Place, Pastness, Poems: A Triptych


Seamus Heaney


The sense of the past constitutes what William Wordsworth might have called a “primary law of our nature,” a fundamental human gift, as potentially civilizing as our gift for love. It is a common, non-literary faculty, embodied very simply in Thomas Hardy’s poem, “The Garden Seat”:

Its former green is blue and thin, And its once firm legs sink in and in; Soon it will break down unaware, Soon it will break down unaware.

At night when reddest flowers are black Those who once sat thereon come back; Quite a row of them sitting there, Quite a row of them sitting there.

With them the seat does not break down, Nor winter freeze them, nor floods drown, For they are as light as upper air, They are as light as upper air!

The poem is about the ghost-life that hovers over some of the furniture of our lives, about the way objects can become temples of the spirit. This garden seat is not just an objet, a decorous antique; it has become a point of entry into a common emotional ground of memory and belonging. It transmits the climate of a lost world and keeps alive a domestic intimacy with a reality which might otherwise have vanished. The more we are surrounded by such things, the more feelingly we dwell in our own lives. The air which our imaginations inhale in their presence is not musty but bracing.

It could even be maintained that objects thus seasoned by human contact possess a kind of moral force. They insist upon human solidarity and suggest obligations to the generations who have been silenced, drawing us into some covenant with them. In this passage by Pablo Neruda, for example, although the poet is not explicitly concerned with the object as capsule of time past, he is nevertheless testifying to the power of the inanimate, its aura of persuasiveness:

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 flow the contacts of man with the earth … The used surfaces of things, the wear that the hands give to things, the air, tragic at times, pathetic at others, of such things—all lend a curious attractiveness to the reality of the world that should not be underprized.

Neruda’s declaration that “the reality of the world … should not be underprized” implies that we can and often do underprize it. We grow away from our primary relish of the phenomena. The rooms where we come to consciousness, the cupboards we open as toddlers, the shelves we climb up to, the boxes and albums we explore in reserved places in the house, the spots we discover for ourselves in those first solitudes out of doors, the haunts of those explorations at the verge of our security—in such places and at such moments “the reality of the world” first wakens in us. It is also at such moments that we have our first inkling of pastness and find our physical surroundings invested with a wider and deeper dimension than we can, just then, account for.

What I am talking about is at the time an unconscious process. It is neither sentimental nor literary, since it happens during the pre-reflective stage of our existence. It has to do with an almost biological need to situate ourselves in our instinctual lives as creatures of the race and of the planet, to learn the relationship between what is self and what is non-self. It has to do with feeling towards, sniffing out, settling in and shaping up.

In my own case, the top of the dresser in the kitchen of the house where I lived for the first twelve years of my life was like a time machine. This was where much of the bric-a-brac of the farmyard would end up, broken whetstones, old nails, putty, screwdrivers, lamp-wicks. Its mystery had to do with its inaccessibility, yet when I did manage to hoist myself up there, the dusty newspaper round the putty, the worn down grains of the whetstone, the bent nails, the singed wicks, all that dust and rust and stillness suggested that these objects were living some kind of afterlife. Something previous was vestigially alive in them. They were not just inert rubbish but dormant energies, meanings that could not be quite deciphered. Naturally, I did not think this to myself at the time. It was all sensation, tingling with an amplification of inner space, subtly and indelibly linked with the word “old.”

“Old” was not an idea. It was an atmosphere, a smell almost, a quality of feeling. It brought you out of yourself and close to yourself all at once. “Old” drifted in the mind and senses when you came upon mossed-over bits of delph or fragments of a clay pipe plugged up with mould. You took such things for granted yet they swam with a strangeness. And the strangeness deepened when you actually dug such things out of the ground for yourself. My first archaeological tremor occurred when I was making holes for goalposts in one of our fields which had always been kept as grazing and was therefore always pure surface, pure present. When I dug down about a foot into the tight-packed ground, I came upon a hoard of soft red brick and white crumbly mortar, an unexpected cache that even to a six year old meant foundations, meant house, a living but obliterated past. I pestered my father to tell me who might have lived there and found that he did not remember any house on the site. Then I heard him questioning a neighbour about whose place it might have been, who was supposed to have owned that land in the old days, and the hole for the goal-post began to open down and back to a visionary field, a phantom whitewashed cottage with its yard and puddles and hens. The world had been amplified; looking and seeing began to take on aspects of imagining and remembering.

