Seamus Heaney, Digging with the Pen

On rhymes and responsibilities

black and white scence of long road

Photograph by Alain Le Garsmeur/Getty Images

One of the most revealing questions you can ask about any poet has to do with his sense of responsibility. To whom or what does he hold himself responsible in his writing? The poet who replies Nothingwho believes that the concept of responsibility is foreign to the totally free realm of artis likely to be a bad poet. If there is nothingno reader real or imaginary, no idea, value, or principlewith the right to hold the writer to account, then there is no way for her to know when she is writing better or worse, when she is getting closer to her ideal or straying from it.

That is why a genuine artist almost always wants to feel answerable to something. Not necessarily a person or a group, because any concrete audience is all too likely to constrict the imagination, to encourage flattery or evasion. But there is liberation in feeling responsible to an ideal readerthe best poets of the past, perhaps, or the unbiased readers of the future; or to an ethical principlespeaking truthfully, bearing witness, offering sympathy; or to an aesthetic idealthe radiance of beauty, the genius of the language. Not until you know what a poet feels responsible toward can you know how he wants and deserves to be read.

See accompanying interview:

The Poet's Perspective

The strength and the challenge of Seamus Heaneys poetry lie in its willingness to admit all these kinds of responsibility at once. To get a sense of Heaneys temperament, just look at the titles of the major essays and lectures about poetry that he has produced over his long career: The Government of the Tongue, The Redress of Poetry, and Crediting Poetry, the lecture he delivered in Stockholm after winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995. These are unapologetically ethical terms, and they suggest a poet deeply concerned with the correct use of his gifts. Indeed, few poets have ever interrogated themselves more strenuously than Heaney; again and again in his poetry, we find him confronting himself, or being confronted by a neighbor or reader, with his responsibilities as a man and a poet.

Digging, the first poem of his first collection, Death of a Naturalist (1966), is quoted in almost every discussion of Heaneys work for its prescient statement of the themes that would dominate his poetry: his sensual love of his native ground; his fascination with work and all kinds of tools; his vision of poetry as a traditional, laborious, and sustaining craft, like farming. The most important thing about Digging, however, is that it takes the form of a promise, a commitment from the poet to his father and grandfather, whose lives were spent literally digging the soil. Heaney acknowledges that he is not a farmer, and will not follow their vocation. But at the start of his career, he vows to translate their virtues into another kind of work:

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But Ive no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
Ill dig with it.

That is Heaney in his middle twenties, not too long removed from his childhood in Mossbawn, County Derry, in Northern Ireland. That is the rural world where Heaney was born in 1939, and grew up as the oldest of nine children on his familys 50-acre farm. That world would remain at the heart of his poetry, even as he ventured far from his origins, geographically speaking. In 1972, he and his wife, Marie, moved to Wicklow in the Republic of Ireland, which has been his primary residence ever since. He spent decades as a university professor, at Queens University in Belfast, the University of California at Berkeley, Carysfort College in Dublin, and, of course, at Harvard, where he started teaching in 1982 and was named Boylston professor of rhetoric and oratory in 1984.

Leading workshops in Cambridge every spring, Heaney became one of Harvards most recognizable citizens, the latest in a long line of major poets who have made the University their professional home. He retired from regular teaching in 1996 and was appointed Ralph Waldo Emerson poet in residence, an honor similar to those previously granted to Robert Frost and Robert Lowell. He continues to visit the campus for six weeks every other year.

Now, in 2006, Heaney has published his eleventh collection of poems, District and Circle. Forty years have passed since Death of a Naturalist, yet in a poem like A Shiver, we find Heaney still holding the stance he adopted in Digging:

The way you had to stand to swing the sledge,
Your two knees locked, your lower back shock-fast...
The way its iron head planted the sledge
Unyieldingly as a club-footed last;
The way you had to heft and then half-rest
Its gathered force like a long-nursed rage
About to be let fly....

The spade has been replaced by a sledgehammer, but Heaney is still the poet of labor, of contact with the earth. His father and grandfather are dead, but he has kept his promise to them.

Yet all this talk of obligations, of redress and government and credit, would be misleading if it suggested that Heaney is merely a didactic, moralizing poet. That the drama of the poets moral responsibilities is one of the major themes of his work cannot be denied, and a reader who is indifferent to it will not love Heaneyor Czeslaw Milosz, or Derek Walcott, or Joseph Brodsky, the poets who, with Heaney, have in our time done most to define and defend the significance of poetry. But Heaney is also, and primarily, a poet of pleasure. If he is like Wordsworth in his love of nature and his wise seriousness, he has also written that When it comes to poetic composition, one has to allow for the presence, even the pre-eminence, of what Wordsworth called the grand elementary principle of pleasure, and that pleasure comes from the doing-in-language of certain things. What makes Heaney a lovable poet, rather than just an admirable one, is that his sense of responsibility extends to pleasure itself. The poet, he knows, must delight and instruct; and without the delight, the instruction is worse than useless.

