Heaney’s ‘‘Follower’’ laments the loss of contact with a tradition of family, of place, and of long ages past that nevertheless sits beneath and sustains his poetical work. The boundary between the traditional way of life that has shaped human culture and modernity was drawn for the educated classes of Europe toward the end of the eighteenth century. The change from tradition to modernity has come to the rest of the world as each place has contacted and absorbed modern Western culture. For Heaney it came when he won a scholarship to St. Columb’s Catholic boarding school in Derry and he was thrust from the family farm into a new world of learning. ‘‘Follower’’ is about the loss of tradition. In fact, the main theme of Heaney’s poetic career is the sense of loss that accompanies moving away from tradition. His poems often focus on the details of his family life in his childhood before his personal break with tradition. He has tried to create an English in his poems accessible to modern audiences, but nevertheless drawn equally from the language heard in his childhood from family and neighbors, and from the heroic and archaic AngloSaxon he studied at university. He sees the unity between those two roots of his language not in their shared tradition, which is slight, but in their shared possession of a tradition in contrast to the more artificial language of polite English society, often called BBC English because it is recognized as the creation of a specific and very modern consensus. For this reason the magnum opus of the latter part of Heaney’s career is the translation of the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, which he rendered into the remembered language of his youth. Through that work, adaptations of Irish myth (Sweeney Astray, 1983), and Greek dramas (The Cure at Troy, 1990; The Burial at Thebes, 2004), Heaney attempts to speak in the lost idiom of tradition.
But what is this tradition whose loss so concerns Heaney? Tradition is the story that a culture tells about itself, that defines itself and expresses the hopes and aspirations of a people. Tradition tells this story not only in the words of poets but in every moment of life, as Heaney insists, even in the farmer plowing and digging. Tradition is true in the sense of giving an expression of cultural identity. However, it may well contain historical, mythological, or folkloric information that is not factually true from the viewpoint of logic or from a scientific examination of evidence. The apparent falsification of tradition by academic investigation does not make it any less vital. Balancing the idea of a tradition as true with the fact that it is not true makes it impossible for modern people to participate in tradition unself-consciously, as premodern people did, and leads to alienation from tradition. The alienation of modernity arises from the perception that life in a modern industrializing society fragmented tradition, that capitalism replaced class structure with class warfare, and that science and the Enlightenment held up traditional social institutions and their associated belief systems to ridicule. The bonds between man and God become ignorant superstition, the corruption of Church officials, and intolerance for freedom of thought; the bonds of man to man become the oppressive tyranny of medieval social hierarchy; the bonds of man to the world become a hindrance to scientific exploration and commercial exploitation. A man like Heaney, who desperately longs for tradition, can never participate in it again once the modern world has cast him out of his Eden; he must forever be a stranger in his own land. Modern people are doomed to stand apart from tradition and examine it from the outside, seeing through it and around it, but never again within it.
Poetry itself was one of the traditions most dramatically and directly effected by the rise of the modern world. In the traditional world, the poet of the sort who composed Beowulf is a bard. He does not tell the story of himself or of any particular individual but composes epics, or tales of a mythic hero who encounters gods and monsters. He tells the myths and legends that define the very nature of his own culture. He cannot read or write but rather composes his songs through repetition and other literary devices of the oral tradition. Though his artistry is free to shape the brilliance of each performance, he does not speak in his own voice, but in a metalanguage of lines and half-lines of verse composed by generations of bards before him, all of which he holds in his memory, selecting and recombining them into new songs the way ordinary speakers make sentences out of words. The bard holds an honored place within the social hierarchy that governs traditional society, patronized by nobles and kings, but is gratefully heard by the people as a whole at festivals and singing competitions. In the twenty-first century, however, the modern sort of poet must speak in his own unique voice and must speak only his own story: only that isolated truth is given value. The contemporary poet’s relationship to his own culture is one of alienation and conflict. He is cut off from tradition. In this sense, he could not compose a true epic even if he desired to; he could, however, write about the impossibility of composing an epic. Contemporary poetry is, for the most part, read only by other poets and academics (Heaney is the great exception to this, and accounts for about two-thirds of all poetry books sold in the United Kingdom.) Forced by circumstance to be one sort of poet, Heaney perhaps longs to be the other.
Reaction against the alienation of traditional European culture effected by the advent of modernity was not long in coming in the form of the romantic movement of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In the twenty-first century, romanticism is considered a literary movement, but the intellectual force behind it, especially in such philosophical figures as Goethe, Schiller, and Wordsworth, recognized the transformation of culture that was happening. Many positive developments, especially for the individual, came with modernity: increased personal freedom, the intellectual certainties of science, modern sanitation, improvements in medicine, the phenomenal growth of knowledge in general, and many other advances. But the romantics nevertheless felt that something was being lost with the passing of tradition. What they aimed at was a logical syllogism, or deductive reasoning, where the thesis of tradition and the antithesis of modernity (both good things by themselves, though in radically different and mutually contradictory ways) could be reconciled because the elementary basis of tradition was still harbored within the soul of humankind. This reconciliation would then produce a wholly new synthesis that would supersede and at the same time combine the best parts of both. However, the synthesis eluded the romantics and modern culture has become increasingly distant from tradition.
