Two States of the Soul: T.S. Eliot & Seamus Heaney

My friend, the poet Kevin Dyer, just posted on Facebook a poem by Seamus Heaney, who died today. The poem was about the magic of County Clare, Ireland—the ocean, the lake, the wind, the swans. T.S. Eliot was by most accounts the most influential poet of the twentieth century. Why the juxtaposition of Heaney’s poem with T.S. Eliot? It points up the difference between what is truly of value and what is officially championed in the culture at large.

Below, I’ll include the Heaney poem my friend posted, as well as the first stanza of Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” to illustrate the contrast between the two states of the soul I’m talking about.

Eliot was an amazing poet. But his poetry is the poetry of the fearful, alienated soul—the soul beaten down by dinner parties and dirty sidewalks. Heaney’s poem is the kind of poem you can find throughout the centuries, going back at least to Rumi and Hafez in ancient Persia. It is the poem of the awakened soul, the soul that recognizes, celebrates and communes with beauty, which is to say the divine, anywhere it finds it. But the culture at large hasn’t caught on to this. Awakened individuals exist and have existed since the Buddha, but the culture at large—the movies, magazines and universities—reflects the preponderant vibration of the whole population. So Eliot is more widely acclaimed because his work epitomizes the strong sense of meaninglessness and disconnection that has dominated our culture. But Eliot himself recognized the true goal of the soul’s journey—even if he couldn’t achieve that goal—in his famous quote, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” The “place” we know for the first time is the self. The new or “first” way we’ll know it is not as a fearful globs of flesh but as expressions of the divine. As Christ said, “The kingdom of God is within you.” Heaney shows it’s also outside you.

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (first stanza)
—by T.S. Eliot
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question. . .
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.

—by Seamus Heaney
And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightening of flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully-grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you’ll park or capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open


About nosuchthingasastraightline

I grew up in tiny Lyme, New Hampshire, where I drew, roamed the surrounding woods, and first entertained the idea of God while listening to my mom's Beatles records. I studied biology at Harvard University where I wrote for The Harvard Lampoon and also began writing poetry. I have since made a living variously as a comedy screenwriter, teacher, and private tutor in math, science and writing. I’ve released three CDs of original music as the singer-songwriter and guitar player for Crooked Roads (listen to latest tracks here: My poetry writing has been inspired by Rumi, Billy Collins, William Carlos Williams, e.e. cummings, Antonio Machado, Federico Garcia Lorca, and others. My two books of poetry, "The Morning I Married the Sky," and “Free this Morning” are both available on Amazon.
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2 Responses to Two States of the Soul: T.S. Eliot & Seamus Heaney

  1. kevin says:

    well-spoken. I think there is a lot to this, and I also believe, as you mention, that Eliot’s work is in the direction of the divine, but perhaps he was too contained, bodily.


  2. Eugene Schlanger says:

    I disagree. I think Eliot is more concerned with universal issues, is a far better poet; and that this example only illustrates Heaney’s felicity with words: pleasing but simplistic. I don’t think Heaney evokes much beyond the surface. That may be trait of our culture’s use of language: with the loss of the written word and history, evocation becomes more commonplace.

    Eugene Schlanger

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