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Seamus Heaney's sway.

In his essay "The Makings of a Music: Reflections on Wordsworth and Yeats," Seamus Heaney considers Hazlitt's account of a visit to Alfoxden in June 1798, when Wordsworth gave a spirited reading of "Peter Bell." It was "the quality and sway of the poet's speaking voice," as Heaney puts it (Preoccupations 64), that moved Hazlitt to record his impressions of the event. The implications of the word sway in this formulation are not entirely clear: does Heaney have in mind only the authority of the poet's performance, or does he also mean to suggest that the delivery captured the sweeping rhythmic motions of the verse? The word itself sways a little, fluctuating between possibilities. Heaney develops its ambiguities a few lines later in the essay by positing a connection between the nature of Wordsworth's hold over an audience and his habit of composing aloud to himself on the hoof: "And I imagine that the swing of the poet's body contributed as well to the sway of the voice" (65). This correlation between bodily movement and authority of utterance appears also in Heaney's "Elegy" for Robert Lowell in Field Work, when he recalls how his American friend would rock on his feet while controlling the flow of conversation: "you swayed the talk / and rode on the swaying tiller / of yourself" (31). (1) Lowell is imagined in "Elegy" as a dangerously unstable craft, a "night ferry / thudding in a big sea," as if a living embodiment of the tempestuous energies in his poem "The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket" (14). "The Quaker Graveyard," in turn, prompts Heaney to exploit further the implications of the word sway in his essay on Lowell in The Government of the Tongue: noting how "the oceanic symphonies" of the poem "swayed and thundered" (144), Heaney insinuates a link between the turbulent music of the verse and Lowell's air of thundering cultural judgment. Similar associations prevail in his translation of Beowulf when he has the Danish queen Wealhtheow say to the eponymous hero, "Your sway is wide as the wind's home, / as the sea around cliffs" (41): the warrior's command, like Lowell's, is naturalized, a manifestation of the turbulent environment. (2) Together, these various instances establish a set of imaginative correspondences between personality, physical presence, and power of utterance; as such, they raise highly suggestive implications regarding Heaney's sense of poetic authority.

In the essay "Sounding Auden" in The Government of the Tongue, Heaney proposes to chart "the shifting relation between the kind of authority W. H. Auden sought and achieved and what might be described as his poetic music" (109), but the distinction he proposes between "poetic authority" and "poetic music" is not sharp:
    By poetic authority I mean the rights and weight which accrue to a
    voice not only because of a sustained history of truth-telling but
    by virtue also of its tonality, the sway it gains over the deep ear
    and, through that, over other parts of our mind and nature. By
    poetic music I mean the technical means, the more or less
    describable effects of language and form, by which a certain
    tonality is effected and maintained.

The case is presented in the terms of an ostensibly clarifying distinction: between, on the one hand, the properties of a poem that are open to summary and analysis and, on the other, the ineffable, influential effects resulting from the combination of those properties. Yet the logic of Heaney's argument is unsettled, firstly by the attempted distinction within the distinction that sets objective "truth-telling" (Auden's engagement with political realities) apart from the inevitably subjective nature of that telling (the inimitable tone of Auden's voice), and secondly by a reluctance to make explicit the mutable implications of the word sway; again, there is a suggestive double sense of the poetic voice as both authoritative utterance and, as it extends "over the deep ear and, through that, over other parts of our mind and nature," as a force in sweeping motion. Heaney's prose conspires in the ineffability it describes, wants to go beyond the ear that hears in rational terms and to speak instead to the reader's mysterious and mystery-loving (unlocatable) "deep ear." In one sense, this is what makes Heaney's conception of "poetic authority" compelling: its persuasive air is dependent on the poetic licenses it grants itself and asks to be granted. In another sense, the giddy veerings of implication encourage a less positive reading of the "sway" of Heaney's language.

The authoritative sway of his opinions on poetry is both dependent on and challenged by the swaying and swerving, the semantic shiftiness, of Heaney's chosen vocabulary. His recurrent, seemingly instinctive improvisations on what it means to sway are illustrative of his abiding preoccupation with the serendipities and self-generating processes of poetic composition; as with these processes, his manoeuverings of the possibilities of the word sway are neither stable nor open to rational analysis. Indeed, the plasticity of the word (in both its noun and verb forms) is precisely what attracts Heaney to it. In its susceptibility to both physical and metaphysical applications, and to contrasting ideas of immutable control and uncontrolled mutability, of carrying weight and shifting weight, sway is a word of peculiar amenability to his creative temperament. One of the great strengths of Heaney's prose is its recognition of the conflicting impulses that cause the writer to lean in different directions. His making words sway between alternative meanings--as when he considers the tension between poet as legislator and poet as subject in the phrase the government of the tongue--offers Heaney effective, memorable ways of registering the necessary ambivalence of the creative artist in the face of moral and political complexities. By the same token, he sometimes risks destabilizing the elaboration of an idea through over-reliance on the shifting possibilities of his critical idiom.

