Seamus Heaney pp 155-184 | Cite as

‘Pap for the Dispossessed’: Seamus Heaney and the Poetics of Identity

  • David Lloyd
Part of the New Casebooks book series (NECA)


The centrality of the question of identity to Irish writing and critical discussion of it since the nineteenth century is not due simply to the contingent influence of political preoccupations. Rather, it indicates the crucial function performed by literature in the articulation of those preoccupations, inasmuch as literary culture is conceived as offering not merely a path towards the resolution, but the resolution itself of the problems of subjective and political identity. At present, the Irish poet whose work has most evidently gained such authority is Seamus Heaney, the dust-jackets of whose volumes of poetry since Field Work carry such banal assertions as ‘Everyone knows by now that Heaney is a major poet…’2 Heaney’s quasi-institutional acceptance on both sides of theAtlantic as a major poet and bearer of the tradition coincides with a tendency to regard his work as articulating important intuitions of Irish identity, and as uttering and reclaiming that identity beyond the divisive label, ‘Anglo-Irishness’. Therefore, it is not untimely to interrogate these assumptions in the context of an historical elaboration of the principal concepts which founded and still dominate literary and political formulations of Irish identity.


Literary Culture Cultural Nationalism Irish Identity Nationalist Ideology Negative Dialectic 
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  1. 2.
    Seamus Heaney, Field Work (London, 1979). The citation is from John Carey, ‘Poetry for the World We Live In’, review of Seamus Heaney, Field WorkGoogle Scholar
  2. and Craig Raine, A Martian Sends a Postcard Home (Oxford, 1979), in the Sunday Times, 18 November 1979, p. 40.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Mark Patrick Hederman, ‘“The Crane Bag” and the North of Ireland’, The Crane Bag (Dublin), 4:2 (1980–1), 102Google Scholar
  4. and Blake Morrison, Seamus Heaney (London, 1982), p. 69.Google Scholar
  5. 6.
    Anonymous, 15 February 1845, ‘Union Against the Union’, Nation, 11 March 1848, 168. See also E. Kamenka (ed.), Nationalism: The Nature and Evolution of an Idea (London, 1973), pp. 9–10.Google Scholar
  6. Marx’s ‘Critique of Hegel’s Doctrine of the State’ in Early Writings, trans. Rodney Livingstone and Gregor Benton (New York, 1975), pp. 57–197, comprises an extensive critique of the state in terms of the split between the civil state of individualism and the political state of ‘association’.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Elie Kedourie’s Nationalism (London, 1961) supplies the wider European context of nationalism, and emphasises the ethical nature of its demands.Google Scholar
  8. it is derived. This, and related terms, are well analysed in Vincent Descombes, Le Même et l’Autre: quarante-cinq ans de philosophie française, 1933–1978 (Paris, 1979), pp. 205–6. Davis’s essay was published in the Nation, 1 April 1843, 394.Google Scholar
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    Sigmund Freud, ‘Some Psychical Consequences of the Anatomical Distinction between the Sexes’, The Complete Psychological Works (London, 1958–68), XIX, p. 257.Google Scholar
  10. 12.
    This is the general argument of John Breuily’s persuasive study, Nationalism and the State (New York, 1982), see especially chs 2 and 3.Google Scholar
  11. 13.
    See George Boyce, Nationalism in Ireland (London, 1982), p. 239, where he remarks that ‘one of the most important unifying themes of southern politics after the 1920s was Hibernia Irredenta’.Google Scholar
  12. 15.
    Difference’ is employed throughout less in the Derridean sense than as the dialectical contrary to the concept of identity, i.e. that which cannot be assimilated to the unity of identitarian thinking. Theodor Adorno argues this to be an inescapable contradiction within such thinking; see Negative Dialectics, trans. E.B. Ashton (New York, 1973 ), pp. 5–6.Google Scholar
  13. 16.
    Seamus Heaney, Death of a Naturalist (London, 1966), pp. 13–14, and Door into the Dark (London, 1969), pp. 25–6.Google Scholar
  14. 17.
    Harold Bloom, ‘The Voice of Kinship’, TLS, 8 (February 1980), pp. 137–8.Google Scholar
  15. 18.
    Seamus Heaney, ‘Feeling into Words’, Preoccupations (London, 1980), p. 41.Google Scholar
  16. 19.
    Frank Kinahan, ‘Artists on Art: An Interview with Seamus Heaney’, Critical Inquiry 8:3 (Spring 1982), 406;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. see also Seamus Heaney’s lines in ‘The Ministry of Fear’, North (London, 1975), p. 65: ‘Ulster was British, but with no rights on/The English lyric.’Google Scholar
  18. 21.
    For further discussion of gender issues in Heaney’s writings that have appeared since this essay was first published, see Elizabeth Butler Cullingford, ‘“Thinking of Her… as… Ireland”: Yeats, Pearse and Heaney’, Textual Practice, 4:1 (Spring 1990), 1–21CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. and Patricia Coughlan, ‘“Bog Queens”: The Representation of Women in the Poetry of John Montague and Seamus Heaney’ in Toni O’Brien Johnson and David Cairns (eds), Gender in Irish Writing (Milton Keynes, 1991 ), pp. 88–111.Google Scholar
  20. 22.
    See Richard Kearney’s comments on the intertwining of both aspects of this mythology in ‘The IRA’s Strategy of Failure’, The Crane Bag 4:2 (1980–1), 62.Google Scholar
  21. 24.
    See the interview with Seamus Heaney in John Haffenden, Viewpoints (London, 1981), pp. 59–60.Google Scholar
  22. 25.
    See Coleridge, ‘Essays on Method’, The Friend ed. Barbara Rooke (Princeton, NJ, 1969), p. 476;Google Scholar
  23. Matthew Arnold, ‘On the Study of Celtic Literature’ in R.H. Super (ed.), Lectures and Essays in Criticism vol. III of The Complete Prose Works (Ann Arbor, MI, 1962), p. 330. Adorno comments on the duplication of the mechanical reproductive process in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. See Negative Dialectics p. 387.Google Scholar
  24. 30.
    John Kenneth Galbraith, The New Industrial State 2nd edn (Harmondsworth, 1974), especially ch. 5, ‘Capital and Power’. The analysis, if not the conclusion, of this study is valuable, and challenging to any materialist view of the current economy.Google Scholar

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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 1997

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  • David Lloyd

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