These lectures were delivered by Seamus Heaney while he was Professor of Poetry at Oxford University. In the first of them, Heaney discusses and celebrates poetry's special ability to redress spiritual balance and to function as a counterweight to hostile and oppressive forces in the world. He proceeds to explore how this 'redress' manifests itself in a diverse range of poems and poets, including Christopher Marlowe's 'Hero and Leander', 'The Midnight Court' by the eighteenth-century Irish poet Brian Merriman, John Clare's vernacular writing and Oscar Wilde's 'The Ballad of Reading Gaol'. Several twentieth-century poets are also discussed - W. B. Yeats, Dylan Thomas, Elizabeth Bishop and others - and the whole book constitutes a vivid proof of the claim that 'poetry is strong enough to help'.
The 10 essays on poetry collected here, adapted from lectures delivered at Oxford between 1989 and 1994, display much of the intellectual restlessness, linguistic wizardry and political conscience that have shaped Heaney's own poetry. His thesis is that poetry of the highest order must redress social imbalances, at once transfiguring the circumstances it observes and offering an unforeseen, more humane, aesthetic alternative. This is an abstract and rigorous idea, yet nonacademic readers will find much to savor as Heaney tests and refines his paradigm in light of a largely canonical selection of poets (most are from the British Isles). Ranging freely from a brief life of each poet to a close reading of a few poems by him or her, he addresses, for instance, how Elizabeth Bishop's ``One Art'' assuages the ``loss'' to which it alludes; how Christopher Marlowe's ``Hero and Leander'' ``extended the alphabet'' of Elizabethan sexual mores; and how 19th-century rustic poet John Clare achieved a truly lyrical local idiom at odds with official English. With their palpable evocation of the writing process and their disavowal of jargon and trendy political abstractions, these are exemplary essays--and tell us much about the influences and obsessions of this year's Nobel laureate in literature.