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Subscriber: null; date: 17 September 2019

‘Our Lost Lives’: Protestantism and Northern Irish Poetry

Abstract and Keywords

In 2010, Derek Mahon published a collection of poems entitled An Autumn Wind, dedicated to celebrated (and now elderly) poetic contemporaries such as Seamus Heaney, John Montague, and Michael Longley. He also wrote a substantial elegy for James Simmons (1933–2001) called ‘Art and Reality’ that involves religion, politics, and literary history. This chapter explores ‘Protestant’ aesthetics in Northern Irish poetry. Few European societies are in a better position than Northern Ireland to know the perniciousness of sectarianism, which has blighted Northern Ireland from the beginning. A Northern Irish poet of this generation, John Hewitt, occupies a significant position as a voice for what one might call cultural Protestantism in Ulster.

Keywords: Irish poetry, Protestantism, Ulster, Northern Ireland, Derek Mahon, elegy, James Simmons, aesthetics, sectarianism, John Hewitt

In An Autumn Wind (2010), Derek Mahon found himself writing poems of address to celebrated (and now elderly) poetic contemporaries: John Montague, Seamus Heaney, and Michael Longley all received elegantly low-key and companionable verses, while one poet, no longer alive to take delivery of Mahon's lines, was the subject of a substantial elegy. ‘Art and Reality’ is addressed to James Simmons (1933–2001), and is written largely in the tetrameter couplets which Mahon had used in his own early writing for verse-letters (and which others, notably Longley, had employed for the same purpose). The combination of formal tightness with conversational unbuttoning gives the feeling, at least, of candour. In an elegy, certain kinds of candour are easier than others: frankness about one's view of the deceased, for example, is not subject to the implied comeback that a verse-letter to the living always needs to bear in mind. But Mahon, like any elegist, is writing for a living audience that includes himself; and in this respect, candour is not necessarily at a premium: of all that might be said, not all should be said, or (art being limited, sooner or later) necessarily can be said. ‘Art and Reality’ says much, and powerfully; and what it does not say is also both suggestive and difficult, involving as it does religion, politics, and literary history.

Mahon's poem is from one poet to another; but there are inescapable inequalities in the relationship. Not just that overpowering inequality which all elegies have to figure—between the living writer and his dead subject or addressee—but between poets from the same place and cultural situation with strikingly different degrees of contemporary success: two writers who both came to prominence as ‘Ulster poets’ in the late 1960s, but whose careers diverged dramatically, both in terms of how and what they wrote and of the popularity and international acceptance of their books. Simmons, in fact, was the more ‘populist’ writer; and Mahon (at least until the 1990s) the chillier, more impersonal and aloof poet of the two: but Simmons's career did not match that of Mahon (nor, of (p. 474) course, those of Longley and Heaney), and this inequality is something which the elegy needs to put into its particular kind of balance. ‘Poetically,’ Mahon wrote privately to Longley in 1971, ‘the only ways are separate ways’;1 yet some ways have more immediately successful destinations than others, and the divergent paths of Simmons and Mahon are to be taken into account in the elegy.

Conventionally enough in terms of elegy, Mahon celebrates Simmons in the poem, and the portrait he gives is true to much of what Simmons tended to celebrate about himself:

  • Burning the energy, burning up
  • the roads, not knowing when to stop,
  • every day was a rave and every
  • evening a new discovery.
  • Sworn to our tricky art, you chose
  • reality over art and pose –
  • an ‘Honest Ulsterman’ although
  • a rogue and romantic even so.2

There is a fitting combination of registers here: the freewheeling, pop-culture performer of the first half of the stanza is portrayed in slightly wobbly rhymes and devil-may-care enjambment—‘stop’ rhyming with ‘burning up’—and this designedly less than ‘tricky’ formal medium is corrected by the stanza's second half, with its end-stopped full rhymes, which sobers up the youthful energy into aesthetics and ethics that, Mahon indicates, were always going to be ‘tricky’ for someone like Simmons to live with, and live up to. The reference to The Honest Ulsterman, the journal founded by Simmons (and in which the young Derek Mahon, too, had been published) touches on a point of difference between the two poets. Importantly, this is a matter of register: what for Simmons might feel like a useful phrase, reclaiming perhaps something of the Ulster regionalist self-assertiveness of an earlier generation, is for Mahon a problematic assertion, as the next stanza explains:

  • That title always bothered me,
  • the ‘honest’ claim seemed to imply
  • others were charlatans or worse:
  • we disagreed there at the start
  • one evening in the Longleys’ house.
  • Perhaps reality and art,
  • grown disputatious, even thought
  • the two of them were poles apart
  • and not the mates they really are.

(p. 475) In some ways, this is a strange turn for any elegy to take: ‘always bothered me’ is pitched somewhere between the casual sweeping-up of an otherwise easily discarded detail and picking at an unhealed wound. Plainly, ‘bothered’ is in a past tense with some bearing, still, on the poem's present—even though, naturally, this is a present without Simmons's mortal presence there to answer back. The line ‘we disagreed there at the start’ acknowledges a split, and in fact a profound divergence, about which the rest of this poem is reticent; in so doing, it recruits the strength of the disagreement for its own elegiac force: this is to allow the inevitable reconciliation of death (it ends the conversation, one way or the other) to lend some feeling of inevitability to the reconciliation of the disagreement itself. Yet art is ‘tricky’, as Mahon maintains: and it's worth noticing that the poem doesn’t quite manage to solve the dispute within the confines of the stanza Mahon devotes to it, so that although art and reality ‘really are’ ‘mates’ (the register here working to equate actual friendship between Mahon and Simmons with the conclusion of an abstract problem), it is the phrase ‘poles apart’ which gains and keeps the prominence of ending a stanza, its denial far away across the stanza-break. An untidiness in the composition, or a point at which art expresses an untidiness in reality?

Isolation is at issue, certainly; and the elegy is attuned not only to the potential isolation of art from reality, but to the comparative isolation of James Simmons. It leaves him, indeed, out on his own, ‘to sing on that white stretch of sand/in the distance’. ‘Art and Reality’ toys with the kind of biographical particulars that Mahon knows have resonance in a literary-historical sense—not least when the site of this aboriginal disagreement with Simmons is specified as ‘the Longleys’ house’. The poem declares discomfort with the readings given to the lives of its small circle of friends and poets (‘We flinch, of course, when someone writes/our story by his different lights’), but it also relies on a biographical dimension, and ‘the Longleys’ house’ is a significant location for what the poem knows is ‘disputatious’ matter now, as then. Michael and Edna Longley are part of the story therefore, even though Mahon will say nothing beyond this about them: he can be reticent in the knowledge that the poem's readers are likely to be familiar, not merely with the poetry of Michael but—in however indirect a way—with the critical understanding of Northern Irish poetry made current by his wife Edna. There is a pleasing closedness to the circle, for Edna Longley has been a critical advocate of Simmons as well as Mahon, and if the disagreement surfaced in this house, it was well placed to be resolved there too. Art and reality, it might seem for a moment, are as much ‘mates’, in the end, as Simmons, Mahon, and the Longleys.

