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Heaney, Pascoli and the Ends of Poetry

  • Author(s): Falconer, Rachel
  • et al.

What are the ends of poetry in times when humanity has to face up to the possibility of nature’s finitude and our own lethal capacity to bring about its end? The Northern Irish poet Seamus Heaney has been invoked as an example of an environmentalist poet whose later writing addresses issues of climate change and ecological disaster. I would like to argue for a more nuanced approach to Heaney’s late poetry which, I believe, does powerfully address our relation to the natural world, but it does so on its own, internally generated terms. Heaney invites us to think more broadly about the ends—or the good, or telos—of poetry, and its ability to align us with our fundamental, rhythmic, patterned, human, and natural senses of being. His conviction of the serious purpose of poetry, in my view, transcends the current, in-house divisions of ecocriticism. It also restores a sense of poetry as playful, pleasurable, and health-enhancing to the individual reader or poet. To advance this argument, I will analyse a little-discussed late work: The Last Walk (2013), which is Heaney’s posthumously published translation of Pascoli’s “L’ultima passeggiata.” This sequence of slight, finely turned poems, while celebrating the rhythms of rural life, are far removed from any explicitly political or environmentalist agenda. Yet they reveal much about Heaney’s aesthetics and ethics as he faced his own end, preparing this translation in the last months of his life.  The second part of the essay considers the translation in the light of other writing by the Irish poet, and suggests how, without locking him into an explicit political or theoretical agenda, we might read his poetry from an environmental perspective.

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