Seamus Heaney and Medieval Poetry

April 22, 2010

When one thinks of medievalism in poetry, one thinks first of the 19th century, of John Keats, Alfred Tennyson, William Morris and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, of the reinventions of King Arthur, and of an imagined Middle Ages that borders on the world of faerie. Such medievalisms are often, and wrongly, taken to be sentimental, apolitical and escapist. Anyone who has been affected by Morris' startlingly pro-feminist dramatic monologue The Defence of Guenevere (1858), or who has read Matthew Reynolds' work on Idylls of the King and nationalist politics, knows just how wide of the mark such assumptions are. Nevertheless, in the popular imagination, romanticised views of a certain brand of 19th-century Romanticism have become enshrined as what we may already call the Old Medievalism. How shocking it is then to realise not only that Nobel prizewinner Seamus Heaney, thought by many to be the most significant living poet writing in English, is a medievalist through and through; one could hardly accuse his work of being apolitical or escapist.

In the decade since the publication of Heaney's translation of Beowulf (1999) - the work he dubbed "the big thing" - there has been plenty of critical and broadsheet attention paid to it. But this has too often been treated in isolation and, rather strangely, as some voucher of authenticity of canonical greatness, especially among those who perhaps care little for "the big thing" itself; we can know Heaney is the first poet in our contemporary pantheon because he has translated a foundational classic of the Great Tradition - an article of such widespread faith that it had Sean O'Brien and Simon Armitage pulling Homer, Dante and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight off the shelves to play catch-up in the Great Books arms race.

Conor McCarthy's brilliantly erudite and refreshingly unpretentious book, Seamus Heaney and Medieval Poetry, teaches us to read Heaney's Beowulf not as distinct from the rest of his work, but thoroughly integrated within it. Heaney, McCarthy shows, has practised a lifelong habit of translating from, adapting, alluding to and transfusing medieval poetry in his own work.

At the heart of McCarthy's book are four extended case studies elucidating Heaney's use of texts in medieval Irish, Italian, Old English and Middle Scots. Through Sweeney Astray (1983) and Sweeney Redivivus (1984), his translation of and response to Buile Shuibhne, a prosi-metrical tale of a 7th-century Ulster king, Heaney works through the "tension between notions of being simultaneously in place and displaced" as commonly felt by both communities in Northern Ireland. His career-long engagement with Dante is most prominent in Station Island (1984), where the Commedia is used to stage multiple encounters with the dead "for reasons personal and political". Heaney's Beowulf is seen, not narrowly as a Troubles poem, but as concerned more generally with conflict while remaining optimistic about the possibility of rejecting chauvinistic linguistic binarism. His more recent modernisation of Robert Henryson's breathtaking poem The Testament of Cresseid continues to derail supposed Anglo-Celtic literary separatism by drawing attention to the linguistic hybridity of a work written in a medium evolved from Anglo-Saxon north of the Scottish-English border and subsequently transported across the Irish Sea as Ulster Scots.

So, Heaney as a medievalist: case proven; and not an Arthurian knight in sight. McCarthy's strengths lie in his sensitivity to the politics of language, and in his nimble close readings that demonstrate in detail why connections between medievalism and vernacularity matter to an understanding of Heaney.

This book could signpost a direction for ongoing critical work, for while he may be the most prominent medievalist poet of recent decades, Heaney is by no means solitary. Geoffrey Hill's Mercian Hymns (1971), Ted Hughes' Wodwo (1967), Ian Duhig's The Speed of Dark (2007) and Matthew Francis' Mandeville (2008): unsentimentally, the New Medievalism has been gathering pace. McCarthy's book offers a valuable model for how its contours may begin to be traced.

Seamus Heaney and Medieval Poetry

By Conor McCarthy. D.S. Brewer. 204pp, £45.00 and £19.99. ISBN 9781843841418 and 42064. Published 15 October 2009

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