Summary (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
Electric Light shows Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney in masterful poetic form. The collection is, first of all, various; among the many poetic forms he explores are lyric, eclogue, elegy, epigram, and sonnet. Heaney is a traditional poet and consistently uses and revises traditional poetic genres; he also uses meter and, at times, rhyme in these poems. There is no overriding theme in the book, but it does explore a number of themes that Heaney has dealt with before: the rural landscape, Irish history, and poetry. This book is, perhaps, the fullest in exploring and using poetic genres. The poems show a major poet in his later years looking back at his past and his origins. Those origins include his rural past and the use of classical forms and writers that Heaney acknowledges as his earliest influence in his Latin and Catholic education.
The first poem in the collection, “At Toomebridge,” acts as an introduction. It begins as a lyric poem describing nature: “Where the flat water/ Came pouring over the weir out of Lough Neagh.” The second stanza shows another perspective of the place; it also includes the troubled political realm of Northern Ireland “Where the checkpoint used to be,” and also the Irish historical past that is still present “Where the rebel boy was hanged in ’98.” The repeated “where” locates the varied poetic universe of Seamus Heaney. It includes the beauties of nature (a “continuous/ Present”), the troubles of his native Northern Ireland, and Irish history. The last “where” sums up the meaning of this world to the poet: “Where negative ions in the open air/ Are poetry to me.” Those small elements may be negative, but they are the substance of poetry to Heaney. The poem ends with a powerful and mixed image: “As once before/ The slime and silver of the fattened eel.” The mixture of “slime” and “silver” and the unconventional “eel” effectively defines the specific poetic world that Heaney reveals here. His poetic world is different from the British poetic tradition, and it is always precisely and accurately described.
“Perch” is a fine lyric poem that describes the world of nature. First he speaks of how in his earlier life “we called them grunts.’” The perch are within the river “holding the pass.” They are “Under the water-roof, over the bottom” in their world of continually moving water. They remain “In the everything flows and steady go of the world.” The world of the perch is precisely rendered and their presence in a continually changing universe finally mirrors our own.
“Lupins” is another impressive lyric poem. The lupins “stood for something. Just by standing.” They may be “Unavailable” but they are “there/ For sure.” The last stanza of the poem connects the lupins to the human observer. They “stood their ground for all our summer wending/ And even when they blanched would never balk.” The last line of the poem reveals what is most important about these flowers who stood through all. “And none of this surpassed our understanding.” The lupins, like the perch, are not alien. but are themselves and mirror humankind. They are not transcendent but remain available to us.
“Out of the Bag” is a long and amusing poem about the doctor who came and delivered all of the Heaney children. The poet takes the point of view of the child who saw his brothers and sisters, and himself, coming out of Doctor Kerlin’s bag. He also speaks of spying upon these births to see “infant parts/ Strung neatly from a line near the ceiling—/ A toe, a foot and shin, an arm, a cock . . .” Later, these parts are described as coming “together swimming/ Into his soapy big hygienic hands . . .” The point of view of the bewildered child who is attempting to come to terms with origins is amusing and revealing.
“Bann Valley Eclogue,” based on Vergil’s Fourth Eclogue, speaks of the birth of a child and “the world’s great age begins anew.” In Heaney’s eclogue there is, first, a dialogue between the Irish and Roman poets. Heaney first calls upon the Muses for his eclogue that is based in the Bann Valley instead of a mythic world. Vergil insists that Heaney must come to terms with or use some of his words, such as “orb.” Heaney speaks about having seen the orb in an eclipse. However, while Vergil acknowledges the word, he objects to the eclipse. It is not right for the birth of a child. Instead Heaney gives the “child on the way” a blessing for her arrival.
“The Loose Box” is one of the more interesting poems in the collection. Heaney speaks of the box in a number of different ways. At first, it is in the hayrack. He then relates this object to Patrick Kavanaugh’s comment on the “worth in any talk about/ The properties of...
(The entire section is 1957 words.)
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