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SOURCE: "Description as Poetry," in Kenyon Review, Vol. XXIX, No. 1, January, 1967, pp. 140-46.
[In the following excerpt, Galler explores the expository nature of Heaney's poems in Death of a Naturalist.]
Description—the details of what is being observed or performed—is the basis of all writing: epic, narrative, dramatic, or lyric. And this is the case whether the mind works through the eye directly or behind the eye by the various methods of analogy. But prior to this century poetry was not made of the kind of description that permits the reader no leap whatever to a plane of experience related to but more complete than that which is being observed. What has happened in this century increasingly, and in America especially, is the trend toward description replete with exposition, but lacking complication….
Death of a Naturalist, Seamus Heaney's interesting first book, is made up of description whichremains exposition, with one or two exceptions (notably 'For the Commander of the 'Eliza'"). Heaney, a young Irishman, has been absurdly compared to Edwin Muir by his publisher and presumably by some reviewers. Both poets grew up on farms, and there the similarity ends. Heaney's characteristic poems describe specific events with which he appears to be more familiar than many of us—as in "Churning Day":
This poet leaves no doubt as to what he's seeing—and all the doubt in the world as to what he's perceiving. The number of adjectives is daunting; they are huddled close by their nouns, for mutual safety. Then, there are those phrases with mysterious implications: bombs, hot brewery of gland, churning day, busy scrubber, seasoned wood, purified, flagged kitchen floor. But this poem, like most in the book, comes to nothing—or, to put it more fairly, it comes to an accumulation of details. Heaney's work is dense with exposition; if the level of simple metaphor is ever reached, it is all but obscured by a windmill of details. This is a pity, because even the passage quoted shows Heaney to be more than adroit with sounds and rhythms.
Another kind of poem appears in this book, similar to the kind above in trying to make terribly sure that the reader sees exactly what the poet sees, but a little more enterprising because it employs dramatic action. Such a poem is "An Advancement of Learning." Here (the subject is the poet's fear of rats), the language is less clogged with detail; the emphasis is on a walk (movement allowing of less detail, probably) over a bridge, the sighting of a rat emerging from water, the poet's fascination (adjectives and nouns are prominent), and the resolution as follows:
This terror, cold, wet-furred, small-clawed, Retreated up a pipe for sewage. I stared a minute after him. Then I walked on and crossed the bridge.
That is the poem's close; that, presumably, the advancement of learning. Complication, if it can be called that, exists as a rather common reaction and action. It is possible, of course, that Mr. Heaney is overawed—or I am underawed—by certain things as they are. There are two poems in the book which interest me more: "For the Commander of the 'Eliza,'" mentioned earlier, and "The Play Way." The first—because it takes off from a reported incident, is cast in the dramatic form of a soliloquy by a speaker other than Mr. Heaney, and has as its theme his most established concern, the cruelty of man toward man—indicates a direction in which this poet might operate more to his profit. It is a direction in which some complication of detail is virtually forced upon him....
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"The Play Way" suggests another facet of Heaney's sensibility which might prove fruitful in the making of poems: a didactic vein played off ironically against the amassed detail. In this connection, Heaney approaches the method of Philip Larkin, the poet by whose example, more than any other's at this point, he might benefit.
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Seamus Heaney 1939–
(Full name Seamus Justin Heaney) Irish poet, critic, essayist, editor, and translator.
Heaney is widely considered Ireland's most accomplished contemporary poet and has often been called the greatest Irish poet since William Butler Yeats. In his works, Heaney often focuses on the proper roles and responsibilities of a poet in society, exploring themes of self-discovery and spiritual growth as well as addressing political and cultural issues related to Irish history. His poetry is characterized by sensuous language, sexual metaphors, and nature imagery. Soon after he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995, commentator Helen Vendler praised Heaney "the Irish poet whose pen has been the conscience of his country."
The eldest of nine children, Heaney was raised a Roman Catholic in Mossbawn, County Derry, a rural community in Protestant Northern Ireland. At age eleven he received a scholarship to Saint Columb's College in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, and left his father's farm. At Queen's University in Belfast, he was introduced to Irish, American, and English literature and exposed to artists such as Ted Hughes, Patrick Kavanaugh, and Robert Frost. While at university, Heaney contributed several poems to literary magazines under the pen name Incertus. After graduating with honors in 1961, he taught secondary school, later returning to Queen's University as a lecturer. During this time he also established himself as a prominent literary figure with the publication of Death of a Naturalist in 1966, his first volume of poetry. In 1969, when fighting broke out between Catholics and Protestants in Belfast, Heaney began to address the unrest's causes and effects in his poetry. He and his family moved to a cottage outside Dublin in 1972, where he wrote full-time until he accepted a teaching position at Caryfort College in Dublin in 1975. He has also taught at Harvard and Oxford Universities and has frequently traveled to the United States and England to give poetry readings and lectures. Having already won numerous awards for his poetry and translations, Heaney was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995.
Heaney's first volume, Death of a Naturalist (1966), is imbued with the colors of his Derry childhood; these early works evince sensuous memories associated with nature
and with his childhood on his family's farm. Evoking the care with which his father and ancestors farmed the land, Heaney announces in the first poem in the collection, "Digging," that he will figuratively "dig" with his pen. In his next published volume, Door into the Dark (1969), Heaney also incorporates nature and his childhood as prominent themes.
Much of Heaney's poetry addresses the history of social unrest in Northern Ireland and considers the relevance of poetry in the face of violence and political upheaval. In his next collection Wintering Out, for example, are a series of "bog poems" that were inspired by the archaeological excavation of Irish peat bogs containing preserved human bodies that had been ritually slaughtered during the Iron Age. Heaney depicts the victims of such ancient pagan rites as symbolic of the bloodshed caused by contemporary violence in Ireland. North (1975) develops this historical theme further, using myth to widen its universality. In such poems as "Ocean's Love to Ireland" and "Act of Union," Heaney portrays the English colonization of Ireland as an act of violent sexual conquest. Field Work (1979) does not depart from Heaney's outrage at the violence in Northern Ireland but shifts to a more personal tone. The collection encompasses a wide range of subjects: love and marriage, mortality, and the regenerative powers of self-determination and the poetic imagination.
Translating Sweeney Astray (1984) from the Irish tale Buile Suibhne allowed Heaney to work with myth, for he brings to the English-speaking world the warrior-king Sweeney's adventures after a curse has transformed him into a bird. Station Island (1984) is also concerned with Irish history and myth. Patterned after Dante's Divine Comedy in its tripartite structure, the central section describes a threeday pilgrimage taken by Catholics to the Irish Station Island seeking spiritual renewal. There the narrator encounters the souls of his dead ancestors and Irish literary figures who speak to him, stirring from him a meditation on his life and art.
The Haw Lantern (1987) contains both parables of Irish life and poems such as "From the Republic of Conscience" and "From the Canton of Expectation." This volume also includes a series of poems entitled "Clearances," which chronicles his relationship with his mother. In Seeing Things (1991) Heaney diverges from his previous emphasis on politics and civic responsibility, returning to the autobiographical themes of childhood experience and Irish community ritual. Feelings of loss and yearning are prominent motifs in the collection, as many poems evoke celebratory images of Heaney's deceased father, who appears frequently throughout the volume.
Critics of Heaney's early work were immediately impressed by his freshness of expression and command of detail. He has been praised for his political poems, especially those that depict the violence between Roman Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. In these poems, it has been noted that Heaney also addresses Ireland's cultural tensions and divisions through the linguistic duality of his poetry, which draws upon both Irish and English literary traditions. Critical commentary has traced the thematic development of Heaney's work, contending that as his later poems continue to address the unrest in Northern Ireland, they also incorporate a more personal tone as Heaney depicts the loss of friends and relatives to the violence. As his most recent work diverges from his previous emphasis on politics and civic responsibility, Heaney returns to the autobiographical themes of childhood experience and Irish community ritual. Many critics have lauded these poems for their imaginative qualities and their focus on visionary transcendence experienced through ordinary life events.
Heaney has been commended for his experimentation with form and style, in particular in the volumes Seeing Things and Station Island. His efforts to integrate meaning and sound often result in vivid descriptions, witty metaphors, and assonant phrasing. By most critics he is acclaimed as one of the foremost poets of his generation and is very favorably compared to such poets as Derek Mahon, Michael Longley, Michael Hartnett, and Ted Hughes.
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SOURCE: "A Soft Grip on the Sick Place: The Bogland Poetry of Seamus Heaney," in The Dublin Magazine, Vol. 10, No. 3, Autumn-Winter, 1973-1974, pp. 86-90.
[In the following essay, Bidwell draws a connection between Heaney's metaphor of the bog and Irish republicanism.]
In the spring of 1781 Lord Moira, a landlord with vast holdings in County Down, was approached by his rather sheepish estate agent with a story which led to the first documented find of what are now referred to as the bog-people. He presented Lord Moira with a plait of hair which had been found on a human skull—a skull belonging to a woman buried in the bog nearly 1800 years before.
The details of the discovery can be found in Lady Moira's account published in a contemporary London archaeological journal. While cutting turf the previous autumn in a small peat bog on Drumkeragh Mountain, one of Lord Moira's tenants had sliced into the skull of the woman. He had immediately reburied her but not before removing the clothing and ornaments found in the grave. It was only through bribery that Lady Moira was able to get the story in front of her husband and only by offering rewards did she finally recover some of the clothing and gems taken over the winter.
Upon investigation, the skeleton was found lying under a thick bed of peat at the bottom of the bog. A gravel layer provided a base and large stones had been placed at both the head and feet. The woman had been covered with a woolen rug and a veil of light fabric covered her face. She was supposed at the time to be a Danish Viking queen.
The importance of the discovery for archaeologists lies in the preserving quality of her bog grave. Under normal circumstances, any trace of clothing would have long since disintegrated but in this case it was recovered in quite reasonable condition.
The details of this and similar exhumations of the bog-people have now become the unique artistic property of Seamus Heaney the widely-read poet from Belfast.
It was in 1969 that Heaney read The Bog People, a study of these discoveries by the Danish archaeologist P. V. Glob, but an examination of his earlier poetry shows that he was well prepared to assimilate the book's influence. As early as 1967 he was using the turf image as metaphor for the elemental:
…it's like going into a turfstack, A core of old dark walled up with stone A yard thick. When you're in it alone You might have dropped, a reduced creature To the heart of the globe.
And in "Bogland" written about the same time, he dwells on the preserving quality of the bog:
They've taken the skeleton Of the Great Irish Elk Out of the peat, set it up An astounding create full of air. Butter sunk under More than a hundred years Was recovered salty and white.
In fact so many of his poems deal with "water and ground in their extremity," "alluvial mud, bogwater and tributaries," or "humus and roots," that it can be argued that his art was waiting for a symbol which could somehow contain them all.
His interest can be seen, for instance, in the poem "Bog Queen," published in November, 1972, and based on the County Down find:
I was barbered and stripped by a turf-cutter's spade Who veiled me again and packed coomb softly between the stone jambs at my head and feet. Till a peer's wife bribed him. The plait of my hair, A slimy birth-cord of bog, had been cut And I rose from the dark….
In a poem published in his collection, Wintering Out (1971), he shows a similar fascination with the Tollund Man, so called because he was discovered by peatcutters in the Tollund Fen in the Bjaeldskov valley of central Denmark. This man, alive during the early Ice Age, was so well-preserved by the bog that we can see exactly what he looked like right down to the gentle expression on his face.
Some day I will go to Aarhus To see his peat-brown head, The mild pods of his eyelids, His pointed skin cap.
Scientists have been able to examine the contents of his stomach to find that his last meal was a gruel of cultivated and wild winter grains. They have suggested that this meal and his subsequent death may have been part of a ritual sacrifice to some fertility goddess. It is this point that Heaney emphasizes:
Bridegroom to the goddess, She tightened her torc on him And opened her fen, Those dark juices working Him to a saint's kept body….
He goes on in the poem to relate this 2000 year-old death to more recent killings in Northern Ireland and finds his attitude to the foreign parishes of Denmark not unlike his feelings about the North:
Out there in Jutland In the old man-killing parishes I will feel lost, Unhappy and at home.
More recently he has published the poem "Bone Dreams" where he again returns to the Jutland bog-people, this time to explore the women (witches?) found staked and buried in the bogland:
Now my hands have found that queen staked in the bog, and I unpin her darkness: out of the black maw of the peat, sharpened willow withdraws gently.
Certainly Heaney has found rich ground in the bogland metaphor and will draw poetic strength from the images he develops here. There is the suggestion, however, that his interest in the bog-people goes beyond more fascination.
During a programme broadcast on Radio 4 (BBC Belfast) Heaney spoke of his feeling about the Republican movement in the North: "The early Iron Age in Northern Europe is a period that offers very satisfactory imaginative parallels to the history of Ireland at the moment." This is particularly true, he said, of the earlier involvement in vegetation religions, blood letting, and ritual sacrifice. "In many ways the fury of Irish Republicanism is associated with a religion like this, with a female goddess who has appeared in various guises. She appears as Cathleen Ni Houlihan in Yeats's plays; she appears as Mother Ireland. I think that the Republican ethos is a feminine religion, in a way. It seems to me that there are satisfactory imaginative parallels between this religion and time and our own time."
So far his collected poetry has made only indirect reference to the Northern troubles and he has berated himself in one place for deserting his native region. But the image of the bog people "rising from the dark" to reassert their ancient existence is not far from a parable of the drama now being enacted in Ulster.
In 1966 he wrote about the situation in the North and the result he foresaw for the poets of Northern Ireland: "This kind of tension might be expected to have either of two effects on the artistic life of the place. It might induce a sense of claustrophobia and a desire to escape or it might concentrate a man's energies on the immediate dramatic complex of tension and intrigue." Of course, a lot has changed since 1966 and Heaney claims, and rightly so, that he is not a political poet. Yet it is clear that he recognizes his essential affiliation with the North. He put the word on himself in that regard in a poem entitled "Whatever You Say, Say Nothing":
Yet for all this art and sedentary trade I am about as capable as fungus of breaking my soft grip on the sick place or its on me.
Perhaps in his use of the bog-people he has found a way of coming to terms with that grip.
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Death of a Naturalist 1966
Door into the Dark 1969
Wintering Out 1972
Field Work 1979
Poems: 1965-1975 1980
Station Island 1984
Sweeney Astray: A Version from the Irish [translator and adapter] (poetry) 1984
The Haw Lantern 1987
Seeing Things 1991
The Spirit Level 1996
Other Major Works
Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968-1978 (essays) 1980 The Government of the Tongue: Selected Prose, 1978-1987 (essays) 1988
The Cure at Troy: A Version of Sophocles' Philoctetes (drama) 1990
The Redress of Poetry (lectures) 1995
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SOURCE: "Beginnings," in Seamus Heaney, Bucknell University Press, 1975, pp. 19-35.
[In the following excerpt from the full-length study of Heaney's work, Buttel examines the seminal influences on Heaney's early poetry.]
"A poet begins involved with craft, with aspirations that are chiefly concerned with making," Seamus Heaney has said in a statement about his aims which he wrote two or three years ago to accompany a selection of his poems (Corgi Poets in Focus 2). The poet "needs a way of saying and there is a first language he can learn from the voices of other poets, dead and alive." He could have cited "Turkeys Observed" as an illustration of part of his own apprenticeship; this poem, which appeared in the Belfast Telegraph in 1962 (and later in Death of a Naturalist), was his first published one aside from several published before then over the pseudonym Incertus in Gorgon and Q, Queen's University literary magazines. It is not that one detects specific models; rather, the poem seems an exercise in applying some of the standard practices of modern poetry. The poem is characterized by imagistic exactitude: a dead turkey is "A skin bag plumped with inky putty." And it employs a conceit of the sort favored by the Thirties poets: "I find him ranged with his cold squadrons:/ The fuselage is bare, the proud wings snapped,/ The tail-fan stripped down to a shameful rudder" (with the pathos of these concluding lines sunk by the weight of contrivance). Some of the alliteration may be heavy-handed, as in "Blue-breasted in their indifferent mortuary,/ Beached bare on the cold marble slabs/ In immodest underwear frills of feather"—the apprentice reveling here in the craft of prosody; and the word "cowers" in "a turkey cowers in death" may be excessive, but the poet has carefully maintained the elegiac tone, in the modern way, by the "non-poetic" subject matter, by the objectivity of the title, and by the neutrality of the opening line—"One observes them, one expects them." The controlled movement of the poem also sustains the tone: within the fourline stanzas the rhythms are fluent but firm, and, since evidently no rhyme scheme arose naturally in the genesis of the poem, none was forcibly imposed. Although the turkeys, in the setting of "bleak Christmas dazzle," are surely emblems of mortality, their symbolic import is not overly insisted upon.
Basically this is a well-made poem, an academic exercise in the modern mode, the voice for the most part anonymous, still to be discovered. Only in the graphic force of the line "A skin bag plumped with inky putty" and in the second stanza, particularly in the oxymoron "smelly majesty" with its earthy adjective and in the energy of the phrase describing the inert beef, "A half-cow slung from a hook," does the poem anticipate the poet's distinctive manner:
The red sides of beef retain Some of the smelly majesty of living: A half-cow slung from a hook maintains That blood and flesh are not ignored.
A very promising apprentice poem, then. Heaney, again in the Corgi statement, refers to this stage of a poet's development as "a mimicry and a posturing that leads to confidence, a voice of his own that he begins to hear, prompting behind lines he has learned."
The poet's confidence was emerging rapidly at this time, for "Mid-Term Break," a Death of a Naturalist poem, published in Kilkenny Magazine not long after the appearance of "Turkeys Observed," indicates how ably he could now apply his new-found craft to a poetic statement concerning a painful personal experience. Heaney says that the poem, an elegy for a young brother killed in an auto accident, came to him quite spontaneously, that it almost wrote itself without his thinking about craft. Only in the prosodie overdetermination of the first two lines (the speaker "sat all morning in the college sick bay/ Counting bells knelling classes to a close") is there an intrusion of the craftsman at work. The rest reads as a straight recital of the literal details; a litany of trite comforting words becomes part of the quiet testimony of grief: "Big Jim Evans saying it was a hard blow," "And I was embarrassed/ By old men standing up to shake my hand/ And tell me they were 'sorry for my trouble,'" "as my mother held my hand/ In hers and coughed out angry tearless sighs." The lament is undramatized, controlled, simply reported:
Next morning I went up into the room. Snowdrops And candles soothed the bedside; I saw him For the first time in six weeks. Paler now, Wearing a poppy bruise on his left temple, He lay in the four foot box as in his cot. No gaudy scars, the bumper knocked him clear. A four foot box, a foot for every year.
The ritual effect of the snowdrops and candles occurs because it was part of the ritual scene; "poppy bruise" is poetically shocking because descriptively accurate; the laconic explanation, "the bumper knocked him clear," and the cruel mathematics of the one-line coda accentuate the understated bitter sadness. The directness, openness, and apparent matter-of-factness in this poem, on a difficult subject for poetry, have become recurrent characteristics of Heaney's voice.
"An Advancement of Learning," however, published in the Irish Times following the two previous poems and later in Death of a Naturalist, begins to project much more clearly the poet's individual voice. "Here," to quote once again from the Corgi statement, "craft passes into technique which is the ability to send the voice in pursuit of the self," and in this poem we follow this very process. If, as Heaney continues, "Technique is dynamic, active, restless, an ever provisional stance of the imagination towards experience," we see here imagination and technique rising to a greater degree of individuality; the poem is definitely in the poet's own idiom though it does exhibit a residue of "mimicry and posturing." The Times Literary Supplement reviewer of Death of a Naturalist, although finding the volume substantial and impressive, complained that "the most obvious surface fault is the rather glib or incongruous imagery stuck on in what seems to be an attempt to hit the required sophistication," quoting as illustration the first two stanzas of the poem, which concerns an encounter with a rat:
I took the embankment path (As always, deferring The bridge). The river nosed past, Pliable, oil-skinned, wearing A transfer of gables and sky. Hunched over the railing, Well away from the road now, I Considered the dirty-keeled swans.
For the reviewer "'nosed' and 'pliable' are surely doubtful; 'oil-skinned' is clever, but introduces an extraneous association; 'transfer' is somehow uncomfortably neat and final." I would quibble some with this assessment: "Transfer" is clever, all right, but it does indicate the observer's indulgence in idle romantic musings, seeing a pretty picture on the river surface despite the pollution, and it is not final since the pictorial image is picked up in the following stanza in the word "smudging," when the observer's reverie is intruded upon by the obscene reality of a rat which "slobbered curtly, close,/ Smudging the silence."
But more important than the question of limitations is the fact that in this early poem Heaney seized upon an area of subject matter and knowledge congenial to the discovery of his authentic voice. The vividness of physical detail in "back bunched and glistening,/ Ears plastered down on his knobbed skull" and the energy of word and speech in "But God, another was nimbling/ Up the far bank" and "A rat/ Slimed out of the water"—with adjective and noun here metamorphosing into disturbing active verbs: these are typical qualities in the first volume. One notes too the physical accuracy of the response in "My throat sickened so quickly that/ I turned down the path in cold sweat," with the repetition of sound in "sickened" and "quickly" an aural counterpart of actual constrictions in the throat. The effect comes naturally, denying thoughts of either craft or technique; here imagination is in full accord with the experience, and the experience occurs with a psychological lightness, moving from sickening shock to "thrilled care" and observation to a control of the situation; yet at the end a subtle balance of ambiguous reactions is struck, with both distaste and sympathy for the creature bound together with a recognition of man's pollution of nature—"This terror, cold, wet-furred, small-clawed,/Retreated up a pipe for sewage." The discoveries in this poem prepared for the thoroughly distinctive and successful title poem of the collection, Death of a Naturalist, which I will discuss later.
Heaney's literary and linguistic background was not unusual for a boy brought up on a Country Derry farm. Like other children at that time in the environs of Mossbawn, between Castledawson and Toome Bridge, along the Bann River just north of where it emerges from Lough Neagh, about thirty miles northwest of Belfast, he was exposed to the remnants of the oral tradition, the local lore and anecdotes, and the stories brought home from or heard at cattle fairs. He tells me that one of his father's cousins, who might be described as one of the surviving hedgerow "school-masters," would visit once a week and read and recite to the children in the family. Occasionally as a young boy and as the eldest child in the family he was called upon at a children's party or when friends and relatives visited to recite verses or sing a song, sentimental or patriotic things, Michael Dwyer's "Sullivan Beare," say, or "Me Da" by the Ulster folk poet W. F. Marshall, or a Percy French ballad such as "The Four Farrellys." Like his fellow students he received training in Gaelic, an extension of his linguistic identity and at least an acquaintance with another and yet a native linguistic tradition. As a boy, though, he wrote next to no poetry, unless one were to count the adolescent, roguish Latin verses that he, along with some his schoolmates at St. Columb's, wrote now and then for amusement and passed surreptitiously to one another. Perhaps, however, it is a sign of his future interest in writing poetry that while at St. Columb's he did try his hand at composing some Miltonic verses, though he got no further than three lines. While there he had one particular advantage, a very good English teacher who had his students reading deeply and thoroughly in Shakespeare, Chaucer, Wordsworth, and Keats, and he recalls reading Eliot's "The Hollow Men" at that time.
At Queen's University Heaney's interests became more definitely literary. There in the English syllabus he encountered a wider range of literature, other poets in the English tradition such as Clare and Hardy (as John Press in an article in The Southern Review has pointed out) and Hopkins, but also twentieth-century poets. At the same time he was becoming conscious of the Irish tradition, Yeats of course and other poets, both Anglo-Irish and unhyphenated Irish. He remembers reading Patrick Kavanagh's "The Great Hunger" during this period, and its powerful effect on him, for it was a modern poem that suggested possibilities for treating Irish subject matter. Then, while at St. Joseph's College of Education in 1961-62, he discovered and read Six Irish Poets, edited by Robin Skelton and including Austin Clarke, Richard Kell, Thomas Kinsella, John Montague, Richard Murphy, and Richard Weber. Also he wrote for a course he was taking a long paper on literary magazines in Ulster and learned through this project that a body of poetry could exist outside the classical English canon. Here were Irish poets, what's more Northern Irish poets, who had created a poetry out of their local and native background—W. R. Rodgers and John Hewitt especially. In the latter Heaney found not only a regionalist but one who was also quite urbane. Meanwhile he was continuing to discover other, non-Irish, poets too, R. S. Thomas and Ted Hughes, for example. It was also during this time, while these various influences were contributing to his own interests and urging s and adding to his growing assurance, and while his poems were beginning to be published, that he became one of a group of young writers who met regularly to discuss their work at the home of the English poet Philip Hobsbaum, who had come to teach at Queen's the year Heaney was at St. Joseph's. This was a group, says Heaney, that "generated a literary life" in Belfast; it was in this group that the poet met his friend and fellow poet, Michael Longley. Now he was no longer working in isolation. Here was a "forum" where he received serious criticism which countered the pleasing corroboration he felt when editors began accepting his poems.
The relatively few poems he wrote as an undergraduate dramatize the leap he was to make so shortly afterward. "Reaping in Heat," for example, depends on such poeticisms as "sycamores heaved a sleepless sigh" and "Lark's trills/ Shimmered" and it concludes on a Keatsian-Georgian note:
"October Thought" shows the impress of Hopkins on the neophyte poet:
Minute movement millionfold whispers twilight Under heaven-hue plum-blue and gorse pricked with gold, And through the knuckle-gnarl of branches, poking the night Comes the trickling tinkle of bells, well in the fold.
Heaney says that he was captivated by Dylan Thomas's poetry at this time too and published in Gorgon or O a poem very much in the Welsh poet's manner (though I have been unable to locate this poem and one or two others). "October Thought" is typical of what any number of university students might produce, though few of them would develop beyond this point. We can see in hindsight, however, that Heaney's obvious imitation of Hopkins (and I suspect that the same could be said of the Thomas poem) was, in its intricate wordplay, assonance, and alliteration, an initial learning of his craft, a prelude to his transposing of the primitive skills in this poem into his own mature technique and voice. Furthermore, in another poem, "Lines to Myself," we observe the poet goading himself into a more trenchant, forceful style:
In poetry I wish you would Avoid the lilting platitude. Give us poems, humped and strong, Laced tight with thongs of song. Poems that explode in silence Without forcing, without violence. Whose music is strong and clear and good Like a saw zooming in seasoned wood. You should attempt concrete compression, Half guessing, half expression.
And here both the advice and the style itself anticipate the course Heaney was to follow.
His rapid maturing as a poet who some four years later would publish an impressive first book is not entirely surprising. During this relatively brief period that I have been discussing, a number of literary stimuli seem to have converged for Heaney into a provisional poetics, a poetics for which he required some form of confirmation, of validation. A poetry of fuselages or of sociology was not authentic for him; what was, a poetry concerned with nature, the shocks and discoveries of childhood experience on a farm, the mythos of the locale—in short, a regional poetry—was essentially a counterpoetry, decidedly not fashionable at the time. To write such poetry called for a measure of confidence if not outright defiance. Indeed, Anthony Thwaite in his New Statesman review of Door into the Dark sees the authenticity of the poems but finds their appeal exotic, adding wryly, "Turbines and pylons for the 1930s: bulls for the 1960s. It's an odd progression." And a number of reviewers misleadingly have linked the poet with the Georgians, who relatively speaking played over the bucolic surface of nature whereas Heaney digs into the archetypal roots and into the psychic roots of his own being as well. As John Press says in his article, regionalism "may lend itself to a kind of universality which escapes the poetry of men whose material is derived from a study of contemporary politics." Put another way, it is what the poet does with his donné that matters. If the result is effective it makes little difference whether the poet begins with bulls or, as in the case of Alan Ginsberg, with supermarkets or other heterogeneous details of American culture.
Two poets in particular, it seems clear, served to release the young poet's latent purposes, to offerthe validation he required. Frost was one, certainly a pivotal figure for Heaney. Benedict Kiely; in his Hollins Critic article, "A raid into Dark Corners: the Poetry of Seamus Heaney," reports the poet's saying "that the first poet who ever spoke to him was Robert Frost." "Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for picking," a line in "Blackberry-Picking" (Death of a Naturalist) which bears an imprint of Frost's "After Apple Picking," is only one of a number of resemblances showing how well the Irish poet heard the American: both poets excel at rendering physical detail and sense experience. And Heaney must have noticed in Frost a poet who went against the grain of obvious experimentalism in his era and wrote verse in traditional forms—traditional forms but charged with the rhythms of natural speech. He must have noticed other characteristics too: a vision of nature which includes dark forces as we as benign ones; the human pain and tragedy suffered as profoundly by rural inhabitants as by others; the combining of matter of fact with transcendental inclinations; the appreciation of native skills and disciplines which have their corre spondences to the art of poetry. (The poet informs me, incidentally, that although he was generally unenthusiastic about farm work and not especially adept—like Frost—the one exception was his skill with a pitchfork, for which he earned some local acclaim.) Heaney, however, did not become a servile imitator even though specific signs of Frost's influence persist, with decreasing frequency, into Wintering Out, his most recent volume. He had found a twentieth-century model for the kind of poetry he desired to write, a model more recent than, say, Wordsworth or Clare, and he set about creating work that in theme and style diverges markedly from Frost's.
The other poet is Ted Hughes, whose poetry he came upon around 1962, and who provided a contemporary source of encouragement, a reinforcement of that given by Frost. One can perceive what this English poet meant, and still means, to Heaney when we read him saying in his review of Hughes's Selected Poems ("Deep as England" in Hibernia, December 1, 1972) that "Hughes brought back into English poetry an unsentimental intimacy with the hidden country. Probably not since John Clare had the outback of hedge and farmyard been viewed so urgently." But that intimacy goes deeper with both poets than hedge and farmyard; Heaney says that in Hughes's poetry "racial memory, animal instinct and poetic inspiration all flow into one another," and he might as well be speaking of his own poetry, a point that should become apparent in the course of this study. With an exception or two—"the last wolf killed in Britain" in Hughes's "February" and "the wolf has died out/ In Ireland" in Heaney's "Midnight" (Wintering Out)—it is not a matter of direct parallels or borrowings: superficial comparisons are easy enough to find in the rank, brute particulars of nature exploited by both poets. More important are the general affinities as, for example, the attraction of the archetypal and pagan for both. And Heaney's statement about Hughes, "It is not enough to praise his imagery for 'its admirable violence' or its exact sensuousness," could again refer to himself. He says that the chief effect on him was in the matter of diction, and the similarity here is pronounced: in both poets words erupt with kinesthetic and visceral force; a line will turn on a deliberately "unpoetic" word. Heaney speaks for both when he says, "Into the elegant, iambic and typically standard English intonations of contemporary verse he interjected an energetic, heavily stressed, consciously extravagant and inventive northern voice." Even here, however, it is not a case of direct borrowing; Heaney, as the sudden outpouring of his poems suggested, had his own inner board of language. Hughes was a fortuitous example. As John Press says, it was not so much discipleship: Hughes "saved [him] from making a false start." The important thing is that as he was getting started Heaney felt affinities with a number of poets, from Wordsworth to Hughes, who helped reveal to him his own resources.
Superseding literary influences and affinities in importance are the poet's identification with place and his intense engagement with language. These, I believe, would have enabled him to survive any false start. "Our poesy is as a gum which oozes/ From whence tis nourished": he is fond of this utterance by the poet in Timon of Athens and has quoted it more than once, one occasion being in an article he wrote for The Guardian in May, 1972, "The Trade of an Irish Poet," a key statement on the origins of his poetry. Press quotes him as saying that "Wordsworth was lucky and … I was lucky in having this kind of rich, archetypal subject matter … as part of growing up." Whereas Frost vitiated some of his poetry by becoming too often the poseur of his region, Heaney writes out of what is inextricably his birthright. Rural life itself has a rhythm determined by the cycle of the seasons and the round of tasks; it becomes a ritual of the land. Birth and death, immediate events, are parts of that rhythm too. In this setting a child's life has its full quota of drama, real terrors merging into the realm of legend: "the bog was rushy and treacherous," Heaney reports in the Guardian article, "no place for children. They said you shouldn't go near the moss-holes because 'there was no bottom in them.'"
And in this setting the landmarks of Irish history and myth project themselves into present consciousness. Benedict Kiely tells us that "Rody McCorley, the patriot boy renowned in balladry, was hanged at the Bridge of Toome in 1798" and he continues,
To the west of the loughshore are the Sperrin mountains to which O'Neill withdrew between Kinsale and his final flight to Europe. Glanconkyne, where he stayed for a while, has a complicated mythology associated with the autumn festival of Lugh, the father, in the mythologies, of Cuchullain. The mountains are plentifully marked by pre-Celtic standing stones and stone circles.
Thus it is an area where history, with its battles, heroes, subjections, and famines, flows back into prehistory, legend, and myth. In this rich primal material not only does the past inform the present but fable and land are conjoined, and it is against this background that one takes on a clear but complicated identity.
Looking back now, Heaney can see that he grew up in a center that did hold. Despite the history of discord and the recent eruption of conflict and violence that has so horribly blighted life in Northern Ireland, he did as a boy experience comparative stability. Catholics, the majority in his area, lived in relative harmony with the Protestants, a sharp awareness of differences notwithstanding. (George Evans, a Protestant neighbor, on one occasion brought rosary beads back from Rome and presented them to the Heaneys: "I stole them from the Pope's dresser," he said.) The differences were inescapable, however. Heaney says, again in the Guardian article, that in Mossbawn, between Castledawson and Toome, he was "symbolically placed between the marks of English influence and the lure of the native experience, between 'the demesne' [Moyola Park, now occupied by Lord Moyola, formerly Major James Chicester-Clark, ex-Unionist Prime Minister] and the 'bog' … The demesne was walled, wooded, beyond our ken."
This symbolic split has meant that the poet writes out of a dual perspective, and it has had special import for the language of his poetry. "The seeds," he has told me, "were in language, words." Even when a youth, before he was struck by any overt urge to write poems, individual words were compelling, to be mulled over in the mind. With more self-awareness now he can analyze the twinsources of his language, the literary words and the words of place, of origins or, put another way, the English and the native. Is Mossbawn, he wonders in the Guardian essay, a Scots-English word meaning the planter's house on the bog, or since "we pronounced it Moss Bann, and ban is the Gaelic word for white," might it not mean "the white moss, the moss of bog cotton? In the syllables of my home I see a metaphor of the split culture of Ulster." The names of the nearby townlands of Broagh and Anahorish "are forgotten Gaelic music in the throat, bruach and anach fhior uisce, the riverbank and the place of clear water," and they made their way into two of the poems in Wintering Out for which they serve as subject and title. Two other names in the immediate area, Grove Hill and Back Park, "insist that this familiar locale is a version of pastoral"; "Grove is a word that I associate with translations of the classics." His auditory imagination prefers another name, "The Dirraghs, from doire as in Derry," but nonetheless Spenser and Sir John Davies, who played their parts in the crushing of the indigenous culture, are also as poets figures who command his attention, contributing to the complex education one receives in this "split culture." The article concludes with this paragraph:
Certainly the secret of being a poet, Irish or otherwise, lies in the summoning and meshing of the subconscious and semantic energies of words. But my quest for precision and definition, while it may lead backward, is conducted in the living speech of a landscape that I was born with. If you like, I began as a poet when my roots were crossed with my reading. I think of the personal and Irish pieties as vowels, and the literary awareness nourished on English as consonants. My hope is that the poems will be vocables adequate to my whole experience.
Although he wants his idiom to adhere closely to the speech he was born with this does not mean that the effort should be methodical and deliberate, an effort to apply rigidly the view, "formulated most coherently by Thomas McDonagh," the scholar-activist slain in the 1916 uprising, that "the distinctive note of Irish poetry is struck when the rhythms and assonances of Gaelic poetry insinuate themselves into the texture of English verse." Sympathetic to the attempts of Austin Clarke and others to apply Gaelic techniques systematically, he finds "the whole enterprise a bit programmatic." It is better, he implies, to trust to one's roots and let the language of the poems arise naturally. This is what he has done, to singular advantage.
He is conscious of other divisions as well. Press quotes him as having experienced an "exile from a way of life which I was brought up to … from a farming community to an academic … exile in time … from childhood." This exile has resulted in an acute search into his cultural roots, accentuated by his moving in the conflicting worlds of Mossbawn-Belfast, Ulster-Ireland-England, Ireland-America. The search has been inward too, into the sources of self, which are also, ultimately, the sources of poetry. Further, he is a Catholic poet and fully aware of inner tensions the Catholic is heir to; constantly redeemed and constantly instilled with guilt. Benedict Kiely reports his saying, "Penance indeed was a sacrament that rinsed and renewed … but although it did give a momentary release from guilt, it kept this sense of sin as inseparable from one's life as one's shadows." But if some of his poems can be said to depend on a Catholic imagination, he has not been content to rest there; he has probed into the unconscious. As he asserts in The Listener (February 5, 1970), "circumstances have changed and writing is usually born today out of the dark active centre of the imagination … I think this notion of the dark centre, the blurred and irrational storehouse of insight and instincts, the hidden core of the self—this notion is the foundation of what viewpoint I might articulate for myself as a poet."
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SOURCE: "Poetry and Terror," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. 23, No. 15, September 30, 1976, pp. 38-40.
[In the following laudatory review of North, Murphy discusses the defining characteristics of Heaney's poetry.]
Visitors to Ireland have often remarked that we seem to live in the past. They note our strong attachment to beliefs which were held in the Dark Ages and our inability to end a conflict which goes back to the religious wars of the seventeenth century. Our moist green landscape charms them, where it remains unpolluted by modern industry. They see fields full of cattle, which have been a source of wealth since the mythical wars of Cuchulain and Maeve. The oceanic island atmosphere takes away their sense of time, and gives them instead an illusion that the past is retrievable, perhaps even happening today. Clergy strengthen this illusion by teaching in churches and schools that the dead will be resurrected. Our earth itself, with those vast wet bogs in the center of the island, seems to absorb the present and preserve the past. Here funerals draw much larger crowds than weddings. Ruins and buried remains are so plentiful that archaeologists have an endless future digging back through time. In this climate poetry flourishes, and the poet who has shown the finest art in presenting a coherent vision of Ireland, past and present, is Seamus Heaney.
He was born on a farm in a townland called Mossbawn, near Lough Neagh between Belfast and Derry, thirty-seven years ago, the eldest of nine children in a Catholic family. After six years at St. Columb's College, run by the Diocesan priests, in Londonderry, he studied English language and literature at Queen's University in Belfast, where he began to write poetry under the spell of Gerard Manley Hopkins. His first volume, Death of a Naturalist, was published ten years ago in 1966. "Words as bearers of history and mystery began to invite me," he has said about this period in his life. By birth and upbringing he belonged to the ancient world of the Irish countryside and traditional culture, with roots in a pre-Christian legendary past: but his education brought him into the modern world, where he discovered English poetry. The tension you can feel in Ireland between the two cultures, you also feel in his poetry.
He is the antipode of Yeats, who extended English poetry out beyond the demesne walls into the Irish countryside to appropriate its legends. Heaney brings the Irish countryside through his own voice into English poetry.
Those hobnailed boots from beyond the mountain Were walking, by God, all over the fine Lawns of elocution.
The result is a new and exciting sound. Granted he has Irish antecedents—Patrick Kavanagh, for example—and granted he has learned the craft of being true to his own Irish voice from a number of English and American poets, such as Edward Thomas, Robert Frost, and Ted Hughes. His original power, which even the sternest critics bow to with respect, is that he can give you the feeling as you read his poems that you are actually doing what they describe. His words not only mean what they say, they sound like their meaning. Often in his early poems he celebrates hard physical work, such as digging, bulling cows, ditching, ploughing, catching eels: all kinds of activities associated with ancient rural crafts and fertility which he witnessed as a child, a dead life which his poetry resurrects in a living body of words. His work has the potent charm of bringing back an old kind of beauty and a numinous fear, which cruder industrial terrors have all but blotted out: and it celebrates the newly discovered force of the poetic craft itself.
His primary statement about this craft, in the opening lines of his first book, connects poetry with terror.
Between my finger and my thumb The squat pen rests, snug as a gun.
