This is the 90th post from Talk about books; the next one, due in two weeks’ time, will make it 3½ years since I began sending these out, at first as a Substack newsletter. Broadly speaking, when I think of these posts collectively as a body of writing, I’m more or less happy with them; it’s only when I look at individual posts that I’m forced to notice their faults: the gaps in the argument, the important points that I meant to include but forgot, the recurring rush to finish. There are several posts that I’d like to have another go at, to make a better job of this time. The one that strikes me as particularly unsatisfactory is that from 19 November last year, on the poetry of Seamus Heaney. Even as I was writing that post and sending it out, I recognized that I don’t know Heaney’s poetry well enough to write about it meaningfully, and that I hadn’t given myself enough time to become familiar with it. But I pressed ahead anyway, partly because I had spent the previous two weeks (and longer) attempting to immerse myself in his work, so I couldn’t quickly refocus my attention on another writer, and didn’t have anything else ready to go.

A large part of the reason that I was so keen to write something about Heaney in spite of my lack of preparation was that I had been very taken with Roy Foster’s excellent little book On Seamus Heaney (2020) from Princeton University Press. Foster is best known as a historian but is also the biographer of W B Yeats. I haven’t read his Yeats biography (and it’s entirely possible that I’ll never get around to it) but I’d found some of his essays on Yeats, collected in The Irish Story: Telling tales and making it up in Ireland (2001), to be more sensible and clarifying than anything else I could remember reading about Yeats.

It was in Foster’s book that I first came across a mention of one of Heaney’s lectures which he delivered as Oxford Professor of Poetry, a position he held between 1989 and 1994. This particular lecture (“Joy or Night: Last things in the poetry of W B Yeats and Philip Larkin”) was given in April 1990 and is included in The Redress of Poetry (1995), 146–63. In it, Heaney compares Larkin’s extraordinary late poem, “Aubade” (1977) with two poems by Yeats, to Larkin’s disadvantage.

I’m not an admirer of Larkin’s poetry in general. It has often seemed to me that several of the poems for which he’s most highly regarded — I’m thinking of “Church Going”, “An Arundel Tomb” and “The Whitsun Weddings” — are about an England that I never saw for myself and don’t recognize except at second hand (and that in part through these poems themselves). But “Aubade”, published in the TLS some three years after the appearance of his final collection, High Windows, is a very different matter.

In his lecture, Heaney echoes Czesław Miłosz’s praise of “Aubade” as a “high poetical achievement” (pp. 153, 157) and acknowledges that he could

go on praising the technical aspects of this poem, such as the rhyming of “vision” with “indecision”, a piece of undercutting that is characteristically Larkinesque in its implicit refusal of the spiritual upbeat of Yeats’s rhymes. (p. 156)

But he goes on to quote Miłosz as saying that, high poetic achievement notwithstanding, the poem leaves him feeling “indignant” (p. 158). Such a strong reaction has apparently arisen from a feeling that Larkin has gone over to the other side. As Miłosz sees it, poets have historically been opposed to “reason, science and science-inspired philosophy” (p. 158), and the Larkin of “Aubade” has abandoned or betrayed this responsibility. Heaney seems to be more ambivalent than Miłosz is about the supposed opposition between poetry on the one hand and science and reason on the other: he describes Miłosz’s argument as “intrinsically challenging” (p. 153) but he doesn’t unequivocally dissent from it.

Without accepting Miłosz’s premise that poetry is (or should be, or has historically been) inherently antirational and antiscientific, I’m sure he’s right to identify Larkin’s poem as putting forward a rational argument: it’s on the side of reason, not unreason. This isn’t necessarily obvious. One could read the poem as expressing an irrational fear, and it’s perceptive of Miłosz not to do so.

Of course I agree that “Aubade” is a high poetic achievement. Heaney alludes to the effect it still has on “those who remember coming upon it in the TLS, two days before Christmas, 1977” (p. 153). I’m not one of those. It seems to have seeped into my awareness by osmosis sometime between 1988 and 1990. The poem is full of quotable (and often quoted) phrases, without ever seeming like a mere collection of epigrams. Those honed, concentrated, devastating phrases form an integrated whole, if not without the occasional surprise: “An only life can take so long to climb | Clear of it’s wrong beginnings, and may never;” “The sure extinction that we travel to”; “Most things may never happen: this one will”. (The original draft of this paragraph had ten such examples, but I forced myself to cut it down to three.)

I mentioned surprises. This passage contains the most important one:

white spaceCourage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

It’s this last line that Heaney finds he can’t accept. But Larkin has prepared us for it in the preceding lines. Surely courage must be some good, we think: won’t it allow us to approach death in a calmer, less agitated state? If we can manage it, “not scaring others” will have its effect on ourselves too, make us more accepting. But then, with the next sentence, we see what the poet means. He isn’t talking about how we die, but rather about the fact that we do, irrespective of how we approach it. Larkin has in mind the state of being dead — “that sure extinction” — more than the (generally painful and undignified) process we go through on the way there. From that point of view, bravery is no help: no matter how courageous and/or dignified you are in your approach to death, you’ll still end up every bit as dead as anybody else.

