Seamus Heaney Poetry: British Analysis
Almost from the beginning of his poetic career, Seamus Heaney gained public recognition for poems rooted deep in the soil of Northern Ireland and flowering in subtle rhythms and nuanced verbal melodies. In many respects, he pursues a return to poetry’s foundations in Romantic meditations on nature and explorations of the triple relationship among words, emotions, and the imagination. Heaney’s distinctive quality as a poet is that he is at once parochial and universal, grounded in particular localities and microcultures yet branching out to touch every reader. Strangely, this unusual “here and everywhere” note remains with him even when he changes the basic subject matter of his poetry, as he has done frequently. His command of what William Blake called “minute particularity” allows him to conjure up a sense of the universal even when focusing on a distinct individuality—to see “a world in a grain of sand.” He makes the unique seem familiar. Because his success at this was recognized early, he was quickly branded with the label “greatest Irish poet since Yeats”—an appellation that, however laudatory, creates intolerable pressure and unrealizable expectations. Neo-Romantic he certainly is, but not in William Butler Yeats’s vein; Heaney is less mythic, less apocalyptic, less mystical, and much more material and elemental.
In many respects Heaney’s art is conservative, especially in technique. Unlike the forms of the iconoclastic leading poets of the first half of the twentieth century—T. S. Eliot, E. E. Cummings, Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound,William Carlos Williams, andDylan Thomas—Heaney’s meters, figures, diction, and textures are all relatively straightforward. Also in contrast, his poetry is not “difficult” as theirs was; his sentences generally employ standard syntax. Nevertheless, he is a master technician with an ear for fine and subtle verbal melodies. Instead of breaking with the past, his poems much more often depend on forging links; his music often harks back to that of William Wordsworth, John Milton, or Edmund Spenser. However, his diction is common and Irish as well as formal and English. Colloquial speech patterns of the brogue often counterpoint stately cadences of British rhetoric. The combination produces a varied music, blending the different strains in his personal history and in the history of his people and his region. His best poems ring in the memory with echoes of modulated phrase and evocative sound patterns. He has probed the Irish conscience and discovered a way to express it in the English language, to render the Irish soul afresh.
Death of a Naturalist
Heaney’s first book, Death of a Naturalist, laid the groundwork for his achievement. Centered firmly in the country scenes of his youth, these poems declare both his personal heritage from generations of Irish farm laborers and his emancipation from it, acquired by the mastery of a foreign tradition, the literature of the English. His art is Irish in origins and inspiration and English by training. The result is a surprisingly uniform and rich amalgam that incorporates much of Ulster’s complex mix of cultures. The poems become what Heaney at the time hoped was possible for his region: the preservation of both Irish and English traditions by a fusion that transcended either of them separately.
“Digging,” a celebrated poem from this volume, illustrates this idea. It memorializes the typical work he associated with his father’s and grandfather’s generations (and, by implication, those of their ancestors): cutting turf, digging. He deliberately contrasts their tool of choice, the spade, with his, the pen: “I’ve no spade to follow men like them.” By his instrument, he can raise their labor into art, in the process ennobling them.
“Follower” similarly contrasts his labor with his father’s. It captures in paced phrases and exact images his father’s skill at and identification with plowing. This was the ancestral craft of the Heaneys; it makes his father what he is. As a result, it serves as the model of what young Seamus believed he should grow up to become. Sent instead to school, however, he was not reared to the plow and could never do more than hobble in his father’s wake. The poem ends in a complex and disturbing image:
But todayIt is my father who keeps stumblingBehind me, and will not go away.
The meaning is clear and manifold. His father stumbles intellectually—because the son has climbed beyond him—and culturally, for he will never be able to reach this point or even appreciate it. His father also stumbles merely physically, as the older generation does, and he must be cared for by his son when he cannot care for himself. Finally, his father is a clog at Heaney’s heels, hindering him by his heritage: The poet will never be able to evade his father’s influence.
