The "Better Judgement" behind the "Walk on Air": Heaney's Productive Misreading of Bishop.

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Date: Mar. 2021
From: Twentieth Century Literature(Vol. 67, Issue 1)
Publisher: Hofstra University
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 5,875 words
Lexile Measure: 1440L

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In the 1980s and 1990s, Elizabeth Bishop emerges as a major influence on Seamus Heaney's poetry. Despite Heaney's endorsement of her work in the title essay of The Government of the Tongue (1988) and the dedicated "Counting to a Hundred: On Elizabeth Bishop" from his Oxford lecture series, later collected in The Redress of Poetry (1995), the relationship between Heaney and Bishop has received little attention. In The Cambridge Companion to Seamus Heaney (2009), Bishop warrants only four brief mentions, while in The Cambridge Companion to Elizabeth Bishop (2014) Heaney is cited superficially as a colleague of Bishop's at Harvard during her final year and as an advocate of her achievement. Indeed, aside from a 1992 doctoral dissertation exploring the workings of animal imagery in Heaney's and Bishop's poetry, the attention given to the connection has been limited to the citation of Heaney's approval of Bishop, and there are no comparative readings of their poetry or consideration of the specific terms in which he endorses her. On Heaney's side of the Atlantic, Tom Paulin (2004) has noted, "The formal authority and the subtlety of the poetry of Seamus Heaney, Derek Mahon, and Paul Muldoon often carries an invisible tribute to a poet [Bishop] who is often described as a poet's poet"; in the case of Heaney, this influence is highly visible especially in "The Gravel Walks" and "Two Lorries" from The Spirit Level (1996), which evolve from two questionable readings of Bishop's "At the Fishhouses" and "Sestina" in "The Government of the Tongue" and "Counting to a Hundred," respectively.

The context in which Bishop emerges as an influence on Heaney is critical to understanding that influence. Heaney read her Collected Poems in the 1960s, taught her work at Queen's University Belfast, and the two would become friends in the spring of 1979 when he was a visiting lecturer at Harvard University, after which they maintained contact until she died in October of that year. Heaney (2008: 277) recalls he had "got to know her [Bishop] and Alice Methfessel" during that spring semester; in a February 9, 1979 letter to Dorothee Bowie (1994: 630), Bishop describes Heaney as "nice and very Irish," and in a March 1 letter adds, "I like his poetry a lot" and, despite avoiding "readings whenever I can," she "did like Heaney's readings" (632). In 1984, Heaney took a tenured position at Harvard as Boylston Professor of Rhetoric, a position he held until 1996 when he became Emerson Poet in Residence, a nonteaching position he held until 2006. Since Heaney's death in 2013, rooms one through twelve of Adams House, where Heaney resided at Harvard, have been dedicated as the "Heaney Suite," with items of furniture chosen by Helen Vendler, a Harvard colleague, friend, and powerful champion of both Heaney and Bishop.

Bishop's influence is consistent with a pattern in which Heaney becomes utterly consumed with the work of another writer to whom he dedicates poems and essays that highlight the debt of his own work to...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A663352075