By R.F.Foster

ISBN 978-0-691-17437-2  Princeton  £14.99

 reviewed by Alan Dent

This little study, just over two hundred pages, is part biography part criticism and in some degree hagiography. Foster, a professor in two universities, states early his great admiration for Heaney ( the man and the work it seems) and is determined to defend him from all comers. Criticism from enthusiasm can be just as good as many other but Foster perhaps expresses his support a little too frequently and without reserve: “formidably authoritative range”; “an ease and accomplishment often lacking in the genre”; “powerfully realised”; “an ease and assurance with wider horizons”. Much that Heaney touches elicits superlatives. It’s fine that Foster nails his colours to the mast, but the effect begins to become a touch wearisome. It’s possible to reveal a poet’s excellence without frequently stating it.  

Heaney was born in 1939 in rural Northern Ireland. His father was a farmer and cattle dealer. Heaney was the first of nine. At twelve he went to St Columb’s College, Derry, as a boarder, having passed the eleven-plus. John Hume, a fellow pupil, saw the exam as the means by which the school was opened up; but to a select minority of course. The college was intended to be a seminary. It opened in 1879 and by the early decades of the next century was renowned for its academic successes. 

Foster doesn’t have much to say about the influence of St Columb’s, but it’s perhaps worth considering. Three things might be said to have formed Heaney’s mind: Catholicism, nationalism and the grammar school ( it wasn’t till he first read Ted Hughes at Queen’s Belfast that he fastened on the notion of making himself a poet).  Catholicism instils heteronomy: Catholics aren’t permitted to make their own agreement with life. God decides, the Pope receives his wisdom and passes it to the priest and only the priest can absolve. The Catholic mind is ruled from without, in contradistinction to the non-conformist, which is forced to autonomy. The non-conformist learns early that she is alone with her conscience. The vicar can’t offer penance. Non-conformists have to be self-regulating. The heteronomy of Catholicism is not nugatory. The pervasive sense of external rule shapes feeling and thinking decisively.  

Rule from without was also a political reality. Yet, in this case Catholicism called for resistance. The essential wound of British rule wasn’t religious but economic and social. His mother’s people had worked in the linen industry. On the one hand was the rural inheritance from his father, on the other, the industrial from his mother. He belonged to the land and the factory, yet only the former makes a significant appearance in his work. His passport was green, but his nationalism subtle. His family had good relations with their protestant neighbours. The Troubles began when Heaney was well into adulthood and already an established poet. The universal reach of poetry always meant more to him than the transitory truths of sectarianism.  

The grammar school was a place of privilege. As in the rest of the UK, the test introduced in 1947 created educational apartheid: the twenty per cent creamed off for the grammars received a wide curriculum from well-qualified staff in well-funded schools (though St Columb’s had to deal with a rapid expansion in numbers once the scholarship boys began to arrive). The remaining eighty percent never got a sniff at Latin or Greek, and many not even French, judged simply too dense. They were the factory and office fodder. At St Columb’s, Heaney was amongst a small group of boys picked out because of their academic success( quite different from intelligence) and groomed for significance.  

Thus, his mind was formed in heteronomy, quiet if resolute Irish nationalism and grammar school privilege and expectation. 

Heaney acknowledged Manley Hopkins as his first major influence. Perhaps that suggests the hold Catholicism had over Heaney’s mind. Hopkins, of course, experimented with metrical feet, use of lexis, hyphenation and so on in ways which influenced a few twentieth century poets. Yet for a poet whose first collection appeared in the mid-1960s, the choice of an ascetic  Victorian Jesuit whose life seems to have been blighted by serious depression and who never achieved, apparently, fulfilment in a love relationship, seems perhaps bizarre. On 6th November 1865, Hopkins wrote: “On this day by God’s grace I resolved to give up all beauty until I had his leave for it.” It’s hard to imagine a clearer expression of a mind ruled from without. Hopkins was twenty-one. Perhaps this renunciation of autonomy explains the forced sense of a sublimated joie de vivre in Hopkins. He can rejoice at the hawk only if God permits it, so the rejoicing isn’t really his.  “What you encounter in Hopkins…that was the world I was living in when I first encountered his poems” Heaney remarked. It was the spartan world of Catholic self-denial and claustrophobia. Late in the book, Foster quotes Andrew O’Hagan, a friend of Heaney, recounting a snippet of conversation between him and Karl Miller:           

            “I stopped practising a long time ago, but some of it holds. If you have it as a child it gives you a structure of consciousness – the idea there is something more…” 

“a structure of consciousness” is perhaps a somewhat high-falutin’ way of saying you were pretty nearly brain-washed.  