This risk is courted throughout The Redress of Poetry when the recurrent metaphor of a set of swaying scales suggests his desire to balance out opposing impulses. Voicing objection to the pressures of the politically partisan, those who "will always want the redress of poetry to be an exercise of leverage on behalf of their point of view," who "will require the entire weight of the thing to come down on their side of the scales" (2), Heaney invokes Simone Weil's Gravity and Grace, in which she writes of the need of those living in an "unbalanced" society to "add weight to the lighter scale" (Weil 151). Her work, Heaney claims,
    is informed by the idea of counterweighting, of balancing out the
    forces, of redress--tilting the scales of reality towards some
    transcendent equilibrium. And in the activity of poetry too, there
    is a tendency to place a counter-reality in the scales--a reality
    which may be only imagined but which nevertheless has weight because
    it is imagined within the gravitational pull of the actual and can
    therefore hold its own and balance out against the historical
    situation. (Redress 3-4)

With its implicit reference to the proverbial scales of justice, the familiar symbol of legal "redress," Heaney's metaphor offers him a potentially neat visual aid for his argument, but its figurative possibilities are overdeveloped. The conceptual strain of his insistence that poetry is validated by both its responsiveness and its resistance to "the historical situation" is compounded by a visual strain: in his talk of "tilting the scales of reality towards some transcendent equilibrium," Heaney effects a misalliance between leveling out and lifting off. Unwittingly, he almost converts his metaphorical machinery from a set of scales into a catapult that would propel his argument into the void. The difficulty recurs in similar terms later in The Redress of Poetry when Heaney writes that a successful poem "justifies its readers' trust and vindicates itself by setting its [Keatsian] 'fine excess' in the balance against all of life's inadequacies, desolations, and atrocities" (83). (3) A dilemma running through Heaney's prose is the difficulty of reconciling his frequently reiterated ideals of equilibrium and excess; in the words of Neil Corcoran, "his theory of the function of poetry as excess demands that it exceed historical contingency rather than be merely collusive with or subject to it" (214). Heaney has repeatedly insisted that "poetry is born out of the superfluity of language's own resources and energy," that "it's a kind of overdoing it" (Ratiner 99)--or, as he declares in The Redress of Poetry, "when language does more than enough, as it does in all achieved poetry, it opts for the condition of over-life, and rebels at limit" (158)--but such claims do not consort easily with any notion of the demands of the world and of the poem holding each other in check. By participating in the figurative excess it advocates for poetry, Heaney's prose is susceptible to its own "kind of overdoing it," a tendency that both underwrites and unbalances its guiding ideas.

It might be granted that while metaphorical instability imperils the elaboration of an argument in an essay or lecture, the same danger does not prevail in poetry, where multiplicity of implication tends to be regarded as a virtue, and logical development of an analogy is not necessarily the goal. Yet the distinction between ideals of critical consistency and poetic license is complicated in Heaney's case by his tendency to employ the same metaphors in his poems as in his prose. The image of a set of scales, for instance, is employed several times in his verse to describe a weighing up of impulses or perceived imperatives; dwelling on the connections between the poetry and the prose makes it hard to assess Heaney's handling of the image in isolation from a sense of how it operates in his critical writing.

At the end of "The Grauballe Man" in North (35-36), for example, the scales metaphor is loaded with complex figurative possibilities, but it is difficult to distinguish between felicitous and infelicitous ambiguities. (4) Heaney concludes his meditation on the partially preserved body of an Iron Age murder victim, exhumed from Danish bogland, by considering how its image "lies / perfected" in his memory,
    hung in the scales
    with beauty and atrocity:
    with the Dying Gaul
    too strictly compassed

    on his shield,
    with the actual weight
    of each hooded victim,
    slashed and dumped.

The "Dying Gaul" is the noble Celtic warrior who lies vanquished on his shield, an emblem of heroic defeat, in the famous Roman marble statue of that name: the sculptor's achievement has stylized the victim's tragic fate, rendering it beautiful. Wary of too strictly compassing in his own art the violence he contemplates, Heaney contrasts the statue with a description of killing that refuses aesthetic transformation: the anonymous "slashed and dumped" body. (Read in the wider context of the volume, this body clearly figures as an emblematic victim of the Irish "Troubles.") The scales metaphor here anticipates its function in The Redress of Poetry, holding in tension as it does the impulse to report the world's suffering directly and the lure of aestheticization.

Yet the neatness of the antithesis is unsettled by the difficulty of establishing precisely how the body of the Grauballe Man is intended to relate to the "Dying Gaul" and the nameless victim. The problem stems in part from the preposition with, which sways between implications of reciprocity and opposition. Read from one angle, the ancient bog body can be taken as representative first of "beauty" and then of "atrocity." (In this interpretation, it is as if there is a silent "on the one hand" before the phrase "with the Dying Gaul" and a silent "on the other" before "with the actual weight.") Alternatively, with can be read according to its first definition in the OED: "in a position opposite to; over against." This reading depends on imagining the Grauballe Man suspended in the opposite scale to the emblems of "beauty" and "atrocity" in turn--which presupposes that there are two sets of scales, not one. Martin Dodsworth interprets Heaney's lines according to this second reading, but deems the problems of visualization and conceptualization appropriate to the poem's ethical difficulties:
    These lines are peculiarly uncomfortable because the idea of
    suspense is compromised by the logical necessity of there being two
    sets of scales in question--one in which the Grauballe man is
    balanced against the beauty of the "Dying Gaul" and another in which
    a contemporary "hooded victim" occupies the other pan. And indeed
    the poem ends more effectively for this, its air of irresolution
    enhanced by the subliminal and "impossible" image of the Grauballe
    man swinging in two sets of scales simultaneously. (150)

