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This review is taken from PN Review 20, Volume 7 Number 6, July - August 1981.

MERE TRANCE Seamus Heaney, Preoccupations: Selected Prose, 1968-1978 (Faber) £7.95

Throughout this collection of memoirs, lectures, reviews, radio talks, and occasional pieces, Seamus Heaney demonstrates amiability, affection, a weakness for boggy places, and much reverence for the idea of historical lineage, wherever he can acquire it. Thus the title recalls Explorations and Yeats's belief that 'the following of art is little different from the following of religion in the intense preoccupation it demands.' The only major thing absent from the Heaney sensibility seems to be the understanding that Yeats's sense of 'preoccupation', for all the high-priestly voice, is a little different from his own, just as the other's alacrity of interest, engagement in a vision, is not entirely to be confused with engrossment in a darkness or with solemn self-absorption.

'My sense of occasion and almost awe', writes Heaney, pilgrim to a marshy, sacrificial grave, 'as I vowed to go to pray to the Tollund Man and assist at his enshrined head had a longer ancestry than I had at the time realized.' The piety is clear, but while it sinks towards bathos the minute a touch of sceptical humour is applied, one sees that so much similar ground of feeling in the prose is wet through with slow-decaying sanctity-with feeling collapsed into a religiose-historical sense of importance, down into the 'squelch and slap' of mossy haunts where our guide refers to certain Irish place-names as 'a kind of love made to each acre'. (By the same token, words are said to 'woo each other' at one ...


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