Seamus Heaney

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Heaney, Seamus (Vol. 5)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3395

Heaney, Seamus 1939–

Heaney is an award-winning Irish poet, best known for his collection Death of a Naturalist.

There have always been three intertwined stands in Seamus Heaney's poetry: exploration of the hidden self, the Hidden Ireland, and the hidden artist, working underground or undercover as he moves along or spins the web of these worlds. The web has increased in intricacy and fineness with each successive book, and 'The Last Mummer' offers a more complete account of Heaney's poetic personality than his previous incarnations as 'big-eyed Narcissus', eel ('A Lough Neagh Sequence') or blacksmith…. [In] Door into the Dark, I noticed a particular fascination with terrain where land and water meet—and its connection with a sense of boundaries within the self blurring and dissolving, or of horizons being extended. This kind of focus is even more conspicuous in Wintering Out with its 'softening ruts', bog (of course), 'melted snow', 'alluvial mud' mound-dwellers who 'break the light ice at wells and dunghills', rushy fields, riverbank, while the poet

                        … fords his life                       By sounding.                                     Soundings.

or on firmer ground 'senses the pads / unfurling under grass and clover'. The images of breaking ice, or 'panes of flood' and a favourite word 'membrane' [suggest] the penetration of skins, of protective covering to the truth, or horror, that lies beneath: 'a flower of mud- / water blooms up to his reflection'. Like Wodwo Heaney 'sounds, with his senses, as agents or spies: he literally keeps his ear to the ground, 'small mouth and ear / in a woody cleft, / lobe and larynx / of the mossy places', 'senses', 'fingers', 'cocks his ear', 'eavesdrops', as he quests for 'antediluvian lore', origins, essences, bearings…. There is a striking new preoccupation with language itself: not a self-conscious aesthetic awareness—though it casts light on his physical relishing of words and phrase—but directed towards and capturing that point of articulation at which landscape becomes vocal, language tangible (another boundary crossed)…. His loquacious waters, 'soft gradient / of consonant, vowel meadow' not only dramatise the interpenetration of word and thing as they reproduce the making of words in the mouth and their reverberation in the ear, but also suggest that language is the final medium to be sensually inhabited: 'a mating call of sound / rises to pleasure me'. (pp. 87-8)

'The Wool Trade' enacts the difference between English on the tongue of an Englishman and an Irishman … [and] indicates both how completely Heaney himself has absorbed the whole linguistic tradition available to him, and how intimately his language is involved with and presents the physical contours of Ulster. (p. 88)

The meeting of land and water primarily expresses the personal 'soundings' of Wintering Out. Its more social and historical soundings are accompanied by an imagery of dark yards and outhouses (as well as by 'flecks of blood' and 'carrion'.) This imagery seems to reflect both the twilight existence of the Hidden Ireland during the slave-centuries and the shadowed life, shadow-life of Ulster during the past four years. Sometimes, hopefully the yard is lit by a circle of lamplight which makes explicit the whole poetic process of illumination. Heaney has occasionally been attacked locally for not writing directly about the Troubles, but for him head-on confrontation has never been a congenial or rewarding strategy. 'A Northern Hoard', which contains the least oblique images of violence, in part explains the real agony and involvement, as well as preternatural understanding of complexities and inevitabilities, which imposes numbness:

      What do I say if they wheel out their dead?       I'm cauterized, a black stump of bone.


(This entire section contains 3395 words.)

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of magic, superstition, spirits of the countryside, primitive cultures (we picked flints, / Pale and dirt-veined') define the tribal origins and nature of the conflict.

This is not only a very powerful but also a very beautiful volume, comprising a greater range of tone than its predecessors. Two of the more separated pieces in the second half of Wintering Out attain a real tragic dimension, 'Bye-Child' and 'Limbo'—while the compassion of 'The Tollund Man' ('his peat-brown head, / The mild pods of his eyes') as well as a proliferation of flower imagery ('my arms full / of wild cherry and rhododendron') also point to an enrichment of spiritual resources. (Who was the reviewer who said Heaney couldn't deal with human nature?) Technically, he will have to take care that the flexible quatrain does not become a cliché, but altogether on every level Wintering Out touches new springs. (pp. 88-9)

Edna Longley, "Heaney's Hidden Ireland," in Phoenix (8 Cavendish Road, Heaton Mersey, Stockport, Cheshire, England), July, 1973.