The point is well made, but a sense of apt complexity is nonetheless hard to disentangle from confusion caused by overworked metaphorical language. This confusion derives from other factors than the ambiguity of the preposition with. For instance, a problematic readjustment of interpretation is required as the description shifts from the "Dying Gaul" to the "hooded victim." By the time one has read only the first five lines of the two closing stanzas, the implication seems to be that the sculpture epitomizes both "beauty and atrocity," or atrocity refashioned as beauty. (5) Yet by the end of the poem, one must revise this first reading: artistry and suffering need to be teased apart retrospectively, with the artistry apportioned solely to the statue and the suffering solely to the "hooded victim"; otherwise, the intended antithesis founders. A further problem resides in the phrase "each hooded victim," which conflates ideas of singular and plural, thus raising the possibility of multiple bodies being weighed on one side of the scales. Finally, the efficacy of Heaney's metaphorical contraption is also challenged by the available but clumsy image of the Grauballe Man's body being slung across two scale-pans, weighing in with both art object and real human victim at once. This is not, presumably, an intended implication of the imagery, but the sway of Heaney's language and the strain of visualizing a body (or bodies) and a sculpture hanging in a giant set (or giant sets) of scales allow the implication nonetheless.

The ending of Heaney's poem seems designed to reflect on the processes by which he has hitherto described the Grauballe Man, but the awkwardness of the scales imagery complicates this self-questioning in a not altogether effective way. In the preceding stanzas, the exhumed body is naturalized by a series of graphic comparisons that liken its grainy wrists to "bog oak," the ball of its heel to "a basalt egg," its spine to "an eel arrested / under a glisten of mud," and so forth, with the result that the body is at once presented with sharp physical exactitude and metamorphosed into a set of artistically satisfying correlates for itself. The aesthetic impulse is further complicated by Heaney's insistence on the violent nature of the man's death: his "slashed" throat connects his fate to that of the "slashed and dumped" body at the poem's end, thus signaling Heaney's resistance to his own artistry. At the last, Heaney abandons visual precision and tactile figuration as if to summarize his predicament: the effectiveness of these methods has involved a reprehensible translation of human suffering into "perfected" art. But the problem that had been exemplified with winning clarity in those earlier stanzas--of physical realization leading, paradoxically, to metaphysical falsification--is dwelt upon in the final two stanzas in more cumbersome ways. Here also Heaney both deploys and distrusts metaphorical language, but by "overdoing it" is less successful in articulating the tension; hovering uncertainly between visualization and abstraction--between, that is, a pictorial illustration and an intellectual extrapolation of the paradox his poem has constructed--these stanzas ultimately obscure the terms of the poem's anxious self-interrogation.

To ask hard questions of writing that asks hard questions of itself might seem to bespeak a lack of sympathetic engagement, which might in turn be construed as a covert questioning of the poet's considerable reputation or as disenchantment with the implied politics of his work, or both. Yet circumspection based on one's sense of the relative successes and shortcomings of Heaney's metaphorical language need not (and in my case does not) derive from such reservations or from a lack of overall admiration for his literary achievement. With regard to the end of "The Grauballe Man," where the political implications of Heaney's meditation on victimage are potentially provocative, this circumspection might be considered an essential safeguard against either too easy a vindication or too decisive a condemnation. A temptation to condemn might reflect the supposition that Heaney is contentiously conflating bog victim and heroic Celtic warrior (they are both thought to have been killed in the third century BC) and, by extension, these two figures and "each" anonymous target of contemporary violence. Furthermore, given the connection Henry Hart has posited between "each hooded victim" and those Irish Catholics forced to wear hoods before being assassinated by members of the Ulster Defence Association in the early 1970s (91), it might be argued that Heaney is seeking here to mythologize the specifics of atrocity, to confer members of his "tribe" with the status of heroic victim, and to convey a deterministic sense of the timelessness of such violence--all accusations that have been leveled at him for other metaphorical procedures and turns of phrase in North. (6) In such a reading, the word each would take on a fatalistic force, as if insinuating that every time someone from the nationalist side is murdered, a timeless paradigm is repeated. A defense of Heaney here would stress the ambiguous relationship between the different victims achieved through the complex operations of the scales imagery; both the fact that Heaney's imagined figures are held in opposition rather than union and the consideration that the poem as a whole explores the risks of subjecting the dead to interpretive distortion would counter readings that see the poem as an expression of ideological affiliations or atavistic impulses. However, either a critique or a defense of Heaney's methods is liable to be founded--but also to founder--on the assumption that the metaphorical machinery of the final stanzas is functioning effectively and according to the author's design. The implications of potential misprision on this score cut both ways: the difficulty of distinguishing suggestive ambiguity from inadvertent obliquity in the scales imagery is continuous with the difficulty of ascribing or denying fixed political alignments to the work.

Such considerations should warn one against being too ready either to suspect or to sanction Heaney's writing when it touches on contentious subject matter. What renders judgment here problematic is the dilemma of disentangling one's sense of how his language operates in terms of semantic or formal control from more ineffable questions of tone, intention, and readerly trust. One of Heaney's most distrustful critics, David Lloyd, has argued that Heaney's poems at times mask their own violent implications by means of a disarming note of "warm and humanising morality" (20). Christopher Ricks, in a review of Field Work, maintains that there is something "consciously innocent" in Heaney's handling of verbal ambiguities, that the volume is "alive with trust" in its own language--though trust of a self-conscious, "ungullible" kind--and that this "trust" warrants reciprocal indulgence from the reader. The "uncomplacent wisdom" of the poems, the way in which Heaney practices his art "secure in the grounded trust that he is trusted" by his readers as a good-hearted, square-dealing, scrupulously undeceived sort of poet is, for Ricks, the expression--and the encouragement--of a benign political perspective:
    Ungullible trust will always be of value but especially so in
    Ireland torn by reasonable and unreasonable distrust and mistrust.
    [...] A great deal of mistrust is misconstruction, and like the
    acrobat half-feigning a faltering Heaney's poems often tremble with
    the possibilities of misconstruing and misconstruction which they
    openly provide but which only a predator would pounce upon.

