Robert Lowell and Seamus Heaney: An Apprenticeship

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Poets as different as Gerard Manley Hopkins, D.H. Lawrence, Robert Frost, Patrick Kavanagh, and Dylan Thomas contributed to the making of Seamus Heaney’s early style, but Robert Lowell was the catalyst transforming those influences into something distinct. Before the transformation occurred, most of Heaney’s poems were derivative. “Song of My Man-Alive,” which he published in a 1961 issue of Gorgon shortly before graduating from Queen’s University, Belfast, demonstrated how his enchantment with another poet’s voice—in this case Dylan Thomas’s—could adulterate his own. Writing about a youthful romance in the country, Heaney sounded as if he were parodying the Welsh bard’s romantic rhetoric:

We were a giddy eddying; it was all tune-tumbling …… Hill happy and wine-wonderful, ………… The lithe liquid spurts Of the dancing thrush girls and hawk-boys spat round us, …… Yet hooded in the soft music of your presence ………… I wandered away …… And swam in the gush of my joy. (19)

A devout Catholic at the time, Heaney refrained from drinking anything stronger than communion wine, but he was clearly intoxicated with the “wine-wonderful” words and nostalgic subject matter in Thomas’s “Fern Hill.” He signed his poem “Incertus” (“uncertain” in Latin) to acknowledge doubts about his poem’s originality.

Two years after publishing “Song of My Man-Alive,” Heaney learned to control his youthful sentimentality and gushing rhetoric in a workshop called the “Belfast Group” led by the English poet and critic Philip Hobsbaum. In his Reader’s Guide to Robert Lowell (a book dedicated to Heaney and his wife), Hobsbaum argued that Robert Lowell was the poet most worthy of emulation at the time. A. Alvarez’s influential Penguin anthology, The New Poetry, which Heaney bought in 1962 while teaching at St. Joseph’s College of Education in Belfast, corroborated Hobsbaum’s view. Alvarez included some of Lowell’s dense, allusive poems from Lord Weary’s Castle, but he preferred the “confessional” poems in Life Studies. Rather than “externalize his disturbances theologically in Catholicism and rhetorically in certain mannerisms of language and rhythm,” (28-29) these new poems addressed personal and historical realities with a candid, colloquial voice. It was Lowell’s poetry that helped Heaney find his mature voice.

One of the poems Heaney submitted to a Belfast Group workshop in April 1965, “Boy Driving his Father to Confession,” reveals Lowell’s influence in both form (it is written in the heroic couplets of Lowell’s “After the Surprising Conversions”) and content (it dramatizes a son’s oedipal animosity toward his father and repudiation of his father’s dependence on Catholic rituals). While Heaney’s father unburdens his troubles to a priest in a church confessional, Heaney unburdens his Lowellian mix of disappointment, embarrassment, anger, and confusion in a confessional poem. Like Lowell in “Rebellion,” a poem that dramatizes a father-son fight as if it were an incident in the Revolutionary War, Heaney portrays his father as a combatant vulnerable to attack. He spies “chinks in the paternal mail” and decides that his father is “less than a father” when he sheds tears over a death in the family and tells “an almost smutty story / In a restaurant toilet.” As in Lowell’s oedipal dramas, Heaney deconstructs family hierarchies, but when he topples his father from his normal position of power, he is dismayed by his insubordination and struggles toward a reconciliation. After asking, “Does the same hectic rage in our one blood?” he implies that their similar passions and vulnerabilities do, in fact, make them one. Although he alludes to the acrimony in Hamlet’s relationship with his step-father (King Claudius says about his step-son: “For like the hectic in my blood he rages” [Hamlet: IV, iii]), by the end of “Boy Driving his Father to Confession” the combatants have unified “on common ground.”

