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The alertness to the languages and literatures of Scotland that marks Seamus Heaney’s work in all its stages is rooted in an awareness of the Scottish derivation of much of the distinctive lexis of his native region. Ignorance of and even antipathy towards Lowland dialect and culture occasionally surfaces in Irish writing in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, for instance in Carleton and Yeats. Heaney’s enthusiasm for Scotland was in some respects anticipated by James Joyce, another etymologically obsessed Irish writer, though it is notable that, unlike the novelist’s, the poet’s interests included the Highland Gaelic as well as the Lowland English and Scots aspects of Scottish literary achievement. The chapter traces Heaney’s sustained engagement with Scotland in his separate capacities as editor, translator and poet and concludes by examining key intertexts between his poetry and that of Hugh MacDiarmid.
From a long literary historical perspective, William Butler Yeats and Hugh MacDiarmid can look almost like twins. Each was a poet and the central figure in a patriotically inflected literary movement that had its context in a wider cultural repudiation of English hegemony in the United Kingdom and a political challenge to the inclusion of their countries in that polity. Seeing poetry and controversy as allied activities, both writers were vigorous self-mythologisers whose interventions in public life were condemned as hubristic by their opponents. Yeats and MacDiarmid not only projected themselves as avatars of a resurgent phase in the history of their ancient nations but shared a vision of leadership by aesthetic example – their distinctively national poetry (and, in the Irish poet's case, drama) would give their compatriots an enhanced sense of the riches of the past and the possibilities of the future, while their propagandistic endeavours would at once energise their art and create the conditions for its reception. They even shared a response to disappointment in the latter objective, exploiting it as an occasion of querulous lyric eloquence.
On closer inspection, however, the parallels become less persuasive. Even if the Scottish Literary Renaissance inaugurated by MacDiarmid was modelled to a degree on the Irish Literary Revival led by Yeats, these were in important respects disparate phenomena, which took place in divergent circumstances.
Intriguing issues relating to the workings of canonicity in contemporary writing surround Seamus Heaney’s swift rise to international prominence in the 1970s and his increasing eminence in anglophone poetry worldwide in subsequent decades. In the poet’s own generation, the congruence of wide popularity and critical acclaim has perhaps a readier parallel in mass culture (the Beatles and Bob Dylan) than in literature. Of twentieth-century poets about the scale of whose achievement there is something approaching consensus, only the ultra-canonical Yeats, Eliot and Auden have enjoyed the sort of High Street profile that brought Heaney’s Beowulf and District and Circle into the hardback non-fiction best-seller lists in Britain. The contrast with the fortunes of the majority of leading figures in the modern pantheon is striking. For all the reverence their verse has received from critics and fellow-practitioners, writers even of the stature of Wallace Stevens and Elizabeth Bishop have remained more or less invisible to a non-specialist readership. And very few of the poets who have, like Heaney, made it into the Sunday supplements and the public consciousness have been given a welcome comparable to his in the academy. Robert Frost, Dylan Thomas, Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath all won wide audiences for their work but Frost’s academic reputation is mainly posthumous, Thomas’s currently in abeyance, Hughes’s uncertain and Plath’s dependent on a handful of poems written at the end of her tragically abbreviated life. While not inconsiderable, the varieties of official recognition granted to Frost (who in his eighty-seventh year made a celebrated, wind-blown appearance at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration) and Hughes (who accepted and invigorated the poet laureateship of England) look national rather than global when set against the example of a poet who has occupied simultaneously the Boylston Chair of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard and the Professorship of Poetry at Oxford, has been awarded innumerable honorary degrees, has performed at the ceremony marking the 2004 expansion of the European Union and has won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Even among the five English-language poetic beneficiaries of what Yeats called the bounty of Sweden, Heaney cuts a singular figure. Neither the imperialist Rudyard Kipling nor his post-colonial polar twin Derek Walcott ever looked out on the world from an established canonical niche; austere and forbidding, the public personae cultivated by W. B. Yeats and T. S. Eliot were continuous with the stubbornly anti-democratic values promoted by their art.
The fifty years from 1890 to 1940 are at once among the most distinguished and the most problematic in the development of Irish poetry in English. They encompass the steadily incremental and ultimately magisterial career of W. B. Yeats, who, besides being the country’s first indisputably great Anglophone poet, was a writer of ampler gifts and resourcefulness than any produced by the island’s Gaelic tradition since Dáibhí Ó Bruadair. Yeats is as central as Shelley or Tennyson to the history of what used to be called English literature, yet the matter of Ireland is at the core of his themes and figuration, while the manner of Ireland is to varying degrees audible in his idiom. These same years, however, were characterised also by the activities of a range of lesser poets, many of them notably popular in their day, to whose work it is now difficult to respond except in terms of its period interest. One of the problems with Dora Sigerson Shorter, James Stephens, F. R. Higgins and many of the other writers who appear, from our contemporary perspective, to bob in Yeats’s wash is that their very success in affecting the manner and/or pursuing the matter of Ireland cut them off from wider concerns. Some of these poets spent more time out of the country than Yeats did, but at best they only intermittently managed to accommodate the broader challenges of modernity in their verse.
Europe underwent tumultuous change in the half-century from the fall of Parnell to the fall of France.
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