In the two world wars – and throughout the Troubles in Northern Ireland – poets insisted on not serving any political or nationalist case. As the war poets were attacked for failing to write their country’s battle hymns, so the Ulster poets were victims of improper ‘expectations’. In this seminal critical study Edna Longley argues that while poets as citizens may support various causes, poets as writers cannot settle for anything less than ‘full human truths’. The price of that imaginative freedom is ‘eternal vigilance’.
Edna Longley shows how Edward Thomas wrote for England, but not for its war. How Keith Douglas kept a moral eye on his subject even as he shot to kill. And yet how an unjust Ulster ‘hurt’ Seamus Heaney into poetry.
Edna Longley relates contemporary Northern Irish poetry to the overall history of 20th-century poetry in English. She argues that the most important poets have stuck quite deliberately to their armoury of difficult traditional forms, adapting and extending them in response to modern wars, conflicts, oppression and injustice. In this important collection of interconnected essays, she also traces the influence of W.B. Yeats, and considers the work of Louis MacNeice, Robert Frost, Philip Larkin, Derek Mahon and Paul Muldoon.
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