Ask anyone who reads Heaney what they enjoy in his poems, and the first answer will be his musicthe dense, rich, consonant-heavy music that draws on the strong rhythms of Anglo-Saxon poetry and the vernacular of Northern Ireland to create an instantly recognizable style. (His verse translation of the Old English masterpiece Beowulf landed on the New York Times bestseller list in 1999an achievement perhaps even more remarkable than winning the Nobel Prize.)

In his new book, District and Circle, we greet that music again on the first page like an old friend, in The Turnip-Snedder:

In an age of bare hands
and cast iron,

the clamp-on meat-mincer,
the double flywheeled water-pump,

it dug its heels in among wooden tubs
and troughs of slops,

hotter than body heat
in summertime, cold in winter

as winters body armour,
a barrel-chested breast-plate

standing guard
on four braced greaves.

The lip-smacking assonance of clamp and pump; the curdled vowels in troughs and slops; the ramming together of nouns into substantial compounds like meat-mincer and breast-plateall of these are Heaneys trademarks. (What other poet could have written a poem called The Guttural Muse?) The choice of subject matter is just as characteristic. Heaney has often written about farming implements, from early poems like The Forge and Churning Day to more recent works like The Pitchfork and The Harrow-Pin.

For readers who have never come closer to a farm than a school field tripwhich is to say, for most American readerspoems like this offer the temptation of nostalgia, as though Heaney were simply the chronicler of a simpler, more traditional and concrete world. Certainly, among Irish poets of the generation after Heaneys, there has been a deliberate turning away from this kind of rural subject matterjust look at the acrobatic poems of Paul Muldoon, saturated with American pop culture, or the urbane, disillusioned poems of Dennis ODriscoll, set in offices and suburbs that could be in Detroit as easily as Dublin. (ODriscoll and Heaney are cooperating on a book-length interview that will be the closest thing to an autobiography Heaney has produced.)

Yet if Heaneys readers may be tempted to idealize his world, the poet himself never does. For him, rural Ireland is not a pastoral idyll but the theater of wrenching moral dramas, a place where history intrudes into the personal and threatens to obliterate it. That is because Heaney, as a Catholic native of Northern Ireland, was born into one of the most intransigent ethnic and religious conflicts in the world, and in a generation that would see it flare up into the terrible violence known as the Troubles.

That violence moved to the center of Heaneys work in North, his fourth collection of poems, which appeared in 1975. These poems, written in the years of Bloody Sunday and the acceleration of the IRA bombing campaign, show Heaney transforming himself from the celebrant of his native ground into its interrogator and elegist. The famous lines from Viking Dublin: Trial Pieces capture this new poetic persona:

I am Hamlet the Dane,
skull-handler, parablist,
smeller of rot

in the state, infused
with its poisons,
pinioned by ghosts

and affections,
murders and pieties,
coming to consciousness
by jumping in graves,
dithering, blathering.

Heaneys most famous poetic symbol was born from this obsession. In a series of poems, from Bogland through The Tollund Man, Bog Queen, and The Grauballe Man, down to the new sequence The Tollund Man in Springtime in District and Circle, Heaney made the bogs of Northern Europe into a metaphor with endless implications. For a poet who began his career writing about digging the soil, the bog is an uncanny challenge, a kind of ground which you can dig forever without ever reaching bottom: The bogholes might be Atlantic seepage./The wet centre is bottomless. In this, it resembles the history of Ireland itself, a permanently fluid and unsettled past:

Our pioneers keep striking
Inwards and downwards,

Every layer they strip
Seems camped on before.

And when Heaney writes of the Iron Age corpses that archaeologists have dug up from bogs, he finds an all-too-apt metaphor for the way that his own land is sown with death: the actual weight/of each hooded victim,/slashed and dumped.

Yet even, or especially, in the bog poems, Heaney never allows the richness of his music, or the inventive precision of his images, to be silenced by the moral gravity of his subject. There is a Words worthian pleasure, of a saturnine, macabre kind, in the way Heaney translates the corpse of The Grauballe Man into language:

As if he had been poured
in tar, he lies
on a pillow of turf
and seems to weep

the black river of himself.

