Using specific examples from poems, what are some common themes explored in the poetry of Heaney and Dickinson?
Two common themes that Seamus Heaney and Emily Dickinson address in their poems are insights into nature and the figurative connection between natural states, such as the seasons, to the human condition.
Both themes are evident in two poems that are concerned with winter: Heaney’s “The Haw Trees” and Dickinson’s “”There’s a Certain Slant of Light.” Each in their distinctive way, the poets connect winter with light and the changing seasons with changing human feelings. While the most likely approach to the onset of winter would be association with coldness and possibly regret at the shortening days, neither poet takes that simple route.
In “The Haw Trees,” Heaney’s speaker emphasizes a specific quality of light that emanates from a plant, the “wintry haw.” Although it is associated with the colder season, the haw is “burning”; in this way it provides “a small light for small people,” which suggests a glimmer of hope for ordinary people. The speaker also personifies the haw, endowing it with feelings for the people rather than the more obvious or literal association of telling the human feelings toward the plant or toward the season: “wanting no more from them” and “not having to blind them.” The speaker thus suggests that humans should be attuned to the subtle clues all around them, rather than expect a harsh glare of “illumination” or insight.
In Dickinson’s work, the poem’s speaker also points to the particular kind of light associated with winter, “a certain Slant of light.” In contrast to Heaney, however, this speaker sees that light as oppressive or heavy, comparing its weight to “the Heft / Of Cathedral Tunes.” Such a weight even causes “hurt” that, as it comes from a “heavenly” source, provides “internal difference,” or the changing “meanings” of personal transformation, insights but does not inflict permanent damage—“We can find no scar.” This “internal difference” can be compared to Heaney’s “wick of self-respect,” which suggests personal integrity.
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