Another example: I knew more from overhearing and piecing together than from being told directly that a number of my father’s family had died in their teens and twenties from “the decline,” as tuberculosis had been called in rural Ulster in those days. Names of uncles and aunts who might have been floated through the conversation. Johnny and Jamie and Maggie and Agnes. Agnes, I knew, had died young and her invalid pallor which I had never seen was intuitively present to me, again because of her association with an object. This was a little trinket which was kept wrapped in tissue paper and laid away with other specially conserved knick-knacks in the bottom of a sideboard in my parents’ bedroom. I knew there was something slightly taboo about rummaging in those shelves but I was drawn again and again to unwrap the thing because I knew that it had belonged to Agnes. It had obviously been bought at the seaside as a present for her. A little grotto about four or five inches tall, like a toy sentry box, all covered with tiny shells, a whitish gleaming secret deposited in the family sideboard like grave-goods in the tomb of a princess. To this day, I cannot imagine the ravages of disease in pre-inoculation rural Ireland except in relation to the slight white fact of that trinket.

In such ways we read ourselves into a personal past but it is not a past which is chronologically determined by calendar dates or any clear time-scale. Rather it is a dream time, a beforehand, a long ago. We learn it without deliberate instruction and the result of our learning is a sense of belonging to a domestic and at the same time planetary world of pure human being.

But there is another past which is not just inhaled unconsciously but which is to some extent imposed and to some extent chosen. This gives us our cultural markings, contributes to our status as creatures conditioned by language and history. It is posited upon images which have a definite meaning and implication, unlike images of the bricks and grotto sort whose meanings are accidental and familial.

Take the fairytales we were told at home and at school: these also conjure up a potent sense of the long ago and can endow the world with a sort of legendary history. There is, for example, a story which I can now recall only in the vaguest way about a hen that panics when a nut drops down upon her out of a tree and causes her to think that the end of the world is coming. That tale gave a marvelous status to the corner of our yard where the fowl used to mould themselves in the roots of an old hawthorn. I kept looking there to make sure that the sky was still in position, that no crack was appearing in the dome and that the hens were going about their business free from the hens’ version of the nuclear terror. Another story about the man—or maybe it was a widow—who grazed a cow on the grass growing up on the thatched roof of a cabin invested certain old houses and wallsteads in the district with an aura of the fantastic; and the story of the traveler shut beneath the hill with the fairy queen populated certain local slopes with rare possibilities as well.

This fairytale glamour was real enough but it was dispersed and impalpable. It had nothing to do with the sense of history which began to be derived from books and pictures at around the same time, but which could also be derived from objects in the everyday surroundings. There was in our house an old, cock-hammer, double-barrelled pistol, like a duelling piece, fixed on a bracket above a door in the kitchen. It was a completely exotic item in our world of dressers, churns, buckets, statues and Sacred Heart lamps. It did not belong and it was never explained. Yet when I began to get comics and to read adventure stories, this pistol linked the kitchen with highwaymen, stage-coaches, women in crinoline skirts, men in ruffs and duels at dawn in the woodlands of great estates. Not that this involved any great reverence for the thing itself. When my brothers and I grew up a bit, we got our hands on it and broke it into pieces, inevitably, accidentally and, in truth, not very regretfully.

More significantly influential than exotic items like the pistol, however, are those images and objects which signify common loyalties and are recognized as emblems of a symbolic past which also claims to be the historical past. These guarantee our own way of feeling about ourselves as a group and as such have a potent influence upon our everyday attitudes. I am thinking, for example, of a picture dear to the Irish Catholic heart in years gone by. This was an oleograph of the outlawed priest in red vestments, raising the host above a massrock in a secluded corner of the hills. The hills are covered in snow, the congregation huddles around in shawls and frieze coats under a frosty sky, a band of redcoats is coming into view over a distant crest and in between, a man is running wild over ditches to alert the congregation. Nothing I have learned or could ever learn about penal laws against Catholics in eighteenth century Ireland could altogether displace the emotional drama of that picture. The century will remain in some corner of the mind technicolour, panicky, humble and heroic. Just as Wolfe Tone, our enlightenment revolutionary and founding father of Irish Republicanism, will never quite escape from his reincarnation as the figure in tight-fitting white trousers and braided green coat whose large profiled nose stared out over the audience in our local hall. There he was, a given figure with a strange name, a man called wolf.

