Seamus Heaney: The Timorous and the Bold

  • Seamus Deane
Part of the New Casebooks book series (NECA)


As he tells us in his essay ‘Feeling into Words’, Seamus Heaney signed one of his first poems ‘Incertus’, ‘uncertain, a shy soul fretting and all that’.1 Feeling his way into words so that he could find words for his feelings was the central preoccupation of his apprenticeship to poetry. In a review of Theodore Roethke’s Collected Poems he declares that ‘An awareness of his own poetic process, and a trust in the possibility of his poetry, that is what a poet should attempt to preserve’.2 The assurance of this statement is partly undercut by the last phrase. It strikes that note of uncertainty, of timorousness which recurs time and again both in his poetry and in his prose. His fascination with the fundamentals of music in poetry, his pursuit of the central energies in another writer’s work, his inspection of the experiences, early and late, which guarantee, validate, confirm his perceptions, his admiration of the sheer mastery of men like Hopkins or Yeats, all reveal a desire for the absolute, radical certainty. But this boldness has caution as its brother. For all its possibilities and strengths, poetry is a tender plant. Heaney dominates a territory — his home ground, the language of Hopkins, an idea of poetry — in a protective, tutelary spirit. Images of preservation are almost as frequent as those of nourishment.


Central Trope Home Ground Tender Plant Midas Touch Central Preoccupation 
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  1. 1.
    Seamus Heaney, Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968–1978 (London, 1980), p. 45.Google Scholar
  2. 7.
    On Thomas Kinsella’s use of the Gaelic tradition, see Deane’s Celtic Revivals (London, 1985), pp. 142–5. [Ed.]Google Scholar

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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 1997

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  • Seamus Deane

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