Seamus Heaney is an archaeologist-poet, using pen and paper rather than spade and excavation to uncover the past. His collection called Seeing Things contains fewer localized historical references to the poet’s Ireland or to its political history than his previous works, but it nevertheless continues the poet’s search. His father—Heaney’s haunting, sometimes overwhelming immediate connection with what was—also appears less often as a figure in this collection, for Seeing Things has aesthetics as its fundamental theme. Its poems focus on homely, mundane phenomena; these are mostly nature-related, the things one would expect an Irish poet reared on his family’s farm to notice. Even so, they establish points of nature reference that virtually anyone can understand, even the most urban city- dweller.
Each in its individual way, the poems of Seeing Things suggest the author’s perception of the present in terms of personal and family history. Even so, each poem extends this perception and universalizes it. Heaney’s preoccupation with the imagery of archaeology (digging, tools, holes, plantings, and artifacts) springs from his own readings in this discipline, particularly the archaeology of northern Europe. He sees a clear relationship between the bog cultures of the Iron Age and the land-dependent life of the Irish farmer. In Heaney’s early verse, archeological imagery appears more as a way to uncover his own identity, perhaps to answer the personal question of how generations of farmers who lived by the spade could produce a single poet. Heaney’s answer, or at any rate his rationalization, is that his father and grandfather tilled the same land, upturning and uncovering the soil which nourished past growth. As a poet he does this, too, on the same farm but with pen and paper. The roots he uncovers are not literal but the essence of himself, and by extension the essence of humanity.
It is this collective human aesthetic which Heaney emphasizes in Seeing Things. As its title implies, the collection suggests ways of perception readers will recognize as akin to their own. To imply that historical as well as literary legacies play some part in this collective awareness, Heaney frames his collection with his own translations of passages from Vergil’s Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.) and Dante Alighieri’s Inferno (c. 1320). In doing so, he illustrates his conception of the legacy history confers, for Dante’s La divina commedia (c. 1320) reformulates Vergilian epic in terms appropriate to medieval Christianity. Dante’s poem also utilizes historical particulars of the poet’s own times and, through the medium of allegory, views them anagogically (emphasizing hidden spiritual meanings) and teleologically (emphasizing overall design and final purpose). This, minus the apparatus of allegory, is essentially Heaney’s method in Seeing Things.
His Vergil passage, Aeneid 6.98-148, describes Aeneas’ search for the Golden Bough, his passport to the Underworld and to the ghost of his father. His Dante passage, Inferno 3.82-129, describes the reluctance of Charon, demon-boatman of the Underworld, to ferry the living Pilgrim across the Styx, the river of the dead. Dante’s Vergil silences Charon by insisting that the Pilgrim (because he is also a divinely empowered poet) has the right, indeed is impelled, to make the journey. Heaney, like his predecessor poets, has found his own Golden Bough and is similarly driven to make a comparable poet’s journey. He carries with him the intellectual baggage of poets who have made the journey before him but also the artist’s responsibility to explain the experience anew, seeing it in universal terms meaningful for his own readers.
Heaney has traveled many miles from the Ireland of his past. He lives in Dublin, teaches each year at Harvard University, and holds the post of Professor of Poetry at Oxford University. Nevertheless, the slightest of circumstances can impel him to make the journey back to his old self. It may be Philip Larkin’s shade who quotes the words Dante’s Pilgrim speaks before he makes the journey toward Paradise. The shadow of Larkin recalls the ghost of Creusa, the dead wife of Aeneas who warns the hero to leave burning Troy, just as it suggests any number of characters in the works of James Joyce who offer a route toward the instant of self-discovery and insight Joyce identifies as “epiphany.” Heaney is an established poet who has read much and traveled far, yet the journey back is easy. It is similarly easy for Aeneas to descend into Avernus, but to reverse the step and return with what is meaningful, this is the work and the labor.
Primarily because Heaney appreciates the difficulty of drawing universalized experience from the personal, many of his poems emphasize patterns of everyday life. Marking out the foundations of a house with pegs and string so that its corners will be true describes the process of orderly beginning. Even so, establishing a grid with pegs and string is precisely what archaeologists do when beginning an excavation. The process of marking the boundaries for planning a life thus corresponds exactly to the means by which one reveals a life that was. In both what is and what was the mechanics of order, justification, and the true prevail.
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