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“To construct something upon which to rejoice”: Seamus Heaney's Prose Revisions

John Dennison
Affiliation:
University of Wellington
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Summary

In his essay on Seamus Heaney's collected Oxford lectures, The Redress of Poetry, Tim Kendall offers a brief impression of the eloquence and completeness of that collection, remarking that, in comparison to Heaney's early prose criticism, “his later prose seems more planned, more polished and more professional” (233). The intuition behind this passing observation is accurate to a degree not countenanced by such brevity. Heaney's prose—and particularly the poetics of the late 1980s to mid-1990s—is “planned” and “polished”: it is, in fact, frequently revised between first publication and subsequent collection. Some revisions are insignificant, incidental to the translation from lecture to essay; others, such as those made to Heaney's inaugural Oxford lecture, are extensive and substantial; still others, such as the suppression of a paragraph in the collected version of his Nobel speech, are as revealing as they are surprising. On closer inspection, it transpires that every collection of Heaney's prose—from Preoccupations to the selection Finders Keepers — includes some significant revisions. All of this points to the ways in which the published prose has been “polished” in a repeated, even habitual effort of self-conformation and, in some instances, self-censorship. The revisions signal how central the question of development must be to critical assessments of Heaney's prose. At their most significant, they serve to establish unequivocally the fundamental preoccupations of Heaney's poetics; indeed, they reveal the degree to which the prose itself is shaped by his trust in the transcendent possibilities of creative endeavor.

There has been some limited critical assessment of Heaney's revisions in poetic composition (McGuinness), partly stimulated by the publication of worksheets of poems collected in North (“Worksheets”; Curtis 1982, 53–62). North has received further attention in Anthony Cuda's discussion of an unpublished epigraph from Eliot's “Little Gidding.” Michael Molino has drawn attention to the marked increase in revisions and omissions of already published poems in Wintering Out, compared with Heaney's first two collections. Likewise, Patrick Crotty has acutely probed the revisions that emerge between Heaney's Selected Poems of 1980 and 1990. Most significantly, with the publication of Brandes and Durkan's Bibliography, the extensive, oeuvre-wide and habitual character of Heaney's revisions to published material—prose, as well as poems—can now be apprehended as never before.

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Writing Modern Ireland , pp. 128 - 150
Publisher: Liverpool University Press
Print publication year: 2015

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