Seamus Heaney’s Opened Ground: Selected Poems 1966–1996[1] makes it possible to form something like a comprehensive picture of the Irish poet’s work. Slowly but unmistakably over the past thirty years, Heaney has emerged as our major English-language poet. The diffidence and caution with which he has asserted his claim as a master of the art, however, may have stood in the way of readers’ grasping what has piece by piece been accumulating since the publication of his first book in 1966.

If I were to pick one word to characterize the overall tenor of Heaney’s poetry, that word would be “balance.” His mission has been to reconcile opposing demands, both within the culture of Northern Ireland— which he has taken pains to define and imaginatively realign—and within himself. Like no poet since Robert Frost, he has been eloquent on behalf of...


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