Seamus Heaney Heaney, Seamus (Vol. 5)

Start Your Free Trial

Heaney, Seamus (Vol. 5)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Download Seamus Heaney Study Guide

Subscribe Now

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.

Images of magic, superstition, spirits of the countryside, primitive...

(The entire section is 3,395 words.)