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  • Seamus Heaney’s Tender Yeats
  • Terence Brown (bio)

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Seamus Heaney with his family, Dublin, 1979. Bobbie Hanvey, photographer.

Bobbie Hanvey Photographic Archives, Image Number bh002392, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

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Seamus Heaney was born in 1939, the year in which his eminent poetic predecessor W. B. Yeats had died in the south of France. As a member of a post-Yeats generation of Irish poets, Heaney’s remarkable poetic career was undertaken within a highly developed awareness of Yeats’s towering achievement as one who had lived through a period of violent change in his native country—one, indeed, who had accepted the challenge to poetry as an art that such experience involved. Heaney’s career was therefore marked by a significant critical engagement with Yeats to be explored in this essay, and by an understanding that reveals much about his own sensibility and aeshetic as he too lived through troubled times in Ireland.

W. B. Yeats’s poem “Paudeen” was collected in his pamphlet Poems Written in Discouragement (1913) and then in the 1914 and 1916 editions of his volume Responsibilities. As A. N. Jeffares tells us, the manuscript is dated 16 September 1913, so the poem was written during the autumn when the poet was deeply engaged in the controversy surrounding the building of an appropriate gallery to house the pictures Lady Gregory’s nephew Hugh Lane had donated to Dublin city.1 Yeats’s enemy in the matter, William Martin Murphy, had stirred up antagonism against a proposal that the city corporation should fund the gallery. He had also objected to the dismissive reference by Yeats to “Paudeen’s pence” and “Biddy’s halfpennies” in a poem published in the Irish Times on 11 January 1913 under the title “The Gift / To a friend who promises a bigger subscription than his first to the Dublin Municipal Gallery if the amount collected proves that there is a considerable ‘popular demand’ for the pictures.” The poem argued that in choosing to back aesthetic judgment with financial largesse, a truly aristocratic benefactor would not consider the views of the [End Page 302] common people. Murphy immediately sent a stinging riposte to the Irish Independent, berating the poet for his contemptuous reference to “Paudeen’s Pennies.” If, he wrote, such monies were to be abstracted from Paudeen’s pockets, Paudeen should at least be consulted. So the term “Paudeen” (a diminutive of Padraig, sometimes used as a kind of demeaning collective for the Irish people) was already entered in public exchanges when Yeats wrote and published a poem titled simply “Paudeen.” But I propose that this famous poem contains a notable ambiguity, on which hangs an interpretative issue that can detemine whether we read it as a moment of special benignity in Yeats’s oeuvre or as a particularly severe expression of the elitism that had been at work in his imagination since he had read the works of Nietzsche earlier in the century.

The poem begins with the force of a poetic lampoon, with the name Paudeen made to carry the weight of representative status, and to serve as a metonym for an inveterate mental incapacity and for the dark venom of the commercial mind—”our old Paudeen in his shop.” Unbalanced by a surge of emotion, the poet imagines an expressionist landscape of stones, thorn-trees, morning light, and a luminous wind in which a sudden transformation of consciousness takes place—as in “The Cold Heaven” (first published in 1912), with its first line: “Suddenly I saw the cold and rook-delighting heaven.” The structure of “Paudeen” realizes for us this moment of transformation. Its first three lines sketch the lampoon and a contrasting landscape of arduous challenge where the poet flounders until the word “Until.” The poem thereafter sweeps onward with a rhetorical command that effaces any sense of the poet stumbling blind. Like “The Cold Heaven,” it is irradiated by light that induces metaphysical awareness—yet not of dread as in that poem, but of a kind of spiritual transport. This state of mind is summoned for the poet by the sound of a...


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