On the way to the Nobel Prize many of Seamus Heaney's individual books of poems were singled out for high praise, beginning with the greeting of Death of a Naturalist as a first volume of huge promise and extraordinary powers of accurate description in 1966. In his 3 5-year publishing life, divisions can now be made on thematic grounds into early, middle and later stages of Heaney's career: the early Wordswor-thian poems of the country person's tactile awareness ('up to North, . . . that was one book', the poet said himself: Haffenden, 1981, p. 64); the middle period of public concern and anguish; and a post-Seeing Things (1991) period in which Heaney presents the heart as lightening and ready to 'credit marvels'. Inevitably there has been debate about what the best book was, or the best poems, or the best period; probably Field Work (1979) with its great sombre elegies is the commonest nomination now for the book of greatest weight. And there have been other authoritative nominations: for instance, Neil Corcoran has said that Wintering Out was 'the seminal single volume of the post-1970 period of English poetry' (Corcoran, 1983, p. 182).
Yet there is little doubt, I think, for those who have lived through the years of Heaney's reception that the book that made the greatest impact was North in 1975. Great claims have always been made for it: Helen Vendler described it as 'one of the few unforgettable single volumes published in English since the modernist era' (The New Yorker, 23 September 1985). And, though her recent study of Heaney has insistently confined itself to practical—critical rather than 'thematic' readings of the poems — an approach which might sound relatively unsympathetic to the historical strengths of North — it is clear that her admiration for it is undimmed. Most responses to the book, whether favourable or hostile (and strong views were expressed on both sides of the question), attributed its high profile — its 'unforgettable' quality — to the same thing: its closeness to the political urgencies of its time and place. (Contemporary reactions to North, including Vendler's, are usefully summarized and extracted in Andrews, 1998, ch. 3, pp. 80—119.) Vendler has, if anything, strengthened her positive view of North; in her study Seamus Heaney (Vendler, 1998) she describes her first encounter with the poems of North in Sligo in 1975, 'which I thought then — and still think now — one of the crucial poetic interventions of the twentieth century, ranking with Prufrock and Harmonium and North of Boston in its key role in the history of modern poetry' (Vendler, 1998, p. 3).
Vendler also makes it clear where she saw the importance of Heaney's work (of which she sees North as the supreme example) to lie: 'it is ... an oeuvre of strong social engagement, looking steadily and with stunning poetic force at what it means to be a contemporary citizen of Northern Ireland — at the intolerable stresses put on the population by conflict, fear, betrayals, murders' (ibid., p. 2). It was useful to be reminded of this impact of North in 1998 when Heaney's celebrity was a commonplace and his major public poems almost over-familiar; those poems were being written in the first half of the 1970s, during the very worst period of violence and sectarian murder in the Northern Irish 'Troubles' of the last third of the twentieth century. To understand the impact of such poetry at that time, it must also be borne in mind that in the late 1960s poetry in English which dealt in explicit terms with politics was very unusual. Yeats's revolution of subject matter, which brought politics centre-stage as a subject for poetry in such poems as 'Meditations in Time of Civil War', was well over by the 1950s. The famous appeal 'against the gentility principle' by Al Alvarez in his preface to The New Poetry in 1962 hailed a new roughness in reaction to the 'gentility' of form and language that characterized the intervening Movement poets, but there was little suggestion that this anti-gentility should have much to do with politics. It is significant that the Morrison—Motion anthology twenty years after Alvarez began by declaring that 'the new spirit in British poetry began to make itself felt in Northern Ireland during the late 1960s and early 1970s', going on to identify 'another reason why recent British poetry has taken forms quite other than those promoted by Alvarez: the emergence and example of Seamus Heaney' (Morrison and Motion, 1982, pp. 12—13). It is significant too that the poem Morrison and Motion go on to quote in full to substantiate this high claim is 'The Grauballe Man' from North, ending with an exemplary reading of the poem's analysis of the 'forces of disintegration' (ibid., p. 15) that the book grew out of.
