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The Government of the Tongue: Selected Prose, 1978-1987

The Government of the Tongue: Selected Prose, 1978-1987

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by Seamus Heaney

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In this volume of critical essays, Seamus Heaney scrutinizes the poetry of many masterful poets. Throughout the collection, Heaney's gifts as a wise and genial reader are exercised with characteristic exactness, and we are reminded, above all, of the essentially gratifying nature of poetry itself.


In this volume of critical essays, Seamus Heaney scrutinizes the poetry of many masterful poets. Throughout the collection, Heaney's gifts as a wise and genial reader are exercised with characteristic exactness, and we are reminded, above all, of the essentially gratifying nature of poetry itself.

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"The 20th century saw the emergence of the poet as witnessvoicing solidarity with the doomed, the victimized, the dispossessed. Irish poet Heaney here gauges this trend in essays on Wilfred Owen, Osip Mandelstam, Zbigniew Herbert. He admits that the power of the poem to change the world is almost nil. Then, turning to T. S. Eliot's 'The Waste Land', he affirms the healing value of poetry as its own vindicating force, restoring us to our true selves. Interrelated essays investigate the ways in which W. H. Auden, Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath each became an 'antenna,' getting beyond the ego to voice the spiritual yearnings and anxieties of our time. Heaney has a fine ear for Derek Walcott's lush Caribbean verse, which he calls 'a common resource,' and for 'the wire-sculpture economy' of Miroslaw Holub's games of knowledge. Beautifully written, these essays and reviews reconfirm poets as unacknowledged legislators of the world."—Publishers Weekly

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The Government of the Tongue

Selected Prose 1978-1987

By Seamus Heaney

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 1988 Seamus Heaney
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-5568-7


The Placeless Heaven: Another Look at Kavanagh

In 1939, the year that Patrick Kavanagh arrived in Dublin, an aunt of mine planted a chestnut in a jam jar. When it began to sprout she broke the jar, made a hole and transplanted the thing under a hedge in front of the house. Over the years, the seedling shot up into a young tree that rose taller and taller above the boxwood hedge. And over the years I came to identify my own life with the life of the chestnut tree.

This was because everybody remembered and constantly repeated the fact that it had been planted the year I was born; also because I was something of a favourite with that particular aunt, so her affection came to be symbolized in the tree; and also perhaps because the chestnut was the one significant thing that grew as I grew. The rest of the trees and hedges round the house were all mature and appeared therefore like given features of the world: the chestnut tree, on the other hand, was young and was watched in much the same way as the other children and myself were watched and commented upon, fondly, frankly and unrelentingly.

When I was in my early teens, the family moved away from that house and the new owners of the place eventually cut down every tree around the yard and the lane and the garden, including the chestnut tree. We deplored all that, of course, but life went on satisfactorily enough where we resettled, and for years I gave no particular thought to the place we had left or to my tree which had been felled. Then, all of a sudden, a couple of years ago, I began to think of the space where the tree had been or would have been. In my mind's eye I saw it as a kind of luminous emptiness, a warp and waver of light, and once again, in a way that I find hard to define, I began to identify with that space just as years before I had identified with the young tree.

Except that this time it was not so much a matter of attaching oneself to a living symbol of being rooted in the native ground; it was more a matter of preparing to be unrooted, to be spirited away into some transparent, yet indigenous afterlife. The new place was all idea, if you like; it was generated out of my experience of the old place but it was not a topographical location. It was and remains an imagined realm, even if it can be located at an earthly spot, a placeless heaven rather than a heavenly place.

In this lecture, I am going to suggest an analogy between the first tree and the last tree as I have just described them, and the early and late poetry of Patrick Kavanagh. I also want to talk about that poetry in terms of my earliest and latest responses to it. And I hope that what emerges will be not just a personal record but some kind of generally true account of the nature of Patrick Kavanagh's essential poems.

