Seamus Heaney: Quotations - 3: Prose II


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Religious Ireland: ‘We are still running on an unconscious that is informed by religious values, but I think my youngsters’ youngsters won’t have that.’ (“They Said This Week”, in The Irish Times, 2 Nov. 2002.)

Hiberno-English: Your language has a lot to do with your confidence, your sense of your place and authority ... So to speak you own language [Irish-English] and to get a trust in the pronunciation and in the quirks of vocabulary, and so on, is to fot through a kind of political awakening .. That applies in all colonial or post-colonial situation: you have it in the Caribbean, and you had had it of course in America. (Q. source; quoted in Robert McCrum, Robert MacNeil & William Cran, The Story of English [1986; 3rd Rev. Edn.] 2003, p.208. [Note that the authors give thanks and acknowledgements to the directors of Field Day, being Seamus Deane, Brian Friel, David Hammond, Seamus Heaney, Tom Paulin and Stephen Kea [sic for Rea] (Notes, p.417.)]

“Making Sense of Life”: interview with Tiago Moura
for Newshouse; accessed 15.07.2018
Extracts from Preoccupations (1980)

See sundry extracts from Dennis O’Driscoll, Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney (London: Faber & Faber 2008) [attached].

See Henri Cole’s interview, The Paris Review (Fall 1997) - available online, or as attached. ]
See also Heaney’s remarks on the Irish Lisbon Treaty Referendum, Oct. 2009 - as attached.

‘Feeling into Words’, in Preoccupations (London: Faber & Faber 1980), pp.41-60.

“Digging” [was] the first poem I wrote where I thought my feelings had got into words’ (p.41); ‘[T]he pen /spade analogy was the simple heart of the matter, and that was a simple matter of almost proverbial common sense’ (p.42); ‘a big, coarse-grained navvy of a poem’ (p.43).


‘Craft is the skill of making. It wins competitions in the Irish Times or the New Statesman. It can be deployed without reference to the feelings or the self…. / … Technique, as I would define it, involves not only a poet’s way with words, his management of metre, rhythm and verbal texture; it involves also a definition of his stance towards life, a definition of his own reality. It involves the discovery of way to go out of his normal cognitive bounds and raid the inarticulate: a dynamic alertness that mediates between the origins of feelings in memory and experience and the formal ploys that express these in a work of art. Technique involves the watermarking of your essential patterns of perception, voice and thought into the touch and texture of your lines; it is that whole creative effort of the mind’s and body’s resources to bring the meaning of experience within the jurisdiction of form. Technique is what turns, in Yeats’s phrase, “the bundle of accident and incoherence that sits down to breakfast” and an “idea, something intended, complete.”’ (p.47.)


‘I had been vaguely wishing to write a poem about bogland, chiefly because it is a landscape that has a strange assuaging effect on me, one with associations reaching back into early childhood. We used to hear about bog-butter, butter kept fresh for a great number of years under the peat. Then when I was at school the skeleton of an elk had been taken out of a bog nearby and a few of our neighbours had got their photographs in the paper, peering out of its antlers. So I began to get an idea 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 realise 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 had a tentative unrealised need to make a congruence between memory and bogland and, for the want of a better [54] word, our national consciousness. And it all released itself after “We have no prairies […]” - but we have bogs. (pp.54-55; quoted in large part in Herman Böss, ‘Roots in the Bog: Notion of Identity in the Poetry and Essays of Seamus Heaney’, in Karl-Heinz Westarp and Böss, eds., Ireland: Towards New Identities?, Aarhus UP 1998, pp.134-45, p.137).


‘And when I say religious I am not thinking simply of the sectarian division. To some extent the enmity can be viewed as a struggle between the cults and devotees of a god and a goddess. There is an indigenous territorial numen, a tutelar of the whole island, call her Mother Ireland, Kathleen Ni Houlihan, the poor old woman, the Shan Van Vocht, whatever; and her sovereignty has been temporarily usurped or infringed by a new male cult whose founding fathers were Cromwell, William of Orange and Edward Carson, and whose godhead is incarnate as a rex or caesar resident in a palace in London. What we have is the tail-end of a struggle in a province between territorial piety and imperial power. / Now I realise that this idiom is remote from the agnostic world of economic interest whose iron hand operates in the velvet glove of “talks between elected representatives”, and remote from the political manoeuvres of power-sharing; but it is not remote from the psychology of the Irishmen and Ulstermen who do the killing, and not remote from the bankrupt psychology and mythologies implicit in the terms Irish Catholic and Ulster Protestant. The question, as ever, is “How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea?” And my answer is, by offering “fit emblems of adversity”.