The reluctance to acknowledge that Heaney's verbal acrobatics might on occasion falter (although the equivocation of "half-feigning" goes halfway toward granting this possibility) is striking as a manifestation of trust; so too is the characterization of any doubting impulse as predatory. Ricks's sentiments on this point might be read as a rebuke to those critics who called into question the political ramifications of Heaney's preceding volume, North. That the manner of Heaney's poetry is taken to be an expression of political optimism says something about the problem of distinguishing recognition of poetic accomplishment per se from whatever cultural authority such recognition implies.

As a high-profile, justly popular ambassador from the republic of letters--a position strengthened by his tenure as Oxford Professor of Poetry from 1989 to 1994 and by his winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995--Heaney has come to occupy a peculiarly trusted position. This has increasingly rendered problematic anything but praise, as Peter McDonald observed in "Levelling Out," noting how, "in attempting to identify certain limits to a writer's achievement, critical response of a less than rapturous cast is exposed instantly to charges of carping and resentment" (39). This predicament is also, as McDonald observed in "Appreciating Assets," attributable to Heaney's genial sensibility, to his "gift for the humane and life-affirming," a gift that "makes critical disagreement with him both difficult and distasteful" (77). Such reflections on the relationship between a poet's artistic temperament and the critical reception of the poet's writing (to which the writing is often alert) open up for consideration the grounds and nature of Heaney's authority as a celebrated poet-critic. As regards his critical reflections on poetry, the authoritative air Heaney commands is of a peculiar kind. The language of his prose characteristically sways between hesitance and exuberance, self-deprecation and self-affirmation, a diffident sense of audience and a forthright insistence that poetry is, as he puts it in The Redress of Poetry, a "wilful and unabashed activity" (163); in part, the sway Heaney exerts as a critic is founded on this balancing of accommodative and assertive impulses. The appeal of the prose also derives, as David Trotter has argued, from Heaney's desire to win the reader's sympathetic indulgence through inventive metaphor, to avoid discursiveness by bringing his prose toward the condition of poetry. (7) In effecting this move, Heaney establishes continuities of manner and metaphor between his reflections on poetry and his practice of the art; as Corcoran puts it, "essays and poems form part of a single, even systematic effort of consciousness, an interior meditation which issues at once in acts of the imagination and constructions of the critical intelligence" (139). As the example of the scales imagery has already illustrated, the implications of this are double-edged: while the two modes of writing might be regarded as in certain respects mutually fortified by correspondences between them, reservations about Heaney's powers of control in one mode might well condition responses to aspects of the other.

There is a poem in The Spirit Level that provides a striking example of how Heaney's verse works together with his prose in partly fruitful, partly questionable alliance. "A Sofa in the Forties" (7-9) is closely linked in its preoccupations and narrative content to autobiographical reflections offered in Heaney's 1995 Nobel lecture, Crediting Poetry; beyond this it recalls many other details in his essays and poems. Heaney begins the poem by recollecting a childhood game of make-believe in which he and his siblings transformed the family sofa into a pretend railway train; as the memory of this activity expands, the harmless fantasy is set against intimations of cultural conflict and historical upheaval beyond the secure homestead. These intimations intensify in the third of the poem's four twelve-line sections:
    We entered history and ignorance
    Under the wireless shelf. Yippee-i-ay,
    Sang "The Riders of the Range." HERE IS THE NEWS,

    Said the absolute speaker. Between him and us
    A great gulf was fixed where pronunciation
    Reigned tyrannically. The aerial wire

    Swept from a treetop down in through a hole
    Bored in the windowframe. When it moved in wind,
    The sway of language and its furtherings

    Swept and swayed in us like nets in water
    Or the abstract, lonely curve of distant trains
    As we entered history and ignorance.

Heaney's notion of "the sway of language" plays off against each other ideas of externally imposed rhetorical coercion and internally rooted inclination. In an interview with me, he identified the crux of this poem as the dual signification of the word sway, noting that it is in part
    an image of command [...] and then there is one's swaying in
    sympathy or of necessity. [...] It has that double sense, that
    double possibility, of active or passive engagement.

The "command" of the newscaster's voice, whose "pronunciation" is presumably that of BBC "Queen's English," is presented in the poem as a form of cultural imperialism in a 1940s County Derry Catholic home. Broadcast across "a great gulf" from the supposed center to the provinces, this voice communicates an ostensibly definitive version ("THE NEWS") of momentous events going on elsewhere; its tone and concerns are so at odds with the dialect and day-to-day experiences of the rural household as to seem a tyrannical imposition.

