Friday, 1 November 2013

History, Heaney and Hilary Mantel

Dublin’s United Arts Club is an hospitable and appropriate place to lecture on Irish literature. I was there last week, invited by the Irish Byron Society, to speak about Seamus Heaney.  Taking my title from the blog I wrote in early September, Seamus Heaney Full Face, I reminded my audience that the line ‘Full face, foursquare, eyelevel, carved in stone’ (from ‘The Pattern’ in Human Chain, 2010) describes the image of a bishop who had stared down at the youthful Heaney as he nervously approached his first confessional. Would he be telling the truth, the beady-eyed bishop challenged him, or would his confession amount to no more than what Yeats had called ‘polite meaningless words’?

I felt similarly challenged, and by Heaney himself.  If my lecture was to be more than simply carrying coals to Newcastle – talking respectfully to the Irish about the Irishness of a great Irish poet – I wanted to confront head-on a difficult topic: the charge recently levelled in England against Heaney that he had been cowardly, disingenuous and deceitful (‘sly’) in not condemning ‘without equivocation, from within the same tribe, the thuggery, murder and bigotry of the Provisional IRA’.

This charge (in The Spectator) had been brought by Charles Moore, the prominent Catholic editor, commentator and biographer of Margaret Thatcher. It had struck a sour, dissenting note at a moment when obituaries were praising Heaney as a humane and generous man, the greatest Irish poet since Yeats.  Henceforward, one even suggested, we ought instead to speak of Yeats as the greatest Irish poet before Heaney.

Moore began his attack thus: ‘Many articles say what a nice man Seamus Heaney was. I believe it, and it is nice to be nice. But niceness is not necessarily the same as goodness, let alone courage.’  He went on to give two examples of Catholic priests (‘from within the same tribe’) who, he said, had condemned the IRA outright, but 

nice Seamus Heaney never quite did: his work left enough word-room for the bad people to thrive. ‘I loved his whole manner,/ Sure-footed but too sly’, he wrote of a drinker in a Derry pub. That was Heaney too.

‘Word-room’ is a term Heaney himself might have used. But if Moore was right, how could I square ‘sly’ with my conviction that  - as Heaney had once said of Robert Lowell – what we see as we read his poetry is the man himself? 

Full face, close, kindly, anxious, testing – a husband’s face, a father’s, a child’s, a patient’s, above all a poet’s.

My defence of Heaney began with ‘Casualty’ (from Field Work, 1977), the poem Moore had quoted. The poet recalls a stubborn Catholic fisherman who’d ignored an IRA-imposed curfew, in the wake of Bloody Sunday, and visited a loyalist pub because no one was going to tell him whether or where he could or couldn’t go for a drink. The pub had been bombed and Heaney’s friend killed. Now the dead man forces him to question both his own loyalties and responsibilities as a poet:

My tentative art
His turned back watches too ….

I contrasted ‘my tentative art’ with a description Heaney once gave of Yeats: ‘bold, reckless and outspoken’. These are words Heaney would never, I suspect, have applied to himself: indeed, he only once really railed against his own caution (in ‘Weighing In’, from The Spirit Level, 1996), but – and here’s the nub of my argument – he had the courage to admit the ambiguity of his feelings and to keep interrogating his need to see ‘Two sides to every problem, yes, yes, yes’. He speaks pointedly in ‘Casualty’ of ‘our tribe’s complicity’ and at the poem’s end, like Hamlet appealing to his dead father’s ghost, urges the dead fisherman:

Dawn-sniffing revenant,
Plodder through midnight rain
Question me again.

Even stronger self-scrutiny appears in the poem ‘Punishment’ where Heaney contemplates the bog-preserved body of a young shaven-headed girl, who had, in another age and in another country, been blindfolded and hanged – perhaps for adultery:

My poor scapegoat

I almost love you
but would have cast, I know,
the stones of silence.

I noted how silence, as here, can signify complicity in the rough justice of the tribe, a silence over which Heaney agonizes when comparing the punishment once afforded the hanged girl with that exacted by the IRA:

I who have stood dumb
when your betraying sisters,
cauled in  tar,
wept by the railings,

who would connive
in civilized outrage
yet understand the exact
and tribal, intimate revenge.