Bullfrogs are compared to "mud grenades," and butter crocks on a pantry shelf to "large pottery bombs." Even allowing for the fashion in the Sixties for overemphasizing the toughness and cruelty of nature, you feel that these images are true. Grenades and bombs kept on some remote Irish farms during his childhood. So aptly in "The Barn,"
The musty dark hoarded an armoury Of farmyard implements harness plough-socks.
Heaney's second volume, Door into the Dark, appeared in 1969, the year when violence in Northern Ireland became world news. For three years he remained in Belfast, living with his wife and two sons in a "Protestant" street near the university where he taught. On the corner of this road a pub and its owner were blown up. Poetry that can digest this kind of horror is rare, though horror of this kind has produced much ill-digested poetry.
In 1972 he published his third collection, Wintering Out, which confirmed his gradual inward emigration into a new world of language.
The tawny guttural water spells itself: Moyola is its own score and consort, bedding the locale in the utterance, reed music, an old chanter breathing its mists through vowels and history.
Four years ago he moved south across the border with his family to live in a cottage on the edge of the Wicklow Mountains; choosing to become "an inner émigré," like the Russian poets Mandelstam, Akhmatova, and Pasternak. Heaney defines this role at the end of North, in "Exposure":
I am neither internee nor informer; An inner émigré, grown long-haired And thoughtful; a wood-kerne Escaped from the massacre, Taking protective colouring From bole and bark, feeling Every wind that blows;
"The fear that goes with the writing of verse," says Nadezhda Mandelstam in Hope Against Hope, "has nothing in common with the fear one experiences in the presence of the secret police. Our mysterious awe in the face of existence itself is always overridden by the more primitive fear of violence and destruction. M[andelstam] often spoke of how the first kind of fear had disappeared with the Revolution that had shed so much blood before our eyes." Seamus Heaney brings both kinds of fear together—the creative awe and the destructive horror—connecting the brutal real atrocities we have been shown on television for the past seven years with rituals of human sacrifice in remote antiquity. His poetry traces modern terrorism back to its roots in the early Iron Age, and mysterious awe back to the "bonehouse" of language itself. He looks closely in North at our funeral rites and our worship of the past. The whole of northern civilization from Denmark to Donegal is his "locale." We hear of Thor and Gunnar as well as Hercules; the Vikings as well as Sir Walter Raleigh. The central image of this work, a symbol which unifies time, person, and place, is bogland: it contains, preserves, and yields up terror as well as awe.
The nature of peat is to preserve certain things that are buried in it: primeval forests, elks, butter, suicides, strangled victims. In a lecture called "Feeling into Words," addressed to the Royal Society of Literature in London on October 17, 1974, Heaney said: "I began to get an idea of bog as the memory of the landscape, or as a landscape that remembered everything that happened in and to it. In fact, if you go round the National Museum in Dublin, you will realize that a great proportion of the most cherished material heritage of Ireland was 'found in a bog.'" He went on to say that he "had been reading about the frontier and the west as an important myth in the American consciousness, so I set up—or rather, laid down—the bog as an answering Irish myth." This is the conclusion of his poem "Bogland," at the end of Door into the Dark:
Our pioneers keep striking Inwards and downwards, Every layer they strip Seems camped on before. The bogholes might be Atlantic seepage. The wet centre is bottomless.
Heaney's original idea of bogland as a symbol of memory was objectively confirmed and extended by both political event and archaeological discovery. In 1969 the civil-rights marches in the city of Derry, and the counter-marches by the Royal Ulster Constabulary with batons drawn, focused world attention on the Catholics who lived in a low-lying slum called the Bogside. In a short while the word became synonymous for minority resistance to police oppression, and subsequently Irish Catholic resistance to British misrule. Bog itself is one of the few words of Irish origin to have been assimilated into English. Literally it means "soft." In English it acquired, perhaps because of its Irish origin as well as its color, connotations of shame, as in the slang of "bog" meaning "lavatory." Heaney carries the word up the ladder from the foul rag and boneshop to give it a nobler meaning. He was helped by publication in 1969 of The Bog People by the Danish archaeologist P. V. Glob What this fascinating book meant to him is best described in Heaney's own words.
It was chiefly concerned with preserved bodies of men and women found in the bogs of Jutland, naked, strangled or with their throats cut, disposed under the peat since early Iron Age times…. P. V. Glob argues convincingly that a number of these, and in particular, the Tollund Man, whose head is now preserved near Aarhus in the museum at Silkeborg, were ritual sacrifices to the Mother Goddess, the goddess of the ground who needed new bridegrooms each winter to bed with her in her sacred place, in the bog, to ensure the renewal and fertility of the territory in the spring. Taken in relation to the tradition of Irish political martyrdom for the cause whose icon is Kathleen Ni Houlihan, this is more than an archaic barbarous rite: it is an archetypal pattern. And the unforgettable photographs of these victims blended in my mind with photographs of atrocities, past and present, in the long rites of Irish political and religious struggles.
Heaney first made a connection between these Danish murders of two thousand years ago and modern Irish politics in a powerful poem called "The Tollund Man" in Wintering Out. Now in North he has created a cycle of six or more bog-sacrifice poems, compressing the archaeological information given by Glob into personal imagery. You could call them love poems that resurrect the dead in poetry. The language, like seed, is compact with life, sexual, even necrophiliac.
I reach past The riverbed's washed Dream of gold to the bullion Of her Venus bone.
You can feel the joy as well as the terror of ancient rites, a victim "hung in the scales / with beauty and atrocity," whose spine is "an eel arrested / under a glisten of mud." Sometimes the poet assumes a victim's identity, as in "Bog Queen," who speaks of her burial and resurrection in the first person: "My skull hibernated / in the wet nest of my hair." The short lines, the seminal images, and the vast connections in time or space between fragile details build up in "Kinship" (a six-page poem in six movements), which begins with a figure of circles: neck, nest, and a dog's motion before lying down.
Kinned by hieroglyphic peat on a spreadfield to the strangled victim, the love-nest in the bracken, I step through origins like a dog turning its memories of wilderness on the kitchen mat:
Many dead words are revived. From Old English and Norse he digs up bonehouse from bānhūs meaning body; scop meaning poet; and holmgang, a duel to the death. Irish words are slipped in, like foreign coins in a meter: crannog, an ancient lake dwelling; aisling, a vision; bawn, a ringed mound or fort; slobland, a marsh. He brings out refined shades of meaning in verbal sounds. "Dublin" is "spined and plosive." Remembering the laid-out corpses of the dead in his childhood, he recalls "their dough-white hands / shackled in rosary beads." The dead subject, the dead past, is described in language that's vividly alive: a grim statement in a joyful style. The "swimming tongue" of a Viking longship is "buoyant with hindsight"; and the final message of this tongue to Ireland in the future is:
Keep your eye clear as the bleb of the icicle, trust the feel of what nubbed treasure your hands have known.
Heaney has said that "the bog bank is a memory bank." How does it store and yield information? The symbol suggests that the past is continuously present under the ground we tread, permanently preserved, static and dead. It also suggests that no improving human change is possible, because all action is absorbed by the soft wet ground forever. Digging up the past, or writing poetry, appears to be the only way of redemption or renewal: a kind of resurrection. The symbol conveys a profound truth about Irish consciousness, and how we keep the past alive. But the bog has not "remembered everything that happened in and to it." Most of what happened has been forgotten. A few sacred objects congenial to itself are preserved by its acids: and what the peat yields up when the poet digs down deep enough is a strangled victim or a severed head. The bog does not liberate us with new knowledge of accurate history: it horrifies us with timeless myths perpetuating acts of cruelty based upon errors of judgment.
The dreadful power of the symbol is generated by the poetry with fascination amounting to approval. The poems embody the myths. In other poems, such as "Ocean's Love to Ireland," the vision is more historical. In "Act of Union" Heaney imagines the relationship between England and Ireland in the past as the rape of a feminine land by a male imperial power. No attempt here to demythologize the past. As in the bog poems—significantly it begins with an image of the bog—it acts like the peat itself, converting history into myth.
Are these images of human sacrifice redemptive in the same sense that tragedy can be? I think this poetry is seriously attempting to purge our land of a terrible bloodguilt, and inwardly acknowledging our enslavement to a sacrificial myth. I think it may go a long way toward freeing us from the myth by portraying it in its true archaic shape and color, not disguising its brutality. Naturally we wonder where Heaney himself stands in relation to the victims and the killers, what he has called "the tail end of a struggle in a province between territorial piety and imperial power." He makes no pretense about his deep uncertainty. Incertus was once a pseudonym he used. Some of his poems are "trial pieces," and they follow a thought "like a child's tongue following the toils of his calligraphy."
Heaney looks for companions in literature. He's both resourceful and protean. His ear is always to the ground from which, like Antaeus, he draws his strength. He converses with historical or literary figures, Breughel or Hamlet. Does he approve of Diodorus Siculus in a poem called "Strange Fruit," about a "girl's head like an exhumed gourd"? This puzzled me until I found in my battered ninth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica that Diodorus Siculus "as a critic … seems to have been altogether ignorant of the ethical advantages of history, and shrinks from administering praise or blame to the persons whose history he writes." So too Heaney's detachment could be a necessary element in the purification of our guilt.
Although Heaney commits himself to no belief in the causes that might claim his allegiance, such as the unification of Ireland, he embodies in poetry some of the terrorist actions that he refuses to endorse; as in a frightening poem called "Punishment," about the penalties inflicted in ancient Jutland and modern Belfast on girls who might have misbehaved. There is much sad truth in that evasive word "almost" in this passage:
My poor scapegoat, I almost love you but would have cast, I know, the stones of silence.
At the end of "Kinship" he addresses Tacitus, who reported with urbane critical accuracy the custom of human sacrifice among the barbarous Germani, and tells him he has found "a desolate peace." This involves self-lacerating recognition, almost rejection, of the goddess, whose victims are in other poems treated as "holy blissful martyrs," thenbodies preserved like those of the saints. The repulsion in these lines is far from Yeats's vision of the terrible beauty born in the sacrifice of Easter 1916, and closer to Joyce's:
Our mother ground is sour with the blood of her faithful, they lie gargling in her sacred heart as the legions stare from the ramparts. Come back to this "island of the ocean" where nothing will suffice. Read the inhumed faces
of casualty and victim; report us fairly, how we slaughter for the common good and shave the heads of the notorious, how the goddess swallows our love and terror.
To bring together things, feelings, and ideas in words which have never before been connected is imagination of the highest kind; and in this rare quality Seamus Heaney's North excels. I read it as a triumph of art over terror. It has the fear of death on almost every page, and brings the terror under artistic control. The book's weakness is confined to a small section at the end, added like a print-room to a gallery of paintings. Here the poems are lower-keyed, more talkative. The verse is looser, the language and imagery are not so inspired.
Terror darkens this book, but the poem which has the last word appears as a frontispiece. Every word in it rings true to the culture, to my memory of Ireland in the past, to its sad beauty. The play of light and shadow in this poem, the spaces filled by sunlight, the woman baking bread, the tick of two clocks work like a revelation as in the art of Vermeer. I'm thinking of the Officer and Laughing Girl at the Frick, where a dark moment of time is suspended forever in a ray of light that pours through an open window, crosses a blank wall under a map of Holland, and is caught up by a girl's ecstatic smile. Heaney's poem is called "Mossbawn: Sunlight," after his birthplace.
There was a sunlit absence. The helmeted pump in the yard heated its iron, water honeyed in the slung bucket and the sun stood like a griddle cooling against the wall of each long afternoon. So, her hands scuffled over the bakeboard, the reddening stove sent its plaque of heat against her where she stood in a floury apron by the window. Now she dusts the board with a goose's wing, now sits, broad-lapped, with whitened nails and measling shins: here is a space again, the scone rising to the tick of two clocks. And here is love like a tinsmith's scoop sunk past its gleam in the meal-bin.
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Buttel, Robert. Seamus Heaney. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 88 p.
Biographical and critical study of Heaney.
Corcoran, Neil. Seamus Heaney. London: Faber and Faber, 1986, 192 p.
Provides a biographical and critical overview. Corcoran includes a select bibliography.
Quinlan, Kieran. 'Tracing Seamus Heaney." World Literature Today 69, No. 1 (Winter 1995): 63-8.
Overviews the poet's life and verse, emphasizing the political nature of both.
Andrews, Elmer. "The Gift and the Craft: An Approach to the Poetry of Seamus Heaney." Twentieth Century Literature XXI, No. 4 (Winter 1985): 368-79.
Determines the influence of Patrick Kavanaugh and William Wordsworth on Heaney's work.
Balakian, Peter. "Seamus Heaney's New Landscapes." The Literary Review XXXI, No. 4 (Summer 1988): 501-5.
Praises Heaney's use of sensuous language and of Irish landscape and culture.
Beaver, Harold. "Seamus Heaney: Prospero or Ariel?" Parnassus XVI, No. 1 (1990): 104-13.
Juxtaposes the tone and themes of Heaney's poetry against his essays.
Brown, Duncan. "Seamus Heaney's 'Book of Changes': The Haw Lantern." Theoria LXXIV (October 1989): 79-96.
Marks the volume as a significant development in the poet's career, noting the influence of Mandelstam, Blake, Wilbur, and Zbigniew Herbert on Heaney's style and themes.
Burris, Sidney. The Poetry of Resistance: Seamus Heaney and the Pastoral Tradition. Athens: Ohio University Press, 165 p.
Analyzes the pastoral elements of Heaney's work and places his poetry within the context of the pastoral tradition.
Hart, Henry. Seamus Heaney: Poet of Contrary Progressions. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1992, 219 p.
Collection of critical essays by Hart, including his prizewinning essays "The Anxiety of Trust," and "Seamus Heaney's Poetry of Meditation: Door into the Dark."
Hunter, Jefferson. "The Borderline of Poetry." Virginia Quarterly Review 68, No. 4 (Autumn 1992): 801-08.
Positive review of Seeing Things and The Cure at Troy: A Version of Sophocles' Philoctetes, modernized for the Irish theater in 1990.
Kinzie, Mary. "Deeper than Declared: On Seamus Heaney." Salmagundi No. 80 (Fall 1980): 22-57.
Offers a thematic study of Poems 1965-75, focusing on the verse written after North.
Lloyd, David. "The Two Voices of Seamus Heaney's North." Ariel X, No. 4 (October 1979): 5-13.
Examines the disparity between the voices of Part I and Part II of North.
Longley, Edna. '"Inner Emigré' or 'Artful Voyeur'? Seamus Heaney's North" In Poetry in the Wars, pp. 140-69. Newcastle upon Tyne, Eng.: Bloodaxe Books, 1986.
Lauds North as Heaney's best poetry to date and his most politically significant.
McGuirk, Kevin. "Questions, Apostrophes, and the Politics of Seamus Heaney's Field Work." Ariel XXV, No. 3 (July 1994): 67-81.
Analyzes Field Work in the wake of violence in Belfast in 1969.
McLoughlin, Deborah. "'An Ear to the Line': Modes of Receptivity in Seamus Heaney's 'Glanmore Sonnets'." Papers on Language and Literature XXV, No. 2 (Spring 1989): 201-15.
Discusses thematic and stylistic aspects of the sonnets in Field Work.
Macrae, Alasdair. "Seamus Heaney's New Voice in Station Island" In Irish Writers and Society at Large, edited by Masaru Sekine, pp. 122-38. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble Books, 1985.
Views Station Island in light of the relationship of the modern poet to his or her society.
Moldaw, Carol. "A Poetic Conscience." Partisan Review LXn, No. 1 (Winter 1995): 144-48.
Reviews Selected Poems and Seeing Things, noting the "geological shift" which occurs in Heaney's poetry.
Molino, Michael R. "Flying by the Nets of Language and Nationality: Seamus Heaney, the 'English' Language, and Ulster's Troubles." Modern Philology 91, No. 2 (November 1993): 180-201.
Explores Heaney's polyphonic, Anglo-Irish voice in Wintering Out as the poet speaks of the political events in Northern Ireland.
Owens, Colin. "Heaney's 'Polder.'" The Explicator 52, No. 3 (Spring 1994): 183-85.
Interprets Heaney's "Polder" as a love poem.
Sandy, Stephen. "Seeing Things: The Visionary Ardor of Seamus Heaney." Salmagundi No. 100 (Fall 1993): 207-25.
Perceives Seeing Things as the introspective, meditative testimony to Heaney's Northern Irish heritage.
Tapscott, Stephen. "Poetry and Trouble: Seamus Heaney's Irish Purgatorio" Southwest Review 71, No. 4 (Autumn 1986): 519-35.
Places Heaney and his contemporaries among their Anglo-Irish models, Yeats and Joyce, finding Heaney aligned with the former's historicism and the latter's Catholicism.
Watt, R.J.C. "Seamus Heaney: Voices on Helicon." Essays in Criticism XLIV, No. 3 (July 1994): 213-34.
Maintains that Heaney's voice is as divided as his Northern Ireland community.
Additional coverage of Heaney's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 5, 7,14, 25, 37, 74, 91; Discovering Authors: British; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85-88; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 25, 48; Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography 1960 to Present; Discovering Authors: Poets Module; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 40; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, Vol. 95; and Major Twentieth-Century Writers.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1624
SOURCE: A review of Field Work, in New Republic, Vol. 181, No. 3389, December 22, 1979, pp. 31-3.
[In the following essay, Pinsky provides a favorable review of Field Work.]
The poems of Seamus Heaney give several kinds of pleasure: first of all, he is a talented writer, with a sense of language and rhythm as clean, sweet, and solid as newworked hardwood. Beyond that, his previous book, North, showed inspiringly that his talent had the limberness and pluck needed to take up some of the burden of history—the tangled, pained history of Ireland. Heaney's success in dealing with the murderous racial enmities of past and present, avoiding all the sins of oratory, and keeping his personal sense of balance, seems to me one of the most exhilarating poetic accomplishments in many years.
It is no real dispraise of Field Work to observe that it is a less original, less heroically stretched work than North. There is a distinct feeling of artistic Tightness about the relatively more measured qualities of these new poems: they present a less agonized manner, and a more actual Ireland, seen from closer to ground level.
In North, the English language was partly reinvented to emphasize words rooted in the tongues of the remote Scandinavian invaders, a thorny cadence and vocabulary of Germanic and Celtic parts jammed together, with Frenchified or Latinate bits floating in a calculated violent relation to the whole. And while an American reader's first mental picture of Northern Ireland may be (by virtue of television) grimly urban, Heaney's speech in North was rooted in farmland and fen. When, in the first sentence of "Come to the Bower," the poet reach es into the peat soil that mummifies the past and sustains the present, the language he uses corresponds to the physical action:
My hands come, touched By sweetbriar and-the tangled vetch, Foraging past the burst gizzards Of coin-hoards To where the dark-bowered queen, Whom I unpin, Is waiting.
The freshness of the idiom seems openly made out of something like archaeological discovery: each word ("forage," "vetch," "gizzards") set to suggest that the flecks of dark, rich mold have just been brushed from it.
In Field Work, the characteristic gestures seem less intuitive and sensory, more direct and prosaic. When the poet asks the Sibyl, "What will become of us?" she begins her answer in a suitably grave, prophetic way: "I think our very form is bound to change./ Dogs in a siege. Saurian relapses. Pismires./ Unless forgiveness finds its nerve and voice.'" This in itself confirms that the title Field Work denotes (among other things) an outward, daylit kind of attention; and the Sibyl's conclusion touches an even more prosaic level:
'My people think money And talk weather. Oil-rigs lull their future On single acquisitive terms. Silence Has shoaled into the trawlers' echosounders. The ground we kept our ear to for so long Is flayed or calloused, and its entrails Tented by an impious augury. Our island is full of comfortless noises.'
Of course, this speech is not in the poet's own voice; and it is one of the most explicitly public and civic passages in this volume. But just the same, the passage exemplifies Heaney's "field" in these poems, some of them elegies for the victims of civil troubles.
In the affecting poem "Casualty," one such victim blunders into a pub that is blown up, on a night he decides to defy an IRA curfew—or rather, to ignore the curfew, because he is stubborn, and likes to drink. In a bar out of his own neighborhood, he is "blown to bits" by the side that is more or less "his": killed more or less by accident, through having needed to be himself, as naturally as a fish.
He had gone miles away For he drank like a fish Nightly, naturally Swimming toward the lure Of warm lit-up places, The blurred mesh and murmur Drifting among glasses. In the gregarious smoke.
The sad comedy of this picture—the doomed man (who once took the poet fishing) as a fish, the pub as a net—embodies what is best about these poems: Heaney's sense of individual human character as not at all heroic, but somehow glorious, in its persistence.
Heaney's description of the casualty ("I loved his whole manner") perhaps strikes, glancingly, a small note of selfportraiture: "Sure-footed but too sly,/ His deadpan sidling tact,/His fisherman's quick eye/And turned observant back." The tact, the sure-footedness, and most of all the "turned observant back," all suggest the way Field Work hails its materials: an agile attention, too reserved for the front-squared gaze of the journalistic.
I have dwelled, somewhat misleadingly, on the role of Northern Ireland in Heaney's work, because national matters seem to provide the most immediately available examples of his accomplishments. Perhaps those matters have impelled him to his accomplishments. But it is a strength of the volume as a whole that not all of its poems are concerned with the stresses of Ireland (though the stresses for an Irish artist born in the North are never distant, in Field Work, for long).
There is, for instance, a genial, untamed sensuality in the poems, winningly countered by Heaney's shrewd comic sense. In a pretty, small poem ("The Guttural Muse"), the country accents of teenagers leaving a bucolic "discotheque" rise up to his hotel room: voices and accents "thick and comforting/ As oily bubbles the feeding tench sent up." The slime of the tench, the poem mentions, is said to cure wounds on other fish—and then, there is a girl in a white dress, "being courted out among the cars": "As her voice swarmed and puddled into laughs/I felt like some old pike all badged with sores/Wanting to swim in touch with soft-mouthed life." I enjoy the sense of Heaney's particular, complicated personality here, especially as it grins at itself: the homely, pragmatic grotesqueness of the metaphor; the way an erotic moment comes spinning into his imagination out of a glimpse of white dress and, most characteristically, out of a local form of speech.
Perhaps the center of Field Work is the sequence, "Glanmore Sonnets"; in one set of terms, these poems are about living in a rural cottage for a time. The poems are pastoral: "The mildest February for twenty years," says the first sonnet: "Now the good life could be to cross a field/And art a paradigm of earth new from the lathe/Of ploughs." But it is a disturbed, in fact a haunted pastoral, as the last lines of the same sonnet acknowledge: "Breasting the mist, in sower's aprons,/My ghosts come striding into their spring stations./The dream grain whirls like freakish Easter snows."
The "Glanmore Sonnets" play the dark, pre-Norman sounding diction of North ("Old ploughsocks gorge the subsoil of each sense") in a comic way against Latin and French roots, which in self-parody are made to seem mincing and affected. In one sonnet, the poet begins to muse upon a comparison of himself and his companion with William and Dorothy Wordsworth, in their country retreat—a comparison briskly dismissed by the woman. On the way to his literary-biographical venture, the poet writes two Unes, using such Latinate and/or French diction, that are quite funny in context: about some sundown birdsongs, "It was all crepuscular and iambic"; and about some deer, "Like connoisseurs, inquisitive of air."
This bantering lyricism, like the idea of writing a sequence of actual sonnets, presents a particularly un-American side of Heaney. A prosodist and a humanist, he seems to incorporate a literary element into his work without embarrassment, apology, or ostentation. I think that such a sense of other writing—that is, of "literature"—as just one more resource may come less freely to many American poets of Heaney's age (around 40).
Having said that, I will admit that there are times when some of these poems do seem literary in a pejorative sense. One might use that word for an occasional stale, bardic note ("Everything in me/Wanted to…" etc.). And when the "boortree," another name for "elderberry," turns out to be a form of "bowertree," the poem made out of all that word-worrying seems held together too much by will and by learning—not helped by a self-apostrophe as "etymologist of roots and graftings." But these lapses don't matter much in a book of so much grace, generosity, wit, and seriousness.
Field Work ends with a translation, the Ugolino material from the Inferno. It's a marvelous job, in idiomatic, but forcefully compressed language, and lines of loose, rhymed pentameter. The story of unquenchable anger ends with Dante's execration on the city of Pisa. In the context of Seamus Heaney's last two books, the passage is also a kind of admonition, a minatory urging of forgiveness as well as a curse. It recalls the Sibyl's prediction of cannibalism ("Dogs in a siege. Saurian relapses. Pismires,") "Unless forgiveness finds its nerve and voice":
Pisa! Pisa, your sounds are like a hiss Sizzling in our country's grassy language. And since the neighbor states have been remiss In your extermination, let a huge Dyke of islands bar the Arno's mouth, let Capraia and Gorgona dam and deluge You and your population. For the sins Of Ugolino, who betrayed your forts, Should never have been visited on his sons. Your atrocity was Theban. They were young And innocent: Hugh and Brigata And the other two whose names are in my song.
Historical, and yet concluding with the particularity of individual names; as coolly detached as a "turned back," and yet as intense as their language—these translated lines, and the sure instinct to put them as concluding words, are another measure of Heaney's art.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5920
SOURCE: "The Matter of Ireland and the Poetry of Seamus Heaney," in Dutch Quarterly Review, Vol. IX, No. 1,1979, pp. 4-23.
[In the following excerpt, Zoutenbier traces the thematic and stylistic development of Heaney's verse.]
Seamus Heaney was born in Country Derry, Northern Ireland, in 1939, the oldest of nine children; and spent the first fourteen years of his life at Mossbawn, near Lough Neagh in County Derry, where his father was a fanner and cattle dealer. From the primary school at Anahorish, he moved on to St Columb's, a Catholic boarding school in Derry, and then to Queen's University, Belfast, where he read English and where, after working in a Belfast secondary school and in a teacher training college, he returned to teach. In 1972, he gave up teaching for full-time writing, moving with his family to the Irish Republic, to a cottage that was a gate lodge of Glanmore Castle on the former Synge estate in Wicklow. He has since moved back into Dublin, living with his wife and three children in Sandymount, and teaching at Carysfort College, a Catholic teacher training college, where he is head of the English department. He is a member of the Irish Arts Council, and runs a fortnightly book programme on Irish radio. So far Heaney has published four volumes of poetry, Death of a Naturalist (1966), Door into the Dark (1969), Wintering Out (1972), and North (1975); a collection of short autobiographical fragments Stations (1975); and a number of critical articles and uncollected poems in different magazines.
Heaney's rural background and the "matter of Ireland" provided him with a subject; his reading of English liter ature helped to shape his language; or as Heaney has said himself: "I began as a poet when my roots were crossed with my reading". A book by the Danish archeologist, P.V. Glob, The Bog People, which Heaney first read in 1969, became important to him, when what he found there merged with his own images of bogland, and helped him towards finding symbols and a myth for his own writing. The reading of the Glob book set off a further interest in archeology, which is apparent in North: some of the poems in that volume being inspired by recent excavations in Ireland. And this interest in archeology coincides with Heaney's notion of a poem as an archeological find, dug up from the depths of the memory or imagination.
The fact that Heaney's poetry is so much tied up with a particular locale may seem a limitation, but his feeling for his own territory is a source of emotion for the poet, which infuses his language, and makes it come alive. In a lecture called "The Sense of Place" Heaney has talked about the "vital and enhancing bond that exists between our consciousness and our country", and about a "grounding of the self and an "earthing of the emotions". In Heaney's later poetry his response to the Irish situation has become increasingly imaginative and visionary as a "country of the mind" has replaced the geographical country, though the former is still rooted in the latter.
One could say that the poetry of Seamus Heaney starts from a sense of displacement, personal and cultural—Heaney moved away from his home area, physically as well as in the mind, and has moved away again from Northern Ireland—which leads to a search for identity and roots through language; or as Heaney has put it himself, to the making of a "myth of identity through language". This search starts with the rediscovery and recreation of Heaney's personal past in Death of a Naturalist and Door into the Dark, volumes which include among other things reminiscences of a country childhood. Towards the end of Door into the Dark and in Wintering Out Heaney widens his scope to Irish history, and goes deeper into the origins of his country's culture. The first part of North continues this quest, while the second part deals with dayto-day personal and political events.
There is a continuous development of theme and style throughout the four volumes that Heaney has published so far. He has extended his subject matter from personal memories and private experience to history and mythology and the origins of a culture. The landscape, which features throughout the poetry, has become associated with history and with language, changing from the actual physical landscape of Heaney's home area, to a conceptual, cultural landscape embodying the past, or to a visionary landscape which reveals a kind of sacral history.
Heaney has become more certain of his subject as he has got a closer grip on it with his language: one could characterize his poetry as a continuous attempt to get in touch with a subject or a vision, something that is already there in the imagination, but needs to be brought out into the light. Unlike Joyce who uses experience as a starting-point from which his language and his imagination take off, Heaney moves inward to his subject. He goes back to the structures which underlie experience, to a life "deeper and older than himself"; and again unlike Joyce he submits himself to his country's history and culture, finding himself through a sense of community rather than in isolation and exile.
Death of a Naturalist
In "Digging", the opening poem of Heaney's first volume, several items of theme and style that turn out to be characteristic of Heaney's poetry are already evident: the precise observation of physical phenomena (as in the beginning of Joyce's Portrait all the five senses play a part); memory which goes back from father to grandfather; a sense of unease and alienation ("But I've no spade to follow men like them"); the search for roots; and the continuation of a tradition (digging with the pen instead of with a spade). The father digging, "nicking and slicing neatly", is the first example of a series of portraits of local craftsmen as a metaphor for the poet: as in "The Diviner", "The Thatcher", and the smith in "The Forge", and others. The "nicking and slicing neatly" corresponds to the craft of the poet shaping his language, while the "going down" and "digging" are another task for the poet, like the plumbing of hidden sources of the diviner. "Making" and "discovering", the "craft" and the "gift" are words which Heaney himself has used several times for these two activities. There are other poems about the writing of poetry in Death of a Naturalist and Door into the Dark. In "Personal Helicon" Heaney states that the writing of poetry is a search for the self:
Now, to pry into roots, to finger slime, To stare big-eyed Narcissus into some spring Is beneath all adult dignity. I rhyme To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.
In "The Peninsula" (Door into the Dark) poetry is the re-shaping of past experience in order to create the self, and to get in touch with the outside world.
The poems in Death of a Naturalist can be loosely divided into groups according to theme. The largest group are the poems about childhood, which read like a kind of Bildungsroman in verse. They move from a child's fear in "Death of a Naturalist", and "The Barn" to the conquering of that fear in "An Advancement of Learning", and the shrugging of shoulders at the sight of drowning puppies; "Follower" and "Ancestral Photograph" are about the son succeeding the father. "At a Potato Digging" and "For the Commander of 'Eliza'" treat a subject from Irish history, the great famine. "Docker" and "Poor Women in a City Church" present images of the two cultures in Ireland: the violence of the Belfast docker whose idea of God is "a foreman with certain definite views / Who orders life in shifts of work and leisure"; and the submissive women kneeling in a church: "Golden shrines, altar lace, / Marble columns and cool shadows / Still them." The volume ends with a group of love poems, and a group of poems about art and artists such as Synge and Saint Francis who like Heaney derive their subject from nature.
Death of a Naturalist contains a variety of styles. On the one hand there is a poem like "Turkeys Observed", a description of slaughtered turkeys in a poultry shop, which is among the earliest poems that Heaney wrote, a very neat and accurate exercise, very limited in tone and subject-matter. Contrasting with that there is the group of poems about childhood, where the tone is very personal and open. Most of those poems are written in free verse. They are the most successful in the volume, where the language gets closest to the experience, even though Heaney lays it on rather thick at times, for example in the excessive description in the title-poem "Death of a Naturalist". The influence of Hopkins, whom Heaney read as a student, is noticeable in some of the early poems, in heavily alliterated lines like "the squelch and slap / Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge". In "At a Potato Digging" the language imposes a vision on an observed scene, which does not fit. The potato-diggers are seen as enacting a kind of pagan ritual, but the religious sentiment expressed does not belong to them, nor does it belong to Heaney. In a poem like "Waterfall", where a waterfall is compared to "villains dropped screaming to justice", and the poet poses as the self-conscious observer: "My eye rides over and downwards, falls with / Hurtling tons that slabber and spill", the language becomes too fanciful in its metaphors and diverts attention from the object described. Heaney is at his best in this volume when he describes his own personal experience, and he has not much grip yet on a subject that lies outside himself, like history or inanimate nature.
Door into the Dark
The poems in Door into the Dark are linked not so much by a theme as by a common mood or metaphor. Darkness in one form or another occurs in most of the poems and embodies different though not unconnected things. In the title-poem it dramatizes the poet's uncertainty: "All I know is a door into the dark". In this volume Heaney is groping about in the dark, trying to get a grasp on his subject. In a poem like "The Forge" he is not very successful. The smith, like Kelly's bull in "The Outlaw", retires into the dark, as if he ultimately escaped the poet. In the first three poems of the volume, "Night-Piece", "Gone" and "Dream", the subjects seem to come up out of the dark of the imagination, but they remain half-hidden there. In "The Peninsula" and in "In Gallurus Oratory" the dark is the place where one needs to retire in order to achieve a vision. This vision is not something that lies outside the common order of things, but an illumination or heightening of the ordinary: "things founded clear on their own shapes", "the sea a censer, and the grass a flame", like the renewal of the "smells of ordinariness" in "Night Drive". In the latter poem the movement is the same as in the other two: travelling, immersion in the dark, and coming back with a vision. There are sexual undertones, but they escape analysis. These poems are as much about how to live, as how to write or to make art. For both it is necessary to establish an intimate contact with the outside world. In "In Gallarus Oratory" this amounts to the erotic vision of the mystic; but the poem is about that kind of vision or writing, it is not itself an embodiment of it, as are some later poems of Heaney's. "The Plantation" is another poem about the problem of living and/or writing. Losing oneself without being lost, "following whim deliberately" ("The Return",) to be in control while at the same time surrendering oneself, are necessary conditions. "A line goes out of sight and out of mind / Down to the soft bottom of silt and sand / Past the indifferent skill of the hunting hand" ("Settings"), is another metaphor for the writing of poetry. In "A Lough Neagh Sequence", a poem about the life-cycle of eels, the dark has a more explicitly sexual meaning in the life of the eels, as well as cosmic significance. It is a poem full of circular movements, dramatizing this cycle and the "horrid cable" in which both human and animal are caught without distinction. The sequence ends in fear (a more adult version of the fear in Death of a Naturalist) of the dark cosmic processes for which there is no resolution.
The latter part of Door into the Dark contains a few poems which point forward to further developments. "Relic of Memory" is the first poem about relics in the bog and the attraction they have for the poet. "Shoreline" is about the ritual timeless moment which brings the poet into contact with sacral history, which is revealed in the landscape:
Listen. Is it the Danes, A black hawk bent on the sail? Or the chinking Normans? Or currachs hopping high On to the sand?
"Bogland", at the end of the volume, is the first poem where the bog becomes a mythical landscape and a symbol for Ireland:
Melting and opening underfoot, Missing its last definition By millions of years. They'll never dig coal here, Only the waterlogged trunks Of great firs, soft as pulp. Our pioneers keep striking Inwards and downwards, Every layer they strip Seems camped on before. The bogholes might be Atlantic seepage. The wet centre is bottomless.
In Door into the Dark Heaney had already extended his scope beyond the strictly personal; in Wintering Out he goes further in this direction, though he approaches his subject-matter in a rather cautious and hesitant manner at first. The five poems with which the volume opens are about the Irish colonial past, but this is only indicated through allusions. The mood in the poems is desolate, there is a sense of starvation and of the shrinking of life, but one does not know why. They are not located specifically in time or place. "These long nights", "those mound-dwellers", "the back end of a bad year", "some outhouse", could be any time and any place. The poet's vision is blurred by fog and rain ("mizzling rain / blurs the far end / of the cart track", "Those mound-dwellers / go waist-deep in mist") and he is hesitant to approach or accept it. He is merely pondering a possibility: "I might tarry / with the moustached / dead", "Perhaps I just make out / Edmund Spenser". The poem "Bog Oak" presents a rather sharp contrast between the English and native experience:
Edmund Spenser, dreaming sunlight, encroached upon by geniuses who creep "out of every corner of the woodes and glennes" towards watercress and carrion.
Edmund Spenser's pastoral vision is not for Ireland, but these poems are not entirely desolate. "The Last Mummer" ends with hope and the possibility of a new beginning. "Anahorish" (meaning "place of clear water") is a version of Gaelic pastoral or the poet's personal Helicon, which first fertilized his imagination. It is the first poem where landscape becomes language: "soft gradient / of consonant, vowel meadow".
"Land," "Gifts of Rain" and "Oracle" present the poet in a relationship of close intimacy with the land. In "Gifts of Rain" he states what this intimacy means to him as a poet:
I cock my ear at an absence— in the shared calling of blood arrives my need for antediluvian lore. Soft voices of the dead are whispering by the shore
that I would question (and for my children's sake) about crops rotted, river mud glazing the baked clay floor.
The function of poetry is no longer private: the shaping of one's own identity. But the poet assigns himself a public role:
a mating call of sound rises to pleasure me, Dives, hoarder of common ground.
The next series of poems are about language and landscape and the two cultural and language traditions in Ireland. "Toome," like "Broagh" and "Anahorish" is a place-name poem (the writing of poems explaining the names of places is an old genre in Irish literature). Here the sound of the Gaelic words "anahorish", "broagh" and "Toome" (all names connected with Heaney's home area), draw the poet back into the past of the land and the language. These poems, like "A New Song," are an attempt to incorporate and combine both the Gaelic and the English tradition. Heaney himself, in an interview with Seamus Deane, has said about these poems: "I had a great sense of release as they were being written, a joy and devilmay-careness, and that convinced me that one could be faithful to the nature of the English language—for in some senses these poems are erotic mouth-music by and out of the anglo-saxon tongue—and, at the same time, be faithful to one's own non-English origin, for me that is County Derry." "A New Song" is a rallying poem, written out of impatience with the state of cultural affairs, the separateness of the two cultures:
But now our river tongues must rise From licking deep in native haunts To flood, with vowelling embrace, Demesnes staked out in consonants. And Castledawson we'll enlist And Upperlands, each planted bawn— Like bleaching-greens resumed by grass— A vocable, as rath and ballaun.
Words like "demesne", "Castledawson", "Upperlands", "bawn", "bleaching-greens" call up the English colonization of Ireland. In "The Trade of an Irish Poet" Heaney has said: "I think of the personal and Irish pieties as vowels, and the literary awarenesses nourished on English as consonants. My hope is that the poems will be vocables adequate to my whole experience."
"Linen Town," the poem that precedes the sequence "A Northern Hoard," is about the irreversibility of history. "A Northern Hoard," like the introductory poem of Wintering Out about an internment camp, treats the present violent situation in Northern Ireland, in language that refers to the actual situation (words like "gunshot", "siren" and "clucking gas" and "sniper") but also puts it in a mythological perspective. "Roots," the first poem of the sequence is about the "nightmare of history" intruding into people's private lives, and the failure of ordinary human feelings like love, in that situation. In "No Man's Land" there is a sense of guilt at the inadequacy of one's reaction. "Stump" is about the failure of poetry: "What do I say if they wheel out their dead? / I'm cauterized, a black stump of home". In "No Sanctuary" and "Tinder" there is a sense of complicity within a community. In "Tinder" "cold beads of history and home", relics of the past, fail to light up the imagination: "What could strike a blaze / From our dead igneous days?" The present violent situation cuts one off from a sense of continuity with the past: "new history, flint and iron / Cast-off, scraps, nail, canine." The poems are full of images of pagan rituals and animal savagery and have an almost surrealist quality:
Leaf membranes lid the window. In the streetlamp's glow our body's moonstruck To drifted barrow, sunk glacial rock. And all shifts dreamily as you keen Far off, turning from the din Of gunshot, siren and clucking gas Out there beyond each curtained terrace Where the fault is opening. The touch of love, Your warmth heaving to the first move, Grows helpless in our old Gomorrah. We petrify or uproot now.