Door into the Dark
Three years later, Door into the Dark found Heaney continuing to explore this material from his upbringing, but it also showed him expanding his range and developing new moral insights. Increasingly he began sensing that the various pasts in his heritage—of family, race, and religion—were reincarnating themselves in the present, that the history of the people was recapitulating itself. This insight bound present and past indissolubly together. What unfolded in the here and now, then, became part of a gradually evolving theme and variations, revealing itself in event and place.
Some of the poems in this volume accordingly focus on events and occupations illustrating continuity in the Irish experience. “Thatcher,” for example, celebrates an ancient Irish craft: thatching roofs out of by-products and discards. The fabric of the poem beautifully reflects and incorporates its subject, for its rhythms and rhymes form parallel patterns that imitate one another and interlock, although the dovetailing is not exact. Left unstated in the poem is an implied theme: The craft of the poet is equally ancient and equally intricate. A similar interweaving of past and present occurs in “The Wife’s Tale,” in which the persona—a farm woman—re-creates simply the routine of laying out a field lunch for laborers during threshing. The narrative is matter-of-fact and prosaic, detached and unemotional, and unspecific in time: It could be almost anytime, a reiterative action. Her action thus binds the generations together, suggesting the sameness of human life regardless of time. The poem also subtly depicts the interdependence of husband and wife—he fights and plants, she nourishes and supports—and their failure to merge completely: “And that was it. I’d come and he had shown me,/ So I belonged no further to the work.”
A number of the poems in this volume are simply musings on travels in Ireland and on the Continent. At first it is easy to pass over these pieces because the simple, undramatic language and quiet tone do not attract much attention. In fact, however, these meditations are extremely important in the evolution of Heaney’s poetic orientation, for they document his growing awareness of place as a determinant of sensibility. For Heaney, a person’s surroundings, particularly the environment of his or her growing-up years, become the context to which he or she instinctively refers new experiences for evaluation. They become the norms of consciousness, the images from which the individual forms values. In “The Peninsula,” for example, the persona spends a day touring the scenes of his youth. He discovers upon return that he still has “nothing to say,” but he realizes that henceforth he will “uncode all landscapes/ By this.” In “Night Drive,” the speaker, driving through France and thinking of his love in Italy, finds his “ordinariness” renewed by simple things such as signposts and realizes that the same thing is happening to her. Environment forms and frames consciousness.
More important, it also frames historical consciousness, the intersection of the past with the present in the individual. In the poems that first document this idea, Heaney announces what is to be a major theme: the inescapable presence of the past. This emerges in “Requiem for the Croppies,” a long-after-the-fact elegy for the insurrectionist Catholic peasants—designated “croppies” because in the 1790’s they cropped their hair to indicate their support of the French revolutionaries—who were slaughtered by the thousands at Vinegar Hill at the end of the uprising of 1798.
The poem, a simple sonnet, quietly recalls the mood of that campaign, in which unarmed, uneducated plowboys terrorized the great estates of the absent English overlords until they were hemmed in and mowed down by cavalry and cannon. At first, the rebellion was a romp; finally, it became a nightmare and a shame. The poem documents this in one encircling image: The ultimate harvest of the battle is the spilled barley, carried for food, which sprouts from the mass graves the following summer. A better symbol of futility and helplessness could hardly be found. Written in 1969, the year of the recurrence of the Troubles (ethnic conflicts in Ulster between Protestant unionists and Catholic secessionists), the poem both marks Heaney’s allegiances—he was reared Catholic—and records his dismay over the renewal of pointless violence. Significantly, Heaney left Belfast for good in that year, although his major motive was to devote himself to writing full time.
In the same year, Heaney encountered the book The Bog People (1969) by the ethnologist and anthropologist P. V. Glob. This account of a race of Iron Age peoples who inhabited the boglands of northern Europe in the dark past, before the Indo-European migrations of the first millennium b.c.e., was based largely on excavated remains of bodies that had been preserved by immersion in bogs. The photographs of these bodies particularly fired Heaney’s imagination, especially because many of them had been ritualistically sacrificed.