He was to come up again, this time as an illustration in an old Wolfe Tone Annual that I came across some time in the late forties; now he was dressed in an open shirt and dark breeches, his arms folded, staring into a shaft of light that struck into his prison cell from a high barred window. Again, this image of a noble nature stoically enduring had a deeply formative effect on my notion of the United Irishmen, the 1798 rebellion and the whole tradition of Irish separatism. I do not mean that I closed my mind to other notions but it offered a dream against which all further learning took place. Tone’s eloquent profile, for example, was not entirely eroded when I read Sir Joshuah Barrington’s description of him: “His person was unfavourable—his countenance thin and sallow; and he had in his speech a hard guttural pronunciation of the letter R.”

In Ireland we have been properly taught to be wary of these idealized images of the political past because of the righteousness and simplifications implicit in them and the dangerous messianic arrogance which can flow from them. Less ideologically conditioning, more humanly accurate are those objects and documents which survive from the historical moment. No image of Hugh O’Neill, the last Gaelic Earl of Tyrone—to take another powerful figure from the pantheon—no portrait of him with his strong Ulster face and Elizabethan clothes can get as close to our feelings and be as acutely suggestive of the conditions of his life in the hill fort at Tullyhogue as this list of his abandoned possessions, compiled after his defeat at the Battle of Kinsale. I can almost feel the wind press the quill in the English secretary’s hand as his cold Tudor gaze falls upon the debris of a world:

2 long tables, 2 long forms, an old bedstead, an old trunk, a long stool … 5 pewter dishes, a basket, a comb and a comb case, 2 dozen trenchers and a basket … one pair of taffeta curtains, an other pair of green satin curtains, a brass kettle, 2 baskets with certain broken earthen dishes and some waste spices, a vessel with two gallons of vinegar, 2 glass bottles, 2 stone jugs whereof one broken, a little iron pot and a great spit.

We have entered the realm of the museum where pastness is conjured as we run the tips of our sympathy and understanding over the braille of the exhibits. When we gaze at an ancient cooking pot or the shoe of a Viking child or a gaming board from the rubble of a Norman keep, we are exercising a primary part of our nature. It is the part which cherishes human contact and trust, which responds with gratitude to a lighted window in the countryside at night, is consoled when it finds on a mountainside a path worn out by previous feet, and is well pleased to discover old initials carved on the range-wall of a bridge or in the bark of a tree.

The contemplation of such things emphasises the truth of that stunningly simple definition of our human neighbor offered by the old school catechism. “My neighbor,” the catechism declared, “is all mankind.” So I think of my mesolithic Ulster neighbor, and of his flint flakes, flint spears and arrowheads which were found in abundance at New Ferry on the River Bann during the drainage of the river in the early part of the century. Seeing these on display in the Ulster Museum in Belfast once gave me a vision of those first hunters among the reeds and bushes at the lower end of our parish and I thought of them not as having disappeared but as being at one with the farmers and clay workers and fishermen and duck-shooters who were the geniuses of the place when I first got to know it. And that time scale, that double sense of great closeness and great distance, subtly called into question the factual and sectarian divisions which are and have long been pervasive in that part of the country. I do not say that a sense of the mesolithic ancestor could solve the religio-political conflicts of the Bann Valley but I do say that it could significantly widen the terms of the answer which each side could give to the question, “Who do you think you are?”

Similarly with that magnificent hoard of gold objects found in my native County Derry and now held in the National Museum in Dublin as “The Broighter Hoard”: to gaze at those arm-bands and gorgets and lunulae, so silent and solid and patiently beyond one, is to be displaced from one’s ordinary sense of what it means to be a County Derry person. For the moment, the gazer is carried out of himself, is transported into a redemptive mood of openness and readiness. He has, in fact, crossed the line that divides instinctive apprehension from artistic experience.


