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This review is taken from PN Review 68, Volume 15 Number 6, July - August 1989.

JUBILATION AND TRUANCY Seamus Heaney, The Government of the Tongue: The 1986 T.S. Eliot Memorial Lectures and Other Critical Writings (Faber) £12.95

The tongue, adept at governing, is proverbially difficult to govern. That is the ambiguous burden of Seamus Heaney's title and it provides the focusing theme for this new collection of his prose. The poet has power over language and, through language, aspires to the sovereignty of imagination. Yet from time to time, the poet's tongue must be governed, the lyric impulse curbed, if poems are to do justice to harsh reality and respect the exacting circumstances of life. In the poem "Clearances", Heaney tells of how he resisted the impulse to correct his mother's speech, deliberately "hampered and askew" in loyalty to her humble origins. "I governed my tongue", he says - in deference to how she governed hers. "Clearances" is from Heaney's last book, The Haw Lantern, and there are other occasions when that book and this would appear to gloss one another. It is one of several reasons for reading this stimulating and beautifully written book, though just now I want to focus on some shortcomings.

Heaney's view of what matters in contemporary poetry is strikingly conventional. The lectures are on Auden, Lowell and Plath, all Faber poets, and the essays deal with Kavanagh, Larkin, Walcott, Holub, Zbigniew Herbert, Mandelstam, poetry in translation and the Irish poetic tradition. Czeslaw Milosz, though he has no essay devoted to him, also plays a prominent role. Together with Herbert and Mandelstam, he presides over a current of Eastern European poetry that runs through the book; for them and ...


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