Seamus Heaney has already assembled a body of work of extraordinary distinctiveness and distinction…. [He] has been proclaimed an exciting talent by many and a possibly major poet by several. Single-mindedness of purpose, a fertile continuity of theme, high competence in execution, a growing unmistakability of voice: these are Heaney's strengths and they place him in seriousness and maturity beyond hailing distance of most younger British poets.

These make him sound dull, whereas Heaney writes a verse that achieves, but does not depend upon, immediate impact. The most eye-catching feature is a use of rawly physical metaphors for things in and out of the physical world: frogs are 'mud grenades, their blunt heads farting'; granary sacks are 'great blind rats'; a quiet river wears 'a transfer of gables and sky'; a pregnant cow looks as though 'she has swallowed a barrel.' Heaney's metaphors are so right, so conclusive that they generate within the poem and across the canon an axiomatic quality that is perilously close to being self-defeating; they can even in cumulation constitute their own kind of preciosity. In consequence, the poet occasionally gives the impression of a man hastening to patent a style. Craft, with which unlike most poets today Heaney is preoccupied, is not merely honest skill but also Daedalean cunning. He will seemingly not be deflected from working his enviably rich vein as he strikes deeper and deeper towards some unseen mother lode. The metaphor is apt, for Heaney's theme thus far has been 'working the earth,' and his exploitation of this coincides with the 'whole earth' movement in Britain and the United States. Just as important, it coincides with the attempts of several writers in Northern Ireland to delve beneath the violent surface of life in the province into lore, history and myth, on the principle that the poisonous plant can best be understood by its roots. Heaney may have been engaged upon this before terror struck in 1969, but the 'Troubles' have surely lent his poetry urgency and authenticity.

Troubles or no, digging deep has always been a hazardous business in Ulster, for it is to resume the dark, in Heaney's phrase, and the dark is fearful. It is arguable whether or not the fear with which Heaney's poetry is soaked is justified by the trove he has brought back from the Ulster heart of darkness. The impersonal insights are undeniable and remarkable, but the poet's degree of emotional involvement is more problematic. And has the poet up to now worked deep, in conceit and extended metaphor, at the expense of modal variety? These are questions not to be answered until the tangy and peculiarly seasoned quality of Heaney's poetry has been savoured. Should he reach perfection in his present mode, he will have become a notable minor poet. Should he instead widen his themes, break into new modes, and learn to trust his feeling, Seamus Heaney might well become the best Irish poet since Yeats. (pp. 35-6)

Early Heaney poetry startled with its physicality. What a pleasure it was to come upon for the first time imagery so bluff, masculine and dead-on…. Heaney's first volume, Death of a Naturalist … is as heavily laden with assonance, alliteration, imagery of touch, taste and smell, and with synesthesia (the buzz of bluebottles visualised as gauze) as the flax is with sods. Extensive description of a static scene can, as we shall see later, lead Heaney into confusion, despite a Ted Hughes-like vividness. Heaney is on firmer ground when recreating the processes of the earth and how man interacts with nature through ritual, custom and work. Not only are Heaney's poems about manual work on the farm—ploughing, planting, harvesting, horse-shoeing etc.—but they are themselves manuals on how the work is actually done…. Of course, by dint of education, travel and rural changes, Heaney is no longer at one with his rural origins and so his rehearsal of the customs he witnessed or participated in as a child assumes the quality of incantation and commemoration. The poems, he would have us believe, are substitutes for the farmwork he was once close to. (p. 36)

It might be said that in Death of a Naturalist, with its prolific use of elementary poetic devices and overplus of image-making, Heaney was merely learning how to handle the turf-spade. It is likely, however, that the spade, wielded with whatever expertise, is too restricted a tool for Heaney's intellect and sensibility. At any rate, his second and third volumes evidence the pen metamorphosing from spade back again to pen.

Yet digging in one form or another remains the archetypal act in Heaney's poetry. What is found when the earth is overturned is sometimes good, such as the cream-white healthy tubers in 'At a Potato Digging,' though in the same poem we are reminded that this was not always so and that 'wild higgledy skeletons/scoured the land in 'forty-five,/wolfed the blighted root and died.' Deeper down, finds are liable to be more interesting. Because of the strange power in bog water which prevents decay, much of Ireland's past has been preserved within the three million acres of bog—utensils, jewellery and most characteristically the wood from Ireland's vanished oak forests: 'A carter's trophy/split for rafters,/a cobwebbed, black,/long-seasoned rib// under the first thatch' ('Bog Oak'). The laid open turfbank is also a memory-bank, permitting us to read 'an approximate chronological sequence of landscapes and human cultures in Ireland going back several thousand years. Digging turf can often be interrupted—or continued—to become excavation. (p. 38)