Further: Heaney goes on to discuss his encounter with P. V. Glob’s The Bog People as a source of such emblems: ‘[…] the goddess of the ground who needed new bridegrooms each winter to bed with her in her sacred place, in the bog, to ensure the renewal and fertility of the territory in the spring. Taken in relation to the tradition of Irish political martyrdom for that cause whose icon is Kathleen Ni Houlihan, this is more than an archaic barbarous rite: it is an archetypal pattern. (p.57); ‘how persistent the barbaric attitudes are, not only in the slaughter but in the psyche […]’ (p.59); speaks of ‘poetry as divination, a restoration of the culture to itself’ (p.60; quoted in part in Böss, op. cit., supra..)

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The Sense of Place’ [1977], Preoccupations (London: Faber 1980), pp.131-49.

‘We have to retrieve the underlay of Gaelic legend in order to read the full meaning of the name and to flesh out the topographical record with its human accretions. The whole of the Irish landscape, in John Montague’s words, is a manuscript which we have lost the skill to read. (p.132).


‘Tory Island, Knocknarea, Slieve Patrick, all of them deeply steeped in associations from the older culture, will not stir us beyond a visual pleasure unless that culture means something to us, unless the features of the landscape are a mode of communication with a something other than themselves, a something to which we ourselves still feel we might belong.’ (p.132).


‘Irrespective of our creed or politics, irrespective of what culture or subculture may have coloured our individual sensibilities, our imaginations assent to the stimulus of the names, our sense of the place is enhanced, our sense of ourselves as inhabitants not just of a geographical country but of a country of the mind is cemented.’ (Idem.)


‘It is this feeling, assenting, equable marriage between the geographical country and the country of the mind, whether that country of the mind takes its tone unconsciously from a shared oral inherited culture, or from a consciously savoured literary culture, or from both, it is this marriage that constitutes the sense of place in its richest possible manifestation.’ (Idem.)


 ‘The landscape was sacramental, instinct with signs, implying a system of reality beyond the visible realities. Only thirty years ago, and thirty miles from Belfast, I think I experienced this kind of world vestigially and as a result may have retained some vestigial sense of place as it was experience in the older dispensation.’ (Idem.). ‘There, if you like, was the foundation for a marvellous or a magical view of the world, a foundation that sustained a diminished structure of lore and superstition and half-pagan, half-Christian thought and practice.’ (p.133). [Goes on to talk about thorn trees and Brigid’s crosses in his childhood.] Such naming of examples is a pleasure to me that is, I believe, itself an earnest of the power of the place.’ (p.134).


‘All of this was actual, all of it was part of the ordinary round if only a part of it, but all of it has by now a familiar literary ring to it. And if it has, that is partly due to a new found pride in our own places that flourished suddenly in the late-nineteenth century and resulted in a new literature, a revived interest in [134] folklore, a movement to revive the Irish language, and in general a determination to found or re-found a native tradition. At a time when the spirit of the age was becoming increasingly secular, and when Sir James Frazer’s Golden Bough was seeking to banish the mystery of the old faiths and standardise and anatomise the old places, Yeats and his friends embarked on a deliberately counter-cultural movement to reinstate the fairies, to make the world more magical than materialistic, and to elude the social and political interpretations of society in favour of a legendary and literary vision of race.
  Although it has long been fashionable to smile indulgently at the Celtic Twilight, it has to be remembered that the movement was the beginning of a discovery of confidence in our own ground, in our own place, in our speech, English and Irish. And it seems to me undeniable that Yeats’s sense of the otherness of his Sligo places led him to seek for a language and an imagery other than the ones which were available to him in the aesthetic modes of literary London.’ (pp.134-35.)

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On individual authors (in ‘Sense of Place’, 1977)

On J. M. Synge

Heaney quotes the preface to Tinker’s Wedding: ‘The drama [135] is made serious […] not by the degree in which it is taken up with problems that are serious in themselves, but by the degree in which it gives the nourishment, not very easy for us to define, on which our imaginations live’ (p.136) - and remarks: ‘However, we have to understand also that this nourishment which springs from knowing and belonging to a certain place and a certain mode of life is not just an Irish obsession, nor is the relationship between a literature and a locale with its common language a particularly Irish phenomenon … [136] But I like to remember that Dante was very much a man of a particular place …. And we could also talk about the sense of place in English poetry and find rewarding with talents as diverse as Tennyson and Auden, Arnold and John Clare, Edward Thomas and Geoffrey Hill. (p.137.)


