Michael Cavanagh, “Seamus Heaney Returning”

I’m collecting notes for a longer piece on Seamus Heaney, but I’m unsure where to start. Cavanagh, in this 1998 paper, tracks the theme of return in Heaney’s poetry. (Obviously, he does not get to all of it, because some of it does not exist in 1998.) He makes a solid case for simply thinking about what return could mean. It could speak to a tension in Heaney’s very concept of poetry. Does a poet, like Heaney’s meditations on Yeats suggest, wall himself off from the world in some kind of artifice? Is that his true home? Or does he find a rhythm in nature itself and try match his meter to that, as Wordsworth seems to have done? (117, 121-123)

Return could also speak to Heaney’s own physical location, whether in Ireland or outside of Ireland (128-129). This makes all the difference for a poet who spends so much time writing about his childhood and his home. I’m not sure what to do with these sorts of biographical details, whether they concern statements on poets he’s reading or his life outside of poetry. While I subscribe to New Criticism (heck, I describe my Straussian leanings as “New Criticism on steroids”), I do find these sorts of details useful. They need to be employed for the appropriate theme and audience, however.

For those of you reading Heaney with me, what is most powerful concerning the theme of return is what exactly return gives us. Cavanagh’s Heaney seems to see the task of the poet as nothing but returning. Cavanagh opens his paper with a recollection by Heaney, one in which the imagination of child’s play opens a new world:

I spent time in the throat of an old willow tree at the end of the farmyard. It was a hollow tree, with gnarled, spreading roots, a soft perishing bark and a pithy inside. Its mouth was like the fat and solid opening in a horse’s collar and once you squeezed in through it, you were at the heart of a different life, looking out on the familiar yard as if it were suddenly behind a pane of strangeness. (117)

I remember a tree in my front yard that I used to climb. I’d sit on a branch overlooking the yard and pretend I was piloting a helicopter. I can remember the bark being soft and the interplay of light and shadow being almost mysterious. It was like you were seeing from within the tree, seeing as the tree itself. I can’t imagine that Heaney means much differently here, except that he paid a lot more attention to things than I ever did. Thanks to my rotten lack of imagination, I called my tree the “helicopter tree.” Heaney, on the other hand, noted his tree’s hollowness, “gnarled, spreading roots,” “soft perishing bark,” and the pithy inside.

The childlike imagination takes careful note not through words or concepts, but a sensational memory. One where every part of one is engaged, where it is impossible not to be overwhelmed. That’s the world looking through the mouth of the tree opens up: nature, through its mouth, allows one to speak truly (117).

The poet’s task is necessarily complicated because it is not easy to return to this world. Heaney’s Nobel address, Crediting Poetry, gives two stories that should always be spoken when speaking of Heaney. First, the story of St. Kevin, a monk who in his cell stretched out his arms in the form of a cross. Poor Kevin kept his arms out so long that a blackbird built a nest on them. “Overcome with pity and constrained by his faith to love the life in all creatures great and small,” Heaney declares, Kevin kept the same position until the eggs had hatched. Nature, in bringing us back to childlike, imaginative play, brings us back to natural, innocent sentiments, ones before we become afraid of each other, before we realize our capacity for violence (123-124).

That’s one story. The other speaks to the Balkanized world we are increasingly becoming. Ulster, 1976: a group of Protestant workers with one Catholic are stopped by armed gunmen. The gunmen ask for anyone Catholic to step forward. The one Catholic feels the Protestants squeeze his hand, as if to say, “don’t go. We won’t give you up.” He steps forward and everyone else is gunned down (124).

Cavanagh sees in Heaney a natural law, or as Heaney himself puts it, “the actuality of sympathy between living creatures” (124). I need not say more about the price one may pay for the promulgation, the realization, of that law. I can only say as I feel nowadays, that I hope all of us have a place to which we can return, somewhere we can call home.


Cavanagh, Michael. “Seamus Heaney Returning.” Journal of Modern Literature 22.1 (1998): 117-129.

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