Since the newspapers and magazines had recently been saturated with atrocity punishments and murders, often involving equally primitive rituals, Heaney postulated a connection between the two, forged by the history of terrorism between clans and religions in Northern Ireland: Modern Ulster, despite centuries of alterations in its facade and supposed progress in its politics and civilization, was populated by a race different only in accidentals from its Iron Age progenitors. The same elemental passions and atavistic fears seethed beneath a deceptively civilized surface. Furthermore, those ancient dark mysteries that precipitated the superstitious sacrifices had not been superseded by civilization; they had merely receded into the background. Unsuspected, they continued to be inherited in the blood. Although he nowhere uses the Jungian terminology, Heaney seems to subscribe to the idea of the collective unconscious, the reservoir of instinctive, intuitive behavior acquired genetically.
These ideas bear first fruit in “Bogland,” in which he invents a powerful metaphor for another of his central themes. He visualizes his kind, his culture, as centered on a bog: “Our unfenced country/ Is bog that keeps crusting/ Between the sights of the sun.” The bog simultaneously buries and preserves, destroys and reconstitutes. Through it, the past becomes continuous with the present, represented in it. The bog records all generations of humanity that have grown up alongside it, disclosing continuous occupation: “Every layer they strip/ Seems camped on before.”
The bog is also an analogue of the human mind, which similarly buries and preserves, and which inherits the entire weight of the past. Furthermore, both have fathomless depths, brooding pools, and nameless terrors bubbling up from unplumbed regions. The bog becomes the perfect image of the inexplicable in the self and in society as a whole. Further, it provides Heaney with a device for illustrating the force behind the violence and a means of distancing himself from it. The bog becomes a link with humankind’s preconscious, reptilian past: “The bogholes might be Atlantic seepage./ The wet centre is bottomless.”
Heaney’s third book, Wintering Out, secured his early reputation. Like his first two books, it is rooted in his homeland, but it also includes poems of departure. Places precisely realized play a large part in it; in particular, these places declare themselves through their ancient names. Heaney spins music out of them:
Anahorish, soft gradientof consonant, vowel meadow,after-image of lampsswung through the yardson winter evenings.
Brough, Derrygarve, Ballyshannon voice related melodies, weaving together past and present, counterpointing also with English names: Castledawson, Upperlands. The two languages together stitch the present out of the past.
The volume opens with “Bog Oak,” which Heaney makes into a symbol for his bog world: It is a relic from the past, wood preserved in a bog where no oaks now stand, excavated to make rafters for new buildings. Furthermore, it is saturated with the bog, so that images of past centuries may be imprinted in it, as on film, to be released as the wood is used and thus to redirect the present. In one more way, then, the past is reincarnated. Dreaming that the oak images will bring him contact with the spirits of past poets, Heaney reminds his readers that the history of poetry is also a means of realizing the past in the present.
Other species of the Irish environment also participate in this process of continuity. “Gifts of Rain,” for example, memorializes the omnipresent threat of rain in the Irish weather, but it also makes the rain into a stream flowing through everything, a liquid voice from the past: “Soft voices of the dead/ Are whispering by the shore.” It becomes a solvent of the Irish experience.
This awareness of and openness to all aspects of life, especially the dark and the violent, leads Heaney to treat some topics in this volume that are quite different from his past choices. Among them is one of the more inexplicable incidents of human cruelty: infanticide by mothers, or maternal rejection of infants. “Limbo” considers an infant drowned shortly after birth and netted by salmon fishermen. Heaney dispassionately records the ironies, beginning with the simple suggestion that this child’s baptism was in fact murder, the most extreme sacrilege, although he fully sympathizes with the mother’s agony. Still, the child died without baptism; hence, it is ineligible for Heaven and must be relegated to Limbo, a place of painless exile, according to orthodox Catholic doctrine. Such a conclusion, however, is so unjust that it seems...
(The entire section is 6225 words.)
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