Not all readers received those poems with the same grateful admiration as Vendler and Morrison and Motion. No doubt the return of politics as a subject in the work of Northern Irish poets was inevitable. However, its return was not universally welcome; as several of those poets said at the time, the situation of writers there was difficult, as was emphasized by Frank Ormsby's preface to his crucial anthology A Rage for Order (Ormsby, 1992, p. xvii). If poets wrote about the Troubles, they were accused of exploiting suffering for artistic ends, or — at its worst — of taking sides in a horrific sectarian war; if they ignored them, they stood accused of ivory-towerism and heartless indifference to public suffering. Heaney was of course far from alone in the movement towards public themes: James Simmons's magazine The Honest Ulster-man was of huge importance in shifting the context of Northern Irish poetry in social and political directions; some writers — for example John Montague in The Rough Field (1972) — had published poetry before North addressing political circumstances in
Ireland. In a crucial essay some years later, Heaney declared that the tumultuous developments in Derry and Belfast in the summer of 1969 changed everything: 'From that moment the problems of poetry moved from being simply a matter of achieving the satisfactory verbal icon to being a search for images and symbols adequate to our predicament' (Heaney, 1980, p. 56).
Yet, while recognizing the urgency of this predicament and the inevitability of the politicizing — in some sense and to some degree — of the writing that must engage with it, some Irish reviewers responded to North with fierce hostility. The fiercest was Ciaran Carson's review in The Honest Ulsterman, '"Escaped from the Massacre"?' (extracted in Andrews, 1998, pp. 84—7). Carson takes his title from 'Exposure', the last poem in North, suggesting by the question-mark that Heaney's escape carries the history of the massacre with him (something, of course, which the poem itself implies). The essence of Carson's case against the book, especially against the 'Bog poems', is that 'Heaney seems to have moved — unwillingly perhaps — from being a writer with the gift of precision, to become the laureate of violence — a mythmaker, an anthropologist of ritual killing, an apologist for "the situation", in the last resort, a mystifier' (ibid., p. 84). It is surprising that 'archeologist' is missing from this anaphoric list, since that would describe the Heaney drilling metaphor more precisely; indeed the most sustained of the charges against North has been that the metaphor of a northern recidivism into violence as a response to something under the ground has been expressed too deterministically. This charge I think is defused by noting that it is the same metaphor that Heaney uses to describe the poetry of Kavanagh and Montague in 'The Sense of Place', delivered in 1977 (Heaney, 1980, pp. 131-49).
Oddly, Carson's vigorously adversarial way of putting it is not that different in substance from Heaney's declared ideal, quoted above, of advancing from the search for 'the satisfactory verbal icon' (that is, 'the gift for precision') to finding 'images and symbols adequate to our predicament'. Still, Carson's unease with Heaney's move towards a heavier stress on political subjects is not unparalleled. The most noted review of North at the time was Conor Cruise O'Brien's in The Spectator. O'Brien's view that the intersection between poetry and politics is 'unhealthy', and his salutary wariness about poetry that responded to what he himself epigramatically called 'the politics of the latest atrocity', were firmly on record before his 1975 review (reprinted in Allen, 1997, pp. 25-9). He finds Heaney's gift for accuracy to be undiminished; in a famous sentence O'Brien writes 'I had the uncanny feeling, reading these poems, of listening to the thing itself, the actual substance of historical agony and dissolution, the tragedy of a people in a place: the Catholics of Northern Ireland' (ibid., p. 25).
