Review: Seamus Heaney Selected Poems 1966-1987

Seamus Heaney Selected Poems 1966-1987, Seamus Heaney. New York: The Noonday Press, 1990.

Summary: A selection of the poetry of Seamus Heaney from previously published works between 1966 and 1987.

My one previous encounter with Seamus Heaney was his rendering of Beowulf, a powerful version of this Old English heroic narrative. I’ve long wanted to explore his poetry and a while back picked up this collection, gathering a number of poems from the first half of his writing career (subsequently, an edition covering 1988 to 2013 was released).

The poems in this selection come from the following works:

  • Death of a Naturalist
  • Door in the Dark
  • Wintering Out
  • Stations
  • North
  • Field Work
  • Sweeney Astray
  • Station Island
  • The Haw Lantern

How does one summarize and review all this? One reviewer described reading Heaney as “muddled clarity.” I would agree with this assessment. Heaney demands multiple readings and this was merely my first taste. In the middle of a poem, you wonder what he is saying, and then a phrase leaps out and rivets your attention.

His work evokes the land–the bogs and trees, the fields and hedges, the broagh or riverbanks, that together create a sense of place. He captures the people–the farmers, the roof thatcher, and the Tollund Man, a mummified corpse found in one of the bogs. He remembers the dead, from Francis Ledwidge, who died in World War I to his mother, Margaret Kathleen Heaney (“M.K.H”) in Clearances that evoke all the memories of a loved one, the parting of death, and the awareness of our mortality.

The violence present in Northern Ireland is a frequently present backdrop to his poetry as is the imagery of Irish Catholicism from missals to masses. Much of this comes together in the last poem in this collection, The Disappearing Island:

Once we presumed to found ourselves for good

Between its blue hills and those sandless shores

Where we spent our desperate night in prayer and vigil.

Seamus Heaney, p. 261.

The collection includes selections from Sweeney Astray, Heaney’s version of the Irish poem Buile Shuibhne, the Glanmore Sonnets, and Station Island.

One should have a phone or computer handy to look up words and references that may be obscure to one. Perhaps some day, an annotated version of Heaney’s works will do this work for us. But for now, we are left to do the work for ourselves. Some will pass this up, but some of the richest readings are the ones that have required me to dig. Heaney’s works seem to me to be among these. In this we join Heaney who compared his work to that of his potato farming father:

Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests

I’ll dig with it.

Seamus Heaney, “Digging,” p. 3.

Review: Beowulf

beowulfBeowulfunknown, Seamus Heaney (translator). New York: W.W. Norton, 2000.

Summary: Seamus Heaney’s translation of this Old English poem, the heroic narrative of Beowulf’s confrontations with three deadly foes.

Long before the Lord of the Rings trilogy, there was Beowulf, thought to be written in the ninth century.

The tale is a familiar one in its basic narrative with Beowulf confronting three monstrous foes, Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and in old age after a long reign over the Geats, a dragon, who he also defeats, but at the price of being mortally wounded.

There are several things that impress me about the story itself. Young Beowulf is a man on a heroic journey upward. He volunteers to be sent by his king, Hygelac, to relieve the Danes of the terror of Grendel. While pious and acknowledging that his life is in God’s hands, he also strikes one as quite assured of his own powers, so much so that he will fight Grendel weaponless. He succeeds in wrenching Grendel’s arm from his shoulder, mortally wounded him arousing the avenging wrath of Grendel’s mother. After she kills one of the Danes, he goes to fight her in her watery abode, barely defeating her when his by a sword in her armory when his own sword fails him. He is celebrated twice over and rewarded with treasure. But he is also warned of the perils of power, by Hrothgar, the king of the Danes:

“O flower of warriors, beware of that trap.
Choose, dear Beowulf, the better part,
eternal rewards. do not give way to pride.
For a brief while your strength is in bloom
but it fades quickly; and soon there will follow
illness or the sword to lay you low,
or a sudden fire or surge of water
or jabbing blade or javelin from the air
or repellent age. Your piercing eye
will dim and darken; and death will arrive,
dear warrior, to sweep you away.

Beowulf returns to his king, and eventually succeeds him, and maintains the peace and safety of his people, providing a space of calm from the wars that raged around them. In his old age,  he receives the report of a dragon awakened to rage by a theft from its horde, making depredations on his people. Once again he goes alone (a Christ figure?) deserted by his men,save Wiglaf his thane, this time the sacrificial hero for his people, on a journey downward to death, succeeding with the help of Wiglaf, in slaying the beast, while suffering a mortal wound.

And so the lesson of ephemeral power and life is realized. Throughout the narrative, we have flashbacks of other battles with Swedes and Danes, and the land of the Geats will lie at rest only a little longer, with Beowulf dead. But the poem ends with his funeral pyre, and his remains buried in a barrow with the dragon’s horde, seeing the wealth of gold as accursed.

What is also striking to me is the economy of words used to tell this story. Three heroic battles in just over 3000 lines. No long build-ups, no marathon descriptions of battles. Even the speeches seem brief and again and again one finds oneself saying, “that’s it?” while concluding that that was all that was needed.

Seamus Heaney’s translation, side by side with the Old English, conveys the lyricism and power of the original. His captures the form of the two balanced half lines with two stresses each of the poem and uses alliteration to convey these lyric qualities. Here, for example, his opening:

So, The Spear-Danes in days gone by
and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns.

The alliteration is never forced, the wording seems natural and the tale unfolds as the signal work that it is for English letters. If you’ve never read this poem, or suffered through a poor rendering of it, I would urge you to buy this edition.