It is tempting to slip from this personal experience and inflate it by analogy, recalling Keats’s rapt vigils in the British Museum and the way his entrancement with the Elgin Marbles supplied some of the dream-charge for his “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Yet in that poem Keats’s gaze emanated not from any desire to savour the local and domestic world but from a thoroughly self-aware literary imagination. His response was not dictated by his sense of belonging to a particular place, nor was it especially afflicted by the burden of a particular history. His was a gaze that pined to found itself upon a trust in the reality of art in time. Historical Greece may have provided images for his daydream but transfigured Greece, under the aspect of the urn, wakened his imaginative and intellectual appetites—although not in the same way as Neruda’s imagination was awakened in the presence of human artefacts. Neruda’s words come from a piece called “Towards an Impure Poetry” and they are anti-idealist and anti-aesthetic, strongly reminiscent of Moneta’s indignation (in “The Fall of Hyperion”) against “dreamers,” and her urgent preference for “those to whom the miseries of the world/ Are misery, and will not let them rest.” Neruda, we might say, is tormented by the injustice of history and his past is accusatory, whereas Keats’s past is closer to the long-ago of fairy-tale and functions in his mind as a source of possibility, a launch-pad for transcendence.

For all poets, Neruda included, pastness is to a greater or lesser degree enabling. The word poetry itself is an orb on the horizon of time, simultaneously rising and setting, imbued with the sunset blaze of master-works from the tradition yet dawning on every poet like hope or challenge. It is very hard to conceive of an imagination which creates without the benefit of inherited forms, modes of expression historically evolved yet universally available, and that benefit itself is an unconscious perspective backward.

Language, too, is a time-charged medium. No matter how much the poetic mind may wish to rid itself of temporal attachment and observe only its own pristine operations, its very employment of words draws it into the “backward and abysm” of common human experience. Indeed, even though one of the results of the Symbolist experience was to educate us in a language that abandons its referential tasks and revels in the echo-chamber of its own inner memory, this liberation placed upon reader and writer alike an obligation to be responsive, at some level, to literary history, to the cultural and phonetic heartbeat of words themselves. The idea that each vocable, each phonetic signal, contains a transmission from some ur-speech and at the same time is wafted to us across centuries of speaking and writing, that the auditory imagination unites the most ancient and most civilized mentalities, this has been one of the most influential refinements of poetic theory during the last century and it is deeply underwritten by an implied identification of the literary imagination with a sense of the past.

Take Wallace Stevens’s “The Irish Cliffs of Moher,” a poem which originated when Stevens received a postcard from a friend in Ireland. It carried a photograph of the cliffs, a prospect of sheer dark promontories dropping hundreds of feet to the Atlantic Ocean, distant from Stevens by three thousand miles, but nevertheless reaching and compelling him to this:

Who is my father in this world, in this house, At the spirit’s base?

My father’s father, his father’s father, his— Shadows like winds

Go back to a parent before thought, before speech, At the head of the past.

They go back to the cliffs of Moher rising out of the mist, Above the real,

Rising out of present time and place, above The wet green grass.

This is not landscape, full of the somnambulations Of poetry

And the sea. This is my father or, maybe, It is as he was,

A likeness, one of the race of fathers: earth And sea and air.

The argument of the poem could be reduced to something like this: the black mass of these cliffs looms before us rather as the father’s presence first looms above the infant; such things also affect us as the memory of a father and the idea of forefathers affect our adult imagining. Their plumb implacable bulk suggests foundation and origin and a security in the world. Yet they appear strangely insubstantial when shawled in mist and this hallucinatory aspect also suggests that our natural father may only be an accidental incarnation of an archetypal form, of a dream father previous to all our biographies and potentially present when the world was earth and sea and air. Hence our sense of being at home upon the planet may depend as much upon our mental and imaginative powers—seen in action here as they search out a sense of God the Father—as upon any physical evolution or biological adaptability.

Whether this would be every reader’s paraphrase of the poem does not really matter. What does matter is the sorry deprivation that occurs when any conjectural meaning is divorced from the poem’s body of sound. The stateliness, the pomp of its progress, the solemn march established in three-time at the beginning—“in this world, in this house, /At the spirit’s base,” “My father’s father, his father’s father, his—,” “before thought, before speech,/At the head of the past”—all this contributes to a deep horn music, the rounded-out, lengthened-back note of the cor au fond du bois; and it is this musical amplitude that persuades the ear of the reality of an inner space where the dimension of time has been precipitated out of the dimension of space, where density streams towards origin. Yet for all its shadowy effectiveness, the poem is not a mere “somnambulation.” It is rather a definite matter of sensation, arising from the cliffiness not of the cliffs themselves but of the word-cliffs in the poem, the vowel-caverns of “house,” “father,” “shadows,” “Moher.”

