Top positive review
91 people found this helpful
on February 25, 1999
Those of you who are already familiar with his poems will be delighted to learn of the publication of Opened Ground: Selected Poems 1966-1996, a bumper crop of Heaney's best work over a thirty year period, and a record of the writer's development from the tentative and introspective poems of Death of a Naturalist (1966) to the authoritative and visionary tonalities of middle age in Seeing Things (1991) and The Spirit Level (1996).
This hefty, 440-page volume gathers together a pruned-down version of each of the author's ten volumes of poetry, plus extracts from his verse play, The Cure at Troy, his translation of the Irish epic poem, Sweeney Astray, and his Nobel Prize lecture, "Crediting Poetry." In 1975, poet Robert Lowell dubbed Heaney "the greatest Irish poet since W.B.Yeats." This volume proves that claim, perhaps too hasty a judgement in 1975, to be fully justified.
One of the most appealing aspects of the early poetry is the dense, tactile language used to evoke scenes of nature on the family farm, often conveyed from the point of view of the small child, and the poems are full of a child's freshness of perception. Farmyard and barnyard, cows, bulls, rats, sheds, wells, rakes, ploughs, and pitchforks appeared in vivid detail in this rural poetic landscape, in which the speaker experienced his solitary epiphanies. Farm workers and rural artisans, including thatchers, ploughmen and even water diviners were transformed into artists in their own right, and as alter egos of the poet himself
In the 1970s, Heaney began to write more directly about the Irish landscape, particularly the marshy bogs, that became emblematic for him of the Irish national consciousness. Heaney imagined the bogland that contained ancient artifacts, bones, skeletons and preserved corpses as dark and magical repositories of the nation's memory, including its memory of violence and bloodshed. In North (1975) he published a series of memorable and moving "bog poems" that explored the parallels between bronze age human sacrifice in ancient Denmark and the killings in Northern Ireland at the time of writing. It is with this book that Heaney became known as the poet of the Northern Irish Troubles. In comparing ancient, pagan cultures with the murderous climate of Northern Ireland in the early 1970s, he conveyed a bleak portrait of a province locked in an ancient conflict that was doomed to continue indefinitely. The next book, Field Work (1979) was notable for its many fine elegies, including several poignant elegies for friends and relations murdered in the Troubles. But this was also a book of blessings, including poems of pastoral peace, and marriage poems set in county Wicklow where Heaney had moved. One of Heaney's dominant strains is the elegiac, and he has continued to produce a fine sequence of elegies for his mother, "Clearances," in The Haw Lantern (1987) and for his father in Seeing Things (1991).
Seamus Heaney is widely admired for his sensuous evocation of a farmyard childhood in Northern Ireland in the 1940s, for his thoughtful and moving approach to the Northern Irish Troubles, conveying the perspectives of nationalist Roman Catholic culture, while avoiding didacticism and outright partisanship, for his fine elegies in which he registers the personal loss of those who were dear to him, and for his more recent, celebratory and visionary poetry. But the main point about him, as with all great poets, is not his subject matter, but the fact that he has enormous linguistic resources, hence the power to convey his experiences freshly and convincingly.