Heaney Astray: the Importance of Not Being So Earnest

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Reading the admonitions against earnestness from the old ghost that appears in Heaney’s “Station Island” part XII brings to mind Patrick Kavanagh. Whether or not Kavanagh was the conscious model for this character in Heaney’s poem, the by turns severe and antic nature of this individual has Kavanagh written all over it.

In his poem, “Prelude”, Kavanagh condemns “Card-sharpers of the art committee / Working all the provincial cities, / they cry ‘Eccentric’ if they hear / A voice that seems at all sincere.” (Collected Poems, 132) “Eccentric” was no doubt an epithet with which the iconoclast Kavanagh was familiar. Yet Heaney’s Kavanagh-esque figure, in arguing against orthodoxy, is not necessarily arguing against sincerity. He is arguing, instead, against earnestness. The difference is more than just an exercise in semantics.

Earnestness is a kind of sincerity, or endeavor toward sincerity, marked by gravitas. It is a determined manner, one that weighs consequences soberly. In this sense, earnestness finds itself at odds with mischief and irreverence. It is different, I think, than sincerity, which can include mischief, irreverence, and other forms of impolite honesty — modes Kavanagh embraced in his work. In differentiating, I would say earnestness involves a serious attempt, whereas sincerity involves a state of unvarnished being, and a willingness to look unflinchingly at what is.

Consider, for example one of Heaney’s most controversial poems, “Punishment”:
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