Last Updated on May 20, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1784
Critics place Heaney in the Northern School, a loose affiliation of Irish poets who grew up during The Troubles, a period of conflict between various nationalist and unionist forces in Ireland beginning in the late 1960’s. This group saw their country torn by political and religious strife for nearly three decades, and their poetry offers a varied response to the events of the times, acts of destructive and deadly violence. Among the writers associated with this group, including Derek Mahon and Michael Longley, Heaney offers the most intimate response. Many of Heaney’s poems focus on history, politics, and personal identity; in particular, he examines the individual self both avoiding and embracing broader cultural concerns. For Heaney, the cultural and the personal are separate but bound aspects of a single identity, an idea reminiscent of English poet John Keats’s theory of inseparable, but irreconcilable, opposites. Frequently, memory functions in Heaney’s poetry as the linking element between self, history, and culture.
Much of Heaney’s poetry is written from the first-person perspective and the poet directs his attention to events in his own life and immediate environs. “Digging,” the first poem in his first volume, metaphorically connects his father and grandfather’s labors breaking turf to the pen that Heaney hoists. “I’ll dig with it,” he notes in the final line of the poem, and does, into the landscape of his elders and back through the ages. Heaney avoids solipsism by allowing his poetic lens to travel in reverse to encounter generations of family members and centuries of ancestors. “The Tollund Man,” featured in Wintering Out, explores the past through preserved corpses exhumed from the bogs. These remains of sacrificial victims become, in Heaney’s verse, a metaphor for sectarian violence in present-day Ireland. Heaney links the two directly in “Punishment,” published in North, a poem that contrasts sanctions against adulterous women in prehistoric times with reprisals against Irish women who consorted with British soldiers. The first were drowned, the latter tarred and feathered. Heaney questions whether his own position as detached poet, one who records events but does not participate in them, might not be a kind of complicity.
Heaney’s poetic form varies from free verse to sonnets to terza rima; that he has mastered so many forms is a testament to his diversity and skill as a poet. However, what grounds his poetry is not a particular form but his ability to link Ireland’s past and present through connected themes. Primary among these themes is Heaney’s ongoing exploration of the role of the poet in contemporary society. For Heaney, the poet speaks not as a national troubadour, mouthpiece, or social conscience, but from the perspective of an observer, one who relays his own life and experiences as they touch upon and are touched by the experiences of others.
First published: 1984
Type of work: Poetry
A collection of imagistic poems that are confessional in nature.
Part 1 of this three-part collection contains poems that recount personal events and objects from Heaney’s life. In one entry, the poet and his sons fly a kite that becomes emblematic of both the resiliency and the fragility of the human spirit. In another, the fabric of a bathrobe removed from its wearer by her lover is likened to the cloth of religious vestments, simultaneously elevating human sexuality to the level of the divine and returning the spiritual realm to the bodily. These slice-of-life poems capture individual images, snapshots of particular scenes and moments in the poet’s life. Collectively viewed as an album, they reinforce what it means to be human.
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this collection derives from the middle section, “Station Island.” This twelve-part sequence focuses on pilgrimages, both religious and literary. En route to Lough Derg, a traditional destination for devout Irish Catholics, the pilgrim, apparently the poet Heaney, encounters deceased acquaintances and literary personages and engages them in dialogue. Central to their conversations is the role of the artist in relation to national, political, and religious concerns. Certain characters express anger that the poet has not joined the fight that ended their own lives. Others advise the poet to avoid participation in social movements, not merely to preserve the poet’s life but to keep pure the poet’s craft. Eventually the pilgrim meets James Joyce. The iconic Irish novelist, one of the many dead resurrected in the poem, advises the pilgrim to avoid all nationalistic affiliations. In section 12, Joyce warns against political involvement even for a noble cause: “You lose more of yourself than you redeem / doing the decent thing. Keep at a tangent.” The resolution at poem’s end announces the poet’s role as one independent of entanglements with dominant forces. From the margins, the detached poet chronicles a culture from the outside looking in, all the while observing those on the inside pushing out. In “Station Island,” Heaney seems to weigh against politically motivated poetry, suggesting that the politics of any age should not push the poet’s hand across the page.