There is, I argued, an honesty here that has escaped Charles Moore.

Equally, though, Heaney recognized the power of silence as a weapon. In  ‘Weighing In’ he wrote of ‘the power / Of power not exercised, of hope / Inferred by the powerless forever’; and in ‘To George Seferis in the Underworld’, a key poem from District and Circle (2005), he paid tribute to the power of the Greek poet’s ‘elected silence’ to express outrage against the unelected junta of the Greek Colonels. By contrast with this devastating refusal to dignify their brutal regime with a denunciation, today’s language of protest, Heaney notes ruefully, is merely ‘marshmallow, rubber dagger stuff’.*

Earlier this week I heard Hilary Mantel say in a lecture at Exeter University that ‘in Ireland especially, history is still lived and suffered through. Though it leaves its mark on the landscape its real marks are internal.’ She added that in England we have heritage, not history – ‘castles, cathedrals: you pay for admission and they let you through the door. In Ireland, for better or worse, you can get in for free.’ Precisely. It’s always dangerous to rush to judgment – especially about people living in and through historical conflicts of which we are merely spectators. Charles Moore might have thought twice before accusing Heaney of cowardice, had he really read his poetry and pondered the honesty and, yes, the courage with which Heaney articulated his moral uncertainties. I hope I said so clearly enough in Dublin.

Adrian Barlow

*I have written in more detail about 'To George Seferis in the Underworld' in World and Time: Teaching Literature in Context (C.U.P. 2009, pp.58-59). The phrase 'elected silence' appeared in the poem's first version, published in the TLS in 2004; by the time it was revised for District and Circle, a year later, this phrase had been replaced by 'your much contested silence'. Was this a more pointed echo of Heaney's own disinclination to speak out unequivocally about the Troubles?

I have also blogged about Heaney before:


  1. Courage is conviction. Conviction beauty. That is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

  2. Thanks yet again, Adrian. Is Seferis's 'elected silence' not just a sharp observation by Heaney on Greek politics but also an allusion to Hopkins's poem The Habit of Perfection, invoking poetry as a quasi-spiritual calling? Sorry if this is a] wrong or b] obvious.

    1. Well, Tom, I confess that I've not come across 'The Habit of Perfection' before (my loss!) but I'm sure Heaney would have done at St Columba's in Derry. Perhaps it was an unconscious borrowing a bad Heaney changed it to 'your much contested silence' when he realised what he'd done. Many thanks indeed for pointing this out. Adrian

  3. Adrian – I do not know if Heaney’s lines, “but would have cast, I know / the stones of silence” would not apply to most of us – and in more situations than we might care to think about. I remember feeling that Heaney ought to have spoken out – perhaps in a kind of Yeatsian rage – about the truly sickening killing that was taking place – on both sides of the divide. But then I remembered the fate of Ross McWhirter . . . And anyway, Heaney was not like Yeats in this respect. Strictly, I think that Heaney’s situation was nearly impossible, and that he did as much as he dared under the circumstances. And, to what end had Heaney been assassinated? The implacable hatred and deep–rooted bitterness would have carried on just the same: perhaps even with a temporary increase in the violence – if such can be imagined . . .

  4. This is a really excellent and analytical riposte to a churlish reaction against the public affections for Seamus Heaney.
    We should not be surprised at Charles Moore’s stance. The Spectator is not, after all, given to dealing with the inexact science of living. Its lingering affection for all things Thatcherite favours dogma over doubt, so the sort of considered ambivalence you reveal in Heaney’s poetry would be anathema to the resolute stance demanded by the Spectatorites (by the way, for a more candid view of life with Thatcher, Jonathan Aitken’s book published this year is far more - I’ll say it again – ambivalent, than Charles Moore’s account).
    Ultimately, this blog did what all really good criticism does: it sent me back to the poetry itself. I dug out “Polish Sleepers” from District and Circle, a personal favourite. The mind links a serene moment in Ireland with the possibility of the murderous path that a railway takes towards WWII prison camps. Silence, again, seems to bear witness to both events, standing in judgement over how we may one day destroy ourselves.