- Punishing the Lyric: Seamus Heaney and the Poetics of a Communal Europe
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Introduction: Heaney, Europe, Genre
In 2009, on the heels of the world recession that ravaged the European Union’s economy, an article in the Guardian posed a peculiar question: “Will the future of Europe be decided by the voice of a poet?” (Ash). The piece highlights Seamus Heaney’s “Beacons at Bealtaine,” an occasional poem written for the European Enlargement Ceremony in 2004; it depicts a Europe where “new meanings flare . . . / From middle sea to north sea, shining clear” (“Beacons” 94). When Heaney again read the poem in 2009—this time in a video made to endorse the controversial Treaty of Lisbon—Europe was in crisis. At an economically, socially, and even culturally precarious moment the Treaty of Lisbon proposed greater power for the European Parliament at the expense of national sovereignty. Despite the British Conservative Party’s active opposition, the treaty was ratified on 13 November 2009—an event that catalyzed the recent EU referendum. As a result, the United Kingdom will most likely become the first EU member to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty, which lays out the process by which a sovereign state can choose to withdraw from the union.
The Lisbon treaty was also contentious in Ireland, where many voters’ concerns about its threat to autonomy echoed arguments for Irish independence a century before.1 But its supporters, Heaney among them, maintained that if Europe were to survive as either idea or political entity, its nations would need more constitutional and [End Page 217] ideological unity. Positioning a lyric poet as the ultimate voice of wisdom on the matter, the Guardian headline declared, “It takes an Irish poet to remind us of the grandeur of the European project.”
This headline, no less than the poem driving it, is strange; Ireland (and perhaps especially Heaney’s native Northern Ireland) has more often been a problem than a standard for Europe. The Troubles in Northern Ireland intensified international perceptions of the island as primitive and atavistic, and following the collapse of the Celtic Tiger economy in 2008, Ireland became one of the most economically fragile countries in the Eurozone. What did it mean, then, for Heaney to write a poem positioning Ireland as a model for Europe, despite—or because of—its long-standing geographical and cultural marginalization from the Continent? And what did it mean for Heaney, lauded as the greatest Irish poet since W. B. Yeats, to become a lyric voice of and for Europe?
This article approaches these questions from a generic rather than a primarily thematic angle. Heaney’s interest in Europe has long attracted critical attention, from heated reactions to the myth-infused northern setting of his volume North (1975) to a burgeoning interest over the past decade in his attraction to Eastern European poetry. Since his death in 2013 Heaney has been remembered as a poet of Europe; in March 2016 the Journal of European Studies published a special issue on the Irish poet featuring essays on his Latin, Eastern European, Scottish, and Irish affinities. Bringing together his interest in Europe with the recent resurgence of genre criticism, this essay contends that reading Heaney in his geographical contexts engages with contemporary debates about the lyric. The conflict between Heaney’s own theory of the lyric and his moment in literary and political history led him to see the intrusion of a collective voice into the lyric sphere as foremost an ethical rather than a generic dilemma. He works through the challenges of writing lyric poems about collective suffering under the guidance of classical and Eastern European poetics, analogically connecting Europe’s southern and eastern reaches with Ireland’s own off-center European position. The despairing picture of Northern Ireland’s sectarian violence envisioned in North morphs, by Heaney’s late poetry, into a model for how Europe in the new millennium might survive through, rather than despite, communal sentiments. [End Page 218]
Also at stake in this reading is an understanding of how, in the case of a central figure...