On Seamus Heaney by R. F. Foster

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

Writing with the restraint of the professional academic but with all the vim of a youthful enthusiast, R. F. Foster has published On Seamus Heaney, his take on the life and writings of one of Ireland’s famous poets. A deep knowledge of Irish literature and the Irish people and their history makes Foster particularly well qualified to record Heaney’s life, and to comment on the poet’s entire oeuvre, thereby adding appreciably to our understanding of the degree of richness in Heaney’s life and work.

Foster shows his readers how Heaney grew to prominence in a divided, changing Ireland. He begins with an image of Heaney as a boy. “There is a Proustian exactness in his evocation of the texture and detail of his early life, the unerring memory for the illustration on a tin of condiments or the name of an obscure piece of machinery, and he retained a novelist’s perception of circumstance and psychology” (4).

There’s an awful lot to unpack in that description. For our purposes it is enough that Foster has captured the young Heaney in a manner that readers can grasp fully, and the description is written in elevated language that is appropriate to the status of its subject. Foster suggests that early in his life there are depths in Heaney’s works that we have hitherto only guessed at.

Foster provides a careful appraisal of influences on Heaney’s development. We’re informed that the poet Louis MacNeice had little in common with Heaney but that Gerard Manley Hopkins was able to capture exactly the essence of Heaney’s experience of boarding at St Columb’s: “the claustrophobia and scrupulosity and ordering of the mind, the cold-water shaves and the single iron beds, the soutanes and the self-denial” (Hopkins’s journals, cited in Foster, 12). Heaney escaped this life but “a Catholicism of the imagination would remain” (12).

Foster plants images of the developing poet, not directly but through referencing the success of a particular poem at a specific time. For example, the poem Mid-term Break is described as a powerful poem, “a deceptively simple recollection of his younger brother’s death in a road accident outside the family home, when fourteen-year-old Heaney was away at boarding school” (18). The amount of information about Heaney in 1963 in that short passage is remarkable. Foster describes the poem as “an envoi of astounding self-confidence” (19).

For many, Heaney was a national figure at a time when nationality was hotly contested and fame was not a comfortable appellation to wear. Foster finds a clever “evasiveness and creative ambiguity” in Heaney’s poetry that forms a response which in turn tempers the poet’s refusal to become a public spokesperson for any of the squabbling sects. Heaney’s move to California  in 1970 had exposed him to a culture less rigid than his own and gave him a direction , “a charged-up sense of Yeats and Joyce” (29). Little gems like these focus reader-attention more and more on both Heaney and also on the enormous value of Foster’s little publication.

The first page contains an intimate glimpse of Foster’s subject and is an efficient hook to snare the readers’ attention. I’m referring to Heaney’s desire to gain access to the auditory imagination:

the audience’s readiness to…credit the poet with the power to open unexpected and unedited communications between our nature and the nature of the reality we inhabit (Heaney cited in Foster, 1).

Some of the most prestigious audiences listened and imagined when Heaney sang. Foster instances The Tollund Man as a case in point. A man’s body is found buried for centuries in an Irish bog. In Heaney’s verse the ancient atrocity that killed him ripples through the minds of modern readers. We, too, have atrocities. Are our responses adequate? How fine is our “auditory imagination”?

Foster’s easy style make me so envious. He summarises the criticisms of others (Edna Longley, 57ff) and in a minimum of words evaluates, and often tempers, the opposition’s arguments. He informs without fuss. For example, we hear that the poet had a bedrock belief in his right of privacy and independence. Then Foster ever so quietly slips in mention of Dante who, like Heaney, strove to find a balance between public duty and independence, and found a solution in the format of a pilgrimage. This leads Foster into claiming that Heaney used such a format “to ask the kind of questions forced onto him by the demands of fame and the imperatives of art” (93). However much I enjoy the tightness of Foster’s prose, this is cryptic overdone. I need more detail about this platform before I can really grasp the point.

I’ve read this literary biography of Seamus Heaney several times and continue to find something new. Heaney’s poems are known far and wide and are much enjoyed. The unrestrained outpouring of grief of readers in the Irish Republic, the United Kingdom and across the Atlantic in the USA, on the occasion of his death in 2013, attests to the popularity at all levels of society of this Nobel Prize winner. I recommend this book very highly indeed.

On Seamus Heaney


By R.F. Foster

Princeton UP

ISBN: 978-0-691-17437-2

$US19.95; 248 pp

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