"The Tollund Man" is the first of a series of poems about bog people which Heaney wroteafter reading The Bog People. The poems of "A Northern Hoard" can be said to be public poems in so far as they deal with communal experience. In "The Tollund Man" Heaney goes on a private imaginary pilgrimage to Denmark: "Some day I will go to Aarhus"; but he hesitates to commit himself fully to this pagan religion: "I could risk blasphemy / Consecrate the cauldron bog / Our holy ground". The poem ends in speculation:
Something of his sad freedom As he rode the tumbril Should come to me, driving, Saying the names Tollund, Grabaulle, Nebelgard, Watching the pointing hands Of country people, Now knowing their tongue. Out there in Jutland In the old man-killing parishes I will feel lost, Unhappy and at home.
The first section of Wintering Out ends with a few poems which recall again scenes from Heaney's home area, but there is a felt distance now:
What can fend us now Can soothe the hurt eye Of the sun,
Unpoison great lakes, Turn back The rat on the road.
If one takes the introductory poem of Wintering Out as the context for the whole volume, then the poems of the second part seem a retreat into a private world of marriage and home, or to stand for the continuity of ordinary human life in the context of violence. Of the marriage poems the best is "Summer Home," about guilt and complicity in a private relationship. The form of the poem is much freer than that of the rest of the poems in the volume: and the breaking off of the lines in the middle of a sentence after a stressed syllable, creates the tension the poem is about.
Apart from the marriage poems there is a group of poems about Irish folk-tales written in a dramatic narrative style reminiscent of Robert Frost—who influenced Heaney to some degree—especially the poem "Shorewoman." In "First Calf Heaney projects his own changed sensibility and the pain of existence into a recalled scene, whereas the poem "May" presents a picture of original innocence and peace. In the final poem in the volume "Westering" Heaney takes his distance from Ireland:
Six thousand miles away, I imagine untroubled dust, A loosening gravity, Christ weighing by his hands.
Whereas the introductory poem of Wintering Out puts the volume into a context of violence, the two introductory poems of North put it in a framework of peacefulness and permanence. "Sunlight" is a very clear and tranquil vision of a domestic scene; and in "The Seedcutters" a pastoral scene which lies fixed in history outside time, is embodied in a very balanced poem. The poem expresses a desire for permanence:
O calendar customs! Under the broom Yellowing over them, compose the frieze With all of us there, our anonymities.
The volume North itself is divided into two contrasting sections. Heaney told Seamus Deane "the two halves of the book constitute two different types of utterance, each of which arose out of a necessity to shape and give palpable linguistic form to two kinds of urgency—one symbolic, one explicit." Yeats and Kavanagh represent these two poles in poetry, they "point up the contradictions we have been talking about: the search for myths and sagas, the need for a structure and a sustaining landscape and at the same time the need to be liberated and distanced from it, the need to be open, unpredictably susceptible, lyrically opportunistic."
The first section of North begins and ends with two not very successful allegorical poems "Antaeus" and "Hercules and Antaeus." Antaeus is an image of the instinctive poet who derives his strength from the earth and whose "elevation" or education is his "fall". The application of the allegory in the context of the volume is not very clear.
"Belderg" is a poem about an excavation done in Mayo. The "quernstones out of a bog" connect the imagination with the past:
To lift the lid of the peat And find this pupil dreaming Of neolithic wheat! When he stripped off blanket bog The soft-piled centuries Fell open like a glib: There were the first plough-marks, The stone-age fields, the tomb Corbelled, turfed and chambered, Floored with dry turf-coomb. A landscape fossilized, Its stone-wall patternings Repeated before our eyes In the stone walls of Mayo.
The discussion about the word "Mossbawn" (the name of Heaney's birth-place), which is seen to contain Irish, Norse and English roots and therefore represents the mixed cultural heritage of Ireland, is resolved by the poet, who passes "through the eye of the quern", in a test of the imagination, and sees "A worldtree of balanced stones, / Querns piled like vertebrae, / The marrow crushed to grounds"—an image of a mixed culture.
"Funeral Rites" is again (like "A Northern Hoard") a poem which combines the actual with the mythological. In the first part the poet sees himself as a member of a culture in which the dead are buried with elaborate ritual. There is a detailed description of the dead, as in the poems about bog corpses, in a volume where Heaney is preoccupied with fossils, bones, skeletons, corpses. In the second and third parts the poet imagines the reinstitution of ritual, which involves the whole country in a gigantic funeral procession, to cope with the present situation in Ireland, in which murder is a frequent occurrence.
In "North," as in the poem "Shoreline" in Door into the Dark, there is a shift from the secular to the sacral, and the poet is almost overwhelmed by a vision of Viking raids in Ireland, of which the present situation is a continuation ("memory incubating the spilled blood"). But he is told to retain his power of vision and to go on writing:
It said, "Lie down in the word-hoard, burrow the coil and the gleam of your furrowed brain. Compose in darkness. Expect aurora borealis in the long foray but no cascade of light.
Keep your eye clear as the bleb of the icicle, trust the feel of what nubbed treasure your hands have known."
The poem "Viking Dublin: Trial Pieces" is one long flowing line of associations, starting at the sight of a piece of incised bone exhibited in the National Museum in Dublin, and involving history and art and death, in language that implies a gay acceptance:
"Did you ever hear tell," said Jimmy Farrell, "of the skulls they have in the city of Dublin? White skulls and black skulls and yellow skulls, and some with full teeth, and some haven't only but one,"
In "Bone Dreams," as in the poem "Toome" in Wintering Out, the poet goes back to origins which lie beyond language:
Come back past philology and kennings, re-enter memory where the bone's lair is a love-nest in the grass. I hold my lady's head like a crystal and ossify myself by gazing: I am screes on her escarpments, a chalk giant carved upon her downs. Soon my hands, on the sunken fosse of her spine move towards the passes.
In "Funeral Rites" Heaney imagined a community and a ritual for the community; in the series of poems about bog corpses he turns to communion with the landscape, and what is concealed there, in private meditation, in order to come to terms with the violence in Ireland. The tone of these poems is much more assured than in "The Tollund Man" in Wintering Out. Heaney has now found a focus for his imagination, a myth which encompasses past and present. The intimate communing with these preserved bodies leads to an almost complete identification:
I can feel the tug of the halter at the nape of her neck, the wind on her naked front.
But in the same poem ("Punishment") Heaney admits to an ambiguity of feeling:
I almost love you but would have cast, I know, the stones of silence. I am the artful voyeur of your brain's exposed and darkened combs, your muscles' webbing and all your numbered bones: I who have stood dumb when your betraying sisters, cauled in tar, wept by the railings, who could connive in civilized outrage yet understand the exact and tribal, intimate revenge.
Though these poems contain references to the present situation in Ireland, they can also be read as poems about the universal fate of man:
As if he had been poured in tar, he lies on a pillow of turf and seems to weep the black river of himself.
The bog is not only a symbol for Ireland as a female goddess to whom sacrifices are made, but also the "all-tombing womb" of the earth-mother where the bog corpses lie buried like embryos awaiting rebirth. These poems may express an unwillingness on Heaney's part to come to terms with the situation in Northern Ireland in more direct terms, but they may equally stem from a private need to come to terms with universals. The poem "Kinship" is a kind of finale which gathers up the images of the bog that have occurred in Heaney's poetry. It contains references to earlier poems, and there is a kind of ritual summing up:
Earth-pantry, bone-vault, sun-bank, embalmer of votive goods and sabred fugitives. Insatiable bride. Sword-swallower, casket, midden, floe of history. Ground that will strip its dark side, nesting ground, outback of my mind.
Walking down the bog the poet walks back in time and stands "at the edge of centuries / facing a goddess"—the earth-goddess of Irish history and of time. In the poem "Bogland" in Door into the Dark the "wet centre" of the bog was "bottomless". Here the centre has gathered meaning, and "holds and spreads"; it has revealed the congruence between present and past, and given an image of the country's cultural identity. The poet accepts being tied to this ground, which means an acceptance of the culture of which he is a member, and of history and fate:
I grew out of all this like a weeping willow inclined to the appetites of gravity.
In the second part of North Heaney turns from Norse mythology to the actual North of Ireland and a more public kind of poetry:
I'm writing just after an encounter With an English journalist in search of "views On the Irish thing".
The style has changed from the heightened to the satiric and the debunking with stanzas rhyming a-b-a-b:
Yet I live here, I live here too, I sing, Expertly civil tongued with civil neighbours On the high wires of first wireless reports, Sucking the fake taste, the stony flavours Of those sanctioned, old, elaborate retorts: "Oh, it's disgraceful, surely, I agree," "Where's it going to end?" "It's getting worse." "They're murderers." "Internment, understandably…" The "voice of sanity" is getting hoarse.
"Whatever you say, say nothing" is like "The Other Side" in Wintering Out, about rituals of co-existence between the two communities, which imply submitting to a code:
"Religion's never mentioned here," of course. "You know them by their eyes," and hold your tongue. "One side's as bad as the other," never worse. Christ, it's near time that some small leak was sprung In the great dykes the Dutchman made To dam the dangerous tide that followed Seamus. Yet for all this art and sedentary trade I am incapable. The famous Northern reticence, the tight gag of place And times: yes, yes. Of the "wee six" I sing Where to be saved you only must save face And whatever you say, you say nothing.
It is also a poem about different kinds of language: the language of codes of the community, the clichés of journalism ("escalate", "backlash", "crack-down") and the language of poetry, all inadequate to cope with the situation:
(It's tempting here to rhyme on "labour pangs" And diagnose a rebirth in our plight But that would be to ignore other symptoms. Last night you didn't need a stethoscope To hear the eructation of Orange drums Allergic equally to Pearse and Pope.) On all sides "little platoons" are mustering— The phrase is Cruise O'Brien's via that great Backlash, Burke—while I sit here with a pestering Drouth for words at once both gaff and bait To lure the tribal shoals to epigram An order. I believe any of us Could draw the line through bigotry and sham Given the right line, aere perennius.
"Freedman" is about the poet's emancipation from submission to religion and society, and yet another kind of language ("Memento homo quia pulvis es") to the freedom that poetry has given him. It precedes the sequence "Singing School" where Heaney returns to autobiographical material, but in a very different way than in Death of a Naturalist. The landscape is now peopled by policemen and Orangemen instead of local characters. The quotation from Wordsworth "Fair seedtime had my soul, and I grew up / Fostered alike by beauty and by fear" gets another poignant meaning in a Northern Irish context, where one's name assigns one to one side of the community and where a representative of the law, or the threatening sound of Orange drums, inspire one with fear. "Summer 1969" (a summer in which trouble broke out in Belfast) is again about the need for myth or art to come to terms with present happenings. At a remove from the actual situations, watching television during a holiday in Spain, and hearing the news from home, the poet retreats to the Prado to look at "Shootings of the Third of May," a painting by Goya, which is a more real representation of violence than the impersonal "real thing" on television. According to this poem the only possible commitment is through art, though it also suggests the other possibility:
"Go back," one said, "try to touch the people." Another conjured Lorca from his hill.
In the next poem "Exposure," the last in the volume, neither possibility offers solace. The poet is removed from his people—unlike in the first poem of the second part, "The Unacknowledged Legislator's Dream," where the poet sees himself in a dream at the centre of his community and poetry has also lost its meaning:
How did I end up like this? I often think of my friends' Beautiful prismatic counselling And the anvil brains of some who hate me
As I sit weighing and weighing My responsible tristia. For what? For the ear? For the people? For what is said behind-backs? Rain comes down through the alders, Its low conducive voices Mutter about let-downs and erosions And yet each drop recalls The diamond absolutes. I am neither internee nor informer; An inner émigré, grown long-haired And thoughtful; a wood-kerne Escaped from the massacre, Taking protective colouring From bole and bark, feeling Every wind that blows; Who, blowing up these sparks For their meagre heat, have missed The once-in-a-lifetime portent, The comet's pulsing rose.
This seems like an ending but more likely points to a different direction in Heaney's development. He has talked about this in an interview with Monie Begley [in Ramble in Ireland, 1977]:
The book ends up in Wicklow in December '73. It's in some ways the book all books were leading to. You end up with nothing but your vocation, with words and your own free choice. Isolated but not dispossessed of what produced you. Having left a context, stepped away, you can't really go back. It ends up with just the responsibility of the artist, whatever that is, and that responsibility has no solutions.
I would say that I am a product of that isolation we were talking about before. And for me now it's just the usual middle-age coasting toward extinction, but trying to define the self. I'm not interested in my poetry canvassing public events deliberately any more. I would like to write poems of myself at this age. Poems, so far, have been fueled by a world that is gone or a world that is too much with us—public events. Just through accident and all the things we've been talking about, I've ended up with myself, and I have to start there, you know.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4502
SOURCE: "Crossed Pieties," in Parnassus: Poetry in Review, Vol. XI, No. 2, Spring-Summer, 1984, pp. 336-48.
[In the following review of Heaney's two volumes of collected poetry and prose, Shapiro relates the stylistic and thematic development of Heaney's poetry to his assertion of personal and national identity.]
There's an old Gaelic poem which goes, "Who ever heard/ Such a sight unsung/ As a severed head/ With a grafted tongue." This image—of a culture severed from the body of its own traditions and forced to speak another language—indicates the profound dilemma facing every Anglo-Irish poet fated to discover and express in English, the oppressor's tongue, his personal and national identity. One might even say that this identity resides, if anywhere, in the hyphen separating the Anglo from the Irish. Pulled in one direction by the English literary tradition, pulled in another by a social and political tradition which continues its centuries-old antagonism to all things English, the Irish poet finds himself inescapably involved in a bleak and unromantic triangle: if Irish culture is his wife, English is his mistress, and to satisfy one is necessarily to betray the other. And yet it is precisely in the Irish poet's response to this dilemma, in the thematic and stylistic strategies he devises to maintain his own identity in the oppressor's language, that one can find in Anglo-Irish poetry what seems distinctly Irish.
No contemporary Irish poet has struggled with this problem more self-consciously, or more successfully, than Seamus Heaney. In both Preoccupations, his recently collected essays and reviews, and in his first four books of poetry now published together under the title, Poems: 1965-1975, these tensions and crossed pieties inherent in Irish poetry are what preoccupy him most. In one essay he defines the role of poetry "as divination … as revelation of the self to the self, as restoration of the culture to itself." He desires a poetry of place and origins, of connection to the Irish past, and of almost sacramental fidelity to the physical contours of the Irish present. In his first two books, Death Of A Naturalist and Door Into The Dark, Heaney attempts to satisfy this desire by writing almost exclusively of regional life and work, of hunting, blackberry picking, turfgathering, and of the various ways "living displaces false sentiments" in the rural world. The characters he's drawn to—thatchers, diviners, farmwives, and fishermen—embody continuity with the past, seem to bear or affirm the past in what they do. In one poem, he sees in laborers gathering potatoes ("Heads bow, trunks bend, hands fumble toward the black/ Mother") "centuries of fear and homage to the famine God." In another, he calls the door into a blacksmith's shop "a door into the dark"; and though the dark is actual, it also becomes a figure for an older way of life, as later in the poem the blacksmith, standing in the doorway, "recalls/ A clatter of hoofs where traffic is flashing in rows/ Then, grunts and goes in," turning his back on the present.
Unlike the blacksmith, however, Heaney moves in two ways in these poems, turning, as he says in one essay, outward to the present, "to a clarification of life," as well as inward, "to a ramification of roots and associations." Yet in neither movement does he succeed in articulating an indigenous poetic idiom. And I think we can find the reasons for this failure in "Digging," the opening poem of Death Of A Naturalist, and the first poem in which Heaney claims to have gotten his feelings into words, "or, to put it more accurately, where I thought my feeling got into words." "Digging" defines the kind of poetry the beginning Irish poet wants to write. Sitting by a window, he hears his father digging turf outside in the same way his grandfather dug turf twenty years earlier, and the two figures, one real, the other recollected, merge into an image of continuity:
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods Over his shoulder, going down and down For the good turf. Digging. The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge Through living roots awaken in my head.
Yet realizing he has "no spade to follow men like that," he says, "Between my finger and thumb/ The squat pen rests./ I'll dig with it." "Digging" bears all the earmarks of a Heaney poem, the qualities for which he's justly admired: an intense regard for metaphor, a dense speci ficity of detail, and a rich evocation of place. Descriptive language, here and throughout his work, is his most effective way of preserving his own identity and at the same time asserting his regional allegiance.
Yet one feels that Heaney protests too much in "Digging," as though the bold, untroubled confidence—"I'll dig with it"—belies an underlying fear that in writing poetry he'll be departing, rather man continuing, the family (and cultural) tradition. He evades this fear, I think, refraining from making it part of the subject, by the very qualities we admire. Description enables Heaney to sidestep the difficulties inherent in this enterprise. For despite his desire to restore "the culture to itself," the principal influences on his early work are American and English as much as Irish. Along with the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh, poets such as Wordsworth, Hopkins, Frost, and Ted Hughes (some of whom he writes about at length in Preoccupations) stand behind his first two books. Kavanagh may influence what he chooses to articulate, that is, a close, unromantic attention to rural life, but it is the American and English poets who influence the manner of articulation. It is difficult, for instance, not to hear Wyatt's "My Galley Charged With Forgetfulness" in these lines from "Valediction," a poem from Death Of A Naturalist:
Or Frost's "For Once, Then, Something" in these lines from the personal "Helicon":
As a child, they could not keep me from wells And old pumps with buckets and windlasses. I loved the dark drop, the trapped sky, the smells Of waterweed, fungus and dank moss…. Now, to pry into roots, to finger slime To stare, big-eyed Narcissus, into some spring Is beneath all adult dignity. I rhyme To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.
More than the darkness echoes in this poem. Considering that many poets learn to write by imitating the best poems in the language, and that the best poems in English are not all by Irishmen, it's no wonder that Heaney's early poems, impressive as they are, are mostly apprentice pieces.
In one essay, Heaney distinguishes between craft and technique. "Craft," he says, "is what you can learn from other verse. Craft is the skill of making…. Technique," on the other hand, "involves not only a poet's way with words, his management of meter, rhythm and verbal texture, it involves also a definition of his stance toward life, a definition of his own reality." If we associate technique with Heaney's Irish loyalties, his passionate regionalism, and craft with his English literary training, we can say that what characterizes these early poems is a craft at odds with and insufficient for the full expression of a burgeoning technique. This tension between craft and technique accounts for the formal awkwardness of many of these poems, for Heaney's compulsion to swim too hard against the iambic current.
Two blank verse poems, "For The Commander Of The Eliza" and "Death Of A Naturalist," illustrate my point. Set in the mid-nineteenth century during the Irish potato famine, 'Tor The Commander Of The Eliza" is a dramatic monologue spoken by an English sea captain who comes upon a boatload of starving Irish peasants and refuses to give them aid. Because the speaker is English, Heaney can let him speak a clean blank verse line with little rhythmical variation. Even when the variations do occur, the iambic cadence still rings clear:
We'd known about the shortage but on board They always kept us right with flour and beef So understand my feelings, and the men's Who had mandate to relieve distress Since relief was then available in Westport— Though clearly these poor brutes would never make it… Next day, like six bad smells, those living skulls Drifted through the dark of bunks and hatches And once in port I exorcised my ship Reporting all to the Inspector General…
In addition to the emphatic meter, the almost complete absence of grammatical pauses within the line increases the sense of regularity and restraint appropriate to the speaker's strained attempt to keep his guilt in check as he clumsily rationalizes his refusal to help the poor.
If 'For The Commander Of The Eliza" is hyper-metrical, "Death Of A Naturalist" isn't metrical enough. The verse is heavily varied because Heaney himself is speaking, not an English persona:
All year the flax-dam festered in the heart Of the townland; green and heavy headed Flax had rotted there, weighted down by huge sods. Daily it sweltered in the punishing sun. Bubbles gargled delicately, bluebottles Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell. There were dragon-flies, spotted butterflies, But best of all was the warm thick slobber Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water In the shade of the banks. Here, every spring I would fill jampotfuls of the jellied Specks to range on window-sills at home, On shelves at school, and wait and watch until The fattening dots burst into nimble- Swimming tadpoles…
This is a poem about the loss of innocence and the realization of the presence of evil in the natural world and, by implication, in the self. One day the speaker finds that "the angry frogs" had "invaded" the flax dam:
In overall design and tone this incident recalls the boatstealing episode in "The Prelude." 'The great slime kings" are Heaney's version of Wordsworth's "huge peak, black and huge." Like Wordsworth, out of a troubled conscience Heaney attributes a sense of retribution to the natural scene. But the blank verse is anything but Wordsworthian. Heaney thickens the pentameter line with heavy syllables to the point of clotting ("Flax had rotted there, weighted down by huge sods"), and dense, figurative language ("Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting"). He remains close enough to the iambic norm to keep it as constant expectation, but one he continually disappoints. He reminds us, in other words, that he's writing blank verse only to dramatize his independence from the tradition that blank verse implicates. The result is that his subject has to fight against the form; that is, the formal properties seldom issue from or respond to what he's trying to say. And this flaw applies, I think, to much of Heaney's accentual-syllabic verse, early and late. It's not that he's incapable of writing a passage of regular blank verse, as the passage from "For The Commander Of The Eliza" demonstrates. Rather, Heaney feels compelled by his Irish pieties to break or maim the formal elements, even if it means writing awkwardly, in order to assert his own identity.
In the essay "Belfast," Heaney discusses this divided consciousness; in his terms, poetry emerges from a quarrel with the self, a quarrel that's both national and sexual: "The feminine element for me involves the matter of Ireland, and the masculine strain is drawn from the involvement with English literature…. I was symbolically placed between the marks of English influence and the lure of the native experience, between 'the demesne' and 'the bogs.'" With this quotation in mind, it is possible to read two related poems, "Antaeus" and "Hercules and Antaeus" (from his fourth book, North), as acting out this quarrel in his work between the Irish and the English influences, which is to say, between his Irish technique and his English craft. In "Antaeus," written actually in 1966, the year Death Of A Naturalist was published, Antaeus describes himself as nursed by "earth's long contour/ her river-veins," "cradled in the dark that wombed me/ and nurtured me in every artery/ like a small hillock." Antaeus represents the native culture, the indigenous experience, whose power depends entirely on contact with the earth or region that nurtured him:
The tone here is as innocently confident as the tone of "Digging," but it's qualified, as the tone of "Digging" isn't, by what we know will happen to the giant. If Antaeus is the spirit of native culture, Hercules in "Hercules and Antaeus" is a figure for "the masculine strain" within the poet "drawn from involvement with English literature":
Antaeus, the mould-hugger, is weaned at last: a fall was a renewal but now he is raised up— the challenger's intelligence is a spur of light, a blue prong grasping him out of his element into a dream of loss and origins—the cradling dark, the river-veins, the secret gullies of his strength, the hatching grounds of cave and souterrain, he has bequeathed it all to elegists. Balor will die and byrthnoth and Sitting Bull.
Just as the English once subdued the Irish, the Herculean poet vanquishes his own experience in writing about it, destroying its terrestrial power "into a dream of loss … pap for the dispossessed."
"Antaeus" is not as full a treatment of this quarrel as "Hercules and Antaeus." For one thing, the hero does not figure in the poem, and so the giant's faith in his native strength is as yet untested. For another, the poem suffers, as most of Heaney's early work does, from being the product of a literary tradition at odds with his passion for locale and place. In terms of craft, "Antaeus" is already vanquished by his anticipated adversary, despite the boast that he can beat all challengers. The enforced variety of rhymes (some hardly rhymes at all) betray how hard the poet has to strain to find them. And the antithesis which closes the poem, "My elevation, my fall," makes Antaeus sound more like an Augustan poet than a regional spirit.
On the other hand, though the giant is defeated in "Hercules and Antaeus," in terms of form and phrasing the poem is itself a kind of triumph. Part of the reason is that Heaney by this time has moved to a short free verse line which allows him more freedom in drawing the syntax through the poem. In "Antaeus," the line breaks are dictated by the form and meter, not by the meaning. Here they dramatize the action and emotion of the poem. And in so doing they realize the two senses of the word 'verse,' which Heaney cites in his essay on Wordsworth's music: "'Verse' comes from the Latin versus which could mean a line of poetry but could also mean the turn that a ploughman made at the head of the field as he finished one furrow and faced back into another." In "Hercules and Antaeus" the syntax turns expressively from line to line. This is especially true in the break between the third and fourth stanzas ("into a dream of loss/ and origins") which not only emphasizes Hercules' triumph as he lifts Antaeus off the ground, "out of his element," but also acts out the severing from origins that the lines describe.
In "Belfast" (quoted earlier), Heaney says that he thinks of "the personal and Irish pieties as vowels, and the literary awareness nourished on English as consonants." One can hear and see this distinction effectively yet unobstrusively at work in the two names, Hercules and Antaeus, as well as in the way Heaney associates the hard consonants with Hercules ("Snake-chocker, dung heaver"), and the softer vowels and assonances with Antaeus ("the secret gullies/ of his strength,/ the hatching grounds/ of cave and souterrain"). This is further reason for reading "Hercules and Antaeus" as an oblique comment on Heaney's practice as a poet, on the English and Irish tensions in his work, as much as a political allegory.
I have gone on at length about these two poems because they illustrate what happens when Heaney changes from traditional form to free verse, a change which first takes place in Door Into The Dark, his second book. It is by no means an exclusive change or a conversion, for Heaney continues to write in form; but his best poems, the ones that come closest to perfecting a personal and Irish idiom, are written in the short, dense free verse line. Free verse seems to liberate Heaney from the stylistic self-consciousness that burdens his formal work; it enables him to get free of the compulsion to smudge or crack the English lens, instead of seeing through it. And the reason is, obviously, that free verse does not bear as much traditional connotation and influence as the accentual syllablic line; it becomes, for him, a more pliable instrument, more responsive to his temperament and to his desire to articulate the lore of native life. It's not surprising then that his first fully achieved free verse poem, the last poem in Door Into The Dark, "Bogland," is about the bog as a distinctly Irish symbol of geographical memory, bearing and preserving within itself the Irish past:
We have no prairies To slice a big sun at evening— Everywhere the eye concedes to Encroaching horizon, Is wooed into the cyclops' eye Of a tarn. Our unfenced country Is bog that keeps crusting Between the sights of the sun. They've taken the skeleton Of the Great Irish Elk Out of the peat, set it up An astounding crate of air. Butter sunk under More than a hundred years Was recovered salty and white. The ground itself is kind, black butter Melting and opening underfoot, Missing its last definition By millions of years. They'll never dig coal here, Only the waterlogged trunks Of great firs, soft as pulp. Our pioneers keep striking Inwards and downwards, Every layer they strip Seems camped on before. The bogholes might be Atlantic seepage. The wet centre is bottomless.
In addition to the usual evocative detail, there's much to praise here: the way the rhythm quickens and slows in response to what's described, as light syllables give way to heavy ones ("Melting and opening underfoot" "The waterlogged trunks/ Of great firs, soft as pulp"); the way the line breaks here and there quietly dramatize the sense ("Our pioneers keep striking/ Inwards and downwards/ Every layer they strip/ Seems camped on before"); or the way the last line ends on such lightly stressed syllables that the line produces the very sensation of bottomlessness that it presents.
"Bogland" is, I would argue, the decisive poem in Heaney's collection, for the best poems in Wintering Out and North, his next two books, grow naturally, without awkwardness, out of its implied equation between landscape and mind. In Wintering Out especially, place and language seem almost interchangeable, as language is seen as shaped and nurtured by the soil and weather, inflected by the contours of the land itself. If the river Moyola in "Gifts of Rain" is a metaphorical statement about language ("an old chanter/ breathing its mists/ through vowels and history/ … hoarder of common ground"), the act of speaking in "Toome" becomes the penetration of a landscape ("My mouth/ holds round/ the soft blastings/ Toome, Toome,/ as under the dislodged slab of the tongue/ I push into souterrain"), just as in "Anahorish," Heaney's "place of clear water" turns into a "soft gradient/ of consonant, vowel-meadow." In almost imagist fashion, language and landscape interanimate each other, so much so that to explore one is inevitably to discover something about the other. It is as if despite a history of dispossession and political oppression, as in Hardy's "In Time of 'The Breaking Of Nations'" the land provides a source of enduring value, is itself the figurative and literal origin of culture (in all senses of the word), transcending yet authenticating the language of the tribe.
Not surprisingly, in "The Tollund Man," Heaney's most compelling exploration into the Irish past and its relation to the Irish present, what symbolizes the Celtic past, its legacy of violence, and its tradition of political martydom still painfully alive today, is the severed head of a man killed and dumped in a Jutland bog as a sacrificial offering to the Mother Goddess. And perhaps it's not too far-fetched to see "The Tollund Man" as also symbolizing the plight of the Irish poet. Heaney would pray to this severed head, as to a Saint, "To make germinate/ The scattered, ambushed/ Flesh of labourers,/ Stockinged corpses/ Laid out in the farmyards":
Something of his sad freedom As he rode the tumbril Should come to me, driving, Saying the names Tollund, Grauballe, Nebelgard, Watching the pointing hands Of country people, Not knowing their tongues. Out there in Jutland In the old man-killing parishes I will feel lost, Unhappy and at home.
"The Tollund Man" does for Irish culture what in one essay Heaney claims for Patrick Kavanagh's "Great Hunger": it satisfies "the hunger of the culture for its own image and expression." The image, however, is by no means a consoling one; though Heaney would feel at home standing before it, he would, in essence, feel at home in loss, in "the old man-killing parishes." Yet despite the unflinching acknowledgement of violence and dispossession, there is something genuinely consoling in the articulation itself, in the ability of the intelligence to face up to and define the barbarism that persists within the psyche and the culture, just as it was once preserved within the bog.
In North, Heaney continues his free verse investigation into the stratified layers of the Irish past, "Striking inwards and downwards." As in "The Tollund Man," the memories he unearths are never comforting, nor is his relationship or kinship with the past a simple one. If poetry involves the restoration of the culture to itself, what he restores are images of atrocity and sectarian violence predating the English invasion. "The Grauballe Man," for instance, now perfected in Heaney's memory (which like the bog transforms and preserves what it contains) "is hung in the scales/ with beauty and atrocity/ … with the actual weight/ of each hooded victim/ slashed and dumped." Though he still regards the bog with an almost sexual love, "the Goddess Mother" is also implicated in the violence she preserves, mingling the erotic and the violent, "the love seat" and "the grave," as though human sexuality and violence were merely the animation of principles at work within the physical world. In one line Heaney can declare, "I love the spring/ off the ground," and in next, "Each bank a gallows drop." In "Kinship," the bog is "insatiable bride./ Sword swallower,/ casket, midden." "Our mother ground," he tells us in another section of the poem, "is sour with the blood/ of her faithful,/ they lie gargling/ in her sacred heart." Here as in many of the poems in North, it is difficult to distinguish the tone of bitter disgust from that of reverence.
This ambivalence accounts for the undeniable power of the best poems in the book ("Punishment," "Hercules and Antaeus," and "Funeral Rites"—perhaps the best political poem since Yeats's "Easter 1916"). It also accounts for why North seems less successful as a whole than Wintering Out. Many of these poems are damaged by qualities we might be at first inclined to praise: a dazzling metaphoric ingenuity, a profoundly sensuous regard for language, and a fastidious attention to the physical world. I suggested earlier that this richness of descriptive language is one strategy by which Heaney can assert his personal identity and at the same time remain faithful to his national one. Description, in other words, functions as a kind of safeguard against the English elements of his literary heritage. In North, however, description takes on the aura of theatricality, a stage-Irish flaunting of his powers, not a legitimate use of them. It no longer serves to keep in check the English influence; it protects him, rather, from the legacy of violence he finds within his national past (and present). It is almost as if Heaney attempts to resolve his complicated attitude, his fascination and repulsion, stylistically through the dazzle of descriptive language; but the language only sanitizes the violence it appears to articulate so unflinchingly.
Consider, for instance, how the phrase "the mild pods of the eye-lids," from "The Tollund Man," does more than just describe or beautify the subject. Once we recall that the Tollund Man was sacrificed to the Mother Goddess in order to insure the renewal and fertility of spring, we realize that the simile sets up and justifies Heaney's later prayer to him "to make germinate" (within Heaney's imagination) "the scattered, ambushed/ Flesh of labourers." In contrast, these lines from "The Grauballe Man"—"As if he had been poured/ in tar, he lies on a pillow of turf/ and seems to weep/ the black river of himself—or these lines from "The Bog Queen"—"My body was braille for the creeping influences"—seem like a mere display, demonstrating what W. S. Di Piero has called "a too exclusive attention to the sheen and noise of language, such that flamboyance and inventiveness, however sincere and in service to however serious a theme, come to displace clarity and integrity of feeling." Even the language/ landscape trope begins to sound a little overdone ("I push back,/ through dictions,/ Elizabethan Canopies./ Norman devices,/ the erotic mayflowers/ of Provence." "This is the vowel of earth/ dreaming its root"). What once had the freshness and excitement of discovery in Wintering Out takes on in North the stale predictability of mannerism, whose function is to shield Heaney from, by prettifying, the realities it once enabled him to explore.
A harsh judgment. But having made it, I now want to add that only a poet of major talent can err so skillfully. Even when he is not at his best, Heaney remains an engaging and serious poet, capable of working the language with an intensity we would be quick to praise in a lesser poet's work. Part of this capability derives from sheer talent; but perhaps a more important part derives from native talent responding to the pressures of social and political circumstances, to the crossed pieties inherent inthe very language Heaney speaks and writes with. If these pressures sometimes cause Heaney to work the language too intensely until, in the words of the neo-Augustan critic, Archibald Alison, he deserts "the end of the art, for the display of the art itself," they also give his best work an intelligent urgency (and I stress both words here) that no other poet writing in English today can equal. In Poems: 1965-1975 and Preoccupations, as well as in his fifth collection of poetry, Field Work, Heaney struggles honestly and often brilliantly to satisfy "the hunger of the culture for its own image and expression." His best poems—"Bogland," "The Tollund Man," "Funeral Rites," "Punishment" and "Casualty" (from Field Work)—satisfy that hunger. And not just for the Irish, but for all of us who look to poetry for a clarification of life.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3797
SOURCE: A review of Station Island, in The New Yorker, Vol. LXI, No. 31, September 23, 1985, pp. 108, 111-12, 114-16.
[In the following excerpt, Vendler examines the major themes of Heaney's Station Island.]
Station Island, also known as St. Patrick's Purgatory, is an island in Lough Derg, in northwest Ireland. It has been a site of pilgrimage for centuries; tradition says that St. Patrick once fasted and prayed there. The island gives its name to Seamus Heaney's purgatorial new collection, containing five years' work—Station Island. The book reflects the disquiet of an uprooted life—one of successive dislocations. Heaney's life began in Castledawson, in Northern Ireland; he was educated at St. Columb's College, in Derry, and then at Queen's University, Belfast (where he later taught); he moved in 1972 to the Republic of Ireland, first to Wicklow and later to Dublin, free-lancing and teaching. A stint of teaching at Berkeley, from 1970 to 1971, began his acquaintance with the United States; now he is the Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard, and divides his time between Cambridge and Dublin. Though these dislocations and uprootings have been voluntary, they could not be without effect, and the title poem of the new volume reviews, in a series of memorial encounters, the "stations" of Heaney's life—especially that of his adolescence, hitherto scanted in his work. The poet moves amid a cloud of ghosts, familial, sexual, and professional. Some are admonitory, some reproachful, some encouraging. These spirits appear and disappear after the manner of Dante's purgatorial shades, as the fiction of the poem brings Heaney as one penitent among a crowd of pilgrims to Station Island, where he stays for the obligatory three-day ritual—fasting, sleeping in a dormitory, attending services at the basilica, walking barefoot round the circular stone "beds," or foundations of ruined monastic beehive cells. The difference between Heaney and the other penitents is that he is no longer a believer. One of the shades, a young priest, accuses him:
"The last look"—traditionally taken before dying—is not quite what Heaney is up to in this sequence, but he certainly uses the twelve "cantos" of the poem to look back at many of his dead: Simon Sweeney, an old "Sabbathbreaker" from Heaney's childhood; the Irish writer William Carleton (1794-1869), who after he became a Protestant wrote "The Lough Derg Pilgrim," satirizing Catholic superstition; the twentieth-century poet Patrick Kavanagh, who also wrote a poem about the Lough Derg pilgrimage; an invalid relative who died young; the young priest, dead after a few years in the foreign missions; two schoolmasters; the little girl Heaney first felt love for; a college friend shot in his shop by terrorists; an archeologist friend who died young; a cousin murdered by Protestants; an executed Catholic terrorist; a monk who prescribed as penance a translation from John of the Cross; James Joyce. All these characters (with the exception of the invalid young relative) speak to Heaney, and the poem offers a polyphony of admonitions, ranging from the trite ("When you're on the road/give lifts to people, you'll always learn something") to the eloquent—Joyce's advice to the hesitant poet:
"That subject people stuff is a cod's game, infantile, like your peasant pilgrimage. You lose more of yourself than you redeem doing the decent thing. Keep at a tangent. When they make the circle wide, it's time to swim out on your own and fill the element with signatures on your own frequency, echo soundings, searches, probes, allurements, elver-gleams in the dark of the whole sea."
More striking than the attributed voices is Heaney's own self-portrait, full of a Chaucerian irony overpainted with Dantesque earnestness. In Station Island, Heaney is sometimes (as with Joyce) the abashed apprentice, sometimes (as with his murdered cousin) the guilty survivor, sometimes the penitent turning on himself with hallucinatory self-laceration:
Though the narrative armature of Station Island is almost staidly conventional—borrowed from Dante, even down to his traditional words for the appearance and fading of ghosts—the writing often moves out, as in the passage I have just quoted, to the limits of description. Heaney has always had extraordinary descriptive powers—dangerous ones; conscious of the rich, lulling seductions of his early verse, he experiments here in resourceful and daring ways with both the maximizing and the minimizing of description. The dream passage about the corrupt polyp interrupts lushness with the surgical slash of the shed breast; the same typical self-correction can be seen in a passage where William Carleton plays the surgical role interrupting the dreamy language of the poet:
"The alders in the hedge," I said "mushrooms, dark-clumped grass where cows or horses dunged, the cluck when pith-lined chestnut shells split open in your hand, the melt of shells corrupting, old jampots in a drain clogged up with mud—" But now Carleton was interrupting: "All this is like a trout kept in a spring or maggots sown in wounds— another life that cleans our element. We are earthworms of the earth, and all that has gone through us is what will be our trace." He turned on his heel when he was saying this and headed up the road at the same hard pace.
This small sample will do to show why Heaney's lines are not corrupted by pure linguistic revel—as Dylan Thomas's often were, their simpler phonetic indulgence unchecked by astringency. Heaney works, in Yeats' phrase to "articulate sweet sounds together" in ways not cloying to the ear, often restraining his delight in the unforeseen coincidences of language, sometimes allowing the delight to break loose. Under the influence of Lowell, Heaney pruned his young luxuriance severely in some of the poems of Field Work (1979). The rapturous lyricism of the early poetry, though neverlost, adapted itself to a worldlier tone, released in Station Island into mordant vignettes of Irish social life. Here Heaney describes the ordination of the young priest and his visits back to the parish from the missions:
The village round sketched here would be familiar to anyone raised in Ireland. Heaney's satiric phrases—"fawning relish," "holy mascot"—defamiliarize the pieties; the sharpness of his eye is matched in such places by sharpness of tongue. A brave exactness in saying the socially unsayable appears in Heaney's epigrammatic summation of the society of his youth. Though the nostalgia for his "first kingdom"—so evident in his earliest poems—is still present, he has added an adult judgment on the deficiencies of its people:
They were two-faced and accommodating. And seed, breed and generation still They are holding on, every bit as pious and exacting and demeaned.
The five adjectives and the four nouns in this passage hold on to their places in the lines as if they were sentinels guarding a fort. They cannot be budged (as anyone can discover by trying to put "two-faced" in the place of "demeaned," or "generation" in the place of "seed"). The words act out the tenaciousness of the Catholics of Northern Ireland, surviving in spite of being—necessarily—"twofaced and accommodating." When words fit together in this embedded way, they make a harsh poetry far from the softer verse of Heaney's youth. It is a poetry aiming not at liquidity but at the solidity of the mason's courses.