If this is something of a sleight of hand in the poem, a minor instance of the trickiness of its own art, Mahon does not allow the difficulties that were—and are—in the reality of many disagreements to evaporate in its social warmth. ‘Art and Reality’ is enough of a conventional artist's elegy to include an artistic assessment of its dead subject, and in this respect Simmons emerges as the kind of ‘rogue and romantic’ who is essentially an entertainer. Beyond the affection of lines like ‘Oh, you could be a royal pain,/thorn in the side, flea in the ear’ (which are really just posthumous joshing), Mahon implicitly judges Simmons as a writer whose fate was to be something other, finally, than a poet: Simmons is presented as a performer, whose role was that of ‘transporting the sad heart that longs/ (p. 476) for new space and an open mind’, and the poem ends with Mahon affirming that ‘I still hum your songs’. This ‘longs’/‘songs’ rhyme tells, in its own way, the whole story of Mahon's complicated elegy: reality (in the Ulster of the elegist and his subject) is deficient, and leaves much wanting which art provides in the way of a spiritual, political, or sexual liberation. For Mahon, Simmons's career embodies these ways of escape. If he calls his subject's ‘sexual ethic’ ‘dodgy’, he also celebrates it: ‘You cherished girls of every age/and pitied the poor Paisleyite/deprived of your advantages’; this is Protestant Ulster, a place exposed and renounced by Mahon's own art as much as Simmons's entertainment.

So, Simmons escapes it all, ultimately through death. Yet there is another way of looking at this kind of escape—or, as Mahon puts it, transportation—for the ‘sad heart’ of Ulster Protestant reality. Here, the actual situation of Simmons is relevant, and uncomfortable: for his lack of literary success (in comparison to his Ulster contemporaries) is a factor in the isolation which Mahon's poem ultimately celebrates. How far ‘Art and Reality’ feels and explores the discomfort of being on the winning side is open to question; but the shape of Mahon's poetic career has been in part a development from the most extreme and uncompromising sense of isolation towards something more culturally sociable, even companionable (‘We have been too long in the cold’, one poem in The Hudson Letter ends, ‘Take us in; take us in!’).3 Isolation may be of the brilliant essence in Mahon's earlier work, but it is not something which his later poetry sets out to recommend. Here, the perceived isolation of Protestant Ulster—at least, of the Protestant Ulster of Mahon's (and Simmons's) youth—is very much a part of the story. In some versions of the narrative (which later Mahon appears to endorse) it is art that shows reality the way out of the cold.

Michael Longley, a practised and expeditious elegist, was quicker off the blocks than Mahon with his own elegy for Simmons, ‘White Water’, which was included in his Snow Water volume in 2004. A minimal poem where Mahon's is expansive, this little piece reduces Simmons to the point where he is only the isolation in which he placed himself, so that all of the past has been collapsed into a total silence. The poem's subtitle is ‘In memory of James Simmons’, but intimacy is exercised in its first word, ‘Jimmy’—perhaps only there:

  • Jimmy, you isolated yourself
  • At the last bend before white water.
  • We should have been fat jolly poets
  • In some oriental print who float
  • Cups of warm saké to one another
  • On the river, and launch in paper boats
  • Their poems. We are all separated.
  • Your abandoned bivouac should be called
  • Something like the Orchid Pavilion.4

(p. 477) The poem is formally relaxed, in its rhymeless cadences, but it is also counselling a kind of relaxation: the ‘We should have been …’ scenario at the poem's heart is implicitly a statement of regret that ‘We’ were not thus, and its fey, slightly camp orientalism seems to be offering an artistic alternative for a reality that proved unsatisfactory. ‘We are all separated’ complicates the isolation identified in Simmons, for the separation must include more than the poet and his subject (‘all’, not both), and its nature seems to rule out the fantasy of ‘fat jolly poets’ playing with cups of strong liquor as they lounge in the river. (Arguably, that ‘river’ fails to convince in any case: Longley's image of cup-swapping and floating answers better to an outdoor jacuzzi.) Announcing itself as an elegy, this fulfils few of the generic functions which press in on Mahon's very different poem, and appears to voice instead a regret that it cannot elegize Simmons, who has separated himself not just from the community of ‘fat jolly poets’ but from the place in the world (implicitly, the artistic world) he should have occupied, the ‘abandoned bivouac’ which Longley hazards ‘should be called/Something like the Orchid Pavilion’.

Longley's phrasing may look casual, but its low key should not be mistaken for something noncommittal. The orientalizing of Simmons is emphatic, and he is being consigned by the poem firmly to the realm of the metaphorical—a successor, in his minor way, to Yeats's Chinamen in ‘Lapis Lazuli’. That ‘Orchid Pavilion’ may be a fancier, more aesthetically respectable version of ‘Barry's Amusements’ and ‘the old Arcadia’ dancehall in Portrush in Mahon's poem, a place for entertaining, and being entertained. Longley's poem is—and maybe knows itself to be—no more than a wistful imagining of mutual entertainment, when death, and more than just death, has led to separation. To the poem's credit, it does not set out to elegize Simmons in the terms and detail to which over time, however sadly, it has lost the right.

The loss is not simply the poem's, but in a more complicated way Longley's as well. Here, as with Mahon, the shadows of literary history inevitably begin to close: when the divergent careers of Simmons and Longley are compared, it becomes obvious that Simmons occupied something other than the high ground of critical esteem and literary success to which Longley (at least since his middle years) has had generous access. It may be that the image of the river in ‘White Water’ has a certain point in this connection: by the time of Simmons's death, as the cliché would have it, a lot of water had flowed under the bridge of his relationship with Longley. This is something more than a personal matter (though it is that), just as the canvassing of difficulties with Simmons in ‘Art and Reality’ goes beyond the specifically biographical dimension. ‘We are all separated’ is the phrase that strikes the significant note here, and the resonances of the separation fit problematically into Longley's otherwise too much at ease, and too easy, short poem.

