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Seeking Hardy’s Thrush

Joseph M Hassett

The text below is a slightly edited version of a talk delivered by Joseph Hassett at the National Library of Ireland’s Listen Now Again exhibition at the Bank of Ireland Cultural and Heritage Centre in College Green, Dublin last September.

Imagine a split screen on a television. On one half is Barney Devlin, the blacksmith in the Northern Ireland village of Bellaghy, the heart of Seamus Heaney country. We see Devlin striking his anvil twelve times at midnight on December 31st, 2000 to ring in the new millennium. One might expect that Heaney, who had immortalised Devlin in his poem “The Forge”, would be there. However, on the other half of the screen, we see him on that same night standing not in Bellaghy but in the rain-soaked burial ground of Stinsford Church in Dorset, where Thomas Hardy’s heart is buried. There, as Heaney wrote in the London Times, “We … talked down the wind and rain, and read aloud the words of ‘The Darkling Thrush’, the poem which Hardy had dated with some deliberation: ‘31 December 1900’.”

Heaney’s forsaking Bellaghy for Dorset is particularly surprising in view of his objection in “An Open Letter” of 1983 to being included in the previous year’s Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry. His 1983 verse letter drew a distinction between Caesar’s Britain, which “United England, Scotland and Wales”, and Hibernia “where the Gaels / Made a last stand”. Against this background, the letter famously told the editors to

              … be advised
My passport’s green.
No glass of ours was ever raised
      To toast The Queen.

What was it about Hardy that drew Heaney away from the warm forge of his home-place and into the cold rain of Hardy’s burial ground on this signal night? Addressing that question reveals an extraordinary concurrence in values between Heaney and Hardy, and suggests that Heaney’s prose and poetry reflecting the values that attracted him to Hardy will play an important role in whatever political environment emerges in the wake of Brexit. Although the forces of Brexit will threaten the unity of the United Kingdom, Heaney’s work will foster harmonious relationships between and among all inhabitants of the Britannic-Hibernian archipelago.

Before proceeding beyond our opening scene of December 31st, 2000, let’s look at a short flashback to the event described by “Midnight Anvil”, which was published in District and Circle in 2006. That poem describes Barney Devlin’s hammering at midnight on December 31st, 1999, a year before Heaney went to Stinsford church. Devlin had been heralding the new millennium prematurely at the close of 1999, even though the millennium would not actually arrive until the beginning of its first year at midnight on December 31st, 2000. As that date approached, the blacksmith was set to repeat his midnight hammering of the previous year. On the day before the projected ceremony, Heaney published a poem in The Irish Times in which he announced that he would forego Devlin’s midnight hammering on the following night, but would go to Hardy country instead. The poem, “Linked Verses”, is nearly identical to “Midnight Anvil”, but contains two passages not included in the first poem. Those passages may be thought to have specific application to Heaney’s millennial visit to Hardy’s place of writing, and thus shed light on the forces that propelled Heaney to Hardy.

One such passage concludes the poem. After recounting the New Year’s Eve 1999 events in Bellaghy, the poet announces:

Where I mean to be,
For all that, this New Year’s Eve
Is Hardy country,
Lychgate and hoarfrost country,
In search of a darkling thrush.

Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush” had greeted the millennium that was about to close in 2000 by describing how the thrush’s song transformed the bleak landscape and the poet’s “fervourless spirit”:

At once a voice arose among
      The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
       Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
       In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
        Upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for carolings
        Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
        Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
        His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
         And I was unaware.

One of Heaney’s Oxford lectures, “Joy or Night: Last Things in the Poetry of W.B. Yeats and Phillip Larkin”, published in The Redress of Poetry in 1995, gives us a clue as to why he would be in search of a darkling thrush at the dawn of the new millennium. “The thrush’s song,” he wrote, “proclaimed that the basis of song itself was irrational, that its prerogative was to indulge impulse in spite of the evidence; and Hardy, in spite of his temperamental inclination to focus his attention upon the dolorous circumstances, for once allowed his heart in hiding to stir for that particular bird.”

The other passage unique to “Linked Verses” adds to the account in “Midnight Anvil” of Heaney’s response to Devlin’s imagined suggestion that he write a poem about the occasion. “Linked Verses” tells what Heaney will “do instead”:

What I’ll do instead
Is quote lines from ‘Blacksmith Shop’:
It seems I was called
For this: to glorify things
Just because they are. That’s it.