At the same time, Heaney's native tendernesses, beautifully realized, ornament his pages. In a typical passage, Heaney as a boy sits in a beech tree, where "the very ivy/ puzzled its milk-tooth frills and tapers/over the grain." In this short spill of words, there are no obvious beauties of alliteration, assonance, rhyming; instead, there is the pure discovery of language adequate to the combination of ivy and bole. What is the right verb for the way ivy moves over a tree trunk? What is the right word for baby ivy leaves? What are the words for their shape and edges? "Its milk-tooth frills and tapers" becomes the reflexive object of the oddly transitive verb "puzzled" as the ivy instinctively plots out its new route and puts out its young delicate sprays and tendrils at the same time. A poet can find such words only by analogy with his own inner life; he feels what it is like when consciousness or perception leafs itself out along a new puzzling path. When he needs a word for the ivy, it comes from his own kinesthetic awareness of the body. Everywhere, Heaney's inner life gives life to outer life, attaching to it the felt inner coursings of physical and mental existence.
In one ars poetica, "The King of the Ditchbacks," Heaney describes this uncertain and tentative effort of the poet to track down his inner stirrings and translate them into words that are at the same time adequate for his perception of the external world. The poet, says Heaney, feels his ghostly other—his phenomenological self, one might say—making a track, an unintelligible code, "a dark morse along the bank;" the poet follows:
A prose poem continues the relationship:
Like a priest being ordained, Heaney is vested for the calling of poet in a mysteriously beautiful poem that attempts to exemplify the paradoxical total naturalness and total social estrangement of the office of the poet. He recounts the day of his "sense of election," when he was camouflaged and taken bird hunting:
When I was taken aside that day I had the sense of election: they dressed my head in a fishnet and plaited leafy twigs through meshes so my vision was a bird's at the heart of a thicket and I spoke as I moved like a voice from a shaking bush.
That day, the hunters catch no birds, but Heaney is urged to return in the fall, "when the gundogs can hardly retrieve/what's brought down." The poet realizes he will return, but not to hunt; rather, he will return in spirit, as a watcher, a disguised Keatsian icon of the harvest:
The echo of the Gospel confirms the depth of the election. The elegiac richness of the language argues the aristocracy of the poet's calling, but the memory of the stealthy self, "a denless mover" living in his senses, argues also for the intimacy of this aristocracy with the biological origins of all social forms.
The allusion to the Gospel recurs in the last poem of Station Island—"On the Road"—where Heaney recalls "that track through corn/ where the rich young man/ asked his question—/ Master, what must I/ do to be saved?" In raising this ultimate question, Heaney asks what all the self-born must ask: If the gods of the parental hearth, the altars of the local church, the teachers of the native schools do not suffice as guardians and mentors, then where is one to turn? This is the central outcry of Heaney's book, and it leads him first into the affronting encounters with family, school, and church which fill the long title poem. But after that it ushers him into a strange and unpopulated realm, which one can only call the space of writing. The refusal of the social plenum leaves the artist empty, but his kingdom becomes the entire scope of consciousness. The significant word "empty" recurs several times in this volume, notably in "On the Road":
In my hands like a wrested trophy, the empty round of the steering wheel.
The end of the intellectual, emotional, and aesthetic struggle to discard false gods seems to be a far-stretching emptiness, but it is one in which the steering wheel is in one's own hands, a prize of victory.
"On the Road," seeking a solution to its sense of bewilderment and depletion, drives itself, finally, to a rock wall incised with a prehistoric carving. There it halts, observing the first, ancient human testimony to the power and strength of form—a form that takes its own inspiration from the contours of its rock matrix:
There a drinking deer is cut into rock, its haunch and neck rise with the contours, the incised outline curves to a strained expectant muzzle and a nostril flared at a dried-up source.
The poet would "meditate/that stone-faced vigil" of the drinking deer
until the long dumbfounded spirit broke cover to raise a dust in the font of exhaustion.
"Dumbfounded" is one of the words in this volume (others are "bewildered," "defensive," "evasion," "guilty," "complaisant," and "emptied") which convey the many confusions and fears undergone by any independent mind in defining and defending its own solitude. Against these self-doubts—arising from the social disobedience so necessary for art but so disturbing to the hitherto obedient—are set various phrases of clarity and self-fortification. Some are sensual—"hands at night/ dreaming the sun in the sunspot of a breast." Others are experiential—"we are earthworms of the earth, and all that/ has gone through us is what will be our trace." Still others are aesthetic. In his tribute to Hardy, "The Birthplace," for example, Heaney remembers how as a boy he found in Hardy a writer describing the life he himself was living on an Irish farm. The shock of that first perceived correspondence between life and art closes Heaney's homage:
Everywhere being nowhere, who can prove one place more than another? We come back emptied… Still, was it thirty years ago I read until first light for the first time, to finishThe Return of the Native? The corncrake in the aftergrass verified himself, and I heard roosters and dogs, the very same as if he had written them.
Poems like "The Birthplace" record, as I have said, private moments of sustenance in the wilderness of middle life. This wilderness necessarily includes for Heaney the state of his country, and there are many direct, and some indirect, references here to Heaney's troubled relation to the insoluble events in Northern Ireland. The dangers of propaganda and of loyalties unmediated by intelligence haunt any writer born into historical crisis. Heaney quotes Czeslaw Milosz's "Native Realm": "I was stretched between contemplation of a motionless point and the command to participate actively in history." The contemplation of a motionless point—as one pole of the artist's duty—is reflected here in Heaney's ascetic translation, in the Station Island sequence, of a poem by John of the Cross on the dark night of the soul; the command to participate actively in history is reflected in the terse and committed poem "Chekhov on Sakhalin," based on a fragment of Chekhov's life. In the poem, Chekhov drains a last glass of Moscow cognac after travelling thousands of miles from Moscow, through Siberia, to the island of Sakhalin, between Russia and Japan; the island is a Russian prison colony, and Chekhov is paying his "debt to medicine" by investigating the penal conditions. He forces himself to watch floggings and then leaves to write about them, "to try for the right tone—not tract, not thesis." Chekhov's predicament is that of any poet trying to write about historical conditions, but the deeper truth of the poem appears in the closing lines, in which Chekhov's own origin ("born, you may say, under the counter") compels him to his present expiatory inquiry, and to a perpetual identification with the convicts:
For the last twenty years, each of Heaney's books—from Death of a Naturalist (1966) through Station Island—has exhibited an experimental advance on its predecessors. Without losing his early sensual depth and sympathy, Heaney has added social and political dimensions to his writing. In assimilating the mythical and organic voice of Door Into the Dark (1969) to the compelled social voice of Wintering Out (1972), with its epigraph on "the new camp for the internees," Heaney assumed a civic relation to his larger society—a position consolidated in North (1975), one of the few unforgettable single volumes published in English since the modernist era. In Field Work, the formality of Heaney's earlier prosody relaxed into a deft and unassuming phrasal and conversational line—a stylistic consequence of letting the political and social dimensions of life in Northern Ireland invade his adolescent world of nests, aeries, and immemorial agricultural rituals. "I remember writing a letter to Brian Friel just after North was published," Heaney once remarked, "saying I no longer wanted a door into the dark—I want a door into the light…. I really wanted to come back to be able to use the first person singular to mean me and my lifetime."
It is this completed voice that speaks in Station Island. When a poet remakes his voice, everything already said has to be said over, in the new, more adequate tonality and diction. The imagination, as long as it remains alive, never ceases to reconsider and to rewrite the past; its poems are circumscribed by the potential adventures of the voice. If a poetic voice lacks volatility and modulation, it cannot be convincing in dramas of volatility and modulation; if it lacks a public dimension, it cannot enunciate public life; if it is wanting in inwardness, it cannot convey private intensity. To attempt a new complexity of voice is to create future possibilities for one's past; and in this volume Heaney has in effect rescanned his past, using the accomplished and complicated voice of his fifth decade. The earliest voice, the limited one inherited from ancestors, will "have to be unlearned":
even though from there on everything is going to be learning. So the twine unwinds and loosely widens backward through areas that forwarded understandings of all I would undertake
Heaney's present voice benefits from his recent work on Sweeney Astray (1984), a translation of a medieval Irish poem, "Buile Suibhne," in which Sweeney, an Irish king, is cursed by the priest Ronan, who turns him into a bird. Sweeney's dour and lively voice from the trees is blended with Heaney's own in the group of poems making up the third part of the Station Island volume, a sequence called "Sweeney Redivivus." These poems form a dry and almost peremptory autobiography, stunningly different from the warm-fleshed account given in Heaney's early books.
It is difficult to choose among the Sweeney poems, since they so illuminate each other. For a view of Heaney's current hard poetic, one would have to quote his poem on Cézanne, called simply "An Artist":
I love the thought of his anger. His obstinacy against the rock, his coercion of the substance from green apples. The way he was a dog barking at the image of himself barking. And his hatred of his own embrace of working as the only thing that worked.
For an impression of Sweeney's tart spite—a tone perhaps impossible for Heaney in propria persona—one would have to read Sweeney's hatred for the Cleric who, bringing Christianity to Ireland, robbed him of his native ground:
If he had stuck to his own cramp-jawed abbesses and intoners dibbling round the enclosure, his Latin and blather of love, his parchments and scheming in letters shipped over water— but no, he overbore with his unctions and orders, he had to get in on the ground.
If one wanted to see Heaney's first moments as a modern writer, the old rural life left behind, one would quote "Sweeney Redivivus," the ironically dissolving title poem of the sequence:
The fine-edged precision of naming in these poems—the line of the hedges thin as penwork, the hard paths and sharp-ridged houses—has become for Heaney the ethic under which he works. He has written more than once about the "cool" temperature of early Irish verse, contrasting it with the warmer and rounder tones of English poetry; his current effort seems to be directed toward retaining the spareness and chill of the early Irish tonality while not forgoing altogether what he has called "those somewhat hedonistic impulses towards the satisfactions of aural and formal play out of which poems arise."
The "aural and formal play" in these poems is satisfyingly subtle. In "The First Gloss," for instance—the fourline poem opening the Sweeney sequence—the formal decisions are very modest: the rhymes are slant; the second couplet is composed of lines shorter than those of the first. But these formal moves stand for the two themes of the poem—disobedience and independence. Heaney imagines in this quatrain the first scribe who decided to violate a vellum margin with a thought of his own about the sacred word that he was copying:
Take hold of the shaft of the pen. Subscribe to the first step taken from a justified line into the margin.
In one of his first poems, "Digging," Heaney had imagined his pen as a spade, and had made the work of writing poetry strictly analogous, in the mental sphere, to the physical work of planting and harvesting. This comforting fiction has been supplanted in "The First Gloss" by a recognition of the inherent outlawry and heterodoxy in writing—what it entails in the way of departure from socially justified limits and from the self-sufficient sacred word.
Readers who know Heaney's autobiography in verse from previous books will want to retrace it in this verbally firm and assured but psychologically beset and uncertain midlife recapitulation. Those interested in the social history of Ireland can find here Heaney's visceral account of how things stand, and will notice especially the horrifying record of killings in the title poem, as well as Sweeney's tragicomic satire on cultural life in Ireland. (The mots justes for personal and public life, past and present, seem to come to Heaney with the unforced sureness of instinct.) For me, it is not chiefly the autobiography or the cultural history—though each is accurate with a poet's accuracy—that draws me to this book. Rather, it is a poetic handling of language so variable that almost any word, image, or turn of phrase might appear at any moment. In a typical moment, Sweeney gibes at the monks writing in the scriptorium:
Under the rumps of lettering they herded myopic angers. Resentment seeded in the uncurling fernheads of their capitals.
Rumps and fernheads, herding and seeding, capitals and angers, resentment and myopia—these words from medicine, ethics, husbandry, botany, chirography, psychology jostle each other for position. (Of course, there would be no pleasure in this if the words did not embody as well the metaphorical animus by which Sweeney turns the intellectual scribes into thick-witted herdsmen, demeans their art to a venomous proliferation.) Heaney's voice, by turns mythological and journalistic, rural and sophisticated, reminiscent and impatient, stern and yielding, curt and expansive, is one of a suppleness almost equal to consciousness itself. The two tones he generally avoids—on principle, I imagine, and by temperament—are the prophetic and the denunciatory, those standbye of political poetry. It is arresting to find a poetry so conscious of cultural and social facts which nonetheless remains chiefly a poetry of awareness, observation, and sorrow.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3158
SOURCE: An interview with Seamus Heaney, in The Literary Review, Vol. XXIX, No. 2, Winter, 1986, pp. 161-69.
[In the following interview, Heaney discusses his writing habits, the origin of Sweeney Astray, and the work of other contemporary poets.]
Seamus Heaney, the poet from Ireland, has just been granted tenure at Harvard. We can all breathe a sigh of relief, now that we now have an important poet in residence (half-time) in Cambridge who is impeccable in his behavior and projects a dignity that students can respect. As a matter of fact, so popular is Heaney with the students that they speak of him with a near-reverence (in spite of the difficulties they have getting into his "limited-enrollment" workshops). His spring lectures, which are held in the auditorium hall at the Science Center, are always filled with admirers, both students and faculty, and a feeling pervades that these comments on poetry will someday be of historical significance. And, true to form, the talks are beautifully crafted, highly informed appraisals of contemporary poets (and coevals of Heaney himself), full of wit and drawn out of his own deep fund of erudition.
Heaney is a difficult poet to get to know. A good-natured, cheerful man, of a muscular, thewy build, his muted persona contrasts sharply with the flamboyance of Irish poets who came before him—poets like Brendan Behan whose excesses in drink and womanizing added to his legendary status. Next to them, Heaney is soft-spoken, modest, and intensely private. Robert Lowell once called him "the greatest Irish poet since Yeats," but he is hardly a Yeatsian figure, either poetically or temperamentally. (Heaney has confided that Yeats, given the opportunity to marry Maude Gonne, wouldn't have known what to do with her.) He is also a man of great ambivalence and contradictions. While dedicated to his native tongue and the advancement of the Irish heritage, he does not want to become a "curiosity" in America himself (i.e., the "Irish" poet). While concerned about his country's political turmoils, he also feels strongly that the role of the artist is to create art, and not to become embroiled in political issues.
But few poets have achieved as much as Heaney at such a young age. He publishes a new book almost yearly, and his last two books of poetry, Sweeney Astray and Station Island, have been widely praised by critics, who find a new and growing maturity in his work. Heaney, says Blake Morrisson in his biography Seamus Heaney (Methuen), manages to confront in his poetry the "simple-minded belief that poems with rural or archaic images aren't engaging to the modern world," and this is a key to much of Heaney's work. Robert Frost once wrote that poetry "began as a lump in the throat, a lovesickness, a homesickness"; it often seems as though Heaney's poetry thrives on his homesickness. Raised on a working farm in Ireland, in love with his native soil (an element he describes as "black butter/ melting and opening underfoot"), he sees the underlying harmony between land and language. In this respect, he has been compared to the pastoral poets, including Wordsworth, who find hidden meanings in the lush, rural landscapes. But with Heaney, there is a sense that the more modest the expression, the closer to silence, the better. Morrisson writes that for Heaney, "language is almost a kind of a betrayal," and this attitude might have derived from acommunity of terse, hardworking Irish people that comprised Heaney's childhood. To them, any kind of a public life was anathema, so when Heaney began to write poetry, he wrote under an alias (Incertus).
Heaney's themes are manifold. Love, religion, mortality, darkness, all are touched upon in his many volumes. Michael Longley, in his Time essay on Ulster poetry (March 19, 1984), found Heaney's poem "Personal Helicon" to be both credo and manifesto. "I rhyme/ To see myself, to set the darkness echoing." But the second book includes an opening poem, "Night Piece," that probes another kind of darkness:
Must you know it again? Dull pounding through hay The uneasy whinny A sponge lip drawn off each separate tooth Opalescent haunch Muscle and hoof Bundled under the roof.
Heaney's life has become increasingly complicated now that he must spend half the year at Harvard and half back in Ireland with his wife Marie and their three children. Although he deplores these complications, some poems seem to arrive out of the exacerbation of his loneliness. In "The Guttural Muse," he describes watching a young crowd from his hotel window over a car park. "A girl in a white dress/ Was being courted out among the cars/ As her voice swarmed and puddled into laughs/ I felt like some old pike all badged with sores/ Wanting to swim in touch with soft-mouthed life."
In another poem, "The Otter," his images are strong:
I loved your wet head and smashing crawl
and then, at the end of the poem:
And suddenly, you're out Back again, intent as ever, Heavy and frisky in your freshened pelt, Printing the stones.
and finally, in his poem, "Oysters," we get a sense of what Heaney is aiming for in his poetry: "clear light, like poetry or freedom."
Eating oysters, Heaney's "tongue was a filling estuary/ My palate hung with starlight/ As I tasted the salty Pleiades/ Orion dipped his foot into the water." But, as Heaney eats, he also consumes his experience of the day: "Deliberately, that its tang/ Might quicken me all into verb, pure verb."
Sweeney Astray, Heaney's translation of a medieval Irish myth, was called "exhilarating" by Brendan Kennelly in The New York Times Book Review (May 27, 1984). It was the week following this review that I called on Seamus Heaney at Adams House, his residence at Harvard, to talk about Sweeney Astray and about poetry.
- How do you feel about being here? Could you see yourself living here permanently?
- No, I don't see myself settling here. I mean, my fiction is that I'm not really here. And yet this is my fourth year at Harvard, and my third in a row. My home, my house, my den, nevertheless, is in Ireland. There's a great hospitality and generosity in the American academic world, but I don't feel it's my first milieu. If I came here to live, I would be just an "ethnic curiosity."
Does being in another culture provoke something in the way of material for your poems?
Well, I don't know about that. I kind of relish the charge of energy here, but I think it's very difficult to be a writer in this country.
Why do you say that?
Well, because the expectations of the successful writer are too much. I mean, first of all, he's asked to contribute poems everywhere and unless he or she has a very strong sense of his own pace, productivity becomes a danger. Also, just being celebrated by people. There are a lot of readings and that can drag you away from your work.
Your first day in class, you said that the real test for a poet is his ability to "survive his career. " Perhaps this is what you're talking about.
How much of your normal life have you had to give up for the sake of the commitments around your poetry?
None. I mean, whatever poetry has entailed has become normal. Interviews, then, are part of the normality. Alas.
When do you do your writing?
All the time. I don't have a schedule. I wait for times when I'm in a writing mood, and I tend to be a binge writer. I think a lot of people do too much writing. One of my impatiences is with poetry that's well done but doesn't need to be done. I still cling to my first position that a poem is a gift and that it stirs unexpectedly and can't be summoned by the will and that it has an individual genetic life of its own, almost. And without that initial impulse, I can't sit down.
Does the mood become more frequent as you get older?
It's about the same. I get more pleasure from it, now. I prolong it, I work at it longer now.
Tell me a little about Sweeney Astray. How did it all begin?
Well, it began in 1972 when I resigned my teaching job at Queens University in Belfast. I was embracing a schedule of full-time writing and I wanted to have a task that would keep me in work. The thing about lyric poetry is that you have to wait for it, so I thought I needed something at which I could work day by day. And, I'd always had an interest in Sweeney. I'd never looked at the whole text, but I'd seen little stray pieces here and there and the material attracted me. The other thing that the Sweeney poem was—it was a story about displacement. I mean, Sweeney was a Northerner and I had a little bit of identification going on there. I did a version of it in 1972 or 1973 but it was quite free—did not give much obedience to the original text, and it substituted imagery for declaration in places. It took the sense and embellished it, and so when I finished, it was neither one thing nor the other. It wasn't free enough to stand on its own as a reinvention of the text, yet it was too disobedient to stand as a translation. Three-quarters of it, moreover, was free verse and there were these very strictly rhymed pieces also, so I knew I had to come back to it. So I worked on it and it became more faithful to the original in metrical terms and in terms of the line-by-line sense of the thing.
I see Sweeney coming up again in your new book of poems, Station Island, in a section called "Sweeney Redivivus."
Well, he's a mask for some aspects of myself. Twenty poems in Sweeney Astray, some of them in his voice and some using his situation. A sense of displacement. He's a point of view, really.
Do you find a lot of newer poets working in forms again?
I see a number of people writing in traditional forms. I don't know whether it's a reaction to free verse or if it's in imitation of poets like Elizabeth Bishop, who was a formal writer and has had a late flowering. James Merrill has had a flourish of presence in the literary moment and he's writing a lot in forms. There is a kind of natural swing that way but I don't think that traditional form for its own sake is necessarily a good thing or a bad thing. I think it has a lot to do with the temperament and imagination of the writer himself or herself. You can't imagine Whitman or D.H. Lawrence fulfilling his imaginative destiny in metrical verse. I mean, Lawrence's rhyming poems are like seeing a man in the wrong outfit.
For a lot of American writers, the true American form is free form and that is an ideological position, so perhaps there is something ideological also about taking up a traditional form. Writers like Robert Pinsky came out of literary training with Yvor Winters where there was an ideology implicit in the use of traditional forms and also a critical attitude implicit in it.
I think the Americans feel the burden of the past more; the sense that it's difficult to surpass what has already been written. They feel they've been less well-educated and are more self-conscious about traditional forms.
Well, I think you learn to write by reading. Reading will influence your notion of what writing should be. And there is so much self-conscious activity in the search for the American poem. You have Williams and the Black Mountain School. I suppose Pound does a big American experiment. All of those ratify the open forms. On the other hand, you have Stevens who is majestic, traditional, a rhetorician, and you have Frost.
In your own private anthology of contemporaries, whom would you include?
Hass and Pinsky over on the West Coast. I liked Pinsky's last book. Frank Bidart seems to be an original. There's a hell of a lot of talent around.
What about breaking new ground?
Well, in Ireland, there's a poet named Paul Muldoon who's very original, and in England there's a new group who've established a new idiom. How deep a furrow it ploughs is another matter. It's a school of metaphorical writing and very laid-back and clever. Craig Raine and James Fenton have been a part of it and it's been described in England as the "Martian School"—all springing from a poem by Craig Raine called "The Martian Sends a Postcard Home," so it's that kind of displaced look at the world.
I think that the writing for the last twenty years in places like Poland—writers like [Zbigniew] Herbert and [Czeslaw] Milosz—people who are involved in a moment of historical crisis—writing that springs from that kind of pressure of being a witness is exciting. And in that respect, I think Derek Walcott has a kind of founding status as the poet for a new culture, a post-colonial situation. He's doing new work in drama and poetry and he's under the same kind of pressure that all emerging cultures are under. To decide whether to build a kind of ethnic barrier, excluding the modes of the colonial culture or to keep the resources of the old imperial master and use them to new effect. I think Walcott's exemplary in that he doesn't throw away any artistic resource, either English or Caribbean. He's been resolute in distinguishing between the ethnic political resentment and the artistic resources.
Someone said that American poets simply haven't suffered enough to write great poetry. What do you think?
I think there's plenty of suffering in America. The Civil War, for example, and the Vietnam War. But there's an inward existential distress, which is clearly the case here. There are different penalties in different situations. The Americans are at bay in their own freedom.
Do you mean the tyranny of freedom?
There's so much available here and people are driven in on their First Person Singular in a distressed way and, of course, this makes them yearn for the kind of collective identity some other countries have; yearn for conditions of extreme duress, even. Yet, I think it was Joseph Brodsky who was saying that freedom is more important than art. And Brodsky spoke there as a man who has suffered, has been exiled, has been treated as a social parasite.
I get impatient with the self-flagellating thing, and the self-indulgent surrealism and the lack of encounter here with the nitty-gritty. The problems of social justice do not seem to concern the intellectual community very much here. The fulfillment of the self seems to be the priority.
One of our playwrights, Sam Shepard, talks about the fact that there are some Americans who simply can't stand "not being a star. "
But being a "star" is different from being successful.
It's jargon for the same thing—a star in your own firmament.
Well, you can't become a poet just because you want to be one.
How much support does a young poet need? How important is a mentor?
I've always been a teacher as well as a poet and I don't see any radical difference between teaching graduates or teaching kindergartners. It's important to have class activ ities for members of a workshop just to let them discover themselves. But I have an ambivalent attitude toward workshops. I would try to keep them as objective as possible—talk about craft, line endings, etc. Yet there's a lot of writing that's highly competent that I'm just not interested in but that I have to work with.
So you can learn to write.
If you have the equipment to begin with.
In one of your poems you say: "How perilous is it to choose not to love the life that you 're shown…"
That poem is called "Badgers" and it's about the night life of the community. The Badgers are a kind of analogue for IRA activity. It's really about the relationship between yourself and the shadow self; the question of political solidarity with a movement becomes an extension of that.
Would you rather your poetry not be politically involved?
It's necessarily involved. Obviously, you would rather live in a society where there was composure rather than discomposure or decomposure.
Look. There's always that tussle between the purely artistic element and the civic element. I think of Lowell or Snyder, Ginsberg or Adrienne Rich. Even Bly. Now, Bly's an interesting example in that his poetry is pure lyric and his engagement with the culture is critical and didactic. And the same is true with someone like Rich or with Levertov, Snyder, or Ginsberg. There's poetry, but, then too, there's the program. With the black writers of the sixties, there was that tension between civic and artistic.
In your book, Preoccupations, you have a quote from Ted Hughes in which you say that the poetic imagination is finally determined by the state of negotiation between man and his idea of a creator. Do you agree with that?
I do. I think it's a vague statement, but I think to have been brought up Catholic, as in my case, with some idea of eternity, is to live forever with some sense of the provisional or secondary nature of historical experience. It's to live haunted by some Platonic idea of possibility and with a certain magical notion of language. It does change your notion of poetry. Poetry to me doesn't have to have any message. It can be praise or have the status of hymn or lament and these final postures of the voice which are religious are related to some first notion of the sacred word. It's difficult for poetry to survive in a society that loses its religious dimension. It then becomes a religious act in itself and not a parallel.
So we need our mythology. Stevens thought poetry could replace it.
In the Celtic society, there was an official status for the writer. He wrote satires and kept the history in stanzas to retain it in the memory. That changes the more advanced a society becomes. For a while in America in the sixties or the seventies, there was a great nostalgia for the primitive and everyone wanted to be an Indian again.
So you think language is more poetic the less advanced the society?
Yes. There's something colorful, much more metaphorical, in say, Homer. Something pristine about the figures of speech; but I'm not sure if you'd been living in those societies that you'd have been aware of the poetical nature of your language. There's always the nostalgia factor at work for us.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6004
SOURCE: "Seamus Heaney's Poetry of Meditation: Door into the Dark," in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. XXXIII, No. 1, Spring, 1987, pp. 1-17.
[In the following prize-winning essay, Hart analyzes the opposing, yet interwoven themes of Heaney's poetry, maintaining that the poet finds "precedents in a tradition of Catholic meditation but give to the old forms a new complexity and an attractive, personal finish."]
Images of dark and light appear so frequently in poetic tradition that, when summoned for contemporary use, they run the risk of being immediately obsolescent. Each poet must dust off the old clichés and glaze them with new varnish. For Seamus Heaney, who is more attached to tradition than most, darkness and light dramatize his most pressing concerns. In his first book, Death of a Naturalist, as Dick Davis has pointed out, "Darkness is associated with an uncontrollable fecundity, a pullulation of alien, absorbing life." Darkness is persistently linked to Heaney's adolescent fears of sex and death, and light to their possible transcendence.
Many critics refuse to accept Heaney's second book, Door into the Dark, as an "advance on its predecessor," but surely it indicates a significant psychological advance. Rather than run from the dark, Heaney now faces up to it with grim determination, or actively seeks it out. He mines the metaphor of a "door into the dark" so extensively that many of his poems can be read allegorically. Still preoccupied with country matters—with farming, fishing, thatching, forging—he casts his rural personae in roles that dramatize the oppositions dueling in his imagination. Dark and light are now associated with speech and writing, forgetting and remembering, expiration and inspiration, blindness and insight, destruction and creation. The poems are intensely self-reflexive as they investigate their own perplexed making. Although Blake Morrison claims that "Door into the Dark is more promise than fulfillment, more hovering on the threshold than a decisive arrival," Heaney's narrators restlessly cross back and forth over thresholds [Seamus Heaney, 1982]. Like traditional Christian meditations, their crossings from confusion to revelation, from mute blindness to luminous communion with the divine, are overshadowed by the Cross itself.
For a poet who attended a Catholic school as a young man (St. Colomb's College), the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola, as well as of his compatriots St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, must have presented obvious parallels to poetic practices. James Joyce, whose role as a mentor Heaney acknowledges at the end of "Station Island," may have suggested some of these. Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist finds Loyola's "composition of place" in the hellfire sermon so imaginatively effective that its central dictum "to imagine with the senses of the mind … the material character" of all things and events, when filtered through Aquinas, becomes his fundamental aesthetic principle. In The Poetry of Meditation, Louis Martz has demonstrated how Renaissance poets often derived narrative models from Loyola's pattern of composition of place, self-analysis, and colloquy, and dwelled on the psychological processes behind them: memory, reason, and will.
While Heaney's meditations focus on scenes of artistic rather than Christian passion, they employ traditional meditational techniques in doing so. Their "compositions" of rustic artificers, who sacrifice financial contentment and bodily vigor in their devotion to outmoded crafts, act as reflectors in which Heaney analyzes his own procedures. His soul-searching is often self-incriminating. Rather than carry on a colloquy with the godhead, normally he bears silent witness to craftsmen of his own ilk. Like Joyce, he finds in the divine author of creation a metaphor for the authorial imagination, praising and accusing it accordingly. Poetry, which for Heaney includes all makings, is a substitute religion, but one which he never wholeheartedly reveres since it too mystifies the word. While his meditating narrators withdraw from the world into a pregnant, darkened silence, he often accuses them of narcissism, of stubbornly denying life. If in the womb of the imagination secular as well as holy words are made flesh, as Dedalus attests, the desire to regress can be infantile and defeating.
Heaney's emblematic "door into the dark" has numerous religious and literary precedents. It may come from the Bible: "I am the door: by me if any man shall enter in, he shall be saved" (John, 10:9), where Christ is promising salvation for all. St. Teresa uses the metaphor in the initial stages of her meditational treatise, The Interior Castle, declaring: "the door by which to enter this castle is prayer and meditation." It is implicit in St. John of the Cross's meditation, The Dark Night, in which the soul passes through a door in a darkened "house of the senses" to venture into a night infused with divine illumination. St. John explains:
When this house of the senses was stilled (that is, mortified), its passions quenched, and its appetites calmed and put to sleep through this happy night of the purgation of the senses, the soul went out in order to begin its journey along the road of the spirit, which is that of proficients and which by another terminology is referred to as the illuminative way or the way of infused contemplation….
Poems form the kernels of St. John's meditations, and Heaney translates one of these ("Song of the Soul that Rejoices in Knowing God through Faith") in "Station Island," and compares its theme of the dark night to St. Patrick's Purgatory on Lough Derg. In his second book the "dark night" is a metaphor for the imagination which burns most intensely when darkened to the world.
Heaney's "door" is archetypal rather than specific. It may echo the "spiritual windows and doorways" in The Cloud of Unknowing, the anonymous medieval book on mysticism which holds that the doors of worldly perception must be closed so that the meditator can approach God's light. According to Benedict Kiely, Heaney's poetics are based on "the cloud of unknowing [and] … what Patrick Kavanagh … called the fog, 'the fecund fog of unconsciousness'" [in The Hollins Critic VII, No. 4]. Kavanagh said that we have to shut our eyes to see our way to heaven. "What is faith, indeed, but a trust in the fog; who is God but the King of the Dark?" In "A Raid into Dark Corners," Kiely traces Heaney's poetic mysticism to Catholic roots. From what Heaney calls the "negative dark that presides in the Irish Christian consciousness … the gloom, the constriction, the sense of guilt, the self-abasement," comes his poetic contention: "I think this notion of the dark centre, the blurred and irrational storehouse of insight and instincts, the hidden core of the self—this notion is the foundation of what viewpoint I might articulate for myself as a poet."
Joseph Conrad's "door of Darkness" and "door opening into a darkness" in Heart of Darkness, Robert Frost's poem, "The Door in the Dark," and the illuminating, purgatorial darknesses in Yeats's "Byzantium" and Eliot's Four Quartets, perhaps gave further support to Heaney's metaphor. But Heaney stakes out territory that is unmistakably his own even while occupying the eminent domain of others. His emphasis on ascetic withdrawal into the dark, for example, remains free of the mystic's grim desire for mortification. While St. John and St. Teresa relish God's "delicious wounds of love," and Loyola advises the retreatant to end his first week by chastizing "the body by inflicting actual pain on it … by wearing hairshirts or cods or iron chains, by scourging or beating," Heaney retreats from temporary distractions and confusions in a less melodramatic way: by walking, driving his car, or, like Kavanagh, by simply shutting his eyes.
Heaney embraces the mystic's sensory deprivation and renewed concentration, but for secular purposes. St. Teresa summed up the contemplative's "rite of passage" in the Fifth Mansion of The Interior Castle: "God deprives the soul of all its senses so that He may the better imprint in it true wisdom: it neither sees, hears, nor understands anything while it lasts." For the traditional Christian, the purgative way culminates in unity with God through grace and love. But when Heaney requisitions Catholic spiritual exercises, he does so to focus better on their hallowed assumptions, which now seem hollow, and attacks their methods even as he employs them. If he aims for transcendent clarity, it is to obtain a better view of the ground he is trying, often foolishly, to transcend. If he quests for unity with a mysterious creative source, usually he finds it in a peat bog, his own head, or his wife, rather than in God. Rather than climb a ladder to heaven, Heaney opens his front door and discovers avatars of the Creator in the blacksmiths and thatchers of an ordinary town.
Perhaps the best example of Heaney's meditative style can be found in "The Forge," a sonnet whose first line provides the title of his second book. Unlike Yeats, who celebrated golden smithies of an ancient Byzantine empire, or Joyce, whose smithy was an adolescent aesthete dreaming of forging art but never quite managing to, Heaney fastens on a brawny artisan who, "leather-aproned, hairs in his nose," hammers out horseshoes. Heaney approaches this "maker" or "artist-god" in a traditional meditative way, by entering a dark "cloud of unknowing." He declares, "All I know is a door into the dark." The door is knowable but the dark beyond blinds him to a creative process which is ultimately unknowable. Heaney intimates correspondences between his blacksmith and a god, but then retracts them. The blacksmith may be one of God's intermediaries, a priest transubstantiating the materials of common experience into holy artifacts, but at the end he is fundamentally a common laborer beating "real iron out."
Profane denotations undercut their sacred connotations. The blacksmith's anvil resembles a mysterious omphalos at the center of space and time. Heaney says, "The anvil must be somewhere in the centre." It is "Horned as a unicorn," a product of fairy tale and legend, as well as an eternal, "Immoveable … altar" where the blacksmith "expends himself in shape and music." Against this mythical background, however, he attends to secular makings rather than sacred ones, artifice rather than sacrifice, horseshoes rather than communion wafers. God's spirit in the last lines is no holy wind or breath inspiriting the soul of a communicant, but simply the air pumped from the bellows onto the forge's coals. If the blacksmith is an archetype (a type of Hephaestus) he is also a common man on the verge of obsolescence, sadly at odds with the modern-day world of traffic outside his door. Cars have made horses nearly redundant, yet he continues to recollect better days and bang out shoes with heroic, if not pigheaded, devotion:
He leans out on the jamb, recalls a clatter Of hoofs where traffic is flashing in rows; Then grunts and goes in, with a slam and flick To beat real iron out, to work the bellows.
While Heaney admires his artificer, he refuses to gaze at him through the mystic's mystifying spectacles. By the end of the poem he has grounded the blacksmith firmly in the social and economic factors which determine and indeed threaten his existence.
Both Heaney and blacksmith follow the meditational paradigm of renunciation and reunion. While Heaney withdraws from the noisy bustle of traffic and the decaying yard of rust outside to glimpse the work inside, the black-smith leans out the jamb and then returns to his forge. For Heaney, the outside world is governed by a grim, incontrovertible law of entropy and corruption, the inside world by a passionate, irrational will to creation:
Outside, old axles and iron hoops rusting; Inside, the hammered anvil's short-pitched ring, The unpredictable fantail of sparks….
Outside things fall apart; inside, "somewhere in the centre," they are held together and hammered into unity.
In "The Forge" Heaney illustrates the preliterature, instinctual, unconscious urges and binary oppositions he finds at the center of all creation. His essay, 'The Makings of a Music," reveals these oppositions in similar fashion, but now in terms of Wordsworth and Yeats. In Wordsworth's poetry, he writes, "What we are presented with is a version of composition as listening, as a wise passiveness, a surrender to energies that spring within the centre of the mind." Likewise, in "The Forge," Heaney listens passively to the "short-pitched ring" of the anvil "in the centre" of the shop. But he follows Yeats too, for whom "composition was no recollection in tranquility, not a delivery of the dark embryo, but a mastery, a handling, a struggle towards maximum articulation…. Thoughts do not ooze out and into one another, they are hammered into unity." "All reality," Yeats notes, "comes to us as the record of labour." Although Heaney's smith recollects the old equestrian days, at the end he repudiates nostalgic musing and hammers "real iron" in a fury of labor.
Blake Morrison contends in his book on Heaney that "What links the various traders, labourers and craftsmen who fill his first two books is that, unlike him, they are lacking in speech" and that Heaney, embarrassed by the linguistic sophistication provided by a university education,
found himself in the position of valuing silence above speech, of defending the shy and awkward against the confident and accomplished, of feeling language to be a kind of betrayal…. But the community Heaney came from, and with which he wanted his poetry to express solidarity, was one on which the pressure of silence weighed heavily.
In Catholic Northern Ireland, speaking your mind can be a dangerous business. For social and political reasons Heaney elevates his mother's dictum, "Whatever you say, say nothing," into a poetic principle. He celebrates silence to underscore solidarity with his Irish Catholic ancestors and peers. But silence is also part of the knowing "ignorance" and self-inflicted "blindness" of meditation. "You must become an ignorant man again," Stevens said in his long meditation, "Notes toward a Supreme Fiction," "And see the sun again with an ignorant eye." In "The Forge," when the smithy ignores the fleeting present and focuses in silence on a radiant, sempiternal source (the forge of blazing coals), Heaney follows suit. Expiration—his figurative dying away from the environment—necessarily entails a repression of speech which, with luck, makes way for linguistic inspiration and the sublimation that is writing. Heaney and his compatriots may keep quiet to avoid sectarian recrimination; they also keep quiet to meditate and write.
Oppositions such as speech and writing, myth and fact, intellect and intuition, work and play, and hierarchies that have valued one over the other, receive a new ordering from Heaney. If a logocentric preference for the spoken has devalued the written in Western thought, as Derrida insists, Heaney tends to celebrate the concrete accomplishment of writing over the evanescence of speech. While traditional Christian meditations culminate in colloquies, "in which the soul speaks intimately with God and expresses its affections, resolutions, thanksgivings, and petitions," Heaney's conclude with speechless, writerly acts. His blacksmith, for example, merely "grunts"—he never speaks. In "deconstructing" the hierarchies foisted by Platonic and Christian tradition, Heaney is also going against an Irish grain. Hugh Kenner points out in A Colder Eye that:
Irish writers have always been naggingly aware that Irishmen do not as a rule buy books, have never bought them, have even inherited a tradition whereby to write when you might be talking is an unnatural act…. And sensing that written words can even be dangerous, the Republic employs pretty active censors, who in addition to keeping out Playboy, contraceptive advice, and tons of quick-turnover porn, have interfered with some poets and with nearly every major prose writer [A Colder Eye, 1983].
Heaney protests the view that writing is "unnatural" as well as Socrates' view that it is a superfluous supplement, a "semblance of truth" causing forgetfulness and deception. He affirms that, like sex, it derives from a natural urge to reproduce life out of life, and that its considered messages may contain more pungent truths than the less premeditated utterances of speech.
In "The Peninsula" Heaney specifically addresses the traditional opposition of speech and writing, and casts his investigation in the form of a meditation. The poem recounts a passage into a "dark night" which blinds the poet to an unremarkable present so that, like the blacksmith, he can recall the past in graphic detail. Writing here is not an unnecessary appendage to or a repression of speech; it is a natural complement of speech:
When you have nothing more to say, just drive For a day all round the peninsula. The sky is tall as over a runway, The land without marks so you will not arrive But pass through, though always skirting landfall.
