The Turf Cutter and the Nine-to-Five Man: Heaney, Larkin, and "The Spiritual Intellect's Great Work." (Poets Seamus Heaney and Philip Larkin)

By Booth, James | Twentieth Century Literature, Winter 1997 | Go to article overview

The Turf Cutter and the Nine-to-Five Man: Heaney, Larkin, and "The Spiritual Intellect's Great Work." (Poets Seamus Heaney and Philip Larkin)


Booth, James, Twentieth Century Literature


Seamus Heaney is haunted by, and in his turn haunts, the spirit of Philip Larkin. In "The Journey Back," the opening poem of Seeing Things (1991), he encounters a ghost "Larkin" who describes himself sadly as "A nine-to-five man who had seen poetry" (ST 7). The previous year (1990), Heaney had complained that "Aubade," "for all its heart-breaking truths and beauties. . . reneges on what Yeats called 'the spiritual intellect's great work'" (RP 158).(1) Then in 1992, Larkin's spirit responded, as it were, from the grave, with his own less formal verdict on Heaney. During his life Larkin avoided public comment on poets whose work he was unable to praise, but the reader of The Selected Letters now found that in private he jokily caricatured Heaney as "the Gombeen man" (SL 636). The phrase, meaning usurer, was employed by Heaney to add exotic color to his evocation of the savage and wily Vikings in North. But (as Larkin would have been aware) it persists in Irish colloquial usage to signify a village entrepreneur who lives on his wits at others' expense.(2) Larkin had later written to Amis: "I reckon Heaney and Co. are like where we came in. . . . Boring too-clever stuff, litty and 'historical'" (SL 682), and told Anthony Thwaite: "in confidence . . . [Dunn's] things seem heavy to me, no lilt, no ear, no tune. Of course that goes for lots of people - S. Heaney, for one" (SL 659). The mischievous reader might thus set against Heaney's Larkin - "A nine-to-five man who had seen poetry" - Larkin's Heaney: "a Gombeen-man who can't hear poetry."

The appearance of Larkin, Dante, and by implication also Eliot in "The Journey Back" is illuminated by a passage in Heaney's essay "Envies and Identifications: Dante and the Modern Poet":

when poets turn to the great masters of the past, they turn to an image of their own creation, one which is likely to be a reflection of their own imaginative needs, their own artistic inclinations and procedures. (5)

Heaney defines his imaginative need in Seeing Things as to transcend the "Heaviness of being" which characterized his earlier work, and go beyond "Poetry / Sluggish in the doldrums of what happens." He feels he has discovered in himself, late in life, the ability to "credit marvels" (ST 50). This quest for spiritual meanings is not new in his work, but here it becomes more explicit. In this context Dante and Eliot, as acknowledged "great masters" of visionary illumination, offer clear points of envy and identification. The example of Larkin, however, is closer and more problematic.

Heaney has always experienced difficulty in coming to terms with the "spiritual" element in Larkin, to which he has recurred persistently throughout his career. His discussions of Larkin's work are marked by an undertone of concession and reservation. In 1976 he defined him as "the poet of rational light." Larkin's poetry, he said, gives us "the bright senses of words worn clean in literate conversation," whose ancestry lies in the moment "when the Middle Ages are turning secular." Heaney concluded: "It would seem that he has deliberately curtailed his gift for evocation, for resonance, for symbolist frissons" (P 164-5). In 1982, aware that such a description is scarcely adequate to the author of "Here," "High Windows," and "Absences," he corrected his earlier version, conceding the existence in Larkin's work of "moments which, deserve to be called visionary" (GT 16):

Larkin also had it in him to write his own version of the Paradiso. It might well have amounted to no more than an acknowledgement of the need to imagine "such attics cleared of me, such absences"; nevertheless, in the poems he has written there is enough reach and longing to show that he did not completely settle for the well-known bargain offer, a poetry of lowered sights and patently diminished expectations." (GT 22)

But the sense of disappointment is still palpable ("had it in him," "amounted to no more than an acknowledgment," "enough reach and longing," "he did not completely settle"). …

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