On W. B. Yeats

‘[Yeats] had, of course, a double purpose. One, to restore a body of old legends and folk beliefs that would bind the people of the Irish place to the body of their own world […] But his other purpose was to supplement this restored sense of historical place with a new set of associations that would accrue when a modern Irish literature, rooted in its own region and using its own speech, would enter the imaginations of his countrymen. And the classic moment in this endeavour was his meeting with Synge, in a hotel in Paris … .’ (p.135).

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On Patrick Kavanagh

His ‘wobbly craft’ does not preclude technique (p.47). Further: ‘Technique is what allows that first stirring of the mind round a word or an image or a memory to grow towards articulation: articulation not necessarily in terms of argument or explication but in terms of its own harmonious capacity for reproduction.’ (p.48). ‘When I called my second book Door into the Dark I intended to gesture towards this idea of poetry as point of entry into the buried life of the feelings or as a point of exit for it…. [on “Undine”:] ‘it was the dark pool of sound that first attracted me’ (p.52).


‘His sonnet “Epic” is his confirmation of this about himself and his affirmation of the profound importance of the parochial. Where Yeats had a conscious cultural and, in the largest sense, political purpose in his hallowing of Irish regions, Kavanagh had no such intent…. He abjured any national purpose, any belief in Ireland as a “spiritual entity”. And yet, ironically, Kavanagh’s work probably touches the majority of Irish people more immediately and more intimately than most things in Yeats. I am not going to say that this makes Kavanagh a more important writer, but what I do say is that Kavanagh’s fidelity to the unpromising, unspectacular countryside of Monaghan and his rendering of the authentic speech of those parts gave the majority of Irish people, for whom the experience of life on the land was perhaps the most formative, an image of themselves that nourished their sense of themselves in that serious way which Synge talked about in his preface.’


‘I have said that “Iniskeen Road, July Evening” is a love poem … In the first line, “the bicycles go by in twos and threes”. They do not “pass by” or “go past”, as they would in a more standard English voice or place, and in that little touch, Kavanagh touches what I am circling. He is letting the very life blood of the place in that one minute incision. The words “”go by” and “blooming”, moreover, are natural and spoken; they are not used as a deliberate mark of folksiness or as a separate language, in the way that Irish speech is ritualised by Synge…. The poet meets his people at eye-level, he hears them shouting through the hedge and not through the chinks in a loft floor, the way Synge heard his literary speech in Co. Wicklow.’ (p.138). Further: ‘He cherished the ordinary, the actual, the known, the unimportant.’ (p.139; see further under John Montague, Commentary, infra.).



Quotes Kavanagh: ‘Parochialism is universal: it deals with the fundamentals. It is not by the so called national dailies that people who emigrate keep in touch with their roots. In London, outside the Catholic churches, the big run is on the local Irish papers. Lonely on Highgate Hill, outside St. Joseph’s Church, I rushed to buy my Dundalk Democrat, and reading it I was back in my native fields. Now as I analyse myself I realise that throughout everything I write, there is this constantly recurring motif of the need to go back … So it is for these reasons that I return to the local newspapers. Who has died? Who has sold his farm? (here p.139).

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On Robert Lloyd Praeger

Heaney writes that ‘his sense of the place [in Co. Tyrone] is, on the whole, that it is no place’: “Now that I wish to write about it, I find it is a curiously negative tract, with a paucity of outstanding features when its size and variety of surface are considered [/… &c.] A minor excitement is caused by the occurrence in this neighbourhood of a small coal-field, but the strata have been so much disturbed by earth-movements that the seams are broken up by faulting, tending to make mining difficulty and expensive.’ (no source; here p.144.) Heaney comments: ‘This is also a subjective reaction, of course: who is to say objectively that Tyrone is a “curiously negative tract” and that the Sperrins are “the least inspiring of the Irish mountains” ? Who (except someone with an incurable taste for punning) will [144] agree that a small coal-field constitutes “a minor excitement” ? The clue to Praeger’s sense of place comes a couple of paragraphs later when he moves into Fermanagh and declares it “more picturesque and from many points of view more interesting” . His point of view is visual, geological, not like Kavanagh’s, emotional and definitive. The Tyrone landscape, for him, is not hallowed by associations that come from growing up and thinking oneself back into the place. The eye is regulated by laws of aesthetics and the disciplines of physical geography, and not, to borrow a phrase from Wordsworth, by the primary laws of our nature, the laws of feeling. (…; pp.144-45.)



