Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2005.07.22

Christine Finn, Past Poetic. Poetry of W. B. Yeats and Seamus Heaney.   London:  Duckworth, 2004.  Pp. 214.  ISBN 0-7156-3237-X.  £45.00.  

Reviewed by Susan Joseph, Howard University (
Word count: 626 words

In this revision of her dissertation from Oxford, archeology, in its literal and figurative senses, provides former journalist Christine Finn (hereafter F) with a framework for exploring the connections among the works and lives of two very different poets, Yeats and Heaney. In the literal sense, F traces the influence of archeological finds in their poetry, and, in the figurative sense, she explores the remains of these two Anglo-Irish poets. Her goal is to develop readings of their poetry using the poets' personal collections of papers, books, photographs, and postcards along with collections of archival material from the museums in Dublin, Oxford and London through which the poets wandered. But her approach to physical remains yields more in the way of cultural history or Zeitgeistgesichte than her promised close readings, though her book may provide useful background for lectures on twentieth-century Irish literature and Classical Heritage.

The first chapter, "Irish, Greeks, and antiquarians," provides the historical background for Yeats's and Heaney's very different appropriations of archeology. Here F summarizes the attitudes of representative members of the two social groups to which the two poets belonged, Anglo-Irish aristocracy and Dublin Catholics, to the "nascent discipline of archaeology as it developed out of antiquarianism." (11)

In her second chapter, "'Old marble heads, old pictures everywhere:' Yeats's early excavations," F places Yeats's life and works -- even his inscription on the ruined Thoor Ballylee -- in the context of scientific developments and cultural reflections of contemporary archeology. But which of Schliemann's discoveries, Mycenae or Troy, had a greater impact on Yeats's work? Does Yeats draw the image of Maude Gonne in "Beautiful, Lofty Things" from the copy of Phidias's Pallas Athena straight from the Parthenon Room of the British Museum? In her third chapter, "'Some philosophical works in mosaics.'" F explores how Byzantium replaced Egypt, Greece, and Rome "as a trope for unity of life and work," in Yeats's poetry. Her methodology produces a more than typically odd observation about Yeats's conflation of mosaics in Sicily, Ravenna, and Stockholm in "the Vision." In his alchemical mix Yeats "concertinas two different art periods of the Byzantine Empire." (72)

In her fourth chapter, "The body phenomenal," F traces Heaney's use of found objects and Irish bog archeology in poems such as "The Tolland Man" to his reading of P. V. Glob's book The Bog People (translated into English in 1969). Heaney apparently told F that Glob's book "offered him a way to articulate the violence of the Irish conflict, bringing together the victims of presumed ritual killing of 2,000 years before with those of modern Ireland." (101)

In Chapter 5, "Raising ancients: Heaney's later excavations," as in Chapter 3, when the poet's use of archeology became more figurative than literal, F again has more work to do. The structuralist approach to archeology as exemplified by the work of Ian Hodder is seen as homologous with the poet's tendency to give multivalent meanings to his own archeological symbols. (112) F's interpretive net becomes coarser-grained here, allowing her to put Heaney's more recent poems in august company. Thus, Heaney lands (where he belongs) with Mandelshtam, Yeats, Virgil, Dante, D. H. Lawrence, and Philip Larkin. The later poems she discusses "may be seen as marking a move by Heaney out of the soil and into the air." (113)

Chapter 6, "Fieldwork and field work in transformation," contains the central claim and rationale for F's work: the poet "is fulfilling the ancient role of 'seer', as do archaeologists 'seeing beneath the soil' with their probing and imagining." (131) As a practical matter, poetry, like other ancient divination techniques, may provide insight for archeologists in Ireland. (132-139)

Black and white photographs of the artifacts discussed and an extensive annotated bibliography keyed to individual chapters are provided.

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