The publication of Seamus Heaney’s Selected Poems in two volumes by Faber lends support to the convenient idea that his is a career of two distinct parts. First the celebrant of rural folkways and psychogeographer of atroc- ity, then the Nobel-winning purveyor of an airy, eco-inflected mysticism, crediting marvels from the Business Lounge. If these descriptions seem supercilious (and they are) it’s because the periodization they describe is misleading. Heaney’s work is much more consistent than the break be- tween these two books suggests. The marketing image of the later Heaney as a kind of gaelic Gandalf occludes the persistence of dark, unpalatable themes that together form the real backbone of his oeuvre. All the truly great poems, the ones that will survive, partake of this.
Comparisons between Yeats and Heaney have been made many times, and are sometimes far-fetched. The trace of Irish folk-belief in Yeats’s work is really just one element in a syncretic Modernist imagination. In Heaney the traces of the rural life-world are more organic, despite being, as we shall see, shot through with the shrapnel of mass culture. On the other hand it cannot be denied that Heaney’s stoic acceptance of violence at times tips over into something close to Yeatsian exhilaration. The story goes that in response to one journalist’s desire to know what lay at his poetry’s root the older Yeats staggered up, grabbed an antique sword and began to whirl it in the air. It is hard to imagine Seamus Heaney doing that. A closer, but just as disconcerting, approximation of his persona might be the country GP of the strange poem ‘Out of the Bag’ from Electric Light. This visiting doctor, credited with delivering the speaker and all his siblings from the eponymous bag, is at once a mysterious, mythic ‘hyperborean’ creature, and an immaculately-dressed man of the world. His eyes are described as ‘beyond-the-north-wind blue’ but, significantly, to the child speaker of the poem, also as:
two peepholes to the locked room I saw into
Every time his name was mentioned, skimmed
Milk and ice, swabbed porcelain, the white
And chill of tiles, steel hooks, chrome surgery tools
And blood dreeps in the sawdust where it thickened
At the foot of each cold wall. And overhead
The little, pendent, teat-hued infant parts
Strung neatly from a line up near the ceil
A toe, a foot and shin, an arm, a cock
Like the doctor of this poem Heaney’s public persona has sometimes seemed one part mystical being, one part consummate modern professional. But it is the association with blood and dismemberment in the stanzas above that is most revealing. A fascination with such things is crucial to Heaney’s vi- sion of creation, conjured here, typically, from a folk-pulp composite of the rural myth of the changeling and macabre Frankensteinian shlock.
‘Out of the Bag’ thus suggests that the ghastly disjecta membra found in Troubles collections like North and Fieldwork were present already in the child’s burgeoning imagination. This confirms the stance found as early as Death of a Naturalist which directly associates the imagination in general with states of psychic extremity. Hence the last poem from that volume in- cluded here, ‘The Peninsula’, finishes with a praise of the condition of ex- tremity itself that seems not to be restricted to the simple geographical sense:
And drive back home, still with nothing to say
Except that now you will uncode all landscapes
By this: things founded clean on their own shapes
Water and ground in their extremity.
The suggestion is that codes can be deciphered and appearance finally coincide with essence only at the point of extremity. Or, to put it another way, that truth appears at moments of crisis. It is a doctrine that Heaney holds throughout his career and which will at times get him into trouble, most memorably in the so-called Bog poems ofNorth responding to the turmoil of the early 1970s in Northern Ireland. I have strong memories of the posters of gnarled, blackened bodies, victims of firebombs, that went up across Belfast in an attempt to shock a reticent populace into cooperating with the security forces. It may be that when Heaney saw the photographs of perfectly preserved Iron Age bodies pulled from Danish bogs a trace of such images was activated. Whatever the source, the poems that resulted – ‘Punishment’, ‘Grauballe Man’, ‘Bog Queen’ – were fiercely controversial, with Heaney being accused of seeing the conflict in ritual terms, as a time- less Yeatsian drama of sacrifice, rather than a conflict rooted in communal power struggles and squalid sectarianism.
As a result Heaney steps back from the hallucinatory extremes of North in subsequent collections. In The Haw Lantern, allegories and parables influenced by Eastern European poetry tackle politics in a newly muted and much less compelling way, while in Seeing Things there is a thoroughgoing dematerialization of Heaney’s highly physical poetics. Again this urge had first been advertised much earlier, in the great poem ‘Westering’, with its telling epigraph ‘Berkeley, California’, where Heaney had been teaching between 1970 and 1971. The poem finds a bizarre, haunting image for the speaker’s dislocation by imagining an astronaut Christ in a lunar landscape:
Six thousand miles away
I imagine untroubled dust,
A loosening gravity
Christ weighing by his hands
This weightlessness finally wins out in Seeing Things, where all that is solid melts into air in a manner that that seems in step with Heaney’s increasingly footloose, global career. And yet the core themes – of ritual and violence, of folk knowledge, of psychic crisis as revelation – are never far away, if now displaced to other arenas. Heaney’s turn to Greek tragedy in the 1990s, for example, with his translations of Sophocles in The Cure at Troy and The Burial at Thebes, enable him to pursue, in the climate-
controlled environment of classical literature, the kinds of elemental ideas he had explored in North in much more risky Gothic terms. The Greek context informs the later poetry too. In The Spirit Level – a return to form after the slight collectionElectric Light – the wounded bricklayer in Dam- son is straight out of fellow Ulsterman E. R. Dodds’s The Greeks and the Irrational, a classic account of the drama’s roots in frenzy:
Ghosts with their tongue out for a lick of blood
Are crowding up the ladder, all unhealed,
And some of them still rigged in bloody gear.
Drive them back to the doorstep or the road
Where they lay in their own blood once, in the hot
Nausea and last gasp of dear life.
Yeats too drew on the Greeks of course, in poems like ‘Leda and the Swan’ and many others. Heaney’s deep personal connections with academic institutions and publishers in the United States meant that it was inevitable he would address the attacks on the Twin Towers and their consequences in Iraq and Afghanistan. The avant-garde composer Stockhausen’s claim that the 9/11 attack was the greatest work of art ever created attracted scorn, and rightly so, but Yeats would certainly have agreed with it. ‘Leda and the Swan’ sees the story of Zeus taking earthly form and swooping down to claim his mortal victim as paradigmatic of the violent historical event: a random moment when the Gods arbitrarily intervene in human life. The sudden appearance of the two planes in the sky over Manhattan may have stirred memories of Yeats’s great sonnet for Heaney. Certainly the title of his 9/11 poem ‘Anything Can Happen’ fromDistrict and Circle shares with ‘Leda’ a sense of absolute contingency and unpredictability. Though Heaney’s poetry lacks the palpable glee of Yeats’s provocative sonnet, it shares the conviction that history is in the lap of the Gods and that art and terror are inseparable.