“The Irish Cliffs of Moher,” then, is a poem which discovers “at the head of the past” a haven for the imagination itself, yet we would never want to claim that “a sense of the past,” in any of its pathetic or emotionally conditioning manifestations, is an attribute of Stevens’s subjects or a part of his intonation. Rather, by its independence of all such affective machinery, the poem emphasizes the idea that the primary laws of our nature are organically linked, that “pastness” and “language” and “imagination” are grafted together at some radical level and that, to quote the conclusion of Eliot’s great encyclical upon the subject, the poet “is not likely to know what is to be done … unless he is conscious not of what is dead, but of what is already living.” (“Tradition and the Individual Talent.”)


The actual poetic task is to find a way of melding the intuitive and affection-steeped word-world of personal memory with the form-hungry and projecting imagination, to find an idiom at once affective and objectified, as individual as handwriting and as given as the conventions of writing itself. This happens most naturally when the poet inherits a coherent place and a language imbued with the climate and love and history of that place.In this way we can see that Thomas Hardy was lucky and John Crowe Ransom, say, was needy. Hardy had a natural sense of his past, Ransom had a perfected literary imagination. Hardy could be busy, Ransom had to be adept; Hardy could speak, Ransom had to write; Hardy could follow his nose, Ransom had to mind his step.

Think of Hardy’s “Channel Firing.” A touch of the grotesque. A hint of the blasphemous—God tells men that the “rest eternal” which they need may well be an unresurrected sleep in the earth. A parson called Thirdly. A church mouse. A God who calls men “mad as hatters” and goes on to rhyme “hatters” with “matters.” Who exclaims with an iamb—surely it is not a spondee—“Ha, ha.” By this account it should be a rickety performance, yet Hardy gets away with it, in fact, triumphs with it:

That night your great guns, unawares, Shook all our coffins as we lay, And broke the chancel window-squares, We thought it was the judgment-day

And sat upright. While drearisome Arose the howl of wakened hounds: The mouse let fall the altar-crumb, The worms drew back into the mounds.

The glebe cow drooled. Till God called, ‘No; It’s gunnery practice out at sea Just as before you went below; The world is as it used to be:

‘All nations striving strong to make Red war yet redder. Mad as hatters They do no more for Christés sake Than you who are helpless in such matters.

That this is not the judgment-hour For some of them’s a blessed thing, For if it were they’d have to scour Hell’s floor for so much threatening… .

‘Ha, ha. It will be warmer when I blow the trumpet (if indeed I ever do; for you are men And rest eternal sorely need).’

So down we lay again. ‘I wonder, Will the world ever saner be,’ Said one, ‘than when he sent us under In our indifferent century!’

And many a skeleton shook his head. ‘Instead of preaching forty year,’ My neighbour Parson Thirdly said, ‘I wish I had stuck to pipes and beer.’

Again the guns disturbed the hour, Roaring their readiness to avenge, As far inland as Stourton Tower, And Camelot, and starlit Stonehenge.

—April 1914

When the first line talks of “your great guns,” who is the “you”? Hard to say until the second line when “our coffins” give the answer. The speakers are the dead addressing “you”—us—the living. And it is speakers, not a speaker; a communal rather than an individual voice enunciates the poem. Already a continuum of past and present has been created and immediately after that a site, indeed sacred site with its “chancel window-squares,” is also established.

We are at the tribe’s centre of feeling and belonging, where the spirits of the ancestors are pressing actively in upon the consciousness of the living. The withdrawing worms, like the astonished mouse, may be an image of the shock that all life must sustain in an age of naval gunnery, but the mounds into which they withdraw remind us not just of graves and churchyards and the Christian culture of England. The associations of the word “mounds” itself reach back to the hill-forts and earth-works of Celtic Britain and infuse the atmosphere of the poem with a feeling of ancient belonging.

