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185 Chapter 7 Fighting Off Larkin Seamus Heaney & “Aubade” In 1990 Heaney completed an essay entitled “Joy or Night: Last Things in the Poetry of W. B. Yeats and Philip Larkin.” He gave this essay as a lecture in 1993 and it is collected in The Redress of Poetry (1995). The essay focuses on Larkin’s poem “Aubade,” which was first published in the Times Literary Supplement two days before Christmas 1977. As Heaney’s title makes clear, “Aubade” is about last things, and it is also one of Larkin’s last poems. But Heaney makes the poem representative of Larkin’s entire career and poetic stance, which he is at pains to disfavor in comparison with that of Yeats. Heaney’s denigration of Larkin is remarkable for several reasons . It is uncharacteristic of Heaney to write unfavorable criticism, though of course he has written some. His essay on Dylan Thomas in Redress comes to mind. More important is the fact that Larkin, until 1990, was a poet whom Heaney appreciated and with whom, it can be argued, he identified, as is apparent from his poems and essays. Most curiously, “Aubade” is a poem that lives up to an important criterion of poetic greatness that Heaney had established in the previous decade, which makes it look as if Heaney has reversed his field in “Joy or Night.” This chapter is a meditation on Heaney’s decision to put Larkin in the scale with Yeats and find him wanting. It makes two main points. The first is that Heaney, though he thinks “Aubade” sets a bad poetic example for contemporary poets, recog- 186 Fighting off Larkin nizes, as perhaps no other critic does, the magnitude of Larkin’s accomplishment . The second is that whether we agree with Heaney or not in his judgment of the poem, that judgment has much to teach us, not only about the final stage of his career but about its entirety. Heaney’s case against “Aubade” is that it reveals a poet in a state of arrested vision: Larkin, he contends, sees nothing beyond nature but an absence. Because he takes such a full account of the void, he cannot take into sufficient account what human beings have in themselves to counter that void. The poem is too concessive: in Heaney’s memorable phrase, it “does not hold the lyre up in the face of the gods of the underworld” (RP 158). It is an overly rational, fearful poem—a judgment with which Czeslaw Milosz, whom Heaney cites in support, concurs. In making this case, Heaney sets off two poems by Yeats—“The Cold Heaven” and “The Man and the Echo”—as counterexamples of poems that, while not ignoring the void, argue the presence of equally strong forces inside humanity to resist it. “The Cold Heaven,” for all its apparent pessimism, offers “spiritual illumination” (149, 163). It speaks of a larger world transcending our own. “The Man and the Echo” depicts the mind as a force that fights back against what Heaney calls “the desolations of natural and historical violence” (163). Heaney’s judgment comes early in the essay: the literary world should cease to approve of Larkin’s famous decision , at the outset of his career, to renounce Yeats in favor of Thomas Hardy. Since this chapter is devoted to determining why Heaney turns against Larkin, it is worth mentioning at the outset a possible motive for the ill feeling that creeps into Heaney’s essay from time to time. In the early 1990s Anthony Thwaite’s edition of Larkin’s Selected Letters and Andrew Motion’s candid biography, Philip Larkin: A Writer ’s Life, were published. Neither was available to Heaney when he wrote “Joy or Night” in 1990, but it is possible that there were leaks, most notably reports of some sordid aspects of Larkin’s life (racist language, insults to friends, etc.) and reports of unfavorable comments in his letters about contemporary writers, including Heaney. 187 Fighting off Larkin According to Larkin in one letter, Heaney is a “gombeen man,” that is, a fraud, a fast talker. In another, Larkin puts him down as a tooliterary poet with no “tune,” that is, a poet with a bad ear.1 These are cutting remarks that could ordinarily provoke resentment, and surely Heaney is no saint. It is at least possible that Heaney wrote “Joy or Night” mainly to get even. But, though of course it cannot be ruled out entirely, revenge as a...


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