It is striking here again that the tension is seen as one between accuracy ('the thing itself') and socio-political representation, as it was in Carson's review and in Heaney's own opposition between the 'verbal icon' and 'poetry adequate to our predicament'. I have begun by dwelling on the context of reception of North, rather than with the poetry itself, because we need to be reminded, a generation later, of the exact ways in which the volume was so controversial, and to recognize this public writing as an untypical 'intervention' (Vendler's term) in the poetic world of its time. Heaney's exalted reputation from the first meant that North was launched on a poetry public of a rare breadth and expectancy. As Carson said, 'everyone was anxious that North should be a great book'. Heaney's suggestion that the volumes up to (and presumably including) North amounted to 'one book', confers a further importance on the book as the culmination of his lauded work up to that point. It is certainly true that there is no clean break before North; in Wintering Out (1972), the immediately preceding volume, Heaney had already moved towards serious engagement with public events. If we were to make a break in the early volumes, it might indeed be more accurate to see the ground-breaking point in Heaney's development - his move to being a major annalist of public events - in the course of the writing of the poems in Wintering Out, so that Vendler's 'unforgettable' volume is really an amalgam of North with some of the poems of the previous volume. (Yeats's The Tower is a famous reminder that the publication date of a volume or the order of poems within it are not its only temporal significance.)
There were two immediately striking features of North, both already evident in Wintering Out. The first is a formal tightening and abbreviating of the poetic line from the richly indulgent eloquence of the early poetry - 'A thick crust, coarse-grained as limestone rough-cast' ('Churning-Day') - towards an altogether more austere form: 'the skinny stanza', in Edna Longley's neat phrase. These short lines are much in evidence in Wintering Out:
A stagger in air as if a language failed, a sleight of wing, is the opening quatrain of the beautiful snipe poem 'A Backward Look'. The spare-ness and exactness of this lyric form will be used to great effect in the public poetry of North. The second important development associated with North is Heaney's use of the figures in The Bog People by the Danish archeologist P. V. Glob as subjects and images, to provide an analogy to the events in 1970s Northern Ireland. Glob's book, centring on the bog-preserved bodies of what seemed to be Iron Age victims of ritual execution, appeared in English translation in 1969, and was distinguished by classically framed black-and-white photographs (in 'The Grauballe Man' Heaney makes a point of telling us that he first saw 'his twisted face / in a photograph'). Heaney's employment of Glob's figures is always associated with North for good or ill, though that too is first manifest in Wintering Out.
The organization of North, like its most imperative subjects, followed the design of Wintering Out, which was divided into two parts, the first moving towards public subjects, from the 'we' of the first line of the opening poem 'Fodder', speaking for Heaney's farming world as a whole. Even before that, the dedicatory poem to David Hammond and Michael Longley starts with 'the new camp for the internees' and a bomb-crater. In general it has been felt that those relatively public poems were more successful than the domestic closed world of Part Two, precisely evoked as those were (though the terms in which I am making the contrast are too crude; it is one of the compulsions of Wintering Out, as of Heaney's poetry generally, that the dividing-line between the personal and the public is blurred). But it would be generally agreed that, for all the power of the place-name poems such as 'Broagh', the culmination of Wintering Out was the poem that signalled the direction Heaney's major poetry was to take, 'The Tollund Man', with its sonorous and ominous conclusion:
Out there in Jutland
In the old man-killing parishes
I will feel lost,
Here we see the 'artesian quatrain' (Blake Morrison's term for it: Morrison, 1982, p. 53) in action for the first time: the penetrating structures of short lines — Heaney compared them to augers — drilling below the surface of public events for their cause or essential meaning. It is also the first of the 'Bog poems', the great centrepieces of Heaney's oeuvre inspired by his reading of Glob's disturbing study of ritual killing, in Jutland but paralleled in other parts of Northern Europe. Heaney famously said of his encounter with Glob's The Bog People, 'my roots were crossed with my reading', indicating that he found a haunting reminder of sectarian killings and punishments in Northern Ireland in the mannered brutality of the executions itemized in Glob's book with its extraordinary photographs. The other 'Bog poem' in Wintering Out is 'Nerthus', following 'The Tollund Man' and in its cryptic four lines hinting at the timeless link between the beauty of the ash-handle of the pitchfork (an image Heaney will return to triumphantly), 'the unsleeved taker of the weather', and the violence of which implements are also capable, represented here by the 'gouged split'. This is an early linking of beauty and violent death that provoked such anguish in Heaney's readers such as O'Brien. Nerthus is the goddess to whom violent tribute was paid in Glob's narrative, a figure that will assume a troubled central place in North.