At the start, the landscape appears to be a text, but one erased of all "marks" of speech and writing. The emptying is a necessary purgation which, in time, will make space for a new "annunciation," a new influx of words. The "negative way" has its dangers (landfalls, darkness), as the mystics warned, but Heaney's journey ends with renewed inspiration. Reality is eclipsed, but then recalled by the mind as it finds what will suffice for its poem:
At dusk, horizons drink down sea and hill, The ploughed field swallows the whitewashed gable And you're in the dark again. Now recall The glazed foreshore and silhouetted log, That rock where breakers shredded into rags, The leggy birds stilted on their own legs, Islands riding themselves out into the fog….
The birds and islands are emblems of the poet who is also doubled-back on himself, who meditates on the writerly imagination by means of the imagination. When the meditation concludes, perception is clarified. Things are seen in their quidditas, their unique thingness, radiantly and cleanly defined. Previously unfocused, the speechless poet is now prepared to uncode the landscape and translate what he reads into writing. Heaney admonishes:
Rather than write an imagist poem Heaney writes a poem about how one gets written.
In an intriguing essay on Andrew Marvell's use of the "self-inwoven simile or … short-circuited comparison," Christopher Ricks quotes from "The Peninsula" to show how Heaney draws on the earlier poet's legacy. "The reflective image," Ricks claims, "simultaneously acknowledges … opposing forces and yearns to reconcile them," and may refer to the "art of poetry … philosophical problems of perception and imagination" as well as to the raging factions in Marvell's England and Heaney's Northern Ireland [The Force of Poetry, 1984]. While Heaney's "selfinwoven" meditations become more overtly political in later books, in Door into the Dark they aim primarily at reconciling factions poised in the poetic imagination. The symbolic "birds stilted on their own legs" and "Islands riding themselves out into the fog," while providing images for the self-conscious poet also dramatize the paradox of creation, which is partly controlled and partly uncontrollable. Frost once claimed that a poem evolved through a happy series of accidents like a piece of ice on a hot stove riding on its own melting. Heaney's islands ride the same conscious and unconscious flow.
"The Peninsula," in its "self-inwoven" way, criticizes meditative tradition even as it follows its basic structures. Like Roland Barthes, who complained in his essay on Ignatius Loyola [Sade, Fournier, Loyola, translated by Richard Miller, 1976] that too often commentators on The Spiritual Exercises succumb to "the old modern myth according to which language is merely the docile and insignificant instrument for the serious things that occur in the spirit, the heart or the soul," Heaney deems language all-important and all-encompassing. In The Spiritual Exercises themselves, Barthes notes, "there is the awareness of human aphasia: the orator and the exercitant, at the beginning, flounder in the profound deficiency of speech, as though they had nothing to say and that a strenuous effort were necessary to assist them in finding a language." He concludes: "The invention of a language, this then is the object of the Exercises." This is the object of "The Peninsula" as well, where the silent driver quests for linguistic renewal.
But Heaney's new encoding is stubbornly rooted in the material world. Loyola has a more transcendent goal. He develops a language of prayers that, paradoxically, subvert human language as they prepare the meditator for an otherworldly sign. Loyola strives for "indifference," the opposite of language, which is a system of differences. God the Maker is God the Marker. He signifies the way as the meditator searches for election and vocation:
The exercitant's role is not to choose, i.e., to mark, but quite the contrary to offer for the divine mark a perfectly equal alternative. The exercitant must strive not to choose; the aim of his discourse is to bring the two terms of the alternative to a homogeneous state…. This paradigmatic equality is the famous Ignatian indifference which has so outraged the Jesuit's foes: to will nothing oneself, to be as disposable as a corpse.
Heaney's meditation moves in an opposite direction. He passes through linguisticindifference (the unmarked landscape and his own silence) to a situation where differences are marked, distinct shapes uncoded, and not by God but by himself.
Heaney's parable of reading and writing could have been suggested by Joyce's Ulysses where Stephen takes an epistemological stroll along Sandymount strand ("water and ground in their extremity"). Stephen reads in the "signatures of all things," wondering whether the world is an apparition of words in his head or composed of actual objects that might hurt if he knocked his head against them. Both Dedalus and Heaney conclude that the world has a degree of independent existence, but that the writer's duty is to manipulate codes of realism in order to deliver a facsimile of "things founded clean on their own shapes."
If Heaney is prescriptive (he asserts "you will uncode all landscapes") he is also diagnostic, analyzing how the mediative mind capitulates to "codes" that mystify as they pretend to mediate reality. Mystics of the via negativa, following the example of Dionysus the Areopagite, assert that only signs or signatures of God can be known and that God's book (the created universe) conceals as much as it reveals. Heaney diagnoses this linguistic mystification in the poem, "In Gallarus Oratory," a title combining notions of speech (oratory) and religious withdrawal (an oratory is a small chapel for special prayers). As in "The Forge" and "The Peninsula" Heaney renounces speech as he enters the sacred dark of the early Christian oratory (in Gallarus on the Dingle peninsula), but his composition of place and self-analysis, rather than bringing him closer to God, brings him closer to those monks in the past whose rapport with God he respects but cannot quite share.
His oratorical poems, so conscious of their rhetoric and fictive status, resemble the oratorical prayers of the monks in their passion but not their goals. While drawn to the old chapel, like Larkin in "Church-Going," he also intimates that the earlier communicants were both literally and figuratively "in the dark." All the images contribute to a sense of claustrophobic oppressiveness. The community's awareness of sin and fallenness is so strong it resembles a gravitational force pulling them down and burying them in a grave or "barrow." Heaney's meditative door opens on "A core of old dark walled up with stone / A yard thick." The monks, not unlike Robert Frost's "old-stone savage" who "moves in darkness … / Not of woods only and the shade of trees" ("Mending Wall"), enter a dark night that Heaney records with ambivalence:
What for Heaney is a hypothetical situation, however, for the earlier monks was a dire exigency. Their sense of fallenness was irrevocable: "No worshipper / Would leap up to his God off this floor." The "heart" and "core" of this place at first seem radically different from the creative altar "at the centre" of the blacksmith shop.
But as Heaney begins the sextet of his sonnet, he reveals the traditional turn of a meditation from dark trials to uplifting illuminations, from morbid concentration on evil to a vision of God's grace. The dead awaken, as if resurrected from their graves (but, ironically, like pagan Vikings who were once buried in barrows):
Founded there like heroes in a barrow They sought themselves in the eye of their King Under the black weight of their own breathing. And how he smiled on them as out they came, The sea a censer, and the grass a flame.
Although the monks obediently scour their souls, they seem pressured into doing so by the "king." They burrow inward, but have nowhere else to go. When they emerge after systematically deranging their senses, as Rimbaud would say, they uncode all landscapes, but in a sacramental as opposed to a realistic way. For a Catholic from Northern Ireland, "King" is hardly an innocent word. If for the monks it signifies an angry, jealous God, for Heaney it also implies the brutality of an imperialist master.
At the center of the Gallarus chapel is the oratorical scene in which spiritual words are delivered up to God, who in turn in-spirits the communicants with holy Words and with a mystic vision of censers and flames. But in this logocentric arena Heaney does not offer the traditional Catholic response. He does not pray or speak; he observes and writes. He may be recollecting the instructions of Loyola, "Every time I breathe in, I should pray mentally, saying one word of the 'Our Father' … so that only one word is uttered between each breath and the next," but he also mocks his heavy-breathers by making them seem uncontrollably narcissistic. The communicants, "Under the black weight of their own breathing," pray in a gothic atmosphere worthy of the stultifying enclosures of Edgar Allan Poe. Their sublime visions of censers and flames may be hallucinations bred out of repression. A nonbeliever, Heaney still expresses empathy for the Gallarus monks. "On a television talk," Benedict Kiely remarks, Heaney explained "how he felt that if all churches were like this one, 'congregations would feel the sense of God much more forcefully.'" That force, however, may be a psychopathological one.
As Heaney dismantles a religious heritage to which he still feels partly enthralled, his poems resemble a workshop littered with old icons and "trial pieces" constructed to replace them. His narratives, which are full of grammatical negatives, usually negate past myths to make way for more realistic alternatives. His meditations, like their classical paradigms, move toward love with increasing frequency, but celebrate its worldly rather than its apocalyptic vestments. In "Girls Bathing, Galway 1965," he begins negatively:
No milk-limbed Venus ever rose Miraculous on this western shore. A pirate queen in battle clothes Is our sterner myth.
After the first negation, Heaney draws attention to the way his mind doubles back on itself, washing away the dusty images of the past after it casts them up for contemplation: "The breakers pour / Themselves into themselves, the years / Shuttle through space invisibly." In time the apocalyptic sea changes them too, mixing tales of Christian judgments with tales of Irish pirates:
The queen's clothes melt into the sea And generations sighing in The salt suds where the wave has crashed Labour in fear of flesh and sin For the time has been accomplished….
Heaney brilliantly invokes expectations of Christian apocalypse only to assert the living reality that such myths deny. Unlike St. John on Patmos, who envisioned a sea offering up the dead for judgment, Heaney imagines the sea offering up ordinary girls in bathing suits:
As through the shallows in swimsuits, Bare-legged, smooth-shouldered and long-backed They wade ashore with skips and shouts. So Venus comes, matter-of-fact.
While Christian mystics clamor for spiritual marriages with the divine love, and classical mythmakers dream of beautiful women born out of sea foam like Venus, Heaney welcomes a flesh-and-blood beauty, to counter the etherealized women of old.
In tracing the arduous process in which the mind purges its images to create them anew, Heaney's meditations resemble what Mircea Eliade called "the eternal return." They seek to abolish temporal history in order to recover the timeless void out of which new order or "cosmos" burgeons. For cultures that regard action as ritualistic repetitions of archetypes, Eliade claims:
1. Every creation repeats the pre-eminent cosmogonie act, the Creation of the world.
2. Consequently, whatever is founded has its foundation at the center of the world (since, as we know, the Creation itself took place from the center.) [The Myth of the Eternal Return]
For Joyce, the artist repeated the cosmogonie act by writing, so that "the mystery of esthetic like that of material creation is accomplished." Heaney's imagination is similarly ritualistic, gravitating toward "centers" in order to repeat profane as well as sacred acts of creation which, he often painfully confesses, are wedded to destructions. In "The Salmon Fisher to the Salmon," a poem reminiscent of Robert Lowell's metaphysical fishing poems, the poet is the Fisher King, both victimized fish and Christ-like, "recreational" fisherman. Heaney, in imitatione Christi, follows the fish as it withdraws from the sea toward an interior space, a contemplative center. Here destruction is united with its opposite:
At the "centre" a created and captivating "lure" unites fisher and wounded fish.
If at-one-ment with God's crucified body (Christ's symbol was the fish) is the sacred analogue, Heaney repeats it in the common experience of fishing. As the lure unifies opposed forces, so does the poem, which is a love song to the fish as much as an elegy for its annihilation.
Heaney may have found support for his views on circularity and recurrence in Emerson, who in his essay "Circles" wrote:
The eye is the first circle; the horizon which it forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary figure is repeated without end. It is the highest emblem in the cipher of the world. St. Augustine described the nature of God as a circle whose centre was everywhere and its circumference nowhere.
Heaney, likewise, finds circles everywhere. In "The Plantation," for example, he maps an eternal cycle of creation and destruction, which at first bewilders him. As he with-draws from the disturbing present—the "hum of the traffic"—his meditation as before strives to locate emblems for its own doubling back, its own circularity. The plantation provides a historical emblem too; the cycle of invasion and domination has recurred so many times in Ireland that Heaney regards it as archetypal. His act of communion invokes master and slave, victim and victimizer English landlord (Munster was divided into hierarchical plantations in the 1580s) and Irish tenant. Heaney dramatizes the combination of psychological and historical antinomies with a familiar but haunting fairy tale:
You had to come back To learn how to lose yourself, To be pilot and stray—witch, Hansel and Gretel in one.
When he begins his investigations, "Any point in that wood / Was a centre." Now he is lost, traveling in circles, like the "toadstools and stumps / Always repeating" themselves. A meditative darkness ("the black char of a fire") marks his exclusion from society, but reveals those who have made similar journeys before: "Someone had always been there / Though always you were alone."As in "The Salmon Fisher to the Salmon," Heaney finally reveals his dual role as destroyer and creator, which unites him culpably to a process he would rather repudiate. He must play the reclusive witch, sacrificing childlike enthusiasms in order to redeem them in poems.
The last poem in Door into the Dark finds a new and startling image for the contemplative mind and its sacrifices in that most common of Irish landscapes: the bog. Rather than to a door in a blacksmith's shop or oratory, here Heaney is drawn to the bottomless "wet centre" of a tarn. His concentration is Emersonian; a "transparent eye-ball" focuses in ever-intensifying circles on a mysterious center:
We have no prairies To slice a big sun at evening— Everywhere the eye concedes to Encroaching horizon Is wooed into the cyclops' eye Of a tarn.
Concealing the sunlit world outside but penetrating the "dark night" inside, Heaney's eye glimpses its own reflection in the tarn, where images are received, broken down, preserved, and exhumed. The ground, like the mystic consciousness "wounded" by love, opens itself to all like
kind, black butter Melting and opening underfoot, Missing its last definition By millions of years.
Its caritas seems ineffable and unknowable, archetypal rather than historical. He concludes:
Our pioneers keep striking Inwards and downwards, Every layer they strip Seems camped on before. The bogholes might be Atlantic seepage. The wet centre is bottomless.
Common acts in the present again echo sacred ones of the past. His pioneers are turf-diggers who, like spiritual questors, ritually reenact the "eternal return" in their search for a mysterious, cosmogonic source.
The contrast between the expansive prairie and the vertical descent into the bog intimates a conflict in Heaney's mystic stance. If Heaney, like many Irishmen before him, is attracted by the "mystic" democracy of America (the country of prairies and pioneers), whose apotheosis is Walt Whitman's cosmic embrace of all created things, he is also irrevocably European as he plumbs tradition's hoard. He goes outward "to encounter the reality of experience," but also downward like an archaeologist to retrieve its reliquary forms. More like Joyce and Yeats than Whitman and Williams, he struggles to find in central institutions, such as the Catholic Church and its spiritual exercises, rituals and symbols for a faith he has lost but rediscovered in poesis. Whitman's apocalyptic rejection of European traditions is tempting, as is the American penchant for leveling hierarchies, decentering central institutions, and questing for democratic ideals in transcendent spaces, but Heaney's sensibility is as inextricably rooted in traditional poetic forms as in the political and religious institutions of Ireland. He wields the iconoclastic ax, but for the sake of revision rather than outright rejection. His emphasis on order and pattern is doggedly formalist, even though he overhauls old forms to make them consistent with contemporary experience.
While critics suspect Heaney's formalism to be part of a larger conservatism, and accuse him of stubbornly refusing to modernize himself, his unsettled attitudes with regard to both past and present seem particularly modern. [In New York Review of Books, March 1980] A. Alvarez, for example, chastises Heaney for repudiating Modernism's "literary declaration of Independence" (however antiquated it may be in the 1980s) and claims: "If Heaney really is the best we can do, then the whole troubled, exploratory thrust of modern poetry has been a diversion from the right true way." But Heaney's skepticism of "right true ways" and of the sensibility that tenders such illusions, makes him seem more modern than his detractors. His meditative style is troubled and exploratory. If it is not specifically informed by structuralist and post-structuralist debate, as Blake Morrison occasionally worries, it often predicts their major themes. Obsessed with such hierarchical oppositions as writing and speech, forgetting and remembering, blindness and insight, profane and sacred love, marginal and central institutions, Heaney typically reveals a dialectical relation where oppressively one-sided relations were the rule. His doors into the dark open onto a present inextricably wedded, for better or worse, to the past.
In "Literary History and Literary Modernity," an essay in Blindness and Insight, Paul de Man points out: "As soon as modernism becomes conscious of its own strategies … it discovers itself to be a generative power that not only engenders history, but is part of a generative scheme that extends far back into the past." Heaney's premeditated forgettings and renunciations in Door into the Dark aim to purge earlier anxieties and the images that provoked them. "Make it new," for Heaney as for Pound, also means "make it old." De Man writes: "When [writers] assert their own modernity, they are bound to discover their dependence on similar assertions made by their literary predecessors, their claim to being a new beginning turns out to be the repetition of a claim that has always already been made." Heaney's meditations, which scrutinize thenown procedures and compare them to all makings, find precedents in a tradition of Catholic meditation but give to the old forms a new complexity and an attractive, personal finish.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4029
SOURCE: "Second Thoughts," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XXXV, No. 7, April 28, 1988, pp. 41-2.
[In the following favorable review, Vendler explores the defining characteristics of the poems compiled in The Haw Lantern, asserting that the volume is an expression of the natural loss of middle-age.]
Here are thirty-two new poems by Seamus Heaney—the yield since Station Island (1985). Heaney is a poet of abundance who is undergoing in middle age the experience of natural loss. As the earth loses for him the mass and gravity of familiar presences—parents and friends taken by death—desiccation and weightlessness threaten the former fullness of the sensual life.
The moment of emptiness can be found in other poets. "Already I take up less emotional space / Than a snowdrop," James Merrill wrote at such a point in his own evolution. Lowell's grim engine, churning powerfully on through the late sonnets, did not quite admit the chill of such a moment until Day by Day:
We are things thrown in the air alive in flight… our rust the color of the chameleon.
It is very difficult for poets of brick and mortar solidity, like Lowell, or of rooted heaviness, like Heaney, to become light, airy, desiccated. In their new style they cannot abandon their former selves. The struggle to be one's old self and one's new self together is the struggle of poetry itself, which must accumulate new layers rather than discard old ones.
Heaney must thus continue to be a poet rich in tactile language, while expressing emptiness, absence, distance. The Haw Lantern, poised between these contradictory imperatives of adult life, is almost penitentially faithful to each, determined to forsake neither. Here is the earlier Heaney writing fifteen years ago about moist clay:
Image and sound both bear witness here to the rich fluidity of the natural world. Now, in The Haw Lantern, Heaney finds he must, to be truthful to his past, add manufacture to nature. When he looks with adult eyes at his natal earth, he finds machinery there as well as organic matter; and he writes not with fluidity but with aphoristic brevity:
When I hoked there, I would find An acorn and a rusted bolt. If I lifted my eyes, a factory chimney And a dormant mountain. If I listened, an engine shunting And a trotting horse. …. . My left hand placed the standard iron weight. My right tilted a last grain in the balance.
"Is it any wonder," the poet asks, "when I thought / I would have second thoughts?" ("Terminus").
The Haw Lantern is a book of strict, even stiff, second thoughts. Such analytical poetry cannot permit itself a first careless rapture. No longer (at least, not often) do we follow the delightful slope of narrative: "And then, and then." Instead, we see the mind balancing debits and credits. "I balanced all, brought all to mind," said Yeats, using a scale to weigh years behind and years to come. A poet who began as luxuriously as Heaney could hardly have dreamed he would be called to such an audit. The need for adult reckoning must to some degree be attributed to his peculiar internal exile. Born among the Catholic minority in British Protestant Ulster, he came young to social awareness; now removed to the Catholic Republic of Ireland, he is part of an Ulster-bred minority substantially different in culture and upbringing from the majority.
The poetry of second thoughts has its own potential for literary elaboration. The Haw Lantern is full of parables and allegories, satires of Irish religious, social, and political life. The blank verse of these allegories is as far from the opulent rhymed stanzas of Heaney's sensual, Keatsian aspect as from the slender trimeters and dimeters of his "Irish" side. The strangest poem in The Haw Lantern, a blank verse piece called "The Mud Vision," arises from Heaney's desire to respect amplitude, even in an analytic poem. I don't find the effort wholly successful, but I see in it the way Heaney is willing to flail at impossibility rather than divide his believing youth from his skeptical middle age.
This religious-political-social poem begins with a bitter satiric portrait of an unnamed country dithering between atavistic superstition and yuppie modernity. The landscape displays a thin layer of industrial modernization over a desolate rural emptiness; in a typical scene, terrorist casualties are carried, in a heliport, past the latest touring rock star:
In that last image, Heaney catches the "advantaged and airy" complacency of an impotent nation congratulating itself on political flexibility as a way of concealing indecisiveness. The despair brilliantly hidden in this sketch casts up a compensatory vision. What if a dispossessed country could believe not in its useless statues of the Sacred Heart nor in its modern veneer of restaurants and heliports, but in its own solid earth? In the "mud vision" of the title, a whirling rainbow-wheel of transparent mud appears in the foggy midlands of this unnamed country, and a fine silt of earth spreads from it to touch every cranny. Heaney tries to catch the vision and its effect on those who see it:
The poem runs out of steam trying to imagine how the "mud vision" banishes traditional religion (bulrushes replace lilies on altars, invalids line up for healing under the mud shower, andso on). Eventually, of course, the vision disappears in the "post factum jabber" of experts. "We had our chance," says the speaker, "to be mud-men, convinced and estranged," but in hesitation, all opportunity was lost.
"Vision" is meant in the entirely human sense, as we might say Parnell had a vision of a free Ireland, or Gandhi a vision of a free India, but "The Mud Vision" puts perhaps a too religious cast on clay. Can a vision of the earthy borrow its language from the conventional "vision" of the heavenly ("a rose window … lucent … original … transfigured")?
"The Mud Vision" puts many of Heaney's qualities on record—his territorial piety, his visual wit, his ambition for a better Ireland, his reflectiveness, and his anger—and attempts somehow to find a style that can absorb them all. However, "The Mud Vision" has none of the sprezzatura and firm elegance of other poems in The Haw Lantern, such as "Wolfe Tone." In this posthumous self-portrait, the speaker is the Irish Protestant revolutionary (1763-1798) who attempted a union of Catholics and Protestants against England, and was captured in 1798 after his invading fleet was defeated off Donegal. Tone committed suicide in prison before he could be executed for treason. He symbolizes the reformer estranged by his gifts, his style, and his daring from the very people he attempts to serve:
Light as a skiff, manoeuvrable yet outmanoeuvred, I affected epaulettes and a cockade, wrote a style well-bred and impervious to the solidarity I angled for… I was the shouldered oar that ended up far from the brine and whiff of venture, like a scratching post or a crossroads flagpole, out of my element among small farmers.
Though the first two lines of "Wolfe Tone" owe something to Lowell's Day by Day, the poem has a dryness and reticence all its own. The force of the poem lies in the arid paradox—for reformers—that authentic style is often incompatible with political solidarity with the masses (a paradox on which Socialist Realism foundered). The desolate alienation of the artist/revolutionary is phrased here with the impersonality and obliqueness of Heaney's minimalist style (of which there was a foretaste in Station Island's "Sweeney Redivivus").
I hope I have said enough to suggest where Heaney finds himself morally at this moment, poised between the "iron weight" of analysis and "the last grain" of fertile feeling, between cutting satire and a hopeful vision of possibility. Besides the blank-verse political parables I have mentioned, The Haw Lantern contains several notable elegies, among them a sequence of eight sonnets ("Clearances") in memory of Heaney's mother, who died in 1984. To make this hardest of genres new, Heaney moves away from both stateliness and skepticism. Borrowing from Milosz's "The World," a poem in which a luminous past is evoked in the simplest, most childlike terms, Heaney writes a death-sonnet that imagines all Oedipal longings fulfilled:
It is Number 5, New Row, Land of the Dead, Where grandfather is rising from his place With spectacles pushed back on a clean bald head To welcome a bewildered homing daughter Before she even knocks. 'What's this? What's this?' And they sit down in the shining room together.
Such felicity brings Milosz's "native" effect fully into our idiom, and displays the self-denying capacity of the son to write about his mother as ultimately her father's daughter.
But "Clearances" also touches on the irritability, the comedy, and the dailiness of the bond between sons and mothers. In one of its best sonnets son and mother are folding sheets together; and here I recall Alfred Kazin's recent memoir of his youth in the Thirties, when he wrote for a freshman English class at City College "an oedipal piece about helping my mother carry ice back to our kitchen, each of us holding one end of a towel":
This was such a familiar and happy experience for me in summer that I was astonished by the young instructor's disgust on reading my paper. He was a vaguely British type, a recent Oxford graduate … who openly disliked his predominantly Jewish students. My loving description of carrying ice in partnership with my mother seemed to him, as he tightly put it, "impossible to comprehend."
It is useful to be reminded how recently literature has been open to such experiences. Here is Heaney with his mother folding the sheets:
The cool that came off sheets just off the line Made me think the damp must still be in them But when I took my corners of the linen And pulled against her, first straight down the hem And then diagonally, then flapped and shook The fabric like a sail in a cross-wind, They made a dried-out undulating thwack.
Petrarch or Milton could hardly have imagined that this might be the octave of a sonnet. Yet the pretty "rhymes" echo tradition, as line stretches to linen (the clothesline and the sheets), and as them shrinks to hem (a folded sheet in itself). Frost, Heaney's precursor here, would have recognized the unobtrusive sentence-sounds; the line "Made me think the damp must still be in them" could slip into "Birches" without a hitch. (The "dried-out undulating thwack," though, is pure Heaney; Frost's eye was more on Roman moral epigram than on sensual fact.)
The seven-line "sestet" of the sonnet closes with a muted reference to the writing of the poem (the poet is now inscribing his family romance on a different set of folded sheets), but this literary marker is almost invisible in Heaney's intricately worked plainness:
So we'd stretch and fold and end up hand to hand For a split second as if nothing had happened For nothing had that had not always happened Beforehand, day by day, just touch and go, Coming close again by holding back In moves where I was x and she was o Inscribed in sheets she'd sewn from ripped-out flour sacks.
Taut lines and folded sheets connect mother and son, in art as in life.
Like "Clearances," the other elegies in this volume combine the density of living with the bleakness of loss, preserving the young, tender Heaney in the present stricken witness. "The Stone Verdict" is an anticipatory elegy for Heaney's father, who has since died; other poems commemorate his young niece Rachel, dead in an accident; his wife's mother ("The Wishing Tree"); and his colleague at Harvard, Robert Fitzgerald. Heaney affirms that the space left in life by the absence of the dead takes on a shape so powerful that it becomes a presence in itself. In the elegy for his mother, Heaney's emblem for the shocking absence is a felled chestnut tree that was his "coeval"—planted in a jam jar the year he was born. Cut down, it becomes "utterly a source,"
Its heft and hush become a bright nowhere, A soul ramifying and forever Silent, beyond silence listened for.
Heaney's sharply etched "nowhere" is a correction not only of Christian promises of heaven, but also of Yeats's exuberant purgatorial visions of esoteric afterlifes. It returns Irish elegy to truthfulness.
Heaney has said that because people of any culture share standards and beliefs, the artist's "inner drama goes beyond the personal to become symptomatic and therefore political." To ascribe immense and unforgettable value to the missing human piece, simply because it is missing, is to put the power to ascribe value squarely in the human rather than in the religious sphere. Since institutional ideology everywhere reserves to itself alone the privilege of conferring value, it is all the more important for writers to remind us that control of value lies in individual, as well as in collective, hands.
Heaney directly addresses the question of value in "The Riddle," the poem placed last in this self-questioning book. His governing image here is the ancient one of the sieve that separates wheat from chaff. Such sieves are no longer in use, but the poet has seen one:
You never saw it used but still can hear The sift and fall of stuff hopped on the mesh, Clods and buds in a little dust-up, The dribbled pile accruing under it. Which would be better, what sticks or what falls through? Or does the choice itself create the value?
This is the poem of a man who has discovered that much of what he has been told was wheat is chaff, and a good deal that was dismissed as chaff turns out to be what he might want to keep. Coleridge, remembering classical myths of torment, wrote, "Work without hope draws nectar in a sieve"; Heaney, rewriting Coleridge, thinks that the endless labors of rejection and choice might yet be a way to salvation. He asks himself, at the close of "The Riddle," to
…Work out what was happening in that story Of the man who carried water in a riddle. Was it culpable ignorance, or was it rather A via negativa through drops and let-downs?
The great systems of dogma (patriotic, religious, ethical) must be abandoned, Heaney suggests, in favor of a ceaseless psychic sorting. Discarding treasured pieties and formed rules, the poet finds "drops and let-downs," and he refuses to take much joy in the task of sifting, though a middle couplet shows it to be undertaken with good will:
Legs apart, deft-handed, start a mime To sift the sense of things from what's imagined.
In Heaney's earlier work, this couplet would have been the end of the poem, breathing resolve and hope. Now he ends the poem asking whether his sifting should be condemned as "culpable ignorance" (the Roman Catholic phrase is taken from the penitentials) or allowed as a via negativa. The latter phrase, which is also drawn from Catholicism, is a theological term connected to mysticism, suggesting that we can know God only as he is not.
The elegiac absences and riddles of The Haw Lantern are balanced by powerful presences, none more striking than the emblematic winter hawthorn in the title poem. This poem, by dwelling throughout on a single allegorical image, displays a relatively new manner in Heaney's work. In the past, Heaney's imagery has been almost indecently prolific; readers of North (1975) will remember, for instance, the Arcimboldo-like composite of the exhumed cadaver called Grauballe Man:
The grain of his wrists is like bog oak, the ball of his heel like a basalt egg. His instep has shrunk cold as a swan's foot or a wet swamp root. His hips are the ridge and purse of a mussel, his spine an eel arrested under a glisten of mud.
It is hard for a poet so fertile in sliding simile to stay put, to dwell on a single image until it becomes an emblem; it means going deeper rather than rippling on. "The Haw Lantern," doing just this, fixes on the one burning spot in the blank landscape of winter—the red berry, or haw, on the naked hawthorn branch. At first the poet sees the berry as an almost apologetic flame, indirectly suggesting his own quelled hopes as a spokesman. He goes deeper into self-questioning by transforming the haw into the lantern carried by Diogenes, searching for the one just man. The stoic haw, meditation reminds the poet, is both pith and pit, at once fleshy and stony. The birds peck at it, but it continues ripening. In this upside-down almost-sonnet, the stern haw lantern scrutinizes the poet scrutinizing it:
The wintry haw is burning out of season, crab of the thorn, a small light for small people, wanting no more from them but that they keep the wick of self-respect from dying out, not having to blind them with illumination. But sometimes when your breath plumes in the frost it takes the roaming shape of Diogenes with his lantern, seeking one just man; so you end up scrutinized from behind the haw he holds up at eye-level on its twig, and you flinch before its bonded pith and stone, its blood-prick that you wish would test and clear you, its pecked-at ripeness that scans you, then moves on.
Like other poems in Heaney's new volume, "The Haw Lantern" reflects a near despair of country and of self.
Heaney's burning haw can bear comparison with Herbert's emblematic rose, "whose hue, angry and brave, / Bids the rash gazer wipe his eye." Forsaking topical reference, the artist writing in such genres as the emblem-poem ("The Haw Lantern") and allegory ("The Mud Vision") positions himself at a distance from daily events. Such analytic, generalized poetry hopes to gain in intelligence what it loses in immediacy of reference. (The greatest example of such an aesthetic choice is Milton's decision to write the epic of Puritan war, regicide, reform, and defeat by retelling Genesis.)
Heaney has several times quoted Mandelstam's "notion that poetry—and art in general—is addressed to … 'The reader in posterity';
It is not directed exploitatively towards its immediate audience—although of course it does not set out to disdain the immediate audience either. It is directed towards the new perception whichit is its function to create.
The social, historical, and religious perceptions of The Haw Lantern, if they should become general in Ireland, would indeed create a new psychic reality there. Such a prospect seems so unlikely now that it is only by believing in "the reader in posterity" that a writer can continue to address Irish issues at all.
I have saved the best of this collection for the last: two excellent poems about the life of writing. The first, "Alphabets," written as the Phi Beta Kappa poem for Harvard, presents a series of joyous scenes that show the child becoming a writer. The alphabets of the title are those learned by the poet as he grew up: English, Latin, Irish, and Greek. They stand for the widening sense of place, time, and culture gained as the infant grows to be a youth, a teacher, and a poet. Against Wordsworth's myth of a childhood radiance lost, the poem sets a countermyth of imaginative power becoming fuller and freer with expanding linguistic and literary power.
With great charm, "Alphabets" shows us the child in school mastering his first alphabet:
First it is 'copying out', and then 'English' Marked correct with a little leaning hoe. Smells of inkwells rise in the classroom hush.
A globe in the window tilts like a coloured O.
Learning Irish, with its prosody so different from those of English and Latin, awakens the boy's Muse:
Here in her snooded garment and bare feet, All ringleted in assonance and woodnotes, The poet's dream stole over him like sunlight And passed into the tenebrous thickets.
The boy becomes a teacher, and the verse makes gentle fun of his self-conscious and forgivable vanity:
The globe has spun. He stands in a wooden O. He alludes to Shakespeare. He alludes to Graves.
"Alphabets" closes with a hope for global vision, based on two exemplary human images. The first is that of a Renaissance humanist necromancer who hung from his ceiling "a figure of the world with colours in it," so that he could always carry it in his mind—
So that the figure of the universe And 'not just single things' would meet his sight When he walked abroad
The second figure is that of the scientist-astronaut, who also tries to comprehend the whole globe:
Heaney implies that whatever infant alphabet we may start from, we will go on to others, by which we hope to encompass the world. Ours is the first generation to have a perceptual (rather than conceptual) grasp of the world as a single orbiting sphere—"the risen, aqueous, singular, lucent O"; and the almost inexpressible joy of sensuous possession lies in that Une, a joy Heaney sees in the cultural and intellectual possession of the world, whether by humanist or scientist. "Alphabets" combines a humorous tenderness of self-mockery with an undiminished memory of the vigilant vows of youth, proving that middle age need not mark a discontinuity in life or writing.
The other brilliant poem here, "From the Frontier of Writing," offers a yie de poète altogether different from that of "Alphabets." Written in an adapted Dantesque terza rima, "The Frontier" retells a narrow escape from a modern hell. It takes as its emblem the paralyzing experience—familiar even to tourists—of being stopped and questioned at a military roadblock in Ireland. The writer, however, has not only to pass through real roadblocks but to confront as well the invisible roadblocks of consciousness and conscience. In either case, you can lose your nerve: in life, you can be cowed; in writing, you can be tempted to dishonesty or evasion. I quote this report from the frontier in full.
The tightness and the nilness round that space when the car stops in the road, the troops inspect its make and number and, as one bends his face towards your window, you catch sight of more on a hill beyond, eyeing with intent down cradled guns that hold you under cover and everything is pure interrogation until a rifle motions and you move with guarded unconcerned acceleration— a little emptier, a little spent as always by that quiver in the self, subjugated, yes, and obedient. So you drive on to the frontier of writing where it happens again. The guns on tripods; the sergeant with his on-off mike repeating data about you, waiting for the squawk of clearance; the marksman training down out of the sun upon you like a hawk. And suddenly you're through, arraigned yet freed, as if you'd passed from behind a waterfall on the black current of a tarmac road past armour-plated vehicles, out between the posted soldiers flowing and receding like tree shadows into the polished windscreen.
This poem is so expressive of the present armed tension in Ireland that it is political simply by being. It produces in us an Irish weather—menacing, overcast, electric—so intense that for a while we live in it. It has the allegorical solidity of the déjà vu, and the formal solidity of its two twelve-line roadblocks.
But formal solidity is not the only manner in which Heaney composes good poems. He has always had a talent and an appetite for the organic (growing and decaying at once), for which he invented the "weeping" stanzas of the bog poems. The elusive short couplets in "Wolfe Tone" and "The Riddle" suggest a third temper in Heaney, one represented neither by commanding masonry nor by seeping earth but rather by rustling dust, leaves, and feathers. The epigraph to The Haw Lantern epitomizes this third manner as the poet waits for a sound beyond silence listened for:
The riverbed, dried-up, half-full of leaves. Us, listening to a river in the trees.
In deprivation, the poet trusts the premonitory whisper from the stock of unfallen leaves. The Haw Lantern suggests the trust is not misplaced.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6391
SOURCE: An interview with Seamus Heaney, in Salmagundi, No. 80, Fall, 1988, pp. 4-21.
[In the following interview, Heaney discusses his poetry, especially the poems in The Haw Lantern, as well as American poets that have influenced his work.]
- With your recent birthday (your 49th), you are entering what MacNeice called "the middle stretch." Do you feel you are at a pivotal point in your work?
- Ever since I published a book, I have felt at a pivotal point. Publication is rather like pushing the boat out; then the boat/book turns into a melting ice floe and you have to conjure a second boat which again turns into a melting floe under your feet. All the stepping stones that you conjure disappear under the water behind you. So the condition of being on a moving stair that gets you only as far as you are is constant. But like everyone else, I have the sense of two special moments, in your 30s, and then some where later down the line—in your 40s or 50s; in fact, you have to start three times. First, you start to write and that's one initiation, the sine qua non of the other two, obviously.
Are you drawing here on the Wordsworthian format you mention in your TLS piece on Plath?
No. I hadn't even thought of that. I'm just thinking first of all of the excitement of beginning. Secondly, the redefinition of that—going on from the fundamentally narcissistic experience of the first self-expression. Instead of repeating your first success, your first note, you try to get a second note that does more work. But then there is obviously a third moment, that has to do with the biological attenuations and dessications, a whole set of conditions that entail a rethink. And once a rethink is forced upon the creature, the art in some way has to be rethought, or reformed. The whole relationship between a writer's spiritual/emotional condition and the kind of wordstuff and form-making that's going on in his work is an interesting one. When I was an undergraduate, there was a glib notion around that there was no reason to suppose a bad man could be a good writer. Part of my gradual education of myself has been to think that there is a deep relationship between the nature of the creature and the worth of the art.
That's the way you end the Plath essay. You argue that the life when you aren't writing is as important as when you are.
That's a trope to resolve what is clearly a puzzle. The very best moments of artistic action, the most exhilarating for the writer and the reader, are gift-things—poems which arrive on their own energy, poems that in Shakespeare's term "slip" from you. So there is almost this sexual release, which is not glandular but which is analogous to the glandular. What is the relationship between pleasure and truth?
Again, thinking about Auden, do you have to choose between those two?
No, of course not, I am setting them up far too strongly in opposition. But you have to worry that bone.
At one point you talk about Auden sacrificing the beauty and strangeness of his poetry for truth and meaning. I'm sure that all poets that make it to the "middle years" must worry about this. How do you perceive this in relationship to your own writing—being too controlled?
All of these things you're talking about are awarenesses shared by anybody who's interested in literature. And a writer is not different from a reader, in that the common ragbag of orthodoxies and assumptions is what a poet has to work with as well. It turns out that motifs in the poems have been a sort-of preparation for the re-think of those MacNeican "middle years." I found—at the end of Station Island and through The Haw Lantern—that one of the genuinely generative images I had was of the dry place. And throughout The Haw Lantern these images were happily assembled but weren't desperately hunted for—images of a definite space which is both empty and full of potential. My favorite instance of it is in the tree at the end of "Clearances". There's also the clearing in "The Wishing Tree," the space at "From the Frontier of Writing" and it's in "The Disappearing Island." It's a sense of a node that is completely clear where emptiness and potential stream in opposite directions. And I'm delighted to find in one of my favorite earlier poems—"Mossbawn Sunlight"—a line (I don't know where it came from): "Here is a space again."
I suppose Mircea Eliade's monograph on sacred and profane space is relevant here. I believe that the condition into which I was born and into which my generation in Ireland was born involved the moment of transition from sacred to profane. Other people, other cultures, had to go through it earlier—the transition from a condition where your space, the space of the world, had a determined meaning and a sacred possibility, to a condition where space was a neuter geometrical disposition without any emotional or inherited meaning. I watched it happen in Irish homes when I first saw a house built where there was no chimney, and then you'd go into rooms without a grate—so no hearth, which in Latin means no focus. So the hearth going away means the house is unfocused. It sounds slightly sentimental to speak like this, it's the kind of tourist-industry sentiment that you want to beware of, and yet at the same time, it represents a reality: the unfocusing of space and thedesacralizing of it.
Then in The Haw Lantern, that space that has potential—your landscapes—aren't soggy anymore, they're hard. Your stone images are very fertile.
Actually when you mentioned that I thought of "The Stone Verdict."
When we were in Dublin, you told me you'd considered titling The Haw Lantern, The Stone Verdict, but that another author was using a similar title.
