11 November, 2013Issue 23.3Literary CriticismLiteraturePoetryWriters

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Seamus Heaney and Oxford

Rosie Lavan


When Brendan Behan died in 1964, someone wrote that his death had left “an empty seat forever at the feast”. We have to say “someone”, because this tribute, full at once of warmth and sorrow, is given briefly, anonymously, at the end of the biographical note which fronts a posthumous edition of his book Brendan Behan’s Island. As Irish writers of the mid- and late 20th centuries, Behan and Seamus Heaney raised very different voices, the tones of which can be accounted for in part by the facts of their biographies, and in part by the rapid change of the interesting times in which they lived and wrote. Behan was the hard-drinking arch-Dubliner; the IRA man with the prison record to prove it; the deeply compassionate writer whose literary credibility has always been somewhat unsteady. Heaney was the northern boy from the south Derry farm who came to prominence as the Troubles too were commanding attention; he was the bestselling poet and Nobel Laureate, ever possessed of the mot juste and ever capable of seeing things and writing things with remarkable precision and aptness. But in Oxford now we might borrow those words that were once written for Behan. Since Heaney’s death on 30 August, the university has been missing a guest, and a friend, who honoured this place with his presence on many happy occasions.

Once, briefly but notably, Heaney brought Behan to Oxford. In “Speranza in Reading”, his lecture on Oscar Wilde’s “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” given in October 1993, Behan is cited for the “subversive volubility” of his gaol journal Borstal Boy (1958). The lecture was given during the course of Heaney’s most famous association with Oxford, his tenure as Professor of Poetry which spanned five years from 1989 to 1994. A connection with the university had already been a possibility for Heaney back in the early 1960s. When he finished his BA in English at Queen’s University, Belfast, one of his professors encouraged him to go for a postgraduate scholarship at Oxford. He didn’t; instead, he started his career as a teacher at a secondary modern school in Belfast. That first job was in his mind on the eve of the Professor of Poetry election in 1989. When the Irish Times ran a front-page story hailing his likely appointment to the post Heaney said simply: “I’m a teacher […] my professional life has been about teaching and the pleasure I have got from opening poems to people.”

Heaney’s imagination was constantly drawn to dualities. Balances, bifurcations, and reconciled unities recur and resound in his writing, and so too do ideas of reconciliation and unity. So often in Heaney’s work things are brought back or brought together; things are remembered and recovered; things are made right as they are written down on the page. The title of his Oxford lectures, The Redress of Poetry, is exemplary of this tendency. In his first eponymous lecture Heaney mined the etymology of “redress” to explore its varied meanings which denote reparation or restoration. One might, inevitably, regard the very fact of Heaney’s election to the Oxford chair in terms of the redress of an old (im)balance between Irish and English. In his preface to The Redress of Poetry, Heaney remembered the “good cheer and good reception” which characterised his time at Oxford, but he felt compelled to acknowledge at the same time “the warmth with which the appointment was greeted in Ireland”, remembering the day when he saw,

a woman with a pram who was crossing the road at traffic lights in Omagh a couple of days after the result had been announced: she recognized me at the wheel of the car, gave me a quick—unsmiling—nod, a very definite thumbs-up, and then hurried smartly on about her business.

This lovely moment of home pride came only a few days after the Irish Times story. The paper quotes the poet John Montague not only commending Heaney for the professorship on personal grounds but also asserting a political dimension to the appointment. Montague opined that the chair was “one of the few English public honours an Irishman can accept”, and he said: “if Heaney gets the job, and he must, it will be a major step for an Irish poet in getting the freedom of their (the British literary establishment’s) city.”

Certainly the politics would not have been lost on Heaney. We have only to remember his brilliant, Burnsian “Open Letter” in 1983, published by Field Day, which spurned his representation as a British poet in Andrew Motion and Blake Morrison’s well-meaning but rather crassly handled Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry (1982). And it is impossible to miss in Montague’s use of the old municipal honour the echo of the title of Brian Friel’s play, The Freedom of the City (1973), which is set in 1970, before Bloody Sunday, but strongly evocative of the events of that day in January 1972. Bloody Sunday was its own tragedy, but for Heaney personally it was a watershed moment. Before then he might even have enjoyed “in a contrary sort of way” being termed a “British” poet, he later explained to Dennis O’Driscoll; his Catholic nationalist background was so decisively un-British that there was a certain wry humour to be wrung from the misrepresentation. But afterwards, that merry sense of subversion was lost; it mattered that people knew he was Irish. “British, no, the name’s not right,” he wrote to Morrison and Motion.

