northern Irish writers beginning in the early twentieth century have led to the establishment of a regional, bicultural, and finally trans-cultural literature that has devolved aesthetically, albeit as a special case, from British and Irish literature.

This regional literature can be placed alongside that developing in Scotland, Wales, and parts of England outside the Home Counties, such as northern England. R. P. Draper has recently discussed how, during the course of the twentieth century,

  places like Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle and Hull became much
  more the regional capitals of a still urban, but no longer [solely a]
  London-based literary activity. Many of the best English poets came
  from the regions and maintained a non-metropolitan, or even
  anti-metropolitan outlook. ("Regional" 161)

We can easily add Belfast to this catalog of regional literary activity in the United Kingdom, although it is an anomaly, geographically detached from the British mainland and profoundly bicultural in a way that no other major British city is, including Glasgow. Although not identified as a specific region in T. S. Eliot's argument about the importance of maintaining regional culture in the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland nonetheless accords with his description of the region or the satellite culture: "the satellite exercises a considerable influence upon the stronger culture; and so plays a larger part in the world at large than it could in isolation" (128). As evidence of this influence of Northern Irish culture on English culture, Neil Corcoran argues that "the Troubles beginning in 1968" have been "the single most influential factor on the subsequent history [...] of contemporary 'English' poetry" (qtd. in Stevenson 255). Far from being provincial, Northern Irish literature is actually regional in an expansive sense of the term, astonishingly plural and cosmopolitan in ways that far surpass some Irish and British literature. Only time will tell if the province will be incorporated into the Republic of Ireland, but for now, its literature exists in a fragile and fascinating moment, redolent with hope for its future. (1)

Beginning in the 1960s, the Northern Irish poet Seamus Heaney began developing a regionally based poetry by analyzing his literary predecessors in the province, elsewhere in the United Kingdom, and even in the United States, through a series of book reviews and essays. Although Heaney is a powerful literary critic, his criticism has been either largely neglected in favor of his poetry or read primarily to explain his poetry. Thankfully, a countervailing trajectory has recently emerged. For example, Eugene O'Brien has argued that the poet's prose is "central to his developing project" (Searches 10) and should be considered as such, rather than following the usual procedure, which is to see it as "a meta-commentary on his poetry. …

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