Human Chain

In Sense and Sensibility, the favourite poet of passionate young Marianne Dashwood is William Cowper. His "beautiful lines", she declares, have "frequently almost driven me wild". Readers who are led to Cowper by Marianne will, however, be surprised to find him a moderate, pre-Romantic sort on the whole, writing of picturesque pleasures but always returning home for afternoon tea - a poet, in fact, who speaks to the more sensible woman that Austen's heroine will become.

Future generations may think of our passion for Seamus Heaney much as they do of Marianne's for Cowper. Like Cowper, Heaney is a reflective, rural poet, moving easily between man and landscape and finding a moral in any humble object. Again like Cowper, his characteristic style gently ironises poetry's grand manner with conversational self-consciousness and modest domesticity. Memorable as many of Heaney's lines are, it is hard to imagine anyone being driven wild by their beauty. It is poetry that "cheers but not inebriates" - as Cowper said of his cup of tea.

Heaney's example has nevertheless inspired many more or less pale imitators. And yet, among contemporary poets, only Geoffrey Hill runs him close for sumptuous recall of detail. In Human Chain, Heaney remains the master of his aurally luxurious manner and seemingly endlessly resonant Northern Irish childhood, in poems that continue the meditative form and freedom of 1991's Seeing Things.

Like all Heaney collections, Human Chain is a series of lyric pieces that illuminate each other while working towards a final illumination. The last third of the book, however - which includes a Cowperish fantasia on school books and pens - is not as interesting as the early poems, which do subtly new things with old themes.

“Album" reimagines Heaney's parents' unhappy marriage with an empathy that could only be their son's ("their bibbed waitress unlids a clinking dish"). And "Chanson d'Aventure", on his own recent stroke, makes an ambulance ride a love poem to his wife ("our eyebeams threaded laser-fast") and recuperative "physio" an occasion to remember "each slither" of his farming father's ploughshare.

It seems a pity to follow this original writing with a poem simply called "Miracle", about the Gospel story of the paralysed man lowered by his friends to Christ for healing. But Heaney has always had a weakness for quasi-theological allegories of manual labour. This short tribute to stretcher-bearers everywhere ("handles/ Slippery with sweat") segues into Human Chain's title poem, which sings the joys of grain-sack hauling as "backbreak's truest payback".

The satisfied balance of such a phrase is both the source of Heaney's popularity and his limitation as a poet. Everyone can agree on the appeal of descriptions such as that of a charity box, "full to its slotted lid with copper coins". Yet physical memory is frequently the strongest idea in poems that pursue a more knowing profundity. "Slack" rather winningly admits that the childhood onomatopoeia of shovelled coal chips ("Slack schlock") is "More to me/Than any allegory", but still goes on to hear "catharsis" in the last gasp of the emptied bag, as if to remind us that Aristotle half-rhymes with coal-scuttle.

The most striking poems here are those which - like Wallace Stevens's late verse - carry established richness both to its extreme and bare opposite. "The Baler", for instance, ends with a dying man who can no longer bear to watch a sunset. His stark words are all the more affecting for their contrast with a scene where "woodpigeons sue" (not quite coo, or soothe) around "a dusk eldorado/Of mighty cylindrical bales".

The centrepiece of the book is "Route 110", an autobiography structured around Aeneas's descent into the underworld, which contains one of Heaney's most damning descriptions of the military men who periodically impinge on his pastoral. The classical conceit recalls T S Eliot's description of the "mythical method" of Joyce's Ulysses as a way of giving literary shape to contemporary history. Heaney's personal landscapes are not of that panoramic order, but they are a way of seeing and feeling that has shaped the sensibility of many readers.

Human Chain
Seamus Heaney
Faber & Faber, 96pp, £12.99

Jeremy Noel-Tod teaches at the University of East Anglia and runs a poetry blog, The Lyre.

This article first appeared in the 13 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, France turns right