Richard Murphy had a book called The Price Of Stone and I thought to bring out a book entitled The Stone Verdict would be susceptible to the wrong interpretation.
How did you decide to use The Haw Lantern?
I don't know. I went through a lot of uncertainty about what to call the book. "Haw" has always had a strange fascination for me. I like it as a little thing, as one of the little fruits or stones of the earth. Also I liked the phrase in the poem, "a small light for a small people." That's a true middle-years vision of the function of poetry. And yet I shouldn't really say that. The function of poetry is to be more than a "small light for a small people." The function of poetry is to have a bigger blaze than that, but people should not expect more from themselves than adequacy. They should not confuse the action of poetry, which is at its highest, visionary action, with the actuality of our lives, which at their best are adequate to our smaller size. In "The Haw Lantern" poem, there's a sense of being tested and earning the right to proceed.
There seems to be a duality at work in the The Haw Lantern. On the one hand there is the jouissance, the bliss beyond speech, on the other hand there is the awareness of being scrutinized and judged.
Well maybe that is just a natural consequence of my particular experience in Northern Ireland. As a member of the minority, solidarity was expected; and yet you were not just behaving in accordance with expectations, you were behaving naturally along ingrained emotional grain lines. There is actually a phrase in one of those "Sweeney Redivivus" poems, about being "split open down the lines of the grain" and that image of the private consciousness growing like a growth ring in the tree of community is true to what people experience in Northern Ireland. But there is a second command besides the command to solidarity—and that is to individuate yourself, to become self-conscious, to liberate the consciousness from the collective pieties.
In "A Placeless Heaven" you describe the chestnut tree. Do you see an analogy between yourself and what happened to Kavanagh in your re-evaluation of Kavanagh?
I guess that essay on Kavanagh is really about the way one would like to be able to do it oneself. Kavanagh seemed to me to retain the abundant carelessness of lyric action into his bleaker later life. Whereas a writer like T. S. Eliot, awesome as his later work in the Four Quartets is, Eliot seems to have lost it. Writers who kept it, and they are rare enough, are more interesting. Yeats, for example. He kept the well spurting up in the dry place.
As in "Grotus and Coventina"?
Right. The mixture of votive action and pure gift.
Your earlier "touchstones" were Yeats, Wordsworth, Hopkins, and Hughes, to name a few. Are you discovering anyone new now or rediscovering anyone as in the case of Kavanagh?
Well, I suppose I went through a phase of enormous delight and fortification reading Czeslaw Milosz and Zbigniew Herbert and writers like that.
When did you first read these poets?
First, in Penguin anthologies in the 1960's. And then I began again about 8 or 10 years ago.
By the early 80s?
Certainly, by then. What I really like about Milosz is hearing a personal voice in which the poignance and emotional coloring and coloratura spring from the inner lining of the self. And yet at the same time, one recognizes that that feeling center is situated within a large, stern intellectual circumference. What Milosz can do is to rhyme, if you like, his personal biography with the history of western civilization. He passed a childhood among the woods of Lithuania in a scene that was fundamentally still medieval—hay wains and orchards, hunts and lakes and church bells. This was all authentic. He has gone through that, the 30s in Poland; he's gone through Warsaw, the Nazi and Soviet devastations; he has gone through himself, intellectually, coming within the sphere of Marxist orthodoxy, detaching himself from that at the cost of great personal solitude and hurt, leaving that milieu in the 1950s, ending up now in his own 60s, 70s, and 80s in California in a kind of free gravity-less modernity. So in a life-time he has moved from Medieval Catholicism, with a deep root back into early Christian time, right up into late twentieth century post-modernism. And he has this gift, as I said, for rhyming autobiography and history. He can be a serf on the road to Mass or he can be a weightless astronaut walking out there. And I find that authority irresistible, because there is the weight of personal hurt and loss, and the weightlessness of impersonal despair for the humanist venture.
Apparently then you see some parallels between your own experiences and Milosz's? Not direct, but similar.
Well, the parallel that I have not mentioned is a background of Catholicism. I have been speculating recently that the unconscious of the English language is, by now, secular. Therefore, for someone from a marginal society, like Ireland, where the society is more-or-less secularized, but where the common unconscious is still a religious unconscious,—for somebody like that, the reading of poetry in English doesn't satisfy those needinesses which must be satisfied in the biggest poetic experiences. But when I read, even in translation, the poetry of the Poles, I find sub-cultural recognitions in myself which are never called up or extended by English poetry. I just find an experience of fullness and completion which is new and refreshing to me.
What about the politics?
Well, it's the unfinished quality of things in Poland. But of course I'm also responding to the chicness of Polish writing just now. I wouldn't be reading this stuff unless it was available and published. We are all subject to the fashions of the market.
Who else are you reading? In your prose we see Mandelstam and you just mentioned Herbert.
Well, Herbert I think is a finished writer, in the good sense. I don't think anybody can learn much from Herbert. Except to be absolutely honest and thorough. His is a kind of writing shared by many language groups, at least from what I see in translation—Rumanian, Czech, Polish and Hungarian—writing in which the poetry is in the plotting, where the poetry doesn't seem to reside in the dwelling upon a privileged moment of insight or joy. The poetry dwells more in the laying bare of patterns in a reality beyond the poet. Like the animated cartoons that come from Middle European countries; they too are both lyrical and politically tough-minded. Vasco Popa, for example, from Yugoslavia has a little series called "Children's Games." And one of the games is "You be the hammer, I'll be the nail." That obviously speaks volumes. It's very merry, and it's very fierce.
Then what you're saying is that in those parables, and fables, it's not the lyrical moment that you're after.
It's the truth-seeking dimension of poetry. It's what Horace called utile. And yet, I do think that in poetry just being useful is a bigger sin than just being pleasurable.
Speaking about Eastern European poets, you said—"even in translation." What do you look for in translation? Authenticity? Clarity?
As a reader, I want to lift a book in translation and feel it's like any other book. I want the book to do it for me. We know that there are great poets out there in other languages who haven't done it yet in English. For a long time, I think, Rilke was in that situation. I unfortunately cannot read German. And I share the prejudice of my New Critically trained generation against fuzzy language, abstractly swooning language. So translations of Rilke generally didn't come through to me; I opened the book and it didn't do. Until recently, when Stephen Mitchell's translation of Rilke came out. Now I find some of those translations becoming a possession—I love his translation, for example, of the first sonnet to Orpheus. So as I said, at the personal level of opening a book, I want translation to be neither too literary, too cliché, nor too of its age. I mean, there are translations you open and you can see the poet being a poet, flourishing an inventiveness, complacently taking over the clichés, and I tend to resist that. You just want the standards that usually operate; you want a certain decorum, chastity and integrity of language to be maintained.
I believe that there are two good motives for translation and they both sponsor slightly different procedures. One motive, which is the absolutely pure one, is to so love the work in the first language that you're hurt that it isn't shared in the next language. You will do everything that is possible to bring across the unique and beloved features of the original, and this will involve an attempt at all kinds of precisions, equivalents, and honesties. And you keep saying: "Oh no, it's not like that." You hurt until it gets nearly right and then you end up unsatisfied because it never can be the same in the other language. That kind of absolute command which is there if you love the thing in the original and know it deeply, that produces the highest motive and the highest kind of translation and the highest failure. So there are two motives, one of which is that pure one, and another of which is impure. But the impure motive has its own verité. You are listening through the wall of the original language as to a conversation in another room in a motel. Dully, you can hear something that is really interesting. And you say: "God, I wish that was in this room." So you forage; you blunder through the wall. You go needily after something. This is what happened in English with the sonnet form when in the sixteenth century the courtly makers heard through the wall of English the Italian melody and the Petrarchan thing. One of the greatest sonnets in English is an abusive translation of Petrarch: Wyatt's "Whoso list to hunt I know where is hind." Wyatt indulges in a kind of Lowellesque bullying of the Petrarchan original and yet his poem is a great gift to the second language. I think that is the Lowell pattern, and it's the Chaucerian, the notion of translation as taking it over: taking it over in two senses—in the slightly imperial sense and in the original etymological sense of carrying a thing across. I had that motive, I suppose, in relation to the Ugolino section that I did from the Dante. It was a very famous purple passage, but it also happened to have an oblique applicability (in its ferocity of emotion and in its narrative about a divided city) to the Northern Irish situation. So one foraged unfairly into the Italian and ripped it untimely from its place. To some extent that was also true of Sweeney Astray. Even though I can read Irish, the Buile Suibhne wasn't singing in me as a great structure that I previously knew and loved in Irish. In fact, it was in order to get to know it that I wanted to pull it out of Irish. And of course I felt I had the right to it. It wasn't that original linguistic love-right, but it was a cultural, political, historical in-placeness, a "we are all in there together" feeling.
Did you feel the same way about"A Ship of Death"?
I did, yes. That was born out of an opportunity, which I sadly didn't have the stamina to carry through, to translate Beowulf. The funeral scenes in it are wonderful, both heartbreaking and stony. They are descriptions of true rituals.
The poem becomes the ship as in Lawrence's "Ship of Death."
One of my favorite poems. "Build me the ship of death."
Let's talk about poets who are obviously important to you; ones who are still in your imagination, but you haven't tackled in individual essays, such as Frost, Hardy, or Eliot. Are they precipitating in your mind?
I found myself having to talk about Eliot a couple of months ago and what emerged was basically an account of my different bewilderments as I read Eliot. I ended up realizing that Eliot is a terrifically pure influence on readers, because the one thing you read in Eliot is what he wrote. There is no ancillary baggage. With Hardy, you can read folk England, you can read landscape, you can read sentiment, you can read nostalgia, you can read thatch and pewter mugs and yokels, a scene that pre-dates Hardy and has a stereotypical stock response built in. The matter of Hardy, the matter which he works upon, could be mistaken for the Hardyness which he turns it into. But, with Eliot, all you have is the Eliotness. The language has become a pure precipitate of sensibility. And the older you get, the more you realize that—that is what it's all about. So your respect for this strange bat-squeak in Eliot, this pure, odd, querulous, but utterly trustworthy note, rises. I can illustrate this simply by two occasions. First, I went in 1968 to East Coker where Eliot is buried. I was surprised to see a deep lane, where you would have to stand in from a lorry. Which is exactly what is described in "East Coker," but somehow I had never credited Eliot's writing with any documentary truth whatsoever. But even more, I felt that when I went to Burnt Norton, the house outside Stratford. The opening sections of the "Burnt Norton" poem, those lines about following a thrush into a garden, first parents moving without pressure on the grass, voices of children—all that's a kind of phantasmagoria. It's eerie, both a landscape and an echo-chamber. Language has become like the pastoral symphony, full of little cries across itself to itself. It is a musical acoustic more than it is a landscape. So then you go to Burnt Norton and you see a dry pool. You see a rose garden. You hear that there were children in the garden and somewhere deep down you are disappointed. Of course, you are delighted too, but not in the way you are when you go to Yeats's tower and your heart sings because of the reliability and the equivalence there between thing and word. When you go to Burnt Norton your heart sinks a little; you don't quite want the place because you now truly know that Eliot's poetry is still late 19th century symbolist writing. He's not painting the forest but, as Mallarmé says, he's painting the deep thunder of the leaves. I think that Eliot is pure poet in that sense, the life of his art is completely conjured Ariel-life.
Is it an accurate assumption that the poets who appear in your prose are also simultaneously reflected in your poetry? Do you feel that kind of correspondence? How would you describe your critical approach?
Eliot has this lovely, haughty yet frigid term—a practitioner. He speaks of writing the criticism of the practitioner. I would say that's what I do. Nevertheless, a practitioner is a reader when he or she sits down. On the whole the poets who appear in my prose, aside from ones occasionally reviewed, are people who are part of my memory. The only way I can write with any conviction is out of love. Not necessarily from my long immersion in the poet, but the poet's long immersion in me. I suppose my criticism is some form of autobiography. It's a communing with a previously excited self and when I write those essays it's a resuscitation of what has been already settled. Now it can be tossed about and talked about.
How would you describe your feelings toward what you accomplished in Preoccupations and compare that to what you did in your new collection, The Government of the Tongue?
In Preoccupations I think I was spinning off that entrancement I mentioned earlier as the first stage of writing. Those essays are fundamentally the orchestration of my own surprise that I had begun to write. Like a long exclamation mark. But Government of the Tongue is not about the writing process. In Preoccupations I looked at Wordsworth or Hopkins … The way poems come about, the inner geologies, the underlying artesian energy that gets tapped in the poem. The Government of the Tongue is much more about the achieved work. In general, the pieces are about the responsibilities that come with delighted utterance. I think that all of the writers discussed there have conducted themselves well.
What do you mean by "conducted themselves well"?
They were writers who were forced into self-consciousness about what they were doing. And they proceeded, artistically, to deal with that self-consciousness. In some cases—in the case of Auden for example—they allowed the ethical questioner in themselves to slightly dumbfound the lyrical and self-conscious poet. In other cases, as in the case of Robert Lowell, the ethical questioner is overborne by the efforntery of the lyric poet. Mandelstam, again, writes some politically hot couplets and then stops and suffers the consequences forever. But he proceeds to overbear the conditions by lyric utterance. In Mandelstam, lyric utterance becomes radical witness. He speaks of breathing freely. So lyric poetry is his means of resistance. It isn't the language of protest; it is an authentic existential act, a pitting of breath and being against many coercions.
You've written on Plath and Lowell and you mention Frost; are there any other American poets that interest you? These could be either contemporary or modern poets.
As I said, I tend to write about people that have become part of my memory. And my memory was formed before I arrived in the U.S. But if I were going through a complete memory list I would have to add John Crowe Ransom. He is deeply laid down. His is a less ambitious but nonetheless a well-perfected achievement.
What about Wallace Stevens?
Wallace Stevens I am helplessly in awe of but my response is as helpless as it is awed. When I open the door into that great cloudscape of language, I am transported joyfully. And I have got to a stage of reading Stevens where—to mix the metaphor—I can feel the bone under the cloud. I love his oil-on-water, brilliant phantasmagoria. And there is deep mind-current under the water, and a kind of water-muscle mind at work, but I find it difficult to hold that in my own reader's mind. I find it difficult to see a Stevensian gestalt in the way that I can see Frost as a whole. I can see Frost defined against a sky or landscape. Somehow with Stevens, I cannot see the poetry defined. It is conterminous with the horizon. That says a lot for him but it also means he is difficult to think about.
Are there other Americans who fit in that category?
I would have said Ashbery except Ashbery is oddly enough more historical than Stevens. It is obvious that the Stevensian example is stylistically important, that the same beautiful musical waftage is part of Ashbery's gift. Ashbery has a rhythmic amplitude that is almost Swinburnian. I think it was inspired of him to call a book April Galleons because there is a sumptuousness, a full-rigged, under-full-sail, galleon-like progress in the word flow of his language; but there is also a paper boat mockery. Yet there is also in Ashbery something much more timey and placey than there is in Stevens. That timiness and placiness is evident in the paraphernalia of the poetry, in the way that the roughage of the contemporary comes into it—the pop culture, the jingles, the language slurry and material detritus that we live with—and that makes him of his time and place. I think that Ashbery's sensibility is symptomatic of the moment. Stevens' was overbearing at the moment, immensely odd and immensely powerful. Ashbery's gift is to be tremendously sympathetic to the usual and to be a barometer. I don't mean that he just writes clichés. He writes with clichés against clichés. I understand more, now that I have been in America for 5 or 6 years, his popularity. It's because he registers a bemused, disappointed but untragic response to the evacuation of meaning from most people's lives.
Stylistically, he's almost antithetical to what you're about?
That's always been part of my fascination with American writing, precisely this approach to the antithetical. When I came from Belfast in the early 70s to Berkeley, I came as a writer of thin cross-legged quatrains and narrow little knitting-needle forms into Beatsville, into the big open howl of the Ginsbergian. I was curious about how to listen to poetry such as Snyder's in which I liked the elements but couldn't hear the beat. Even though I knew Carlos Williams, I wanted to know what he was about. So my venture in America was to encounter the other, to put the screws on my own aesthetic. You kept hearing that British poetry and European sensibilities were too constricted, so I did my best in the first Californian quest to come to grips with what was different, like the poems of Charles Olson. I actually liked Olson's book Call Me Ishmael best of everything he's done, but I also read the body of his poetry and I have to say I found it a toil much of the time. So after justly opening myself and saying, "Be pervious to this—c'mon, open up," I could see what I ought to feel but I couldn't really feel it. And then there comes a point when honesty to your prejudice is as proper as attempts to overcome it. Fundamentally, what I want from poetry is the preciousness and foundedness of wise feeling become eternally posthumous in perfect cadence. Good poetry reminds you that writing is writing, it's not just expectoration or self-regard or a semaphore for selfs sake. You want it to touch you at the melting point below the breastbone and the beginning of the solar plexus. You want something sweetening and at the same time something unexpected, something that has come through constraint into felicity.
You don't find that in American poetry?
Sometimes I think that the thing I want to hear is not even sought after. This is very generalized, but let's say that the American cadence and the American ear tends to run to the edge of the page. It tends to be fluid and spread. Whereas my predisposition and my prejudice is toward poetry that contains and practices force within a confined area. Therefore I suppose I can understand immediately the aims of the poetry of someone like Elizabeth Bishop or James Merrill. I'm not saying Merrill writes like a European; but he operates within a defined enclosure, a writer who has been true to his gift. His gift was always for a kind of figure-skating joy and he never abandoned that figure cutting discipline. The danger of that kind of writing is that it can remain weightless—and the other danger is that a writer with that gift may deliberately seek to import heaviness. Merrill did not groan into heaviness, which would have been an offense against his nevertheless good aesthetic manners. But by remaining true to himself, he accrued weight.
A lot of what you are describing is the Whitmanian inheritance.
But the Whitmanian inheritance must beware of becoming the American equivalent of the English Augustan inheritance. English poetry's danger is in becoming "Anglican," moving from the temperate chastity of an earlier, thoroughly earned poetry like George Herbert's, who is in the good pristine sense Anglican, to the automatic intonation of the balances and comforts which Herbert actually fought for. American poetry is not out of a similar danger, using the robust Whitmanian uplift as a roller-coaster. A collusion is possible between a comfort-dispensing narcotic, drifting Reaganism and a Whitmanian optimism-and-overflow poetry. I am suspicious, I suppose, of the large gestures which are expected of American poets.
You argue in the Yale Review that American poets use myth and surrealism as a ring of literary defense against life. Is this in the same vein?
Residence in America has forced me back on what I am myself. There are times when I do not understand what is going on in the poetry. At the beginning I thought I did. Of course, there is a vast, inflationary, reputation-making business and I myself am part of it too. I have received as many amplified, overstated praises as the next. But American poets have to negotiate that language of inflation, in their society and unfortunately also in blurb-speak: there is a disgraceful abdication from truth in the words that are wrapped around books. Within the collective of poets, there are a few people I meet who know that this is generally blather and generally very bad. I have an impulse to flee from it, even while benefitting from it.
Getting back to your most recent volume The Haw Lantern, would you agree that what you've done in this volume is certainly more abstract and opaque than Station Island?
It is abstract in the sense that some of the poems are abstracted versions of what has been fleshed out already in other things, poems of an allegorical sort in which it isn't quite my voice speaking. It's a made-up other voice—a tone rather than a voice. They are like pseudo-translations from some unspecified middle European language.
But you still find these abstractions viable?
They are, I'd like to think, "a game of knowledge"—that's what Auden called poetry. And so are little swift poems like "The Riddle" and "The Milk Factory." The process is one where childhood sensation gets abstracted into a sense of wonder.
"Hailstones"—again, it's the palpable, documentary, remembered thing becoming a sensation of its own memory—and that to me is what abstraction is in art.
However, you still draw upon images from your rural childhood in that volume. Is this an endless well? Are those images still useful?
They remain utterly useful to me. I have little else.
Your childhood. I guess that's true.
The difficulty comes when what has happened between the original place and the moment of writing doesn't intervene in the writing itself. I see it as a process of continual going back in to what you have, changing it and coming out changed.
So that's how you would answer someone who argues that your rural childhood images do not speak to the modern urban audience.
I think that's a completely irrelevant objection to any work.
It's one that comes up often in the criticism.
But that's a sociological notion of what a work of art is—that a work of art is something designed to help people by reflecting their contemporary conditions. That's a terrifically deterministic sense of the function of art—to show people back the usualness of their life. That is one function of it indeed. But the fact that it's a rural image—the danger there is that people like the poetry because for them it's nostalgic. And the danger for me as a writer is that I may like the stuff because it's nostalgic. But that is something that it's possible to be too vigilant about. The audience's response to it as picturesque material is their problem. My problem is to make sure that the return to that enabling source is not simply nostalgic. You have to make it take the strain of adult experience. That's why I feel OK about things like "Hailstones," or "Alphabets" or "The Milk Factory"—there is a bemused, abstracted distance intervening between the sweetening energy of the original place and the consciousness that's getting back to it, looking for sweetness.
Which poems in The Haw Lantern provided you with the greatest satisfaction in working out technical difficulties?
The first one, "Alphabets," satisfied me because "Alphabets" was commissioned. I had a real problem: Write a poem for the Phi Beta Kappa at Harvard that had to be spoken aloud, and be concerned with learning. And that poem is precisely about the distance that intervenes between the person standing up in Sanders' Theatre, being the donnish orator, and the child, pre-reflective and in its prewriting odd state. I also like "Mud Vision" because it's an abstract poem which follows its own inventiveness—and it has a slightly zany logic to it.
So you felt you were taking a risk there?
It began by looking at a work done in Dublin by an English painter called Richard Long. This was in the Guinness Hops Store that is now an art gallery. Long had made a huge "flower face" or rose window type of structure entirely by dipping his hand in mud and placing his handprints so as to begin with four handmarks in the shape of a cross or compass. When you put four more in the northeast, southwest and so on, so you have eight radiating from the center—then you begin to move out from that. So there it was, this immense design made of mud. So that was the original inspiration for the poem. But obviously a whole Irish Catholic subculture of apparitions and moving statues and such like went into it also.
One would imagine that the "Clearances" sequence was difficult to write, but why did you choose the sonnet form for the elegy? Sonnets are usually made to hold little things in a little room. How do you see that in terms of sonnet sequences?
I didn't choose it really. It accidentally occurred and accrued. The sonnet just turned into a habit. Good or bad? I couldn't say.
Do you still at this time believe that "the end of art is peace"? How do you understand Patmore's statement?
That's a quoted statement. I enjoy the triple take of it because Coventry Patmore said it, Yeats used it and I used Yeats using it. Obviously no matter how turbulent, apocalyptic, vehement or destructive art's subject is or that which is contained with art, no matter how unpeaceful the thing previous to art is—once it has been addressed and brought into a condition called art, it is, if not pacified, brought into equilibrium. For a moment the parallelogram of forces is just held. The minute after art, everything breaks out again. Art is an image. It is not a solution to reality, and to confuse the pacifications and appeasements and peace of art with something that is actually attainable in life is a great error. But to deny your life the suasion of art-peace is also an unnecessary Puritanism. It is an unnecessary extreme.
All the same, I am very attracted to that extreme of denial. In post-Holocaust, and post-nuclear conditions, the seeming smarminess of offering art as peace, the slightly sanctimonious, unearned "Let's go out and enjoy the alibi of art"—the indulgence is a possible affront. But to carry that denial too far, to demean the possibility of art and say that that is all art is capable of is also a great error. The greatest art confronts every destructiveness that experience offers it and in Thomas Kinsella's terms, "digests it." So, when we salute art with joy, we acknowledge that it has managed to overcome all the dice that were loaded against it. Can you write a poem in the post-nuclear age? Can you write a poem that gazes at death, or the western front or Auschwitz—a poem that gives peace and tells horror? It gives true peace only if the horror is satisfactorily rendered. If the eyes are not averted from it. If its overmastering power is acknowledged and unconceded, so the human spirit holds its own against its affront and immensity. To me that's what the "end of art is peace" means and understood in those terms, I still believe in it.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8298
SOURCE: "Seamus Heaney's Anxiety of Trust in Field Work," in Chicago Review, Vol. XXXVI, No. 3, 1989, pp. 87-108.
[In the following essay, Hart determines the influence of Robert Lowell on the poems of Field Work, and praises Heaney's willingness to take risks in this volume.]
Most poetic careers advance like waves disturbed by a central event, each new pulse collapsing only after the tensions impelling it have been exhausted. Heaney's career is no exception. His image of the family's drinking water shaken by the train in "Glanmore Sonnets IV" (the "small ripples…vanished into where they seemed to start") brilliantly captures this contrapuntal progress. Following Blake's assertion that "Without Contraries is no progression," Heaney has made sure that his surges are always matched by equally powerful counter-surges. His early pastoralism in Death of a Naturalist, for example, relied on an opposing "anti-pastoralism" for credibility and contemporaneity. Without the recognition of rural hardship, his enchantment with agrarian ways would have seemed foolishly nostalgic. Similarly, his meditational via negativas in Door into the Dark, while aimed at recollecting sacred lights (the altar-like anvil wreathed with sparks in the forge, the grass flaming outside the Gallarus Oratory), gained intensity from the "dark night" they struggled to illuminate. In Wintering Out scholarly disquisitions on place names in Northern Ireland drew mythic and political force from the Protestant and Catholic conflicts raging beneath their linguistic surfaces. And in North the apocalyptic desire to raise the dead for judgment and to invoke history as a guide to a saner future achieved pathos from the "counter-revelation" of Irish history as a dark, tragic mire of bloody feuds and mindless sacrifices.
In this series of oscillating movements, Field Work marked a new departure and is crucial to the understanding of the books that come after. Seismic Ireland is still the central event resonating through the poems, but here Heaney writes from the south rather than the north. The move from Belfast to Wicklow in 1972 (and to Dublin four years later), whose political ramifications were declaimed by the press, initiated a stylistic shift as well. The narrow, constricted poems like "Punishment," in which Heaney excoriated his failure to become more actively engaged in the political events of Northern Ireland, modulate here into a more relaxed, melodic verse. In his interview with Frank Kinahan, [in Critical Inquiry, Vol. 8, Spring 1982] when asked whether substance determined style, Heaney remarked: "the line and the life are intimately related, and that narrow line, the tight line [in North] came out of a time when I was very tight myself." When he began lengthening his lines in Field Work, "the constriction went, the tension went." Addressing the severed heads and strangled victims of Iron Age fertility rites and their modern-day equivalents in Northern Ireland, Heaney took on a grim Anglo-Saxon abruptness and ornamental complexity. He believed that the musical grace of the English iambic line was "some kind of affront, that it needed to be wrecked." In Wicklow, in the pastoral landscape of Glanmore surrounded by a Catholic majority rather than a Protestant hegemony, he felt that he had reached a "kind of appeasement." As he wrote Brian Friel, he now wanted to open "a door into the light" rather than "a door into the dark" [from an interview published in Ploughshares, 1979].
In one of the most perceptive reviews of Field Work, Christopher Ricks pointed out that "the word which matters most is "trust"…. Heaney's poems matter because their uncomplacent wisdom of trust is felt upon the pulses, his and ours, and they effect this because they themselves constitute a living relationship of trust between him and us." In an "Ireland torn by reasonable and unreasonable distrust and mistrust" the "resilient strength of these poems is in the equanimity even of their surprise at some blessed moment of everyday trust." [The London Review of Books, 1979]. At first glance, it would seem that Heaney's new trust arose from his new sense of a "trusting" audience, of the assumed covenant between himself and his new community of predominantly Catholic and Republican citizens in the South. But while his new trust was more artistic than political (it depended more on private impulses than public compulsions), and while he wanted "to bring elements of … [his] social self, elements of … [his] usual nature" towards center stage in Field Work, there are few signs that he trusted his audience any more than he did in the past, and little to prove he trusted his new-found door into the convivial light any more than his door into the primal, uncivilized dark. Although the diction and rhythms of Field Work resemble the kind of relaxed, accessible style Robert Lowell popularized in Life Studies and later volumes, and although he strives for the colloquial luminosity of Dante's verse, like his two precursors Heaney gives equal time to the unenlightened darknesses he finds in himself and everywhere around him.
Just as "the light of Tuscany" wavers through the clear pool in "The Otter," Heaney wavers in Field Work between trusting and distrusting "transparent" communication with his new, receptive community. His anxiety over trust is nothing new. Early on, Heaney admits, he "had absolutely no confidence as a writer qua writer"; he affixed the pen-name, Incertus, to his first poems to acknowledge his uncertainty. From Hughes and Kavanagh he learned the "thrill … of trusting … [his] own background," which was the dark hinterland of bogs, beasts, and rural laborers in Northern Ireland; he claims, "Philip Hobsbaum … gave me the trust in what I was doing." But even while writing North, his most successful book up to that time, his confidence swayed. If he trusted his predilections, he distrusted those of his audience: "I was expecting North to be hammered, actually. I thought it was a very unapproachable book. But I was ready for the reaction, because I trusted those poems." The "wisdom of trust" in Field Work is similarly counterpointed. To Frank Kinahan he confessed:
I suppose, then, that the shift from North to Field Work is a shift in trust: a learning to trust melody, to trust art as reality, to trust artfulness as an affirmation and not to go into the self-punishment so much. I distrust that attitude too, of course. [Critical Inquiry, Spring 1982]
Antaeus, proponent of dark, instinctual beliefs, and Hercules, skeptical light-bringer and demolisher of irrational credences, continue to wrestle in Heaney's mind, just as they did in North.
Moving to the Republic for Heaney was both a flight to freedom—away from the burdensome "position of … a representative of the Catholic community" in the north—and a return to old responsibilities and anxieties. If he no longer had to agonize over "the political colouring" of his utterances, as he told Robert Druce, now his dreams of political freedom were rebuked by the atrocious situation he couldn't leave behind. His sensuous feast in "Oysters," for example, turns out to be a disturbing meditation on old acts of imperialist aggression and privilege. He recalls Rome but is thinking of England too (as it gluts itself on Ireland):
Over the Alps, packed deep in snow, the Romans hauled their oysters south to Rome: I saw damp panniers disgorge the frond-lipped, brine stung Glut of privilege…
Heaney wants to celebrate uncluttered sensuality and the transcendental light beyond politics, but history's undertow will not let him go. His anger is kindled by the fact that his "trust could not repose/ In the clear light, like poetry or freedom/ Leaning in from the sea." Part of the reason, he explains, lies in the "Irish Catholic … distrust of the world" and "distrust of happiness" stamped on his childhood psyche. Among the Irish, as among the Spanish and Russians, he claims, "There's amore elegiac and tragic view of life; they're less humanist; they're less trusting in perfectibility." This mistrust of humanist ideals stimulates Heaney's preoccupation in Field Work with bestiality. As in Ted Hughes's poetry, Heaney offers a zoological array of otters, skunks, oysters, dogs, pismires, badgers, cuckoos, corncrakes, and other species. Ascents to humane, civilized orders are everywhere undercut by "saurian relapses." If Heaney consecrated his idea of poetic and political freedom by leaving Belfast, he nevertheless returned obsessively in his poems to witness its bestial ways, and to explain how his former environment was the breeding ground of his distrust.
In his essay "Responsibilities of the Poet" [Critical Inquiry, Vol. 13, Spring 1987], Robert Pinsky (who had reviewed Field Work in 1979) could be thinking of Heaney when he links "responsibility" to "sponsor" and "spouse," and explains the poet's contradictory need "to feel utterly free, yet answerable" to the community around him. Pinsky declares that the poet doesn't need an audience so much as the compulsion within himself to "respond" to one. He is responsible to the living, to spouse and readerly sponsors, but this bond is always taxed by his responsibility to the dead and unborn: "one of our responsibilities is to mediate between the dead and the unborn: we must feel ready to answer, as if asked by the dead if we have handed on what they gave us or asked by the unborn what we have for them." The poet is responsible for his culture, for witnessing its exemplary and unexemplary acts, and for reinvigorating its language. But this plunges the poet into quandaries. Pinsky explains:
The poet's first social responsibility, to continue the art, can be filled only through the second, opposed responsibility to change the terms of the art as given—and it is given socially, which is to say politically.
These contrary forces form the fundamental tension in Field Work, where marriage poems speak of tearing responsibilities toward spouse and art, and political poems speak of similar tearing responsibilities toward poetic freedom and tribal demands. In poems like "Casualty" Heaney honors the dead by elegizing members of his Catholic community, but also rebukes its terms and ethics by celebrating a man who renounced "tribal" expectations, and died as a result. His commemorative poems to artistic "sponsors," whether to Lowell or Ledgwidge, maintain their freedom from the august dead in order to mock them as well as praise them. His "Ugolino" and other Dantesque poems again demonstrate his responsible willingness to be the beneficiary of a "trust," to accept the riches of tradition and pass them on, but also his freedom from tradition, his legitimate insistence on altering the past to fit his needs and beliefs.
[In Seamus Heaney, 1986] Neil Corcoran has argued that "the major poetic presence in Field Work…is not Lowell…but Dante," and cites Heaney's serial encounters with the dead and his "awareness of the intimate relationship between the personal and the political or historical" as the two most obtrusive resemblances. Heaney himself has written in "Dante and the Modern Poet" that it was the way the exiled and embittered Florentine poet "could place himself in an historical world yet submit that world to scrutiny from a perspective beyond history, the way he could accommodate the political and transcendent" that stimulated his attempts to emulate him. Dante's exploration of political and psychological divisions makes him seem Heaney's contemporary ally rather than his archaic master. "The main tension" felt by poets in Ireland, and felt by Dante in a Florence ripped apart by Guelph and Ghibelline, Heaney claims, "is between two often contradictory commands: to be faithful to the collective historical experience and to be true to the recognition of the emerging self." In this case, however, Heaney is referring to Dante's influence on "Station Island" and not Field Work. Although Dante certainly reinforced Heaney's thematic concerns in the earlier volume, the texture of diction and imagery is always closer to the poetry of Robert Lowell.
The echoes of Lowell are so unmistakable that several critics have accused Heaney of playing magpie to the American poet's magisterial song. Lowell's powerful, burnished rhetoric and his penchant for long chains of adjectives, reverberate through Field Work. Lowell's example was liberating as well as constraining. His furiously candid self-scrutiny, his guilty dramas of the poet's conflicting responsibilities to marriage, society, and art, and his sad confessions of failure to spouses and sponsors, encouraged Heaney to mine a rich new vein.
Heaney's relation to Lowell is perhaps best characterized not by Harold Bloom's "anxiety of influence," but by his own perplexed "anxiety of trust." When asked about his friendship with Lowell, Heaney remarked, "There was a certain trust and intimacy. He had a great gift for making you feel close, and he had tremendous grace and insight." In his review of Day by Day, Heaney praised Lowell as one of the exemplary masters, "obstinate and conservative in his belief in the creative spirit, yet contrary and disruptive in his fidelity to his personal intuitions and experiences" [Preoccupations, 1980]. And in the memorial address delivered after Lowell's death, he specifies what he trusts most in Lowell's art, and what, in turn, he feels obligated to entrust to others.
He was and will remain a pattern for poets in his amphibious ability to plunge into the downward reptilian welter of the self and yet raise himself with whatever knowledge he gained there out on to the hard ledges of the historical present, which he then apprehended with refreshed insight and intensity, as in his majestic poem 'For the Union Dead,' and many others, especially in the collection Near the Ocean.
It is interesting to note that Heaney originally distrusted the majesty of "For the Union Dead." In a review published in 1966 [in Outposts, Vol. 68, Spring 1966], he tells of "reading and wondering about the little poem," of wanting "to feel that it is an achievement as solemn and overwhelming as it seems to be." In the end he concludes, "although I find it at once public and personal, dignified and indignant, I miss the impregnable quality that comes when a poem is perfectly achieved. The transitions, if not arbitrary, are not inevitable and the rhythm in the middle stanzas does not body forth the ominous tone." Heaney's personal and literary bonds with Lowell obviously grew closer over the years, yet uncertainty and doubt remained. "Heaney's trust in other poets is itself part of his art," Christopher Ricks claims. It may be more correct to say that his art is a force field in which trust and distrust exist in tense proximity.
A "Profile" in The Observer divulged some of the reasons for Heaney's wariness of Lowell. According to the anonymous author, Heaney "has found it hard to live down a reputation for obligingness," some of
which goes back to the trick that a mad Robert Lowell played, crankily testing him out, when Heaney visited him in hospital in 1976. (The previous night Lowell had broken out of hospital to award Heaney the Duff Cooper Memorial Prize.) 'Would you like some of this benedictine?' Lowell invited him. Heaney eyed the bottle suspiciously, was reassured that it did indeed contain Benedictine, and took a swig of what turned out to be after-shave. [The Observer, June 21, 1987]
Heaney's elegy to Lowell in Field Work is certainly no gullible obeisance to the American poet. Rather it is a knowing testimonial which also testifies against Lowell for his notorious shenanigans. Although Heaney delivers a responsible avowal of indebtedness, flattering the "sponsor" by imitating him, he also writes a declaration of independence which slyly mocks the great artist's great faults. While Lowell made Heaney drink after-shave, Heaney imagines Lowell drinking a bitter potion too:
You drank America like the heart's iron vodka, promulgating art's deliberate, peremptory love and arrogance.
The metaphorical American "spirits" Lowell drinks are the spirits of the dead (Jonathan Edwards, Cotton Mather, Captain Ahab), whose violent spiritual devotions reflect his own. Lowell, the literary "master," also wields some of the peremptory arrogance of a political taskmaster. His nickname, Cal, after all referred to Caligula, and in "Beyond the Alps" (a poem "Oysters" echoes) he identified with the latter imperialistic tyrant, Mussolini, stipulating that "the skirt-mad Mussolini unfurled/ the eagle of Caesar. He was one of us/ only, pure prose." For Heaney, whose poetry from the start has registered the most minute tremors of imperialistic aggrandizement (even in the very consonants and vowels of his words), the Latinate "deliberate" and "peremptory" suggest Lowell's de-liberating, emperorlike ways.
"Elegy," in fact, is as much an allegory of invasion and conquest as Heaney's etymological poems in Wintering Out and historical narratives in North. In earlier poems such as "Anahorish," "Toome," and "Broagh," which are all place-names in Northern Ireland, Heaney sketched out phonetic allegories in which vowels represented his native Gaelic (and by extension his Catholic and Republican sentiments), consonants represented his Anglo-Saxon heritage (and the Protestant and Unionist faction), and vocables represented their ideal harmony on Irish soul. A poem like "A New Song" advocated a deliberate repossession of the linguistic ground dominated for centuries by the English empire and its recalcitrant heirs. Heaney imagines the Irish uprising as a mellifluous Gaelic river (like Joyce's Anna Livia Plurabelle) flooding its banks and then assimilating the consonantal demesnes of foreign Protestant nobles. He declares:
But now our river tongues must rise From licking deep in native haunts To flood, with vowelling embrace, Demesnes staked out in consonants.
The linguistic geography is emphatically political here, as Heaney explains in his biographical reminiscence, "1972":
I was symbolically placed between the marks of English influence and the lure of the native experience, between the 'demesne' and 'the bog'. The demesne was Moyola Park, an estate now occupied by Lord Moyola … exUnionist Prime Minister of Northern Ireland. The bog was a wide apron of swamp on the west bank of the River Bann.
At the end of "A New Song" Heaney promises to invite his traditional enemies to join him in the struggle toward Irish unity. He addresses numerous emblems of British dominance—townlands, plantations, fortified "bawns" and "bleaching greens" used by planters in their flax and linen work—but ultimately offers Irish emblems (the Gaelic hillfort and ritual basin stone in the last line) to signify incorporation:
And Castledawson we'll enlist And Upperlands, each planted bawn— Like bleaching-greens resumed by grass— A vocable, as rath and bullaun.
Heaney will enlist the opposition to form an ecumenical phalanx, just as he will merge Gaelic vowels with AngloSaxon consonants to make "poems [that] will be vocables to my whole experience."
In his "Elegy," he similarly plans to enlist Lowell's patriarchal "English" attitudes and then recast them according to his Irish point-of-view. Enthralled by Lowell, he identifies with other Irishmen "enthralled" by imperial conquerors, and distrusts his reverence. In the allegory Lowell and his art appear as a figurative ship mastering the "ungovernable" Irish sea (like Raleigh and Spenser in earlier poems), a sea which Heaney has historical reasons to fear:
As you swayed the talk and rode on the swaying tiller of yourself, ribbing me about my fear of water, what was not within your empory?
