When first reading some of the world’s meatiest epic poems in translation, I concluded that in general those by poets were better – as a literary experience – than those by translators or scholars, though naturally there are exceptions to every rule. 

Perhaps I can now say the same of literary criticism – Seamus Heaney’s essays on poetry are prose-poetry interlarded with verses from the poems he’s commenting on; there’s a change of metre but not of linguistic richness, originality or vigour.   Whereas much literary criticism is like trudging across a dry and featureless landscape with the quotations standing out as suddenly discovered lakes or rivers into which you dive with your whole parched being.

Here, Heaney comments on Robert Lowell’s ‘The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket’ – enjoy the maritime metaphor resounding with ‘turbulent sea-sound’:

Hart Crane, Dylan Thomas, Arthur Rimbaud, Lycidas himself – resurrected as a language of turbulent sea-sound – all of them press in at the four corners of the page, taut-cheeked genii of storm, intent on blowing their power into the centre of an Eastern Seaboard chart.  The reader is caught in a gale-force of expressionism and could be forgiven for thinking that Aeolus has it in for him personally. 

Lowell’s poem can be read here. 

Source: Seamus Heaney, Finders Keepers: Selected prose 1971-2001 (London: Faber and Faber, 2003), p. 207


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