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42.6.Heiny

Paul Alpers speaks of "the almost comical division of critical opinion" around the meaning of Virgil's Eclogue 9 (136). What is remarkable about Seamus Heaney's reading of this Eclogue is the division within himself: he sees one meaning in it in 2001 and another, quite different one, in 2002. In 2001 Heaney frames it with instances of "subverted pastoral" in Electric Light, which brings out the pessimism in the poem, but in 2002 he frames it with Eclogue 1 and other pastoral poems in an essay that sees it as optimistic. If readings depend on the frames we bring to them (Martindale 11-18), Heaney equips his reader with two frames, both expressive of the same opposition to violence, but each significantly different from the other. By exploring the differences—which have not been previously discussed—in Heaney's readings, this paper argues for a fuller appreciation both of Heaney's poetics and of Eclogue 9. Alpers sees a division between the optimists (Alpers 136-154, Klingner 154-158, Segal 244-263) and the pessimists (Putnam 293-341—to whom we may add Clausen 266-268 and Tarrant 175), in their reading of Eclogue 9. In 2001, in his Electric Light collection, Heaney is a pessimist. O'Donoghue rightly sees the poem as an instance of "subverted pastoral—of the positive denied or questioned—" that is "everywhere" in Electric Light (117). He sees in the poem "dark notes" and hears the poem's tone set in Moeris's first words, vivi pervenimus, in Heaney's translation, "The things we have lived to see . . ." (117). O'Donoghue describes the framing of the poem (117-118), pointing to the first poem in the collection, "At Toomebridge," where, after a stanza describing a waterfall, the poet subverts this image with "Where the rebel boy was hanged in '98" (Electric Light 3). In "Known World" the poet cannot escape the violence of the Yugoslav Wars. The final poem in the collection ends in a graveyard, "in the Derry ground" (Electric Light 98). Heaney himself has characterized Electric Light as "elegy," and as an instance of Virgil's sunt lacrimae rerum ("Lux perpetua"). In Electric Light Heaney is the sad, defeated Moeris of Eclogue 9. But only a year later, in a talk ("Eclogues In Extremis") given in 2002 and published in 2003, Heaney is an optimist. Here he is Virgil's Lycidas, "capable of having survived catastrophes without being tainted" (Perret 98). He sees in Eclogues 1 and 9 a defiant, invigorating "intervention" between the reader and the world of violence that brackets this world, showing that the violence is only partial (7). In a 2008 interview Heaney sees in the Eclogues "an almost vindictive artistry against the actual conditions of the times," adding, "Virgil's eclogues proved an effective way for a poet to answer whatever the world was hurling at him, so I had a go at writing a couple of my own" (O'Driscoll 389). This point of view informs Heaney's Government of The Tongue and ultimately reflects "Heaney's relentlessly positive and affirming attitude" to life and art (McDonald 77). Heaney can read Eclogue 9—which supports a variety of readings (Henderson)—in two ways, but he cannot read it without urgency. In "Known World" Heaney speaks of the violence he witnessed, "That old sense of a tragedy going on / Uncomprehended, at the very edge / Of the usual, it never left me once . . . " (Electric Light 24). Heaney turns to Virgil's Eclogue 9 to comprehend the violence he could not escape. Such violence, familiar in his native Northern Ireland, pushed him in 2001 to a pessimistic reading, deploring the violence with Moeris, and in 2002 to an optimistic reading, defying it with Lycidas. Because they proceed from one individual, Heaney's two appeals to Virgil's Eclogue 9—within two years of one another and with quite different results—are a unique testimony to the extraordinarily rich possibilities of the poem.

Bibliography

  • Alpers, P. 1979. The Singer of the Eclogues: A Study of Virgilian Pastoral. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Clausen, W. 1994. A Commentary on Virgil: Eclogues. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Heaney, S. 1988. Government of the Tongue. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • ——. 2001. Electric Light. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
  • ——.2001. "Lux perpetua: Seamus Heaney on the making of his recent collection, Electric Light." The Guardian 16 June 2001. Web. 8 May 2011 .
  • ——. 2003. "Eclogues In Extremis: On the Staying Power of Pastoral." Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 103C, 1: 1-12.
  • Henderson, J. 1998. "Virgil, Eclogue 9: Valleydiction." Proceedings of the Virgil Society 23: 149-176.
  • Klingner, F. 1967. Virgil: Bucolica, Georgica, Aeneis. Zürich: Artemis.
  • Martindale, C. 1993. Redeeming the Text. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • McDonald. P. 2002. "Appreciating Assets." Poetry Review 92, 2: 76-79.
  • O'Donoghue, B. 2009. "Heaney's Classics and the Bucolic." In O'Donoghue, B. ed. The Cambridge Companion to Seamus Heaney. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 106-121.
  • O' Driscoll, D. 2008. Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
  • Perret, J. ed. 1961. Virgile: Les Bucoliques. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.
  • Putnam, M. 1970. Virgil's Pastoral Art: Studies in the Eclogues. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Segal, C. 1965. "Tamen Cantabitis, Arcades—Exile and Arcadia in Eclogues One and Nine." Arion 4: 237-266.
  • Tarrant, R.J. 2008. "Poetry and Power: Virgil's Poetry in a Contemporary Context." In Martindale, C. ed. The Cambridge Companion to Virgil. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 169-187.

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