Seamus Heaney on Dante, Eliot, and Mandelstam

In Seamus Heaney’s long poem sequence “Station Island,” the speaker, on a pilgrimage, is visited by ghosts who rebuke him in an almost Dickensian fashion. “Part XII”, the final poem of the sequence, rouses me like a bugle call:

Then I knew him in the flesh
out there on the tarmac among the cars,
wintered hard and sharp as a blackthorn bush.

His voice eddying with the vowels of all rivers
came back to me, though he did not speak yet,
a voice like a prosecutor’s or a singer’s,

cunning, narcotic, mimic, definite
as a steel nib’s downstroke, quick and clean,
and suddenly he hit a litter basket

with his stick, saying, ‘your obligation
is not discharged by any common rite.
What you do you must do on your own.

The main thing is to write
for the joy of it. Cultivate a work-lust
that imagines its haven like your hands at night

dreaming the sun in the sunspot of a breast.
You are fasted now, light-headed, dangerous.
Take off from here. And don’t be so earnest,

so ready for the sackcloth and the ashes.
Let go, let fly, forget.
You’ve listened long enough. Now strike your note.’

It was as if I had stepped free into space
alone with nothing that I had not known
already. Raindrops blew in my face (Opened Ground, 244-245)

The terza rima structure immediately calls to mind Dante, and in his essay “Envies and Identifications: Dante and the Modern Poet,” Heaney acknowledges this influence directly.

In the first part of this essay, he points out how other poets have written their own poetic projects into their translations of Dante. In the second part, he notes Dante’s influence on Eliot’s “Little Gidding” from Four Quartets, wherein “the poet exchanges intense but oddly neutral words with ‘a familiar compound ghost'” (242) and Heaney concludes “as a matter of literary fact, that the lines are more haunted by the squadrons of Dante’s terza rima than by the squadrons of Hitler’s Luftwaffe” (243) Heaney further points out that a major part of the poetic influence was that “Dante was actually giving Eliot the freedom to surrender to the promptings of his own unconscious.” (249) The parallels here, between Dante’s influence on Eliot, and both Dante and Eliot’s influence (as well as Dante’s influence through Eliot) on Heaney himself, could not be made more clear.

In the third part of this essay, Heaney traces Dante’s musical influence on Mandelstam, and the “steadfastness of speech articulation” (255) in Mandelstam which Heaney admires, concluding that for Mandelstam and others, “Dante is not perceived as the mouthpiece of an orthodoxy but rather as the apotheos of free, natural, biological process … non-utilitarian elements in the creative life.” (255) Finally, Heaney brings this all together in treating an earlier version of the above quoted poem, saying:

What I first loved in the Commedia was the local intensity, the vehemence and fondness attaching to individual shades, the way personalities and values were emotionally soldered together … The way in which Dante could place himself in an historical world yet submit that world to scrutiny from a perspective beyond history, the way he could accommodate the political and the transcendent, this too encouraged my attempt at a sequence of poems which would explore the typical strains which the consciousness labours under in this country [Northern Ireland]. … I hoped that I could dramatize these strains by meeting shades from my own dream-life who had also been inhabitants of the actual Irish world. They could perhaps voice the claims of orthodoxy and the necessity to refuse these claims. They could probe the validity of one’s commitment. (256-257)

Heaney does just that–probing not only his own commitment, but, in the process, representing a kind of universal probing, a timeless tradition of antagonism; the poet arguing with aspects of himself. So again he represents a kind of bridge between worlds in this passage, an articulate bridge capable of identifying the struts which support it, calling this “an encounter reminiscent of ‘Little Gidding’ but with advice that Mandelstam might have given; yet the obvious shaping influence is the Commedia.” While it may be true, as a New York Times Book Update sidebar which I clipped and taped to the inside of The Poet’s Dante proclaims, that “Dante was his own best hero,” we might also say that Seamus Heaney is, in fact, his own best critic.

Yet equally as important to me as how Heaney approaches this passage as an amalgam of influences and a culmination of his own hard work and talent, is how this passage inspires me in relation to my own art. Whenever I read this passage, it also leaves me “alone with nothing that I had not known / already,” and yet the admonition “don’t be so earnest” continues to ring in my ears. Even as Dante might have given Eliot permission to probe the unconscious, here I can not shake the feeling of Heaney’s conjured ghost admonishing me against earnestness.

In the next installment, I will explore what earnestness means in this context, and how this relates to “sincerety” and “politeness” in poetry.