Seamus Heaney

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How is social awareness an important theme in Seamus Heaney's "Funeral Rites"?

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Seamus Heaney’s poem “Funeral Rites” emphasizes social awareness, especially in its overt references to the violent "Troubles” between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. Each section, in fact, is strongly social in emphasis. The first section focuses on family funerals; the second section focuses on the burial of someone killed in “The Troubles”; the third section alludes to early mythology and to a burial from centuries earlier.

In section I, the speaker recalls how, when younger, he began to act as a man by acting as a pall-bearer at family funerals. He describes in detail the corpses he viewed, presumably those of elderly or sickly relatives who had died “natural” deaths, not deaths caused by violence. This opening section of the poem is the least overtly “social,” and one of its main purposes is to contrast with the sections that come later, especially section II.

Section II is the portion of the poem most obviously marked by social and political and religious awareness. It opens, paradoxically, by referring to news of “each neighbourly murder,” a highly ironic phrase that also reminds us that much of the violence committed in Northern Ireland was committed by people who often lived in close physical proximity. However, the murders that disrupt the daily rhythms and routines of life are partially compensated for by the “ceremony” and “customary” rhythms of funerals. The funerals described earlier had been mostly family affairs; the funerals described here are, instead, massive public displays, involving whole sectarian communities – Protestants participating in Protestant funerals, Catholics in funerals for Catholics:

Out of side-streets and bye-roads

purring family cars

nose into line,

the whole country tunes

to the muffled drumming

of ten thousand engines.

Ironically, such funerals were often intended as displays of sectarian solidarity and of the social power of each half of a divided community. In a sense, the funerals were themselves often means and forms of social conflict. Such funerals often sought to build solidarity within divided communities, not between them. This interpretation is perhaps supported by the reference to aggrieved womenfolk, described as “Somnambulant women” (widows? mothers? sisters? all three?), left behind and at home (because public funerals traditionally involved male participants) -- women “imagining our slow triumph towards the mounds.” The long line of cars in the funeral procession is compared to a long, slithering snake moving through the countryside – perhaps an allusion to the evil of the fall in the Garden of Eden, perhaps also an allusion to the idea that there are – or should be – no snakes in Ireland. Surely the speaker of the poem wishes that no more such snakes as this one existed in his homeland.

Section III is far less clear than the first two sections, and it has sometimes been criticized on that account. The speaker seems to allude to ancient Irish or even ancient Norse mythology (as various critics have noted), but he also seems to allude to Christian myths of the burial and resurrection of Christ, as in the first two and the last three lines of the section). Section III alludes to the distant past in order to evoke a possible future when violent deaths, of Christians killing Christians, might someday cease.



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Is social awareness an important concern to Seamus Heaney in his poetry?

While social concerns appear in some of Seamus Heaney’s poems, such concerns are not as strongly emphasized as they are in the works of various other poets. Indeed, Heaney has been criticized for not being more politically engaged and has had to defend himself against such criticism. If the random sampling of thirty or so of some of Heaney’s best-know poems at is any indication, a surprisingly small portion of his work seems overtly and emphatically engaged with social problems or political topics. This is especially surprising because he is a Catholic from largely-Protestant Northern Ireland, where political and religious tensions have often been very great and very violent.

One poem in which social engagement is clearly apparent is titled “Docker,” which describes a powerfully-built dockworker whom the speaker notices as the speaker looks around a bar. The second stanza reads as follows:

That fist would drop a hammer on a Catholic-- 
Oh yes, that kind of thing could start again; 
The only Roman collar he tolerates 
Smiles all round his sleek pint of porter. 

This stanza obviously alludes to “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland, in which conflict between Catholics and Protestants was often violent and bloody. Yet the focus of the rest of the poem is not political, so that even in one of his most overtly “social” poems, Heaney is seems far less concerned with social issues than some other writers – especially Irish writers, such as Brian Friel – have been.


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Is social awareness an important concern to Seamus Heaney in his poetry?

Seamus Heaney is an Irish poet who was raised as a Roman Catholic in the predominantly Protestant area of Northern Ireland. Combined with his family's farming heritage, this makes him particularly concerned with two major social and political issues. The first is rootedness to the soil and peasant heritage, and the value of that, especially for the poet,  in an increasingly urbanized world.

More importantly, he is concerned with the conflicts between Protestant and Catholic in Ireland, and while dismayed about the oppression of and discrimination against Roman Catholics, at the same time deplores violence of all types. Many of his writings search the history of Ireland for the root causes of violence. Thus, yes, social awareness is an important concern in Heaney's poems.

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Would you agree that Seamus Heaney conveys a social awareness through 'cultural politics' in his poetry?

Yes, definitely. So many of his poems explicitly address issues such as the colonialism of Ireland and the way in which the Irish were treated by the English over history. You might like to consider "Act of Union" or other such poems that are very moving portrayals of the relationship between Ireland and its colonial oppressor, England.

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