Heaney’s focus on the poetic practice described in the three lines quoted from Czesław Miłosz’s poem “The Blacksmith Shop” is telling. It links Hardy’s glorification of the darkling thrush to Heaney’s hallmark practice of glorifying things just because they are. Take, for example, the following examples from “Seeing Things” (1991) and “District and Circle” (2006.) in which Heaney glorifies things just because they are – and because they were.

Seeing Things (1991)
The Ash Plant
1.1.87 (my father’s stick)
The Pitchfork
A Basket of Chestnuts
The Biretta
The Settle Bed
The Schoolbag
The Cot
District and Circle (2006)
The Turnip-Snedder
Polish Sleepers
Helmet
Wordsworth’s Skates
The Harrow-Pin
A Stove Lid for W.H. Auden

Heaney believed that poems like these embody a “way of feeling, and thinking about, the past which significantly amplifies our consciousness …” The language I just quoted comes from an essay by Heaney discussing not his poems but rather Hardy’s poem “The Garden Seat”. Heaney’s essay, entitled “A Sense of the Past”, was published in History Ireland in 1983, shortly after “An Open Letter”. The essay makes the important point that such amplified consciousness has a moral force that opens the reader to other cultures and paves the way to community with people who had previously been perceived as alien.

That process is enacted, both in the way Hardy’s poetry brought Heaney into communion with Dorset, and in the way that Heaney’s writing reflects a continuous opening outward within and among the various jurisdictions of Britain and Hibernia, and ultimately toward the entire human chain.

Heaney stressed Hardy’s ability to use descriptions of things to foster common emotional ground in his comments about “The Garden Seat”:

To an imaginative person, an inherited possession like a garden seat is not just an object, an antique, an item on an inventory; rather it becomes a point of entry into a common emotional ground of memory and belonging … The more we are surrounded by such objects and are attentive to them, the more richly and connectedly we dwell in our own lives. [emphasis added]

Here is the Hardy poem that so captivated Heaney:

The Garden Seat
Its former green is blue and thin,
And its once firm legs sink in and in;
Soon it will break down unaware,
Soon it will break down unaware.

At night when reddest flowers are black
Those who once sat thereon come back;
Quite a row of them sitting there,
Quite a row of them sitting there.

With them the seat does not break down,
Nor winter freeze them, nor floods drown,
For they are as light as upper air,
They are as light as upper air!

With the words of “The Garden Seat” in mind, we can focus on the passage in Heaney’s essay in which he wrote: “It could even be maintained that objects which have been seasoned by human contact possess a kind of moral force; they insist upon human solidarity and suggest applications to and covenants with generations who have been silenced …” Heaney’s Hardy-inspired essay proceeds to make an assertion that implicitly questions the divide between Britannia and Hibernia that underlies “An Open Letter”:

the contemplation of things mellowed by age … will at least challenge a too-narrow conception of loyalty and solidarity, and emphasise the truth of the old catechism definition of who our human neighbour is. ‘My neighbour’, said the catechism with resonant simplicity ‘is all mankind’.

In this context, we can not only answer the question why Heaney was in Dorset rather than Bellaghy, but can suggest that the question is made moot by the first three lines of the last stanza of Heaney’s poem “The Birthplace”, published in Station Island in 1984:

Everywhere being nowhere,
who can prove
one place more than another?

The poem’s concluding lines respond to the question:

Still, was it thirty years ago
I read until first light
for the first time, to finish
The Return of the Native?
The corncrake in the aftergrass
verified himself, and I heard
roosters and dogs, the very same
as if he had written them.

The young Heaney heard his local roosters and dogs outside his birthplace, Mossbawn, the same as if Hardy had written them. Everywhere being nowhere, language can transcend borders.

In Stepping Stones (2008) Heaney shed light on the magnetic force that drew him to Hardy’s birthplace:

The one poem that came from such a visit [to a dead writer’s house] appears in Station Island: ‘The Birthplace’, about the Hardy home in Upper Brockhampton. The trees around the place, the thatched roof, the small rooms, all reminded me of Mossbawn. But that wasn’t the only reason I wrote it, there was also the fact that Hardy’s novels and poems were so much part of me by the time I got there. In fact, the grave in Stinsford churchyard and the house in Upper Brockhampton are literary ‘stations’ I keep going back to.

The reason why “The Birthplace” is simply “The Birthplace” and not “Hardy’s Birthplace” is that, everywhere being nowhere, it is also Mossbawn, Heaney’s birthplace. Who can prove one place more than another?

