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Passage to the Center

Passage to the Center: Imagination and the Sacred in the Poetry of Seamus Heaney

Daniel Tobin
Copyright Date: 1999
Edition: 1
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    Passage to the Center
    Book Description:

    Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney, author of nine collections of poetry and three volumes of influential essays, is regarded by many as the greatest Irish poet since Yeats.Passage to the Centeris the most comprehensive critical treatment to date on Heaney's poetry and the first to study Heaney's body of work up toSeeing ThingsandThe Spirit Level. It is also the first to examine the poems from the perspective of religion, one of Heaney's guiding preoccupations. According to Tobin, the growth of Heaney's poetry may be charted through the recurrent figure of "the center," a key image in the relationship that evolved over time between the poet and his inherited place, an evolution that involved the continual re-evaluation and re-vision of imaginative boundaries. In a way that previous studies have not, Tobin's work examines Heaney's poetry in the context of modernist and postmodernist concerns about the desacralizing of civilization and provides a challenging engagement with the work of a living master.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-4762-8
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction: One of the Venerators
    (pp. 1-13)

    A man stoops in waders along a lakeshore. In the sand’s wash he finds a stone, reddish, chalky with salt, about the size of his palm. He picks it up, tosses it from hand to hand, then slips it in his pocket. For no other reason than he likes its shape it will become a keepsake, a touchstone. Years from now he will take it from a shelf and remember; and even if he forgets, by then it will have embodied the aura of the past. The stone is ordinary, certainly not precious.

    In “Sandstone Keepsake” Seamus Heaney remembers finding...

  5. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. 14-14)
  6. 1 Senses of Place: Death of a Naturalist
    (pp. 15-38)

    In “Place, Pastness, Poems,” Seamus Heaney quotes this passage from T.S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding” to support his view that in lieu of a cultural center the literary tradition is what links “the private experience of a poet to the usual life of the age.”¹ For Heaney, tradition allows the regional poet to affirm the centrality of local experience to his own being, but with the hope of making that experience accessible to readers from wholly different walks of life. Ideally, by raising private experience to the level of cultural expression, Heaney would have tradition transform personal memory into cultural memory....

  7. 2 Almost Unnameable Energies: Door into the Dark
    (pp. 39-67)

    In an early review, Christopher Ricks remarked thatDoor into the Darkwould consolidate Heaney as “the poet of moldy booted blackberry picking.”¹ Yet despite such charges Heaney’s second book shows him delving more deeply into chosen themes, advancing into new territory. As his friend Michael Longley observed, rather than simply consolidating already established themes, inDoor into the DarkHeaney’s “preoccupation with his own past shades into explorations of Irish history; he breaks out of the boundaries of his Derry locale to embrace the whole island.”² Consequently, his quest for self-definition moves beyond personal history, parochial geography, and his...

  8. 3 A Poetry of Geographical Imagination: Wintering Out
    (pp. 68-102)

    “What is the source of our first suffering? It lies in the fact that we hesitated to speak. It was born in the moment when we accumulated silent things within us.” Kept as a reminder in Heaney’s poetry notebook, Gaston Bachelard’s warning could stand as the motto for Heaney’s early work.¹ InDeath of a Naturalist,the silent things given speech through the poet’s art derive primarily from his personal history, from the rhythms of the yard experienced in childhood. Not surprisingly, Narcissus is the book’s presiding deity, in whose image Heaney “rhymes to see himself.” With Heaney’s second book,...

  9. 4 Cooped Secrets of Process and Ritual: North
    (pp. 103-141)

    On January 30, 1972, British paratroopers killed thirteen Catholic demonstrators in Derry. They had been protesting the institution of forced internment without trial in Northern Ireland for Republicans suspected of IRA affiliation, as well as practices of torture committed on internees by the British authorities. The Bloody Sunday Massacre only swelled Catholic grassroots support for those who would kill for what Heaney called the Nationalist myth, the idea of an integral Ireland variously personified as Kathleen Ni Houlihan and the Shan Van Vocht: the Old Mother, the native feminine spirit of the land. In Dublin, the British embassy was bombed,...