The "master" here is dictating how the conversation flows, but is also swaying with inebriated enthusiasm as his ego cuts ahead like the ship's prow. The "empory," the territory of the emperor, is that ground "possessed" by Lowell that Heaney wants to repossess, just as he so often talks of reclaiming Catholic Ireland once possessed by Protestant England. Heaney settles his differences with Lowell by inscribing them into his tribute. Lowell, after all, was tracing the same route as past empire-builders, sailing from England with his aristocratic wife, Lady Caroline Blackwood, to property they owned in Ireland.
As Heaney fills out his "life study" of Lowell, the older poet emerges as linguistic imperialist "Englishing Russian," curmudgeonly artist "bullying out" sonnets to Harriet and Lizzie, and Roman gladiator (retiarius) throwing a net over his victim to hold him down (the sort of event Caligula would applaud with great glee, although Heaney is no doubt referring to Lowell's artistic "fishnet of tarred rope" in "Dolphin"). He is also that uproarious sailing carnival, the "night ferry," that crosses regularly between England and Ireland. In the end, the portrait of Lowell turns out to be an ambivalent response to a heroic artist's tragic flaws. Heaney's line, "Your eyes saw what your hand did," a borrowing of Lowell's confession in "Dolphin," reveals Lowell as the self-interrogatory, self-accusing and selfpunishing poet that he was. If he is emperor he is also humbled slave, rendered timorous and pedestrian by his manic conscience. If he is the shielding and shielded patriarch of his early poems, he is also the shieldless victim of his later period. He is the majestic clipper ship and ordinary ferry, conquering seaman and conquered islander, ungovernable plunderer and governed native. Like the other artists memorialized in Field Work, he becomes Heaney's double, an ambiguous persona dramatizing his own confusions. Heaney, too, is "imperially male," as he confesses in "Act of Union," and like Lowell he explores a psyche and heritage divided by masterful and servile impulses. In examining Lowell, he strives for empathy, but at the same time submits the other poet's masterful images and authoritarian ways to a vigilant distrust, and attacks himself in the process.
Heaney's other elegies fasten on artists for similar reasons of identification, self-diagnosis, and judgment, and test the risks that trusting others involves. Trusting Lowell was made more difficult because of the different traditions the two poets represented. At the end of "Elegy" it is "the fish-dart" of Lowell's eyes "risking, 'I'll pray for you,'" that reminds Heaney of the Anglo-Protestant (turned Catholic and then agnostic) dangerously risking intimacy with the Catholic Irishman (although lapsed), and the long history of sectarian distrust that such a gesture implies. In his elegy to Sean O'Riada, the famous Irish composer who died in 1971, Heaney borrows Lowell's style ("a black stiletto trembling in its mark" is vintage Lowell), but his bond with the other Catholic artist from Ulster is more intimate from the start. O'Riada resembles Heaney's actual father rather than his artistic "father," Lowell. He "herds" the orchestra with his baton, as Patrick Heaney once herded cattle in County Derry.
He conducted the Ulster Orchestra like a drover with an ashplant herding them south. I watched them from behind, springy, formally suited, a black stiletto trembling in its mark, a quill flourishing itself, a quickened, whitened head.
The political and religious implications of this gesture are born out at the end: "he was Jacobite,/ he was our young pretender." That is, he resembled the defeated Catholic James II and his son rather than William of Orange and his Protestant ascendancy. As in the Lowell elegy Heaney tends to obscure O'Riada with a plethora of metaphors. He, like Lowell, is a boat and fish, but also a drover, knife, quill, head, fisherman—but "more falconer than fisherman"—king, king's son, gannet, minnow, and wader. He invokes this multitudinous bestiary, however, for a definite purpose: to underscore the artist's necessary but problematic trust in feral instinct and his related bestial distrust of too much cerebration. "He had the sprezzatura," Heaney declares, the nonchalance and natural skill of an animal, "trusting the gift,/ risking gift's undertow." As Lowell certainly knew, the Muses are often Sirens, dragging the artist down into oceanic depths. But Heaney celebrates O'Riada's courage in courting the Muse through risky submission rather than controlled exertion (he works by lying down "like ballast in the bottom of the boat/ listening to the cuckoo"). Heaney, too, will take his chances. He will risk getting pulled under as he learns to trust the Lowellish melodies of Field Work.
Some of the political and religious tergiversation that appeared in the Lowell elegy reappears in the elegy to Francis Ledgwidge, which in some ways is a rewriting of Lowell's "For the Union Dead." Here, rather than the bronze statue of Colonel Shaw and his negro infantry, "The bronze soldier hitches a bronze cape/ That crumples stiffly in imagined wind." The historical monuments for both poets inspire meditations on the vestiges of old divisions in their personalities and nations. For Lowell the American Civil War still trembles through his TV set's news of racial strife in contemporary Boston. His mind is similarly split between despair and a violent, primitive desire to plunge into battle, like Colonel Shaw, and die in the struggle for moral reformation. Lowell suffers a further division because of his affiliation with Southern culture (the Fugitives like Tate and Ransom were his early mentors) and his native New England culture of transcendentalists and abolitionists. For Heaney, Ledgwidge is another Shaw, an emblem of loyalties split between North and South, but in the context of Irish battles between Protestant and Catholic, British unionist and Irish nationalist. As Heaney explains in a review of Alice Curtayne's biography, Ledgwidge was a Catholic from Southern Ireland and a Sinn Fein sympathizer who supported the Easter Rising of 1916. Paradoxically, he also accepted patronage from an AngloIrish lord and allowed his first book to be "introduced to the world by a Unionist peer," and finally joined the British army only to die fighting alongside his traditional foes in 1918. As Lowell traces the native haunt of Colonel Shaw on his retrospective walk around Boston, so Heaney walks with his Aunt Mary around Drogheda where Ledgwidge engaged in "genteel trysts with rich farmer's daughters." The abrupt transitions between Heaney's personal memories, his speculations on his aunt's life during the Great War, quotations from Ledgwidge, and his vision of him in a Tommy's uniform in the Dardanelles at Ypres, lacks Lowell's uncanny ability to make disparate elements cohere. At the end, however, Heaney resurrects Ledgwidge as spokesman for his own Catholic and republican pieties, and through him delivers a moving address:
In you, our dead enigma, all the strains Criss-cross in useless equilibrium And as the wind tunes through this vigilant bronze I hear again the sure confusing drum You followed from Boyne water to the Balkans But miss the twilit note your flute should sound. You were not keyed or pitched like these true-blue ones Though all of you consort now underground.
Having betrayed his community's trust by following the English army on a massive "Orange Day" march into the First World War, Ledgwidge now consorts with dubious allies and obvious enemies—uselessly, since, as a corpse, he can do nothing to redress the many divisions he was prey to.
Heaney tries to redress his nation's wounds by simply addressing them, although as he witnesses exemplary figures of the past he also announces his own sectarian proclivities. He expresses solidarity with the dead, tracing his vacillations in terms of theirs and, like the dead in Revelation, he awaits a last judgment that will pitch him toward heaven or hell. His eschatological anxiety, as he once said of Lowell, "arises from one felt responsibility clashing against another." In his essay "Current Unstated Assumptions about Poetry," he speaks of Lowell's covenants with different factions, again in terms of trust and judgment. Life Studies "trusts that it has an audience" which will empathize with the poet's divisive responsibilities to family, literature, society, and history and understand his inevitable failings. Heaney is speaking of his own ideals when he says of Lowell's:
we respond to Lowell's implicit trust in poetic art as a vocation. We register and are fortified by the commitment that has made possible the note of command … we feel that this writer is forging his covenant with the past and the future."
When Heaney accepted the Bennet Award from The Hudson Review in 1982, he seized the occasion to remind himself and his audience "of the responsibilities of the creative life" and then spoke of his own sense of a trusting covenant: "I thank and congratulate the sponsors of this prize for ratifying in such an open-handed way that covenant we all hope for between artist and audience." With so many commitments, it is no wonder the poet often found himself rattling the chains of his own making.
Domestic covenants between father and son, which were collapsing in "Elegy," are mended in "The Harvest Bow." Here Heaney's father is a shield for his son, an icon the poet yearns to trust and revere, but the son's image reflected in the shield is the "Lockjawed, mantrapped" one that Heaney delineated in "An Afterward." For both father and son the shield represents the hard, silent, repressed mask that conceals but also reveals the violence of their instinctual energies beneath. Heaney's father is both overtly brutal and appealingly mellow. He laps "the spurs on a lifetime of gamecocks" and whacks "the tips off weeds and bushes," yet in "mellowed silence" he weaves the beautiful harvest bows. The poem owes some of its pastoral quiet to Keats's "Ode to a Grecian Urn" and "To Autumn" (Keats was Heaney's original poetic father), but Heaney is hardly as sanguine about art's ability to reconcile opposites as his early "sponsor." Truth and beauty, like the poet's contradictory need for both contemplative quiet and a voice to speak against political atrocities, are at violent odds. The poem is as much a confession as an esthetic treatise, as much a guilty, distrustful exploration of the tangled genealogical roots of Heaney's social quietism as an apology for them.
As Neil Corcoran has pointed out [in his Seamus Heaney, 1986], "Harvest Bow" can "be considered a revision of 'Digging.'" In addition, it harks back to "Boy Driving his Father to Confession," an uncollected poem written at about the same time (1965), in which a tender filial relationship is disturbed by the son's growing sense of disillusionment. Heaney recounts: "Four times [I] found chinks in the paternal mail/ To find you lost like me, quite vulnerable." The chinks, in this case, reveal little of the man beneath the armor. So Heaney wonders: "What confession/ Are you preparing? Do you tell sins as I would?/ Does the same hectic rage in our one blood?" By the time he wrote "The Harvest Bow," father and son had been reconciled, paradoxically, by their mutual feelings of "otherness." The bow twisted out of what Keats once called "the alien corn" is an emblem of their alien status, of their social unease and political disenchantment, which amounts to an indifference toward vocal protest against and active participation in current events. Both affirm the silent, peaceful art of making. If Heaney groped "awkwardly to know his father" as a young man in "Confession," now he offers "a knowable corona" which knots them together. To the question "Do you tell sins as I would?" he answers, "I tell and finger … [the bow] like braille,/ Gleaning the unsaid off the palpable." His familiarity with his father's silences allows him to forge an understanding that approaches complete trust. His father no longer has to tell his son "what is going on/ Under that thick grey skull," as Heaney rather indecorously put it in the earlier poem. Identifying with his "otherness," Heaney can now "read" his father's mind with all the assurance of a blindman reading braille.
Like Stephen Dedalus searching for real, artistic, and mythical fathers in Ulysses, what Heaney keeps finding at the end of his quests is himself. His father appears as his artistic shadow, not a cattle dealer worrying about the price of grain and farm equipment so much as an exemplary artistic "father," an O'Riada or Lowell, who trusts the "gift and worked with fine intent" until his masterful "fingers moved somnambulant." From the talismanic harvest bow Heaney conjures up an image that implies that the child is father to the man. If Heaney trusts his paternal "sponsors" like himself, he also submits both self and other to wary scrutiny. The submerged quarrel with his father in "The Harvest Bow" is fundamentally a quarrel with himself. Like Yeats, Heaney knows that poetry is born from this inner battle, but he also yearns for a peaceful reconciliation. The poem's motto taken from Yeats, "the end of art is peace," is ironic, because both poets distrust peace as anything but a momentary pause in art's continuing, potentially tragic, yet ultimately fruitful dialectic. After the father's shaping "intent" is found culpably apolitical and his gift judged a seductive snare, Heaney implies that neither his spirit nor the corn's spirit have been put to peaceful rest. If peace was permanent, art would end permanently too. To rest in peace is a temptation that Heaney, like "the spirit of the corn," has slipped from at the end.
Poetic quarrels with real and artistic fathers have their obvious corollaries in Heaney's political and marital poems. They too recognize the ineluctable conflict that is at the root of creation. They hoist the white flag for peace and then, in a more sober mood, cannot swear allegiance to it. Heaney's marriage poems have been praised for their "unromanticizing exactitude," and yet they seem natural offshoots of what Geoffrey Hill (borrowing a line that Keith Sagar applied to Ted Hughes) has called the "major Romanticism of our time": the struggle to negotiate a productive alliance between the individual mind and everything that is beyond it, [in The Lords of Limit, 1984]. Or, as Sagar puts it, to find "a way for reconciling human vision with the energies, powers, presences, of the nonhuman cosmos." The urge to distrust all peaceful reconciliations is also, as Hill points out, part of the inner dynamic of Romanticism: "Romantic art is thoroughly familiar with the reproaches of life. Accusation, self-accusation, are the very life-blood of its most assured rhetoric." Heaney's marriage poems, which trace separations and reunions, domestic squabbles and partial mendings, fit neatly into this Romantic loop. What is startling and disturbing about them is their tendency to envision women as part of the "non-human cosmos," as animals, trees or, even more unflatteringly, as mud or water. Heaney, though, is not as insouciant as he first appears. Rather than relegate women to a demeaning niche on the phylogenetic scale, his purpose is to break down stuffy views of marriage and squeamish attitudes toward sexual and artistic creation. His vision is androgynous rather than misogynist. His metaphor of marriage on its most primal level involves a trusting at-one-ment between self and other, individual vision and actual fact, and he depicts this bond ecologically, in terms of human interaction with animals, vegetation, and minerals.
The tension that shudders through these poems again arises from the two charged poles of trust and distrust. As Christopher Ricks has said [in The London Review of Books, November 8, 1979] of Heaney's Lowellish "The Skunk," a poem about the separation from his wife when he taught in California, it is an "exquisitely comic love-poem, and you have to love your wife most trustingly, and trust in the reciprocity, before you would trust yourself to a comparison of her to a skunk." It is the skunk and not the wife, however, that dominates the poem, although wife and skunk ultimately merge into a figure of otherness, of what Heaney has called in his discussion of another animal poem, "The Badgers," "the night-self, the night part in everybody, the scuttling secret parts of life." The word, "night," in fact, is repeated five times in "The Skunk." It has some of the religious connotations of St. John of the Cross's "dark night," just as it does in Lowell's "Skunk Hour," although Lowell's 'otherworld' in which he searches for love, divine or profane, is hellishly unfulfilling. Heaney is more contented, and more enthusiastic about the religious alliance of sacred and profane, Christian and pagan, than Lowell. His totemic skunk is first compared to a celebrant wearing ecclesiastical vestments ("the chasuble") at a funeral mass, as if he were about to commune with God. The skunk is a kind of medium, whose purpose is to deliver the shamanistic poet into the spirit world. The word "wife" has a similarly magic power. It transubstantiates what is absent (Heaney's real wife) so that the word's "slender vowel" takes on her bodily form and his wife's presence permeates "the night earth and air/ of California." In "The Skunk" the process by which the "otherness" of Heaney's wife is sacramentalized in the California night is complex but lyrically provocative:
In his deft way, Heaney is turning his uxorious skunk and his letter-writing to his wife into a miniature fable of what David Jones (in a book Heaney had read by this time) described as man's "extra-utilist, or sacramentalist" vision:
The Incarnation and the Eucharist cannot be separated; the one thing being analogous to the other. If one binds us to the animalic the other binds us to artefacture and both bind us to signa, for both are a showing forth of the invisible under visible signs.
For Heaney in "The Skunk" sacred and profane love intermingle as ordinary objects become signs bodying forth the invisible presence of his wife.
The poem ends, however, with a more candid 'bodying forth.' If wife and skunk have been sacramentalized, "damasked like the chasuble" at mass, now the ornamental garment is stripped off, the "ordinary" body unveiled. Voyant and voyeur comically merge as Heaney watches his wife disrobe before bed. In her ultimate re-veiling, "The black plunge-line nightdress" she puts on recalls the black chasuble in the first stanza, although this ceremony is erotic rather than funereal.
Heaney's journeys into the fecund night often resemble prayers and Catholic meditations, although with a deliberately sexual slant. "Homecomings," in which "love is a nesting trust," as Ricks observes, also articulates a prayer for the self's deliverance. Here a male sandmartin "veering/ breast to breast with himself is Heaney's symbol for the self-preoccupied artist. His flight is a meditative one, a transport from the diurnal ego toward the desired other. The meditation requires "A glottal stillness," an attentive tuning in to an autochthonous demiurge. His wife once again becomes the "dark lady," both earth mother and muse, sandmartin and sandy bank in which she nests. Heaney prays for the kind of self-occlusion that will lead to luminous revelation:
Mould my shoulders inward to you. Occlude me. Be damp clay pouting. Let me listen under your eaves.
Again the wife is rather unflatteringly anatomized, and again she becomes a projection of the poet's oracular "night self," his creative unconscious. Although Heaney promised to open a door into the light in Field Work, he keeps opting for a door into the dark.
The mythic equation between women, nature, and imagination implicit in Heaney's poetry from the start, receives a more candid, pared-down avowal in these later poems. Few early poems, for example, have the passionate brevity of "Polder," where the wife is cast as a stormy sea dyked and transformed by her husband into a fertile land ("polder" is the Dutch word for reclaimed land):
I have reclaimed my polder, all its salty grass and mud-slick banks; under fathoms of air, like an old willow I stir a little on my creel of roots.
As usual, though, Heaney seems hesitant to explore the sexual politics and gender stereotypes that these poems suggest In "The Otter," an amphibious Heaney (like Ted Hughes in "An Otter" and "The Thought-Fox") enters the animistic "otherworld" to write his poem, and characteristically the otter is the other, his wife and muse. She delivers the poem like a gift after the poet's sexual plunge into what he partially fears (the symbolic waters). Risk and trust, for Heaney, is as important to love-making as to poetry-writing. After his wife "swims" on her back, she "gives birth," "printing the stones" like Hughes's "thought fox" printing the page after "It enters the dark hole of the head."
As for Stephen Dedalus, who quests for a father but, in the end, finds a mother, Heaney's ultimate symbol of the unified self he yearns for is a woman. Not to be outdone by Joyce, who mythicized his wife into an archetype of all wives, mothers, and daughters, whether Virgin Mary or pagan fertility goddess, Molly Bloom or Anna Livia Plurabelle, Heaney transforms his own Marie into an emblem of a universal élan vital, then launches forth to make her example his own. This is the gist of the title poem, "Field Work," where loosened meters and relaxed diction underscore the journey towards spontaneous fecundity and the trust in his wife which mirrors his trust in himself. The poem commences in separation but concludes, after national and personal boundaries have been crossed and old suppositions negated, with the poet at one with his anointed image. Although Heaney dramatizes his process of "individuation" in terms of multiple crossings, he chooses bodily symbols rather than the Cross to carry his meaning. Still, Christ the wounded, healing God is behind them all.
Trust and faith are obviously more pressing issues when wife and husband are on different sides of the world. In "Field Work," however, Heaney faithfully travels back across the Atlantic to wife and home and, unlike Ahab, persistently seeks an emblem of concord rather than adversity, of contraries crossed in a regenerative unity rather than crucified into oblivion. Ring symbols of moon and coin highlight this "marriage-in-separation":
Our moon was small and far, was a coin long gazed at brilliant on the Pequod's mast across Atlantic and Pacific waters.
As the poem progresses, it counters images of destruction, disease and death with those of burgeoning fertility. It traverses a via negativa from imaginary, nocturnal unions in California to actual, sexual unions in Ireland. Even though he proposes that his mythic image of woman, his mandala of a unified self, is "Not the mud slick … and pock-marked leaves," "Not the cow parsley in winter/ with its old whitened shins," "Not even the tart green shade of summer thick with … fungus," but the radiant "sunflower, dreaming umber," his intention is to subsume these negatives rather than pit them against each other.
The ritualistic finale reenacts a strange but touching scene of marital rapprochement. To Yeats's observation "love has pitched his mansion in/ The place of excrement," Heaney adds Lawrentian details: "Catspiss smell,/ the pink bloom open." He presses the flowering currant to his wife's skin for her "veins to be crossed/ criss-cross with leaf-veins," and "anoint[s] the anointed/ leaf-shape" with his thumbprint. The new mark, like a stigmata of the cross, testifies to crucifying trials and exemplary faithfulness. The divisions in the poem between husband and wife, imagination and reality, "perfect" animal existence and "imperfect" human travail, vegetation goddess and actual woman, are fused in the final mark made by the leaf and mould. "You are stained, stained/ to perfection," Heaney declares at the end, thinking of the redemptive ordeals through which both wife and poem have passed.
Freedom and responsibility, trust and doubt, rend the political poems in Field Work as well as those dramatizing marital and literary relations. As he bears witness to sectarian killings, Heaney invokes the dead to corroborate his dilemmas. Almost without exception his victims are innocent bystanders (like himself), who for one reason or another refuse to get embroiled in political battles but also refuse to get out of their way. Those who repudiate the Troubles, going about their business as if nothing unusual is happening, usually end up dead. "Too near the ancient troughs of blood/ Innocence is no earthly weapon," Heaney might say with Geoffrey Hill (in "Ovid in the Third Reich"). Like Hill he feels obvious empathy for the unearthly innocents, yet he distrusts their freedom from worldy exigencies as well. In his elegy for Sean Armstrong, for example, he tells how his Queen's University friend who "dropped-out" to pursue the pot-smoking, communal lifestyle of the sixties, only to return to work at childrens' playgrounds in Belfast, was "changed utterly" by an assassin's bullet:
Drop-out on a come-back Prince of no-man's land With your head in clouds or sand, You were the clown Social worker of the town Until your candid forehead stopped A pointblank teatime bullet.
In this Lowellish "life-study," when Heaney observes "Yet something in your voice/ Stayed nearly shut/ … It was independent, rattling, non-transcendent/ Ulster," he is also observing his own reluctance to speak out. His portrait of iconoclastic independence, in the end, is a confessional self-portrait which delineates his distrust of political absentmindedness, especially when it leads to martyrdom.
Louis O'Neil, Heaney's drinking friend who was blown up by the IRA in his father-in-law's pub (the bombing was a reprisal for the Bloody Sunday murders by British paratroopers), is another authorial double—the illiterate, nearly silent, slyly independent self Heaney would like to trust but ultimately distrusts. The poem describes a series of "turnings," in which his friend, having turned his paradoxically "observant back" on straightforward engagements with the Troubles, is partly to blame for their continuing cycle. When Heaney asks, "How culpable was he/ That last night when he broke/ Our tribe's complicity?" he turns the question on himself, since he too seeks to break free from tribal complicity. The futile turning away from sins of commission, however, only perpetrates sins of omission. Like the figures bound to Yeats's gyres and Eliot's stairways, Heaney seems entrapped in purgatorial anxiety. If Heaney's purpose in "Casualty" is to bury the dead, he fails. O'Neil's ghost is "revenant" at the end, haunting him with accusations of guilt.
Heaney's attitude toward the IRA is deeply ambivalent and perhaps the fundamental wound behind his many festering political anxieties. In "Triptych" he elegizes Christopher Ewart-Briggs, murdered by the IRA in 1976, and again plunges into the familiar dialectic, yearning for freedom and fertility—"a stone house by a pier./ Elbow room. Broad window light," with a down-to-earth vegetation goddess "Carrying a basket full of new potatoes,/ Three tight green cabbages, and carrots"—while painfully aware that his quest for poetic freedom and creativity only makes his sectarian affiliations more agonizing. His psyche is as riven as Ireland itself. His nation's "saurian relapses" and negative sea changes (its "comfortless noises" allude to those in The Tempest), in fact, are his own. He hopes "forgiveness finds its nerve and voice," but when he examines his native ground, he finds only a "flayed or calloused" corpse whose voice has been strangled in blood. In the third section his emblems of religious transcendence, like Lowell's statue of the Lady of Walsingham in "The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket," whose face, "expressionless, expresses God," again rebukes his dream of trust, freedom and deliverance. "On Boa the god-eyed, sex-mouthed stone" is "two-faced, trepanned," a mirror image of Heaney's own ambiguous stance, which echoes the poet's "silence with silence."
As he examines the Christian ruins on the islands in Lough Beg, and the ruins Christian factions have littered across Ireland for centuries, he finally acknowledges his own vestigial Catholicism, since it provides a way to confess to collusion and work toward therapeutic redemption:
Yet he feels impelled "to bow down" partly because "The helicopter shadowing" the march at Newry forces him to, and partly because of his urge for a womb-like withdrawal from all political activities. As Stephen Dedalus was shocked by the word foetus carved in the desk at his father's old school (since it suggests his failure to be artistically born), Heaney is shocked by his similar failure to be politically born and to establish a credo he can trust and act on. He wants to return home, as in "The Toome Road," to that "untoppled omphalos" of Mossbawn where political and religious turmoil was eclipsed by pastoral calm and where beliefs were more certain, more stable. He distrusts that nostalgia too, just as he distrusts the peaceful "snare" of the harvest bow. As "Triptych" attests, he engages in the protest march, but still can't be convinced that he has done enough.
In Field Work Heaney often appears to be walking through a mine field of his own design. He knows where the mines are, locates them, defuses them, but as he keeps versing and reversing over the field he continues, almost against his will, to plant new ones. The things he is most devoted to—his Irish heritage, poetic craft, marriage—exercise his rigorous sense of responsibility to the breaking point. He wants to "respond" to "sponsors" and "spouses," actual and imaginary, literary and familial, but their diverse claims fill him with moral anguish. Freedom from those claims is a transcendence hoped for but renounced. If Field Work indicates a partial relaxation of the constrictions Heaney felt in Belfast and scored into the tight stanzas of North in Wicklow, it also agonizes over that relaxation. To slip through the harvest bows that promise deceptive peace and to escape the paramilitary groups assuring prolonged violence requires persistent vigilance. Those who relax in Field Work often get shot or blown up.
Heaney insists that his art, like his marriage and politics, depends on trust. Nevertheless, as he freely avails himself to that constellation of otherness—audience, wife, spirit, animal, vegetation, the earth itself—he recoils in uncertainty and distrust, as if always fearing bedevilment by the forces that originally succored him. The "others," as the poems show, comprise a "compound ghost," which is really Heaney's multi-faceted mask or shadow. Although many of the poems in Field Work resemble "trial-pieces" (similar to but not as accomplished as the "Trial-Pieces" in North), they are courageous in their willingness to explore new territory, to trust hunches and take risks. While some careers would wilt under the intense self-scrutiny Heaney applies to himself and his art, his career seems to gain force and immediacy because of it. As Heaney said of Lowell, whose influence is noticeable in almost every poem in Field Work, he "dared to perceive himself historically, as a representative figure." Heaney also dares to test his poetic accomplishments with unprecedented self-questionings and self-accusations. Although he is aware of the dangers of plunging forward encumbered with responsibilities, his dedication has paid off. As Lowell was once lauded as the representative poet of America, so Heaney is now deemed the exemplary poet of Ireland by a swelling audience of critics and ordinary readers alike.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6188
SOURCE: "Heaney and the Pastoral Persuasion," in The Poetry of Resistance: Seamus Heaney and the Pastoral Persuasion, Ohio University Press, 1990, pp. 1-34.
[In the following excerpt, Burris places Heaney's poetry within the context of pastoral tradition.]
Abducted by Hades and spirited away to the underworld, Persephone ate several seeds from a pomegranate, the fruit traditionally associated with marriage and fertility cults. The price of her impudence was her freedom. Ingestion of the fruit sealed the marital alliance, and Demeter, Persephone's mother and one of the oldest, most powerful goddesses of the Greek pantheon, lost her daughter to an infernal son-in-law. With Zeus as her advocate, however, Demeter struck a deal with Hades, and Persephone was allowed to live with her mother for the better part of each year. During this time, the crops flourished. But when Persephone returned to the underworld to spend the remaining months with her husband, the earth became cold and barren. For the Greeks, the seasonal cycle—the pastoral calendar—sprang from a pomegranate seed.
The etymological history of the word "pomegranate" claims an essentially pastoral lineage, one that exemplifies what Puttenham, in The Arte of English Poesie (1589), described as the genre's tendency to employ "rude speeches to insinuate and glance at greater matters." Its Latin root "granatus" means, simply, "having many seeds," and the Romans used the substantive "granatum" to denote the same fruit, centuries before them, that the Babylonians had thrown on the floor of the bridal chamber—the fat, ripe pomegranates would burst open, scattering their seeds and, it was hoped, their fertility, on the newly married couple. Later, the French realized that the pomegranate exploded in much the same fashion as one of their own implements of war, and their coinage eventually yielded our "grenade," or "hand grenade," as it is most commonly known. This duplicity of the word "grenade," with its obvious allegiance to the martial tradition but with its informing vision of marital fertility, makes it one of the luminous words in the title poem of Heaney's first book, Death of a Naturalist (1966):
Then one hot day when fields were rank With cowdung in the grass the angry frogs Invaded the flax-dam; I ducked through hedges To a coarse croaking that I had not heard Before. The air was thick with a bass chorus. Right down the dam gross-bellied frogs were cocked On sods; their loose necks pulsed like snails. Some hopped: The slap and plop were obscene threats. Some sat Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting. I sickened, turned, and ran. The great slime kings Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.
Puttenham would not have acknowledged "Death of a Naturalist" as a work of pastoral art, even though its language is muscularly rude. The glittering pastures that he envisaged lay far from the open countryside, and these "self-same hills," when depicted in "Lycidas" and early Renaissance poetry, arrive with cartographic accuracy from Virgil's "Eclogue 4," an eclogue radiant with the promise of a restored Golden Age. Such promises, however, make exacting demands on the poet. To dream of a Golden Age, to create the illusion of perfection, pastoral writers sparingly deployed the particularizing detail that might suddenly have transported their readers from an Arcadian vale to an English valley. A decision to write pastoral poetry automatically entailed formal requirements, and these forms dictated the predictable conformations of pastoral landscapes. Suited in such constrictive armor, the genre would seem impervious to the obsessive particularity of Heaney's poem. But even the earliest English pastorals are partly shorn of their Grecian garb, incorporating specific details of the English country side while preserving themes and ideas inherited from the classical models. Digression often breeds irrelevancy, but the various registers of the pastoral voice are nowadays as elusive as they once were alluring; Heaney's version of pastoral develops several strategies native to the tradition, and an analysis of these strategies will provide the historical background necessary to assess the exact nature of Heaney's accomplishment.
With its opening invitation, Robert Herrick's "The Wake" (1648) recalls an invitation found in Christopher Marlowe's "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love" (1599), written a half-century earlier. "Come live with me, and be my love," began Marlowe's shepherd, in the land with "Vallies, groves, hills and fields" that have become for many readers the emblematic topography of classical pastoral. But Herrick's speaker, perhaps equally idealistic in his travel plans, exhibits a more English, more localized sense of place than that of his predecessor:
Come, Anthea, let us two Go to Feast, as others do. Tarts and Custards, Creams and Cakes, Are the Junketts still at Wakes: Unto which the Tribes resort, Where the business is the sport. Morris-dancers thou shalt see, Marian, too, in Pagentrie:
And a Mimick to devise Many grinning properties. Players there will be, and those Base in action as in clothes; Yet with strutting they will please The incurious Villages. Near the dying of the day There will be a Cudgell-play Where a Coxcomb will be broke, Ere a good word can be spoke: But the anger ends all here, Drenched in Ale or drowned in Beere. Happy Rusticks, best content With the cheapest Merriment; And possesse no other feare Than to want the Wake next Yeare.
The vision here of rural simplicity and abundance is common to pastoral writing from its beginnings in Theocritus and Virgil. If Herrick's seems a somewhat decadent, condescending version—his rustics, after all, are "drowned in Beere"—his affable setting, a Bruegel scene in all its particularity, begins to color the pastoral horizon. In 1629, Herrick became a country clergyman in Devonshire; since 1623, he had been a member of Jonson's literary coterie in London, and the splenetic rural clergyman never forgot the splendid royal courtier. Although employing the generalized, pastoral themes of simplicity and abundance, the poem relies on its subversive particularity—as the tarts and custards yield to ale, beer, and drunkenness—to chart the peot's disgruntlement.
With one eye on the shepherd and the other, for example, on Milton's "Corrupted clergy," pastoral poets have always been walleyed, and this skewed vision accounts for the pastoral's notoriety as a genre susceptible to social and political commentary. In Heaney's case, the concreteness and vivid detail of his writing subsume the several pastoral conventions that still survive to structure his poems. At first glance, his work has little in common with what is habitually labeled pastoral. If "Death of a Naturalist," a poem whose "fields were rank with cowdung," appears perfectly opposed to the "beds of roses" in Marlowe's "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love," such opposing appearances are resolved by Puttenham's suggestion that pastorals employ their rude diction to "insinuate and glance at greater matters." Where grenades are found in Heaney's work, so too are pomegranates, and this subliminal attempt to reconcile the violent particularity of his landscape with some of the generalizing conventions of pastoral poetry aligns him with an important aspect of the genre's tradition.
Displaying these powers of insinuation that Puttenham described, much of Heaney's work remains faithful to its pastoral origins. To speak of contemporary poetry as pastoral in nature is not to speak of its adherence to a set of formal conventions. Swinburne's elegy, "Ave Atque Vale," which appeared in 1868, claims the honor of being the last unquestionably great English elegy to boast of its classical parentage, and by then even that magnificent lamentation seems a step removed from late Victorian verse—the poem excels as much in its nostalgic rarity as in its stunning poetic accomplishments. Heaney would have bewildered Puttenham, as Swinburne would have dismayed him, but he would also have been brought up short by the antipastoral, by Stephen Duck's "The Thresher's Labour" (1736). Although originally from the Wiltshire countryside, he was eventually adopted as a kind of court poet in London, and as a consequence, his verse lost much of its idiosyncratic stamp. Yet Duck's best work insists on the vigorously revisionary impulse that characterizes antipastoral writing and survives to build the foundation for the dissenting voice, the voice of the Northern Irish Catholic heard in Heaney's verse. Here is Duck, in "The Thresher's Labour," protesting and disabusing:
The Shepherd well may tune his Voice to sing Inspir'd with all the Beauties of the Spring. No fountains murmur here, no Lambkins play, No Linnets warble, and no Fields look gay; 'Tis all a gloomy, melancholy Scene, Fit only to provoke the Muse's Spleen.
But even older, less drastic examples show a similar sensibility. Would Puttenham have recognized the pastures surrounding Penshurst in Jonson's poem of 1616, a time much closer to his own? Though he would have found satyrs lurking and muses lounging and dryads gamboling about the grounds, Puttenham would also have heard a wistful appraisal of feudal harmony at the Penshurst manor, a house whose walls were "rear'd with no man's ruine, no man's grone…." The manor house, once a symbol of power and patronage, of a cooperative understanding between lord and laborer, already appears in the poem bathed in the flattering glow of a distant Golden Age. Because the social order of rural seventeenth-century England relied upon the stabilizing influence and regional authority of the major families, James I had tried to force the English nobility to forsake the indulgent pleasures of London and assume their rightful post as lord and lady of the manor house. Jonson's poem, celebrating Penshurst, the ancestral home of Sidney, presents an enticing vision of Protestant moderation ("Thou art not, Penshurst, built to envious show") and English ascendancy ("Sidney's copse").
But even in the early seventeenth century, some poets were hearing the laborer's groan; some were beginning to claim the hardships of the laborer's life as a subject for poetry and were doing so by deploying their disgruntlements as correctives to pastoral commonplaces. A new realism is afoot and the first two couplets of Francis Quarles's "On the Plough-Man" (1635) succinctly contrasts the traditional pastoral image with the author's qualifying observation, at once generic and political in its objection:
I heare the whistling Plough-man, all day long, Sweetning his labour with a chearefull song: His Bed's a Pad of Straw; His dyet course; In both, he fares not better then his Horse….
As startled as Puttenham would have been to find these poems included in a discussion of pastoral poetry, he would have sympathized in equal measure with the involved arguments that landed them there. Quarles's objection represents an early example of the pastoral's propensity for social and political criticism. Part of Heaney's success in dramatizing the various quandaries faced by the Catholic population of rural Northern Ireland derives from the pastoral's ability to undermine a literary convention with a particularized description. The toppled assumption—whether political or literary—is a less visible result of pastoral writing than of polemical speech making, but the tradition has provided verbal strategies that allow Heaney to depict his own culture in ways that reveal its integrity while gently dispersing the English culture that would disfranchise him. The neat distinctions implied by the terms "pastoral" and "antipastoral" seem to clarify the essential development of a long tradition in English writing: by the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the laborer's groan was at least as loud as the shepherd's song, and the literature that had once celebrated the harmonies of the countryside now exposed the poverty and hardships suffered by its people.
Yet the story is not so simple. When read closely, the early commentaries reveal a clear awareness of the difference between a plowed field engaged in hawthorne and an emerald pasture rimmed in laurel. Real shepherds, the commentators have always claimed, never enjoyed the carefree ease of the rural life depicted by the classical pastoral. One of the first attempts to develop a systematic exposition of the rudiments and origins of English verse, Puttenham's treatise devotes little space to the pastoral mode or "kind." But his reply to the widely popular notion that the pastoral, because it dealt with an ancient, even prehistoric way of life, represented the oldest form of writing in existence shows that he understood the essential problems confronting all critics who attempt to define the literature:
Some be of the opinion … that the pastoral Poesie … should be the first of any other … because, they say, the shepheards and haywards assemblies and meetings when they kept their cattell and heards in the common fields and forests was the first familiar conversation, and their babble and talk under bushes and shadie trees, the first disputation and contentious reasoning…. And all this may be true, for before there was a shepheard keeper of his owne, or of some other bodies flocke, there was none owner in the world, quick cattell being the first property of any forreine possession…. But for all this, I do deny that the Eclogue should be the first and most ancient forme of artificiall Poesie, being perswaded that the Poet devised the Eclogue long after drammatick poems … to insinuate and glance at greater matters….
(book 1, chapter 18)
Puttenham gives full credence to the methodology of an argument that would define a literary genre by locating its origin in the world of daily affairs, of "quick cattell"; when he finally discourages the application of that argument to the "Eclogue," he does so by implying that a realistic representation of the country life was never the intention of pastoral writing. But the charge had been leveled, and an essential aspect of the pastoral had been recognized: in its attempt to describe theperfected rural society, a society removed from the daily affairs of the city and capable of rendering implicit judgments on those affairs, the best pastoral writing developed rhetorical strategies both to describe the world as it is and to envisage the world as it had been in a past Golden Age. Heaney's earliest verse often depicts the fondest recollections of a childhood passed in the country with an aggressive, even militaristic diction, emphasizing at once the integrity of his culture and the violence that has become a part of its daily ritual. Puttenham is fully aware of the pastoral's natural proclivity for commenting on social or political affairs, for glancing at "greater matters," and he soundly rebuffs the theory that the literature represents the original literary endeavors of the rural society it described.
Puttenham discouraged such notions of authenticity but recognized at the same time that the pastoral's ability to keep one eye trained on the realistic, particularized landscape and one on the idealized vista of a better world represented the genre's most compelling feature. He does not banish the English and European disciples of Virgil to a charmed pleasance; he argues that the countryside, with all of its trappings and accoutennents, provides the writer with a vehicle for glancing at matters beyond its immediate purview. Puttenham's elaborate refutations were designed precisely to emphasize the artifice of the genre, to prevent the sixteenth-century reader from viewing the pastoral as a piece of sociological field work. By the eighteenth century, pastoral poets had become so dependent on this same literary artifice only hinted at by Puttenham that critics were once again correcting abuses. When shepherds debate foreign policy, they argued, readers are asked to suspend their disbelief beyond credibility.
The idea of credibility, in one guise or another, has informed both the major critiques and the persuasive examples of pastoral literature from Puttenham's time to the present. One luminous example chosen from the imposing body of critical material demonstrates how thoroughgoing was this corrosive worry over the shepherd's life in the hills and the accuracy of its representation in the work of art. The sophistication of an articulate shepherd has historically been one of the least tolerated sophistications in English writing, and Dr. Johnson's diatribe on "Lycidas," that "easy, vulgar" poem, is one of the most infamous attacks in the critical canon. Continually, the pastoral has confronted the accusations of debunking realists, and the confrontation emphasizes the curiously large degree of social responsibility and realism—the literary device most often associated with social responsibility—expected of the pastoral author. Johnson, though not one of the early commentators, neatly and caustically speaks for the many doubters who preceded him:
It is therefore improper to give the title of a pastoral to verses in which the speakers, after the slight mention of their flocks, fall to complaints of errors in the church and corruptions in the government, or to lamentations of the death of some illustrious person, whom when once the poet has called a shepherd, he has no longer any labour upon his hands, but can make the clouds weep, and lilies wither, and the sheep hang their heads, without art or learning, genius, or study.
