SEAMUS HEANEY is probably the only poet writing in English today who is at once a popular and a critical success. Popular, certainly in large part, because of his political position: the Catholic farm boy from County Derry transformed into the sensitive witness to and historian of the Irish troubles, as those troubles have shaped and altered individual lives. North (1975) sold 6,000 copies in Britain during the first month of publication; Field Work (1979) has sold even better both in Britain and America. At the same time, critics as otherwise unlike as Denis Donoghue and Harold Bloom have hailed Heaney as a major poet: in an adulatory review of Field Work Bloom has declared that such poems as "The Harvest Know" are comparable to Yeats' "Adam's Curse," Stevens' "Le Monocle do mon Oncle," or even Whitman's "Out of the Cradle" -- all poems written when their authors were, like Hearney, just on the threshold of 40.
In response to such success, Farrar, Straus and Giroux has now brought out a one-volume edition of all Heaney's poems written prior to Field Work as well as a companion volume of prose -- autobiographical pieces, critical essays, university lectures, BBC talks -- written over the last decade. With a "Collected Poems" and a "Selected Prose" in print, Heaney now seems to be safely enshrined as a Modern Classic. One has to go beyond Robert Lowell (a friend, admirer, and decisive influence on Heaney's recent work) back to Dylan Thomas to find anything quite like it. Heaney's gorgeously crafted sound structures, for that matter -- his intricate orchestration of soft vowel and hard consonant sounds, his heavy stressing on monosyllabic words -- recall the Thomas of "Light breaks where no sun shines" or "This bread I break was once the oat."
It is not an altogether happy comparison. For like Dylan Thomas and unlike Yeats, to whom he is regularly -- and I think wrongly -- compared, Heaney has the tendency to put all his circus animals on show, as in the final stanza of "North": 'Keep your eye clear as the bleb of the icicle, trust the feel of what nubbed treasure your hands have known.' When Heaney reads these lines aloud, they may well dazzle his audience, but all the stanza really says is "Stick to what you know." This is not exactly what Pound called language charged with meaning. On the contrary, like Thomas, Heaney makes a little substance go a long way.
Thus, of the 10 essays in Preoccupations (there are also 11 short reviews), only one stands out: the Berkely lecture (1976) called "Englands of the Mind," in which Heaney discusses the ways in which sense of place functions as "a confirmation of an identity which is threatened" in the poetic language of Ted Hughes, Geoffrey Hill, and Philip Larkin. The distinctions drawn between Hughes' Anglo-Saxon, Hill's "Anglo-Romanesque," and Larkin's "English language . . . turned humanist" and "besomed clean of its inkhornisms and its irrational magics by the eighteenth century" are both interesting and convincing. But when Heaney writes about his own childhood or about the poets who have meant most to him -- Wordsworth, Hopkins, Yeats -- he is given to commonplaces. Consider the following passages from "Mossbawn":
"I always remember the pleasure I had in digging the black earth in our garden and finding, a foot below the surface, a pale seam of sand. I remember, too, men coming to sink the shaft of the pump and digging through that seem of sand down into the bronze riches of the gravel, that soon began to puddle with the spring water. That pump marked an original descent into earth, sand, gravel, water. It centered and staked the imagination, made its foundation the foundation of the omphalos itself."
Nice enough writing if a bit pretentious in its talk of the omphalos. For "this hankering for the underground side of things," as Heaney calls it, is a well-worn Romantic cliche: what else would a pump be but an emblem of the descent into earth in search of renewal? For all Heaney's references to "flooded wastes" and "scuffles in old leaves," we get no real image of his childhood on the Derry farm; it has none of the vividness of, say, Donald Davie's "A West Riding Childhood" (1973), which defines fear as the dominant emotion of the small boy growing up in a non-Conformist household on the edge of the Yorkshire slag heaps. Davie's fond but unsparing portrait of his family has what Heaney's gentle memories do not; the touch resonableness, as Eliot called it, behind the slight lyric grace.
Again, Heaney's statements of poetics, whether his own or that of others, are curiously bland:
"Certainly the secret of being a poet, Irish or otherwise, lies in the summoning of the energies of words . . . . I think of the personal and Irish pieties as vowels, and the literary awarenesses nourished on English as consonants."
"Implicit in these lines [from Wordsworth] is a view of poetry which I think is implicit in the few poems I have written that give me any right to speak; poetry as divination, poetry as revelation of the self to the self, as restoration of the culture to itself . . . poetry as a dig."
"The quality of the music in a finished poem has to do with the way the poet proceeds to respond to his donne [sic]."
"Poetry depends for its continuing efficacy upon the play of sound not only in the ear of the reader but also in the ear of the writer."
"No matter how much we have been led to think of the yong Yeats as a dreamer, we must not forget the practical driving side of him, driving forward to his ideal goal."
There is not a statement here with which anyone would want to take issue for these are, after all, classroom pieties. What is missing is a particular point of view an individual perspective, at least one if not 13 ways of looking at a blackbird. Adrienne Rich on Emily Dickinson, John Ashbery on Gertrude Stein, Charles Tomlinson on George Oppen, Robert Lowell on William Carlos Williams, Donald Davie on Ezra Pound -- theirs are commentaries we read again and again because they tell us so much both about the poet as well as about his or her precursor. By contrast, it is hard to remember what Heaney says about Yeats, for his Yeats, the dreamer turned practical man turned visionary, is a familiar textbook figure.
