- "The Soul Exceeds Its Circumstances": The Later Poetry of Seamus Heaney ed. by Eugene O'Brien
"Late as it was,/The early bird still sang," writes Seamus Heaney in "The Tollund Man in Springtime," a sentiment that reverberates through a new edited collection on the poet's later works: Seeing Things, The Spirit Level, Electric Light, District and Circle, and Human Chain.1 These essays examine elements of a poetic landscape that only emerge at dusk but also qualities present since the beginning, clarified through age. The volume is justified by Heaney's own interest in "lateness." As Neil Corcoran observes (108-09), the poet-critic read the final works of Robert Lowell, Patrick Kavanagh, W. H. Auden, and Dylan Thomas through a similar sense of periodization.
Many of the essays lapse into a personal mode, saturated with elegy for the poet's passing. Evaluation of Heaney's verse is often preceded by a general praise of character. Eugene O'Brien's introduction sets the tone for this blurring of life and literary output. Thus [End Page 459] we are informed that the poet "was one of the most revered literary figures in the world," whose work is studied at the "very highest level within the academy," forming one of "the greatest collections of lyric poetry in the English language" (1, 3). The nouns Nobel, Harvard, and Oxford recirculate: superlatives abound.
There is much to laud. While some essays inhabit a soft border between literary journalism and academic research, Magdalena Kay's dexterous "Death and Everyman: Imagining a 'Not Unwelcoming Emptiness'" (49-70) could stand confidently in either forum. Helen Vendler's "Squarings" (71-85) is memorable for other reasons, moving seamlessly between Renaissance ars memoriae and Heaney's adoption of the douzain form, a twelve-line poetic stanza. One seam does appear: she writes about the "shock" of Seeing Things (84), an argument that turns on Heaney's homage to "Cold Mountain," the English translation for the name of Han-Shan (alternatively spelled Hanshan), a reclusive seventh- or eighth-century Chinese poet who meant a great deal to Gary Snyder and Jack Kerouac; Heaney met the former writer at a party in Berkeley, a character he could imagine "hunkering under a stone wall on the Aran Islands."2 This thread normalizes Heaney's allusion, which becomes a way of squaring "the California distance"—which Vendler herself luminously connects to these poems in Seamus Heaney—with the poet's "Irish memory bank."3 Moynagh Sullivan's essay on Bracha Ettinger and the "Matrixial Gaze" (279-99) refreshes a book heavy on close reading and only occasionally sacrifices clarity for jargon. Chapters by Meg Tyler and Bernard O'Donoghue focus on genetic revision and publication history: an approach thematically warranted in this case, as both scholars reveal how the "later" Heaney honed his earlier efforts.
It is inevitable, in an edited collection that exceeds four hundred pages, for there to be repetition and redoubling. Reading the volume cover-to-cover reveals a frustrating dimension of this scholarly form—not the editor's fault, per se, but a missed opportunity nevertheless. I wanted O'Brien's discussion of poetic gifts (342) to connect back to Henry Hart's "Seamus Heaney's Gifts" (219-238), a remarkable essay on "offerings" in Heaney's life and art (wide-ranging, but spotty: Marcel Mauss and Lewis Hyde get air-time, but other thinkers about "gifts" are muted). Elmer Kennedy-Andrews has a wonderful paragraph about bookcases in "The Reluctant Transatlanticist," an essay on Heaney and America, that recalls Michael R. Molino on books and bookshops in Heaney's "Route 110" and Joyce's "Wandering Rocks" and "Araby" (189, 102-04).4 Some details chafe an attentive reader. We learn that Heaney's tercets are inspired by Dante so often that it feels like penance; the Sibyl of Cumae is named with startling frequency, but her presence remains scattered like leaves on the wind; Heaney's parents die over and...