The Hardy of “The Sense of the Past” and “The Birthplace” has a universality that rises above the narrowness that Heaney had detected in contemporary English poets in his 1976 Beekman lecture, entitled “Englands of the Mind”. With a prescience that appears remarkable from the vantage point of these Brexit-ridden times, Heaney wrote forty-three years ago that the “sense of an ending” drove poets like Philip Larkin, Ted Hughes and Geoffrey Hill

into a kind of piety towards their local origins, has made them look in, rather than up, to England. The loss of imperial power, the failure of economic nerve, the diminished influence of Britain inside Europe, all this has led to a new sense of the shires, a new valuing of the native English experience.

In taking the pulse of England through its poetry, Heaney was detecting an incipient eruption. The poets’ overestimation of purely English experience paralleled the tendency among English historians to equate England with Britain. Heaney would later be impressed by Professor Hugh Kearney’s writing on this tendency in his 1989 book The British Isles: A History of Four Nations. What is important here is that the English tendency to equate England with Britain was an irritant that contributed to Heaney’s objection to being characterised as a British poet. As he later explained in Stepping Stones, “An Open Letter” was prompted by his belief that the term British denied “the Irish dimension within the British jurisdiction”. As a result, “People from the minority in the North of Ireland felt there was an element of coercion when the ‘British’ word was applied to them.”

The exclusionary impulse of “British” is antithetical to the inclusivity fostered by a poem like Hardy’s “The Garden Seat”. Heaney’s Hardy-inspired essay “The Sense of the Past” points to the “magnificent horde of gold objects found in County Derry and now held in the National Museum” as an example of how objects can exert moral force. To “gaze at those arm-bands, gorgets and lunulae, so solid and patiently beyond us,” Heaney wrote, “is to be displaced from one’s ordinary sense of what it means to be a County Derry person. The gazer is carried a little out of himself ... is transported for a moment into a redemptive mood of openness and readiness.”

Heaney focused on a less magnificent but still potent object in his poem “The Haw Lantern”, first published in 1986 and later included in the volume so named in 1987. The poem responds to what Heaney described in Stepping Stones as “the other side” of Miłosz’s praise of poems that glorify things just because they are. The “other side” is articulated in Miłosz’s question “What is poetry which does not save / Nations or people?” Heaney’s poem glorifies the haw lantern, even as it challenges the reader to move in the direction of saving nations or people. The poem presents the “wintry haw” as “a small light for small people” that sometimes takes the shape of Diogenes with his lantern seeking one just man. Thus scrutinised,

… you flinch before its bonded pith and stone,
its blood-prick that you wish would test and clear you,
its pecked-at ripeness that scans you, then moves on.

Heaney said in Stepping Stones that he liked the fact that “The Haw Lantern”

required strict self-examination from everybody, be they poets, pundits, priests, party political jabberwocks, whatever. It discovered a bedrock disappointment; it couldn’t not admit the stuntedness and small-mindedness that prevailed in Northern Ireland, but at the same time it allowed for a flicker of light.

He suggested that poems in The Haw Lantern and its successor volume, Seeing Things, melded the practice of glorifying things just because they are with the goal of making something happen. He was prompted, he wrote, quoting first from “Fosterling” and then from “The Settle Bed”, by “the growing realisation that poetry shouldn’t allow itself to become ‘sluggish, in the doldrums of what happens’; that it should proceed in the belief that ‘whatever is given / Can always be reimagined, however four-square, / Plank-thick, hull-stupid and out of its time / It happens to be.’”

Heaney’s relationship to place and physical object was undergoing a change similar to that which he detected in the maturing Yeats. In his essay about Yeats and the place of writing Heaney suggests that there are two types of relationship between writer and place. In one, the writer gives voice to the spirit of the region. In the other, the writer has a more domineering relationship to the physical world, and the poems create a country of the mind rather than the other way round. He cites Hardy and the young Yeats as examples of the first relationship, and Yeats from age fifty as an example of the second. Unlike Hardy, who “did not impose Hardiness upon his landscape … Yeats imposed Yeatsiness upon his”. The Haw Lantern and Seeing Things reflect the increasing imposition of Heaneyness on objects and places.

Heaney’s exploration of the idea of what Yeats called shared “imaginative possessions” opened up the exciting possibilities presented by translation. The fruits of this approach are reflected in his publication in the winter of 1983 of Sweeney Astray, and later, his translation of Beowulf. Sweeney Astray, an English-language version of the medieval Irish poem Buile Suibhne, seems to anticipate the advice Heaney would cause James Joyce to give him in “Station Island”. The words that Heaney put in Joyce’s mouth point to the power of the English language and, perhaps, temper the thrust of “An Open Letter”. Heaney’s Joyce tells the poet:

                                  The English language
belongs to us. You are raking at dead fires,
rehearsing the old whinges at your age.