That’s why I said Miłosz is right to see Larkin’s approach as rationalist, in spite of the superficial irrationality of these lines:

And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel
, not seeing
That this is what we fear …

Larkin accepts that when we no longer exist we’ll no longer feel or experience anything at all, so there’s nothing to be afraid of on that score. But he is very aware that while we are still alive we can, and often do, fear the impending extinction itself. Our existence is precious to us, we dread having to give it up, though we know that’s inevitable.

Although, in the first stanza, Larkin writes of “the dread | Of dying, and being dead,” it’s clear from the poem as a whole that it’s the prospect of “being dead” that most horrifies him. Heaney says that Yeats was “as alive as Larkin to the demeaning realities of bodily decrepitude and the obliterating force of death” (p. 150). But it’s striking that, in “Aubade” (unlike, say, “The Old Fools”), Larkin doesn’t say anything about bodily decrepitude. It’s the obliterating force that holds the real terror.

Another reason for Miłosz’s indignation at Larkin’s supposed betrayal is that poets have always been on the side of life, whereas Larkin recognizes the power of death. Of course, by “life” he means everlasting life, not the kind of everyday life we’re all familiar with, that invariably comes to an end. That kind of familiar life is inextricably bound up with death: you can’t have one without the other.

On the question of life and death, Heaney is more obviously in agreement with Miłosz than he is on that of science and rationalism. He compares Larkin’s poem with two by Yeats, one (“The Cold Heaven”) relatively early and the other (“The Man and the Echo”) one of Yeats’s Last Poems.

I wrote a bit about Heaney’s claim that

“The Cold Heaven” is a poem which suggests that there is an overall purpose to life; and it does so by the intrinsically poetic action of its rhymes, its rhythms, and its exultant intonation. These create an energy and an order which promote the idea that there exists a much greater, circumambient energy and order within which we have our being. (p. 149)

However, I deleted that passage because it was less about the poetry than about the differences between Heaney’s philosophical position and my own world-view. (What I wrote was mainly about what it would mean for life to have “an overall purpose”.)

There’s not a lot I want to say about the Yeats poems. My feelings about Yeats are not dissimilar to those about Larkin. In the case of the latter I’m largely indifferent to most of his poetry, with one very significant exception — the one I’ve been discussing. With Yeats, I’m wary of his politics and his strange, mystical philosophy, and this inevitably colours my response to his poetry, but there’s a small number of his poems that I enjoy and am fascinated by. (And I’m occasionally surprised at how much larger that “small number” is than I’d assumed.) The fact that I like some Yeats is partly the result of my having being born and brought up in County Sligo, so his poems have had a long time to work their way into my internal landscape, and partly because I studied several of them for the Leaving Certificate back in the 1970s.

But there’s something else too. Some of his lines are so good, and so memorable, that they work away on the unconscious over the decades. It’s as Auden wrote:

Time that with this strange excuse
Pardoned Kipling and his views,
And will pardon Paul Claudel,
Pardons him for writing well. (“In Memory of W B Yeats”)

Neither of the poems discussed by Heaney is among my favourites.

I thought it worth remarking that the word “stricken” features in both, in each case referring to something descending from above. In the earlier poem it’s a rhyme word against which, as Heaney points out, “the verb ‘to quicken’ … manages to hold its own” (p. 149). This happens in the middle of a question that the poet asks about what happens after death. Yeats seems to see the ghost as being born when the body dies. The ghost then “begins to quicken” and the poet asks whether it is then sent out “naked on the roads” to be “stricken | By the injustice of the skies for punishment?” It’s not clear to me whether this question is rhetorical — though if it is the answer is presumably “no”.

In the later poem, the poet asks whether in his life he has done more harm than good:

Did that play of mine send out
Certain men the English shot?
Did words of mine put too great strain
On that woman’s reeling brain?
Could my spoken words have checked
That whereby a house lay wrecked?
And all seems evil …

The echo from the rocks could be taken to urge him to lie down and die. He is tempted, but he answers that to do so would be “to shirk | The spiritual intellect’s great work”. He believes that, on his death, there will be a final judgment, the determination of which he can’t know until it happens, but then he is distracted (called back to his life and immediate circumstances) by the cry of a “stricken” rabbit. He is not able to tell whether the rabbit has been the victim of a hawk, dropping from the sky (like the hypothetical, possibly unjust, punishment in “The Cold Heaven”) or an owl, dropping from an earthly rock. Each poem ends with the poet’s questions unresolved.

Heaney describes Larkin’s argument as an “attractively defeatist proposition” (p. 163), by implication comparing it to the temptation offered by the echo in “The Man and the Echo”, to shirk the responsibilities of the “spiritual intellect”. (That, I assume, is why he chose these particular poems by Yeats to contrast with Larkin’s “Aubade”.) I’ve tried to show that he hasn’t been quite fair to Larkin, though he recognizes his poetic achievement.