Seamus Heaney, essays from The Redress of Poetry (London: Faber & Faber 1995)

The excerpts held on these pages comprise a commonplace record of the best-known statements in them copied to this electronic notebook for purposes of research only. The resultant compilation is neither intended nor believed to constitute a publication or anthology of the poet’s work.

Frontiers of Writing’, in The Redress of Poetry (1995), pp.186-202: […] But if Hewitt was the projector of a Northern Ireland that failed to develop, Louis MacNeice is the sponsor of one struggling to be born, one in which allowances for the priority of some of its citizens’ Irishness would not prejudice the rights of others’ Britishness. I talked two years ago about MacNeice’s bifocal vision and about how it is, as they say, “part of the solution”.


And what it all means can be represented, I suggested, by the figure of the quincunx, and my suggestion was no more than another attempt to bring the frontiers of the country into alignment with the frontiers of writing, an attempt to sketch the shape of an integrated literary tradition. / I sketched that tradition in terms of five towers, with first, at the centre, the tower of prior Irelandness, the round tower of original insular dwelling, loacted perhaps in what MacNeice called “the pre-natal mountain”. With this at the centre, I then placed at the southern point of a dimond shape Kilcolman Castle, Edmund spenser’s tower, as it were, the tower of English conquest and the Anglicisation of Ireland, linguistically, culturally, institutionally. Then, on the left of the diamond’s shoulder, in the west of the country, at Ballylee, there is the Norman tower occupied by W. B. Yeats as a deliberate symbol of his poetic effort, which was to restore the spiritual values and magical world-view that Spenser’s armies and language had destroyed. The fourth tower, on the easter edge, is Joyce’s Martello tower, on Dublin Bay, the setting of the opening chapter of Ulysses and symbol of Joyce’s attempt to “hellenise the island”, his attempt to marginalse the imperium which had marginalised him by replacing the Anglocentric Protestant tradition with a newly forged apparatus of Homeric correspondences, Dantesque scholasticism and a more or less Mediteranean, European, classically endorsed world-view. So: we can say that Spenser’s tower faces in to the round tower of the mythic first Irish place and sees popery, barbarism and the Dark Ages; Yeats’s tower faces it and sees a possible uity of being, an Irish nation retrieved and enabled by a repossession of its Gaelic [199] heritage; Joyce’s tower faces it and sees an archetypal symbol, the omphalos, the navel of a reinvented order, or maybe the ivory tower from which the chaste maid of Irish Catholic provincialism must be liberated into the secular freedoms of Europe.

Enter then, from the north, Carrickfergus Castle - MacNeice’s keep, shall we say. And this tower, where William of Orange once landed on his way to secure the Protestant Settlement and where the British Army was garrisoned for generations, this tower, once it is sponsored by MacNeice’s vision, no longer only looks with averted eyes back towards the Glorious Revolution and the Mother of Parliaments, but is capable of looking also towards that visionary Ireland whose name, to quote MacNeice, ‘keepings ringing like a bell. / In an underwater belfry.’


By writing his castle into the poetic annals, he has completed the figure. He can be regarded as an Irish Protestant writer with Anglocentric attitudes who managed to be faithful to his Ulster inheritance, his Irish affections and his English predelictions. As such, he offers a way in and a way out not only for the northern Unionist imagination in relation to some sort of integral Ireland but also for the southern Irish imagination in relation to the partitioned north. It may be that there is not yet a political stucture to reflect this poetic diagram, but the admission of MacNeice in this way within the symbolic order of Ireland also admits a hope for the evolution of a political order, one tolerant of difference and capable of metamorphoses within all the multivalent possibilities of Irishness, Britishness, Europeanness, planetariness, creatureliness, whatever. (pp.199-200).


There is nothing extraordinary about the challenge to be in two minds. If, for example, there was something exacerbating, there was still nothing deleterious to my sense of Irishness in the fact that I grew up in the minority in Northern Ireland and was educated within the dominant British culture. One doesn’t have to inoculate oneself. That culture is one of the places where we live. It’s in the language. And it’s where the mind of many in the republic lives also. So I would suggest that the majority in Northern Ireland should make a corresponding effort at two-mindedness. Obviously, it will be extremely difficult for them to surmount their revulsion against the violence perpetrated in the name of Ireland, but everything and everybody would be helped were they to make their imagination press back against the pressure of reality and re-enter the whole country of Ireland imaginatively, but not necessarily constitutionally, by the northern point of the quincunx.’ (‘The Frontiers of Writing’, Bullán, vol. 1, No. 1, Spring 1994, pp.1-15, p.14; rep. in Redress of Poetry, 1995, p.202.) [Note echo of the phrase ‘press back’ from W. J. McCormack, Joseph Le Fanu Sheridan, 1991 Edn. p.61. [see Rx].)

