Maurice Harmon turns 90

Academic, critic and poet Maurice Harmon will turn 90 years old on June 21st 2020.  Harmon’s library and archive was transferred to UCD Special Collections in 2016.  Harmon has been a towering figure in the field of Anglo Irish literature.  The archive reflects the various aspects of Harmon’s work and demonstrates the pivotal role he played in the formation of canon of late 20th century Anglo Irish Literature.  It includes correspondence with Mary Lavin, post cards from Samuel Beckett and papers relating to the Irish University Review, a journal of literary criticism, which was founded by Harmon in 1970.  The papers relate also to the books published by Harmon including those on Sean Ó Faoláin, Beckett, Clarke, Kinsella and Richard Murphy as well as the books which he edited.

Dr. Christopher Murray, in a speech at the reception to mark the transfer of the library and archive to UCD in 2017 spoke of Harmon’s impact on Anglo Irish studies through the Irish University Review but also via his book Irish Poetry After Yeats which was published in 1979.  He said

This kind of close analytic work had not been done before in Irish criticism of Irish literature. Its purpose was to lay down scholarly standards in the field and to demonstrate how principles of criticism can be applied to living as well as dead authors.’  Murray specifically mentioned that ‘Seamus Heaney had secured a place in the pantheon, alongside Austin Clarke, Patrick Kavanagh, Denis Devlin, Richard Murphy, Thomas Kinsella and John Montague.’

For the past few years Special Collections has worked with the MA in Archives and Records Management programme.  This year students on the programme were given the Harmon archive to process and describe as part of their archival training.  One of the students, Emily Jennings, wrote of her experience of finding a particular letter.  This letter indicates how Harmon was perceived by others and alludes to the many aspects of his work which he carried out with patience and generosity.  Emily wrote:

Sifting through a box of papers in an uncatalogued collection, an archivist sometimes happens across an item that makes the hands shake and the pulse quicken. “This,” the archivist thinks, laying the item down carefully to protect it from those trembling hands, “is the treasure in this collection.” To have held it feels like an immense privilege. To be tasked with describing it for the incipient collection catalogue, both a privilege and a responsibility.

Besides some richly interesting material pertaining to his career as a poet and scholar, Harmon’s papers contain numerous letters from some of the brightest literary luminaries of the 20th and 21st centuries. Among the most glittering gems in the collection’s Correspondence series is a handwritten letter sent from Atlanta, Georgia, on 13 May 2003, signed simply “Seamus”.  The letter-writer is none other than the poet Seamus Heaney.

As a literary scholar, Harmon has taken a strong interest in Heaney, and has published several essays and articles about his poetry. The unpublished drafts and research notes relating to this scholarship have also come to UCD as part of the Harmon archive, where they will be filed under the Books series. Heaney’s May 2003 letter to Harmon is one that any scholar would be moved and honoured to receive from a preferred literary subject. Its message is thoughtful and personal, paying tribute to Harmon as a generous colleague in the world of letters.

Heaney repeats Ted Hughes’s reminder that ‘all true, necessary poems arrive from (and address themselves to) ‘the place of ultimate suffering and decision’ in us”, Heaney goes on to ponder why he is sharing these deeply personal reflections with Harmon. “Maybe because of the seriousness as well as the kindness of your letter”, he writes, “[t]he un-self-serving nature of your contributions as critic and anthologist, biographer, literary historian, poet. Keeping the channels open and the waters clear.”

The original order of the Maurice Harmon archive places the correspondence last, behind the papers relating to Harmon’s poetry and his scholarship. While first instincts suggest that the Heaney letter deserves VIP treatment in the form of a particularly detailed description, it is the job of the archivist to put this item in its place. The work of close reading belongs to the researchers who, thanks to the archival endeavours of UCD staff and students, will soon get to see this letter. This is their treasure. We’re just looking after it for them.

Future researchers will find such praise of Harmon’s openness and generosity amply justified by other items in the Correspondence series. Endless requests for academic references, for help with funding applications, for “blurbs” to grace the covers of other poets’ books: Maurice Harmon seems to have applied himself to all of these with patience and industry. Heaney’s letter offers insights into its writer and recipient that scholars will doubtless prize.

With thanks to Emily Jennings and all of the MA Archives and Records Management students who worked on the Harmon papers this year.  Many thanks also to the MA Programme coordinator Dr. Elizabeth Mullins.

The 50th anniversary edition of the Irish University Review includes a chapter by Maurice Harmon entitled ‘In the beginning 1970-1986’ was recently published. 

Harmon has been recorded for the Irish Poetry Reading archive.  His poem ‘The Stunning Place’ is available here.

Harmon at the reception to mark the transfer of his library and archive to UCD.  L-R  Prof. Anne Fogarty, Prof. Emilie Pine, Prof. Frank McGuinness, Prof. Maurice Harmon, Prof. Andrew Carpenter, Prof. Lucy Collins and Prof. Christopher Murray.

Leave a Reply