  10. 5 Door into the Light: Field Work
    (pp. 142-174)

    In “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” Eliot calls the auditory imagination a feeling for language that unites the most primitive and civilized minds.¹ Heaney’sNorthseeks a similar union by exposing both minds to the light of consciousness. As part of this process of exposure, Ulster’s pattern of violence forces him to confront the tragic origins of culture. However, raised as it is inNorthto a vision of malevolent transcendence, tragedy is finally unthinkable. Were it not for the innate rage for order of tragedy, the potency of disorder would consume all meaning—even tragic meaning. Tragedy therefore promises...

  11. 6 A Poet’s Rite of Passage: Station Island
    (pp. 175-215)

    Robert Frost observed that poetry begins in delight and ends in wisdom. When asked in an interview whether the same could be said of a poet’s career, Seamus Heaney responded by saying that a poet “begins in delight and ends in self-consciousness.”¹ In their claims about poetic practice, both Frost and Heaney embrace the commonplace notion that poets first begin to find a voice by delighting in language. Beyond this, their statements also suggest that such playful indulgence leads, or should lead, not only to a greater command of language but to a more pervasive and subtle knowledge of the...

  12. 7 Unwriting Place: The Haw Lantern
    (pp. 216-247)

    Inspired by the monomyth of the hero’s path,Station Islandassumes self-consciously what is at the heart of Heaney’s work: the quest for self-definition. His book of changes includes the big-eyed Narcissus of the early poems, the poetic archeologist who delves into the word-hoard to discover new regions of his cultural and personal dark, and the inner emigré who rhymes his journey with paradigmatic figures of the tradition. Each book is a new trial of the self to be mastered before he can make a new beginning. Yet, as he observes, “the difficulty comes when what has happened between the...

  13. 8 Parables of Perfected Vision: Seeing Things
    (pp. 248-274)

    “Without needing to be theoretically instructed, consciousness quickly realizes that it is the site of variously contending discourses,” Heaney remarked inCrediting Poetry(13). Within the context of his Nobel lecture, Seamus Heaney’s observation reminds the reader that even the apparent innocence of childhood is in fact nothing less than a school “for the complexities of his adult predicament.” In a profound sense, Heaney’s insight at once harkens back to the narrow limits of his first world, as well as the nexus of forces that constitutes its ground. At the same time, it illuminates Heaney’s artistic passage beyond his home,...

  14. 9 Things Apparent and Transparent: The Spirit Level
    (pp. 275-292)

    From the outset of his career, the calling of poet has required Heaney to embark on a quest for self-definition, a quest in which every imaginative return to origins precipitates a new journey outward whereby the poet’s art and identity are redefined and enlarged. Yet, despite Heaney’s seemingly inexhaustible ability to reinvent himself in his work, the original binding connection between poet and place remains constant. The evolution of his poetry, even as it comes to embrace a vision of art and life linked to emptiness, thus consistently exemplifies what he has more recently described as a “covenant between language...

  15. Afterword
    (pp. 293-304)

    Throughout these pages I have interpreted Heaney’s poetry as a quest for self-definition, a rite of passage. Within this rite, the problem of identity emerges through the poet’s explorations of his personal history, a history that in time is set against the wider historical horizon of Heaney’s cultural past. Paradoxically, what gives his work continuity is his willingness to face discontinuity over again with each return to the source. Still, Heaney’s reliance on what has been called disparagingly a poetic of identity would appear to confirm Anthony Easthope’s criticism that Heaney’s poetry is “resolutely premodernist in its commitment to a...

  16. Notes
    (pp. 305-318)
  17. Bibliography
    (pp. 319-328)
  18. Index
    (pp. 329-338)