The popularity of Seamus Heaney

Station Island, by Seamus Heaney. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 123 pages. $11.95. Cloth. My speech shall distill as the dew. Deuteronomy

The poet leads a contemplative life. In a world where action -- political, economic, sexual -- is necessary if one is to feel accepted, this makes the poet feel guilty. As an Irish poet, Seamus Heaney has explored the guilt of his calling; in a time of troubles, he bears the cross of the observer, sometimes posing -- over against the sectarian violence of his time and place -- ``the diamond absolutes'' of his poetry.

At one point in his new collection, Heaney pleads with the ghost of his second cousin Colum, who had been shot through the head by a Protestant, telling him what he felt: ``I felt like the bottom of a dried-up lake.'' Colum charges him with blinding himself to the horror with Dante's ``Purgatorio''; and Colum adds that Seamus had ``saccharined'' his cousin's death ``with morning dew.''

Heaney's guilt, then, involves specific choices -- the universal contexts provided by ``The Divine Comedy'' over a merely political position -- and a kind of action. Heaney ``saccharines'' the horrors of the troubles by writing poems about them.

And yet that poetry is full of specific images of violence. The Dantean ghosts that visit him tell him grim stories; there is nothing saccharine about these images.

Heaney's religion is not so much that of the medieval Catholic as that of the modern poet. The basis of Heaney's popularity is his ability to project an image of himself as a sane, normal, sensitive individual in love with writing poems -- a scribe.

His recent translations and glosses on Sweeney (the 7th-century Ulster king cursed by St. Ronan into a bird) notwithstanding, Heaney does not make a very convincing ironist. If he sees himself as Sweeney metamorphosed into a bird, we see him as a poet attending, with a sometimes masochistic sincerity, to his calling.

Even in the difficult title poem, a sequence requiring -- and rewarding -- many rereadings, this thesis checks out. That is, the poet's capacity of showing things in their dewy freshness is a capacity with a peculiar propriety: It is the poet's specific praxis. Even before we get to the title poem, we have a short sequence entitled ``Shelf-life.'' Here individual poems are titled for the objects they are about, and present things, such as a granite chip, an old smoothing iron, old pewter, an iron spike, a snowshoe, as symbols of the poet's most intimate sense of himself in the world.

So it comes as no surprise when, in the terrible pit of guilt and despair of ``Station Island,'' the turn comes when he sees something out of his past, an ``old brass trumpet,'' and then, more profoundly, an ``old and glazed and haircracked'' mug:

It had stood for years

in its patient sheen and turbulent atoms,

unchallenging, unremembered lars

I seemed to waken to and waken from.

The complex precision of these verses leads up to a comparison of this retrieval to St. Ronan's retrieval of his Psalter ``miraculously unharmed'' from the lough. There is no irony in the comparison. Heaney has earned his right to speak directly of spiritual things.

Later a monk visits him in Station Island and urges him ``to salvage everything, to re-envisage/ the zenith and glimpsed jewels of any gift/ mistakenly abased.'' This re-envisaging is the root of Heaney's power as a poet. It is, in his word, an act of ``translation,'' sometimes literal and literary (as in the Sweeney translations published last year), but more often and more importantly figurative. Heaney, like Proust and Joyce, has committed himself to a campaign of retrieval. The discipline of literary art allows him to recall to life what time, violence, and neglect have destroyed.

``The Birthplace'' opens: ``The deal table where he wrote, so small and plain,/ the single bed a dream of discipline.'' As we read Heaney and the other great poets, we come to share the world retrieved from oblivion by the toil of the poet, and we are to that extent beholden to him. For it is our world. In brief, these contemplatives perform an activity essential to our welfare: They replenish our deep sense of our own lives as having enduring value.

Thomas D'Evelyn edits the Monitor's book page.

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