In this volume of critical essays, Heaney scrutinizes the poetry of several master-poets, including Owen, Mandelstam, Herbert, Eliot, Lowell, and Plath. Throughout, the author is a reliably wise and genial reader, a critic of characteristic charity and exactness. These essays remind us, above all, of the essentially gratifying nature of poetry itself.
"The 20th century saw the emergence of the poet as witness—voicing solidarity with the doomed, the victimized, the dispossessed. Irish poet Heaney here gauges this trend in essays on Wilfred Owen, Osip Mandelstam, and Zbigniew Herbert. He admits that the power of the poem to change the world is almost nil. Then, turning to T. S. Eliot's 'Waste Land,' he affirms the healing value of poetry as its own vindicating force, restoring us to our true selves. Interrelated essays investigate the ways in which W.H. Auden, Robert Lowell, and Sylvia Plath each became an 'antenna,' getting beyond the ego to voice the spiritual yearnings and anxieties of our time. Heaney has a fine ear for Derek Walcott's lush Caribbean verse, which he calls 'a common resource,' and for 'the wire-sculpture economy' of Miroslaw Holub's games of knowledge. Beautifully written, these essays and reviews reconfirm poets as—borrowing the phrase of another poet—the unacknowledged legislators of the world."—Publishers Weekly