"Why should not old men be mad?" asked WB Yeats. Seamus Heaney (born 1939) is not yet old, and, as he puts it in a version from Horace, "Anything can happen". But the work of Heaney's maturity suggests that sanity will continue to get his vote - as it has done for the 40 years since the publication of his first, hugely influential book Death of a Naturalist, which is republished alongside his new collection (his twelfth), District and Circle.
The sanity that Heaney's poetry commends and embodies is derived in large part from his devotion to the world of the ordinary - to the objects, the places and people and the way of life in which he grew up in rural Co Derry, where, as he has pointed out, poetry is not viewed as an especially significant matter. Rituals of work, customs and courtesies are all of great importance for him. In imagination he has never strayed far from the original sites of his affections, though work and fame have carried him off and away into places and company apparently remote from the assurances of home. The home landscape, with its now-famous names, such as Toome and Anahorish, both revisited here, has been a permanent and portable resource, as real a presence on the drafted page as in the physical fact.
Sketched in that way, Heaney's career sounds like a recipe for reactionary provincialism, yet nothing could be farther from the case. What Heaney has done is reclaim, renew and give service to an element of Romanticism embodied in the work of one of his poetic masters, Wordsworth - the sense that in landscape lies wisdom and some guidance for the conduct of life. In "Wordsworth's Skates", recalling the wonderful skating episode in The Prelude, Heaney moves swiftly past the relics to evoke "the reel of them of frozen Windermere/ As he flashed from the clutch of earth along its curve / And left it scored." The musical pun is a bold one, affirming the permanence of Wordsworth's art in the consciousness even of that vast public which may never read a page of Wordsworth or Heaney - for much of what we know of place derives from poetry.
District and Circle does most of its work very quietly. A pair of sonnets on facing pages, "Polish Sleepers"and "Anahorish 1944", subtly presents the competing claims of a free, contemplative consciousness and of the insistent larger world. In the first, in a spirit akin to Edward Thomas, Heaney writes, "I'd lie/ Listening for the goods from Castledawson.../ Each languid, clanking wagon,/ And afterwards, rust, thistles, silence, sky..." In the second the arrival of American soldiers "hosting for Normandy" makes the locals feel "'like youngsters / as they tossed us gum and tubes of coloured sweets.'" This recalls "The Toome Road" from the 1979 collection Field Work, where the speaker, finding a military convoy passing through his land at dawn, is able to affirm the durability of place as a form of resistance: "O charioteers, above your dormant guns,/ It stands here still, stands vibrant as you pass,/ The invisible, untoppled omphalos." The contrasting sense of disempowerment in the more recent poem seems to derive from the nationality of the visitors, who represent the American imperium rather than the declining colonial power of the British.
It is curious to find Heaney writing about powerlessness. Elsewhere in his work there are resources of knowledge or tradition to call on, ways round or under the obstruction of history. Here, though, he must consider events which threaten to undo meaning itself. In "Anything Can Happen", a storm sent by Jupiter "shook the earth /And the clogged underearth, the River Styx, / The winding streams, the Atlantic shore itself. / Anything can happen, the tallest towers// Be overturned, those in high places daunted,/ Those overlooked regarded." The Roman poet Horace, ever the realist about human affairs, allows Heaney to broach the theme of what may prove an irreparable disorder without raising his voice.
Sanity, though, is not the same as immunity. The matter is pursued in "Out of Shot", where a donkey-cart mortar improvised by Iraqi insurgents visits itself on a mind peaceably contemplating livestock in an Irish field, which in turn implicitly recalls the IRA's back-of-a-van mortar attack on 10 Downing Street in 1991. '"Out of Shot" proffers itself as a sketch, a note, its method recalling Ted Hughes's Moortown poems. When a poet as fluent and fastidious as Heaney denudes a poem of a main verb, it suggests unstable materials, resistant to settled interpretation.
If "anything can happen", how is the imagination to brace itself? Heaney's way is to scrutinise familiar objects for their accumulation of meaning - a stove-lid, a turnip-snedder, a railway sleeper, a fireman's helmet, a bricklayer's trowel. The last two items witness Heaney's long absorption in the Classics: both are used to reveal soldierly virtues benevolently applied to a peacetime world.
Bobby Breen's Boston fireman's helmet evokes a body of men pitted against the elements, while Mick Joyce's bricklayer's trowel, which the poet was sometimes deputed to clean - "Its iron was heavy, / Its slope-angled handle / So thick spanned and daunting / I needed two hands" - is like the ploughshare of an Achilles renouncing war.
District and Circle is also a book of elegies, with Mick Joyce taking his place alongside the poets Czeslaw Milosz, George Seferis and Pablo Neruda. Reading "The Lift", the finest of a distinguished group of poems, where the coffin of a "favourite aunt, good sister, faithful daughter" is carried to the grave by four women friends, one takes fresh note of virtues in Heaney's work that are both personal and civic - among them tact, reticence, respect and an inexhaustible capacity for taking notice of the details that characterise a life and can be used to honour it.
How then, one wonders, does the poet address the prospect of his mortality? For though Heaney's poetry has drawn freely on his life, he has not been a central character in the sense that Lowell or Larkin are in their work. His interests lie elsewhere. The enigmatic and fascinating title poem touches on death via a tube carriage's reflections - "My father's glazed face in my own waning/ And craning", but the closing poem, "The Blackbird of Glanmore", insists on, and is sustained by, a sense of proportion. The bird is "On the grass when I arrive,// In the ivy when I leave."
Sean O'Brien's 'Cousin Coat' is published by PicadorReuse content