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145 Chapter 5 Walking into the Light Dante & Seamus Heaney’s Second Life The convergence of Seamus Heaney and Dante in Heaney’s midcareer was determined by several of Heaney’s needs and attitudes: by his aversion to the idea that he should, as an Ulster Catholic, be an “engaged” writer; by his need for a non-Irish Catholic authority; by his powerful sense of loyalty to the dead; by his admiration for the example set by his modern masters as occasional emulators of Dante; by his conviction that the poetry of someone in midcareer must originate in cultural detachment, out of what Heaney, following Dante, calls “the second life”; by his desire to become a more “social,” outward poet; by his desire to make his own life representative of the life of his generation; by his desire to create a “light” art, in more than one sense of that word; by his need for a “masculine” voice; and by his need for what he calls poetic “equilibrium.” Dante’s influence was first acknowledged in Field Work in 1979. It reached its most overt expression in Station Island in 1985; it is present almost everywhere, if indirectly, in Seeing Things in 1991. Heaney’s supreme performance in Dante’s mode is poem VII of “Station Island.” In a 1989 interview with Carla de Petris in an Italian journal, Heaney recalled that his interest in Dante was initially sparked by a reading of Dorothy Sayers’s translation in 1972, when he came south to the Republic of Ireland.1 Heaney’s friend the late Darcy O’Brien 1. Heaney, “La pausa per la riflessione: Incontro con Seamus Heaney,” interview by Carla de Petris, Linea d’Ombra, Milano Massmedia 42 (1989): 72. 146 Dante and Heaney’s Second Life once said that Heaney was inspired by Lowell’s translations from the Brunetto Latini canto, and that this inspiration occurred later in the decade.2 It is possible that both Sayers and Lowell were influential, Lowell predominantly so. In any translation, however, what was appealing to Heaney in Dante was his exile and the fact that in exile Dante was, though political, ostentatiously nonpartisan between Guelph and Ghibbeline. What also appealed to him was Dante’s authoritative and at the same time renegade Catholicism. Heaney said little about Dante’s Catholicism to English-speaking critics and interviewers, but in the Italian interview he revealed that in Dante no less than in Milosz he found “the psychological imprint of a common Catholic faith.”3 His allegiance to Dante, of all writers, assuaged whatever guilt Heaney felt about breaking with Ulster Catholic solidarity, while it offered him the sense of membership in a more capacious Catholic tradition outside that solidarity. In this respect, Heaney’s shrewd observation about Eliot’s and Pound’s admiration of Dante, that “they wore his poem like a magic garment to protect themselves from the contagion of parochial English and American culture,” also describes his own relation to Dante: Dante served to fortify Heaney at a vulnerable moment in his career (EI 16). Even were it not for this fortification, Dante would be a writer to be reckoned with, simply because writers who matter to Heaney are involved with Dante, and it can be argued that Heaney sees Dante through the lights they provide, either by example or by precept. It was Dante, through Eliot, who gave Heaney the idea—an idea altogether compatible with Heaney’s pius nature—that predecessors are to be seen not usually as rivals but as enabling forebears. It is clear that Eliot’s Dante imitation in the second section of “Little Gidding” served for Heaney as a powerful example of Dante modernized. The burden of Eliot’s famous 1929 essay on Dante is to identify him as a universalist poet who has not lost touch with the concrete, a qual2 . Darcy O’Brien, “Ways of Seeing Things,” in Seamus Heaney: The Shaping Spirit, ed. Catherine Malloy and Phyllis Carey (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1996), 174. 3. Heaney, “Pausa per la riflessione,” 72 (my translation). 147 Dante and Heaney’s Second Life ity important to Heaney in the late 1970s and 1980s, even though he criticized Eliot’s essay in 1985. Lowell’s example is more subtle. We must go back to a point before Lowell’s Dante translation, which came out in the late 1960s. The earlier Lowell offered Heaney an example of a poet changing and lightening a style in midcareer, from...


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