AccessMyLibrary provides FREE access to millions of articles from top publications available through your library.
It has been alluded to often enough that Seamus Heaney's reputation was made, at least in the United States, when Robert Lowell hailed him as "the best Irish poet since Yeats." But Lowell's endorsement invites a comparison that Heaney has repeatedly questioned. He refuses to allow Lowell's comment to appear on the jacket of any of his books and has tried to resist or dodge the comparison as often as American critics make it (and it frequently comes up, even in popular press such as Vanity Fair or Newsweek). Regardless, much of his critical and popular reception depends in large measure on an understanding of the poet as continuing Yeats's legacy as "bard of the Irish Soul" (Kroll 67), however much Heaney may view it as "dangerous praise because it creates a sort of legendary target" (69).
It is "dangerous praise" for reasons that have to do with the way Yeats has become a mythologized figure in Irish culture, a figure whose status is so "peculiar and central," as Craig Raine points out, that any praise of Heaney on this basis would be "a little like comparing an English poet to Shakespeare" (247). Part of the mythology associated with Yeats concerns his seeming embodiment of authentic Irish experience, regardless of how much his life and poetry may have complicated any claim or representation of that kind. The desire to locate this authentic cultural experience or identity in a mythic figure like Yeats, or in a mythic past (as Yeats himself does in the Celtic Twilight), reflects the divided nature of Ireland's own past and its political unrest this century and before. It is a desire that gives rise to similar expectations about Heaney, insofar as his poetry explores that political past and seemingly looks for and hopes to provide answers that might lead to some articulation of an undivided Irish identity.
Ireland's colonial history, its "Troubles" related to that history in the North, and complicated by sectarian division, give a certain sense of political urgency to the question of Irish identity. On a more general level, national or cultural identity in crisis is symptomatic of any country whose past is marked by colonialism, as different critics have suggested. David Lloyd points out that "Nationalism, and the concomitant concern with racial and cultural identity, are . . . political phenomena, oriented towards the production of a sense of popular unity and conceived within a generally oppositional framework" (92). The popularity of Heaney's verse "on both sides of the Atlantic" (87), his position as "bearer of the tradition," after Yeats, may be understood to coincide "with a tendency to regard his work as articulating important intuitions of Irish identity, and as uttering and reclaiming that identity beyond the divisive label of 'Anglo-Irishness' "(87).
The impetus for Heaney to somehow "utter" or "reclaim" an undivided cultural identity gives rise to a problem of accountability to audience, both Irish and American. What obligation does the poet have to address politics in his poetry? It is a concern which leads to another question that he seems to ask self-reflexively in much of his verse, about poetic authority, or how far his own voice might go towards uttering that identity and what might authorize such utterance in the first place. Heaney interestingly enough attempts to answer this with reference to Yeats. "At its greatest moments," poetry with its "governing power" would attempt, "in Yeats's phrase, to hold in a single thought reality and justice" ("The Government" 108). But in Heaney's poetry it is often a precarious or even impossible opposition to balance, and one that his critics seem sometimes eager to tip one way or the other.
Heaney seems aware of audience and the expectation that he make some overt political commentary, in hope of giving voice to a unified cultural identity. But it is an awareness that creates a tension in his poetry, one that Robert Pinsky characterizes as a need "to feel utterly free, yet answerable" (423) to audience. Seamus Deane also points to this problem of accountability in Heaney. He describes the difficulty Heaney faces, caught as he is between conflicting senses of political and poetic responsibility:
The poems express no politics and indeed they flee conceptual formulations with an almost indecent success. Instead they interrogate the quality of the relationship between the poet and his mixed political and literary traditions. The answer is always the same. Relationship is unavoidable, but commitment, relationship gone vulgar, is a limiting risk. Nevertheless commitment is demanded during a crisis. (203)
Deane calls attention to an important opposition in Heaney's poetry and points to what often happens in the criticism which expects a more overt political pronouncement in his work.
This tension in Heaney, however, extends beyond simple fear that he will "ruin (the) lyric impulse" (203) of his poetry with politics. If there is an element of fear in his poetry, it has more to do with what Henry Hart refers to as "the anxiety of trust" (119), a point he develops in the context of Heaney's relation to literary tradition, especially Lowell.(1) But it is also a point worth making with reference to Heaney's desire to be trusted, or trustworthy, and the possibility that he is not. This anxiety, that his account of "things" has got it right, gives rise to an impulse that has helped characterize his reputation as a lover of the everyday, and the feeling that there is in his use of language, as Seamus Deane suggests, "a tentacular handshake between the speaker and the thing spoken of" ("Powers" 275).
But this concern over his own trustworthiness is even more pronounced when Heaney writes about politics, insofar as he is aware of the consequences his words have. It is a point that has serious implications in the context of recent events in Northern Ireland.(2) With the ceasefire declared over the summer of 1994, stemming from negotiations a year earlier, talk of peace between I.R.A. leaders of the Sinn Fein movement and British Parliament has recently begun again for the first time since political violence broke out in the late 1960s. But the bombing in Warrington North in the fall of 1993 and the death of two children, one of whose father represented an important political voice in support of these peace talks in British Parliament, demonstrates how quickly the lines of communication may shut down. After the event leaders from both the Sinn Fein and Parliament were quoted decrying the "lies, lies, lies" of the other side.(3)
For Heaney, these "lies" complicate the possibility of political solution. In his …