Cambridge Companion to Seamus Heaney
Edited by Bernard O’Donoghue (Cambridge U.P. 2009)
260 pp. £17.99
The strength of the Cambridge Companions lies in the comprehensiveness of the introduction to an author’s work they provide to students; in this, Bernard O’Donoghue’s Cambridge Companion to Seamus Heaney is no different. The fourteen essays comply, more or less, with the intent of the series, as stated on their website, which is to place each writer “in literary and historical context; their major works are analysed [….], and their influence on later writers assessed.” However, because Heaney is still living, and writing, his influence on the next generation of poets can only be estimated. More on this later.
The editor, Bernard O’Donoghue, writes lucidly and convincingly about both poet and poems. O’Donoghue rightly observes, for example, the political undercurrents that shape Heaney’s work; he writes that Seeing Things (1991) “must be seen in the context of an improvement in the political situation in Northern Ireland, culminating in the 1994 IRA Ceasefire.” O’Donoghue reads best when he reads closely. For instance, quoting lines from a section in “Squarings” (the car “gave when we got in / Like Charon’s boat under the faring poets”), he observes that “the recurrent image in Seeing Things is of a false sense of security, or a false sense of insecurity.”
I wonder, to take the metaphor a little further, if we critics do not have a kind of “false sense of security” with our readings of Heaney. TheCompanion offers, with few exceptions, pages of approving wonder; what is conveyed to readers is Heaney’s pre-eminence. Patrick Crotty, in an essay on Heaney’s reception, points out that this “is manifested by the very existence of the volume for which this essay is written; no other living poet has been the subject of a Cambridge Companion.” I think such a decision to collect these essays might have been premature. We (and I include myself) are unable to see Heaney from the necessary critical remove time would provide. The group of writers assembled here — Neil Corcoran, John Wilson Foster, Dennis O’Driscoll, to mention but a few — are for the most part well-established Heaney scholars and friends, and each one has very positive things to say about Heaney. However, there is no singular, no dissenting voice, and no writer whose way of seeing Heaney is remarkably different from the others.
The essays gesture at bigger pictures and contexts, but in fairly predictable ways, and do not bring us closer than previous scholarship to Heaney’s poems or to his creative process. As Wordsworth wrote in an 1831 letter to William Rowan Hamilton, “Again and again I must repeat, that the composition of verse is infinitely more of an art than men are prepared to believe; and absolute success in it depends upon innumerable minutiae.” And so one flaw in this gathering is that it is not specific enough. Only by focusing wholeheartedly on a particular poem, argues Christopher Ricks in Poems and Critics, “can one distinguish between a poem’s good qualities and those bad qualities which so tantalizingly resemble them.” No essay provides a reading of an individual Heaney poem with the same depth as breadth as, for example, John Crowe Ransom provides in his unsurpassed reading of “Lycidas” (in the essay “A Poem Nearly Anonymous”). Ransom attends to the details of the poem, what intricacies make it work, and by doing so is able to widens the lens, as it were, so we can better see the place of “Lycidas” in not only literary but also in cultural history. He poses a simple question, but one that reveals the chief concern of poetry, form: “What was the historic metrical pattern already before him, and what are the liberties he takes with it?” Ransom reminds us that “meter is fundamental in the problem posed to the artist as poet.” By asking this question, and answering it profitably, Ransom enables the reader of poetry to understand both the significance of “Lycidas” as a verbal artifice and also to understand more completely the larger question that any poem or poet worth his or her salt must perforce struggle with: how to use the sometimes combustible combination of form and content in both a novel and a natural manner.
As for the individual essays in the collection, Rand Brandes’ “Seamus Heaney’s Working Titles: From “Advancement of Learning” to ‘Midnight Anvil’” advances thought because Brandes uncovers much that is unknown about Heaney’s title choices. For example, the volume Electric Light had provisionally been titled “The Real Names”, “Known World” and “Duncan’s Horses”. Brandes is expert at collecting and gathering about Heaney (he has authored Seamus Heaney: A Reference Guide (1996) and Seamus Heaney: A Bibliography 1959-2003 (2008). Fran Brearton’s “Heaney and the Feminine” is surprisingly engaging — a feminist critique of Heaney’s work is not a new stance, but it provides a starkly different angle from the ones offered by other essays collected here. Justin Quinn’s contribution, “Heaney and Eastern Europe” piques interest but some of his claims are suspect. Of Robert Pinsky and Robert Hass (translators of Milosz), he says they can be numbered with W. S. Merwin as “three of the most important American poets of the last half century.”
Some caveats. A glossary (one as well-positioned as Susan Wolfson’s in herCambridge Companion to Keats) would have been an immense help (if not imperative) to any student of Heaney’s poetry, as the poet draws upon words of varying etymological origin, words from Ulster dialect, and a broad range of rhyme schemes and formal patterns. And if “lyrical beauty” is the vehicle for “ethical depth,” as O’Donoghue attests at both the beginning and the end of his Introduction, then why not include work that amplifies — by close reading — this quality in Heaney’s work? Finally, an important qualifier — how writing about a living writer differs from writing about a dead one — is overlooked in this volume.
What makes Heaney great has yet to make for much great criticism. (Young scholars would do well to look to Christopher Ricks’ marvelous essay on Andrew Marvell in The Force of Poetry, in which he offers a view of the Ulster Poets’ lasting significance.) The volume wants to celebrate the miraculous, as we know it, in Heaney, but here there are no departures from the expected.