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Last Updated on September 30, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 406

This lengthy poem, the middle section of a book by the same name, consists of twelve parts. Heaney, the author, is the poem's narrator, and he narrates as he reflects on the experience of walking the path walked by so many religious pilgrims on the small island in the middle...

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This lengthy poem, the middle section of a book by the same name, consists of twelve parts. Heaney, the author, is the poem's narrator, and he narrates as he reflects on the experience of walking the path walked by so many religious pilgrims on the small island in the middle of Lough Derg. A basilica to Saint Patrick dominates the island, and pilgrims make a three-day trip to pray, fast, and walk barefoot among the stones there. This has been a place of Christian pilgrimage since the fifth century BCE. Heaney blends his real experience of being on Station Island with figures representing his own internal struggles concerning his homeland and his status as a writer.

The poem begins with the sound of the bells at Saint Patrick's, and Heaney sees the ghost of an old "Sabbath-breaker" called Simon Sweeney; Sweeney tells Heaney that everything Heaney thinks he knows is worthless. Soon, Heaney bumps into the long-dead Irish writer William Carleton, who is shocked at how little has changed since his death and looks at Heaney as though Heaney is just a "cub anyhow." Apparently in regard to the Troubles, the civil conflict between Unionists (who wanted Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom) and Republicans (who wanted it to separate from the United Kingdom and unite with Ireland), Carleton tells Heaney that the conflict is "like maggots sown in wounds— / another life that cleans our element."

Heaney also converses with the ghosts of three former teachers: Barney Murphy, an unnamed man, and finally, the poet Patrick Kavanaugh. Each gives counsel. Heaney also bumps into the shade of his dead cousin, a man named Colum McCartney, a victim of sectarian violence. McCartney blames Heaney for "whitewash[ing] ugliness" and "saccharin[ing] [his] death with morning dew" in Heaney's poetry. Heaney expresses some ambivalence, at best, about his home, about "everything / That made [him] biddable and unforthcoming." He feels that he cannot deny or defy what his home has made him, and he is powerless to change that home into something better than it is. In the end, it seems to be the spirit of the Irish writer James Joyce who gives the final advice. Joyce claims that Heaney needs to do what "must be done on [his] own," and Joyce orders him to "get back in harness." He encourages Heaney to strike "out on [his] own" and fill the world with his own "frequency."

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 457

Part 1 of this three-part collection contains poems that recount personal events and objects from Heaney’s life. In one entry, the poet and his sons fly a kite that becomes emblematic of both the resiliency and the fragility of the human spirit. In another, the fabric of a bathrobe removed from its wearer by her lover is likened to the cloth of religious vestments, simultaneously elevating human sexuality to the level of the divine and returning the spiritual realm to the bodily. These slice-of-life poems capture individual images, snapshots of particular scenes and moments in the poet’s life. Collectively viewed as an album, they reinforce what it means to be human.

The title of this collection derives from the middle section, “Station Island.” This twelve-part sequence focuses on pilgrimages, both religious and literary. En route to Lough Derg, a traditional destination for devout Irish Catholics, the pilgrim, apparently the poet Heaney, encounters deceased acquaintances and literary personages and engages them in dialogue. Central to their conversations is the role of the artist in relation to national, political, and religious concerns. Certain characters express anger that the poet has not joined the fight that ended their own lives. Others advise the poet to avoid participation in social movements, not merely to preserve the poet’s life but to keep pure the poet’s craft. Eventually the pilgrim meets James Joyce. The iconic Irish novelist, one of the many dead resurrected in the poem, advises the pilgrim to avoid all nationalistic affiliations. In section 12, Joyce warns against political involvement even for a noble cause: “You lose more of yourself than you redeem / doing the decent thing. Keep at a tangent.” The resolution at poem’s end announces the poet’s role as one independent of entanglements with dominant forces. From the margins, the detached poet chronicles a culture from the outside looking in, all the while observing those on the inside pushing out. In “Station Island,” Heaney seems to weigh against politically motivated poetry, suggesting that the politics of any age should not push the poet’s hand across the page.

Part 3 resurrects Sweeney, the mythical Irish king who was ousted by a saint for refusing to finance construction of a cathedral. Transformed into a bird, Sweeney is both punished for his transgressions and liberated from the chains of nation rule. Heaney first presented Sweeney in his translation of the legend Sweeney Astray: A Version from the Irish (1983; revised as Sweeney’s Flight, 1992). In the final poems in this collection, Sweeney and Heaney, ousted king and outsider poet, begin to merge. In his refusal to write the poetry of politics and religion, Heaney, like his alter ego Sweeney, has gained a measure of freedom, a certain poetic license.

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