“O My Pablo of Earthlife!”: Heaney’s Neruda and the Reality of the World
From Firenze University Press Journal: Studi irlandesi. A Journal of Irish Studies
Shea Atchison, Ulster University
In his 1985 essay “Place, Pastness, Poems: A Triptych”, Seamus Heaney draws on this passage from Pablo Neruda’s “Towards an Impure Poetry”:
It is well, at certain hours of the day and night, to look closely at the world of objects at rest. Wheels that have crossed long, dusty distances with their mineral and vegetable burdens, sacks from the coalbins, barrels and baskets, handles and hafts for the carpenter’s tool chest. From them fl ow the contact of man with the earth, like a text for all harassed lyricists. Th e used surfaces of things, the wear that the hands give to things, the air, tragic at times, pathetic at others — all lend a curious attractiveness to the reality of the world that should not be underprized. (Neruda 1961, 39)
But Heaney deleted the line “a text for all harassed lyricists”. Th e change earned the attention of John Dennison, who described it as “neat doctoring” and a rejection of Neruda’s view: Heaney, committed to “a transcendental account of poetry’s moral function”, was “unable to conceive of history as other than a locus of defeat, denigration, violence, and death, his eliding quotation skipping over the contaminating analogy of used surfaces and a lyric poetry of attachment”. Neruda, by con-trast, was totally committed to revelling in this “broken contingency of life” (Dennison 2015, 117). But this is oversimplification. We should take into account, for example, Heaney’s brief discussion of “Hercules and Antaeus” in 1981. He associated Hercules with the intellect and the pattern-making of Borges, which “is so different from the pleasures of Neruda, who’s more of an Antaeus figure”. As the Antaeus figure of that poem, Heaney’s remarks might allow us to infer a long-standing identification with Neruda. Other interpretations are available. Heaney may have been concealing his more arcane interests in textuality and material mysticism. In the early 1980s, Ted Hughes sent him a copy of Frances Yates’s Giordano Bruno and the Her-metic Tradition (1964).
Heaney would later use this as subject matter for The Haw Lantern (1987) and Seeing Things (1991), as well as part of the designing phase of his dustjackets and titles (Brandes 1998, 2008). The more prosaic reason is that the omitted line is less relevant to Heaney’s concerns. It detracts from the vivid description of our world, a reality we all share and not just one accessible to lyricists, harassed or otherwise.Heaney’s essay recognized in Neruda a moral persuasiveness, and his conclusions suggests that he also recognized a challenge in this very authority: the declaration that the reality of the world should not be easily underprized “implies that we can and often do underprize it. We grow away from our primary relish of the phenomena that influence us in the first world of our being” (Heaney 1985, 31). Almost a decade later, the same passage was quoted again in Heaney’s 1993 essay “The Sense of the Past”. It was a further endorsement of the Chilean, and this time there are glimpses of even stronger spiritual conviction. What Heaney first tentatively called “moments ‘the reality of the world’ first awaken in us” (ibidem) become “archetypal moments, occurring in every life irrespective of intellectual, social or economic differences” (1993, 33). The pleasures of Neruda, then, are archetypal pleasures, the full recognition of the reality of the world with its accretions and retention of the past.The sensations in which those pleasures are grounded are certainly in evidence when, in 2006, Heaney published “To Pablo Neruda in Tamlaghtduff” in his eleventh and penultimate major volume, District and Circle. The poem does not underprize the world; it is hypersensitive to it. Since 1993, Heaney had, of course, cast Neruda as a fundamentally political poet. Inthe Paris Review in 1997, he named Neruda in a category of writers who “share a specifically political understanding of the world” (Cole 1997). Two years after the poem was published, Stepping Stones reinforced this categorisation. Whereas Neruda’s was an issue-based work, Heaney aspired to the role of visionary-public poet, a role which he was careful to define: the “public poetry of the sort I value”, he told DennisO’Driscoll, “springs from the poet’s inner state and gives vent and voice to a predicament as well as addressing the state of the poet’s world” (O’Driscoll 2008, 385). It is a subtle difference (and not entirely convincing), as Heaney conceded (ibidem). After all, Neruda’s work is implicated in this late poem’s expression of an inner state which holds a personal past accessed by sensation and recognises the ontological status of the world beyond the self.