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This review is taken from PN Review 121, Volume 24 Number 5, May - June 1998.

SEAMUS HEANEY - FROM MAJOR TO MINOR Seamus Heaney, edited by Michael Allen (Macmillan) £11.50

Reading through this volume in the New Casebooks series makes one wonder afresh at certain tendencies in current academic literary criticism. It has to be said that no very cogent picture of Heaney's achievements emerges from this book. If, for Terry Eagleton, he is indubitably a 'major' poet (albeit one with comparatively little to 'say'), for David Lloyd he is no more than 'a minor Irish poet'. Such talk of major and minor is not in itself very helpful - and it is hard, anyway, to see how a major writer could have little to 'say', if not in terms of an overt message then in the intrinsic richness of his poetic suggestiveness. However, it does serve to illustrate the immense gulf between his early reception by established English and American critics like Christopher Ricks and Harold Bloom and the often hostile treatment he has received (and continues to receive) within Ireland itself.

It is true that Heaney's reputation has been the subject of what can only be called 'hype' - of which John Carey's over-excited review of Seeing Things, drawing comparisons with Milton and Keats, is the most notorious example. It is also true that the relatively conservative, even at times archaising, nature of Heaney's poetic craft has found an easier acceptance from critics and public alike than the work of many of his more daring colleagues. Indeed, one feels in Heaney less the shock of the new than the comfort of the old. The book ...


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