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Seamus Heaney and Society


Rosie Lavan


Oxford: University Press, 2020

Hardcover. xviii + 179 p. ISBN 978-0198822974. £55


Reviewed by Clíona Ní Ríordáin

Paris : Université Sorbonne Nouvelle



Seamus Heaney is one of the most celebrated poets of our modern age and his work has been much studied, examined and dissected. This is confirmed by a cursory glance at Rand Brandes’ bibliography of Heaney—covering the period from 1959-2003, it stretches to 544 pages. Today, seven years after Heaney’s untimely death in 2013, scholars continue to explore his oeuvre. New Ph.D. theses adopt innovative angles, holding Heaney up to the filter of contemporary theoretical preoccupations, identifying dimensions of his work that had been previously overlooked. In France, for instance, Fanny Quément has explored Heaney’s recordings, increasing our appreciation of the place the recorded voice occupies in his production. Rosie Lavan’s monograph Seamus Heaney and Society also adds shading and nuance to our perception of the poet in the world.

Lavan’s book began its life as a Ph.D. written under the supervision of Bernard O’Donoghue, the author of a pioneering monograph Seamus Heaney and the Language of Poetry (1994). Lavan’s introduction teases out the definitions of society. Where a French approach to such a topic might rely on Bourdieu and a theorising of Heaney’s habitus, Lavan seeks her definitions in the work of writers like Eugenio Montale and David Constantine. She also chooses to define society by drawing on the essay “Society in the Artist” by Heaney’s erstwhile classmate, Seamus Deane. And so, while the scaffolding of theory underpins Lavan’s book, notably via the work of Jerome McGann on Literary Investigations in Historical Method and Theory, her language is free of jargon. This makes Seamus Heaney and Society accessible, not just to literary scholars but also to the legion of informed general readers who love Heaney’s poetry. The five lively chapters that follow move from being anchored in specific localities (“Publishing in London”, “Images of Belfast”) to more general thematics (“Education and the Radio”, the “University and the Canon”). The final chapter is devoted to “Responsibilities”, carrying echoes of Yeats’s volume of the same name. It also gestures to Heaney’s enabling notion of “the redress of poetry”.

Lavan has had access to the Heaney archives, both in Emory University and in the National Library of Ireland. She interviewed Heaney in the month preceding his death. Her writing is rich with the materiality of that archival trawl and the authenticity of her engagement with the poet and his milieu. The chapter devoted to Heaney’s publishing in London, for example, explores both the networks of influence that are embodied by his status as a Faber poet, and also those enjoyed via his closer family ties, as exemplified by a feature on the poet in Vogue, written by Polly Devlin, sister of Marie Heaney. Lavan also details Heaney’s writing for the New Statesman and, in chapter 2, his broadcasts for BBC Ulster, devoting fascinating pages to his concerns as a teacher and to the inclusive nature of the programmes he devised. She is quick to point out that neither articles nor radio programmes are undertaken pour la gloire, but represent an extra source of income for a young man with a growing family. This section is illustrated with reproductions from the relevant publications, adding to the texture and completeness of the book.

The later sections establish the social context in which Heaney and his peers emerged as “self-consciously a member of the eleven-plus generation” [68]. Lavan outlines the provisions and consequences of the Butler Act, and highlights the importance of Derry as “a crucial site in the advancement of Heaney’s learning” [69]. Literary texts are seen through the prism of social consciousness. The rationale for Heaney’s own educational primer, The Rattle Bag, an anthology for schools edited with Ted Hughes, is clarified. Each chapter in Lavan's book is clotted with footnotes, the cream on any scholarly endeavour; they are pushed to the end of each page, and as readers we revel in their detail and erudition.

Lavan addresses Heaney’s relationship with Harvard University in chapter 4. She stresses the refuge it offered from his life as an increasingly public figure in Ireland. Interestingly, she relates the fact that Heaney chose to read “Requiem for the Croppies” at his first public reading there in 1975, although he had stopped including it in his events elsewhere from the early 1970s. Lavan suggests that […] “his readiness to lift the embargo on that political poem in the United States is an eloquent reminder of his constant assessment of his audiences” [100]. The talent of Lavan can be seen in her ability to hone in on a detail of this nature, while framing her discussion in a more general context, such as when she raises Heaney’s engagement with the nature of the university via the philosopher John Searle [108-109].

In her final chapter Lavan engages with the place of a poet in society, fleshing out the peculiar demands that Ireland makes on her filí, “expected to live precisely at the intersection between the public and the private” [136]. Lavan marshals both historical facts and ethical dilemmas in her analysis of Heaney’s predicament, pinpointing his struggle to juggle with an awareness of a Faber readership and the pieties of being a native-born son of Bellaghy, notably when hunger-striker and neighbour, Francis Hughes died. Her argument is informed by sources as diverse as Conor Cruise O’Brien, Samuel Coleridge and Heaney’s own manuscripts.

In a book full of revelations and insights, the connection between Heaney’s poem “Markings”, Dag Hammarskjöld’s aphorisms and Heaney’s career as a young GAA supporter, is one of the quirkiest analyses Lavan provides. Yet again, she bases her analysis on the textual revisions of the poem, discussing the various drafts “Markings” underwent, picking her way through the genetics of the text, outlining Heaney’s scriptorial hums and haws, showing the value of the archive as a scholarly treasure trove and word hoard.

At present, Lavan and O’Donoghue are working together on the Faber edition of Heaney’s collected poems. Heaney scholars are collectively holding their breath in anticipation!



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