* * *

Briefly, then, I would suggest that the early Kavanagh poem starts up like my childhood tree in its home ground; it is supplied with a strong physical presence and is full of the recognitions which existed between the poet and his place; it is symbolic of affections rooted in a community life and has behind it an imagination which is not yet weaned from its origin, an attached rather than a detached faculty, one which lives, to use Kavanagh's own metaphor, in a fog. Many of those early poems do indeed celebrate the place as heavenly, many more are disappointed that it is not as heavenly as it could or should be, but all of the early Monaghan poetry gives the place credit for existing, assists at its real topographical presence, dwells upon it and accepts it as the definitive locus of the given world.

The horizons of the little fields and hills, whether they are gloomy and constricting or radiant and enhancing, are sensed as the horizons of consciousness. Within those horizons, however, the poet who utters the poems is alive and well as a sharp critical intelligence. He knows that the Monaghan world is not the whole world, yet it is the only one for him, the one which he embosses solidly and intimately into the words of poems. We might say that Kavanagh is pervious to this world's spirit more than it is pervious to his spirit. When the Big Forth of Rocksavage is mentioned, or Cassidy's Hanging Hill, the reader senses immediately that these are places in the actual countryside which are pressing constantly into memory. In this early period, the experienced physical reality of Monaghan life imposes itself upon the poet's consciousness so that he necessarily composes himself, his poetic identity and his poems in relation to that encircling horizon of given experience.

In the poetry of Kavanagh's later period, embodied first in 'Epic' and then, in the late 1950s, in the Canal Bank Sonnets, a definite change is perceptible. We might say that now the world is more pervious to his vision than he is pervious to the world. When he writes about places now, they are luminous spaces within his mind. They have been evacuated of their status as background, as documentary geography, and exist instead as transfigured images, sites where the mind projects its own force. In this later poetry, place is included within the horizon of Kavanagh's mind rather than the other way around. The country he visits is inside himself:

I do not know what age I am,
I am no mortal age;
I know nothing of women,
Nothing of cities,
I cannot die
Unless I walk outside these whitethorn hedges.


At the edge of consciousness in a late poem such as that, we encounter the white light of meditation; at the edge of consciousness in the early poems, the familiar world stretches reliably away. At the conclusion of poems like 'Spraying the Potatoes' and 'A Christmas Childhood', self is absorbed by scene:

And poet lost to potato-fields,
Remembering the lime and copper smell
Of the spraying barrels he is not lost
Or till blossomed stalks cannot weave a spell.

An opposite process, however, is at work at the conclusion of 'Canal Bank Walk'. Here the speaker's presence does not disperse itself in a dying fall, nor does the circumference of circumstances crowd out the perceiving centre. Even though the voice is asking to be 'enraptured', there is no hint of passivity. The rhythm heaves up strongly, bespeaking the mind's adequacy to the task of making this place – or any place – into an 'important place'. Pretending to be the world's servant, Kavanagh is actually engaged in the process of world mastery:

O unworn world enrapture me, encapture me in a web
Of fabulous grass and eternal voices by a beech,
Feed the gaping need to my sense, give me ad lib
To pray unselfconsciously with overflowing speech
For this soul needs to be honoured with a new dress woven
From green and blue things and arguments that cannot be proven.

Similarly, in the pivotal sonnet, 'Epic', even though the poem gives the stage over to two Monaghan farmers and successfully sets Ballyrush and Gortin in balance against Munich, it is not saying that the farmers and the Monaghan region are important in themselves. They are made important only by the light of the mind which is now playing upon them. It is a poem more in praise of Kavanagh's idea of Homer than in praise of Kavanagh's home.