The ‘fat jolly poets’ engaged in exchanging verses along with cups of strong drink are not exactly the zenith of a Protestant spiritual aspiration. That much is obvious, and might very well be partly the point of Longley's flight of fancy in commemorating Simmons. Even so, ‘We are all separated’ is in earshot of sterner, and more religiously specific, kinds of separation that have a bearing on the culture from which poets like Simmons, Mahon, and Longley himself emerge. Two separations in particular haunt Protestant vocabulary in Ulster, both of them Pauline: (p. 478)

Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you. (2 Corinthians 6:17)

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? (Romans 8:35)

Between them, this pair of texts maps out much in the psychic landscape of the Protestant Ulster from which the poets (like many others) felt the need to be free: the insistence on necessary apartness from ‘the unclean thing’ has been made to bear specifically political meanings for religious Unionists over the years, while the declaration of inseparability from the love of Christ has been made to stand for other instances of the inseparable, notably the political union with the Protestant Crown.5 Separation is not a word to be taken, or given, lightly in Protestant Ulster. It is unlikely that ‘We are all separated’ does anything so definite as make scriptural allusion, and forcing the phrase into being an allusion does something disproportionate in the context of the poem's overall tone; but the religious and cultural context on which—however far in the background—it ultimately draws is that of the place and history in relation to which Simmons, Longley, and Mahon partly shape their artistic identities and careers.

Does it make sense, though, to talk of ‘Protestant’ aesthetics in Northern Irish poetry? And in what terms, in fact, could such a thing be talked about at all? Undoubtedly, caution is in order. There are few European societies in a better position than Northern Ireland to know the perniciousness of sectarianism; and sectarian thinking—as well as a more straightforwardly unthinking habit of sectarianism—has blighted Northern Ireland from the beginning. Even now, it would be a dangerous kind of complacency that consigned that habit of sectarianism to the past or to the margins. It is only proper to hesitate, then, before importing sectarian categories to the criticism of Northern Irish literature. But in dealing with modern and contemporary poetry, criticism has largely felt itself free either to ignore religious dimensions—dimensions which are necessarily divisions—or to bring them into the picture using far too broad a brush. The result has been a distortion, one which does, it is true, sometimes answer accurately enough to distortions applied by the poets themselves, but which nevertheless makes it finally more difficult to understand the contexts and values of the various poetic achievements involved.

For a great deal of modern poetry from places like Britain and the USA, analysis in terms of religious affiliation or origin makes next to no sense: there are perfectly good historical and cultural reasons for this, and every reason not to press such a perspective in any serious critical reading. Yet in the case of Northern Ireland, things are not so clear-cut, and the natural reluctance of critics to engage with the sectarian energies that have issued so obviously (and so grievously) in sectarian violence has obscured some vital (p. 479) aspects of what Northern Irish poetry actually is: what it draws strength from, what it resists, and what it sets itself to achieve. Of course, there has been a considerable amount of attention given to what was once called ‘background’ in studies of major poets like Seamus Heaney and (to a lesser extent) Paul Muldoon; but this has very seldom been extended to influence formal, stylistic analysis. The idea, for example, that a particular way of putting things, and of putting some things rather than others, might be conditioned by specifically Catholic, and specifically Northern Irish Catholic, habits and reflexes is one effectively alien to the bulk of criticism which poets like these have generated. (That this is so becomes all the more remarkable when one considers how often, and how explicitly, the poets themselves have given critics their cue.)

The ‘Protestant’ label, however, has often lain more readily to hand, and it has permitted critics (though not just critics) to identify aspects in Northern Irish culture to which poetry offers an alternative, or from which it provides an escape route. It is taken for granted that no poetry could relate to this ‘Protestant’ culture in anything but broadly antagonistic ways. That assumption is, from a journalistic or casually political point of view, perfectly understandable; undoubtedly, it helps to keep the multiple contexts of religious and cultural dimensions to manageable proportions. Nevertheless, it is a simplification, and one which can encourage a wider—and maybe a more damaging—kind of inaccuracy in the reception of Northern Irish poetry. The literary career of Tom Paulin, who grew up in Belfast, has given a good deal of support to this view of Protestant culture as something cursed by fundamental political error—the Original Sin of Unionism—into which it fell after 1798, and in whose darkness it dwells to the present day. Paulin's collections of the 1980s, Liberty Tree (1983) and Fivemiletown (1986), along with his literary criticism and his media presence as a cultural commentator in Britain in the 1990s and after, made current a caricature of Ulster Protestantism as politically fallen and scarcely redeemable, artistically philistine and religiously vulgar, and at all events—at all costs indeed—a state to be transcended.6

‘Protestant aesthetics’ might be thought, at best, an oxymoron. In part, that is a legacy of the simplification which requires Protestant Ulster to be characterized by distrust of art, fuelled by extreme religious prejudice enforced with Calvinist rigour. As far as Northern Irish poetry is concerned, it was two Protestants from the North of Ireland, Louis MacNeice and W. R. Rodgers, who did most in the mid-twentieth century to give this image an enduring literary expression. That either of these poets should have been capable of achieving this is, of course, in itself an indication that the stereotype might not be all-encompassing; but their (very different) works were received as evidence of escape from the stifling philistinism of Ulster, rather than imaginative emanations from that very milieu. In MacNeice's case, the arguments about his degree of attachment to Northern Ireland are complex, much-rehearsed, and still continuing; in that of Rodgers, posterity's relative lack of interest makes them now—and perhaps unfortunately—unlikely to happen. But a third Northern Irish poet of this generation, John Hewitt (who (p. 480) died in 1987), continues to occupy a significant position—less, really, as a poet than as a voice for what one might call cultural Protestantism in Ulster. Hewitt's poetry does not deserve the kind of neglect into which it will probably continue to fall (neglect, like success, comes to the deserving and undeserving alike); but his cultural positioning is still taken as important by Northern Irish writers and their observers. In a way, John Hewitt dead has been far more influential than John Hewitt the living writer: a subject of that most potent form of Irish commemoration, the literary and academic summer school, Hewitt has come to represent a prophetic voice from the past in Ulster Protestant culture, urging the dual imperatives of political liberalism and an attachment to place. Hewitt spent many years living in England, in a career move (to become Director of the City Art Gallery in Coventry) which he presented—and others after him accepted enthusiastically—as a kind of forced exile from the forces of establishment bigotry in the Protestant North. His return to Belfast in retirement coincided with the flourishing of poetry there, and his many late volumes were published locally (by the Blackstaff Press) at the same time as Longley, Heaney, Mahon, Muldoon, and others were consolidating their national and international reputations. With MacNeice and Rodgers dead, Hewitt stepped easily into the role of the senior figure for an increasingly successful group of Northern Irish poets throughout the 1970s.

