After his magisterial translation of Beowulf, which made some of us feel we never knew the Anglo-Saxon epic before¨in my case for the excellent reason that I never knew the Anglo-Saxon epic before¨comes a collection of poems that discover Heaney in his own time and place. Instead of the dreary sea and windswept world, beset by storms and monsters, he offers the narrow rooms of childhood on the farm, the milking parlour, the angers of Ulster, the fatigues of travel.
Heaney's imagination is large and inclusive, formed on the banks of the river Bann, in the European continent where he travels as international star as well as humble tourist, in New England, where for years he has taught at Harvard, and in a great range of literature, classical, Gaelic, Scandinavian and modern. In the title-poem a child encounters electric light along with a woman in fur-lined slippers. 'What ails you, child?' she asks. The small soul comes alive amid ferries in Belfast Lough, railway towns, and echoes of Henry VIII's dipomacy, Edmund Spenser, St Augustine, Big Ben, all merging in the assonant music of Heaney's quiet verse.
In 'Bann Valley Eclogue' the poet addresses Virgil as his 'hedge-schoolmaster'. This harks back to a time when Irish Catholics were barred from education, but bravely acquired it anyway in clandestine 'hedge-schools'¨a time at least 200 years ago. This is the Ulsterated aspect. Virgil gives the poet words he will need to celebrate the birth of his child, 'Carmen, ordo, nascitur, saeculum, gens.' He translates this as 'Poetry, order, the times, the nation'¨so far so good, and then 'wrong and renewal.' There's no prompt for grievance in Virgil. As for hedge-schools, Heaney himself seems to have been given a superb education, thanks to the collaboration between Roman church and British state.
Glimpses of this education are found in some of the poems; for example 'The Real Names' in which the poet's schoolmates appear in Shakespearian roles from The Tempest. The 'Glanmore Eclogue' seems to call for a key. The voice of 'Myles' could be that of Myles na gCopaleen, one of the pen-names of Brian O'Nolan or Flann O'Brien, whose influence on Heaney is detectable in expressions like 'word-hoard'. The woman who changed the poet's life, whom he calls Augusta (Lady Gregory's name), could be Ann Saddlemeyer, a Canadian scholar and editor of J. M. Synge's letters, who was also Heaney's landlady. Meliboeus has to be Synge. 'Meliboeus would have called me "Mr. Honey"' says Heaney, which does sound like The Playboy. The eclogue ends with a lovely Gaelic-derived song of summer:
The deer's heart skips a beat; he startles.
The sea's tide fills, it rests, it runs.
Season of the drowsy ocean.
Tufts of yellow-blossoming whins.
Deer are glimpsed in another poem, 'Would they had stay'd', the echo of MacBeth suggesting that they are spirits of the earth, like the weird sisters. Rural depopulation has emboldened wildlife to return to the fields and woods of the British Isles.
From the poet's travels come 'Sonnets from Hellas', a sequence of six majestic poems about Greece. But Heaney is forever harking back to home, to the Irish countryside, so that he invents Gaelic names for Parnassus, the mountain sacred to the Muses and also to Dionysos, Slieve na mBard, Knock Filiocht, Ben Duan. For Heaney's Irish ear the rhymes essential to sonnets soften to assonance and half-rhymes in the Gaelic convention, thus 'lane' chimes with 'down' and 'pith' half-rhymes with 'path'. And this softening of echoes and rhythms is characteristic of all of Heaney's verse. We find it again in his 'Audenesque' in memory of Joseph Brodsky, where he adopts Auden's rhyming quatrains (as in the latter's poem in memory of Yeats), but cannot resist the impulse to tone some of them down with half-rhymes ('off'/'laugh': 'floor'/'car').
Unlike the English poet, he doesn't have a head ringing with the metrics of Protestant hymns, although he can parody his model to the life,
Jokes involving sex and sect,
Everything against the grain,
Drinking, smoking like a train.
That really does sound like Auden, who is remembered again in number 6 of 'Ten Glosses' a sequence of brief marginalia on various subjects. There's also a fine elegy in memory of Ted Hughes, and a brief address 'To the shade of Zbigniew Herbert'. One could go on listing the poems, but I should confess that this collection is difficult to review, since there's no central argument. A more skillful reader might be able to spin the poet's obsessions into some sort of theme¨one has read such reviews. All I can say is that every poem in here is low-key, even melancholy, yet informed by a mind enchanted by language. There's seldom anything startling in Heaney's work; he doesn't throw out flashing phrases and images, but he's your man for the quiet truths of private life, for the thoughts that lie just above the level of regret.
And if his songs are sad, he has good reason for sorrow, given the horrible political transience of his provincial countrymen. As he writes in memory of Rory Kavanagh,
Now that the rest of us have no weeping left
These things will do it for you... ˛