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212 Chapter 8 Tower and Boat Yeats & Seamus Heaney In 1988 Seamus Heaney worked in the Main Reading Room of the National Library in Dublin on a selection of, and introduction to, Yeats’s poems for the Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing. By his account , it was a period of intense labor. “I had six weeks of a batteneddown sense of being nose-to-the grindstone,” he recalls, but it was out of this labor, “with a sense of the weight lifted,” that the short, uniform, buoyant, and brilliant poems called “Squarings” were born, forming the central part of his collection Seeing Things (1991).1 During that labor Heaney probably walked across the courtyard on Kildare Street to the National Museum to view, in the north room of the ground floor, the two-thousand-year-old Gold Boat from the Broighter Hoard of County Derry, a replica of what must have been a heavy-duty, hard-working Iron Age vessel. The Gold Boat is, however , anything but heavy-looking: six inches long, humble in design but luminescent, with seven needle-slender golden oars on both sides, and a toylike mast, it is—as Yeats might have written—“delicate as an eyelid.”2 This visit is probable because Heaney mentions the Gold Boat in one of his essays from this period, because the Gold 1. Steven Ratiner, “Seamus Heaney: The Words Worth Saying,” Christian Science Monitor, October 7, 1992, 17. 2. W. B. Yeats, “News for the Delphic Oracle,” in The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats, ed. Richard Finneran (New York: Macmillan, 1983), 338. 213 Yeats and Heaney Boat appears on the front of the American edition of Seeing Things, because boats are a prominent image in that collection, and because Heaney has described “Squarings” as the product of his ability to get “into little coffers of pastness.”3 By virtue of its being a work of art as well as a coffer of pastness detached from its immediate historical context, the boat represents a kind of counteragent to history. As such, its appeal to Heaney may be associated with Yeats, who is the dominant influence on Heaney after the mid-1980s. In April 1999 much was made of Heaney’s sixtieth birthday in the press and on television in Ireland. Yeats’s name came up often, but usually in the claim that Heaney had attained a stature comparable to Yeats, not that he was really a similar poet or had somehow displaced Yeats. On the face of it, this refusal crudely to liken the two poets makes sense. Their backgrounds—geographic, ethnic, religious , educational—are vastly different. Their temperaments and styles—Yeats’s presumptive and outspoken, Heaney’s tentative and tactful—seem to set them far apart. Yeats’s political views could be antidemocratic and extreme; Heaney’s are always tolerant and moderate . In 1989, when Heaney was asked, “How do you react when people speak of you as the National Bard, slipping into the Yeatsean overcoat?” he dismissed the comparison as “blurb-speak” and insisted there was no writer in Ireland, and perhaps not in the Englishspeaking world, who was like Yeats, that is, “with a comparable mission , with a career going forward on a theatrical front, on a poetic front, on, as it were, a national cultural front.”4 Heaney’s answer is understandable. One can hardly imagine his having the presumption to accept the honor suggested, even if he believed it were fitting and had worked toward it. Nevertheless, in spite of their differences, Heaney and Yeats have a great deal in common, a fact that has received surprisingly little 3. Heaney, “The Sense of the Past,” History Ireland 1, no. 4 (1993): 37; Heaney, “Seamus Heaney: Art of Poetry LXXV,” interview by Cole, 108. 4. Heaney, “Calling the Tune,” interview by Tom Adair, Linen Hall Review 6, no. 2 (1989): 8. 214 Yeats and Heaney attention. This commonality stems no doubt from affinity, but also from some conscious and perhaps semiconscious self-modeling on Heaney’s part. At the outset, it is worth considering how many aspects of Yeats’s career may be seen in Heaney’s. Yeats had early fame and a long career in the public eye. He considered himself essentially unpolitical , but he felt responsible to his country and to a public, and, connected as he was with politically inclined people, felt the pressure— though he resisted it—to take a political position in his poetry. He worried considerably about the...


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