- On Seamus Heaney by R. F. Foster
In contrast to the manic and often suicidal modern American poets from Berryman and Jarrell to Plath and Sexton, Seamus Heaney (1939–2013) led a sane, stable and happily married life. When a friend asked, "Are you really as nice as you seem?" he wittily replied, "I have been cursed with a fairly decent set of impulses." His sweet voice and Irish accent, his charisma and charm, made him a great reader of his poetry—the dramatic equal of Dylan Thomas and Allen Ginsberg.
Heaney's dazzling technique and poignant content provide another striking contrast to most contemporary poets, hatched in creative writing courses, who produce little more than banal prose in broken lines. Heaney believed "the main thing is to write / for the joy of it." Emphasizing the poet's art, he added, "when a poem rhymes, when a form generates itself, when a metre provokes consciousness into new postures, it is already on the side of life." He offers a startling airborne view of "transatlantic flights stacked in the blue," and describes black patent-leather hats of the sinister Spanish Guardia Civil that "gleamed like fish-bellies in flux-poisoned waters." His subtle rhyme and powerful simile suggest the loss of Eden in "Outside the kitchen window a black rat / Sways on the briar like infected fruit."
He was also a perceptive literary and cultural critic. While concisely aligning himself against the preciosity of fashionable poets, he observed the trendy cultural change when Lowell fell from favor and his shy rival emerged triumphant: "The fashion shifted, the culture favoured a less imperious style, the gender balance needed adjusting, the age of Merrill and Ashbery arrived, chamber music and cabaret rather than orchestral crash were in favour, and the time was propitious for the perfect pitch of Bishop."
Despite his prodigious talent, Heaney's poetry has its limits. He lacks Ted Hughes' high-voltage diction, Philip Larkin's sophisticated wit and Geoffrey Hill's philosophical explorations. Heaney's dominant themes include Catholicism, with its soutanes, scapulars, and shrouds (he even [End Page 150] went on a youthful pilgrimage to Lourdes); archeological bogs: bones, exhumations, and mud-men; and violent Northern Irish politics during the Troubles, with its publicans and Republicans and excrement smeared on prison walls. I remember hearing an Irish bomb explode in the Hampstead shopping center in north London in 1973 when I was writing only a mile away. An Irish-Catholic priest told me about a Protestant infant paraded in a pushchair and celebrating King William's victory over the Catholics in the Battle of the Boyne. Swaddled in patriotic Orange, he was adorned with an Orange ribbon across his little chest that read: "Damn the Pope!"
R. F. Foster, the biographer of Yeats, who should have written Heaney's life, is good on the effect of his winning the Nobel Prize in 1995. Though Heaney had a lifetime of adulation and harvest of honors, he couldn't resist dragging himself around the world from Cambridge and Grasmere, through Oviedo, Madrid, Delphi and Denmark, to Krakow, Prague, Petersburg, Moscow and Hong Kong. Heaney called his spectacular literary success "as irrational and undeniable as sexual attraction." But he also lamented his surrender to fame and self-alienation: "[I've been] pushed to the edge of my own life. All I do nowadays is 'turn up'—I'm a function of timetables, not an agent of my own being." Looking at his painted portrait, he saw his physical decline and remarked, "It's more like me than I am." The predictable results of all this frenetic self-exhaustion were strokes in 2005 and 2006, and the fatal rupture of an arterial blood vessel in August 2013.
Foster uses Heaney's diaries, drafts and letters, discusses his reviews and relations with sometimes-jealous Irish writers, but his short book would also benefit from a chronology of Heaney's life and list of his books. Foster's extensive quotations of the poems are often longer than his commentary. He twice prints a 14-line section...