There is no doubt that it was these poems in Wintering Out, with their political and moral weight, in combination with Heaney's fast-growing reputation and the increasing spiral of violence in Northern Ireland, that led to North's being so eagerly awaited; as Carson said, the anxiety that it should be 'a great book'. The new volume followed the bipartite division, though from the start it is an altogether more considered and self-commentating performance. The division functions differently too: Part 1 uses symbols — especially the Bog images — to represent political events, while Part 2 describes Northern Irish experiences and attitudes more directly. (The best discussion of North within Heaney's development as a whole is Corcoran, 1998, ch. 3.) North starts with a brilliant diptych of dedicatory poems to his aunt Mary Heaney, with the exactness of a Dutch interior and exterior, Vermeer and Brueghel; Heaney's descriptive and sympathetic powers have never been greater. In North they work as a warranty both of the book's technical skills, in the elegant precision of the 'Seed Cutters' sonnet:
The tuck and frill Of leaf-sprout is on the seed-potatoes Buried under that straw and of its moral earnestness and humaneness in 'Sunlight', one of Heaney's supreme masterpieces:
And here is love like a tinsmith's scoop, sunk past its gleam in the meal-bin.
We are to bear these two earnests of Heaney's project — precision and sympathy — in mind throughout the book's travails; we should note too that the easy humanity of 'Sunlight' is expressed through the constrictions of the short-lined artesian quatrains. In support of this view of the prefatory poems, Corcoran quotes Heaney's essay 'Belfast': 'At one minute you are drawn towards the old vortex of racial and religious instinct, at another you seek the mean of humane love and reason' (Corcoran, 1998, p. 55; Heaney, 1980, p. 34).
The focused seriousness of North is then unmistakable from the start, as is its fixity of purpose. North extends to seventy-three pages, but it is a much shorter book than that might suggest, containing twenty-two poems, two of which are balancing six-part sequences. The prevailing note is sombre, very different from the preceding books, something which is stated directly at several points:
I grew out of all this like a weeping willow inclined to the appetites of gravity.
Heaney has imposed a very exacting and, in the event, risky demand upon himself: everything is filtered through the poet's own voice. Hence, although 'The Grauballe Man' is a companion-poem to 'The Tollund Man' in Wintering Out, the impact is very different in the new book, where it functions as part of an elaborate and personally derived conceit. The poet now is, as Carson said, the present anthropologist observing the Irish political world and taking responsibility for his observations. The critical controversy that the book aroused is directly due to this exacting conceit. The criterion according to which poems are included in the book is their fittingness to this project of placing the modern condition into a larger symbolic context.
Accordingly North begins with 'Antaeus', dated 1966 and therefore presumably left out of both Door Into The Dark (1969) and Wintering Out (1972). The date at the end of 'Antaeus' is a statement, as with the dedicatory diptych, that the poem has been selected for some appositeness. At first reading it looks like a Yeatsian Apol-lonian-Dionysian opposition: Antaeus as the son of Earth and Sea, in combat with the new hero who has to wrestle 'with me before he pass / Into that realm of fame'. This could be a restatement of the death of the naturalist, as well as an anticipation of the point at which the poet will himself pass into the realm of the 'sky-born and royal' in Seeing Things (1991). But in the context of North the poem's end will develop a more threatening and defiant sense:
He may well throw me and renew my birth But let him not plan, lifting me off the earth, My elevation, my fall.
This has been heard as the voice of the defiant subjugated. The second poem, 'Belderg', describes the extraordinary neolithic landscape in north Co. Mayo, where 'blanket bog' can be stripped off to reveal 'a landscape fossilized'. This poem too ends with an unprepared-for threatening note in its final line, intruding on an archeological fantasia that up to this point had seemed almost idyllic-domestic:
in my mind's eye saw A world-tree of balanced stones, Querns piled like vertebrae, The marrow crushed to grounds.
Suddenly it is a world where the marrow (a Yeatsian metaphor for the inherently and vulnerably human) is crushed by these devices from history.
