Perspectives on a poet


LITERARY CRITICISM: The Cambridge Companion to Seamus Heaney Edited by Bernard O'DonoghueCambridge University Press, 239pp. £17.99

THE CAMBRIDGE Companion to Seamus Heaneyis a compendium of 14 essays on the Nobel laureate. Its publisher describes the book as “designed for students”, and a scholarly tone pervades its pages. Few living authors have been accorded a volume in the series; Heaney and Friel are the only two living Irishmen in this select group, and Heaney is the lone living poet.

Each of the 14 essays takes a different tack. Rand Brandes gives an account of how the poet has meaningfully changed titles of poems and books, which often began life unpromisingly: Death of a Naturalistcarried the rather inert working title Advancements of Learning. Patrick Crotty, in ‘The Context of Heaney’s Reception’, explores his widespread acceptance as both a critically respected and popular poet, speaking of Heaney’s “authorial courtesy” in subtly glossing cultural details which would be familiar to Irish readers but not to others, thereby making his local material accessible to an international audience. Dennis O’Driscoll gives a deft assessment of ‘Heaney in Public’, with an eye for how throughout his career he has known when to speak, what to say, and when to remain silent. The Derry man’s tact and reticence have helped strengthen his authority. It is to the editor’s credit that not all the essays he has assembled are adulatory. This is no festschrift.

In ‘Heaney and the Feminine’, by Fran Brearton, we get a detailed exercise in feminist theory, by whose standards Heaney comes up short. In Brearton’s view, the poor man “seems to come gift-wrapped for critics such as Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray, and ripe for deconstruction”. She concludes that “Heaney’s gender politics . . . can seem, if not dismaying, then at least disappointing . . .”. Equally imbued with “theory”, but friendlier, is Guinn Batten’s ‘Heaney’s Wordsworth and the Poetics of Displacement’. In ‘Heaney and Eastern Europe’, Justin Quinn regrets that though the Slavic poets have been crucial to his self-definition as a public poet, “Heaney has neither reading nor speaking proficiency in any Slavic language”.

Both he and David Wheatley in ‘Professing Poetry: Heaney as Critic’, take their subject to task for having written that “A Russian poet once told me that the Mandelstam stanza has the resonant impact of late Yeats”. According to Quinn, “in the case of Heaney, who in his own work (as a poet, critic and translator) is so close to the grain of etymology and its implications for national fates is facile”.

David Wheatley’s very sharp essay on Heaney as critic is a tour de force and well worth studying. Wheatley asks whether the criticism asks to be credited (to use a key Heaney word from his Nobel Prize acceptance speech) “for what he has to say about others or what he reveals about himself” and suggests that Heaney belongs to “the category of an intelligent admirer and advocate rather than a true critic”. He would endorse the ideal suggested by the American poet-critic (though Wheatley favours “critic-poet”) Adam Kirsch of the critic who possesses the “will to power that drives critics to abandon all impartiality and gloriously (or ingloriously) impose themselves on their subjects”.

My sense is that Heaney has chosen to practise criticism largely as an adjunct to the main work of writing poetry; the imperious will to power endorsed here would be an alien impulse.

Bernard O’Donoghue, “versed in country things” himself, as Robert Frost put it, knows Heaney’s poetry as well as anyone and also brings to bear a grounding in the classics. Thus, in addition to an introductory essay to this volume, he is well placed to write on ‘Heaney’s Classics and the Bucolic’, and how well the poet situates the classical perspective within the world of field and farmyard. Heaney remembers his father’s advice to his daughter when she was going by ferry to England: “look for a man with an ashplant on the boat” . She would be safe next to a cattle-dealer like himself; but of course this character is also Hermes . . .”. Neil Corcoran ploughs a fresh row or two through the well-tilled field of ‘Heaney and Yeats’. Paul Muldoon’s uneasily Oedipal interactions with his one-time mentor would have provided material for a next-generation follow-up on the subject of intergenerational relations between Irish poets. I would also have liked to see a contribution from Terence Brown, whose deep knowledge of Heaney’s poetry would have been welcome here.

In ‘Heaney and the Irish Poetic Tradition’, Andrew Murphy explores this poet’s relations with the Celtic Revivalists, with Kavanagh, MacNeice, the Irish-language poets, with Montague, Hewitt and others. Dillon Johnston discusses related issues and covers some of the same ground in ‘Irish Influence and Confluence in Heaney’s Poetry’, with references to the Ulster poets, paying particular attention to Kinsella and to Ní Chuilleanáin, whom he describes as “a seriously underrated poet”.

The last essay in the book, ‘Crediting Marvels: Heaney after 50’, by John Wilson Foster, is a thought-provoking, occasionally querulous examination of several issues in the more recent books. The essay I enjoyed perhaps most of all was Heather O’Donoghue’s ‘Heaney, Beowulf, and the Medieval Literature of the North’. An expert on Old Norse, Reader in Old Icelandic at Oxford, she brings a brisk, jargon-free freshness to one of Heaney’s most persistent and fruitful identifications. Taking this collection of essays as a whole, one could hardly read them without having one’s responses to Heaney by turns ratified, altered, challenged and deepened.

Richard Tillinghast’s most recent book is a collection of essays, Finding Ireland: A Poet’s Explorations of Irish Literature and Culture,University of Notre Dame Press, 2008