'Epic' appeared in the volume called Come Dance with Kitty Stobbling, published in 1960 and reprinted three times within the next year. My own copy is one of the fourth impression, and I have dated it 3 July 1963. I did not have many copies of books by living poets at that time and it is hard now to retrieve the sense of being on the outside of things, of being far away from 'the City of Kings/Where art music, letters are the real thing'. Belfast at that time had no literary publishers, no poetry readings, no sense of a literary identity. In 1962, while a student at St Joseph's College of Education, I had done an extended essay on the history of literary magazines in Ulster, as though I were already seeking a basis for faith in the possibility of our cultural existence as northern, Irish and essentially ourselves. It comes as something of a shock nowadays to remember that during four years as an undergraduate in the Queen's University English Department I had not ever been taught by an Irish or an Ulster voice. I had, however, heard Louis MacNeice read his poems there and in 1963 had also listened to Thomas Kinsella read from his second volume, Downstream, and from earlier work. Eventually, I got my hands on Robin Skelton's anthology, Six Irish Poets; on the first edition of John Montague's Poisoned Lands, with its irrigating and confirming poem, 'The Water Carrier'; on Alvarez's anthology, The New Poetry, where I encountered the work of Ted Hughes and R. S. Thomas. All of these things were animating, as were occasional trips to Dublin where I managed to pick up that emblem of Ireland's quickening poetic life, The Dolmen Miscellany of Irish Writing, and to read in it the strong lines of Richard Murphy's 'The Cleggan Disaster'. Meanwhile, my headmaster Michael McLaverty, himself a Monaghan man by birth but with a far gentler sensibility than Kavanagh's, lent me his copy of A Soul for Sale and so introduced me, at the age of twenty-three, to The Great Hunger.

Everything, at that time, was needy and hopeful and inchoate. I had had four poems accepted for publication, two by the Belfast Telegraph, one by the Irish Times and one by The Kilkenny Magazine, but still, like Keats in Yeats's image, I was like a child with his nose pressed to a sweetshop window, gazing from behind a barrier at the tempting mysteries beyond. And then came this revelation and confirmation of reading Kavanagh. When I found 'Spraying the Potatoes' in the old Oxford Book of Irish Verse, I was excited to find details of a life which I knew intimately – but which I had always considered to be below or beyond books – being presented in a book. The barrels of blue potato spray which had stood in my own childhood like holidays of pure colour in an otherwise grey field-life – there they were, standing their ground in print. And there too was the word 'headland', which I guessed was to Kavanagh as local a word as was 'headrig' to me. Here too was the strange stillness and heat and solitude of the sunlit fields, the inexplicable melancholy of distant work-sounds, all caught in a language that was both familiar and odd:

The axle-roll of a rut-locked cart
Broke the burnt stick of noon in two.

And it was the same with 'A Christmas Childhood'. Once again, in the other life of print, I came upon the unregarded data of the usual life. Potato-pits with rime on them, guttery gaps, iced-over puddles being crunched, cows being milked, a child nicking the doorpost with a pen-knife, and so on. What was being experienced was not some hygienic and self-aware pleasure of the text but a primitive delight in finding world become word.

I had been hungry for this kind of thing without knowing what it was I was hungering after. For example, when I graduated in 1961, I had bought Louis MacNeice's Collected Poems. I did take pleasure in that work, especially in the hard-faced tenderness of something like 'Postscript from Iceland'; I recognized his warm and clinkered spirit yet I still remained at a reader's distance. MacNeice did not throw the switch that sends writing energy sizzling into a hitherto unwriting system. When I opened his book, I still came up against the windowpane of literature. His poems arose from a mind-stuff and existed in a cultural setting which were at one remove from me and what I came from. I envied them, of course, their security in the big world of history and poetry which happened out there, far beyond the world of state scholarships, the Gaelic Athletic Association, October devotions, the Clancy brothers, buckets and egg-boxes where I had had my being. I envied them but I was not taken over by them the way I was taken over by Kavanagh.

At this point, it is necessary to make one thing clear. I am not affirming here the superiority of the rural over the urban/ suburban as a subject for poetry, nor am I out to sponsor deprivation at the expense of cultivation. I am not insinuating that one domain of experience is more intrinsically poetical or more ethnically desirable than another. I am trying to record exactly the sensations of one reader, from a comparatively bookless background, who came into contact with some of the established poetic voices in Ireland in the early 1960s. Needless to say, I am aware of a certain partisan strain in the criticism of Irish poetry, deriving from remarks by Samuel Beckett in the 1930s and developed most notably by Anthony Cronin. This criticism regards the vogue for poetry based on images from a country background as a derogation of literary responsibility and some sort of negative Irish feedback. It is also deliberately polemical and might be worth taking up in another context; for the moment, however, I want to keep the focus personal and look at what Kavanagh has meant to one reader, over a period of a couple of decades.