Heaney exploits the ambiguity of sway to suggest how this influence was nonetheless tacitly resisted: the sway--or controlling power--exercised by the "absolute speaker" was tested, he implies, by the swaying--or fluctuating--nature of the response it received. (The light-hearted pun on "speaker" might itself be said to collude in such resistance, subverting with a touch of whimsy the grave implications of absolutism.) That "The sway of language and its furtherings / Swept and swayed in us like nets in water" conveys, on the one hand, an impression of Northern Ireland trawled by the nets of empire--in this reading "furtherings" are extensions of cultural infiltration--and, on the other, an impression of people simply swaying back and forth, bending as much to their own inclinations as in accommodation of alien influences: water cannot be held by any net. The "sway" of the radio broadcast might also be read as the product of interference, since it is caused by the aerial moving in wind; here the "furtherings" might be glossed as the effects of one radio voice merging with another (this gloss might be overdoing it, but it is prompted--as with certain responses to the scales imagery in "The Grauballe Man"--by the wide range of implications that Heaney's metaphorical language generates). In this reading, the local environment controls the broadcast as much as the broadcast controls the environment: the wind and the swaying of the tree arbitrarily determine what is and is not received from the larger world. Complicating these interpretive possibilities further is Heaney's interview remark about one's "swaying in sympathy or of necessity": if necessity denotes the begrudged imposition of a culturally "other" voice bringing news of distant events to the farmstead, then those events themselves, grim tidings perhaps from Europe in the first half of the forties, would nonetheless be liable to evince sympathy; the language "swept and swayed" through its listeners not merely like nets designed to capture something but also, more poignantly, like "the abstract, lonely curve of distant trains." The latter image conjures a mood of far-off unreality and ineffable pathos, stirring thoughts of deportation that can be neither fully imagined nor banished from the mind. To be "swayed" by such promptings is to be "swept" by the strong currents of emotion they are liable to provoke.

"A Sofa in the Forties" hovers uncertainly between an inclination to defend the impulses of creative fancy, as represented by the make-believe train, and a recognition that imaginative processes are always at some level subject to cultural and historical forces. This tension is implicit in the poem's abrupt transition from the "The Riders of the Range" to the sober announcement of the news program. Heaney's unwillingness to value one above the other is reflected in the beguiling phrase that frames this third section--"we entered history and ignorance"--in which conditions of knowing and unknowing are blurred. In the context of the poem as a whole, this paradoxical phrase suggests that the train game is a means of approaching history. As the poem progresses, the sofa takes on a funereal air. It is compared to a "ghost-train" and "death-gondola," and in the closing lines this vehicle of imaginative transport evokes the saddest, most forbidding instances of historical transportation and suffering:
    we sensed
    A tunnel coming up where we'd pour through
    Like unlit carriages through fields at night,
    Our only job to sit, eyes straight ahead,
    And be transported and make engine-noise.

The tunnel that the children enter in their imaginative game represents both the darkness of their historical ignorance and, evoking the Holocaust, the dark phase of history that shadows their activities. (8) These considerations do not, however, condemn the child's play. The game of make-believe on the sofa is continuous with the protected world of the family home life more generally. Heaney's representation of his own personal history is an act of cultural retrieval: he memorializes a vanished time and place, setting it against the "tyrannical" claims of alien media. The imaginative freedom of the children at play is an affirmative aspect of what, in the Stations prose poem "England's Difficulty," he terms "that opaque security, that autonomous ignorance" of his childhood life (16).

"A Sofa in the Forties" participates in a larger narrative (some might say a mythology) of rootedness in Heaney's work, an authenticating of cultural identity through remembered childhood experience. Most notably, the contours of the poem's world are faithfully reinscribed in Crediting Poetry. Though the children's train game is not mentioned in that lecture, there is a striking degree of continuity between "A Sofa in the Forties" and the poet's reminiscences about the secure "den-life" of his family farmhouse, a home world both receptive to and immured from the concerns of the wider world:
    We took in everything that was going on, of course--rain in the
    trees, mice on the ceiling, a steam train rumbling along the railway
    line one field back from the house--but we took it in as if we were
    in the doze of hibernation. Ahistorical, pre-sexual, in suspension
    between the archaic and the modern, we were as susceptible and
    impressionable as the drinking water that stood in a bucket in our
    scullery: every time a passing train made the earth shake, the
    surface of that water used to ripple delicately, concentrically, and
    in utter silence.
      But it was not only the earth that shook for us: the air around
    and above us was alive and signalling too. When a wind stirred in
    the beeches, it also stirred an aerial wire attached to the topmost
    branch of the chestnut tree. Down it swept, in through a hole bored
    in the corner of the kitchen window, right on into the innards of
    our wireless set where a little pandemonium of burbles and squeaks
    would suddenly give way to the voice of a BBC newsreader speaking
    out of the unexpected like a deus ex machina. [...]
      We could pick up [...] in the resonant English tones of the
    newsreader the names of bombers and of cities bombed, of war fronts
    and army divisions, the numbers of planes lost and of prisoners
    taken, of casualties suffered and advances made; and always, of
    course, we would pick up too those other, solemn and oddly bracing
    words, "the enemy" and "the allies." But even so, none of the news
    of these world-spasms entered me as terror. If there was something
    ominous in the newscaster's tones, there was something torpid about
    our understanding of what was at stake; and if there was something
    culpable about such political ignorance in that time and place,
    there was something positive about the security I inhabited as a
    result of it. (9-10)