What was most crucial in Heaneys attitude toward the surrounding violence, however, was his refusal to be simply pinioned by ghosts. He insisted on finding a moral and poetic vantage point on the Troubles, rather than being drawn into its savage binaries. This was an especially important achievement for a poet who, from the beginning, felt such a strong sense of belonging and obligationto his family, his land, his community and the sounds of its speech. In his Nobel lecture, Heaney attested to his love and trust in the good of the indigenous per se, with a forthrightness that probably few American poets would hazard. Yet at the same time, he warned against elevating the cultural forms and conservatisms of any nation into normative and exclusivist systems.

This carefully maintained balancebetween belonging and autonomy, loyalty and judgmentbecame the major subject of Heaneys middle period, starting with North and extending through The Haw Lantern (1987). On the one hand, he writes frankly about the pressures and exclusions he knew as a Catholic in Northern Ireland. His very name, the Irish Seamus rather than the English James, was a marker of identity in a divided land, as he suggests in a vignette from The Ministry of Fear:

Swung their crimson flashlamps, crowding round
The car like black cattle, snuffing and pointing
The muzzle of a Sten gun in my eye:
Whats your name, driver?

Heaney has always made it one of his central responsibilities to affirm his membership in a group subjected to this kind of discrimination. My passports green./No glass of ours was ever raised/To toast The Queen, he wrote in 1983, demurring from his inclusion in an anthology of British poets. Yet he has also maintained, with a firmness not untouched by humor, his right to be critical of his own groupthat first principle of all genuine artists. No poet has been less tempted to write propagandistically, to submit to what Heaney has called the surge of disruptive feelings which [spring] too readily in the collective life.

That is why, of all the elegies Heaney has written for friends and acquaintances murdered in the Troubles, the most revealing of his own position is Casualty, from his 1979 collection Field Work. A casualty is not a hero or a martyr, but a bystanderin this case, a drunkard who was killed by his fellow Catholics when he violated an IRA curfew to go out to a bar. How culpable was he/That last night when he broke/Our tribes complicity? Heaney asks, and gives his indirect answer in the poems final stanza, when he remembers going fishing with the dead man:

I tasted freedom with him.
To get out early, haul
Steadily off the bottom,
Dispraise the catch, and smile
As you find a rhythm
Working you, slow mile by mile,
Into your proper haunt
Somewhere, well out, beyond...

Heaneys longing for that haunt of freedom, that sublime irresponsibility, became more vocal in his work in the 1980s. Station Island, the visionary sequence that was the title poem of his 1984 volume, uses the idiom of Dantes Divine Comedy to stage a confrontation with all the claims Heaney was yearning to escape. Using a modified version of Dantes verse form, terza rima, Heaney imagines himself accosted, like Dante in Hell, by a series of ghosts, each representing a kind of obligation: a priest he knew as a child, a teacher, a cousin who was murdered by Protestant terrorists. Yet after allowing each of these voices to state its claims on his loyalty, Heaney concludes the sequence with a vision of James Joyce, the Irish writer who famously escaped his country, taking refuge in silence, exile, and cunning. Joyce, clearly identified though never actually named, leaves the poet with an exhortation to freedom:

Take off from here. And dont be so earnest,

so ready for the sackcloth and the ashes.
Let go, let fly, forget.
Youve listened long enough. Now strike your note.


This message of liberation, which the poet delivers to himself through the medium of Joycenothing that I had not known/ already, Heaney admitsdid not mark a sudden, radical break in his work. But it represents the planting of new seeds, whose crop would be harvested in his work during the next 20 years.

This change of direction was not an abdication of Heaneys earlier moral concerns in favor of some pure aestheticism. He remained devoted to truth-telling, and to the translation of truth into beauty through the alchemy of language. Instead, as was becoming for this deeply responsible poet, it meant a change in Heaneys understanding of his responsibility, of the subjects and listeners to whom he would hold himself answerable. Above all, it meant a willingness to turn from the local and political to the spiritual and universal. It was a turn that, Heaney declared in his Nobel lecture, felt like a liberation: Then finally and happily, and not in obedience to the dolorous circumstances of my native place but in spite of them, I straightened up. I began a few years ago to try to make space in my reckoning and imagining for the marvellous as well as the murderous.

Heaneys most extended exploration of the marvelous is the long sequence called Squarings, from his 1991 volume, Seeing Things. The title Squarings gestures at the form of the poems, which are truncated sonnets, 12 lines each, that look like segmented squares on the page. But it is also a word drawn, like so many before it in Heaneys work, from the vocabulary of his childhood: Squarings? In the game of marbles, squarings/Were all those anglings, aimings, feints and squints/You were allowed before youd shoot. This is exactly the way, Heaney suggests, that he will approach matters of faith and doubt: not dogmatically but pragmatically, always willing to take a new look or try a new angle. The very form of the sequence enforces a kind of tentativeness: each of the 48 poems represents an opportunity for the poet to start over.

