Seamus Heaney on Life and Death in Larkin and Yeats

by Daniel Hartley

As I try to fight off a fairly unpleasant bout of flu, I turned last night to an old essay by Seamus Heaney. The essay, entitled “Joy or Night: Last Things in the Poetry of W. B. Yeats and Philip Larkin”, collected in his excellent volume, The Redress of Poetry, is an examination of how one’s fundamental attitude towards death affects one’s poetry. I shan’t write about it at length, since my aim is merely to recommend it to readers. I shall, nonetheless, make one or two brief observations.

One of the pleasures of this essay is its emphasis on form as a constitutive aspect of a poem’s meaning. Indeed, Heaney endows form with a nigh-on metaphysical import: “[W]hen a poem rhymes, when a form generates itself, when a metre provokes consciousness into new postures, it is already on the side of life. When a rhyme surprises and extends the fixed relations between words, that in itself protests against necessity” (p. 158). Thus it is that the poetry of Larkin and Yeats comes to be seen as a battle ground between life and death: the dialectic of “life as cornucopia” and “life as empty shell” plays itself out in both overt moral pronouncements and the forms in which those pronouncements are embodied. In Yeats, Heaney claims, no matter how close he drives to the “aboriginal ice” – the cold heart of all things – there is in this very drive itself a superabundant Yes! to life, which overcomes the terrestrial No! of human suffering and nihilism. Because of this, Yeats’s “aboriginal ice” is of a very different glacial genre from Larkin’s “sun-comprehending glass”: “It represented not so much a frigid exhaustion as an ultimate attainment” (p. 157). Larkin, however, reneges on the fundamental task of poetry, as Heaney sees it: “[Larkin’s ‘Aubade’] does not hold the lyre up in the face of the gods of the underworld; it does not make the Orphic effort to haul life back up the slope against all odds” (p. 158). No matter how much the form of Larkin’s poem cried out for life, its argument could not overcome its entrapment in the vision of life as empty shell, in which “Death is no different whined at than withstood”. Heaney, with Yeats as corroboration, suggests it is very different – very different indeed.