Nothing is so tiringly conventional as an insignificant pastoral, and even those writers most invigorated by its formal strictures seem wary of the living shepherd who wearily follows his sheep from grazing to grazing. The eighteenth century, remarkable in this context because it was the last era to view the composition of the pastoral as an ordinary poetic enterprise, abounds with theoretical writing on the subject. Pope, for example, cared nothing for tooth and claw, and his comments on the pastoral portray a writer aware of the fact that shepherds named Corydon, wandering through an anglicized Arcadia, do not face the hardships of shepherds named Michael who move stones at Grasmere. That Pope would even respond to such an obvious assertion emphasizes how enduring this concern for authenticity and credibility had become for both critics and poets alike. In his "Discourse on Pastoral Poetry," he states baldly that the work of the pastoral poet lies "in exposing the best side only of a shepherd's life, and in concealing its miseries." Although not all early pastoral writers had been so idealistic—not Spenser, for example, in "January," from The Shepheardes Calender—Pope's position represents the purest excrescence of pastoral theory, emphasizing its power to idealize but ignoring its tendency to recognize the quotidian reality and its attendant miseries.
Extremity in religion and literature breeds heresy, and when Pope claimed that two and only two of Virgil's Eclogues were truly pastoral works, he showed how exhausted traditions end in denial. Although Johnson, on the other hand, does not suggest that the poet dwell on miseries, he clearly presses for a measure of credibility. This represents a significant shift in emphasis. By attacking several glamorous abuses of pastoral writing, he makes us suspicious of it all. Johnson's strictures, unlike Pope's, are less definitive and more hopeful.
Johnson's witty assessment was prompted by his own famous definition of pastoral earlier in the same piece: a "representation of an action or passion by its effects upon a country life." These actions or passions, then, must not be "inconsistent with a country life." It is difficult—and unfair—to guess how Puttenham would have replied to Johnson; the body of material that concerned Puttenham was smaller and more orderly in spirit than the vast and varied pastorals that Johnson read. As the ranks of the literature swelled, encompassing the lyric, the elegy, the romance, and the drama, so too did the definitions. Whereas the critics of Puttenham's time could quibble over the details of a convention, Johnson's age was attempting to reconcile the inconsistencies of a literary behemoth that had begun to violate, transgress, and redefine its traditional boundaries.
Both Puttenham and Johnson were bothered by the issue of credibility, and to justify their anxiety they discovered a reason for it: the language of pastoral was not the authen tic language of the pasture. Literary realism, in nineteenth-century fiction, was most often summoned to correct abuses and reveal hardships, and the pastoral did not escape untainted by this important development. The reformative zeal for authenticity, when it finally evolved as the domineering concern of the poetry, helped to form the characteristic tone of the antipastoral, a relatively modern development of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Crabbe's The Village (1783), for example, intends to indict social injustice by providing "the real picture of the poor…." But this is a literary revolution in its late stages. The beginnings of a healthy skepticism, the first stirrings of a countermovement against the established conventions of pastoral writing, were evident as early as the sixteenth century. From the beginning, the literature developed tactics of diversion and inference that characterize Heaney's development as he consolidates his savvy political voice.
The earliest pastoralists obviously had not seen the stern reprimands handed down by Johnson. Spenser, identified by Puttenham as "that other Gentleman who wrote the late shepheardes Callender," was well aware of the satirical possibilities inherent in one of the most prevalent pastoral conventions, the poet, or in Spenser's version, the knight as shepherd. In book 6, canto 9 of The Faerie Queene, Sir Calidore has arrived in Arcadia and fallen in love with Pastorella; when she proves invulnerable to his knightly charms, he changes his "loftie looke" for the authentic look, the "shepheards weed," and quickly wins her love. Lest this seem too blatantly erotic, the story takes yet another turn. What Pastorella had loved in her lowly shepherd was, in fact, his courteous qualities, shining through the warp and woof of his native flannel. Eventually, blood as well as water seeks its own level: Pastorella was of a pedigree higher than had previously been suspected, so their attraction to each other, in both the environmental and hereditary sense, was a natural one.
The masquerade reveals a more serious aspect of pastoral, one in which Calidore assumes the appearance of a shepherd, traditionally connoting honesty, even gullibility, to further his designs on Pastorella. When Calidore strikes out across the fields with Pastorella on his arm, he is using the pastoral mode literally, in Puttenham's terms, to "insinuate and glance" at other women, and the reader witnesses a convincing demonstration of the pastoral's capacity for deception and subterfuge. Today Irish nationalist dressed in English tweeds roam the streets of London, occasionally lionized by the literary community they oppose, so artful has been their opposition. In 1983, Heaney published a response to his inclusion in an anthology of verse entitled The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry; his rural and "anxious" muse is "roused on her bed among the furze," and his abdication reveals how successful his ruse has been:
This inclination toward subterfuge, which is in turn facilitated by the genre's tendency to cast its characters in deceptively conventional roles, is clearest in Spenser's "Colin Clouts Come Home Again." The poem is organized as a dialogue between Colin Clout, who has just returned from a trip across the sea, and ten shepherds and shepherdesses, who ply him with questions about his traveling partner, his sea voyage, and his visit to the court of Cynthia. The poem details an Irish homecoming, and although Colin's sympathies are not those of a modern Irish nationalist, the poem remains a skillful pastoral rendition of the various skepticisms that historically characterized relations between Ireland and England. Spenser's biography has figured prominently in many interpretations of the work, and commentators have closely examined the various landscapes of the poem, particularly the one portrayed in the myth of Bregog and Mulla (11.104-55). The precise situation of the rivers, the mountain called "Mole … /That walls the Northside of Armulla Dale," and "the ragged mines"—all of these specific geographical details have led critics to believe that the home referred to in the title is indeed Spenser's Cork County estate. And near the end of the poem, when Colin has described the bounties of Cyn thia's court, Thestylis wonders why anyone would return from such a happy place "to this barrein soyle/Where cold and care and penury do dwell" (11.656-57). Colin's answer begins the section on the corruption of the court.
Thestylis's dreary depiction of his homeland has led some critics to speculate on Spenser's happiness in Ireland: perhaps these descriptions represent affective portraits of Spenser's thoughts and feelings while living away from England. But the evaluation of the poem is not solely a matter of biography. Spenser's descriptions, most fruitfully read in the tradition of the perfected landscape, the earthly Eden, incorporate varying levels of particularity and biographical reference within familiar pastoral contexts. Several shepherds, more obviously than others, represent important historical figures; some rivulets more clearly than others portray actual streams.
But the idealized landscapes in Spenser's pastoral poems often show traces of the persistent attention to regional detail that will dominate late twentieth-century poetry. Under the aegis of the pastoral, much of this poetry finds its distant and surprising ancestor. In Heaney's work this persistence in meticulous description is carefully marshaled to transcend its particularity, creating that distinctly pastoral tension between the idealized landscape of the past—the Golden Age—and the realistic depiction of Irish geography, In a poem such as "Anahorish," Heaney imagines that the name itself possesses ineffable powers of cultural sovereignty. Irish place-names in the United Kingdom become for Heaney subversive incantations that both glorify his Celtic lineage and establish its integrity in British Northern Ireland. The poem dexterously appropriates a landscape politically British in its legal demarcation but linguistically Irish in its nomenclature:
My "place of clear water," the first hill in the world where springs washed into the shiny grass and darkened cobbles in the bed of the lane.Anahorish, soft gradient of consonant, vowel-meadow, after-image of lamps swung through the yards on winter evenings. With pails and barrows those mound-dwellers go waist-deep in mist to break the light ice at wells and dunghills.
The genealogy established here between the people of Heaney's childhood and the "mound dwellers"—they are practically coalesced into one ancestor—lies entrenched beyond the reach of English bloodlines, and the poem combines a quiet celebration of an Irish childhood with a strenuous resistance to cultural hegemony. Within the pastoral context, these often contrary concerns are reconciled.
The allegorical quality of pastoral writing has been a stable part of the tradition since Virgil's time. But the literature carefully discriminates between these conventional references to living people and the broader, less conventional attempt to incorporate into the poetry the specific details of character or landscape that might dissipate the gleaming innocence of the pastoral vision. Accordingly, the matter of poetic diction, whether based on the regional pidgin or the royal parlance, became an important issue in pastoral theory. In The Renewal of Literature, Richard Poirier argues that the "self-analytical mode" of the modernist text instituted a "form of cultural skepticism," which in varying degrees "is to be found earlier on, as in, say, Spenser's transformations of the allegorical tradition…." Following a rapturous description of Cynthia in "Colin Clout Comes Home Again," Cuddy chides Colin for his elevated speech:
The pastoral illusion here is qualified, if slightly so. By reminding Colin that shepherds must use a baser English than the one he has been using, Cuddy does not argue for a dialectal purity but ironically insists on one of the genre's conventions: in essence he reminds Colin of Puttenham's notion that pastoral writers must employ "rude speeches." Governed by this irony, Colin's lofty flights become the unconventional element of the passage. But this insight comes at the end of a circuitous path; the rigidity of the pastoral form has begun to loosen a little, revealing glimpses of the world beyond the pasture.
The subject of poetic diction concerns all poets, but Irish authors have addressed the matter with exceptional vigor, emphasizing the political implications of choosing or ignoring various words and figures of speech. Heaney's etymological interests have occasioned several of his finest poems, but only a few have openly addressed the political questions that confront the Irish writer. From Wintering Out, the first section of "Traditions" states the case succinctly:
Our guttural muse was bulled long ago by the alliterative tradition, her uvula grows vestigial, forgotten like the coccyx or a Brigid's Cross yellowing in some outhouse while custom, that "most sovereign mistress," beds us down into the British Isles.
The feeling of linguistic displacement in the poem is shared by many Irish writers. Tom Paulin, a poet and critic from Belfast who currently resides in England, has argued passionately for the establishment of an Irish English dictionary, finding an analogy in Noah Webster's dictionary and his Dissertations, the treatises that examined the influence of the American language on the country's concepts of nationhood. Such a dictionary in Ireland would have a redemptive effect:
Many words which now appear simply gnarled, or which "make strange" or seem opaque to most readers, would be released into the shaped flow of a new public language…. A confident concept of Irish English would substantially increase the vocabulary and this would invigorate the written language. A language that lives lithely on the tongue ought to be capable of becoming the flexible written instrument of a complete cultural idea.
"A new public language," "a complete cultural idea"—the phrases resonate with a shrewd and subtle republicanism. The dialectal words and rhythms in Heaney's verse, similar to the "rude speeches," those wayward words often labeled "variant" by lexicographers, represent the common inheritance of the Catholic culture of rural Northern Ireland, a culture that from Heaney's standpoint has suffered political displacement. The pastoral, freely admitting allegorical language and implicitly encouraging resistance and deception, allows Heaney to enshrine his culture while fashioning a cogent and subversive response to the problems faced by the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland.
The word "subversive," when used accurately in this context, describes the way in which pastoral writing balances social criticism and aesthetic design. Pastoral poetry had always been used for polemical purposes, and when Milton prefaces "Lycidas" with his announcement that he "by occasion foretells the ruin of our corrupted Clergy," he is working within a well-defined literary tradition of political and religious dissent. Accordingly, the American reader who innocently opens Empson's seminal work on the subject, Some Versions of Pastoral (1935), will be surprised to find the first chapter entitled "Proletarian Literature." Empson begins by introducing the subject of "proletarian art" and declares it "important to try and decide what the term might mean…."
His diction alone plays to the political sensibility, a sensibility that will bear fruit when evaluating Heaney's version of pastoral. Aside from several notable examples, academic criticism in America has avoided political engagement, and the shopworn tenets of New Criticism, with their emphasis on poetic form and an ahistorical aesthetic, provide an excellent example. The few critics and poets who undertook the sweeping examinations such engagements required have traditionally earned the unfortunate title "men of letters." Edmund Wilson appears on this role, and, surely, T. S. Eliot.
Yet for the English and Irish critics, raised on the subterfuges of Auden's early poetry, on the volunteer spirit fostered by the Spanish Civil War, and finally on the hardships of a World War fought at home, the political dimension of literature excited a compelling, if sometimes breast-beating, urgency in many of the writers. Empson is always honing his insights into pastoral literature with the gritty observations of a social worker. Although Heaney's verse generally transcends the confinements of the political arena, the confrontations encountered there account for one of the defining strengths of his work and clarify his relation to the pastoral. Here is an example of Empson's method: "Of course there are plenty of skilled workers in England who are proud of their skill, and you can find men of middle age working on farms who say they prefer the country to the town, but anything like what I am trying to call pastoral is a shock to the Englishman who meets it on the Continent." Empson's sociopolitical program always stands as the foil for his brilliance as a literary critic; the work of art, whether Paradise Lost or Alice in Wonderland, always corners his attention. But not all critics so acrobatically walk the fence between facile sloganeering and felicitous phrasing. Other problems associated with the term "pastoral" must be resolved before Heaney's work assumes its rightful place in the tradition.
In a review of The Penguin Anthology of Pastoral Poetry, Heaney summarizes his opinion regarding the modern usage of the word, and if he lacks the accuracy theoreticians might require, he nonetheless reflects a widespread opinion: "'Pastoral' is a term that has been extended by usage until its original meaning has been largely eroded. For example, I have occasionally talked of the countryside where we live in Wicklow as being pastoral rather than rural, trying to impose notions of a beautified landscape on the word, in order to keep 'rural' for the unselfconscious face of raggle-taggle farmland." In most infor mal writing, the word "idyllic" often substitutes for "pas toral"; a cottage in the country might reasonably be described as both "idyllic" and "pastoral" because either word conjures up a similar range of associations. Yet if Heaney seems perfectly suited to be a pastoral poet, why then does he resist—it is as if he were being sentenced—the title "idyllic poet"? The latter phrase assigns him to the charmed existence of "farmer Allan at the farm abode," as Tennyson has it in "Dora," while the former commands for him the integrity of a literary tradition. The term "pastoral," often undefined and inaccurately deployed, commands a general field of reference that seems to describe much of Heaney's early poetry. But the poet's own definition of the term limits its usage: "beautified" will simply not suffice for the frogs in "Death of a Naturalist" with their "blunt heads farting."
Certain themes and literary strategies are native to the pastoral tradition, and their recurrence, with or without the attendant shepherd, shapes the modern pastoral. Perspective, theme, and imagery are the watchwords. In the same review, Heaney continues: "Obviously, we are unlikely to find new poems about shepherds that engage us as fully as 'Lycidas,' but surely the potent dreaming of a Golden Age or the counter-cultural celebration of sim pler life-styles or the nostalgic projection of the garden on childhood are still occasionally continuous with the tradition as it is presented here." Heaney's point is clear. Although much of the traditional machinery of the pastoral—the shepherds, the singing contests, the personification of the natural world in its elegiac posture—fell long ago into a benign disrepair, the desires that fueled the machinery, "the potent dreaming of a Golden Age," remain immediate, vivid, and urgent. John Lynen, in his book on Robert Frost's pastoralism, clarifies the relation between literary convention and pastoral myth, a clarification that succinctly explicates an essential feature of the genre's development:
The conventions are not the true basis of pastoral, but an outgrowth of something deeper and more fundamental. Pastoralism requires an established myth of the rural world, and the conventions gradually developed through tradition belong to the myth of Arcadia. They are formalized symbols whose function is to evoke an imaginative vision of this world. But Arcadia is not the only version of rural life, and it is possible for a poet to write true pastorals within the context of some other mythic rural world.
The work of each author will have its own unique shape, its own version of pastoral. Such freedoms encourage abuses in the literary critic who finds traces of pastoral in any poem, novel, song, or play remotely concerned with the country life. Open doors can lead to indiscrimination, and prolonged, persistent indiscrimination to fatuity and mental flatulence. Andrew Ettin, one of the most recent critics attempting to distill the essence of pastoral writing, offers this insight:
Not all nature writing … is pastoral. What makes a work pastoral are its attitudes toward the natural world and human experience. In pastoral literature, experiences and emotions are contained within finite limits. Those limits are implied by the patterns revealed within the natural world and within the pastoral way of life, consonant with the patterns of the natural world. The containment is necessitated by the fragility or delicacy of the experiences and emotions, or by tension between pastoral and nonpastoral experience.
Ettin shrewdly embraces what others before him have disparaged. Pastoral experience, fragile and delicate, is contained and circumscribed by nonpastoral experience, and the resulting tension between the two worlds characterizes most pastoral literature. When he uses the word "attitudes," he is tipping his hat to another critic whose helpful insights Ettin acknowledges. In his book, Pastoral Forms and Attitudes, Harold Toliver gives us a sound piece of advice for shaping our own attitudes toward the latter-day pastoral. Aside from analyzing the predictable authors such as Spenser, Shakespeare, Marvell, and Milton, he includes chapters on Stevens and Bellow. Of his introductory statements, one is worthy of engraving in stone: "Whether or not the texts examined here need all be considered 'pastorals' is not as important finally as our discovering something in them through this lens that would be less noticeable through another. Much of Heaney's poetry is enlarged and clarified through such a lens. His enlargements and clarifications not only situate him in a literary tradition, they reevaluate the literature of that tradition, echoing, as they do, the old forgotten melodies….
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1434
SOURCE: A review of Seeing Things, in The Yale Review, Vol. 80, Nos. 1-2, 1992, pp. 236-54.
[In the following essay, Pinsky provides a favorable review of Heaney's Seeing Things.]
Seamus Heaney's poems have earned a host of literary awards and about as much public celebration as is likely for any poet in our time. A native of Northern Ireland, a man of great personal charm, wit, eloquence in speech, and probity, Heaney has attracted (he attention of journalists in this country and around the world. His work has been embraced by academic critics, taught in schools and universities, and made the object of Ph.D. dissertations.
Nevertheless, he is a wonderful poet, one of the best writing, as his new book Seeing Things demonstrates anew. The book also provides a comparison of poetry's dual presence—immediate and yet of the past, of the earth and of the air, of the voice and of the mind—in the work of these three younger Americans and in poems by a European of Heaney's generation.
The two mighty roots of this volume are familiar to Heaney's readers. One is the talismanic force of objects: the often humble implements and artifacts, pitchfork, settlebed, coping-stone, biretta, school-bag, made sacramental by their human meaning and by Heaney's luminous see ing of them. "Secure / The bastion of sensation," says a poem early in the extraordinary sequence "Squarings," "Do not water / Into language. Do not waver in it." Related to these often domestic objects is the second root, which is reverent memory, in this book frequently elegiac. There are extremely touching, indelible poems in memory of the poet's father and of several friends.
As he has done before, Heaney frames the volume with translations, a passage from Canto III of the Inferno at the end and fifty lines from the Aeneid as a prefatory poem. In the Aeneid passage, the hero asks the Cumaean Sibyl for passage to the Underworld so that he can look again into the face of his dead father. The Sibyl tells Aeneas that to return living from the realm of death he must pluck the golden bough from the sacred grove—" And when it is plucked," says Heaney's version, "A second one always grows in its place, golden again." And in the closing lines of his preface:
These lines invoke the ancient spirit of poetry, straightforwardly and confidently.
Then, in the first poem of the volume proper, the ghost of the poet Larkin—" a nine-to-five man who had seen poetry"—surprises the living poet on a city street, and the shade quotes Dante, a passage where at nightfall when all other creatures rest the poet goes forth to his duty. Though Heaney enjoys the incongruity between the rush-hour buses and Larkin's "Still my old self Ready to knock one back," his connection to the old line of poetry is largely one of congruity. This fact is visible in the distinctive, polishedthorn texture of Heaney's language; it is partly a matter of cultural setting, a setting where poetry's place is less of an open question than in America, more assuredly a place resembling one that it always had.
It has been Heaney's genius to invoke the heroic perspective for the most immediate and personal kinds of experience. Every mode of narrative or image seems available and readily modulated from one kind of eloquence, one scale, to the next. In the title poem, rendering what could have been a small family anecdote, the closing section begins "Once upon a time my undrowned father / Walked into our yard." The father has had a close call in the river, after a minor disagreement with the child. Heaney in the final passage returns to the note of the opening "once upon a time":
This is a remarkably subtle ending, full of strong but understated emotional color: rueful and ironic about the realities between father and son. Because we have read the opening Aeneid passage a few pages before, and then an elegy for the father's own father, the moment, when the two look on one another's face is also part of an epic pattern.
Leaving Dante and Virgil aside, consider the many Heaney poems where, just as archaic language overlaps with the language of crafts or farming or region (James Joyce's "feast of the Holy Tundish"), the folklore and figures of his experience overlap with mythology ("Squarings," xviii):
Like a foul-mouthed god of hemp come down to rut, The rope-man stumped about and praised new rope With talk of how thick it was, or how long and strong, And how you could take it into your own hand And feel it. His perfect, tight-bound wares Made a circle round him….
In another poem of the sequence,
Other poems describe the feeling of an eelskin bracelet putting water-wheel strength into your shoulder, or the ritual entering of a new life through a girdle of straw rope on St. Brigid's Day, one sequence for men, one for women:
The open they came into by these moves Stood opener, hoops came off the world, They could feel the February air Still soft above their heads and imagine The limp rope fray and flare like wind-borne gleanings Or an unhindered goldfinch over ploughland.
This is a world in which the centaur of the past is a few steps closer than for the young Americans, and not only for the colloquial Halliday but for Mitchell as well. The folklore is only one token of a setting in which the contradictions between the art's history and its present are less sharp, less open-ended.
No judgment of value is implied by seeing this difference of kind. Exactly because the scope and power of Heaney's poems are well established, it is worth noting that like other European poets he is in some ways closer to the literature and language of the past, and to the folk beliefs of the past, than many American poets are likely to be.
This idea represents only one strain in Heaney's work, a strain that reminds me of two other poems. One is Czeslaw Milosz's "Bypassing Rue Descartes," in which the poet remembers streaming into Paris as the capital of the world, and of "the universal," in the time between the wars, along with other young people from "Jassy and Kolivar, Wilno and Bucharest, Saigon and Marrakesh." "Soon enough, their peers were seizing power / in order to kill in the name of the universal, beautiful ideas," while the city goes on pursuing its worldly nature. At the end of the poem, Milosz returns to the idea of folk beliefs:
As to my heavy sins, I remember one most vividly: How, one day, walking on a forest path along a stream I pushed a rock down onto a water snake coiled in the grass. And what I have met with in life was the just punishment Which reaches, sooner or later, the breaker of a taboo.
The immense force of Milosz's lifework is related to the stretch from his classical education, the beliefs of his province, the great world of his youth, to his experience of the war and its aftermath, the poet clinging to the thread of poetry through that maze of disillusion, catastrophe, and faith. This force is relevant to Heaney's cultural situation, and to the American one as well: the scale of the Milosz poem helps show the difference in the situations.
The other poem I am reminded of is Alan Shapiro's "Mud Dancing," which I have quoted already. Reading Heaney's masterful deployment of his vocabulary of rut and wares, grow fleet and psychopomp, fray and flare, and unhindered goldfinch, I thought of the moment when Shapiro, in his poem of the bewildered ghosts of the tortured touching the immovable cast-off garments at Woodstock, giving voice to the dead, reaches for an archaic word:
Was this some new phase of their affliction? The effect of some yet new device? To make them go on dreaming, even now, some version of themselves so long accustomed to their torment that they confused torment with exaltation, mud with light?Frau History, they asked, is this the finalreaving of what we loved well…?
Reaving (spelled differently in Faulkner's title): plundering, robbing, tearing apart, or carrying away. It seems an appropriate term for addressing Frau History. The archaism gives the thrown-off clothing more meaning, in a moment that is part of a continuum with the poems of Milosz and Heaney, suggesting that there is a question, a question about the place of memory in the present, that all true poetry, in one way or another, presents to its readers.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3414
SOURCE: "Seeing Things in a Jungian Perspective: Archetypal Elements in Seamus Heaney's Recent Poetry," in Agenda, Vol. 33, Nos. 3-4, Autumn-Winter, 1996, pp. 131-43.
[In the following essay, Atfield offers a Jungian interpretation of the poetry found in the volume Seeing Things.]
Seamus Heaney is clearly conversant with Jung's psychology and its relevance to art, specifically literature: in a conversation with Borges [in The Crane Bag, Volume 7, 1983], he referred to the "Jungian archetypes" as "valid explanations of what we experience in the subconscious worlds of dreams and fiction," and more recently in The Government of the Tongue, he used Jungian terminology quite naturally when he emphasised that poetry and the imaginative arts "verify our singularity, they strike and stake out the ore of self which lies at the base of every individuated life." He has spoken of "The secret between the words, the binding element … a psychic force that is elusive, archaic and only half apprehended by maker and audience"; [in Memories, Dreams, Reflections, 1963] Jung refers to "The energy underlying conscious psychic life" and the "archetypes, which are pre-existent to consciousness and condition it." Seamus Heaney uses the Jungian concept of mythical archetypes to explore himself, his family and his race; to understand the origins of his own creative energies and the distortion of creativity in the destructiveness of his society.
Through his understanding and use of Jungian perspective Heaney defends himself against the charge that lyric poetry is a luxury that Ireland cannot afford; this does not merely illuminate his poems but constitutes a thesis of the value of poetry itself. In this sense his poems are virtually (though tangentially) concerned with the very issues that superficially they seem to evade.
[In Archetype: A Natural History of the Self 1982] Anthony Stevens has argued that, "Jung knew that people needed myths if they were to remain vitally in touch with the archetypal core of their nature. Myths provide an entire cosmology compatible with a culture's capacity for understanding…" In his poetry Heaney can be seen to reflect the Jungian concept of myth as the human attempt to appreciate and apprehend life, not as a mere existence but as the intercommunication of the whole complexity of body, intellect and psyche. A number of poems in Seeing Things reflect the Jungian parallels of conscious and unconscious, and the extension of the ego to fuller realisation of the Self archetype in "the individuation process … to integrate the unconscious into consciousness."
In "Casting and Gathering," Heaney presents the conscious and unconscious "voices" through two views of fishing, recognising that he has long been concerned with opposition and tensions, as "Years and years ago, these sounds took sides," yet "I am still standing there, awake and dreamy." The "dreamy" state is an appropriate one in which to listen to the voice of the unconscious, or to be aware of the tension between that and the conscious, as he is also "awake." [In his Collected Works, edited by H. Read, M. Fordham, G. Adler, Vol. 9, 1953-78] Jung explained, "Once the unconscious content has been given form and the meaning of the formulation understood … The position of the ego must be maintained as being of equal value to the counterposition of the unconscious and vice versa…" Later in the same essay he refers to a dialogue which an "other voice" and the poem can be read as a dramatisation of this kind of psychic dialogue:
One sound is saying, "You're not worth tuppence, But neither is anybody. Watch it! Be severe." The other says, "Go with it! Give and swerve. You are everything you feel beside the river."
In this formulation of the two styles of fishing the alert attention of the ego "voice," "Watch it!" is balanced in counterposition of the affective mode of the unconscious, "everything you feel."
In equilibrium between them Heaney sums up, "I trust contrariness." If the Jungian reading of the poem is con tinued, the trusting of contrariness could reflect Anthony Stevens' comment on the transcendent function, "when permitted to do so, the psyche transcends reason and the rules of logic, no less than the opposites, for it sees no problem in the simultaneous perception of incompatibilities." If Heaney speaks for his race, which is divided against itself, his poetry must embrace the conflicts but more, the incompatibilities are essential.
In Seeing Things, Heaney mythologies his father; his examination of self is powerfully extended through the father archetype, enabling him to confront the archetypal experience of death. Jung's researches revealed that "it not infrequently happens that the archetype appears in the form of a spirit in dreams or fantasy-products, or even comports itself like a ghost…it mobilizes philosophical and religious convictions…" Heaney's father is embodied in the landscape he dominated; as adult the son is constantly reminded, he finds he "cannot mention keshes or the ford / Without my father's shade appearing to me / On a path towards sunset," the young child
was inside the house And saw him out the window, scatter-eyed And daunted, strange without his hat, His step unguided, his ghosthood immanent…
Heaney's recollection of this incident reflects Jung's comments directly: "I must have been three or four. I wasn't there, but it was as if I saw it all, him falling off, the cart going into the river. I remember him coming back and walking towards me in a dream, and the strangest thing was seeing him without his hat…" [The Independent on Sunday, May 19, 1991].
Heaney achieves a skilful balance between the material and the spiritual in his reminiscences, establishing his father in terms of the motif of the ashplant, his badge of authority, as the "Wise Old Man" archetype recorded in Jung's psychiatric studies. This frequently repeated image of the ashplant creates a microcosm of the responsibility and respect accorded the cattle dealer:
"Look for a man with an ashplant on the boat" My father told his sister setting out For London, "and stay near him all night And you'll be safe…."
Heaney movingly describes his father's urgent clinging on to this symbol of authority on his death-bed, as if once he has it in his grasp he is himself again, with his powers restored, as his son would have wished equally desperately:
As his head goes light with light, his wasting hand Gropes desperately and finds the phantom limb Of an ash plant in his grasp, which steadies him. Now he has found his touch he can stand his ground…
The concept of continuity and tradition linked with the archetypal significance of the character is encompassed in the marvellous economy of haiku form as Heaney describes how he, now head of the family as the eldest son, takes on the authority and self-confidence of his dead father, represented yet again in the ash-plant:
Dangerous pavements. But I face the ice this year With my father's stick.
The title of the poem, "1.1.87," in its stark numerals, suggests the bleak isolation of the world bereft of the father, yet also the directness of determination to start a new year and a new phase of life with confidence gained from the father within the son.
It is only at his father's death that he can fully acknowledge his filial debt, in the archetypal experience of death of the self as a child. As Jung explained, "There are as many archetypes as there are typical situations in life. Endless repetition has engraved these experiences into our psychic constitution, not in the form of images filled with content, but at first only as forms without content, representing merely the possibility of a certain type of perception and action. When a situation occurs which corresponds to a given archetype, that archetype becomes activated…" This seems to be exactly the experience explored in the concise lyricism of the final poem of the "Squarings" sequence:
Strange how things in the offing, once they're sensed, Convert to things foreknown; And how what's come upon is manifest Only in light of what has been gone through.
The movement, progression in self-development and realisation, after his father's death, is a release celebrated in many moments in the "Squarings" sequence of poems, in relation to the creative energy of the poet's gift. As Heaney suggested in The Government of the Tongue, "…poetry, having to do with feelings and emotions, must not submit to the intellect's eagerness to foreclose … art does not trace the given map of a better reality but improvises an inspired sketch of it…" In Seeing Things there are a number of poems which present the concept of a journey or progression outwards, into the freedom of a wider range of reference than was accessible to the poet in earlier collections. It is the trusting of this level of experience and response which gives the work its depth in relation to archetypal expression, in Jung's terms, 'The creative process, so far as we are able to follow it at all, consists of the unconscious activation of an archetypal image and in elaborating and shaping this image into the finished work."
There are uncertainties and hesitancies however, acknowledged in the poems themselves. There is the exciting challenge of "Unroofed scope" in "Lightenings (i)" but in the next poem the denial of the freedom glimpsed calls for repressive action in appropriately constrained staccato phrases, "Roof it again. Batten down. Dig in." In the next there is a tentative response to the unknown but it is restricted and fearful, "You squinted out from a skylight of the world." The progression is charted through this sequence, as a bolder reaction is encouraged, when as in so many earlier works, Heaney effectively blends description of the countryside setting with the practice of the poetic art:
Improvise. Make free Like old hay in its afterlife High on a windblown hedge.
In Heaney's own words, the freedom of the form is described with a sense of excitement and exuberance, "There's a phrase I use, 'make impulse one with wilfulness': the wilfulness is in the 12 lines, the impulse in the freedom and shimmer and on-the-wingness. Until recently I had no titles or numbers for these poems, as if they were afloat all at once but moving separately, like mosaics."
The idea of the poems having their own power, "unconscious activation of an archetypal image," with order imposed by the poet "shaping this image into the finished work" but initially driven by impulse rather than will, reflects Heaney's protean concept of the "government of the tongue," both governed by the poet and governing the poet. Referring to his chosen title for the T.S. Eliot memorial lectures, he explained, "When I thought of 'the government of the tongue' as a general title … what I had in mind was this aspect of poetry as its own vindicating force … form is achieved not by dint of the moral and ethical exercise of mind but by the self-validating operations of what we call inspiration…" This is very close to the description of creative energy in the poet as Jung depicted it: "…he is overwhelmed by a flood of thoughts and images which he never intended to create and which his own will could never have brought into being, yet in spite of himself he is forced to admit that it is his own inner nature revealing itself and uttering things which he would never have entrusted to his tongue."
Heaney's own remarks on Kavanagh can equally well be related to himself when he suggests, "This then is truly creative writing. It does arise from the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings but the overflow is not a reactive response to some stimulus in the world out there. Instead it is a spurt of abundance from a source within and it spills over to irrigate the world beyond the self." Again, Jung's words complement these, "…We would do well, therefore, to think of the creative process as a living thing implanted in the human psyche."
The welcome release of this freedom and self-vindication of poetic power in maturity is presented in "Fosterling":
Heaviness of being. And poetry Sluggish in the doldrums of what happens. Me waiting until I was nearly fifty To credit marvels. Like the tree-clock of tin cans The tinkers made. So long for air to brighten, Time to be dazzled and the heart to lighten.
The contrast with the earth-bound quality of earlier poetry in terms of lightness, in opposition to both heaviness and darkness, is developed further in relation to the burden of responsibility to the Northern Irish political situation. As Douglas Dunn has noted [in The Irish Times, June 1,1991], "Poets ask a great deal of themselves these days when they decide to set out in search of an uncompromised route into the detached and disinterested realm of poetry itself and its special truths. More ordinary beginnings need to be explored first, as well as the loyalties attached to them, those local and national pieties which are more insistent than what can be yielded by an imagination in its freedom."
This is Heaney's particular skill, to use the "ordinary beginnings" and in this volume, to have the courage to reach out beyond the ordinary and "credit marvels" yet still retain the connection with "local and national pieties." This is effectively demonstrated in "The Settle Bed," where the physical heaviness of the wooden cot-bed, "standing four-square as an ark," is potently infused through the tactile description with the "local and national pieties" filtered into the poet's consciousness during childhood occupation of the bed, tapping into the "collective unconscious" of the race:
…I hear an old sombre tide awash in the headboard: …Anthems of Ulster, unwilling, unbeaten, Protestant, Catholic, the Bible, the beads…
the burden of this "inheritance" is emphasized aptly in terms of the solidity and impenetrable qualities of the wood, "unshiftably planked … un-get-roundable weight." These awkward, bulky sounds from a poet so honed in the mellifluous sensuousness of language enforce the sense of "insistence" noted by Dunn, yet later in the poem the resistance claimed by "the imagination in its freedom" is celebrated through the freedom of spaces created by skilful enjambment, a positive response to the "burden" according with Jung's remark, "…it is not surprising that when an archetypal situation occurs we feel an extraordinary sense of release, as though transported, or caught up by an overwhelming power. At such moments we are no longer individuals but the race; the voice of all mankind resounds in us…."
Such a voice could in itself become part of the burden; could drown the individual voice; or could be taken up as Heaney does, and turned from constraint to freedom, "It's a poem about turning heavy things into light things, It's saying: you can handle experience."
…to conquer that weight, Imagine a shower of settle-beds tumbled from heaven Like some nonsensical vengeance come on the people, Then learn from that harmless barrage that whatever is given Can always be reimagined…
Heaney does not escape by ignoring the situation; however, he suggests ways to "handle experience," finds objective correlatives for his own circumstances, as in his poem "Sounds of Rain" he identifies with Pasternak in his sense of responsibility:
"I had the feeling of an immense debt," He said (it is recorded). So many years Just writing lyric poetry and translating. I felt there was some duty … Time was passing.
The psychologically saturating voices of his conscience and the collective unconscious or "national pieties" are powerfully evoked in insistent sibilants:
The eaves of water-fringe and steady lash Of summer downpour: You are steeped in luck. I heard them say, Steeped, steeped, steeped in luck.
The tension between the constraints of responsibility and poetic freedom are further examined in Heaney's essays, "…lyric poetry, however responsible, always has an element of the untrammelled about it. There is a certain jubilation and truancy at the heart of an inspiration. There is a sensation of liberation and abundance which is the antithesis of every hampered and deprived condition. And it is for this reason that, psychologically, the lyric poet feels the need for justification in a world that is notably hampered and deprived." He has suggested, "…it is tempting to view the whole syndrome in the light of Jung's thesis that an insoluble conflict is overcome by outgrowing it, developing in the process a 'new level of consciousness.'"
Although Heaney used the analogy originally in a lecture in 1984, referring to poets of Northern Ireland in the 1960s and onwards, he has reprinted it in his Government of the Tongue collection, and the continuation of the reference to Jungian psychotherapy is still relevant to his work in Seeing Things: "This development involves detachment from one's emotions:
One certainly does feel the affect and is tormented by it, yet at the same time one is aware of a higher consciousness looking on which prevents one from becoming identified with the affect, a consciousness which regards the affect as an object, and can say "I know that I suffer…."
"The affect" means a disturbance, a warp in the emotional glass which is in danger of narrowing the mind's range of response to the terms of the disturbance itself. In our case, this affect rose from the particular exacerbations attendant on natives and residents of Northern Ireland at that time."
Heaney's explanation of the affect as "a warp in the emotional glass" is directly taken up in another poem examining the privilege of art in "hampered and deprived" conditions, through memories of sightseeing on his London honeymoon:
…like refections staggered through warped glass, They reappear as in a black and white Old grainy newsreel, where their pleasure-boat Goes back spotlit across sunken bridges And they alone are borne downstream unscathed…
The sense of responsibility hampers the reminiscence of youthful freedom, given chilling physicality later in the disturbing image of "a silk train being brushed across a leper"; such riches in a time of diseased distortion of creativity mean those so privileged have to shoulder the consequent burden, and risk "narrowing the mind's response to the terms of disturbance itself:
So let them keep a tally of themselves And be accountable when called upon For although by every golden mean their lot Is fair and due, pleas will be allowed Against every right and title vested in them (And in a court where mere innocuousness Has never gained approval or acquittal.)
Heaney continues his analogy with Jung's terminology, "By the 1960s, in Jung's scenario, 'a higher consciousness' was manifesting itself in the form of poetry itself, an ideal towards which the poets turned in order to survive the stunting conditions." This "higher consciousness" is reached through the mythological dramatisation of the circumstances, as in the last of the "Crossings" poem, depicting the "stunted conditions":
As danger gathered and the march dispersed… We were like herded shades who had to cross And did cross, in a panic, to the car Parked as we'd left it, that gave when we got in Like Charon's boat under the faring poets.
The past tense of this scene is counteracted with the final hopeful encounter at the end of the volume, in which the present tense emphasises Heaney's freedom from the "herded shades," rising to a "higher consciousness" through the acknowledgement that he does not have to accept the world of the dark but can reach out, beyond, into the light. He is encouraged to reject the threat of the Shadow archetype represented by those turned to "shades":
No good spirits ever pass this way And therefore, if Charon objects to you, You should understand well what his words imply.
Thus one reason to welcome recent ceasefires is the need of the joy that the political struggles destroy. Heaney keeps alive the belief in and hope for that joy: the life of the spirit as a possibility through poetic imagination, when any kind of war threatens total despair. Through the Jungian interpretation of the mythical archetypes employed in the poems of Seeing Things, the reader can identify with Heaney's comment, partly quoted in the opening paragraph of this paper and now in fuller context, confirmation that "Here is the great paradox of poetry and of the imaginative arts in general. Faced with the brutality of the historical onslaught, they are practically useless. Yet they verify our singularity, they strike and stake out the ore of self which lies at the base of every individuated life. In one sense the efficacy of poetry is nil—no lyric has ever stopped a tank. In another sense, it is unlimited."