By now the book's prefatory material is complete; with 'Funeral Rites' we are into the world of death and funerals from the start. The melancholy, fascinated evocation of family funerals in the Irish countryside belongs with the early Heaney world of 'Mid-Term Break'; but the hideous modern adult reality in Northern Ireland breaks in with horrific suddenness at the start of the second section, with one of Heaney's most quoted phrases:
Now as news comes in of each neighbourly murder we pine for ceremony.
The world of the domestic is destroyed. The 'black glacier' of the funeral cortege in Part 1 is willed towards the megalithic doorway of Newgrange, in an appeal for a burial that will appease and break the sequence of revenge. This end to the cycle of violence, which was often the legal objective of negotiations in the Norse sagas, is represented by Gunnar of Njalssaga who, though violently killed, lies beautiful in his tomb, 'chanting / verses about honour' and looking at the moon. But it will emerge in the course of North that honour, like reputation, is a dubious inspiration; the two Norse berserks who 'club each other to death' in 'Summer 1969' from the book's closing and culminating sequence 'The Ministry of Fear', do so 'for honour's sake'. The poem's title is dated at the start of the major period of the Troubles, and its warning about the mutually destructive demands of 'honour' is starkly prophetic.
This pattern of cyclic recurrence, ending with an uncertain resolution, characterizes the major series of 'Bog' poems which dominate the rest of the first part of North. One of Heaney's most enthusiastic admirers, John Carey, said in his review of Sweeney Astray that his 'whole poetic input could be seen as a hymn to doubt' (Sunday Times, 12 June 1988), something which is profoundly true of North. The Bog series begins with the title-poem which is firmly first-person confessional, and is the first use by Heaney of a prosopopoeia in which the narrator is given directives, mostly about writing, by a voice other than a literal living person. Here it is the longship's tongue-prow, suggested both by the saga context of the preceding poem, and by the northern placing of the whole volume. But what this enjoins is precisely the quality for which Heaney had always been praised, and which Carson and O'Brien will express anxiety at his putting at risk: precision and clarity of description.
Keep your eye clear as the bleb of the icicle, trust the feel of what nubbed treasure your hands have known.
The implication is that this ideal has to be held in view while the poet's major themes are being worked through; clarity after all is an ideal means of expression, not the end expressed. (I have argued this point at some length - possibly ad nauseam - in my book on Heaney's language: O'Donoghue, 1994, p. 68). The condition of the writer of these poems is most clearly put in section IV of 'Viking Dublin: Trial Pieces', where the narrator is revealed fully, as a Hamlet-figure:
smeller of rot in the state, infused with its poisons, pinioned by ghosts and affections, murders and pieties.
Nothing could say more plainly that this figure cannot 'escape from the violence'. But it is also a figure of 'dithering, blathering' with Hamlet's desperate, indecisive wordiness. There is another sinister indeterminate ending:
My words lick around cobbled quays, go hunting lightly as pampooties over the skull-capped ground.
Two other poems or sequences dwell on the question of the adequacy to the predicament of language itself. 'Bone Dreams' seeks a root of language, to correspond to the root of ritual found in Glob's burials. Strikingly, this root is Old English; the AngloSaxon poet's 'twang' provides a radically expressive, consonantal language with the French element in English stripped away. Like its myths, the grammatical structure of the language of North is invariably Germanic; Gaelic-derived vocabulary has been collected by Morrison and Corcoran, but it occurs within a Germanic syntax and morphology. Significantly, there are no Celtic myths in the book. The history of English might logically have gone further back, to peel off also the Germanic invaders' importations into an indigenous language of British—Celtic experience. But North is a Germanic book; the anthropologist it addresses is the Tacitus of Germania. It is closely concerned with England: not only its relations with Ireland (though they are prominent too) but in itself. 'Bone Dreams' ends by quartering the country, from Hadrian's wall and the Pennines in the north to Maiden Castle and Devon in the southwest. Eamonn Hughes, in his interesting essay on 'Representation in Modern Irish Poetry', sees Part 2 of North as 'a sustained interrogation of Heaney's intimacy with English culture' (Allen, 1997, p. 78). Heaney rationalizes this as an interest in the English lyric which he is obliging to 'eat stuff that it has never eaten before' (quoted in Corcoran, 1998, p. 53), and famously at the end of 'The Ministry of Fear' he will grumble:
Ulster was British, but with no rights on The English lyric.