As Heaney drifted away from his father and the Catholic priests who had shaped his worldview as a young man, he searched for substitute fathers to give him guidance. Hobsbaum, who was hired to teach English at Queen’s University in 1962, became one of his most significant guides, and so did Lowell. In later years, Heaney came to think of Hobsbaum and Lowell in similar terms. He said in a reminiscence about the Belfast Group that Hobsbaum:

was impatient, dogmatic, relentlessly literary: yet he was patient with those he trusted, unpredictably susceptible to a wide variety of poems and personalities and urgent that the social and political exacerbations of our place should disrupt the decorums of literature. If he drove some people mad with his absolutes and hurt others with his overbearing, he confirmed as many with his enthusiasms….I remember his hospitality and encouragement with the special gratitude we reserve for those who have led us towards confidence in ourselves. (P: 29)

In a memorial address published in the New York Review of Books shortly after Lowell died, Heaney recalled that Lowell’s “obsessive love and diagnosis of writing and writers” had led to “unavoided injuries” to himself and to others. Like Hobsbaum, Lowell was imperious in his judgments and actions, but “the scope and efficacy of the artistic endeavor seemed exemplified and affirmed” (“On Robert Lowell”: 37) by their careers. In a review of Day by Day, Heaney noted that Lowell—again like Hobsbaum—was “obstinate and conservative in his belief in the creative spirit, yet contrary and disruptive in his fidelity to his personal intuitions and experiences.” (P: 221) Heaney elaborated on these ideas in his T.S. Eliot Memorial Lecture “Lowell’s Command,” which he delivered at the University of Kent in 1986. He could have been speaking of Hobsbaum once again when he praised Lowell for his attentiveness to “a poet’s covenant with his group and his group’s language,” “particular ‘command’ over literary tradition,” ambivalence toward poetic “decorum,” and ability to create a political “conscience for the times.” (GT: 130, 131, 135)

Heaney flourished in the heady environment of Hobsbaum’s literary soirées. Over the four years that he attended them, he proved to be the most prolific and the most accomplished poet in a group that included Michael Longley, Stewart Parker, and James Simmons. He contributed 49 poems, including the much-anthologized “Digging,” which he placed at the beginning of his first book to emphasize its significance as a manifesto, and the equally famous “Death of a Naturalist,” which he chose as the title of his first book. Completed in 1964, both poems testified to Lowell’s beneficial influence. Like “Boy Driving his Father to Confession,” “Digging” resembles Lowell’s “Rebellion” in the way it declares independence from a father and his patriarchal traditions. Although Heaney was never as hostile as Lowell toward his father, both “Rebellion” and “Digging” involve guns: Lowell grabs a flintlock to do battle with his father and Heaney grabs a pen that is “snug as a gun.” Lowell contends: “The world…spreads in pain / …When the clubbed flintlock broke my father’s brain.” (LWC: 35) Heaney rejects his father’s agricultural life, but once again he stresses similarities rather than differences with his father. He will not be a farmer like his father, he says, but he will use his pen the way his father has used his spade: he will “dig with it.” (DN: 13-14)

The narrative pattern of confrontation, resistance, and liberation that informs many of Lowell’s poems can also be found in “Digging,” “Death of a Naturalist,” and other poems by Heaney. In a review of For the Union Dead titled “Prospero in Agony,” which the English journal Outposts published in 1966, Heaney observed that Lowell’s poems routinely confronted and sought to escape “the painful, disorderly, and terrifying side of his experience.” Lowell repeatedly dramatized the way oppressive forces threatened to break out of the forms that were meant to resist and contain them. “We have a sense that many of these poems are the valves of a pressure cylinder where the piston is relentlessly descending,” Heaney remarked. He admired the way Lowell crafted poems that were “as highly charged and controlled as a grenade before the pin is pulled,” but, switching metaphors, Heaney complained that “more often the dykes of detachment are burst” and, as a result, poet, poem, and reader are “in danger of being overwhelmed.” (21-22)