Part 3 resurrects Sweeney, the mythical Irish king who was ousted by a saint for refusing to finance construction of a cathedral. Transformed into a bird, Sweeney is both punished for his transgressions and liberated from the chains of nation rule. Heaney first presented Sweeney in his translation of the legend Sweeney Astray: A Version from the Irish (1983; revised as Sweeney’s Flight, 1992). In the final poems in this collection, Sweeney and Heaney, ousted king and outsider poet, begin to merge. In his refusal to write the poetry of politics and religion, Heaney, like his alter ego Sweeney, has gained a measure of freedom, a certain poetic license.
First published: 1987 (collected in The Haw Lantern, 1987)
Type of work: Poem
This sonnet sequence eulogizes a mother, reminisces about childhood, and ruminates on life and death.
The Haw Lantern is Heaney’s midlife volume of poetry, a response to the myriad crises that commonly arise during that stage of life. The centerpiece of the collection is the sonnet sequence entitled “Clearances.” These sonnets commemorate the life and mark the death of the poet’s mother, Margaret Kathleen Heaney, whose simultaneous presence and absence are expressed in sparse but vivid imagery.
The first sonnet in the sequence opens with a cobblestone being tossed; the poet notes that it seems aimed at him. The hurled stone is a reference to his maternal great-grandmother, a Protestant who married a Catholic, thereby earning the derision of many in the community; it also symbolizes the unrest that plagued Ireland for so many decades. The aside suggests that Heaney, who has made his mark as a Catholic poet in Northern Ireland, might just as easily have written as a Protestant poet, save for his great-grandmother’s conversion by marriage, a chance stone tossed like a coin flipped. In this series of sonnets, The Troubles are closer to home, more personal, and more painful.
The first eight lines of the third sonnet in “Clearances” depict a son peeling potatoes alone with his mother while other household members attend Mass away from home. The next four lines switch to a scene of a priest presiding over the deathbed ritual. As others present in the room recite prayers for the dead or weep, the poet retreats back into this memory in the final couplet: “Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives—/ Never closer the whole rest of our lives.” Memory allows him to experience true communion with his mother, a sacrament no less sacred and far more immediate than the rites for the dead offered by the priest. The fifth sonnet in “Clearances” merges the poet’s memory of unpinning air-dried linen sheets from the line and folding them into squares with his mother, the cloth alternately forming sails in the wind, and, though the poet never writes the word, a shroud for his mother.
“The Sharping Stone”
First published: 1996 (collected in The Spirit Level, 1996)
Type of work: Poem
Relying on the images of wood and clay, the poet pays tribute to a deceased father and simultaneously to all crafters, those both of wood and of life.
In “The Sharping Stone,” Heaney returns to the earthen materials that first composed the subject matter of his poems. The item named in the poem’s title, a sharping stone, is an instrument used to sharpen metal objects like knives, scissors, and axes. This whetstone also recalls blades used by woodsmen to fell trees and by carvers to hew timber into furniture and other objects for human use. In the first stanza, the poet recovers the sharping stone from within an apothecary’s drawer as he packs up the now deceased man’s possessions. Intended as a gift for the older man, its future use is called into question.
In scope, the poem travels from present to past, from Ireland to other countries, and projects into a future time and place: the land of the dead. Engaged in the act of retrieving the whetstone from a cedar drawer, the poet ponders where next to place this tool. In the second stanza, memory guides the poet to a forest park and to two tree trunks “Prepared for launching, at right angles across / A causeway of short fence-posts set like rollers.” A side excursion to the Louvre Museum in Paris temporarily displaces both Ireland and wooden objects from the poem. The poet recalls an Etruscan clay double sarcophagus, one intended for the burial of a married couple. The image on its casing displays husband and wife, two figures recumbent and content. As the stanza closes, the image is revealed to adorn a postcard sent to the father, who claimed it among his possessions, and in this manner the focus of the poem returns to the wooden drawer and its contents.
The image of a ship set to launch, introduced in the second stanza, returns in the fifth. The poet ponders placing the sharping stone in its drawer and allowing both to drift downriver, recalling Viking rituals of sending the dead out to sea with provisions for the afterlife. Drawers, coffins, and boats are repositories for objects, whether sharping stones, corpses, or passengers. The instruments that the artisans employed to craft these containers were sharpened by whetstones similar to the one the poet has retrieved. What connects sharping stone to tool, and tool to drawer, and the wooden objects to each other, is the human crafter. Nature provides for people and people craft natural materials into serviceable objects to accommodate their journeys, which inevitably reach death. That Heaney considers forwarding the sharping stone to the deceased hints at the possibility that the human odyssey extends beyond death.