Of course, raising this old national question risks diverting attention from the great work of literary criticism which the Oxford lectures constitute. The subjects are diverse, but the series and the book it became are utterly coherent, held together by Heaney’s singularly defined notion of redress: the idea that poetry can find and follow its own course, regardless of the pressures which are acting upon it. In his lectures, he considered Christopher Marlowe and Brian Merriman; John Clare and Hugh MacDiarmid; Sylvia Plath and Dylan Thomas. Yeats and Elizabeth Bishop, subjects he had treated earlier, are also present here. But despite this, and despite them, that national question bugged Heaney. Only in the final Oxford lecture do we learn that he had been wanting to talk about it from the very beginning, but he hadn’t the words, or the heart, for it.


In that lecture, “Frontiers of Writing”, delivered 20 years ago in November 1993, Heaney returns to an earlier Oxford visit. He remembers the night he spent here in May 1981, as guest at a college dinner. There is a brief revival of that “faint pleasurable sense of transgression” for him, surrounded by the ceremony and circumstance of Anglican evening prayer in the college chapel, and later allocated a room belonging to “a then Tory Cabinet minister” in which to sleep. But Heaney wasn’t wholly there, then; his mind was back in County Derry, where his family’s neighbours were gathering for the wake of Francis Hughes, the second of the 10 republican prisoners who died on hunger strike in the Maze prison that year:

What was in the eyes of the world at large the death of an IRA hunger striker was in the eyes of a smaller, denser world the death of a son and neighbour. And so, the imagined reality of that confusing wake – confusing because for some it was necessarily a domestic rite of mourning, whilst for others it was inevitably a show of political solidarity – that imagined event from which I was absent shadowed and questioned my presence at an otherwise perfectly jocund college feast.

He was a guest that night in Oxford, but his thoughts turned to other guests in that older place of his. But still, as he thought of each event, he thought of the codes and rites of home and hospitality, so prevalent in the Sophoclean tragedies and Beowulf which he translated. The codes are the same but different, asserted and honoured and observed in each place, despite the pressures weighing down upon them, and despite Heaney’s own unease.

Shadows can be hard to escape and questions can be hard to answer. What Heaney finds as the lecture continues is a way through them both, and he also finds a place for himself among them:

[…] when I took up the theme of redress in the Michaelmas Term of 1989, I was every bit as clear in my mind then as I am now that the theme is in fact an aspect or consequence of my autobiography. Indeed, I included the story of that 1981 Oxford visit in an early draft of my first lecture because I wanted to suggest that poetry represented a principle of integration within such a context of division and contradiction. But on second thoughts I decided to drop it because it seemed unduly loaded with political promise and would have suggested—wrongly—that my contributions at Oxford were going to be concerned with the exacerbations and entrapments of Northern Ireland’s politics.

It might also have suggested—wrongly—that Heaney believed that a conclusion or a response to that story could be in any way straightforward. We have to allow Heaney to be complicated: in some cases there is no light to cast on shadows and questions. And so in “Frontiers of Writing” he tells us the story that he couldn’t tell in the first place, precisely because he couldn’t tell it. What remains, after that, is redress. The sense of the word he settled on at the end of the first lecture is an obsolete one he found in the OED, a hunting term which means “To bring back (the hounds or deer) to the proper course.” (It is worth noting that etymologically implied ownership in the proper course: it is as much one’s own course as it is the right one.) “In this ‘redress’,” Heaney continues, “there is no hint of ethical obligation; it is more a matter of finding a course for the breakaway of innate capacity, a course where something unhindered, yet directed, can sweep ahead into its full potential.” Heaney’s Oxford redress is realisation but it is also inevitably return. We can let go, but we can come back, too.

Rosie Lavan is reading for a DPhil in English at St Anne’s College, Oxford. She is Executive Editor at the Oxonian Review.