I am reading Seamus Heaney, Seeing Things (1991), right now. I am not generally enamoured of 20th-century poetry, but Heaney I like. His use of language is rich in its apparent simplicity, and somehow ordinary life becomes beautiful in his poetic mode.
While reading this book, I cannot but think of T. S. Eliot’s little booklet, The Classics and the Man of Letters, itself originally an address. The main thrust of Eliot’s booklet is that someone involved in writing English literature should be invested in the predecessors of English literature, being part of the ongoing tradition of literature — and this includes the Classics, Latin literature in particular. A good point, if we consider the educational background of most English poets before the 20th century — for even Chesterton studied Latin in school.
Reading Heaney makes one appreciate this idea of Eliot’s, given his allusions. Indeed, the volume begins with a translation of the golden bough passage from Aeneid VI (all of which he would later translate; I recommend his translation). The book also has its references to Homer (I love the phrase, ‘I swim in Homer’; I’ve swum in Homer, myself).
Heaney’s intertextual world, though, is not only Classical, not only those things he would have been taught at school. He also has various biblical allusions, allusions to Norse myth, and references to Irish history, culture, literature, besides one poem where he encounters Larkin’s ghost (called his ‘shade’ — an allusion to Virgil) which quotes Dante to him. And the volume closes with a translation of Dante, in fact.
There is undoubtedly much on the Irish and modern English verse side of this book that I miss. But there is much I grasp, regardless. And here is the interesting thing about a poet like Heaney. I appreciate the classical, biblical, Norse allusions. But I can appreciate his manipulation of the English language and his skill as a versifier without them.
That’s what makes a good poet. You can have all the allusions and intertexts you want, but if the reader who doesn’t grasp them does not appreciate your verse, there is a good chance you have not necessarily produced something of quality.