“Death of a Naturalist” can be read as a response to the sort of overwhelming pressures that Heaney found in Lowell’s poetry. Heaney’s fable about frog-spawn deploys much of the same imagery he used in “Prospero in Agony,” and his poem also borrows imagery from Lowell’s poem “For the Union Dead.” Heaney’s “flax-dam”—both the pond where flax is soaked in preparation for linen-making and the dam that contains the water for soaking flax—resembles Lowell’s “pressure cylinder” and body of water that is about to burst its “dykes of detachment.” Heaney creates a sense of oppressive, pressurized containment from the start: “All year the flax-dam festered in the heart / Of the townland; green and heavy headed / Flax had rotted there, weighted down by huge sods. / Daily it sweltered in the punishing sun.” (DN: 15) For an Irish Catholic like Heaney, flax-growing and linen-manufacturing evoked the history of sectarian pressures in Northern Ireland that were always threatening to explode. British Protestants, who had originally developed the linen business in Ireland, tended to treat Irish Catholics on flax plantations and in linen factories as second-class citizens, or worse. “Weighted down” by the “punishing” restrictions of the British, the Irish inevitably erupted like “the valves of a pressure cylinder” or burst “the dykes of detachment.”

The “death” Heaney alludes to in the title of his poem resembles Lowell’s loss of innocence in “For the Union Dead,” which occurs after Boston’s cylinder-like aquarium falls into ruin. Lowell recalls how as a child his “nose crawled like a snail on the glass” of the South Boston Aquarium, and how he enjoyed watching the “cowed, compliant fish” in their peaceful ecosystem. No longer “cowed” and “compliant,” and no longer contained behind glass, “The dark downward and vegetating kingdom / of the fish and reptile” (FUD: 70) has broken out and turned the world into a hellish “kingdom” of disorder, savagery, and war. Heaney in “Death of a Naturalist” also depicts a fall from a peaceful, glassed-in Eden into a world of violence. Although his rural aquariums—jampots of frog-spawn that he lines up on windowsills—are more humble than Lowell’s big-city aquarium, they undergo a similar, cataclysmic metamorphosis. Once Heaney’s frog-spawn and tadpoles, like Lowell’s “fish and reptile,” escape their glassed-in confinements, they become overwhelmingly aggressive and destructive. Heaney’s “gross-bellied frogs,” which have “invaded the flax-dam” and “gathered…for vengeance,” are “slime kings” that resemble British kings who have invaded Ireland throughout history. Heaney imagines them “cocked / On sods” and ready for rapacious sex or gun fights. He also compares them to “mud grenades” that are about to explode. Tempted to enter the fray as a Catholic rebel or peace activist, Heaney in the end is so repelled by the grotesque displays of machismo, which he finds both in political history and natural history, that he “sickened, turned, and ran.” (DN: 16)

Well aware of Lowell’s nickname, Cal, and his tendency when manic to identify with vengeful kings and tyrants such as Caligula, Heaney was wary of the sort of violence he found in Lowell’s books. Nevertheless, the two poets enjoyed each other’s company when they first met in 1972 at a party in London to celebrate Lowell’s marriage to his third wife, Caroline Blackwood. Lowell spoke to Heaney for about half an hour, impressing him with his vast knowledge of poetry, politics, and military history. Lowell appeared especially well-informed about the sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland. On October 4, 1973, after Heaney wrote a complimentary review of Lowell’s sonnet sequences in The Dolphin, History, and For Lizzie and Harriet, which was broadcast on Ireland’s radio program Imprint, Lowell thanked him in a letter for his “generous piece” and told him that he had liked Heaney’s “work for some time.” (LRL: 617) Before long, Lowell was calling Heaney “the best Irish poet since W.B. Yeats.” (FW: book jacket)

It was at the Kilkenny Arts Festival during the last week of August, 1975, that Heaney got a better understanding of Lowell’s disruptive genius and manic-depressive illness. As one of the festival’s organizers, he had invited Lowell to give a single reading, but Lowell ended up staying the whole week. Heaney’s close friend Seamus Deane gave a vivid account in the New Yorker of Lowell’s antics at a festival dinner. In the dining room, Deane recalled:

Various figures were lying about in chairs or slumped over tables as though they had been shot. In the midst of it all sat Lowell, drinking whiskey [which he was not supposed to do because of the lithium he took for his illness] and milk alternately. He summoned me over to talk to him, since I seemed to be the only person still conscious. A long monologue ensued, in which Lowell wondered about poetry and power, the relative status in world history of Shakespeare, Virgil, and Dante, on the one hand, and of Napoleon, Stalin, and Hitler, on the other. He was talking very fast, his eyes darting like fish, and he grabbed my arm every so often and then apologized for having done so. ‘Should we take poetry—all of that—seriously at all? Tell me yes, give me reasons.’ But he wouldn’t have listened if I had replied. Still, in his distress, he managed to look very senatorial and upright amid that scene of magnificent debauch.” (65)

Lowell, as usual, regretted the maniacal way he had acted and later said he was glad to get back to his wife in England. According to his biographer Paul Mariani: “As Cal feared, the Kilkenny event turned out to be a week of drunken and contentious readings.” (Mariani: 434) Lowell, however, did not immediately return to London. He continued partying with Garech Browne, one of his wife’s relatives, at his posh house near Luggala southwest of Dublin. He also visited Heaney’s family at their getaway residence, Glanmore Cottage, in the Wicklow countryside.

As for Heaney’s reaction to Lowell at the Kilkenny Arts Festival, Deane contended:

Heaney revered Lowell’s patrician authority, his Daedalus-Icarus combination of the classical and the Romantic, repeatedly driving itself to the point of breakdown. I guess Heaney showed too much respect for people who took risks, because he disliked in himself a characteristic that he felt was a failure. He was, indeed, as cautious as a cat, and instinctively played safe, was nice to everyone, entertained…multitudes of people at his [Dublin] home, among whom the percentage of hangers-on must have been considerable. But, as usual, Heaney was also fomenting a little rebellion in his more recondite provinces of feeling. Heaney, the man who writes poems, can sometimes rail at Heaney the Poet, the public persona. The authority of reputation is not identical with the authority of the writer’s voice; it may undermine it. What Heaney observed and admired in Lowell was his way of dealing with this conflict.” (New Yorker, 66)

Heaney, in fact, did not always “play safe.” If he had been as cautious as Deane maintained, he would have become a farmer like his father in Northern Ireland or, when he had a secure academic job in Belfast in the 1970s, he would not have quit, left the country with his family, and plunged into the precarious life of a freelance writer in a Wicklow cottage. Heaney was, however, inveterately generous and polite. He wrote Lowell a letter thanking him for being a magnanimous guest at the festival and, as with other literary father figures, he addressed Lowell as if he were a priest who had performed a “confirmation.”

Heaney continued to show sympathy for Lowell’s bipolar vacillations between decorum and rebelliousness, civility and savagery. He must have winced, though, when Lowell wrote of his new “Glanmore Sonnets”: “I’ve read the sonnets a good many times.…Sonnets seem in two ways perhaps the wrong form for your sequence. First the somewhat too full-dress, particularly the final couplet; then the whole sequence makes me think of Wordsworth, and that something that goes so well should go even farther. At worst, you should [be] able to mine many poems out of your many strong lines—perhaps in quatrains, or more drastic changes.” Lowell said he admired “The Train” and “A Drink of Water,” but confessed it was hard for him to enjoy Heaney’s nature poems. “Your Nature pours out images with a full hand; the cup (to work this figure to death) is so often dry for me, a town man in the end.” (LRL: 641-642) Lowell was referring to Heaney’s poem “A Drink of Water” in which a woman plays the role of a gift-giving muse by leaving behind a cup that Heaney drinks from on his childhood farm. Heaney vows “to be / Faithful to the admonishment on her cup, / Remember the Giver.” (FW: 16) As his eulogies, reviews, and lectures attest, Heaney regarded Lowell as having an enormous “poetic gift” (“On Robert Lowell”: 37) and also as being a kind of gift-giving muse whose gifts could be dangerous.

