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This review is taken from PN Review 257, Volume 47 Number 3, January - February 2021.

Cover of On Seamus Heaney
John McAuliffeOn Seamus Heaney, Roy Foster (Princeton University Press) £14.99
Part of Princeton’s Writers on Writers series of ‘brief, personal, and creative books in which leading contemporary writers take the measure of other important writers’, Roy Foster’s On Seamus Heaney (Princeton U.P.) is a short, curious addition to Heaney Studies and to Foster’s own bibliography.

Foster is best known as a long-form writer on the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and acknowledges that he is stretching himself to write about a direct contemporary. The opening page ponders his suitability for this project. ‘I am acutely aware,’ he writes, ‘that I am far from possessing Heaney’s gift to “glean the unsaid off the palpable,”’ a statement which includes one of Foster’s deftly sidestepping adjectives and a corrected, almost-correct quotation from Heaney’s poem, ‘The Harvest Bow’.

Pressing himself to make the case for his authority on the subject, Foster stakes his claim on autobiography and affect. Reading North, he felt that ‘authentic sensation of the hairs standing up on my head’ (an advance, maybe on the usual back of the neck); more recently, reading ‘Album’, ‘his eyes filled with tears’.

The argument from affect might have prompted an interesting auto­biographical essay, recounting Foster’s own encounters with Heaney and his writing. The book is enlivened by those occasions, glancingly alluded to: Foster’s pride in Heaney’s performance as Oxford Professor of Poetry; his exchanges with the poet on W.B.Y. (the subject of Foster’s brilliant two-part historical biography); meeting him in a London club at the unveiling of a portrait, in which the ageing Heaney can no ...

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