Digging for freedom

Seamus Heaney's search for 'musical trueness' reveals a poet and critic approaching greatness. By Lachlan Mackinnon : The Redress of Poetry: Oxford Lectures by Seamus Heaney Faber, pounds 15.99
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The Professorship of Poetry at Oxford is an odd post. Every five years the graduates of the university are invited to elect a new incumbent, who is expected to give three lectures a year. He (no woman has yet held the post) has no syllabus to follow and prepares candidates for no examination. There have been some pretty dim professors, and the job's existence is often questioned. These lectures, given by Seamus Heaney during his time as Professor of Poetry, vindicate the post entirely: they are by far the most important series since those of WH Auden nearly 40 years ago.

They matter not simply because of their often brilliant readings of particular poems but because of the moral clarity and force which bind them together. Heaney writes that "In order that human beings bring about the most radiant conditions for themselves to inhabit, it is essential that the vision of reality which poetry offers should be transformative, more than just a print-out of the given circumstances of its time and place." Indeed, "the goal of life on earth, and of poetry as a vital factor in the achievement of that goal, is what Yeats called the 'profane perfection of mankind'." Heaney's lectures rest on these beliefs, as they do on his conviction that, "We go to poetry, we go to literature in general, to be forwarded within ourselves."

Heaney's most passionate assertions of his credo come as he compares Philip Larkin's late poem "Aubade", and its ultimately cowering attitude to death, with the vision of WB Yeats. In particular, Heaney is troubled by Larkin's dictum that "Death is no different whined at than withstood." After a splendidly acute reading of the poem in technical terms, with particular attention to Larkin's rhymes and the way in which he re-uses single words from earlier poems, Heaney delivers the lethal judgement that "For all its heartbreaking truths and beauties, 'Aubade' reneges on what Yeats called the 'spiritual intellect's great work'." Here, "reneges" carries its full, terrible weight. Its condemnation seeps into our whole sense of Larkin's work - and rightly.

Heaney's verdict on Larkin is not simply a dismissal of bleakness per se. By contrast, he praises Samuel Beckett, Larkin's equal in pessimism, for the "transformative" artistic labour which makes his works live. Heaney is writing not just for readers but for poets when he says that John Clare "inspires one to trust that poetry can break through the glissando of post-modernism and get stuck in the mud of real imaginative haulage work.'' Writing is labour, as fruitful and necessary as the "Digging" with which Heaney compared it in an early poem, but its purpose is freedom.

We are liberated from conventional ways of thinking and being in "the fluid, exhilarating moment which lies at the heart of any memorable reading, the undisappointed joy of finding that everything holds up and answers the desire that it awakens." Poetry takes us to this place not only through "the content of its statements", but "more emphatically in terms of metre and syntax, of tone and musical trueness'', and also "by its need to go emotionally and artistically ... beyond the established norms". Doing this, it is an "answer to the world'' redressing, restoring, by its surprise and rightness, a full sense of human possibility.

It is that "musical trueness", the coming together of beauty and truth celebrated by Keats, that Heaney seeks and finds in his chosen authors. Heaney's reading of Marlowe's "Hero and Leander" is informed by a sense of the poet's youthful personality and its sinister glamour which properly lifts the poem from its usual dead anthology life. His account of Brian Merriman's 18th-century Irish poem "The Midnight Court", a plea for women's sexual needs, shows a learned awareness of the history of the poem's Irish reputation and how politics have been involved in that history. Considering "The Ballad of Reading Gaol", he is able to persuade us that Oscar Wilde's mother's poem "The Brothers'' helped to shape his bearing in the dock. Heaney regrets that Dylan Thomas's Edenic moments now seem too easy, but can still praise "Do not go gentle into that good night", with its raging grief for the poet's father, as a genuinely earned poem.

In 1987, Heaney published a poetry collection called The Haw Lantern. Titles such as "From the Republic of Conscience" and "From the Canton of Expectation" convey the book's often rather arid attempts to find a parable-like poetry of wisdom in the manner of Milosz or Joseph Brodsky. It was a clumsy but necessary step on the way to Seeing Things (1991), his latest and by far his best book to date, a genuinely strange and "transformative" book of visions that triumphantly escapes the misgiving that his earlier poems were just too easily explicable, that they left too little of the mysterious imaginative residue we want from poems.

Equally, Heaney's earlier critical work was, while always competent, never exciting. This is an unfashionable view and I emphasise it because of the unexpected boldness with which Seeing Things stepped into mystery, a boldness reflected in the imaginative power of The Redress of Poetry. Heaney's Oxford audiences had an unusual privilege, which we can now share: of glimpsing some of the thinking and feeling with which a good poet is entering greatness.