Seamus Heaney

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What are some distinguishing features of Seamus Heaney's Poetry?

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Many typical traits of the poetry of Seamus Heaney are visible in the following stanza from one of his most famous poems, titled “Digging.”

My grandfather cut more turf in a day

Than any other man on Toner’s bog.

Once I carried him milk in a bottle

Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up

To drink it, then fell to right away

Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods

Over his shoulder, going down and down

For the good turf. Digging.

Among the characteristic features of Heaney’s poetry that are visible in these lines are the following:

  • A frequent tendency to use Irish settings.
  • A frequent tendency to write autobiographically, from his own experiences.
  • Phrasing and sentence structure that are very clear and straightforward.
  • A tendency to avoid predictable rhythms or conventional rhyme schemes or traditional stanza lengths. Heaney’s most famous poems rarely rhyme at all.
  • A frequent interest in narrative poems – poems that tell stories.
  • A frequent interest in “archetypal” situations, relationships, and persons. In this passage the archetypal situation rural work; the archetypal persons are a boy and his grandfather; and the archetypal relationship is the loving relationship between them. Heaney is far less likely than some poets to deal with the bizarre, the unfamiliar, or the peculiar.
  • A frequent tendency to write about the past.
  • A frequent concern with tradition and with traditional ways of life.
  • A tendency to avoid the overtly political or the merely propagandistic.
  • A tendency to explore the interactions between humans and nature.
  • A frequently elegiac tone, as in this poem, which describes a grandfather who is now dead.
  • A resemblance, in some ways, to the English Romantic poets, with their often similar focus on the rural and on nature.
  • An interest in dealing with universal themes by setting them in local landscapes.

Something extra: Paradoxically, because Heaney often rejects the “typical” features of the “art” of poetry, his works invite attention from the formalist theory of literary criticism. Formalists are interested in all the very small details of poetry that make it artful even when it seems artless. In this poem, notice the heavy metrical emphasis on “cut” in the first quoted line – an emphasis entirely appropriate to that verb. Notice, too, how the first line is metrically irregular but how the second line falls into a perfect iambic rhythm.  Finally, as just one more example of Heaney’s subtle artistry, notice the splendid combination of alliteration (“s” and “n” sounds) and assonance (“ee” sounds) in the line “Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods.”

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