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ELH 67.4 (2000) 1083-1109

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Writing Home: Spatial Allegories in the Poetry of Seamus Heaney and Paul Muldoon

Christopher T. Malone

A spot whereon the founders lived and died
Seemed once more dear than life . . .
But all is changed . . .

W. B. Yeats, "Coole Parke and Ballylee, 1931" 1

. . . we stood footloose, at home beyond the tribe,
More scouts than strangers, ghosts who'd walked abroad . . .

Seamus Heaney, "Tollund" 2

. . . no common hill-god or genius
presides over this place but the one whom Juno
sentenced to wander round and round,
never to set foot on solid ground . . .

Paul Muldoon, "Ovid: Metamorphoses" 3

While Romantic Ireland is lost for Yeats, for poets who follow him the mythos of place continues to shape conceptions of national community. 4 Northern Irish poets in particular have struggled in its absence to find authority to inscribe the space of home, responding to cultural pressures associated with Yeats's legacy. Certain questions recur for these poets: What does it mean to adhere to tradition in Ireland's radically changing present? Or to mythologize, when romantic conceptions of identity and place have serious consequences in modern Irish history? 5 Such are Yeats's concerns in "Easter 1916" and "Coole Parke, 1931," in the historical context of revolutionary Ireland and the newly founded Free State, but they linger for poets who find themselves in the similarly transitional, no less volatile context of contemporary Ireland. Contemporary Northern Irish poets respond to a culture understood increasingly as post-nationalist, post-unionist, and post-colonial. Irish identity is figured more and more in relation to a postmodern community, exemplified in part through Ireland's recent status as a secular state of the European community. 6

Seamus Heaney is one poet whom critics celebrate as continuing Yeats's legacy. The most internationally renowned voice to emerge out of [End Page 1083] the Troubles, Heaney has consistently questioned the poet's relation to community, often examining (and enacting, for some critics) the mythological status of home. His poetry exhibits a tension between a sense of responsibility to place and a desire for freedom, between the poet holding himself accountable to community and seeking a space free from historical and social ties. Heaney embraces Robert Pinsky's dictum that the poet remain "utterly free, yet answerable" in order to engage social realities without reducing poetry to sectarian politics. 7 If romantic identification with place is no longer possible after Yeats, Heaney nonetheless has found himself drawn by such identifications, partly out of a sense that he is responsible for resolving somehow the instability of Irish communal identity. Poetry as a space of "pure interrogation"--an endless questioning of representations of place or constructions of Irish history and identity--at the same time entails a "search for symbols and images adequate to [his] predicament." 8 Critics have been concerned to interpret this "search" differently, in light of poststructuralist and post-colonial theory, on the one hand, or as "symptom" of dangerous nationalist ideologies, on the other. 9

Such "preoccupations" in Heaney's poetry, and in critical response to his work, have been taken up self-consciously by poets after him. Just as Yeats loomed for the generations of poets following him, instilling in them an "anxiety of influence," the shadow of Heaney touches more recent poets as he has come to assume Yeats's place as national poet and to typify, for many critics, a Northern Irish poetics. 10 Paul Muldoon has found himself caught up in this cultural and critical conversation. A Northern Irish poet who has emerged as a "trans-Atlantic phenomenon," however much Heaney's junior, Muldoon exhibits an erudite allusiveness and postmodern playfulness in terms of voice and form which question the poet's relation to place and expectations about conventionally Irish subject matter. 11 Like Heaney, Muldoon has resisted pressures to make his work accountable to place and has been condemned repeatedly for not taking up a consistent political position. 12 His choice of subject matter, appropriating materials from Ireland but also from other traditions as...


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