Death of a Naturalist was Heaney's preliminary and noisy spade-work, the clearing of brush and scrub. Gradually there is a movement towards the spare and vertical shapes of Wintering Out, serious attempts to sink shafts narrowly and deep. Between the surface clatter of Death of a Naturalist and the striking downwards in Wintering Out comes the intermediate task in Door into the Dark of striking inwards, recognising the inner fears to be overcome before the real digging is begun…. Excessive respect for the dark is shared not only by children and religious adults, but by primitives. The dark blurs the distinction between pagan and Christian. Raised a Catholic, an upbringing that has shaped 'In Gallarus Oratory,' Heaney has nonetheless kept intimate traffic with the elder faiths of the Irish countryside which lie, bog-like, beneath the visible Roman Catholicism that has often coopted them. (pp. 39-40)

Door into the Dark is not a sustained assault upon the dark but a series of forays…. Heaney has a marked reluctance to strike inwards, to cross the threshold, to explore the emotional and psychological sources of his fear; and fear therefore outweighs understanding in his work, as darkness outweighs illumination. We might choose to see his Roman Catholic upbringing coming into play here. Heaney's feeling in Gallarus oratory is indistinguishable from the penitent's desire to confess inside the dark confessional or pray inside the monastic sanctum. (The suggestion of defiance in 'No worshipper/Would leap up to his God off this floor' surely stems from Heaney's being native to a fundamentalist corner of Ireland whose majority abhors kneeling and the monastic tradition.) But Heaney is no readier to confess his personal feelings to his readers than the penitent is to discuss his confession with anyone other than his priest. The privacy of religious belief becomes the privacy of poetic feeling. (pp. 40-1)

In the meantime, the poet remains masterly at composing the signals and symptoms of fear into verse as compactly layered as good turf. At the poetic centre of Door into the Dark is a fine group of poems called 'A Lough Neagh Sequence.' Accounts of how the lough fishermen catch eels, interwoven with accounts of the life-cycle of the fish, are brilliant public metaphors for that psychic disturbance in Heaney's poetry whose precise meaning remains as intractable as bog oak. The sequence also interweaves the key Heaney motifs of descent, homing and darkness in the fashion of a metaphysical conceit. The eels travelling overland at night form a 'horrid cable' that encircles the poet's world of experience, threatening it with mysterious and malign power yet defining its shape and continuity. The completed circle of eels is also an 'orbit' of fears, and this implies a gravitational tendency to descend as well as to circumscribe.

The conceit lies at the heart of Door into the Dark. The volume is a marked improvement over Death of a Naturalist in terms of surer control and more effective conservation of energy. But the tautness of the conceit and the dramatic distancing it involves can obscure psychic and emotional issues as readily as immature and uncontrolled fertility. Moreover, the particular conceit of Heaney's choice—that of the circle or orbit—threatens to make his poetic philosophy a closed system, a state of affairs which is not helped by what I earlier called the axiomatic rightness of his images. (p. 41)

[For] most of Wintering Out he is still content to impersonalise his feelings. If, for instance, natural and preternatural fears are more honestly evoked and allayed than in either of the two previous books, it is by dint not of greater emotional investment but of sounder analogies…. Heaney's fear of the dark becomes in Wintering Out a fear of the violence in … 'the immemorial peasant tradition which dominates the heart of Ireland' and of the way this violent and sacrificial past fingers out through analogy and recurrence to the present. A group of … poems in Wintering Out is concerned not with depth-readings of the Irish earth but with topography. Above as well as below the ground are the signatures of the past inscribed for us to see. In these 'topographical poems' which are also 'language poems,' parts of speech and parts of landscape are identified as a Catholic Ulsterman looks and listens around and considers what he has gained and lost by living in the planted North. (p. 43)

For Heaney, obsolescence can be a primal state and, insofar as the obsolete is preserved in custom, speech or bog, can exert an influence on the present. It is this obsolescence-primality-nativeness of the Irish that will resurge.

