David W. Marshall

title.none: McCarthy, Seamus Heaney and Medieval Poetry (David W. Marshall)

identifier.other: baj9928.0810.001 08.10.01

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: David W. Marshall, California State University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: McCarthy, Conor. Seamus Heaney and Medieval Poetry. Woodbridge, Suffolk: D.S. Brewer, 2008. Pp. viii, 195. $90 978-1-84384-141-8. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 08.10.01

McCarthy, Conor. Seamus Heaney and Medieval Poetry. Woodbridge, Suffolk: D.S. Brewer, 2008. Pp. viii, 195. $90 978-1-84384-141-8. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

David W. Marshall
California State University

Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney is best known, perhaps, for his Whitbread award-winning translation of the Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf, published in 2001. Heaney's oeuvre, however, is filled with touchstones in medieval literature, ranging from early medieval Irish legend to Dante, to later medieval Troy legends. Seven years removed from the work that sparked renewed public interest in the Old English epic, Conor McCarthy offers an interesting study of Heaney's broader engagement with medieval poetry.

In his introduction McCarthy offers an impressively comprehensive list of the various ways and forms that medieval poetry surfaces in Heaney's work, providing an excellent resource for students not just of Heaney's poetry, but also of medievalism more generally; he includes translations, adaptations, and a broad array of allusions to medieval texts that have clear bearing on Heaney's own work. In his goal to show the poet engages with medieval poetry coherently, McCarthy claims that Heaney establishes a dialogue with medieval texts to examine personal concerns and larger political issues, in particular, "the problems that afflicted Northern Ireland during twenty-five years of conflict from 1969 to 1994" (6). He adds that Heaney's medieval-influenced works "represent the Middle Ages not as premodern and monocultural, or as some prelapsarian point of origin, but as a multicultural and complex reality equivalent to our own" (7). McCarthy suggests, then, that Heaney's belief in early literature as grappling with complex issues in complex ways makes it a rich vehicle for examining our own modern sense of complexity in the world.

McCarthy's first chapter examines Heaney's translation of the medieval Irish Buile Suibhne and includes discussion of the "Sweeney Redivivus" section of Station Island. McCarthy explains these texts rework the tale of an Ulster king whose conflict with an Irish cleric results in his being cursed. In the madness that afflicts him after the battle of Magh Rath, Sweeney believes himself to be a bird and wanders about the wilderness composing poetry about his struggles, until a reconciliation with the Church restores his sanity.

This tale, argues McCarthy, offers to Heaney an alter ego through whom he can explore his own relationship as a poet to his native Northern Ireland and the larger British context. In his study of Heaney's approach to translation, McCarthy explains that the poet attempts not to provide a gloss for the original, but to draw the tale forward, giving it a voice that will resonate with a new audience. To do so, Heaney occupies the position of a "middle voice" (19) between local and standard language. (This point is one that McCarthy illustrates with a brief discussion of deibidhe rhyme scheme that would benefit from a more full explanation of this form. The two-sentences devoted to it may leave those unfamiliar with Irish poetic forms uncertain of how Heaney's English verse draws on the Irish tradition).

The following discussion of Heaney's sense of "artist as outcast" offers an insightful and nuanced reading of the autobiographical rendering of Sweeney, whose role as wilderness-poet, McCarthy argues, becomes a strong point of identification for Heaney. This reading paints Heaney as a figure who suffers from similar feelings of "artistic guilt" (22), insofar as he senses himself to be betraying his own Irish heritage by translating a native work into a colonizing tongue. McCarthy's argument offers a fascinating analysis of the power, for Heaney, of medieval literature to speak to present concerns in specific ways. The chapter concludes by moving to the "Sweeney Redivivus" that concludes Station Island to observe that Heaney moves the character forward to the present day as means of locating the poetic voice to a marginal position from which to ask questions.

Chapter 2 takes up Heaney's use of Dante in the "Station Island" section of the identically titled collection, though he begins the chapter by pointing out how Dante's work surfaces in Field Work and Seeing Things. McCarthy explains in his first section that Heaney uses Dante in Field Work's elegies for those killed in the conflict in Northern Ireland. Just as Dante's alter-ego speaks with the dead, so too does Heaney invoke the Inferno to speak with Irish dead. Heaney, argues McCarthy, turns the Northern Ireland situation into "a Dantesque descent into hell" (58). Similarly, according to McCarthy, Heaney relocates Dante's trip to purgatory to an Irish setting with the Lough Derg tradition--an idea developed with reference to the Tractatus de Purgatorio Sancti Patricii.

Following the brief study of these works, McCarthy refocuses on Station Island to argue that the initial section of the work develops ideas of artistic freedom by invoking both Dante and James Joyce as images that give him "some room for the possibility of self- expression" (73). That self-expression takes the form of what McCarthy calls "an adaptation in miniature of the entire Commedia" (73). Using complex layers of references, as McCarthy puts it, the poet's journey develops with the poet in exile, to resemble the tour of the underworld, talking to the dead and encountering an image of the poet in exile who resembles Dante, Sweeney, Joyce, and Heaney. The result is an image of "the artist at a tangent to society who appears in various recombinations through the Station Island collection" (81), says McCarthy.