Kavanagh's genius had achieved singlehanded what I and my grammar-schooled, arts-degreed generation were badly in need of – a poetry which linked the small farm life which produced us with the slim-volume world we were now supposed to be fit for. He brought us back to what we came from. So it was natural that, to begin with, we overvalued the subject matter of the poetry at the expense of its salutary creative spirit. In the 1960s I was still more susceptible to the pathos and familiarity of the matter of Kavanagh's poetry than I was alert to the liberation and subversiveness of its manner. Instead of divesting me of my first life, it confirmed that life by giving it an image. I do not mean by that that when I read The Great Hunger I felt proud to have known people similar to Patrick Maguire or felt that their ethos had been vindicated. It is more that one felt less alone and marginal as a product of that world now that it had found its expression in a work which was regarded not just as part of a national culture but as a contribution to the world's store of true poems.

Kavanagh gave you permission to dwell without cultural anxiety among the usual landmarks of your life. Over the border, into a Northern Ireland dominated by the noticeably English accents of the local BBC, he broadcast a voice that would not be cowed into accents other than its own. Without being in the slightest way political in its intentions, Kavanagh's poetry did have political effect. Whether he wanted it or not, his achievement was inevitably co-opted, north and south, into the general current of feeling which flowed from and sustained ideas of national identity, cultural otherness from Britain and the dream of a literature with a manner and a matter resistant to the central Englishness of the dominant tradition. No admirer of the Irish Literary Revival, Kavanagh was read initially and almost entirely in light of the Revival writers' ambitions for a native literature.

So there I was, in 1963, with my new copy of Come Dance with Kitty Stobbling, in the grip of those cultural and political pieties which Kavanagh, all unknown to me, had spent the last fifteen years or so repudiating. I could feel completely at home with a poem like 'Shancoduff' – which dated from the 1930s anyhow, as did 'To the Man after the Harrow' – and with 'Kerr's Ass' and 'Ante-Natal Dream'; their imagery, after all, was continuous with the lyric poetry of the 1940s, those Monaghan rhapsodies I had known from the Oxford Book of Irish Verse. This was the country poet at home with his country subjects and we were all ready for that. At the time, I responded to the direct force of these later works but did not immediately recognize their visionary intent, their full spiritual daring.

To go back to our original parable, I still assumed Kavanagh to be writing about the tree which was actually in the ground when he had in fact passed on to write about the tree which he held in mind. Even a deceptively direct poem like 'In Memory of My Mother' reveals the change; this does indeed contain a catalogue of actual memories of the woman as she was and is bound to a true-life Monaghan by its images of cattle and fair-days, yet all these solidly based phenomena are transformed by a shimmer of inner reality. The poem says two things at once: mother is historically gone, mother is a visionary presence forever:

I do not think of you lying in the wet clay
Of a Monaghan graveyard; I see
You walking down a lane among the poplars
On your way to the station, or happily

Going to second Mass on a summer Sunday –
You meet me and you say:
'Don't forget to see about the cattle –'
Among your earthiest words the angels stray.

Though this is a relatively simple – and sentimentally threatened – manifestation of the change of focus from outer to inner reality, it does have something of that 'weightlessness' which Kavanagh came to seek as an alternative to the weightiness of the poetic substance in, say, The Great Hunger. It is silkier and more sinuous than the gravid powerful rough-cast of lines like:

Clay is the word and clay is the flesh
Where potato gatherers like mechanized scarecrows move
Along the sidefall of a hill, Maguire and his men.


Excerpted from The Government of the Tongue by Seamus Heaney. Copyright © 1988 Seamus Heaney. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Seamus Heaney received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995. His most recent translations are Beowulf and Diary of One Who Vanished. His most recent collection of poems is Opened Ground.

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The Government of the Tongue: Selected Prose, 1978-1987 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Walks in and mutters a few words and your healed and you have all your blood back
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Pasted out "m....mo....mom....momm....momma"