When Heaney began work on what became Sweeney Astray he faced the question, as he later wrote in “Earning a Rhyme”, “How could a text engendered within the Gaelic order of medieval Ireland speak to a modern Ulster audience riveted by divisions resulting from the final destruction of that order?”

This question implicitly refers to Auden’s famous dictum that poetry makes nothing happen. But Heaney had met Auden head-on in his introduction to a poetry collection he edited entitled Soundings ’72:

I disagree that ‘poetry makes nothing happen’. It can eventually make new feelings, or feelings about feelings, happen, and anybody can see that in this country for a long time to come a refinement of feelings will be more urgent than a re-framing of policies or of constitutions.

Heaney recognised that making something happen takes time. As he wrote, “I did not expect Sweeney Astray so to affect things that political conversations would break out all over Northern Ireland.” He had in mind achievable goals:

My hope was that the book might render a unionist audience more pervious to the notion that Ulster was Irish, without coercing them out of their cherished conviction that it was British … I hoped the book might complicate that sense of entitlement to the land of Ulster which had developed so overbearingly in the Protestant majority as a result of various victories and acts of settlement over the centuries …
I simply wanted to offer an indigenous text that would not threaten a unionist … but that would fortify a nationalist … I wanted to deliver a work that could be read universally as the thing-in-itself but that would also sustain those extensions of meaning that our disastrously complicated local predicament made both urgent and desirable.

Whether or not there was an immediate practical effect, Heaney created a model, set a standard, and pointed the way for others to follow.

His translation of an Irish text to speak in English across British-Irish antagonisms evokes the metaphor of the wound and the bow, the catchy name bestowed by Edmund Wilson on the dynamic that drives Sophocles’s play Philoctetes, which Heaney would translate as The Cure at Troy in 1990. In the play, Philoctetes, a member of the Greek army sailing to Troy, suffers a terrible wound from a snake bite and is abandoned on a remote island because of the stench of the wound and the annoyance caused by his cries of pain. The plot is thickened by the facts that Philoctetes has been given an invincible bow by Heracles, the Greeks cannot succeed without his help, Philoctetes won’t help because the Greeks had abandoned him, and his wound can only be cured if he uses his bow for the good of his people.

These circumstances set the stage for the resolution that occurs only when Philoctetes and the Greek emissary, Neoptolemus, perceive each other’s essential humanity. Then Philoctetes agrees to use his bow to help his people, and his wound is cured.

England’s imposition of its language on Ireland was, as Heaney said in Stepping Stones, “a drastic historical experience”. But one might say that the wound thereby inflicted on Ireland was also the bow by which Irish culture could be taken throughout the island of Ireland, to England and the world.

Heaney used the English language as a bow in selecting poems for the anthology The School Bag (1997), where he wrote in the forward that, for himself and his co-editor Ted Hughes, the inclusion of poems in translation from the Irish, Welsh and Scottish Gaelic languages was motivated by the goal of sharpening “awareness of the deep value and high potential of the non-English poetries of Britain and Ireland …”

This powerful idea drives Heaney’s observation in his 2001 lecture “Through-Other Places, Through-Other Times: The Irish Poet and Britain” that we “must get past politics and into poetry itself …” because “the erotics of language” can be more instructive than “the politics and polemics of the moment”. Heaney’s lecture, which is published in Finders Keepers, drew heavily on Hugh Kearney’s above-mentioned book, The British Isles: A History of Four Nations. He saluted Kearney’s examination of “the interaction of the various major cultures of the British Isles from the Roman period onwards”, and endorsed its thesis that “it is only by adopting a Britannic approach that historians can make sense of the particular segment in which they may be primarily interested, whether it be ‘England’, ‘Ireland’, ‘Scotland’, ‘Wales’, Cornwall or the Isle of Man”.

The poet who objected to inclusion in the Penguin Book of  Contemporary British Poetry stressed the advantage of the Britannic approach. He said it this way:

In a context where the word ‘British’ might function like a political reminder, a mnemonic for past invasions and coercions, there is a wonderful originality, in all senses about employing instead the word ‘Britannic’ [which] works like a cultural wake-up call and gestures not only towards the past but also towards an imaginable future. Without insistence or contention, ‘Britannic’ is a reminder of much that the term ‘British’ managed to occlude. ‘Britannic’ allows equal status on the island of Britain to Celt and Saxon, to Scoti and Cymri, to Maldon and Tintagel, to Beowulf and the Gododdin, and so it begins to repair some of the damage done by the imperial, othering power of ‘British’.