"A Sofa in the Forties" and these opening reflections of Crediting Poetry both clarify and confuse each other. On one level, the essay reads as a gloss on the poem: it secures Heaney's hitherto location-free image of rippling water by setting it in a bucket in the family scullery, and it reveals that the "abstract, lonely curve of distant trains" is prompted by real activity in the local environment. Yet to read the poem in the light of the lecture, resolving abstract into concrete images, might also be to limit, even to distort, how the poem operates, especially since the lecture establishes a causal link between moving train and swaying water that does not exist in the poem. Moreover, Crediting Poetry undoes the chain of associations pursued by Heaney in the third section of "A Sofa in the Forties." The poem moves from the commanding tones of the newscaster's voice to the natural movements of rippling water that partly disperse this authority, and thence to the further dissolve of specificity in the realm of the "distant" trains. In the lecture, this movement is reversed: the images of passing train and moving water precede, and explain by analogy, the impact of the newsreader's voice. The householders' susceptibility to his authority is presented as a natural extension of their susceptibility to events in the environment. Nor does this "resonant English" voice invite resistance: in the lecture, it does not preside "tyrannically" by casting nets of British cultural dominance, but is "ominous" only for the news it reports from a world where the menace of actual tyranny is a pressing concern. Although this fearful world is also in the imaginative offing of "A Sofa in the Forties," there is no explicit focus in the poem on the realities of bombs and victims; if there had been, the idea of British pronunciation as a shadow form of tyranny might have faltered against the larger political considerations.

For these reasons, it would be simplistic to claim that the poem and the lecture are mutually supportive. While each could be thought to amplify the authority of the other--the lecture deriving its command from the same imaginative provenance as the poetry, and the poem claiming for itself a significant place in the Heaney canon by being intimately linked to a career-capping speech--one could also maintain that the two works unsettle each other. It is hard to say whether the interrelations of content and image result in an accumulation or a displacement of significance; there is an enhanced authoritative sway but also a swaying instability of reference that calls into question the self-sufficiency of each individual text. This authority and instability are intensified by detailed correspondences with a number of other works of Heaney's. For instance, the poem's idea of the BBC newscaster's voice as culturally invasive is shadowed by a recollection in an essay in The Government of the Tongue on radio programs delivered by the poet Patrick Kavanagh from the Irish Republic: "Over the border, into a Northern Ireland dominated by the noticeably English accents of the local BBC, he broadcast a voice that would not be cowed into accents other than its own" (9). More significantly, Heaney's concern with the interfering purchase of British on Irish culture through the medium of radio is considered at length in the essay "The Regional Forecast," which recalls the experience of local households listening to the BBC weather forecaster speaking "in a tone so authoritative it verged upon the tyrannical" (10). The gulf between the tone of certainty with which the forecast was issued from afar and the listeners' own weather-instincts is read by Heaney as a reflection of "the overall cultural situation in which the centre is privileged and the province is debilitated" (16); it suggests to him how the forecaster had "begun to interpose between ourselves and the evidence of our senses a version of the meteorological reality which weakened the sureness of our grip on our own experience" (11). Heaney interprets the eventual distrust of these weather forecasts as a small signal of cultural self-determination. Such reflections lead him to assert that the writer from the cultural margins "must re-envisage the region as the original point" (13) and to observe that
    anywhere where the English language and an imposed anglicised
    culture have radically altered the original social and linguistic
    conditions, there is likely to be a literary task [...] of
    subversion and  redefinition. (19). (9)

In certain ways, "A Sofa in the Forties" might be said to undertake precisely this task, challenging the tyranny of received cultural judgments by showing the Heaney householders at the center of their own world, swaying to their own impulses. (10)

The swayings in "A Sofa in the Forties" reflect the preoccupations of the volume in which the poem appears: The Spirit Level, as its title suggests, is concerned with the precarious equipoise made literal in "Weighing In," which describes how loads were balanced on a weigh-bridge so that "everything trembled, flowed with give and take" (17). (11) Heaney's phrase "the sway of language and its furtherings" can thus be read as an observation on the linguistic carryover from one poem to another. Indeed, the idea of "furtherings" marks an extension of his abiding concern in the previous collection, Seeing Things, with moments of imaginative dilation--as when, in "Markings," a children's football match acquires in the minds of its players a sense of "fleetness, furtherance, untiredness / In time that was extra, unforeseen and free" (8), or when, in poem 32 of "Squarings," Heaney recalls how "Running water never disappointed. / Crossing water always furthered something" (90). Nor do the ripple effects stop there: the Nobel lecture and "A Sofa in the Forties" look back also to the fourth of the "Glanmore Sonnets" in Field Work, where Heaney recalls the time when the local train went past and "in the house, small ripples shook / Silently across our drinking water" (36) and beyond that to the reminiscence in the Stations prose poem "Waterbabies" about playing in muddy water with a childhood companion, while "sometimes a bomber warbled far beyond us, sometimes a train ran through the fields and small ripples quivered silently across our delta" (9). This memory in turn anticipates the "Mossbawn" essay in Preoccupations, where Heaney recalls that the "great historical action" of American troops and bomber planes near the family farm did not "disturb the rhythms of the yard," the rhythms by which water was drawn from the family pump (17). Each of these instances serves as a "furthering" of the others, and such furthering might be read as an allegory for Heaney's poetics of transcendence: the ramifications of phrase and image that carry poems beyond their own borders function as tokens of Heaney's belief that poetic language transports consciousness into an "extra" dimension.

In "The Fire i' the Flint: Reflections on the Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins," also in Preoccupations, Heaney conceives of poetic composition as a mysterious process that builds up "a texture of echo and implication"; a poem achieves indefinable yet irresistible effects, he maintains, by "trawling the pool of the ear with a net of associations" (83). The metaphor anticipates his assertion in "Sounding Auden" that a poem's authority derives from "the sway gained over the deep ear and, through that, over other parts of our mind and nature." The sway of these figurations themselves makes them apt as analogies for considering how the "furtherings" of "echo and implication" in Heaney's writings work on the reader partly in ways that elude description: the ear is trawled with a net of associations; these sweep and sway in consciousness as one moves through and between texts, influencing how one hears and interprets. To say this may be to court the danger of critical impressionism or to risk falling in too easily with the poet's own figurations for poetic process and response, yet any consideration of the shifts and instabilities in Heaney's poetry must acknowledge the subtle, at times ineffable modulations of phrase and rhythm: the sway of the poetic line.

