Seeing ‘Last Things’: Reading Yeats through the Eyes of Seamus Heaney

  • Colleen McKenna
Part of the Yeats Annual book series (YA)


IN 1978, SEAMUS HEANEY in a public lecture entitled ‘Yeats as an Example?’ argued that Yeats, through his perseverance, invention, and artistic commitment, is ‘indeed, the ideal example for a poet approaching middle age’. Twelve years later, in the Oxford lecture ‘Joy or Night: Last Things in the Poetry of W. B. Yeats and Philip Larkin’, Yeats is cast as the ideal example for a poet approaching later middle age: one who might be beginning to contemplate his own (if still distant) last things, or at least conducting some mid-career literary stock-taking.1 From the publication in 1980 of Preoccupations (which takes its title and epigraph from Yeats’s Explorations) to the recent Nobel Prize acceptance speech Crediting Poetry (1995), Yeats might be thought to have ghosted Heaney’s prose: he is frequently invoked and often implictly addressed, hovering in the writing like an admixture of Bloom’s precursor poet and Bakhtin’s superaddressee. However, although a persistent presence—especially in Heaney’s essays, Yeats is also an unfixed one: Heaney, a seemingly committed literary revisionist, has, over the last two and a half decades, constructed different versions of Yeats—which, unsurprisingly, largely echo his own literary predilections.2


Literary Predilection Quarry Face High Window Poetic Voice Poetic Structure 
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  1. 7.
    In fact, since the publication of this piece, Heaney has been regarded as one of the foremost proponents of a symbolist reading of Larkin’s verse. Stephen Regan finds that the ‘most impressive appraisal of Larkin’s symbolist potential is undoubtedly Seamus Heaney’s fine essay, “The Main of Light”…’. See Stephen Regan, The Critics Debate: Philip Larkin (London: Macmillan, 1992), p. 52.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. 9.
    Julia Kristeva, ‘Word, Dialogue and Novel’ in The Kristeva Reader, ed. Toril Moi (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986) p. 39.Google Scholar
  3. 10.
    Seamus Heaney, The Place of Writing (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1989) p. 33. Subsequent references will be made in the text and referred to as POW. Heaney continues, ‘Behind the large firm gestures of Yeats’s last poems, where the humanist effort is racked upon a wheel that is a paradigm of hollowness, we can already make out the shuffling, unappeasable decrepitude of Beckett’s heroes going on refusing to go on’ (POW 34).Google Scholar
  4. 11.
    Seamus Heaney, Seeing Things (London: Faber and Faber, 1991) p. 37. All sub-sequent quotations will be included in the text and referred to as ST. Google Scholar
  5. 12.
    Seamus Heaney, Stepping Stones (London: Penguin Audiobooks, 1995). See n. 17 for a full version of the quotation.Google Scholar
  6. 15.
    Robert Druce, ‘A Raindrop on a Thorn: An Interview with Seamus Heaney’ Dutch Quarterly Review (9: 1979) 25–6. Note the similarity to Yeats’s comment to Lady Gregory that he was able to write ‘with a new confidence[,] having gotten Milton off my back’ (3 Jan., 1913, quoted in A. Norman Jeffares, Yeats Man & Poet (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1949, 1962) p. 167.Google Scholar
  7. 16.
    Seamus Heaney, Crediting Poetry (County Meath: The Gallery Press, 1996) p. 28. Heaney has also expressed this concept in verse: … a ripple that would travel eighty years Outward from there, to be the same ripple Inside him at its last circumference. (‘Squarings’, vi, ST 60)Google Scholar
  8. 23.
    Edna Longley, ‘Louis MacNeice: “The Walls are Flowing”’ in Across a Roaring Hill: The Protestant Imagination in Modern Ireland eds. Gerald Dawe and Edna Longley (Belfast; The Blackstaff Press, 1985), p. 119.Google Scholar
  9. 24.
    Heaney emphasizes this aspect of Yeats in his essay on the poet in The Field Day Anthology: ‘Nobody doubts his fundamental importance as the creator of a cultural idea in and for Ireland, but that is only the beginning of his greatness. His extreme exploration of the possibilities of reconciling the human impulse to transcendence and subversion with the antithetical project of continuity and consolidation is universally and inexhaustibly relevant.’ Seamus Heaney, ‘William Butler Yeats’ in The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing ed. Seamus Deane, (Derry: Field Day Publications, 1991) II, p. 789. In an earlier essay, Heaney wrote approvingly of Yeats’s ‘Among Schoolchildren’: ‘Its final stanza is a guarantee of our human capacity to outstrip the routine world… And what it suggests is the necessity of an idea of transcendence, an impatience with the limitations of systems, a yearning to be completely fulfilled at all levels of our being…’ (Heaney, Among Schoolchildren published by the John Malone Memorial Committee, Belfast, 1983, pp. 15–16.)Google Scholar
  10. 28.
    Heaney is perhaps also invoking Derek Mahon’s ‘Courtyards in Delft’: ‘… Perfection of the thing and the thing made’. See Derek Mahon, Selected Poems, (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1993) p. 120.Google Scholar
  11. 32.
    Heaney would seem to be simultaneously be alluding to MacNeice’s set question in ‘Western Landscape’, a poem probing the permanence of place: But what Is the hold upon, the affinity with Ourselves of such a light and line … Louis MacNeice, Collected Poems, (London: Faber and Faber, 1979) p. 525. ‘Western Landscape’ twice alludes directly to Yeats, thereby increasing the complexity of the intertexuality of the Heaney piece.Google Scholar
  12. 33.
    Richard Ellmann, Four Dubliners (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1987), p. 48. The phrase is quoted frequently by Heaney.Google Scholar

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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 1998

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  • Colleen McKenna

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