This pragmatism is what allows Squarings to be one of the most convincing spiritual poems of our time. It is convincing, above all, in its refusal to be convinced, and its unconcern with arguing the reader into agreement with any dogma. The sequence moves back and forth between metaphysical intuitions and the self-doubts that are inseparable from them in our age, which is not an age of faith. Heaney knows moments when the world seems to fall away, allowing the spirit its freedom:

Air spanned, passage waited, the balance rode,

Nothing prevailed, whatever was in store
Witnessed itself already taking place
In a time marked by assent and by hiatus.

This is a finely negative description of transcendence; it follows the medieval theological tradition of the via negativa, which defined God only by negatives. A moment when nothing prevailed is, to a poet who has seen all too much of the human need to dominate, a blessed moment. Yet this negative space, which makes room for a positive presence, cannot establish itself with the reliability of religious belief. Whats the use of a held note or held line/That cannot be assailed for reassurance? Heaney asks himself.

In the end, like many people, what Heaney can look to for reassurance is art itself. In order that human beings bring about the most radiant conditions for themselves to inhabit, he wrote in the essay Joy or Night, it is essential that the vision of reality which poetry offers be transformative, more than just a printout of the given circumstances of its time and place. The kind of transformation poetry offers cannot create another world; but in going beyond this world, through surprising perception and powerful language, it holds open the possibility of transcendence. This is the secular miracle that Heaney describes in The Rain-Stick, the first poem in his 1996 collection, The Spirit Level. The rain-stick is a cactus stalk, a product of the desert, but when it is upended it releases a sound of Downpour, sluice-rush, spillage and backwash. It is not the kind of water you can actually drink, Heaney acknowledges, but while it lasts it offers a kind of refreshment:

Who cares if all the music that transpires

Is the fall of grit or dry seeds through a cactus?
You are like a rich man entering heaven
Through the ear of a raindrop.

This vision of heaven is the fitting counterpart to the vision of earth that Heaney offered in his early poems. The way he allows that consolation to hover between metaphor and metaphysics becomes especially moving in the poems of District and Circle, where the poet, now 67 years old, is increasingly occupied with last things. In Quitting Time, he once again likens the work of poetry to physical labor, inviting the reader to see his portrait of an aging farmer as a veiled self-portrait:

a home-based man at home
In the end with little. Except this same
Night after nightness, redding up the work,

The song of a tubular steel gate in the dark
As he pulls it to and starts his uphill trek.

District and Circle often puts the reader in mind of that gate swinging closed, with its redding up of themes Heaney has explored for a lifetime. This is the autumnal effect of poems like Anahorish 1944 and Polish Sleepers, which look back to the poets earliest memories from the World War II years; and still more of the addresses to friends and poets recently deceased, such as Stern, dedicated to Ted Hughes, and the moving sequence Out of This World, subtitled in memory of Czeslaw Milosz.

See accompanying interview:

The Poet's Perspective

But the last word in Heaneys new book is, characteristically, affirmativethe kind of genuine affirmation only available to a man who has taken full account of the worlds negative. In The Blackbird of Glanmore, Heaney looks back to one of his best early poems, Mid-Term Break from Death of a Naturalist, which hauntingly described the coffin of his young brother: A four-foot box, a foot for every year. Now, a lifetime later, he remembers a neighbours words/Long after the accident, who claimed to have seen a blackbird near the Heaneys farm before the boys deatha folk omen. Seeing another blackbird now, On the grass when I arrive, he and the reader are forced to wonder if it is a harbinger of another death. Yet Heaney responds to it with defiant gladness:

Hedge-hop, I am absolute
For you, your ready talkback,
Your each stand-offish comeback,
Your picky, nervy goldbeak

On the grass when I arrive,
In the ivy when I leave.

Heaney wants us to hear the echo, in these lines, of the famous speech from act III of Measure for Measure, in which the Duke advises the condemned Claudio: Be absolute for death; either death or life/Shall thereby be the sweeter. And Heaneys delighted re-echoing of the blackbirds song, in this tattoo of clicking k sounds, shows that he has proved Shakespeare right: by embracing the bird and all it represents, he has infused a new sweetness into his own verse. It is just the latest, and surely not the last, of the reconciliations Seamus Heaney has spent almost half a century effectingbetween public and private, history and spirit, art and life.


Adam Kirsch ’97, a contributing editor of this magazine, is the author of The Wounded Surgeon: Confession and Transformation in Six American Poets (2005) and the book critic of the New York Sun.


Read more articles by Adam Kirsch

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