Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney is adored by the British literary establishment. His old-fashioned lyric voice is bland, self-important, and ignores the modernist revolutionby Antony Easthope / March 20, 1998 / Leave a comment
It has not mattered much that England has produced little in the way of painting and music; we could always claim one indisputably world class author in both drama and poetry.
In the post-modern England of the 1980s real poets of nature were hard to find. But one was discovered in rural Ireland; capable of such reassuringly agricultural titles as Wintering Out, Field Work and The Haw Lantern. Seamus Heaney’s pastoralism could also claim to be political. He deplored the violence of the troubles and expressed muted sympathy with the catholics in Northern Ireland. He could sound serious and important without treading too hard on anybody’s toes. Invoking ancient wrongs and the old fantasy of an organic community, his political gestures were well suited to “a poetry of the self.”
For these reasons Heaney has been adopted as an honorary Brit. Celebrating the recent award of the Nobel prize for literature, Blake Morrison summarised his virtues: Heaney’s is a poetry of “blood and soil,” yielding a sense of “the primal sources of the self”; Heaney understands the “ugly blooms of tribal and religious conflict,” yet writes a poetry able to affirm “something more visionary, ecstatic and transcendental.” I think we are being sold short here. The consensus for Heaney has endorsed a poetry which is bland, self-important and simply not very original.
For sympathisers, Heaney’s work finds its place in a poetic tradition which began with Wordsworth and comes down to us through Hardy and Edward Thomas. Typical of it is “Adlestrop,” a short poem by Edward Thomas, published in 1917:
Yes, I remember Adlestrop- The name, because one afternoon Of heat the express-train drew up there Unwontedly. It was late June. The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat No one left and no one came On the bare platform. What I saw Was Adlestrop-only the name And willows, willow-herb, and grass, And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry, No whit less still and lonely fair Than the high cloudlets in the sky, And for that minute a blackbird sang Close by, and round him, mistier, Farther and farther, all the birds Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.
The poem depicts an observer and what he observes. When the train stops he feels a little crisis, faced with the unfamiliar name, “Adlestrop.” Almost at once, anxiety is overcome as he experiences a sense of unity between himself and the landscape, a moment celebrated by…