The ‘Regionalism’ to which Hewitt was affiliated in the 1930s and 1940s in Northern Irish writing left an ambiguous legacy for the poets of the 1960s and after. Hewitt himself felt that regionalism ‘failed’ but, whatever he might have meant by this, the consequences of this movement were far-reaching. Seamus Heaney's career, like Longley's and Mahon's, drew real benefits from the sense of local worth and literary legitimacy which Regionalism (and Hewitt in particular) promoted: when the ‘Ulster Renaissance’ made itself apparent at the end of the 1960s, it was on ground which Ulster Regionalism had prepared—even though its publishers were firmly in literary London. The real ‘failure’ of Hewitt's regionalism had been essentially a political one, for the attempt to make literary capital out of an insistence that the writer ‘must be a rooted man’7 at the very least complicated, and perhaps fatally compromised, any espousal of liberalism, since it relied on the kind of allegiance which, in Northern Ireland, is inevitably and unavoidably divisive in political terms. ‘Ulster’, that is, means different things to a Protestant and to a Catholic in Northern Ireland; and literature could no more transcend that difference than could the politics of British leftism from the 1930s onwards.

After the late 1960s, the political stakes were higher; and the artistic stakes for poets like Longley, Mahon, and Simmons were sufficiently steep to mean that a specifically ‘Protestant’ strain was something that could not well be announced. Nevertheless, at the level of style (where the real stakes in poetry are always at their highest), all three poets inherited and worked through modes of expression and thinking that came distinctively from a ‘Protestant’ literary tradition. This can be visible in the literary judgements that (p. 481) tend to be made about the poets, as well as in their own work. A thumbnail sketch of Simmons, for example, offers this:

Wary of rhetoric and what he sees as the élitist assumptions of much modern verse, Simmons adheres to traditional forms and a tough, colloquially based poetic language. His characteristic idiom offers a street-wise counterpart to John Hewitt's Calvinistic neatness. The note of wry melancholy in the selected pieces is typical.8

‘Wary of rhetoric’ opens the door to a guest who is not going to be easily palmed off with warm words, and from whom we are not to expect any florid eloquence in excess of what is required. There is a perfectly good cue for this in Simmons's own work, in a poem dedicated to Michael Longley, much given over to the virtues of that least Calvinist of musical forms, jazz:

  • The campus poets used to write of saxophones
  • disgustedly and sneer at gramophones;
  • but the word of life, if such a thing existed,
  • was there on record among the rubbish listed
  • in the catalogues of Brunswick and H.M.V.,
  • healing the split in sensibility.
  • Tough reasonableness and lyric grace
  • together, in poor man's dialect.
  • Something that no-one taught us to expect.
  • Profundity without the po-face
  • of court and bourgeois modes. This I could use
  • to live and die with. Jazz. Blues.9

The slant of the poem, and that of its dedication, indicate some element of the ars poetica here: yet what is most revealing about this aesthetic is that it isn’t really an aesthetic at all, but a rough and ready equating of aesthetics to the business of living. Simmons's rough couplets are probably to give the feel of improvisation, but the underlying claim for a style is clear enough: ‘Tough reasonableness and lyric grace/together’. This might have the ring of self-assessment about it, but Simmons is in earnest both for himself and, by implication, for others too, including his poem's dedicatee. The verbal art's integrity is an ethical matter: the records contain ‘the word of life’, the music is ‘to live and die with’. ‘Life’ and ‘live’ were, admittedly, central to the debased coinage of Lawrentian vocabulary in much 1960s criticism (Simmons's poem is not untouched by academia—the ‘split’ to be healed ‘in sensibility’ is there to remind readers of what they learned about T. S. Eliot at university.), but in this context they carry a certain defiant charge. Simmons's poem is an Ulster poem of its time, in that it sets its face against ‘the po-face’ which would deny ‘the word of life’: here, ‘the word’ is up against the Word, and all the Word would put a stop to.

(p. 482) It seems odd to propose Simmons as a type of religious figure; but his version of lived commitment to art and liberalism, and to political individualism and liberalism, issued in a curiously evangelical notion of writing. Somewhere deep in the Ulster Protestant psyche is the desire, if not to be saved, at least to declare oneself saved from perdition; and Simmons embodied this, by his very particular lights, as distinctly as any Free Presbyterian. True, being saved for Simmons meant a conversion to poetry and music, drinking and sex; but his sense of his salvation as relevant and exemplary for his society is central to much of his creative work. This comes to the surface in an essay where Simmons finds the seeds of his individualist faith in some older Northern Irish fiction:

You get in these novels what you would expect from common Ulster experience: that such human leaps forward as we are likely to have come from individuals, not from any of the Churches. Yet the individuals who bolster and support their weaker brethren have some sort of faith and a belief in something greater than themselves. The Protestant experience offers the best paradigm of this because it is central to the ethos that the individual should reach beyond the Church to God: to some positive image, created by men at the height of their imagination that embodies permanent truth and inspiration, like the life of Christ. In a barbarous time when we have lost touch with our inspirational past, and the way back is barred by dead forms, fallible human beings still stumble forward by instinct, sometimes.10

This is not, perhaps, all that wary of rhetoric; but the rhetoric it does employ taps in directly to Protestant fundamentalism; and Protestantism, indeed, is being offered as ‘the best paradigm’ of the individualism Simmons sees as necessary for personal liberation.

Fran Brearton has written of how ‘Mahon, Longley, and Heaney share the sense of art as an alternative spirituality’, adding that this makes art ‘a mode of subversion all the more telling in a context where sectarianism is rife’.11 The accuracy of this needs to be complemented by the understanding that ‘spirituality’ cannot be free from a sectarian interpretation; that both Catholicism and Protestantism inevitably inflect the professedly secular spiritualities which may issue from them, however far from the forms of ‘sectarianism’ these may appear to be. Simmons's liberationist individualism, for instance, is unmistakably Protestant in its essence and expression, and this is plain too in the form of its address, in its style. That the sentiments are at odds with ‘sectarianism’ does not make them free from their origins in religious dissent, and from what has followed from such dissent in Ulster. Of all the poets from a Protestant background, Tom Paulin has been the most willing to discuss the relationship between religious dissent, (p. 483) written (and spoken) style, and politics: but Paulin's own politics have tended to get in the way of his fully exploring in terms of contemporary work the cultural, religious, and political complexity he identifies in older literature, while his fascination with the implications of style has, curiously, more often short-circuited his own poetry by over-charging it with stylistic self-awareness and self-analysis. It is with Longley and Mahon, then, that the question of Protestantism and literary expression might have its most revealing applications, although (as their two elegies for Simmons show) each poet might have early and late styles that are not necessarily in accord with each other.

