Does the artist have a responsibility to mirror the conflicts and problems of society in his or her work? Perhaps more than most, the Irish poet, Seamus Heaney, has been faced with this question. Living in Belfast since 1957, Heaney decided to leave Northern Ireland altogether in 1972, his residency there spanning fifteen years of social upheaval and violence. “I am fatigued,” Heaney wrote in 1971, “by a continuous adjudication between agony and injustice, swung at one moment by the long tail or race and resentment, at another by the more acceptable feelings of pity and terror” (from Preoccupations, New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1980). Several years later in the final poem of North (1975), Heaney would describe himself ensconced in Wicklow as a Gaelic outlaw “escaped from the massacre,” one who bides his time and weighs his “responsible tristia.”
While obvious difficulties attend any study that would attempt a comprehensive reading of a living poet, the rapid and various developments of Heaney's poetic technique have been accompanied by a singularly concentrated sense of subject matter, and it is this concentration that permits an extensive critical treatment of Heaney's existing corpus. Derived from the complex milieu of Northern Ireland, Heaney's subject matters have been typically labeled “political,” and as often happens in such discussions, his poetry suffers from the constricted perspective.
Burris' study demonstrates how Heaney handles the dilemma of an artist in a tumultuous society: pastoral poetry, in Heaney's hands, has been essentially modernized, refurbishing its traditional capacity to proffer trenchant social and cultural criticism while honoring the aesthetic demands of the art.
Sidney Burris is assistant professor of English at the University of Arkansas.