Foster speaks of the poet’s “calling”, a suggestion that the poet is a kind of priest. Heaney seems to have subscribed to this notion, to some extent at least. Poets are people with the ability to put language together using rhyme, metre, rhythm, cadence etc. They aren’t superior people. Not morally superior. They aren’t kinder than others, more generous, or even more insightful. Larkin was a racist who called people with dark skins “niggers”. Gross insensitivity. Auden was a paedophile who wrote enthusiastically to a friend on his appointment to a post in a private school “it’s a paradise for buggers”. No better than Jimmy Savile. Poets aren’t any kind of priesthood, they aren’t shamans. To believe so misleads us. It tends to make people look through the poetry to some putative further realm of elevated consciousness. It attributes to poetry the status of divine text, as if it comes from somewhere other than a poet’s brain. Poets are just people with a particular skill, like engineers. No one thinks they derive their equations from some quasi-mystical realm.  

Early on, Foster quotes the famous lines from “Sunlight”, which was included in North (1975):


                        And here is love
like a tinsmith’s scoop
sunk past its gleam
in the meal-bin 

Four l sounds; consonant clusters in tinsmith’s and scoop; seven s sounds; two plosives in scoop and past; the phonological chiasmus, for want of a better technical term, between gleam and meal. It’s perfect for explaining to students how poets make poems hold together; but doesn’t it have something of the excessive wholesomeness of a Hovis advert? Isn’t love always a little mixed and sullied? In fact, isn’t it at its height when it prevails in spite of failings and conflicts?  

“I am the artful voyeur” Heaney wrote in “Punishment”, which treats the murder of a girl accused of fraternising with the enemy. Perhaps this takes us to something fundamental about his work. The artfulness is beyond doubt, but the question of the uses of artfulness will never be silenced. Heaney isn’t the voyeur when he writes about his closest relationships or the rural world in which he grew. He is inserted in those. His problem as a writer drawing his main inspiration in his formative years from poets born in the nineteenth century, steeped in metaphysics and mysticism, was how to insert himself in a world they were remote from. In 1973, he said that he wanted to “take the English lyric and make it eat the stuff it hadn’t eaten before” The stuff was Northern Ireland. Perhaps that material needed to shatter the English lyric.  

In an essay from 1976, “Englands of the Mind” Heaney says English poets are “being forced to explore not just the matter of England, but what is the matter with England.” Leaving aside the somewhat corny formulation, the poets he examines are Larkin, Hill and Hughes. Perhaps this is because he puts them in the category of the “great” poets he liked to pay attention to. Maybe he didn’t think of Adrian Mitchell as “great” (David Craig thinks him perhaps the best English poet of his generation) but in 1976 surely Mitchell was prominent among poets writing about what was the matter with England. Could it be Heaney’s choice was mediated by a formal conservatism he never managed to shake off?  

On 30th April 1990 Heaney gave a lecture as Oxford Professor of Poetry in which he contrasted the views of death in Larkin’s Aubade and Yeats’s Man and the Echo. Heaney, Foster says, admires the “devastating effect” of the Larkin. The poem is very competently, if somewhat conventionally, structured but its effect is more pathetic than devastating. Lying awake in the early hours, the poet sees death “a whole day nearer now”. Can this be taken seriously? Isn’t it the standard miserable fear of the narcissist faced with the fact of ageing and disappearance? “Courage is no good” says Larkin, meaning it won’t keep death at bay; but courage is precisely what he lacks, the courage to accept, as Kafka said, the point about life is it ends. Death is the same, says Larkin, whether “whined at” or “withstood”. Surely not. To accept the end of your life after a life well lived is part of the art of living. Doesn’t the poem really express not a fear of death but of life? Heaney refused Larkin’s “dark contemplation of life and its ending” and his comparison with Yeats was, apparently, in that vein. Yet doesn’t the admiration of the Larkin suggest a sympathy for his practice, which is far less about what was wrong with England and much more what was wrong with Philip Larkin?