In An Exploded View (1973), Michael Longley published a series of verse letters to his contemporaries, Heaney, Mahon, and Simmons. The poem to Simmons makes an interesting comparison to Longley's eventual elegy: written more obviously with the presumption of friendship, and generally on more equal terms, it still celebrates Simmons as an entertainer, while perhaps hoping to stand in the light of Simmons's more rakish persona. ‘Play your guitar while Derry burns’ has a certain defiance of the worthy that expresses solidarity with the other poet's project, and the atmosphere of irreverence is seen (in Simmons-like terms) as socially exemplary:

  • Yes, to entertain your buddies
  • With such transcendental studies
  • Rather than harmonise with hams
  • In yards of penitential psalms
  • I count among your better turns:
  • Play your guitar while Derry burns …12

The ‘transcendental studies’ are those of ‘The blue veins in filigree’ ‘beneath a breast’ and ‘The millions acting out their last/Collaborations with the past’ ‘In a discarded French letter’. All this principled escapism, it's worth noticing, does not relinquish its claim on the metaphysical, and its antipathy to those ‘penitential psalms’ is really a dislike of penitence, and a going one better than the ‘hams’ trapped in their Calvinistic, psalm-filled gloom.

More substantial, as a poem, is Longley's letter to Mahon, which is more explicit about the Ulster from which any imaginative or spiritual escape is going to be made. The poem has become well-known for the tensions built in to its opening stanzas, where Longley and Mahon are ‘Two poetic conservatives/In the city of guns and long knives’, and where talk of 1969 and Belfast leads Longley to speak of ‘the burnt-out houses of/The Catholics we’d scarcely loved’.13 It is less often remarked that most of the poem takes place outside Northern Ireland, in Inisheer, in an atmosphere made strongly religious by the poet's retrospect. It is not only because this move to the West prefigures what was to be a major shift of geographical focus in much of the poet's later work that the locale of ‘To Derek Mahon’ is suggestive: with that move comes a change is spiritual orientation too—or, at least, the thought of such a change. Heather Clark has given this a fairly straightforward (p. 484) reading, speaking of ‘a political as well as geographical trajectory’, in which ‘the journey to the island symbolizes an attempt to refute the narrow cultural confines of the Protestant community in Belfast and to embrace a more fluid identity, free from sectarianism’. Yet this fails to see that the ‘community’ from which Longley and Mahon are escaping is not one to which they fully belong: even ‘the Catholics we’d scarcely loved’ halts some way from an admission of sectarianism (and Mahon's vehement objection to the sentiment further maintains his own distance from any such ‘narrow cultural confines’).14

‘To Derek Mahon’ is, however, a poem about religion: its course from Belfast to the Aran islands involves Longley in a confrontation with some imaginative impulses that would have to wait a good many years for their fullest artistic expressions in his poetry. The poem records a failure of connection—which is religious as much as cultural—without letting go of the impulse to connect. What exactly is (and isn’t) being connected with is less than clear, and Mahon's sensitivity to sectarian implications can be explained by the poem's slightly anthropological attitude to the Catholic inhabitants of Inisheer. The conclusions offered by Longley are far from being conclusive, but their provisionality is concerned with religion in a way that is not at all ‘sectarian’. ‘We were strangers in that parish’, Longley writes of himself and Mahon:

  • Dank blankets making up our Lent
  • Till, islanders ourselves, we bent
  • Our knees and cut the watery sod
  • From the lazy-bed where slept a God
  • We couldn’t count among our friends,
  • Although we’d taken in our hands
  • Splinters of driftwood nailed and stuck
  • On the rim of the Atlantic.15

All of this on ‘Good Friday years ago’: the Lenten habits are part of a kind of secular observance, a piety at one remove, which intersects confusingly with the remove of two middle-class Northern Irish Protestants among the Catholic people of Inisheer. Confusingly, because confused: Longley's images of bent knees, a God sleeping like Christ before Easter Day, and the ‘nailed and stuck’ ‘Splinters of driftwood’ all feel like religious motifs. ‘Feel like’ is to the point, though; for the religion here is something that has to be imagined, or for which Longley has to make a willing suspension of disbelief, rather than the real thing.

Longley's imaginative toying with faith is not incompatible with certain culturally Protestant bearings. It is useful to remember that even Ulster Protestantism is far from (p. 485) single-minded, and that there are divisions of class as well as denomination at work in the community from which Longley, like Mahon, effected some kind of escape. Longley's memoir of his childhood is very forthcoming about the distance, as well as the proximity, between himself and the working-class children with whom he went to primary school.16 This distance was also one between varieties of Protestantism: to simplify somewhat, the working-class inhabitants of one side of South Belfast's Lisburn Road were less likely (on the whole) to be members of the (Anglican) Church of Ireland than the middle and upper middle classes whose addresses (like the Longleys’) were on the other side of that road. There is an element of the ‘High’ and ‘Low’ Church distinction here—though at times and in places more pronounced than that, for many varieties of evangelical Protestantism with working-class roots in Ulster are profoundly suspicious both of the worship and the presumed politics of the Anglican communion. Longley's ‘Letter’ to Mahon could be read from such a perspective as typical of an upwardly mobile Anglicanism that pines both for Roman sacramentalism and for an escape into the Irish Republic. That Longley is unable to believe in his religious symbolism separates him from the Catholics, true; but that he wants to bask in its aura, to have the feel of it even if he cannot hold to the substance, makes him (in a dissenting Protestant reading) typical of a certain kind of Anglican.