More recent mainstream reactions to modernity, which may be roughly equated with postmodernism, hold that meaning is more and more invested with the individual and his perception of the world, rather than any objective reality. Even in the case of texts, authorial intent matters little compared to the critic’s perception. Each individual is left alone to create his own world, finally and utterly cut free of the anchor of tradition. A different reaction to modernity is traditionalism. This is a marginal political movement that began at the start of the twentieth century in southern Europe, particularly with the writings of the French intellectual Rene´ Gue´non (1886– 1951) and the German-Swiss philosopher Frithjof Schuon (1907–98). The principles of traditionalism hold that human life derives its meaning from being enmeshed in a tradition that goes back to the earliest civilizations and beyond, ultimately to a source of supernatural revelation such as the Judeo-Christian Bible, the Koran, or the Chinese I-Ching; traditionalism considers all religions to be equally valid expressions of tradition. Traditionalism is less willing than romanticism to compromise with modernity or to see the good in it, but, at the same time, traditionalism lacks any definite answer to the problem of modernity and advocates waiting and preserving tradition, especially links to traditional institutions, insofar as possible until conditions change, making a revival of tradition possible.
Though today it is difficult to see how it could be brought about, traditionalism seeks nothing less than a different modernity, one that develops in support of, rather than in opposition to, tradition. This view has gained more support in the Islamic world as a political adjunct of the Sufi school than in Western Europe or the United States. The great voice of traditionalism has been the English poet Kathleen Raine (1908– 2003), who used ancient Greek and Christian traditions to express the particularities of her experience, producing a body of work that is in many ways comparable to Heaney’s.
Heaney has never associated himself with the traditionalist movement, and given its marginal place in European politics and intellectual life, he may well not even know of its existence. In fact, Heaney has eschewed all involvement with politics since the beginning of the Troubles in Northern Ireland in the 1970s. As he says in his Nobel address, later published as Crediting Poetry, ‘‘We have terrible proof that pride in the ethnic and religious heritage can quickly degrade into the fascistic.’’ In this way he distances himself from traditionalism as political activism, avoiding the trap some traditionalists fell into. Nevertheless, Heaney’s ideas share many features in common with premises of traditionalism. His poetry is rooted in a specific place, and in the history of that place. In his Nobel lecture, he expressed this in describing a vivid accident that occurred on the morning the announcement of his Nobel Prize was made. He happened to be in Sparta and saw in the museum there a plaque dedicated to the mythical poet Orpheus:
“The image moved me because of its antiquity and durability, but the description on the card moved me also because it gave a name and credence to that which I see myself as having been engaged upon for the past three decades: ‘‘Votive panel,’’ the identification card said, ‘‘possibly set up to Orpheus by local poet. Local work of the Hellenistic period.’’”
He does not limit inspiration to the single place of Derry or Ireland that is his. The voice of each place is equally valid:
“But it strikes me that it could equally well come out of India or Africa or the Arctic or the Americas. By which I do not mean merely to consign it to the typology of folktales, or to dispute its value by questioning its culture-bound status within a multicultural context. On the contrary, its trustworthiness and its travel-worthiness have to do with its local setting.”
For Heaney, as for the traditionalist, the tradition of any place is as fit a subject of poetry as any other. Heaney’s concept of crediting poetry is not an appreciation of poetry, or merely belief in its beauty and importance, but rather a way to use poetry to reattach to the anchor of tradition and stand against the shifting currents of the postmodern world. ‘‘What I was longing for was not quite stability but an active escape from the quicksand of relativism, a way of crediting poetry without anxiety or apology,’’ Heaney explained in his Nobel address. He wishes to embrace poetry without distancing thought from consideration, just as the ancient bards had done, though he knows that as a modern person he cannot do so. Heaney sees himself as another kind of traditional writer, the medieval monk, preserving a tradition he cannot advance. He described it thus to the Nobel audience:
“ . . . For years I was bowed to the desk like some monk bowed over his prie-dieu, some dutiful contemplative pivoting his understanding in an attempt to bear his portion of the weight of the world, knowing himself incapable of heroic virtue or redemptive effect, but constrained by his obedience to his rule to repeat the effort and the posture.”
Heaney is a pygmy standing on the shoulders of giants; using a different metaphor, he cannot build a fire himself (that is, write an epic poem), but must content himself with ‘‘blowing up sparks for a meagre heat,’’ as he put it in his Nobel address, in other words, with writing the poetry that he does. At the same time, he is aware that many elements of modernity have grown into monstrous giants themselves and make poetry seem feeble. He wants a poetry that can equal the modern world, a poetry that would have to be myth, the literary form of tradition, and could support and create a different reality than the modern.
In the first poem in Death of a Naturalist, ‘‘Digging,’’ Heaney establishes the profession of his father as digging, whether the small scale farming that was his main profession, or in the vegetable garden, or in his outside work cutting peat from a bog. He notes the excellence of his father in this work, a quality that is ancestral in the family going back generations. Heaney himself, however, is detached from this tradition. He does not work with a spade but with a pen. Nevertheless, he feels the imperative to continue in the same ancient tradition: he must dig with his pen. He can no longer participate in the tradition of his family, of his place, but must— not can, but must—instead keep the tradition alive through writing it. It is in this sense that Heaney is the follower of his father, even as he goes on where his father cannot follow. In ‘‘Follower’’ Heaney proclaims himself the follower of tradition, but is nevertheless forced to move away from a tradition that cannot follow him into the modern world.
Poetry for Students, Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Volume 30, Seamus Heaney, Gale Cengage Learning, 2009
Bradley A. Skeen, Critical Essay on ‘‘Follower,’’ in Poetry for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2009