In the title poem of Seeing Things (16-17), for instance, swaying and balancing register not merely as motifs but also as musical effects. The following extract makes this clear:
    The sea was very calm but even so,
    When the engine kicked and our ferryman
    Swayed for balance, reaching for the tiller,
    I panicked at the shiftiness and heft
    Of the craft itself. What guaranteed us--
    That quick response and buoyancy and swim--
    Kept me in agony.

It would be insufficient merely to note that the imagery here points toward related metaphors in Heaney's work, such as the portrayal of Lowell riding "on the swaying tiller" of himself in "Elegy," or, more generally, toward Heaney's preoccupation with precarious equipoise, or toward his descriptions of mutable impulses in terms of shifting water. One needs also to recognize how the ideas of swaying and balancing are played out in the movements of the verse--in "undulant cadences" of the kind Heaney commends, in Finders Keepers, in the poetry of T. S. Eliot (34). The poem registers both the physical tremors and the psychological trepidation of a remembered family boat trip by engineering metrical turbulence in the swing of the line turn from "ferryman" to "Swayed" and in such rocking phrases as "When the engine kicked," "reaching for the tiller" and "shiftiness and heft." The ear responds to these volatile fluctuations in rhythm precisely because of the steadiness of surrounding lines: the sure, level iambic pentameter of "The sea was very calm but even so" and "That quick response and buoyancy and swim" is what guarantees Heaney's handling of his own "craft." The authoritative sway he achieves in the medium of poetic language is intimately bound up with his assured control of the swaying meter, its fluid "give and take."

Heaney has repeatedly conceived of poetic accomplishment in terms of nautical metaphors, though these have not all been equally fit for voyage. In the introduction to his Beowulf, for example, he offers a fanciful description of "moments of lyric intensity" in the Anglo-Saxon poem, when
    the keel of the poetry is deeply set in the element of sensation
    while the mind's lookout sways metrically and farsightedly in the
    element of pure comprehension--which is to say that the elevation of
    Beowulf is always, paradoxically, buoyantly down-to-earth. (xxi)

He also goes overboard in Crediting Poetry with his claim that "poetic form is both the ship and the anchor," that "it is at once a buoyancy and a holding, allowing for the simultaneous gratification of whatever is centrifugal and centripetal in mind and body" (29). (12) Although Heaney's precipitous "furtherings" of implication sometimes cause the metaphorical language to capsize, his terms do usefully identify a guiding impulse in his work: the desire to balance the physical and the metaphysical, the importunities of the world and the imperatives of the imagination. In terms of poetic form and language, this desire registers as an audible negotiation between weightiness and wavering. The tension between these alternative modes is explored directly in poem 2 of the "Squarings" sequence in Seeing Things (56), which ends with self-commands at once firm and fluxional:
    Sink every impulse like a bolt. Secure
    The bastion of sensation. Do not waver
    Into language. Do not waver in it.

As so often in Heaney's poetry, the delivery is two-toned, swaying between austerity and irony. The irony derives from the fact that Heaney insists on the pressure and precision of poetic language with a verbal fluidity that itself represents a form of wavering. Swaying between contrary imperatives, searching for moments of balance and surety yet registering every cross-current of thought that frustrates this aim, Heaney's work vindicates the large claims of his Nobel lecture:
    poetry can make an order as true to the impact of 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. (11)


1. In "Robert Lowell: A Memorial Address," Heaney recalls the poet's habit of approaching people in a manner "half buoyant, half somnambulant, on the balls of his feet, his voice at once sharp and sidling" (23). The swaying of Lowell's body is also implicitly linked in "Elegy" to alcohol consumption: "You drank America / like the heart's / iron vodka" (31). Lowell himself records his inebriated rocking motions in the poem "Seventh Year": "I stand swaying at the end of the party, / a half-filled glass in each hand-- / I too swayed / by the hard infatuate wind of love" (812). A different kind of swaying, induced by an attack of mental illness, is recorded in "For Ann Adden 4. Coda": "I have to brace my hand against a wall / to keep myself from swaying--swaying wall, / straitjacket, hypodermic, helmeted / doctors" (536).

2. Heaney has spoken of his attraction to a
    phrase which was still used in the country, about people who were
    famous or in control. It was said that "they held sway." I thought
    that was good for a warrior culture, so I began the [Beowulf] poem,
    "So, the Spear-Danes held sway once." (Hass and Heaney 10)

He subsequently changed this draft line.

3. See also Redress 36. The phrase fine excess derives from Keats's letter to John Taylor of 27 February 1818: "I think Poetry should surprise by a fine excess and not by Singularity--it should strike the Reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a Remembrance" (238).

4. Other Heaney poems that use scales imagery in arguably problematic ways are "Terminus" in The Haw Lantern (5); poem 40 of "Squarings" in Seeing Things (100); "Weighing In" (17), "Mycenae Lookout" (30), and "The Poplar" (50) in The Spirit Level; and the Electric Light poem "Ten Glosses: 4. A Suit" (54).

