When placed in the company of Betjeman and Larkin, Heaney joins the conversation from a bit of a distance. Love is rarely a subject he sees fit for exploration. The embarrassments and frustrations of lust are not the concerns of his best-known work. More celebrated are poems like ‘Mid-Term Break’ (1966) and ‘Limbo’ (1972), both of which punctuate the quietude of life in rural Ireland with shocking irruptions of death. More compelling are the haunting ‘Follower’ (1966) and ‘District and Circle’ (2006), both of which detail Heaney’s disquieting relationship with his father. More eloquent are Heaney’s sporadic, almost impulsive disclosures of his mystical sentiments — disclosures like those made in section xxii of ‘Settings’ (1991) or in the oblique rhetorical question that appears as a non sequitur between two descriptions of a badger in ‘Badgers’ (1979): “How perilous is it to choose / not to love the life we’re shown?”
But then there are poems like ‘Act of Union’ (1975), starkly coloured by Heaney’s debt to his predecessors insofar as his attempt to wed eroticism with nationalistic commentary tends towards a glut of embarrassing metaphors. “Your back is a firm line of eastern coast,” the speaker tells his lover, “And arms and legs are thrown / Beyond your gradual hills. I caress / The heaving province where our past has grown.” When they make love, the speaker impregnates his lover and then describes himself as at war with the misbegotten child:
And I am still imperially
Male, leaving you with pain,
The rending process in the colony,
The battering ram, the boom burst from within.
His heart beneath your heart is a wardrum
Mustering force. His parasitical
And ignorant little fists already
Beat at your borders and I know they’re cocked
At me across the water. No treaty
I foresee will salve completely your tracked
And stretchmarked body, the big pain
That leaves you raw, like opened ground, again.
Yes, on one level, it’s an allegorical treatment of the relationship between Great Britain, Ireland, and Ulster. Yet the sonnet form and the diction remain very much those of a love poem, and in this poem the act of making love is cringe-inducing, agonising, for both parties — agonising for the lover in the heat of the moment and agonising for the speaker in the process of description. It is less as if the speaker is using love to speak indirectly of international affairs, and more that he is awkwardly contorting metaphors drawn from the realm of international affairs in order to avoid the embarrassment of speaking directly of a torturous love. This is a fundamentally juvenile thing to do, a juvenile way to speak of love, as Heaney indicates in ‘Twice Shy’ (1966), one of his earliest love poems. There, as the speaker and his lover set off along “the embankment walk” with “Traffic holding its breath, / Sky a tense diaphragm” — note the reference to birth control given an atmospheric figuration — he and she play coy with one another. “[T]remulously we held / As hawk and prey apart,” he says, “Preserved classic decorum, / Deployed our talk with art” — but, significantly, he later refers to this talk as “nervous” and “childish,” and he attributes their behaviour to youthful naiveté:
Had taught us both to wait,
Not to publish feeling
And regret it all too late.
Where, then, in the Heaney oeuvre, does Heaney ever grow up? Nowhere at all. He never “publish[es]” his “feeling[s]” of love. After ‘Twice Shy,’ Heaney’s speakers continually render love as lust and then, as in ‘Act of Union,’ they attempt to address it by diversionary means but they fumble the artistry of the diversion, or else they blink in the face of sincerity and opt for a puerile schoolboy’s treatment of the subject at the very moment that calls for maturity. For instance, in ‘Wedding Day’ (1995), the speaker describes his new wife as “demented” while watching her “sing[ing] behind the tall cake,” then he takes himself to “the gents” where he sees, graffitied on the wall, “a skewered heart / And a legend of love,” before he brusquely concludes: “Let me sleep on your breast to the airport.” And how else to describe ‘Rite of Spring’ (1969) but as simply crass and crude? The speaker begins by glazing the image of a frozen water pump with the rhetoric of sexual penetration — “So winter closed its fist,” he says, “And got it stuck in the pump,” and there are few surprises about where he takes that imagery as the poem nears its end:
The plunger froze up a lump
In its throat, ice founding itself
Upon iron. The handle
Paralysed at an angle.
Then the twisting of wheat straw
into ropes, lapping them tight
Round stem and snout, then a light
That sent the pump up in a flame
It cooled, we lifted her latch,
Her entrance was wet, and she came.
While Heaney certainly indulges in bawdiness with less frequency than Betjeman and Larkin, he also does so with greater intensity. On the whole, his speakers have a similar sense of propriety to those of the speakers of the other two poets, albeit Catholic rather than Anglican in origin. From this sense of propriety, any hint of sex or sexualisation — whether in a human encounter or simply in the language applied to non-human phenomena — offers the speaker a private titillation, a sensation that resonates with but does not quell his bodily wants and urges. Heaney’s speakers, like those of Betjeman and Larkin, are grown men who find themselves simply unable to speak of sexual matters with serious or sensual intent. Whether they set out to describe a longing for someone absent or an attraction to someone nearby, the description inevitably breaks down into some sort of joke — sometimes salacious, sometimes forlorn — which suggests the innermost insecurities of the speaker by way of glossing a situation that needs no gloss at all. Theirs, altogether, is a view of romance whose ribald sheen amounts to a varnish over deep, essentially adolescent reservations about speaking forthrightly of love — and even about feeling love in the first place.