Book review: One Wide Expanse

MICHAEL LONGLEY is one of the most popular Irish poets of the modern era. 

Michael Longley

University College Dublin Press and The Ireland Chair of Poetry

Opinionated yet calm, cushioned within the Ulster establishment yet as liberal as any dissident, he has drawn thousands of readers to his poetry of fearsome integrity.

He endured Belfast during the Troubles, accepting his lot in the sure knowledge that Ulster was home and Ulster was the only homeland his young family understood.

We who live so far south have no idea what he endured during those years; it was an era when young middle-class Ulster couples answered the doorbell together, so that they might die together if the caller was a gunman.

If Belfast writers seem to have an uncanny moral strength, a strength that seems to give them a career advantage, it’s just that they’ve twice survived a Blitz: first it was the Luftwaffe and then it was the terrorists. An Emergency or a Bank Crisis is no match for that blue rinse of Ulster endurance.

One Wide Expanse is an inspired title, combining as it does the memory of Keats’ great sonnet

‘Oft of one wide expanse had I been told

That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne;

Yet did I never breathe its pure serene

Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold ...’

Unlike poor Keats, Longley knows his Greek; his Chapman being the great WB Stanford of TCD. 

Stanford, it must be said, is one of the few Irish Classical scholars to rescue the memory of Francis Sylvester Mahony/Father Prout from our contemporary Cork sea of ignorance.

In Stanford’s Ireland and the Classical Tradition Mahony’s Reliques of Father Prout is particularly honoured. 

Such was the intellectual depth of the man who deepened Longley’s encounter with Homer, an encounter that had begun at Belfast Institute where he already owned a well-thumbed copy of Stanford’s Odyssey.

“I have been haunted by Homer for 50 years,” says Longley in a terrific lecture printed here, one of the three lectures that were part of his duty as Ireland Professor of Poetry. This book contains all three lectures, with accompanying bibliography and notes on texts.

These books from the Ireland Chair of Poetry will, over time, constitute a prodigious handbook of poetic craft. 

Longley is particularly unsentimental and searching, showing us here, for example, how the template laid down by Homer created an aesthetic through which he could handle the Troubles imaginatively. 

Poetry in conflict is always problematic; the secret is to hold the rhetoric back, to be more like Yeats and less like Pearse, to be more like Auden and less like John Cornford, to be more like Lowell and less like Fr Berrigan.

While patriots and activists may be passionately sincere, poetry needs more than that — passive suffering is never enough.

In Longley’s case, The Shankill Butchers of Martin Dillon’s book become transfigured as Homer’s Odyssean crew slaughtering the suitors in Book XXII of The Odyssey; and Book XXIV where Hermes accompanies the ghosts of the slaughtered into the Underworld.

This poem astonished its first readers. In the August of the IRA ceasefire in 1994, Longley was reading that part of the Odyssey where King Priam visits the tent of Achilles to recover the body of his slaughtered son Hector: ‘I get down on my knees and do what must be done/And kiss Achilles’ hand, the killer of my son’. No further comment is necessary, as they say. But this is Michael Longley’s immense subtle power.

The same power is recorded in the other lectures here. What may have begun as a very fine idea to record the voices of these distinguished poet-Professors has now developed into a UCD master-class on the craft of poetry.


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