When we have figured this out, we have yet to decide if Heaney is referring to a linguistic or cultural resurgence (or both) and what form it is to take…. Unfortunately these resourceful poems are so cerebral that when they fail as arguments (not necessarily by being false but by being unclear), they fail ultimately as poems. (pp. 45-6)

The ambiguity of the language-poems does, however, reflect Heaney's dilemma as a poet, suspended between the English and (Anglo-) Irish traditions and cultures. Correlatives of ambivalence proliferate in his verse: the archetypal sound in his work (and to be savoured in the reading) is the guttural spirant, half-consonant, half-vowel; the archetypal locale is the bog, half-water, half-land; the archetypal animal is the eel which can fancifully be regarded (in its overland forays) as half-mammal, half-fish. (p. 46)

If Heaney becomes the best Irish poet of his generation, it will be because he has remained true to as great an Irishness in diction, setting and theme as he has already achieved, while taking the emotional risks of his great antecedent Yeats and his contemporary Thomas Kinsella. His sure sense of miniaturist form, learned from the English poets of the 'fifties and' sixties, is a solid foundation from which he needs to launch into a variety of modes. Time, shall we say, to lay aside the spade and bring out the heavy machinery. In the meantime, there is little contemporary poetry that has bettered the quality and fruitfulness of Heaney's solitary digging; few poets have enlivened their work with a more remarkable gift for seeing afresh the physical world around us and beneath us. (p. 47)

John Wilson Foster, "The Poetry of Seamus Heaney," in Critical Quarterly, Spring, 1974, pp. 35-48.

Seamus Heaney himself must be not far short of attributive status. Certainly his name will signify to most readers of poetry today the mysterious power of words to recreate in the mind the reality of the physical world; to provide the verb to every created thing in a way that confounds Auden's linguistic pessimism, and justifies Heidegger's definition of language as 'speaking being'. This power is exercised with the confidence we have come to expect in Heaney's … volume Wintering Out. In 'Gifts of Rain', for example,… in images that serve as sudden earths: 'stepping stones like black molars/ Sunk in the ford', a cow's afterbirth 'strung on the hedge/ As if the wind smarted/ And streamed bloodshot tears', 'The cobbles of the yard/ Lit pale as eggs'. But to those critics underprovided with negative capability who have all along asked the irritable questions 'what next, what else?' Heaney's third book also suggests some intriguing answers. Generally, one can say that Heaney has become more self-conscious; both about his material, language, and also about his volatile and even dangerous subject-matter, Ireland. It's remarkable how many of these poems turn in on themselves, taking the words of which they are composed as part of their subject. It is as if Heaney has suddenly decided to explore the implications of his own poetic faculty. Thus one can read the first poem 'Fodder' ('Or, as we said,/fother, I open/my arms for it/again'), with its new attention to words themselves, as an image of the poet's provident storing of his materials, 'multiple as loaves/ and fishes', for his future sustenance. (pp. 85-6)

The other self-consciousness is political. Heaney is no protest poet, but nor can he remain indifferent to the bombs, snipers, and internment camps that maim the body of his land. The image of Ireland as the tortured body of a woman is implied in 'Land' here, and becomes explicit in poems which he has since published in The Listener, 'Bog Queen' and 'A New Life'. It is a traditional image used with new urgency, and containing new menace; a menace which is also communicated here in 'The Last Mummer', when the mummer 'catches the stick in his fist/ and, shrouded, starts beating/ the bars of the gate'. There are no dates or names here, no indictment; the guilt like the terror must be shared among too many. But there is some risk of the contagion of despair. The sense of this is best communicated by a question Heaney quotes in his prologue poem, a question chalked on a Belfast wall: 'Is there a life before death?'. The idea of death, of course, is not quantifiable; but we may wonder whether Heaney and his chalker of slogans have not the most need of the word at the present time, as a verbal event that is very much rooted in their reality. (p. 86)

Damian Grant, in Critical Quarterly, Spring, 1974.

Although twenty-six years younger than [R. S.] Thomas, Seamus Heaney shares Thomas' intimacy with the soil, and resembles him in having moved from dread of nature to reconciliation with it. Heaney has concentrated upon graphic, imagistic descriptions of the northern Irish countryside of his youth, has set out to commemorate in undistorted fashion "things founded clean on their own shapes." The various and abundant sensuous phenomena crowded into his verse testify to his pleasure in physical experience…. (p. 328)

[He] is intensely conscious of the awesomeness of living energy … [and] has come to recognize living energy as a positive force countering the ruthlessness of existence and the inevitability of death…. Heaney intensifies the sense of throbbing energy through the frequent use of what are perhaps most appropriately described as "explosive images." Frogs sit "poised like mud grenades," and in "Trout" the fish holding itself steady in the current resembles a "fat gun barrel." (pp. 328-29)

Julian Gitzen, in The Midwest Quarterly (copyright, 1974, by The Midwest Quarterly, Kansas State College of Pittsburg), Summer, 1974.


Heaney, Seamus (Vol. 171)


Heaney, Seamus (Vol. 7)