LYRIC INVESTIGATIONS Seamus Heaney “Whitby-sur-Moyola”

Caedmon too I was lucky to have known, / Back in situ there with his full bucket / And armfuls of clean straw, the perfect yard man,/ Unabsorbed in what he had to do / But doing it perfectly, and watching you. / He had worked his angel stint. He was hard as nails / And all that time he had been poeting with a harp / His real gift was the big ignorant roar / He could still let out of him, just bogging in / As if the sacred subjects were a herd / That had broken out and needed rounding up. / I never saw him once with his hands joined / Unless it was a case of eyes-to-heaven/ And the quick sniff and test of fingertips / After he’d passed them through a sick beast’s water./ Oh, Caedmon was the real thing alright.

FIELD OF REFERENCE When Wittgenstein’s approach is applied to the spiritual realm, its application is neatly summarized by Drury’s remarks concerning The Tractatus:


  1. ’Everything that can be put into words can be put clearly.’
  2. ’Philosophy will signify what cannot be said by presenting clearly what can be said’
  3. ’There are, indeed, things which cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are mystical.’
    from Peter Taylor, The Return to the Mystical: Ludwig Wittgenstein, Teresa of Avila and the Christian Mystical Tradition (Continuum, 2011), p. 47

The reasons for remembering certain lyrics are myriad and suggest our deepest needs. As I sort through my books looking for something that makes me calm down as the world seems to be collapsing around me, Heaney presents himself. He can be a little self-important but when it comes to “the witness of poetry” (I really must give Milosz another try), his image of Caedmon does the trick. I too want to achieve that human facility of effortless doing and also awareness of the other.

I leaned in school that Caedmon’s hymn was in the running for the earliest lyric “in English” albeit Old English. “Dark Ages” English. Like many legends it comes with problems. The story is that Caedmon was an illiterate cowboy. How could he have ‘written” a hymn. You can look it up.

Or you can read Heaney’s poem. In light of the FIELD OF REFERENCE the poem addresses the problem of the legend by observing “Wittgenstein’s approach” according to his friend Drury. It’s a pretty no-nonsense approach and it suits this blog by freeing poetry from its arguments with philosophy by agreeing with a basic distinction between saying and showing. Lyric by my lights reflects the distinction as it unfolds in the reader’s time/consciousness.

Here we call that temporal unfolding the lyric narrative or itinerary. Heaney’s first sentence grounds Caedmon in historical time— until the last phrase, which should come as a not- surprise: “and watching you.” For as practiced readers of lyric we hardly bat an eye. In lyric the self is double. So sure, Caedmon sees us hanging around the yard suspiciously.

We are waiting. We have not long to wait. The mystery part—the showing implicit in the legend—happens as the poem turns away from the known knowns of the literary tradition, or what we call, somewhat disingenuously,

As it turns out we must swallow a double image of sound—the big ignorant roar— and an analogy, an “as if.” Once that figure is out there the poem returns to the legend. Or the act of judgment that presents Caedmon’s claim, according to the Poet, as “the real thing.”

The REAL thing. Double gesture: eyes to heaven, fingers alive to the flesh’s equivocity in the being of the yardman, whose knowledge of these things is trustworthy. This double we recognize as the sign of the metaxu or between. Things just never resolve to the thing-in-itself. There’s always more.

Heaney SHOWS Caedmon’s specific intimate being by an act, we say in our scrupulous way, that “could well have happened,” in Caedmon’s world, we carefully add. BUT the “as if” of the historical imagination is doubled by the poem’s opening to the other than can be thought, what Drury considered “mystical.” And Drury was no slouch.

So the poet’s voice emerges from the mix of voices in the poem by a kind of fiat. That’s what I like to call the emergence of the open form of the poem. It supplies me with equilibrium in dodgy if interesting times, when nothing else will do.

Author: Tom D'Evelyn

Tom D'Evelyn is a private editor and writing tutor in Cranston RI and, thanks to the web, across the US and in the UK. He can be reached at D'Evelyn has a PhD in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley. Before retiring he held positions at The Christian Science Monitor, Harvard University Press, Boston University and Brown University. He ran a literary agency for ten years, publishing books by Leonard Nathan and Arthur Quinn, among others. Before moving to Portland OR he was managing editor at Single Island Press, Portsmouth NH. He blogs at and other sites.

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