In many ways, Lowell was utterly different from Heaney. Lowell was an only child, a mentally ill Boston Brahmin, an outspoken political activist who publicly rebuked U.S. presidents when he disagreed with their policies, and a scion of a prominent Protestant family that included eminent poets, Harvard presidents, and New England military and political leaders. Heaney had grown up in relative poverty on a farm in Northern Ireland with eight siblings; his home had no running water, no electricity, no bathroom, no car, and no tractor. Heaney pointed to some of these differences with bemusement in a Paris Review interview with the poet Henri Cole. Referring to Lowell’s post-arts festival visit to Glanmore Cottage, he said: “When Cal came in the kids were running around and I remember him saying to me, ‘You see a lot of your children,’ because, of course, he lived in this mansion in Kent—Milgate—where there was a nanny in the west wing with Sheridan, and Cal and Caroline had separate work rooms, and came together to dine in the evening.” ( Heaney’s son Michael, who was nine years old at the time, had flustered Lowell with the remark: “I know you are a famous poet, but it’s my ambition to meet a famous footballer.” (SS: 216) Heaney was convinced that Lowell, who often acted like an aristocratic anarchist, regarded Heaney as comfortably bourgeois.

As with his own father, however, Heaney stressed his affinities rather than his differences with Lowell. He addressed Lowell as if he were his actual father as well as a priestly poet-father in “Elegy,” a poem in Field Work that recalled Lowell’s visit to Glanmore Cottage. Quoting a line from Lowell’s poem “Fall 1961”—“A father’s no shield / for his child”—Heaney observed: “you found the child in me / when you took farewells / under the full bay tree.” (FW: 32) He remembered Lowell saying in a priestly way, “I’ll pray for you,” as he left the cottage. “I think it was partly his way of saying, ‘I was once a Catholic too,’” Heaney said. “[It was] also a way of saying that he knew that I was out there in the cottage putting myself to the test as a writer. And he could probably see that there was something isolated and frail about the venture. But then too, there may have been the faintest backlight of irony in what he said, a hamming up of the old Catholic bit.” ( Heaney was grateful for Lowell’s solicitude, even though he remained wary of his friend’s volatility. “Elegy” addresses Lowell as a heavy-drinking emperor, another Caligula whose art is his “empery.” He is sublimely “gifted,” yet he is also a “peremptory” poet who “bullied out / heart-hammering blank sonnets” to his wives and lovers. He is also a “netsman, retiarius”—a kind of imperial gladiator pinning down others with nets. Heaney expresses compassion for “the timorous or bold” way Lowell lived his life, but he does not condone the “ungovernable and dangerous” (FW: 31-32) aspects of Lowell’s personality and poetry.

Heaney witnessed one of Lowell’s “ungovernable” episodes when he went to London early in 1976 to receive the Duff Cooper Award for North. Lowell had agreed to present the award to Heaney, even though he was recuperating from a series of manic attacks. (During one attack, he boasted he had been given the instrument Hitler used to massacre the Jews; during another, he insisted that he was a king of Scotland.) Ever the helpful friend, Heaney agreed to accompany Lowell on the taxi ride from his Redcliff Square apartment to get acupuncture treatment. Lowell asked Heaney if he would like a sip of some Benedictine liqueur before getting into the taxi. Heaney acquiesced, only to discover that Lowell had given him Imperial After Shave. As for the awards ceremony at London University, according to Heaney: “It was a sad, mad event, Lowell going about with a jacket over his pyjama tops; Diana Cooper with a Chihuahua on her arms, telling him at some point that the prize was to be presented by some mad American; Lowell wild-eyed and nodding, ‘I know, I know.’” (SS: 216) Lowell never managed to give a proper speech before bestowing the Duff Cooper prize on Heaney; he read a poem from North influenced by his own poetry (“Summer 1969”), made derogatory remarks about Heaney’s lines, and asked Heaney questions about the poem. Heaney’s later references to Lowell’s bullish and bullying ways in “Elegy” recall descriptions of the “bullying sun of Madrid” and “bullfight reports” in the poem Lowell read at the Duff Cooper ceremony.

