The Cambridge Companion to Seamus Heaney

Stephen Burt writes:

‘What frustrates me most,’ Heaney tells O’Driscoll – it is one of his few complaints – ‘is the gall of people who press you to do a book launch or go to a dinner party . . . and then tell you that you ought not to do so many book launches or dinners . . . Your real friends leave you alone, so you end up doing less for them.’ To reread the last two books of Heaney’s poetry in the light of these interviews (or perhaps in the light of common sense) is to see how much hassle, how many problems of time-management and obligation must get into Heaney’s post-Nobel life, and how little, by contrast, they enter the verse. It is as if, in Electric Light especially, Heaney didn’t want to sound ungrateful, with the result that disappointed (or hostile) readers thought he sounded self-satisfied. District and Circle, however politely, let the frustrations in: ‘The Tollund Man in Springtime’ imagines the corpse from the bog poems resurrected and happy, ‘Unregistered by scans, screens, hidden eyes’, walking about among ‘cattle out in rain’. The original bog poems, with their choppy stanzas, indicted what Justin Quinn, in the Cambridge Companion, calls Heaney’s ‘censurable complicity’ (it is, Quinn adds, one of his ‘central themes’). ‘The Tollund Man in Springtime’ – six sonnets as full of plashy, self-delighting onomatopoeia as anything Heaney has written – becomes both celebration and self-defence. Like ‘Tollund’ (from The Spirit Level), it welcomes the peace process. Yet, after the interviews, ‘The Tollund Man in Springtime’ also looks like a post-Nobel poem: the Tollund Man escapes his museum ‘display case’ for a meadow where ‘the early bird still sang,’ where he is ‘neither god nor ghost’, able without obligation to roam as he will.

(LRB 11 June 2009)

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