Foster makes much of Heaney’s award of the Nobel. Perhaps it’s worth reflecting that the prize for literature went to Churchill and Bob Dylan. Clearly, the judges sometimes have something other than literature in mind. Of course, the prize made him a lauded public figure, as prizes will. In his acceptance speech, Heaney spoke of how his childhood was “proofed against the outside world”. Such was the inwardness of rural Catholicism, no doubt sustaining but also limiting. The Nobel changed that. He complained about being “pushed to the edge” of his own life; “All I do nowadays is ‘turn up’ – I’m a function of timetables, not an agent of my own being.” The way to remain an agent of your own being is to be ruled from within, which might entail not following the kind of path which leads to the Nobel. Foster is dismissive of those who begrudge Heaney his early and stunning success. Quite rightly. Nevertheless, his upbringing schooled him in obedience and acceptable performance. Heaney was a comfortable poet from the start: writing remote from the industrial struggle at the core of politics, poems about the land, digging, earth belonging, nature. Carey Nelson has argued that cultures value and retain the writing which sustains them. Heaney was an astute man.  

Heaney is often said to be the greatest Irish poet since Yeats. He appears to have seen him as the standard to match. Yeats was a member of The Hermetic Order of the Golden dawn, an hermeticist, composed songs for the Blueshirts (Irish fascists), had no faith in democracy, a lifelong belief in the occult and wrote “the tragedy of sexual intercourse is the perpetual virginity of the soul.” Of course, the poetry exceeds the ideology, but Yeats’s sensibility is inevitably present in his work. How can a poet coming of age in the 1960s carry the inheritance of an anti-democratic, fascistic believer in fairies? Poetry, like everything else, has to learn to cast off its past and it might as well do it cheerfully.  

Heaney rejected Brian Friel’s suggestion that he include in his Nobel speech this from Eliot: 

“..whether a culture can survive systematic destruction from without depends less upon its forces of active revolt , than upon the stubbornness of the unconscious masses, the tenacity with which they cling to habits and customs, their instinctive resistance to change.” Eliot was referring to Poland. Heaney rejected the quotation because he didn’t want to valorise blank resistance. Resistance to what? The culture that was destroyed in Ireland fell before the march of conquest that calls itself progress. A nation with better weapons raped Ireland. That’s how “progress” works. Eliot was thinking about reactionary forces in Polish society. Note the language: the masses are “unconscious” ie unable to think and make choices; they resist change like purblind animals. This is the high-Anglican, anti-democratic, anti-Semitic Eliot imposing on the common folk an abstract definition as dehumanising as that imposed by communist totalitarianism. Heaney did well to refuse Friel’s advice.  

There’s a section from Heaney’s poem “Flight Path” which appeared in PN Review in 1992 but which was unfortunately excluded from The Spirit Level. It’s direct, funny, ironic and somewhat irreverent. Foster says the poem reveals Heaney’s preoccupations of the time, expressed in essays and talks. Such things as, what is poetry for? Perhaps the answer is: why should poetry be for anything? Heaney was an admirer of Milosz, with good reason. The Pole believed poets should move nations. Heaney also seems to have believed, like Yeats, in such miraculous powers. If Dante and Shakespeare have changed the world beyond literature, it’s in ways we can’t discern. Asking what literature is for is a bit like asking what language is for which suggests it was brought into existence to fulfil a function and is part of a teleology. Fingers are used to play the piano but to suggest that’s why they evolved is absurd. So the question what are fingers for is also absurd. The only sensible answer is: anything they can do. The same is true of poetry.  

Heaney suffered a stroke aged 66. Foster points out that some of the poems that followed were “economical but powerfully substantial”. He makes no connection between the form of the poems and the cerebral event. No details about the stroke are presented, but it’s likely it brought a change to his practice, if only because he probably tired more easily. Of course, for those who have a more metaphysical view of poetry such ideas may be somewhat unwelcome, but metaphysics, as David Hume pointed out, rests on no evidence.  

Heaney was an excellent  poet but like all writers had his limits and his failings (Shakespeare wrote Love’s Labour’s Lost after all). This is a useful introduction to his life and work but it needs to be complemented by criticism which addresses Heaney’s shortcomings as well as strengths and which sites in him in his milieu and examines more questioningly the influences which formed him.