Seamus Heaney and the adequacy of poetry : a study of his prose poetics
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Seamus Heaney’s prose poetics return repeatedly to the adequacy of poetry, its ameliorative, restorative response to the inimical reality of life in the public domain. Drawing on manuscript as well as print sources, this thesis charts the development of this central theme, demonstrating the extent to which it threads throughout the whole of Heaney’s thought, from his earliest conceptual formation to his late cultural poetics. Heaney’s preoccupation with this idea largely originates in his undergraduate studies where he encounters Leavis and Arnold’s accounts of poetry’s adequacy: its ameliorative cultural and spiritual function. He also inherits, from Romantic and modernist influences, two differing accounts of poetry’s relationship to reality. That conflicted inheritance engenders a crisis within Heaney’s own early theorisation of poetry’s adequacy to the violence of public life. An important period of clarification ensues, out of which emerge the dualisms of his later thought, and his emphasis on poetry’s capacity to encompass, and yet remain separate from, ‘history’. Accompanied by habitual appropriation of Christian doctrine and language, these conceptual structures increasingly assume a redemptive pattern. By the mid-1990s, Heaney’s humanist commitment to a ‘totally adequate’ poetry has assumed a thoroughly Arnoldian character. The logical strain of his conceptual constructions—particularly the emphasis on poetry’s autonomy from history—becomes acutely apparent, revealing just how appropriate the ambivalent ideal ‘adequacy’ is. The subsequent expansion of Heaney’s poetics into a general affirmation of the arts illuminates the fiduciary character of his trust in poetry while exposing the limits of that trust: Heaney’s belief in poetry’s adequacy constitutes a humanist substitute for—indeed, an ‘afterimage’ of—Christian belief. This, finally, is the deep significance of the idea of adequacy to Heaney’s thought: it allows us to identify precisely the Arnoldian origin, the late humanist character, and the limits of his troubled trust in poetry.
Thesis, PhD Doctor of Philosophy
Embargo Date: Electronic copy restricted until 70 years after the death of Seamus Heaney. Print copy available only with the consent of the Head of the School of English
Embargo Reason: Thesis restricted in accordance with University regulations
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