5. A Yeatsian sense of "terrible beauty" is in the air here: see "Easter 1916" (Yeats 287-89).

6. The oft-cited criticisms, by Ciaran Carson, Conor Cruise O'Brien, David Lloyd, Edna Longley, Blake Morrison, and others, of North's politicized mythologies are usefully summarized, along with alternative critical readings, in Andrews (80-119).

7. "Heaney's essays [...] constantly aspire to a lyric action which would absolve their most important insights from discursiveness" (Trotter 12).

8. In a personal interview, Heaney remarked to me that in these lines he "was thinking, of course, of the Holocaust, and the atrocious callousness of that operation."

9. Heaney's own radio broadcasts for the BBC and Radio Telefis Eireann, especially frequent in the 1970s, could be viewed as part of the project of cultural redress he envisages in "The Regional Forecast."

10. "A Sofa in the Forties" and Crediting Poetry also implicitly connect to the Stations prose poem "England's Difficulty" (16), with its recollection of the infamous "Haw Haw" radio broadcasts that "called to lamplit kitchens" during the Second World War. Childhood memories of radio voices feature more positively in the Preoccupations essay "Feeling into Words" (45) and the seventh of the "Glanmore Sonnets" in Field Work (39); both the essay and the poem recall the alluring rhythms of the shipping forecast. In the title poem of Electric Light Heaney remembers nostalgically how, as a child listening to the wireless, he "roamed at will the stations of the world" (81) while in "The Real Names," in the same volume, Heaney recalls a "terrible night" of stormy weather and political violence when the chestnut tree was rocked by wind and "the aerial rod like a mast / Whiplashed in tempest" (48).

11. Compare, for example, "The Swing," another poem in which the action of swaying is figured as imaginative liberation: "In spite of all, we sailed / Beyond ourselves" (49).

12. Poems that employ nautical imagery to describe poetic impulse include the title poem of North (19-20); the final section of "Casualty" in Field Work (23-24); two poems in The Haw Lantern, "From the Republic of Conscience" (12) and "From the Canton of Expectation" (47); and poem 8 of the "Squarings" sequence in Seeing Things (62).

Works cited

Andrews, Elmer, ed. The Poetry of Seamus Heaney. Cambridge: Icon, 1998.

Corcoran, Neil. The Poetry of Seamus Heaney: A Critical Study. London: Faber, 1998.

Dodsworth, Martin. "Edward Thomas, Seamus Heaney, and Modernity: A Reply to Antony Easthope." English 49 (2000): 143-54.

Hart, Henry. Seamus Heaney: Poet of Contrary Progressions. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1992.

Hass, Robert, and Seamus Heaney. Sounding Lines: The Art of Translating Poetry. Berkeley: Doreen B. Townsend Center for the Humanities, 2000.

Heaney, Seamus, trans. Beowulf. London: Faber, 1999.

______. Crediting Poetry: The Nobel Lecture 1995. Loughcrew: Gallery, 1995.

______. Electric Light. London: Faber, 2001.

______. Field Work. London: Faber, 1979.

______. Finders Keepers: Selected Prose 1971-2001. London: Faber, 2002.

______. The Government of the Tongue: The 1986 T.S. Eliot Memorial Lectures and Other Critical Writings. London: Faber, 1988.

______. The Haw Lantern. London: Faber, 1987.

______. North. London: Faber, 1975.

______. Personal interview. 24 May 1994.

______. Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968-1978. London: Faber, 1980.

______. The Redress of Poetry: Oxford Lectures. London: Faber, 1995.

______. "The Regional Forecast." The Literature of Region and Nation. Ed. R. P. Draper. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1989.10-23.

______. "Robert Lowell: A Memorial Address." Agenda 18.3 (1980): 23-28.

______. Seeing Things. London: Faber, 1991.

______. The Spirit Level. London: Faber, 1996.

______. Stations. Belfast: Ulsterman, 1975.

Keats, John. The Letters of John Keats 1814-1821. Ed. Edward Rollins Hyder. Vol. 1. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1958.

Lloyd, David. "'Pap for the Dispossessed': Seamus Heaney and the Poetics of Identity." Anomalous States: Irish Writing and the Post-Colonial Moment. Dublin: Lilliput, 1993. 13-40.

Lowell, Robert. Collected Poems. Ed. Frank Bidart and David Gewanter. London: Faber, 2003.

McDonald, Peter. "Appreciating Assets." Rev. of Finders Keepers, by Seamus Heaney. Poetry Review 92.2 (2002): 76-79.

______. "Levelling Out." Rev. of The Spirit Level, by Seamus Heaney. Thumbscrew 5 (1996): 39-48.

Ratiner, Steven. "Seamus Heaney: The Words Worth Saying." Interview. Giving Their Word: Conversations with Contemporary Poets. U of Massachusetts P, 2002. 95-107.

Ricks, Christopher. "The Mouth, the Meal, and the Book." Rev. of Field Work, by Seamus Heaney. London Review of Books 8 Nov. 1979: 4-5.

Trotter, David. "Troubles." Rev. of The Government of the Tongue, by Seamus Heaney. London Review of Books 23 June 1988: 11-12.

Weil, Simone. Gravity and Grace. Trans. Emma Craufurd. London: Routledge, 1952.

Yeats, W. B. Yeats's Poems. Ed. Norman A. Jeffares. London: Macmillan, 1989.
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Title Annotation:The Makings of a Music: Reflections on Wordsworth and Yeats
Author:James, Stephen
Publication:Twentieth Century Literature
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Sep 22, 2005
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