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109 Chapter 4 Meeting at Midnight Seamus Heaney & Robert Lowell In an interview conducted by Irish America in 1986, Seamus Heaney tells the story of his first trip to the United States in 1969. At a party in New York a woman approached him and said, “Oh, you’re the poet here.” Heaney replied, “I’m supposed to be, yeah.” Heaney reports that the woman was puzzled and asked, “What?” Her response, Heaney later reflected, was an entirely American one and his reply entirely Irish. What he should have said, Heaney realized, was this: “Yes, I’ve published two books and I’m actually at work on a third one, and I got two prizes last week.” Heaney tells this story to illustrate what he considers an Irish sense of undeservingness that comes, he says, from a bad and deeply ingrained Irish habit of pulling one’s compatriot down whenever he or she shows the slightest sign of personal distinction. He calls this habit the “communal censor,” the Irish imperative “that we’re all decent skins and don’t get above ourselves .” Heaney as usual complicates this assessment of the “communal censor” by observing that it is also a strength at home because it demonstrates Irish social cohesion, which he values at the same time that he finds it oppressive. Indeed, he also calls Irish self-denigration a form of pride.1 This complicated divergence of views about fame and distinction as opposed to anonymity and modest community is 1.Heaney,“SeamusHeaney,aPoetofHisPeople,”interviewbyKateO’Callaghan, Irish American 2, no. 5 (1986): 29. 110 Heaney and Robert Lowell reflected in Heaney’s attitudes toward one of the most obvious and yet most complex influences in his career, Robert Lowell. Heaney met Lowell in London in 1972, shortly after Lowell had married Lady Caroline Blackwood, whom he had met only two years earlier while he was away from Elizabeth Hardwick on an academic appointment at Oxford. Over the next few years, while Heaney was living in Glanmore, County Wicklow, a friendship developed between the two poets: Lowell and Lady Caroline visited the Heaneys and vice versa. Heaney wrote a poetic elegy, entitled simply “Elegy,” to Lowell in Field Work (1979). He delivered a eulogy at Lowell’s memorial service in London in 1977. He wrote a review of Day by Day in 1978, reprinted in Preoccupations. He gave a talk at the Modern Language Association convention of 1979, comparing Lowell with James Wright, a talk published in Critical Inquiry in 1981. He gave a lecture, “Lowell’s Command,” at the University of Kent in 1986, which later appeared in The Government of the Tongue (1988) and again in Finders Keepers (2002). He wrote an extensive entry on Lowell for the Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Poetry, published in 1996. As one might expect, Lowell shows up frequently in Heaney’s interviews. Many of Heaney’s words about Lowell carry a particular weight of personal affection and reverence. Seamus Deane claimed recently that Heaney revered Lowell’s “patrician authority” from the beginning .2 Deane’s phrase suggests a certain respect for breeding on Heaney’s part, reminiscent of Norman Mailer’s treatment of Lowell in Armies of the Night. In a memorial address given in London in 1977, Heaney himself refers to Lowell’s “nimbus of authority.”3 He speaks with some awe of Lowell’s pedigree; he tells his audience that he connected Lowell’s death to “the fall of princes”; indeed, he uses the word “prince” or “princely” in connection with Lowell three times in his eulogy.4 He speaks of Lowell’s famous “dynastic” refusal of Lyndon Johnson’s White House invitation, and of Lowell’s “lineal 2. Seamus Deane, “The Famous Seamus,” New Yorker, March 20, 2000, 66. 3. Heaney, “Robert Lowell: A Memorial Address,” 23. 4. Ibid., 24. 111 Heaney and Robert Lowell descent” from Tate and Ransom as if they were aristocracy.5 Sometimes Heaney’s effusions about Lowell are a little vulgar, as when he refers to him as a “silvered Brahmin from Boston” (GT 139). But there is more involved here than admiration of pedigree. “Patrician authority” signifies as well a serious need in Heaney for a solidly enfranchised poetic sponsor, someone contemporary who writes poetry without apology. In The Government of the Tongue Heaney uses the word “command ” to describe what he finds exemplary about Lowell. It seems to mean several things. It means “the arrogation of the right to speak to or for...


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