The mixed language of 'Broagh' in Wintering Out, with its beautifully assembled amalgam of Ulster—Scots, English and Irish, has been replaced by a stiffer uniform linguistic structure which cannot hope to reach any resolution of a hybrid situation.
The conclusive language poem 'Kinship' comes after the book's two powerful centrepieces which I will end this discussion with, and it summarizes the bog poems' impact and meaning. Here Heaney uses for the first time a profound linguistic image which will culminate with the recognition of writing as genetics — 'the hieroglyph for life itself' — in Seeing Things, despairing perhaps of the capacity of normal language to be 'adequate to the predicament'. 'Kinship' opens with a disturbing image of the imprint of the Nerthus sacrifice on the modern landscape, as on the horrifyingly renewed contemporary consciousness:
Kinned by hieroglyphic peat on a spreadfield to the strangled victim, the love-nest in the bracken.
This poem is a densely knit web of the imagery not only of North but also of Heaney's whole highly consistent oeuvre; for example, this opening section's hymn of love to the Irish bog ends by calling it a moon-drinker not to be sounded by the naked eye.
We recall that Gunnar at the end of 'Funeral Rites' turned 'with a joyful face / to look at the moon'. The 'sounding' of the bog recalls 'the wet centre is bottomless' from 'Bogland' in the 1969 Door Into The Dark (the idea of the bog as repository of history and meaning was not first implanted in Heaney's mind by Glob); it also links to a moment of great excitement in Beowulf (quoted here from Heaney's 1999 translation), when Hrothgar reports that the boggy morass where the Grendels live is of such a depth that the mere-bottom has never been sounded by the sons of men. (lines 1,366—7)
The capacity of language to 'sound' experience or emotion has been one of Heaney's abiding themes, from 'Blackberry Picking' to 'Alphabets'.
It is arguable, I think, that these clusters of sustained imaginative density in the imagery of North are what give it its lasting significance. Two of Heaney's best critics express some disquiet about the narrowness of imagistic range in the volume and the impacted language and metrical forms linked to it; Edna Longley notes Heaney's description of the book's genesis from the Haffenden interview, that 'those poems came piecemeal now and again, and then I began to see a shape' (Haffenden, 1981, p. 64). Longley regards this 'system, homogenization' as a disimprovement on 'the fecund variety of Wintering Out' (Allen, 1997, p. 53). Neil Corcoran finds the poems 'intensely, even claustrophobically obsessive and intimate' (Corcoran, 1998, p. 62), though he goes on to explain this as the attempt to 'disrupt the smoothness of the English lyric in a way appropriate to the violence of their material, and with a certain political implication' (ibid., p. 63). The Yeatsian distancing in 'a certain' illustrates the way that critics have always wanted to enter a caveat about violence in the poems: indeed about politics in poetry as a whole, though that is too wide-ranging a matter to go into here. Heaney himself will see the return to the longer line in his next collection Field Work as a kind of release, back perhaps towards the freedom with which he said he wrote the place-name poems in Wintering Out, though no poems could be more taken up with political violence and tragedy than the great elegies of Field Work, 'Casualty' and 'The Strand at Lough Beg'. It is interesting, incidentally, that from the first, critics have attempted to co-opt the poet himself into an uncertain view of North's politics, though the evidence in his own pronouncements is hard to find. Blake
Morrison, in his excellent founding critical study of Heaney, proposes that the 'niggardly representation of North in his 1980 Selected Poems' suggests that the poet came to incline to the disapproving Belfast view of the book (Longley and Carson), rather than the hugely approving London view (Carey).