Needless to say, this angle of approach is next to worthless from any sane critical point of view, yet its feasibility as a sectarian response is not irrelevant for the poem, nor for Longley's work more generally. Mahon's 1971 discomfort has many ingredients; but one may be an awareness of the poem's slightly religiose tone, its affected reverence, which puts ‘The Catholics we scarcely loved’, as a phrase, into the bracket of socially superior disdain into which all those who fail to be moved by the pseudo-religious imagery may fall. ‘The back alleys of Belfast’ may be too readily and haughtily left behind in all this. It should be conceded at once that Mahon had his own modes and registers of disdain in his early work, and that these were particularly unsparing in relation to Protestant Ulster; but they were thoroughgoing, where Longley's disdain (if that is what it is) is more particular and self-sparing. Mahon's ‘The Spring Vacation’ (dedicated to Longley) has poet and addressee ‘Rehearsing our astute salvations under/The cold gaze of a sanctimonious God’:17 ‘astute’ is cutting here, and plays against—by seeming at first to play along with—the accepted currency of personal salvation in Protestant religious discourse.18 In a poem which begins ‘Walking among my own this windy morning’, such (p. 486) astuteness is pointed—and it is ‘my own’ and ‘I’ in the first stanza of this poem, even though a first-person plural enters later on: as dedicatee, Longley is being shown something, but Mahon is careful not to presume that everything, or all the force of this particular dynamic of salvation, is something that the two can share. The final stanza, in the poem's original form, is emphatic and, again, self-aware:

  • Poetry and fluent drivel, know your place –
  • Take shape in some more glib environment
  • Away from shipyard, gantry, bolt and rivet.
  • Elsewhere assess existence, ask to what end
  • It tends, wherefore and why. In Belfast live it.19

This ending rings false—the rhyme in the last line is to blame mainly—but Mahon's embittered retort on ‘Poetry and fluent drivel’ does more than just ventriloquize that familiar voice, the philistine Ulster Protestant: the Belfast of ‘shipyard, gantry, bolt and rivet’ is that of Mahon's family past, and the inheritance it offers consists partly in this ability to turn the intellect back viciously upon itself, so that poetry's distance from, or proximity to, ‘fluent drivel’ is never a matter about which the poet can be quite certain. This is a long way from Longley's world, and its register is altogether harder and more dangerous.

That habit of aggressive self-challenge is inherited from dissenting Protestantism. There, a continual dissatisfaction with the individual's performance in the business of life and living is countered by the provision of an absolute standard of reliability in words that are the opposite of ‘drivel’ in that they are the fixed and unchanging words of Scripture. Mahon's contact with fundamentalist Protestantism may or may not have been close (his time as a child singing in the choir for the Church of Ireland does not argue for such intimacy), but it was pervasive even so; partly, this may be a matter of class and geography. The evidence for this comes in poems like ‘Matthew V. 29–30’ (a Beckettian reductio ad absurdum of ‘Lord, mine eye offended, so I plucked it out’); in the many poems of apocalyptic extremity and ecological endtime preaching which are to be found in both his early and later career; and in the gravitation towards questions of salvation in terms of ‘life’ and what it is to ‘live’ which continues to be notable in Mahon's work.20 If there is one motif, in fact, which unites earlier and later Mahon, it is the insistence that we must be born again. In the poet's case, which for all his reticence in terms of interviews and reminiscence is in the poetry figured in clearly autobiographical terms, this is a matter of escaping from the perceived restrictions of family and inward-looking community into a wide world of different friends, places, and cultural assumptions. But Mahon has never been in any doubt that in following the way of artistic salvation, the price to be paid is giving up all one has, forsaking father and mother just as surely as any born-again fundamentalist preacher.

(p. 487) ‘ “Songs of Praise” ’, a study of ‘The proud parishioners of the outlying parts’ on display for ‘the outside broadcast cameras’, which survives as a two-stanza poem in Mahon's 1999 Collected Poems, originally had two further stanzas:

  • Never look back, they said; but they were wrong.
  • The zinc wave-dazzle after a night of rain,
  • A washed-out sky humming with stars, the mist
  • And echoing fog-horns of the soul, belong
  • To our lost lives. We must be born again,
  • As the gable-ends of the seaside towns insist;
  • And so we were, to look back constantly
  • On that harsh landscape and its procreant sea,
  • Bitter and curative, as tonight we did,
  • Listening to our own nearly-voices chime
  • In the parochial lives we might have led,
  • Praising a stony god who died before our time.21

‘Our lost lives’ are perhaps lives well lost; and the ‘And so we were’ response with which the last stanza begins offers a sardonic response to the ‘Ye must be born again’ injunction that Mahon remembers from the religious graffiti of Northern Ireland. But the poem also admits tacitly that the looking back which being born again, in a fundamentalist Christian sense, absolutely rules out is actually part of the condition of this other kind of spiritual rebirth, as a compulsion ‘to look back constantly’. These stanzas are remarkable, in that they bring together the imaginative landscape and weatherscape that is so typical of Mahon with a great degree of frankness about the location of such a thing, and its meaning. ‘Our own nearly-voices’ are not the same as voices that are nearly our own: for these voices aren’t our own, but it is ‘our own’ voices that are ‘nearly-voices’ in response to them. This is what comes of being unable to resist the compulsion to look back, Mahon suggests, and the poem itself, as it retreats to the judgemental comfort of an adjective like ‘parochial’, is no more than a near-voicing of what must not, finally, be voiced. For all that, the loss of these stanzas is one of the poet's severest acts of artistic self-mutilation, in an oeuvre which, as a whole, is arguably too much inclined to ruthless self-harm.

Questions of career-long development have been fraught ones in Mahon's critical reception, and will probably continue to be so. In Michael Longley's case, the received narrative of artistic development is something altogether smoother and less problematic: the assured artistic finish and integrity of the early work transforms with an exemplary slowness into an ever more profound moral focus that finds its idiom in precision of detail, pastoral elegance, and a classically underpinned tragic gravity of regard. There is much to be said for this reading of Longley's career, and there can be no arguing with the huge achievements of his best lyric work—which are by no means confined to any particular phase in that career. Yet artistic success can lead also to the distortion of critical understanding and the underestimation of factors which both contribute to the (p. 488) work's genesis and loom large in the poems themselves. Protestantism, for Longley's critics, is one such comparative blind spot. If this seems ironic in the light of the treatment Longley received from some American and Southern Irish commentators early in his writing life (when his work, if noticed at all, was read in terms of a bigoted notion of the Protestant North), it is nonetheless true that Longley's Protestant origins are now taken for granted in ways that fail to discriminate the nuances—religious, social, and broadly cultural—that are so important in establishing the pitch of his mature lyric imagination.

It is important to remember that Longley's work is not haunted—as Mahon's is—by the legacy of fundamentalist religion, and that no Calvinist shadows fall across its vistas. One aspect of this is that anxieties about the value of words—their uses, their potential ambiguities, and their real dangers—are not paralleled in his imagination by the long history of inflexible commitment to the Word of Scripture: this is closer to Mahon because Mahon is socially closer to the kind of Protestantism in which it has played so large a role. It might seem a curiosity of Longley's work that his habits of reverence are not matched by any visible anxiety about the adequacy of words to express that reverence. Descriptive fidelity (especially in Longley's nature poetry) can be extreme, but of course it is never in any danger of seeming extremist; still, the significance such a thing possesses for Longley goes far beyond matters of botanical accuracy. In Longley's poetry there is a direct relation between style and reverence; and to ask about the nature and meaning of that reverence is an unusually hard task.