The settled world of glebe and hound-pack is menaced, yet in the perspective of folk memory the gunnery is recognized both as a new danger and as a part of the old pattern of war and destruction. The length and reliability of this perspective is enforced when God speaks in an idiom completely at one with the dialect usage (“forty year”) of the head-shaking skeletons. God’s speech is not particularly solemn or oracular; it is more a voice from a local pulpit, colored by the liturgical and biblical drone of official religion— “the judgment hour,” “the trumpet,” “rest eternal”— and by the echo of a medieval popular pageant— “for Christés sake,” “to scour/Hell’s floor”—these latter terms putting us in touch with an age when Christ was crucified and hell was harrowed by the tradesmen of the parish. The mixture of eternal verity and domestic expression lodges us firmly in a world of continuity, yet the continuity is neither offered as a rebuke to a more fragmented world nor patronized as Philip Larkin’s “ruin-bibber, randy for antique” might patronize it. It is simply the natural climate of Hardy’s imagination.

The “Channel” of the title, for example, while it may not be endowed with the big patriotic legends of “Camelot and starlit Stonehenge,” is nevertheless more than a name on a map. It is deeply ingrained with England’s island history, with crossings by Julius Caesar and William the Conqueror, the defeat of the Armada, the threat of Napoleon’s invasion. It is a word that somewhat mutely sweeps the string of Englishness, yet an English person would not dwell on it for a second. It enters the common consciousness much as the garden seat entered Hardy’s personal awareness, as a fume of affection and ordinariness. It contains the folk world of neighbors and parsons and assumes it into a bigger unity of historical achievement and cultural unity.

A crucial fact about the poem is the date of its composition which Hardy deliberately appends, “April 1914.” By now this constitutes part of our own sense of the past, a marker of the critical point when for the last time war might be contemplated as part of the natural cycle of human life and could still be contained within a half-admiring cliché as “red war.” That patient God’s eye view of all things, war included, as a cyclic pattern, a pattern seemingly demonstrated by history to be inevitable like seasonal labor or young love—Hardy could still envisage it like that in 1915 in his poem “In Time of ‘The Breaking of Nations’”—that view was no longer tenable after the First World War. In “Channel Firing,” however, while the word “gunnery” does rumble with danger and modernity, it still manages to harmonize with the hymn tune swell of the quatrains. The music of continuity could still absorb the vocabulary of danger and one of the pleasures of the poem (which we both relish and suspect) is this deeply founded security. We recognize that the land of England with its legendary placenames, its yeoman tillage and its “pipes and beer” has here found its equivalent “in the farming of a verse.”

So Edward Thomas could lift a handful of earth and declare that that was what he was fighting for. Yet the fight itself changed all that. Hardy’s England became a matter of elegy. Auden and Larkin, two of his natural heirs, are much more at a remove from their emotions when they come to feel about a past which they know to be, among other things, a construction of the literary imagination. They may well recognize a connectedness within the past and feel themselves connected to it, but the posture of their writing selves is different from Hardy’s. They have crossed a divide that opened when hostilities opened in 1914 and which had its repercussions in the big push of modernism in the subsequent years, a divide blasted into consciousness by a work like Pound’s Mauberley where the quatrain operated not, as in “Channel Firing,” like an aural shock-absorber but more like a chiselled niche packed with explosive.

Pound’s past was neither parochial nor patriotic, but literary. His myriad dead went under the earth not for any Thomas-like love of the earth, but “For two gross of broken statues, /For a few thousand battered books.” He could perceive and lament the patriotism which produced “fortitude as never before,” but his relationship to it was critical: a stance interposed itself in the tooling of the stanzas, so that the poem is driven forward by a ferocity of present-tense intelligence rather than by any drumroll of loss. The resulting idiom is stretched between rage and elegance, a style won out of despair at “styles,” a palimpsest of literary modes and allusions which derives from his necessary passionate love of literature and a simultaneous scepticism about that very love.

Hardy’s poetic ear was to the ground, Pound’s was tuned to the airwaves. Hardy naturally heard a kind of indigenous background murmur which his voice took up, Pound was assailed by transmissions from foreign stations and messages from the old dispersed centers of civilization. Hardy holds, as it were, the string of a single persisting tradition while Pound gathers the fallen beads of many traditions. Pound’s imagining had its first impulse in the excitement of encountering classical and medieval poetry at university; it is historical, eclectic, prescriptive, a project of retrieval and design. Hardy’s imagining is not as intellectually fired nor as academically ratified; it has a smallholder’s grip upon its territory rather than a developer’s ambition; and it is not exactly historical since it never goes beyond its own ken but subdues everything within its unifying mythic scope.

