Edited by Eugene O’Brien
“The Soul Exceeds its Circumstances” brings together sixteen of the most prominent scholars who have written on Seamus Heaney to examine the Nobel Prize winner’s later poetry from a variety of critical and theoretical perspectives. While a great deal of attention has been devoted to Heaney’s early and middle poems—the Bog Poems in particular—this book focuses on the poetry collected in Heaney’s Seeing Things (1991), The Spirit Level (1996), Electric Light (2001), District and Circle (2006), and Human Chain (2010) as a thematically connected set of writings. The starting point of the essays in this collection is that these later poems can be grouped in terms of style, theme, approach, and intertextuality. They develop themes that were apparent in Heaney’s earlier work, but they also break with these themes and address issues that are radically different from those of the earlier collections.
The essays are divided into five sections, focusing on ideas of death, the later style, translation and transnational poetics, luminous things and gifts, and usual and unusual spaces. A number of the contributors see Heaney as stressing the literary over the actual and as always looking at the interstices and positions of liminality and complexity. His use of literary references in his later poetry exemplifies his search for literary avatars against whom he can test his own ideas and with whom he can enter into an aesthetic and ethical dialogue.
The essayists cover a great deal of Heaney’s debts to classical and modern literature—in the original languages and in translations—and demonstrate the degree to which the streets on which Heaney walked and wrote were two-way: he was influenced by Virgil, Petrarch, Milosz, Wordsworth, Keats, Rilke, and others and, in turn, had an impact on contemporary poets. This remarkable collection will appeal to scholars and literary critics, undergraduates as well as graduate students, and to the many general readers of Heaney’s poetry.
“The scope and remit of ‘The Soul Exceeds Its Circumstances’ position it to make a welcome and timely contribution to scholarship on Seamus Heaney, whose death in 2013 brought to an end over five decades of creative output. Eugene O’Brien’s decision to devote a collection of essays to the later poetry thus promises to fill a gap in ‘Heaney Studies,’ extending coverage and suggesting some new directions in critical methodology.” — Jason David Hall, University of Exeter
“This sparklingly rich collection offers many inviting pathways into Seamus Heaney’s late work, at once pointing up its cohesiveness and variousness. Heaney’s turn to the aerial in his final collections is shown to go hand in hand with a renewed interest in the literary and the everyday, the numinous and the mundane. The incisive and illuminating essays in this volume prove that Heaney’s poetry, in Yeatsian manner, operated at the highest pitch to the very end, ever-gaining in depth, plangency, and philosophical reach. Heaney emerges here as one of the supreme practitioners of late style of the twenty-first century.” — Anne Fogarty, Professor of James Joyce Studies, University College Dublin
“The later poetry of Seamus Heaney has been less widely read and valued than his earlier work. In part, that is understandable. His early poems stunned and delighted and challenged readers of contemporary poetry, establishing Heaney as a poet of astonishing grace, originality, and depth. Now Eugene O’Brien has gathered a remarkable array of critics to reconsider and celebrate the later poems, which demand a great deal of readers. I was moved by these essays and driven back to the poems themselves. There is a whole world to open here, and these writers have begun the task of revelation. This is a hugely important work, and it should draw the attention of readers who care about modern and contemporary poetry.” — Jay Parini, author of New and Collected Poems, 1975–2015