It may be that Longley's increasing tendency to a religiously tinged reverence should be thought of in specifically denominational terms, as an Anglican habit. A broad brush applying itself to this possibility would portray Longley's pastoral poetry as the creation of places with particular religious associations—expressed in terms of intimate family, and lovingly observed flora and fauna—where there is an indirectly devotional function to be played out. It would also see commemoration as a central activity, where private meditation understands and performs with dignity its public meaning: hence, the legacy of the Great War and that of the Northern Irish Troubles are elements in a process of formal collective remembering. All of this makes Longley—in terms of the Protestant spectrum—an established poet who sounds very like the once-established Church. The point could descend readily into caricature, and become merely silly; but the stylistic features of Longley's lyrics do in fact require scrutiny of their commitment to the seriousness of what they perform and voice.

Longley's later work shows a marked increase in the proportion of poems that announce themselves as in one way or another performative: the poet ‘names’ things repeatedly in this verse, often ‘for’ an addressee. At the same time, the work from Gorse Fires (1991) onwards has a long line that seems to gravitate towards lists of proper nouns, so that it becomes itself an act of naming, pronouncing particular things one after the other in a cadenced (and often very beautiful) way.22 The effect is more than casually (p. 489) liturgical. The brilliance of the aesthetic result might be seen as begging the question of why the poet's voice needs to be exercised in quite this way. Similarly, the growing proportion of Longley's lyrics that are very short (with the single-quatrain poem becoming a favourite form) raises difficulties that persist beyond pleasant sensations delivered by the poems themselves: what appears inconsequential can’t really be inconsequential, but to discover the meaning a reader has to receive the minimalist voice with the kind of attentive reverence that matches what the poems themselves are generally up to with the natural world. When little poems speak to each other, in common images and angles of perception, across and between whole volumes, something that means to be consequential is certainly going on. But the reverence required can shade into the reverence that is being laid on:

  •       A Prayer
  • In our country they are desecrating churches.
  • May the rain that pours in pour into the font.
  • Because no snowflake ever falls in the wrong place,
  • May snow lie on the altar like an altar cloth.23

‘May the …’ is the sign of a certain confidence: the rain will assuredly pour into the font because that is exactly what a poem like this can make happen, and the poet's voice here is officiating in its own ceremonial world. The hushed atmosphere is a function of the poem's brevity: the quatrain has become a special space, sacred to the lyric voice—where else, really, could ‘no snowflake ever falls in the wrong place’ sound like anything other than cod wisdom? In truth, nothing falls out wrong in the holy places of later Longley, simply because everything is so completely under the performative voice's control.

To a hostile Protestant reading—an unreformedly sectarian one—all of this would be the stylistic proof of a deep-seated Anglicanism in Longley, one which allows him to appropriate religious symbolism and ceremony even though he does not accept the metaphysical claims of Christianity itself. For many generations in Ulster, this has been a dominant dissenting view of Anglicanism (in love with ultimately Catholic rites and procedures, but too timid to say what it really believes, and too firmly buttressed by privilege to have any need to do so). To press this line further, an antagonistic Protestant view of Anglicanism would contend that words are being treated as merely vehicles of the authority that speaks them, and not as having an inherent and unchallengeable authority in themselves: ultimately, though, they may be no more than ‘poetry and fluent drivel’, which really cannot tell rain where to fall, nor snow where to lie.

We may seem to be back, with this argument, to the philistinism of Protestant Ulster. Yet dismissing it as philistinism risks allowing poetry too generous a licence with reality, and poetic authority too wide a remit. A residual belief in the potency of the Word might be salutary rather than purely debilitating, and might even suggest ways in which poetic achievement can be assessed against the real situations from which it derives. There have (p. 490) been many poets other than Longley and Mahon for whom the possibilities of personality in verse have been fraught with risk; and one of the riskiest beliefs has always been that since style expresses personality, the right kind of personality will issue in the right kind of style. The terrible dip in Mahon's achievement comes with The Hudson Letter (1995) and The Yellow Book (1997), volumes which buy in to the notion that poetic personality can be figured as a kind of literary talk-show performance, losing in the process the stylistic tension and compression that had enabled his finest lyrics. Criticize the style, and you criticize the man.24 One way of understanding this problem is to remember how far James Simmons believed in the direct path between literary expression and human worth. His thoughts on the matter are not of special value because of his own literary eminence (or indeed lack of it), but because they draw from the Protestantism which—at origin, at least—he and Longley have in common. Here is Simmons, for example, on the ethical shortcomings of Modernism:

The positive side of Modernism is that it tries to involve the whole energy and intellect of a man in the poem; but the negative side is that it permits the arrogant or confused to bully language or to indulge in obscurity. It allows failure to seem challenging when it is the poet who has failed the challenge, not the reader.25

Again (from the same piece), ‘I make no apology for thinking clarity and cogency to be of the essence of good writing …. I have always taken the sensibility of the writer to be what one is after as a reader, to be in touch with interesting people, people of spiritual authority.’26 These crisply expressed attitudes might easily be aligned with what could be called a Longleyan aesthetic; though the ascription of ‘spiritual authority’ to ‘interesting people’ is looser than anything either of the Longleys would deem allowable (even though Simmons is ascribing it, in this case, to none other than Derek Mahon). The ideas might just as easily be seen as a kind of Protestant aesthetic, of commitment to the freedom of conscience as something expressed supremely in the ‘clarity and cogency’ of a fully functioning written language.

(p. 491) Those Simmons remarks come in the context of his extended (and sometimes painfully gauche) attack on a Seamus Heaney at the height of his international success. Perhaps, in their way, they constitute something approaching sectarian literary criticism: certainly, they are poor criticism of Heaney. For all that, Simmons understood something of the deep distinctions between the different models of authority which are culturally transmitted in Ulster, and have their most obvious manifestations in different kinds of Christianity, and he was willing to find the evidence for this in the literary styles of those who, if asked, would profess no particular attachment to religious belief.