For Hardy, place, pastness and poems were all aspects of a single mind-stuff. Even his seeming bookishness was the result of a naturalness, a readiness to bring the common word of the district out of the mouth and ear, straight on to the page. The same is true, in a more anxious and scholastically self-justifying way, of Hopkins, whose linguistic experiments were part of a patriotic urge to keep all of English hard at work. There may be more of the lexicographer in Hopkins but there is still earth under the nails of his hand turning the dictionary pages. His poetry does not spacewalk in the ether of literary associations but is grounded in the insular landscape which, in the month of May, blooms and greens in a way that is still Marian, sacramental, medieval English Catholic.

The early Auden style, too, for all the ellipses and disjunctions and angularities which, at the time, seemed so fast and up to date, can be recognized half a century later as a mode of English belonging. Its skaldic abruptness is the natural marking of a voice from the Danelaw, a runic disposition as ancestral to the English language as it is to his own nordic surname. Fells, kestrels, dooms, dingles, snows, crossroads—they are not simply “effects” but passports to a locale, a sensibility and an inheritance. Unlike Hardy, however, Auden could neither settle for the inheritance nor settle into it. For him, “channel” could not be a word that secured the mind within a moat of national triumph: it was a strip of water under “the new European air/On the edge of a sky that makes England of minor importance.” (“Dover”) The southern cliffs of the country were similarly diminished to “the small field’s ending pause.” (“On This Island”) On a summer night, “in this English house,” he could feel:

Soon, soon, through dykes of our content The crumpling flood will force a rent And, taller than a tree, Hold sudden death before our eyes Whose river dreams long hid the size And vigours of the sea.

(“A Summer Night”)

Auden certainly owns a past yet he also owns up to a present where past attitudes are both inadequate and inefficacious. Impatience with a nostalgic and politically wobbly England is countered by a natural reflex of love for it as it comes under threat. He performs brilliantly in verse partly in order to distract himself from the sombreness of his recognitions. Auden’s contemporaneity was most evident in his sensitivity to current dangers but his ironical affection for the surviving and apparently imperturbable surfaces and rituals of English life guaranteed that the poetry was as emotionally ballasted as it was brilliantly admonitory. It was domestic and it was a tour de force, the work of a lonely mind made lonelier by a critical attitude to what it prized, a victim of the new conditions as inevitably as Hardy was a beneficiary of the old ones.

So, to come back to John Crowe Ransom: when I contrasted him with Hardy, I was thinking of a poem like “Captain Carpenter,” of the way it is a performance, a set piece, a system of diction and rhyme and enjambement that is never for a moment unaware of itself as a set of variations upon well known lyric tunes. Like Auden, Ransom was at a detached angle to what he cherished. He was in two, maybe three places at once: in the parochial south, within the imposed Union, and inside the literary “mind of Europe.” He was in place and displaced and consequently his poetic challenges and their resolutions were tactical, venturesome and provisional. His plight was symptomatic of the double focus which the poet from a regional culture is now likely to experience, caught between a need to affirm the centrality of the local experience to his own being and a recognition that this experience is likely to be peripheral to the usual life of his age. In this situation, the literary tradition is what links the periphery to the centre—wherever that imaginary point may be—and to other peripheries. It is a kind of pseudo-past which can absorb the prescribed local present and which allows each writer—by way of parody, allusion, inflection, parallelism—equal access to its resources. No wonder that it—the literary past, the tradition—became a category of our thinking at precisely that moment when, politically and culturally, the centre could not hold, when one place could no longer be proved more than another place, when St. Louis and Dublin and Wyncote, Pennsylvania could each affirm its rights to it all and Paterson, New Jersey could, with equal and opposite confidence, proclaim an independence of it.

A quarter of a century after he had thought it all out in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” Eliot with equal authority but new and mind-sweetening simplicity, summed it all up:

This is the use of memory: For liberation—not less of love but expanding Of love beyond desire, and so liberation From the future as well as the past. Thus love of a country Begins as attachment to our own field of action And comes to find that action of little importance Though never indifferent. History may be servitude, History may be freedom. See, now they vanish, The faces and places, with the self which, as it could, loved them, To become renewed, transfigured, in another pattern.

(“Little Gidding”)