In other words, an Irish poet could appear comfortably in an anthology of Britannic and Hibernian poetry and perhaps even in one that was merely Britannic.

The integrating power of the erotics of poetry was on Heaney’s mind when he decided to take on the task of producing a modern English version of the quintessentially Anglo-Saxon Beowulf. Contemplating a version distinguished by many Hiberno-English uses, Heaney concluded, as he wrote in “The Irish Poet and Britain”, ‘So, so be it. Let Beowulf now be a book from Ireland.’

That he succeeded spectacularly is apparent in reactions from two different viewpoints. Terry Eagleton observed that Heaney’s Beowulf was his “final, triumphant reversal of his cultural dispossession”. This was true not only in literary terms, but also in terms of readership. The Mapping Contemporary Poetry report released by the Arts Council of England in 2010 reported that Heaney’s Beowulf was the fourth-highest-selling contemporary book of poetry in England.

From a different standpoint, Olivia O’Leary commented, in a talk collected in Hearing Heaney (2015), that listening to Heaney read his version of the Anglo-Saxon epic in Ireland, she heard him making Beowulf “part of what we are”. Heaney’s translation brought an Irish sound to its audience in England and made the Anglo-Saxon epic at home in Ireland. How right Heaney had been, and how optimistically he set the agenda for his successors, when he wrote of his Beowulf:

Let it function in the world in the same way as the Venerable Bede tells us that books from Ireland functioned within the Britannic and Hibernian context of his times in the eighth century. Ireland, he tells us in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, is far more favoured than Britain by its mild and healthy climate, and goes on:
There are no reptiles, and no snake can exist there; for although often brought over from Britain, as soon as the ship nears land, they breathe the scent of its air, and die. In fact, almost everything on this isle confers immunity to poison and I have often seen that folk suffering from snake-bite have drunk water in which scrapings of the leaves off books from Ireland have been steeped, and that this remedy checked the spreading poison and reduced the swelling.

Bede’s writing, Heaney suggests,

is an example of a writer calling upon a fiction in order to cope with differences between two islands linked and separated in various degrees by history and geography, language and culture. As such, it prefigures much of the work that would be done by Irish poets in the coming times and much that will continue to be done.

As that work progresses it will be fortified by Heaney’s poems and his extraordinary literary criticism in which he explores the strengths of poets from all quarters of Britannia and Hibernia – and, of course, beyond. Heaney’s literary criticism is a vast subject that, I think, will be of increasing interest and attention. For present purposes it suffices to say that Heaney’s essays collected in Finders Keepers show how readily the strains of Britannia meld with those of Hibernia. The inclusion of essays on Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish poets highlights the porosity of Britannic literature and thus make it more pervious to the Hibernian. A literature that includes the Welsh Dylan Thomas, and the Scots Robert Burns, Edwin Muir, Hugh MacDiarmid, and Norman MacCaig, is more welcoming to Patrick Kavanagh than one that consists only of the poets discussed in “Englands of the Mind”.

As the forces of Brexit threaten to push peoples apart, Heaney’s prose and poetry will be a potent adhesive force holding peoples together, in and among Hibernia and Britannia – and beyond.

The keynote Heaney sounded for us going forward is the same note of optimism sung by Hardy’s darkling thrush and echoed in Heaney’s “The Blackbird of Glanmore”:

On the grass when I arrive,
Filling the stillness with life, …
It’s you, blackbird, I love.

           ***

Hedge-hop, I am absolute
For you, your ready talkback,
Your each stand-offish comeback,
Your picky, nervy goldbeak ‑
On the grass when I arrive,

In the ivy when I leave.

Here Hardy and Heaney coalesce in their sound as birds, thus verifying Heaney’s fondness for the Joseph Brodsky comment he quotes in his essay on Robert Burns that “poets’ real biographies are like those of birds – their real data is in the way they sound”. Hardy and Heaney both sing today. Like the shrouds in Yeats’s “Cuchulain Comforted”, “They had changed their throats and had the throats of birds.”

1/2/2020

Joe Hassett’s latest book is The Ulysses Trials: Beauty and Truth Meet the Law (Lilliput). He practises law in Washington.

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