There may, in other words, be ‘Catholic’ and ‘Protestant’ kinds of poetry. In the work of Longley and Mahon, the ‘Protestant’ elements are in different combinations and at different strengths, but are there nevertheless. That aspects of this sectarian inheritance have been disowned by both poets is clear enough, and is often to the good; though some things left behind in the development of both writers’ careers have been more valuable, and might have prevented some weaker pieces of each poet's later work. It remains the case that Northern Irish poetry has benefited enormously from the challenges and constraints presented by the verbal and imaginative context of the Protestant experience, while it has not always been the stronger for the loosening of those constraints in lyric poetry's repeated engagements between reality and art. In the best work of these poets, Protestant elements mean that a sceptical view of ‘art’ can be as productive as a certain disdain for ‘reality’ in understanding the lives we lead, and might have led.


(1) Derek Mahon, letter to Michael Longley, December 1971, Michael Longley papers, Emory University, quoted in Heather Clark, The Ulster Renaissance: Poetry in Belfast 1962–1972 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 187.

(2) Derek Mahon, ‘Art and Reality: for James Simmons, obit 20/6/01’, An Autumn Wind (Oldcastle: Gallery, 2010), 43.

(3) Derek Mahon, ‘The Hudson Letter XVIII: The Small Rain’ (1995), Collected Poems (Oldcastle: Gallery, 1999), 222.

(4) Michael Longley, ‘White Water’, Collected Poems (London: Jonathan Cape, 2006), 322.

(5) A Latin phrase from the Vulgate version of Romans 8:35, ‘Quis separabit’ has been, variously, the motto of some Irish regiments, that of the Northern Ireland coat of arms, and the paramilitary UDA. In 1982, in one of his most brilliant early critical performances, Tom Paulin homed in on the centrality of ‘separation’ in the thought and vocabulary of Ian Paisley: see his ‘Paisley's Progress’, Writing to the Moment: Selected Critical Essays 1980–1996 (London: Faber, 1996), 28–47.

(6) For the complexities behind, and in, Paulin's artistic uses of this caricature, see Peter McDonald, Mistaken Identities: Poetry and Northern Ireland (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), ch. 4.

(7) John Hewitt, ‘The Bitter Gourd: Some Problems of the Ulster Writer’ (1945), Ancestral Voices: The Selected Prose of John Hewitt, ed. Tom Clyde (Belfast: Blackstaff, 1987), 115.

(8) Headnote in Patrick Crotty, ed., Modern Irish Poetry: An Anthology (Belfast: Blackstaff, 1995), 191.

(9) James Simmons, ‘Didn’t He Ramble’, Poems 1956–1986 (Dublin: Gallery; Newcastle: Bloodaxe, 1986), 95.

(10) James Simmons, ‘ “The Recipe for all Misfortunes, Courage”: A Study of Three Works by Ulster Protestant Authors: Apostate by Forrest Reid, Castle Corner by Joyce Cary and December Bride by Sam Hanna Bell’, in Across a Roaring Hill: The Protestant Imagination in Modern Ireland, ed. Gerald Dawe and Edna Longley (Belfast: Blackstaff, 1985), 97–8.

(11) Fran Brearton, ‘Poetry of the 1960s: The “Northern Ireland Renaissance” ’, in The Cambridge Companion to Contemporary Irish Poetry, ed. Matthew Campbell (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 109.

(12) Longley, ‘To James Simmons’, Collected Poems, 56.

(13) Longley, ‘To Derek Mahon’, Collected Poems, 58.

(14) Heather Clark, The Ulster Renaissance, 168. The line was originally ‘The Catholics we scarcely loved’: Derek Mahon wrote to the New Statesman on 10 December 1971, after the poem's appearance there, to declare the line's ‘implications … frankly untrue, if not damaging’, and also privately to Longley to protest. See Clark, 185–6. See also Fran Brearton, Reading Michael Longley (Tarset: Bloodaxe, 2006), 86–92.

(15) Longley, Collected Poems, 59.

(16) See Michael Longley, Tuppenny Stung : Autobiographical Chapters (Belfast: Lagan, 1994), 24–8.

(17) Derek Mahon, ‘The Spring Vacation’, Poems 1962–1978 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), 4. The poem's title in Mahon's first collection, Night-Crossing (1968), was ‘In Belfast (for Michael Longley)’. In Mahon's Collected Poems (1999) and New Collected Poems (2011), the title is ‘Spring in Belfast’.

(18) Hugh Haughton, in his The Poetry of Derek Mahon (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), revealingly takes ‘our astute salvations’ not to include the poet (or Longley) at all, writing of Mahon's ‘fellow citizens, rehearsing their “astute salvations” ’ (34): this is so keen to congratulate the young Mahon on his distance from ‘a stifling ethos of Protestant self-control’ that it fails to notice the word ‘our’, in which the poet's own brand of self-control is brilliantly manifested.

(19) Icarus 42 (March 1964), 42.

(20) Mahon's volume titles include Lives (1971) and Life on Earth (2008).

(21) Derek Mahon, Courtyards in Delft (Dublin: Gallery, 1981), 17.

(22) See John Lyon, ‘Michael Longley's Lists’, English, 45:183 (Autumn 1996), 228–46.

(23) Michael Longley, The Weather in Japan (2000), Collected Poems, 253.

(24) Haughton's The Poetry of Derek Mahon is the most energetic of the defences of these two volumes. Its value is limited, like that of the book as a whole, by the sense of vocation which comes occasionally to critics devoting themselves to a particular Irish poet: this means that every new volume must contribute to an upwards line of artistic development, and explanation of what the poet intends to do stands in for critical evaluation of what is actually achieved. Haughton reacts to objections to these volumes by simply taking offence on behalf of his author: quoting my own objections to Mahon's self-description as ‘a recovering Ulster Protestant’, Haughton laments that ‘it has been hard for critics to grapple with the differences between earlier and later Mahon’ (312); yet it seems to have been harder still for Haughton himself, who cannot perceive anything other than a smooth development and steady increase of worth in the work. Haughton's own exploration of Mahon's phrase gives a good sense of his ability to absorb and accept prejudice: ‘[Mahon's] later intellectual life can be seen as an attempt to recover from—and resist—his early experience of life in Belfast. The mobility, intellectual scepticism, and aesthetic panache of his work offer a concerted protest against his home culture.’ (12) In so far as later Mahon shares this kind of complacency, it contributes to a lessening in the quality of his poetry; his early work provides all the evidence needed to undermine its assumptions.

(25) James Simmons, ‘The Trouble with Seamus’, in Seamus Heaney: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Elmer Kennedy-Andrews (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1992), 46.

(26) Ibid., 43, 45.