Yet surely nothing that Heaney has done so incontestably proves his possession of the Coleridgean 'shaping spirit of imagination' than the insistent way in which North's sustained central metaphor symbolizes its subject. The centralizing device in the Bog poems is the exploitative artistic gaze, most troublingly male upon female, as an image of the imposition of political power. Male writing has always assigned responsibility for this exploitation to chosen female symbols: hence Heaney's invocation in 'Aisling' of Diana, the hunted conveniently turned huntress, as well as the notorious Nerthus, the Germanic goddess whose very name grammatically suggests her male construction, and as 'Bog Queen', a hideous figure of voyeurism constructed on a body preserved in a Co. Down bog in the eighteenth century. This exploitative gaze culminates in 'Punishment'.
But first 'The Grauballe Man', the major poem that precedes 'Punishment', raises the poetry-politics crisis and its contradictions in a non-gendered but shocking way: the coinciding of 'beauty and atrocity', and the exploitative way the artist will ensure that the tortured figure's 'twisted face' is 'perfected in my memory'. But the artist's aestheticization does not triumph, despite the force of his rhetorical questions:
Who will say 'corpse' to his vivid cast? Who will say 'body' to his opaque repose?
The poem ends with the neighbourly murders, with the actual weight of each hooded victim slashed and dumped.
'Punishment', the most controversial poem in North, follows a similar pattern. Here the aestheticization is relentlessly presented in sexual terms, with the result that the punishment of the title is meted to the poem's speaker as much as it is to the Windeby Girl, the 'little adultress' in Glob's book. If the poetry's public concerns and its concentration of symbols are what makes North an outstanding book, the refusal of this poem to take refuge from judgement makes this the most important single poem. Accordingly, the poem has itself provided the phrase 'artful voyeur', which its most impassioned critic has taken as half of her title in the criticism of North (Edna Longley, in Allen, 1997, pp. 30-63). The artist is always the voyeur Actaeon of Heaney's 'Aisling', and he must expect punishment.
Part 2 of North returns from the symbolic to the literal-historical to pass judgement on the larger Part 1. In the last poem, 'Exposure', the 'artful voyeur' is punished by failing to see the comet, the event of greatest moment. But of course the comet is not clearly visible; poetry makes nothing happen and (in Yeats's phrase) there is no 'clear fact to be discerned'. North reaches no conclusions. But this is its triumph: in Carey's terms, the human ability to live in doubt. The book began in 'a sunlit absence'; it ends with another absence, one deficient in light and heat. But in its course it has represented public events with a power to disturb unmatched in poetry in English since Yeats's 'Meditations in Time of Civil War'. Since 1975 poetry and politics have become increasingly uncoupled. While this may avoid the dangers articulated by O'Brien, it also risks artistic self-disabling by evading the centre of seriousness in the world of political animals. The distinction of North was to face this risk squarely in one of its most fraught contexts.
Allen, Michael (ed.) (1997). Seamus Heaney, London: Macmillan.
Andrews, Elmer (ed.) (1998). The Poetry of Seamus Heaney, Cambridge: Icon.
Corcoran, Neil (1993). English Poetry since 1940, London and New York: Longman.
Corcoran, Neil (1998). The Poetry of Seamus Heaney: A Critical Study, London: Faber and Faber.
Haffenden, John (1981). Viewpoints: Poets in Conversation with John Haffenden, London: Faber and Faber.
Heaney, Seamus (1972). Wintering Out, London: Faber and Faber.
Heaney, Seamus (1975). North, London: Faber and Faber.
Heaney, Seamus (1980). Preoccupations, London: Faber and Faber.
Morrison, Blake (1982). Seamus Heaney, London: Methuen.
Morrison, Blake and Andrew Motion (eds) (1982). The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry, Harmondsworth: Penguin.
O'Donoghue, Bernard (1994). Seamus Heaney and the Language of Poetry, Hemel Hempstead and New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf.
Ormsby, Frank (ed.) (1992). A Rage for Order: Poetry of the Northern Ireland Troubles, Belfast: Blackstaff.
Vendler Helen (1998). Seamus Heaney, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Was this article helpful?