‘[T]hat temperate understanding of the relationship between a person and his place, of the way the surface of the earth can be accepted into and be a steadying influence upon the quiet depths of the mind, leads me to another poet of our places [John Hewitt]’ (p.145.)

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John Hewitt

‘Hewitt’s poems take their inspiration now from the literate historical reading of his place and his culture, now from the illiterate messages beat out in his pulses as he walks our countryside. He looks at the world now with the analytic and profane eye of a man of the left, now with the affectionate and feeling eye of “an Ulsterman of planter stock”.’ (Quotes ‘“Conacre”, 1943.)


‘Yet, as well as granting that these stirrings of the depths may be “graces” inhabiting the same element as mystical apprehensions, Hewitt is also in possession of another vocabulary and another mode of understanding. His attachment to his actual country involves attachment to the idea of country’; ‘his cherishing of the habitat is symptomatic of his history, and that is the history of the colonist, who, much like Wordsworth’s Michael, has grown to be native to his fields through the accretions of human memory and human association.’ (p.147.)


‘It has been said that John Hewitt expresses the crisis of identity experienced by the Planter stock but the identity spoken for and through these lines [quotes ‘The Colony’] seems to me more composed than critical. In the Glens of Antrim this poet senses himself, as his fictional colonist also does, as co-inhabitant but not as kin with the natives. He loves their sacral understandings of their place but cannot share fully what he calls “the enchantments of the old tree magic” … [Compares his megaliths of English and Irish provenance with Montague’s dolmen on Knockmany Mt./Cnoc Maine] John Hewitt knows [147] where he stands and he can also watch himself taking his stand. His civilised mind takes its temper from a political, literary and religious tradition that is English, but his instincts, his eye and ear, are tutored by the Ulster landscape, and it is in the rag-and-bone shop of the instincts that a poetry begins and ends, though it can raise itself by the ladders of intelligence towards a platform and a politics.’ (pp.146-47.)

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Mahon, Longley & Muldoon

‘None of these poets surrenders himself to the mythology of his place but instead each subdues the place to become an element in his own private mythology. They may be preyed upon in life by the consequences of living on this island now, but their art is a mode of play to outface the predatory circumstances.’ (p.148). Further, ‘Mahon’s visionary desolation’ (p.148). Refers to ‘Longley’s amorous vocabularies’ (p.148) and quots: ‘sacraments we invent for ourselves’ (p.148).


‘We are no longer innocent, we are no longer just parishioners of the local […]. Yet those primary laws of our nature are still operative. We are dwellers, we are namers, we are lovers, we [148] make homes and search for our histories. And when we look for the history of our sensibilities I am convinced, as Professor J. C. Beckett was convinced about the history of Ireland generally, that it is to the stable element, the land itself, that we must look for continuity.’ [p.149; End.]

See also copy in RICORSO Library > Criticism > Classics - as attached.]

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“Crediting Poetry” (Stockholm Nobel Prize Address, 1995)

‘[…] In the nineteen-forties, when I was the eldest child of an ever-growing family in rural Co. Derry, we crowded together in the three rooms of a traditional thatched farmstead and lived a kind of den-life which was more or less emotionally and intellectually proofed against the outside world. It was an intimate, physical, creaturely existence in which the night sounds of the horse in the stable beyond bedroom wall mingled with the sounds of adult conversation from the kitchen beyond the other [...] I would climb up on an arm of our big sofa to get my ear closer to the wireless speaker. But it was still not the news that interested me; what I was after was the thrill of story, [...] I had to get close to the actual radio set in order to concentrate my hearing, and in that intent proximity to the dial I grew familiar with the names of foreign stations, with Leipzig and Oslo and Stuttgart and Warsaw and, of course, Stockholm.’ [Cont.]