When Lowell recovered from his manic attack, which may have been precipitated by a toxic overdose of lithium, Heaney occasionally met him at Castletown House, one of Ireland’s grandest Palladian mansions located about 20 miles west of Dublin on a 120-acre estate. It was owned by Caroline Blackwood’s cousin—the Honorable Desmond Guinness, a member of the famous Anglo-Irish brewing family—and used as a headquarters for the Irish Georgian Society, which Guinness and his first wife had established in 1958 to preserve historic Irish architecture. Having sold Milgate, the expensive country house in Maidstone, Kent, Blackwood had decided to rent an apartment in Castletown House. Irked by the move to Ireland when he wanted to return to the U.S., and depressed by the incessant tension in his marriage, Lowell frequently left Castletown House, where he suffered from insomnia and nightmares, to socialize with friends.

The last time Heaney saw Lowell was in Dublin on the evening of September 6, 1977. As usual, Heaney tried to appeal to Lowell’s better angels, but he could tell that his friend was distressed. No longer able to tolerate Lowell’s manic episodes or his lingering devotion to his second wife, Blackwood had asked for a divorce. Lowell wrote his second wife, Elizabeth Hardwick, to whom he would return in a few days, that his most recent trip to Ireland had been “sheer torture.” (Mariani: 460) At the end of their evening together on September 6, Heaney asked Lowell if they would see each other again. Lowell glanced furtively over his glasses and replied that he did not think so. On the drive to Castletown House, Lowell and Heaney stopped to relieve themselves near the estate’s gates. As Heaney later wrote in his uncollected poem “Pit Stop near Castletown,” before getting back in the car Lowell mentioned that he would be separating from Blackwood. A few nights later, as if living out one of his nightmares, he got lost in his house when the electricity failed. The next morning he fled to London, and on September 12 he flew to New York to be with Hardwick. When the taxi pulled up to Hardwick’s apartment, Lowell was dead in the back seat from a heart attack. Lowell’s gift to Heaney—the American edition of his most recent book, Day by Day—lay on the coffee table in Heaney’s house where he had left it.


Works Cited

Alvarez. A. (ed.). The New Poetry. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1962.

Cole, Henri. (interviewer). “Seamus Heaney: The Art of Poetry.”

Deane, Seamus. “The Famous Seamus. The New Yorker. March 20, 2000.

Heaney, Seamus. “Boy Driving His Father to Confession.” http://belfastgroup. digitalscholarship.emory. edu/groupsheets/heaney

           . (DN) Death of a Naturalist London: Faber and Faber, 1966.

           . (FW) Field Work. London: Faber and Faber, 1979.

           . (GT) The Government of the Tongue. London: Faber and Faber, 1988.

           . “On Robert Lowell.” New York Times Review of Books. February 9, 1978.

           . (P) Preoccupations. London: Faber and Faber, 1980.

           . “Prospero in Agony.” Outposts 68. Spring, 1966.

           . “Song of My Man-Alive.” Gorgon. Hilary Term. Belfast: Queen’s University, 1961.

Lowell, Robert. (LRL) Letters of Robert Lowell. Saskia Hamilton (ed.). New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2005.

           . (LS) Life Studies and For the Union Dead. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1964.

           . (LWC) Lord Weary’s Castle and The Mills of the Kavanaghs. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1951.

Mariani, Paul. Lost Puritan: A Life of Robert Lowell. New York: W.W. Norton, 1994.

O’Driscoll, Dennis. (interviewer). (SS) Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008.