Seamus Heaney and the Aesthetics of Enlightenment

  • Shea Atchison

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


This thesis seeks to offer a picture of enlightenment in Seamus Heaney’s twelve major volumes of poetry, arguing that they reveal an unfolding record of self-directed, and increasingly self-aware, spiritual enquiry, one that is informed by a wide range of Eastern and Western traditions of metaphysics, mysticism and theology. Convinced that poetry constitutes a unique category of spiritual activity, Heaney was—above all else—a seeker after enlightenment who appropriately earned a reputation as ‘a mystic of the ordinary’. In
this context, I suggest that his poetic oeuvre can be read in the form of a triptych. The first phase reflects his own suggestion that Death of a Naturalist, Door into the Dark, Wintering Out and North comprise ‘one book’, a book that is framed by two major self-portraits: ‘Personal Helicon’, which projects into darkness, and ‘Exposure’, which anticipates raised sights and the possibility of transcendence in the image of the missed comet. The second phase tests various approaches towards this elusive end: the Romantic intimations of Field Work; the defamiliarized vision of Ireland in Station Island; the apophatic via negativa of The Haw Lantern; finally, the visionary claritas of Seeing Things, with its vivid depictions of three-dimensional space, the eternal Now, and Heraclitean flux. The third and last phase— comprising The Spirit Level, Electric Light, District and Circle, and Human Chain—sees the penetrative ambitions of the spiritual seeker replaced by the circuitousness of meditative reflection. Attendant structural motifs of circularity, self-referentiality and foreknowledge are repeatedly inscribed in the fabric of the poet’s later work, as spiritual maturity leads to a
greater emphasis on contemplation and acceptance.
Date of AwardJun 2020
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorFrank Sewell (Supervisor) & Tim Hancock (Supervisor)


  • Mysticism
  • Transcendence
  • Romanticism
  • Defamiliarization
  • Via Negativa
  • Heraclitean Flux
  • Circularity
  • Foreknowledge
  • Determinism
  • NonAttachment
  • Death

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