On Seamus Heaney
By R. F. Foster
Princeton University Press – £14.99
as if you’d passed from behind a waterfall
on the black current of a tarmac road
past armour-plated vehicles, out between
the posted soldiers flowing and receding
like tree shadows into the polished
Irish intellectual as well as social and economic life went through changes from the late 1950s which involved – sometimes traumatically – leaving behind self-sustaining vanity and slowly achieving some kind of pride. This was sustained in spite of the thirty-year nightmare of violence in Northern Ireland. There are ways in which the record of Seamus Heaney’s work not only kept pace with, but kept faith with, the changes which Ireland evinced over the half century of his writing career. In a real sense, he had become the national poet, but he had achieved this authority through the kind of watchful independence expressed by the personae in so many of his poems, as well as the lacerating insights which made his work so unmistakable and, on occasion, scarifying.
As this profoundly acute and, what’s more, overtly insightful book truly demonstrates time and again, it was always nigh impossible to read any of the great Seamus Heaney’s poetical works without being transported unto the ire of Eire itself.
For as ideologically richer or poorer, well-informed, misinformed or just uninformed as the (varying) case may esoterically be, said mantle of what Heaney himself once referred to as ‘the tribal dirt’ remains (to my mind at least), very much a given to this day.
Or, to put it another way: ‘’wherever that man went, he went gratefully.’’
R. F. Foster has herein written an altogether focused, and most vivid account of quite possibly the most important Irish poet of the postwar era. Drawing on many unpublished drafts and correspondence, On Seamus Heaney traverses the many important milestones throughout the poet’s life and varied career; while luckily, never ever succumbing to anything remotely or obviously saccharine.
To be sure, from the initial chapter ‘Certus,’, Foster writes candidly as well as analytically about a poetic voice which knew no bounds and could just not be stopped – even if it had inadvertently wanted to be: ‘’[…] that voice was heard and understood by readers far beyond Ireland, not only for its extra-sensory powers of observation, its humanity, and its generosity of vision, but also for its ability to craft language with an unerring economy and to hit on the utterly unexpected, yet utterly appropriate, word.’’
‘Appropriate’ perhaps being the most appropriate word here. There again, as Foster makes evidently clear: ‘’if ‘Sweeney’ rhymed significantly with ‘Heaney,’ ‘famous’ rhymed too readily with ‘Seamus.’
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it remains within the very trajectory of Ireland itself, in which these 206 pages (excluding Preface, Acknowledgements, Brief Reference Notes and Index) remain firmly anchored and entrenched. As Michael Wood of Princeton University has since written: ‘’R. F. Foster is both a distinguished historian of Ireland and an astute and subtle literary critic. His masterful book brings us close to a writer who far too often is held at a polite, admiring distance.’’
Fully appreciating On Seamus Heaney will ensure something less of a distance.