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1 Chapter 1 A Poet Professing The Work of Seamus Heaney’s Prose Seamus Heaney’s essays and interviews are an immediate pleasure. We are struck by the freshness and persuasiveness of his impressions : that reading Yeats’s poetry is like “getting on a bronze horse.”1 That Elizabeth Bishop’s poetic tone “would not have disturbed the discreet undersong of conversation between strangers breakfasting at a seaside hotel” (GT 101). That when we read Christopher Marlowe , we are in “thrall to the poetic equivalent of a dynamo-hum,” a sound that “both exhilarates and empowers” (RP 29). That Oscar Wilde’s “Ballad of Reading Gaol” can sound like the “cry of Marsyas” but also, alas, like “the strings of Mantovani” (RP 95). That Dante is a “woodcutter singing at his work in the dark wood of the larynx” (EI 18). We appreciate the wickedly clever phrasing that arrests Dylan Thomas in a “doctrinaire immaturity,” and that speaks of his anti-intellectualism as “a bad boy’s habit wastefully prolonged” (RP 140–41). Even if we don’t agree with Heaney, we don’t forget it when he speaks of the light surreptitiously present in Philip Larkin’s poems , “honeyed by an attachment to a dream world that will not be denied because it is at the foundation of the poet’s sensibility” (GT 21). We don’t forget Heaney’s description of the tone of Lowell’s Day by Day, which, he says, “touches a muted Homeric note of landfall” 1. Seamus Heaney, “A Soul on the Washing Line,” interview, Economist, June 22, 1991, 100. 2 Heaney’s Prose (GT 143). Or Heaney’s phrase to describe the vision of Wordsworth’s Winander Boy as he becomes “imprinted with all the melodies and hieroglyphics of the world” (GT 163). Or his observation about how common household objects that are “seasoned by human contact possess a kind of moral force” and “insist upon human solidarity and suggest obligations to the generations who have been silenced, drawing us into some kind of covenant with them.”2 There are four volumes of prose: Preoccupations (1980), The Government of the Tongue (1988), The Place of Writing (1989), and The Redress of Poetry (1995). In addition, there is a volume of selected prose, Finders Keepers, which appeared in 2002 and which contains some new and hitherto uncollected essays. Back in 1980, reviewing Preoccupations, Edna Longley claimed that “Heaney is of course an occasional critic, tempted on to the podium only by what is dear to his heart or his art.”3 Longley would probably not imply the same today about the scope of Heaney’s criticism, even if she did affirm its heart-centeredness. Many of Heaney’s essays were academic lectures, abundant proof that Heaney has written his prose not incidentally but out of a desire to weigh in as a literary critic. Peter McDonald is right in perhaps halfcynically saying, in a review of Finders Keepers, that Heaney’s success comes from his ability to sound above the battles of the English profession , at the same time that, reading his essays, “we can make out the sound of points being scored in the academic power-play.”4 Literary criticism makes up a significant part of Heaney’s career; it isn’t merely reviewing or merely an occasional by-product of his poetry. There have been numerous essays, many not yet collected, and numerous interviews. Most of Heaney’s interviews are considered (if not emphasized ) in this study because many of them are sufficiently thoughtful and ambitious to qualify as literary criticism. What Terry Eagleton says about The Redress of Poetry could be ap2 . Seamus Heaney, “Place, Pastness, Poems: A Triptych,” Salmagundi 68–69 (fall 1985–winter 1986): 31. 3. Edna Longley, “Heaney—Poet as Critic,” Fortnight (December 1980): 15. 4. See Peter McDonald, “Appreciating Assets,” review of Finders Keepers, Poetry Review 92, no. 2 (2002): 76–79. Heaney’s Prose 3 plied to nearly all of Heaney’s criticism, that it is “literary criticism of breathtaking brilliance, and not just what is sometimes dutifully dubbed a ‘poet’s criticism,’” by which apparently Eagleton means that it is more intellectually ambitious than the work of most poets.5 Equally authoritative is the hard-to-please Peter McDonald, who says that “a number of critical essays ..... have become essential items for serious readers of the poets they examine. Heaney’s insight and acuteness on W. B. Yeats, Patrick Kavanagh, Philip Larkin, Elizabeth Bishop, William...


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