I raise these issues because they also come up when we read the poetry. Poems 1965-1975 is not a "Selected Poems"; it contains everything published in the four collections that preceded Field Work. From the striking are poetica called "Digging," which opens The Death of a Naturalist (1966), to the more complex meditations on love and war of the later volumes -- for example, "A Northern Hoard," "Midnight," "Funeral Rites," and "Whatever You Say Say Nothing" -- the level of accomplishment is almost uniformly high, even though there is not much variation or breadth. Take the opening of Heaney's elegy for his mother: There was a sunlit absence. The helmeted pump in the yard heated its iron, in the slung bucket and the sun stood like a griddle cooling against the wall of each long afternoon. ("Mossbawn: Two Poems in Dedication")
The striking sound feature here is consonance, especially of d's and t's, as in "sunlight," "helmeted," "yard," "heated," "honeyed," "bucket," "stood," "grid-", "against." These harsh stops are played off against the liquids of "hel-", "lit," "slung," "griddle," "cooling," "wall," and "long," as well as the open vowels of "stood," "cool," "wall," "long," and "afternoon." The clipped two-stress lines contain no wasted motion: word is piled on word with a choking sound ("in the slung bucket") so as to stress the sizzling heat and stagnant water that spell out the mother's absence. The precursor of such sound patterning is the Hopkins of "Inversnaid," who writes: "This darksome burn, horseback brown, / His rollrock highroad roaring down, / In coop and in comb." But unlike Hopkins' lyrics, Heaney's elegy never quite gets off the ground: the similes that begin with "the sun stood / like a griddle cooling / against the wall" become more and more contrived, ending with the comparison of the lost mother's love to a "tinsmith's scoop/sunk past its gleam / in the meal-bin." Despite the striking sounds (the reversal of "gleam" in "meal"), this is a case of phrase-making rather than of Making It New. To compare the loss of one's mother to the disappearance of a tinsmith's scoop beneath heavy meal is to be aware that one is making a poem. It tells us much less about Mary Heaney or what she meant to her son than the poet's own cleverness.
Such evasiveness has been a problem from the beginning: Indeed, despite the political emphasis that distinguishes the later from the earlier poetry, Heaney's short stanzaic lyrics have not undergone a marked change in style. The early poem "Follower" is representative. It begins: My father worked with a horse-plough His shoulders globed like a full sail strung Between the shafts and the furrow. The horses strained at his clicking tongue. An expert. He would set the wing And fit the bright steel-pointed sock. The sod rolled over without breaking.
After two more stanzas that describe the father's expertise at ploughing, at "Mapping the furrow exactly," Heaney recalls his own role, "stumbl[ing]" in his father's "hob-nailed wake," and sometimes riding on his back. And he concludes: wanted to grow up and plough, To close one eye, stiffen my arm. All I ever did was follow In his broad shadow round the farm. I was a nuisance, tripping, falling. Yapping always. But today It is my father who keeps stumbling Behind me, and will not go away.
An early poem by Theodore Roethke called "The Premonition" provides an interesting parallel: Walking this field I remember Days of another summer Oh that was long ago! I kept Close to the heels of my father, Matching his stride with half-steps Until we came to a river. He dipped his hand in the shallow: Water ran over and under Hair on a narrow wrist bone; His image kept following after, -- Flashed with the sun in the ripple. But when he stood up, that face Was lost in a maze of water.
The theme of the two poems is almost identical: the child, hard at the heels of his father working in the field becomes the man, now "followed" by the image of hid dead father. But while Heaney discourses on the father's skill, spinning metaphors about "shoulders" that "globe like a full sail strung," and telling us that "I was a nuisance," Roethke lets the images do the work. The two lines, "Water run over and under / Hair on a narrow wrist bone" convey perfectly the boy's barely conscious premonition of his father's mortality, his fear when confronted by the perfectly natural phenomenon that "when he [father] stood up, that face / Was lost in a maze of water." Roethke doesn't need to tell us that "It is my father who keeps stumbling / Behind me, and will not go away." For we have already seen it happen.
It is this inclination to speechify rather than to engage his subject directly that makes even such celebrated Heaney poems as "The Bog People" and "The Grauballe Man" a case of what Calvin Bedient calls "deliberate myth-making, not the stab of astonishment." Even "The Harvest Knot," which Bloom praises so extravagantly, is almost spoiled by the reference to the love-knot made of straw as a "knowable corona," an epithel that almost gives the poet's game away. Perhaps the problem is that, as the prose pieces suggest, Heaney doesn't really trust his emotions or his intellect, that he doubts repeatedly whether his own particular response to things is significant. Having been cast by friendly critics in the role of "the greatest Irish poet since Yeats," as teh spokesman of decency and good sense in a world torn by the violence of the Ulster war, Heaney seems to have withdrawn into a realm of easy solutions. In a lecture called "Feeling into Words," he speaks of the need to find "images and symbols adequate to our predicament." But the poet, as both Yeats and Lowell know, must first find images adequate to his or hers predicament. Having made his song what Yeats called "a coat/Covered with embroideries/Out of old mythologies," Seamus Heaney must now learn that "there's more enterprise / In walking naked."