In his chapter examining Beowulf, McCarthy covers both the mixed critical reception of Heaney's translation as well as the uncertain place of the original work in the canon (citing Kermode and Bloom) to set up what he sees as Heaney's real contribution to the continued life of the poem. For McCarthy, the translation is Heaney's attempt to move the poem's concern with the past and its relevance to an Anglo-Saxon present forward, so that it may speak to current concerns with social and political issues.

McCarthy continues with a discussion of the Irishisms that Heaney includes--and that have been much criticized by some academics. Heaney, McCarthy explains, offers his translation in the hopes that it will draw together divided peoples whose separation exists despite an enduring tradition of connectedness. The chapter addresses that division between Ireland and England in an intriguing section on early Germanic cycles of violence. Hiberno-English terms become a means of establishing cultural parallels, which McCarthy demonstrates with brief examinations of the terms thole and sept. These, says McCarthy, are Heaney's attempt to locate similarity in differing cultures that saw centuries of contact. What Heaney strives to establish, according to McCarthy, is a multiculturalism that is not simply a balm to recent conflicts, but that is historically rooted as a tradition of socio-cultural bonds. The question of contact and separation, then, gets taken up in discussions of terms such as bawm and march, which suggest a tension between division and solidarity, a doubleness that McCarthy describes as "fundamental" to the original poem.

That idea carries McCarthy into unexpected but extraordinarily interesting territory: Proust's idea of the stereoscope. The general idea behind "stereoscopic juxtaposition" is that to remember is pointless unless there is a present moment in which meaning can be created for the memory. McCarthy cites Orchard's statement that Beowulf builds on repetition and variation and (especially) Fred Robinson's notion of "appositive style" to develop the idea that the original text depends on thinking through present concerns with past events. Therefore, Heaney's translation and its speaking to Hiberno-English relations is exactly in keeping with the original movement of the poem.

The chapter offers some of McCarthy's finest arguments, even if it feels at times like it is motivated by a desire to defend Heaney's translation against the charges leveled by academics since its publication. That being said, those critics may want to read the chapter, as it offers an insightful reading of Heaney's adoption of the original epic's larger ideological strategies. While this chapter may intensify the feeling of a Celticized Beowulf, it does so in such a way as to make the approach feel like a natural part of translating the work. The chapter's real weakness is its section on gender issues, which contributes to the defensive feel of the chapter and seems to be there merely to look forward to the final chapter-- where it belongs.

That final chapter explores Heaney's 2004 translation of Henryson's Testament of Cresseid. Heaney, argues McCarthy, feels an affinity for Henryson, whose language, the Scots vernacular, contains both native Scots words and Anglo-Saxon words in a fusion of linguistic traditions. Moreover, Henryson's poem shares with Heaney an interest in the theme of the enduring woman.

After discussing Henryson's subversion of Chaucer's authoritative position and the inherent antifeminism of the two poets' works, McCarthy cites Heaney as positing that Henryson's poem is sympathetic to Cresseid, despite the blame heaped upon her. That blame, Heaney maintains, is balanced with sympathy for her situation. McCarthy offers textual evidence from the Testament to support Heaney's contention, even if (as McCarthy states) the antifeminism remains a problem. McCarthy argues that Heaney holds up Cresseid as a dramatic example of the outsider and outcast--outsider from the beginning and left as the outcast in the end. Based on this argument, McCarthy concludes, "Heaney's advocacy of the outcast is long standing, and it offers a likely explanation of his sympathetic reading of Henryson's Cresseid" (163). The last chapter is the least impressive in a strong study of Heaney's work.

If the book suffers from a consistent problem, it is that the choice to organize around works rather than ideas leaves the chapters feeling centerless at times, with discussions of individual topics spread out across chapters. A prime example of this potential problem is the discussion of gender in Beowulf, which really fits better as a brief interlude in the chapter on Cresseid as the enduring woman.

That being said, McCarthy's book offers a remarkable survey of Heaney's work and its debt to medieval poetry. His research into Heaney's full expression of ideas, including plays, essays and interviews, as well as his full corpus of poetic works, makes the book an excellent resource for the medievalist seeking further inroads and insights into Heaney's work. McCarthy's strategy of locating Heaney in relation not just to medieval influences, but contemporary ones (such as Thomas Kinsella, Ted Hughes, and other Irish poets) is ambitious and well-executed, providing a complex sense of Heaney's project.

Additionally, McCarthy has presented a compelling analysis of Heaney's use of medieval poetry that should be of great interest to the growing body of scholars interested in medievalism. His contribution here is in uncovering one artist's sense that medieval texts are not inert artifacts, but a living body of ideas that can exist in productive dialogue with present concerns.