Philip Larkin famously claimed that the ‘myth kitty’ was exhausted, meaning that it was time to give up writing poems that relied on the convenient shorthand of tropes from a shared classical culture, and one can see that for him this was a necessary part of his literary program of reclaiming poetry for the common reader by rooting it in the accessible ordinary. But centuries of shared tradition are not so easily put aside, and in the right hands, and used in the right way, the myth kitty can still retain much of its old potency. As in this densely woven poem by Seamus Heaney, where we have allusions to Orpheus and Eurydice (‘damned if I look back’), Pan chasing the nymph Syrinx (‘a fleet god gaining/Upon you turned to a reed’), the Persephone myth (the scattered trail of stanza two) and just for good measure a reference to Hansel and Gretel from Germanic folktale.
But these allusions do not supplant the basic human story here, merely add a layer of resonance to it, and that story appears to be one of regret for a more innocent time of young love, and an apprehension that the poet’s wife and marriage have suffered too much from his divided loyalties. Nothing is made explicit, and yet I think the poem can be seen as echoing the reproach that Heaney puts in the mouth of his wife in another poem, ‘An Afterwards’: ‘You left us first, and then those books, behind’.
The result, as so often with Heaney, is a poem finely balanced and finely expressed. It is true that a reader unfamiliar with Orpheus and Eurydice, Pan and Persephone, and possibly these days even Hansel and Gretel, will miss out on a dimension of the poem and may feel excluded by it, but others will enjoy having the echoes stirred for them. Larkin may not have approved, but Heaney too was a reclaimer.
There we were in the vaulted tunnel running,
You in your going-away coat speeding ahead
And me, me then like a fleet god gaining
Upon you before you turned to a reed
Or some new white flower japped with crimson
As the coat flapped wild and button after button
Sprang off and fell in a trail
Between the Underground and the Albert Hall.
Honeymooning, moonlighting, late for the Proms,
Our echoes die in that corridor and now
I come as Hansel came on the moonlit stones
Retracing the path back, lifting the buttons
To end up in a draughty lamplit station
After the trains have gone, the wet track
Bared and tense as I am, all attention
For your step following and damned if I look back.