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‘John Clare’s Prog’, in Redress of Poetry (1995); first published in Hugh Haughton, Adam Phillips, and Geoffrey Summerfield, John Clare in Context, Cambridge UP 1994)
After an initial brush with the censor, Clare refused to co-operate. The story of his career, in other words, can be expressed as follows. Once upon a time John Clare was lured to the edge of his word-horizon and his tonal horizon, looked about him eagerly, tried out a few new words and accents and then, wilfully and intelligently, withdrew and dug in his local heels. (p.64.)

Like all readers I am indebted to John Barrell’s diagnosis of Clare’s strengths and complications, in so far as it reveals him as a poet who posssessed a secure local idiom but operated within the range of an official literary tradition. (p.65.)

[T]he eye of the writing is concentrated utterly upon what is before it, but also allows what is before it deep access to what is behind it. The eye, at any rate, does not lift to see what effect it is having upon the reader; and this typical combination of deep-dreaming in-placeness and wide-lens attentiveness in the writing is mirrored by the cess-pools as they glitter in the sun. [‘the water oer the pebbles scarcely run / And broad old cesspools glittered in the sun’].

And yet, innocent as the poet’s eye may seem, it is worth stressing the point that his poem is as surely made of words as any by Mallarmé. It has a special realism and reliability because it is a naturalist’s observation, but neith the simplcity of its utterance nor the solidity of its content line by line should prevent its being regarded as a poetic achievement of rare finesse and integrity.’ (p.67.)

[T]he poems of Clare’s that still make a catch in the breath and establish a positively bodily hold upon the reader are those in which the wheel of total recognition has been turned.’ (p.70.)

[On ‘the great white butter flye’:] Rarely has the butteriness of a butterfly been so available (p.71.)

Invokes Nadezhda Mandelstam’s ‘nugget of harmony’ to say that ‘To locate this phonetic jewel, to hit upon and hold one’s true note, is a most exacting and intuitive discipline … (p.73.)

Refers to Paulin’s ‘essay of brilliant advocacy’ on John Clare in Minotaur (1992), and quotes from the introduction to Faber Book of Vernacular Verse (1990):

‘The restored texts of the poems embody an alternative social idea. With their lack of punctuation, freedom from standard spelling, and charged demotic ripples, they become a form of Nation Language that rejects the polished urbanity of Official Standard.’

Further quotes Paulin’s remarks on Clare’s ‘Ranter’s sense of being trapped within an unjust society and an authoritarian language’ and his conclusion that ‘Clare dramatises his experience of the class system and its codified language as exile and imprisonment [80] in Babylon’.

[Heaney adds:] By implication, then Clare is a sponsor and a forerunner of modern poetry in post-colonial national languages, poetry that springs from the difference and/or disaffection of cultral and perhaps political odds with others in possession of that normative “Official Standard”. Paulin’s contention is that wherever the accents of exacerbation and orality enter a text, be it in Belfast or Brooklyn or Brixton, we are within earshot of Clare’s influence and example. What was once regarded as Clare’s out-of-stepness with the main trends has become his central relevance: as ever the need for a new kind of poetry in the present has called into being precursors out of the past.’ (p.81.)

He never heard Mandelstam’s famous phrase about Acmeism being a “nostalgia for world culture”, but oddly enough, it makes sense to think of Clare in relation to the arrival of poetry in that longed-for place or state - an arrival which John Bayley has recently observed in the work of many gifted contemporaries. The dream of a world culture, after all, is a dream of a workd where no language will be relegated, a world where the ancient rural province of Boeotia (which Les Murray has made an image for all the outback and dialect cultures of history) will be on an equal footing with the city state of Athens; where not just Homer but Hesiod will have his due honour.

To read him for exotic flavours of an archaic diction and the picturesque vistas of a bucolic past is to miss the trust he instills in the possibility of a self-respecting future for all languages, an immense, creative volubility where human existence comes to life and has life more abundantly because it is now being expressed in its own self-gratifying and unhindered words. [p.82; END].

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