In the thirty years covered by this collection, which spans the poet’s ouevre from Death of a Naturalist (1966) through Spirit Level (1996), Seamus Heaney has grown into a major voice, first in Irish and then in world poetry. These poems document that growth and at the same time demonstrate the consistency of his Irish voice in his diction, his frequent use of Irish settings, and his use of his own life in Ireland as a vehicle for themes dealing with history and his place in the land. “Digging,” the first poem in the collection, articulates that interlacing of interests. In it, Heaney recalls his father digging potatoes, handling the spade just as his grandfather had once dug turf. As he has throughout his career, Heaney uses language that documents his comfort with the rural life in which he grew up—its equipment and activities. He names the lug and haft of the spade, the “cold smell of potato mould,” the “nicking and slicing” required of the peat cutter, and the place—Toner’s bog—where it all happens. Heaney ends the poem by noting that he cannot follow diggers like his father and grandfather; instead, he looks at the “squat pen” in his hand and concludes: “I’ll dig with it.” The themes and language of country life and the metaphor through which digging comes to represent the action of poetic imagination explain why this poem is often anthologized and why it serves as a suitable introduction to Heaney’s work.
The country world represented in these early poems is marked by the same unsentimental view present in “Digging.” Typically the language uses the direct, blunt, often monosyllabic Anglo-Saxon word stock, as in “The Wife’s Tale”: “hum,” “gulp,” “straw,” “cup,” “bag,” “slot,” “shot,” “yield,” “crust,” “dregs.” Such diction gives Heaney’s work its characteristic sound as much as do the Irish place names and occasional Irish words. This is an elemental world where the house stinks after churning day, where a child’s body laid out for burial bears the visible bruise of the car’s bumper in the accident that caused his death, without the disguise of the undertaker’s cosmetics, where the bogs swallow and preserve trees, animals, and humans.
The preservative quality of bogs makes them a link to the past, and thus they are important in the volume North (1975), in which themes concerned with the ancient world of Vikings and even earlier predominate. Particularly compelling are the pictures of the ancient bog burials that were practiced through Northern Europe. In “The Grauballe Man,” Heaney describes the dark corpse: “The grain of his wrists/ is like bog oak,” his foot is like “a wet swamp root.” Whether for ritual sacrifice or execution, the man’s throat was slashed, and so he stands in the speaker’s memory as both “beauty and atrocity.” The speaker thinks of the statue of the Dying Gaul “too strictly compassed/ on his shield,/ with the actual weight/ of each hooded victim,/ slashed and dumped.”
This is the volume in which Heaney began to address specifically the tragedies of Irish political violence. He discusses the subject in “Crediting Poetry,” his Nobel Prize acceptance speech of 1995, tracing the conflict’s bloody course through the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Heaney has been accused of lacking the political commitment that would seem appropriate for an artist born of a Catholic family in the Protestant North. In the Nobel speech, however, he uses the image of St. Kevin, who, when birds nested in his outstretched hand during an extended period of meditation, remained motionless until the eggs hatched and the fledglings flew. Kevin was a “signpost and a reminder,” a role the poet seems to claim for his art, noting that “huge acts of faith” have established newly peaceful relationships in many warring parts of the world during the latter part of the twentieth century. Art may help to illuminate those acts of faith.
Thus in “Punishment,” from North, it seems to be as signpost and reminder that the poet pictures himself as a bystander while a bog sacrifice was led, rope around her neck, to her execution. After re-creating the imagined scene, the speaker says, “I almost love you/ but would have cast, I know,/ the stones of silence./ I am the artful voyeur. . . .” To be a signpost is to be silent in recognition of the demands of the tribe, as Heaney calls it, but still the signpost carries its message.
The last poem of the North selections is “Singing...
(The entire section is 1875 words.)