On Heaney, home and homecoming
DERMOT ROANTREE [STUDIES] :: In December 2022, Faber & Faber published The Translations of Seamus Heaney, a collection of every one of Heaney’s 101 translations from fourteen languages, edited with commentary by Marco Sonzogni. Included are Heaney’s translations of classical writers such as Sophocles, Horace and Ovid, of the anonymous Old English epic Beowulf, of poems by Dante and St John of the Cross, of 20th century poets such as Rilke, Cavafy, Pascoli, and Brodsky, as well as of many Irish compositions from the middle ages to such present-day writers as Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill and Cathal Ó Searcaigh. The range of the works that Heaney translated, across both time and place, gives the lie to any notion of him as a poet preoccupied with his own land, always returning to a literal and poetic ‘home’’ – in other words, a provincial poet rather than one who was concerned with the greater questions of his time. In the earlier decades of Heaney’s poetic life, it was not uncommon for him to be viewed this way.
In the winter 1986 issue of Studies, Irish philosopher Richard Kearney rejected this view. It was nothing more than cultural stereotyping of the colonial kind.
As the colonial portrait goes, though the Irish are irresponsible, insalubrious and irrational ‘Celts’, they are at least, at their quaintest and most harmless, poetic ‘dreamers of dreams’. It’s about time we put a final full stop to such anachronistic stereotypes and reclaimed our modern poets for modernity.
Kearney then details how this crude stereotype was mapped onto Heaney’s work.
Seamus Heaney is often hailed as Ireland’s greatest poet since Yeats. While such praise generally adverts to Heaney’s remarkable sense of craft, his verbal and formal dexterity, it frequently betrays another kind of evaluation: one concerned less with Ireland’s greatest poet than with Ireland’s greatest poet. Here the emphasis falls on the typically and traditionally Irish quality of Heaney’s writing. He is enlisted as the stereotypical poet of the patria, a home bird, an excavator of the national landscape devoted to the recovery of natural pieties. His primary inspiration, we are told, is one of place; his quintessentially Irish vocation, the sacramental naming of a homeland. Hence the preoccupation with images of mythology, archaeology and genealogy, of returning to forgotten origins.
This orthodox view would have us believe that while certain other contemporary Irish poets embraced the modernist idioms of social alienation or the crisis of language, Heaney remained faithful to the primacy of the provincial. He didn’t need to take his tune from current trends in Continental or Anglo-American poetry; for he had discovered the cosmos, as it were, in his own backyard. Mahon, Montague and Deane steeped themselves in the French modernists and engaged in metaphysical meditations about the problematic rapport between self, language and history. Durcan, Cronin and Bolger composed biting satires about urban bourgeois hypocrisy and the ravages of advanced industrial capitalism. But Heaney stuck to the home patch. He resisted the modernist impulse and remained, inalienably, ‘one of our own. So the orthodoxy goes.
For Kearney, such a portrait of Heaney is untenable. Taking the theme of ‘homecoming’ in the poet’s work, Kearney insists that it ‘involves a complex conflict of sensibility which has nothing to do with insular piety or parochial sentimentalism’. He continues:
First, it should be noted that Heaney’s poems are not in fact primarily about place at all; they are about transit, that is, about transitions from one place to another. One need only look to the titles of some of his major works to see just how fundamental this notion of poetry as transitional act is: Wintering Out, Door into the Dark, Field Work, Sweeney Astray, Station Island. One of the central reasons for Heaney’s preference for journey over sojourn, for exodus over abode, is, I suggest, a fidelity to the nature of language itself. Far from subscribing to the traditional view that language is a transparent means of representing some identity which pre-exists language – call it self, nation, home or whatever – Heaney’s poetry embraces the modernist view that it is language which perpetually constructs and deconstructs our given notions of identity. As such, poetic language is always on the move, vacillating between opposing viewpoints, looking in at least two directions at once.
Home and homecoming, then, are problematic notions, as they always tend to be in modernist texts. For Kearney, Heaney’s ‘bog poems’ illustrate the point. Ostensibly they relate to the poet’s own homeland, but the bog of the poems does not signify a specific place in the first instance but, as Kearney puts it, ‘a sort of placeless place’; ‘it is a shifting palimpsest of endless layers and sublayers, an archival memory of lost cultures’. Kearney quotes Heaney recalling his childhood, when he would hear of bog butter kept fresh for many years in the peat, or of the skeleton of an elk being unearthed there, and this brought the poet to think of the bog ‘as the memory of the landscape’ –
or as a landscape that remembered everything that happened in and to it. In fact, if you go round the National Museum in Dublin, you will realize that a great proportion of the most cherished material heritage of Ireland was “found in a bog”. Moreover, since memory was the faculty that supplied me with the first quickening of my own poetry, I have a tentative unrealized need to make a congruence between memory and bogland and, for want of a better word, our national consciousness’.
It must be noted, however, Kearney insists, that the ‘national consciousness’ symbolised by the bog is not ‘an insular, self-righteous nationalism’:
But if the bog becomes a symbol of national consciousness, it is not in the manner of an insular, self-righteous nationalism. Heaney is mindful of the fact that the lost homeland is less a territorial locality than an ontological originality whose universal dimensions forever elude the boundaries of a particular nation. The closer we get to home in this sense the more distant it becomes; its very construction is its deconstruction. ‘The wet centre, as Heaney concedes, is ‘bottomless: The bogholes of receding memory lead back to a fathomless ocean flow which transcends our contemporary grasp. Homecoming, poetically understood, means therefore that our literal or geographical home is actually de-centred. The very process of homecoming reminds us, paradoxically, that we are displaced, in exile, estranged (unheimlich).
It is true, Kearney notes, that Heaney felt some guilt for not engaging directly, politically, with the sufferings of the people of his homeland, but – in a manner that sets him clearly on the side of the modernists – he realised that ‘his primary commitment as a poet is to the exploration of the buried truths of language – which mediates, records and structures our experience – rather than to the immediate exigencies of political legislation or reprisal’.
Heaney’s ultimate fidelity to the ambiguity of opposing demands, and to the inner manoeuverings of poetic language which sustain such demands, his refusal of any single place or position which would permit the illusion of a final solution, is singular proof of his modernity. As he observes in a poem called ‘Terminus’ (Hailstones, 1984), dedicated to the god of boundaries and borders –
Two buckets were easier carried than one.
I grew up in between.
A longer version of the article referred to in this post, entitled ‘Heaney and Homecoming: A Modernist Perspective’, was published in Richard Kearney, Transitions: Essays on Contemporary Irish Culture (Dublin: Wolfhound Press, 1987).
The Translations of Seamus Heaney, Marco Sonzogni (ed.) (London: Faber & Faber, 2022)
Richard Kearney, ‘Poetry, language and identity: A note on Seamus Heaney’, in Studies: An Irish Historical Review (Winter, 1986), pages 552-563.