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‘I also got used to hearing short bursts of foreign languages as the dial hand swept round from the BBC to Radio Éireann, from the intonations of London to those of Dublin, and even though I did not understand what was being said in those first encounters with the gutturals and sibilants of European speech, I had already begun a journey into the wideness of the world. This is turn became a journey into the wideness of language, a journey where each point of arrival - whether in one’s poetry or in one’s life - turned out to be a stepping stone rather than a destination, and it is that journey which has brought me now to this honoured spot. And yet the platform here feels more like a space station than a stepping stone, so that is why, for once in my life, I am permitting myself the luxury of walking on air. / [Sect. ending.] I credit poetry with making this space-walk possible. I credit it immediately because of a line I wrote fairly recently encouraging myself (and whoever else might be listening to “walk on air against your better judgement”. But I credit it ultimately because poetry can make an order as true to the impact of the external reality and as sensitive to the inner laws of the poet’s being as the ripples that rippled in and rippled out across the water in that scullery bucket fifty years ago. An order where we can at last grow up to that up to that which we stored as we grew. An order which satisfies all that is appetitive in the intelligence and prehensile in the affections. I credit poetry, in other words, both for being itself and being a help, for making possible a fluid and restorative relationship between the mind’s centre and its circumference, between the child gazing at the word “Stockholm” on the face of the radio dial and the man facing the faces that he meets in Stockholm at this most privileged moment.’ [Cont.]

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In the ensuing paragraphs Heaney speaks much, and directly, about the Northern situation, relating it to Yeats’s phrase about holding ‘in a single thought reality and justice’; he offers an extended parable of St. Kevin and the bird who descends on his outstretched arms, and builds and nest and hatches eggs there, a story ‘true to life is subversive of common sense, at the intersection of the natural process and the glimpsed ideal’; he speaks also of a work of art showing a bird and an entranced man that kind of work he had seen in Sparta shortly before news reached him of the Nobel Award; ‘I hope I am not being sentimental, or simply fetischising - as we have learned to say - the local … Even if we have learned to be rightly and deeply fearful of elevating the cultural forms and conservatisms of any nation into normative and exclusivist systems, even if we have terrible proof that pride in the ethnic and religious heritage can quickly degrade into the fascistic, our vigilance on that score should not be displace our love and trust in the good of the indigenous, per se.’ [Cont.]

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‘On the contrary, a trust in the staying power and the travelworthiness of such good[s] should encourage us to credit the possibility of a world where respect for the validity of every tradition will issue in the creation and maintenance of a salubrious political space.’ [Heaney makes repeated reference to ethnic collisions and massacres in Bosnia, Africa, &c.] Speaks of Yeats on the same platform making scant allusion to Irish civil war, understanding best the ‘connection between the construction and destruction of a political order and the founding or foundering of a cultural life’. invites appreciation of the achievement of contemporary Irish poets, among them many friends, quoting Yeats’s line, ‘my glory was I had such friends’; ‘harmonious, nurturing commonwealth’; cites again Yeats’s vision of the bees in the Tower; quotes Robert Fitzgerald’s trans. of Homer’s account of the woman, comforting her battle-slain husband, driven into slavery with spears to her back, and compares this with visions of slavery on the ‘channel-surfing’ media; ‘[…] a way of saying I have never quite climbed down from the arm of the sofa’; ‘[...] as a poet I am in fact atraining towards a strain, in the sense that the effort is to repose in the staility conferred by a musically satisfying order of sounds. As if the ripple at its widest desired to be verified by a reformation of itself, to be drawn in and drawn out through its point of origin’ (Opened Ground, p.466.)

‘The form of the poem, in other words, is crucial to poetry’s power to do the thing which always is and always will be to poetry’s credit: the power to persuade the vulnerable part of our consciousness of its rightness in spite of the evidence of wrongness all around it, the power to remind us that we are hunters and gatherers of values, that our very solitudes and distresses are creditable, insofar as they, too are an earnest of our veritable human being.’ (“Crediting Poetry: The Nobel Lecture” [1995], rep. in Opened Ground: Poems 1966-1996, London: Faber & Faber 1998, p.467.)

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‘Only the very stupid or the very deprived can any longer help knowing that the documents of civilization have been written in blood and tears, blood and tears no less real for being very remote. And when this intellectual predisposition co-exists with the actualities of Ulster and Israel and Bosnia and Rwanda and a host of other wounded spots on the face of the earth, the inclination is not only not to credit human nature with much constructive potential but not to credit anything too positive in the work of art.’

(From Nobel Lecture, 1995; quoted in ‘Seamus Heaney’ by Petri Liukkonen on the Kirjasto website [online]; also in Time Magazine and other venues prior to publication in Crediting Poetry [The Nobel Lecture] (Oldcastle: Gallery 1996; rep. in Opened Ground, Poems 1966-96, 1998), pp.445-67. Note that MS spellcheck does not recognise ‘wideness’, ‘wrongness’, and ‘solitudes’, et al. ) [See further extracts on Northern Ireland in Quotations - supra.

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