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  • Seamus Heaney, Zbigniew Herbert, and the Moral Imperative
  • Magdalena Kay (bio)

One of the life-giving paradoxes of comparative influence is that looking outward for inspiration often results in a keener gaze inward: introspection directly benefits from extroversion. Thomas Docherty notes that Irish writers often look outward when they seem to be most introspective, adducing Yeats's fascination with Byzantium, Joyce's enthrallment with the Mediterranean, and, more recently, Paul Durcan's interest in seeing "home" from "elsewhere."1 It is almost truistic to find parallels between poets based on political situation, cultural context, literary movement, or simply thematics; yet what happens when a writer consciously reaches for influence from one whose life situation is not parallel, whose literary aims are entirely different, whose thematics may prove alienating, and whose poetic language is largely inaccessible? Extroversion need not result in the discovery of similitude. Seamus Heaney looked to the work of contemporary Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert in an effort to effect change in his own poetic; most saliently, he sought to deploy a metaphorical language of moral absolutes that is secular, abstracted from the childhood Catholicism that underlay his sense of right and wrong. Herbert's "dry form" allowed for a particular kind of ethical engagement that Heaney founnd difficult and yet salubrious. This allowed him to effect a serious reorientation in his work.

The influence of Czesław Miłosz and Zbigniew Herbert was most prevalent after North (1975), when Heaney stepped away from the grand metaphor of bog burial and quasi-mythic Iron Age violence and searched for fresh means of metaphorizing what I am calling the "moral imperative," [End Page 262] the command to engage the moral character of one's times. This is a time when Heaney cast in new waters for a new voice, a contemporary idiom that he could place beside the penitential voice of Dante. Herbert's influence on Heaney was strongest in the 1970s and 1980s. Interestingly, Heaney read Herbert long before his verse begins to show Herbert's impress; only in the 1983 Station Island and the 1987 The Haw Lantern can we discern Herbertian echoes. We know from Heaney's interviews (especially the compendious Stepping Stones), though, that he was reading Herbert in the 1970s, precisely as he was vowing to address the Northern Irish "predicament" more directly than he had in his first two volumes. This fact is of crucial importance for understanding the manner in which Heaney naturalizes Herbert's motifs: he is looking for serious engagement and for "tough-minded" morality, even while "Atlas of Civilization" welcomes what Heaney sees as a "mellowing" in Herbert's Report from the Besieged City and Other Poems (1985).

Herbert is, both inside and outside Poland, best known as the author of the hortatory lines "you have little time you must give testimony /. . . / repeat great words repeat them stubbornly" (from "The Envoy of Mr. Cogito"). Yet curiously in his essays, Heaney seems to want to view Herbert as a fundamentally "mellow" poet, allying him with the Mediterranean sun and cultural bounty that Herbert describes in his prose work The Barbarian in the Garden and not with the altogether different imagistic field of his poems. In his poetry, however, Heaney summons a different Herbert. The famous poems "The Pebble" and "The Knocker" prove most influential for Heaney, who adapts Herbert's study of objects as moral barometers in his own poems entitled "The Haw Lantern," "Sandstone Keepsake" and "The Stone Verdict." The substance of this transnational encounter is both inspirational and frustrating, represented by poetic images of stricture and objectified judgment.

This rather far-flung influence permits us to see how the experience of reading—and taking influence from—a clearly dissimilar poet allows Heaney to reconsider the relationship of ethics and aesthetics. Heaney grappled with Herbert's poetry during his most political decades, the 1970s and 1980s, which stand as the time he felt the need to address the civil violence of his native Northern Ireland most directly; this is also when Herbert's work first found voice in English translation (the first Selected Poems appeared in 1968, the second in 1977). Herbert has been translated by several hands, yet...


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