- “Into the Heartland of the Ordinary”:Seamus Heaney, Thomas Hardy, and the Divided Traditions of Modern and Contemporary Poetry*
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The sequence of events that led to the composition of this essay had its origin thirty-two years ago. In July 1982, while teaching a class on English poets and their places of writing to ten students in Emory University’s British Studies Program at Oxford University, I hired a van and took them to Thomas Hardy country in Dorsetshire. We stopped first at Hardy’s grave in the churchyard of St. Michael’s in Stinsford (known as Mellstock in Hardy’s writings). Before his death in 1928, Hardy declared his intention to be buried among his own family and people there, but some of his friends had made arrangements for him to be buried in Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey. In a controversial compromise his heart was removed from the body and buried in his wife’s grave; the ashes of the cremated body were placed in the Abbey. On a beautiful sunny morning, alone in the churchyard, the class began its graveside discussion of Hardy’s life and poems with sandwiches and wine to share. Soon came the creak of the iron entrance gate and the appearance of a lone distant figure, whom I ignored in turning back to a poem until I saw the uplifted eyes of the students watching the person approach. I was gobsmacked: it was Seamus Heaney! “Hello, fellow pilgrims,” he said. “I’m on my own Hardy pilgrimage to the gravesite and birthplace and thought I would join you if it wouldn’t be an interruption.” And so for the [End Page 271] next hour Heaney shared in the picnic with the awe-struck students, recited and discussed several of Hardy’s poems from memory, and talked of Hardy’s importance to him—of how Hardy had liberated him from the intimidating intellectualism and abstraction of much modern poetry and shown him that he could write about the people, places, and objects of County Derry as Hardy had written of those of Dorset. He said that other poets had found a similar liberation, pointing to the nearby grave of the English poet C. Day Lewis, who wrote in his will that he wished to be buried as close to Hardy’s heart as possible. They squeezed him in three graves down. Seamus then bid us farewell, heading off to the cottage in Higher Bockhampton, the place of Hardy’s birth in 1840, leaving us all astonished by the serendipity of the encounter and the generosity of the poet on that magical day.
Heaney and Ted Hughes had just published their first poetry anthology, The Rattle Bag (1982). With certain favorite authors they exercised their prejudices and let each other run loose with choices. It was not surprising to see that Hardy was represented by the largest number of poems (sixteen), nor that some of the poems chosen were those that Heaney recited from memory to us at the gravesite, and others that he would return to frequently in his prose. I was intrigued to know more about the origin and development of Heaney’s attachment to Hardy, but information had to come slowly in dribs and drabs over three decades of following the sequence of Heaney’s interviews, new volumes of poems, collections of essays, uncollected essays, revelations at readings, and diggings in archives. Meanwhile, I began to immerse myself in Hardy’s poems, all nine hundred and forty-seven of them, making him one of the two most prolific poets of the twentieth century, rivaled only by D. H. Lawrence. Gradually and occasionally, I would offer graduate seminars on Hardy and contemporary poets, and each course would inevitably bring forth the forlorn question, “Do we really have to read all of them?” “Only,” I replied, “if you want to break through the anthology presentations and...