The Irish poet Seamus Heaney, Nobel laureate in literature in 1995, has not been a proponent of any specific theological position, but throughout his boyhood in Ireland he lived in a cultural community suffused with a deep tradition of Christian—more specifically Catholic—conventions and currents. Near his family farm in Mossbawn, he recalled, “St. Patrick, they said, had fasted and prayed there fifteen hundred years before.” In “Gaelic times,” the Heaney family was involved “in ecclesiastical affairs in the diocese of Derry,” and in his home “of course, there were religious magazines,” However, as he became prominent as a poet, he found himself torn by a divide between what he calls “the old vortex of racial and religious instinct” and a desire to seek “the mean of humane love and reason.”
These two contending (and potentially complementing) perspectives demarcate the outer poles of the spiritual and literal terrain that Heaney traverses in the sequence “Station Island,” the title poem of his 1984 volume of that name. As the first section of the poem opens, the narrative conscious of the penitent introduces the setting:
A hurry of bell-notesflew over morning hushand water-blistered cornfields,an escaped ringingthat stopped as quicklyas it started. Sunday,the silence breathed
This is the Sabbath, and the pilgrim/quester meets a figure from antique Irish mythology, the legendary Simon Sweeney, whom he recognizes as “an old Sabbath-breaker/ who has been dead for years.” The apparition signals the dream-scape sense of the setting, where Sweeney becomes the first in a series of guides for a mystical journey that will loosely follow the path—the stations—set by Christ on the way to the Crucifixion.
The second section, and many of those that follow, pivot on a meeting between the pilgrim and a representative figure from his life or from a current or historical Irish cultural context. Here it is an “aggavated man,” a compendium of grievances whose complaint expresses the pain of Irish history. He is drawn on the personage of William Carlelton, a nineteenth century activist caught up in the conflict between Catholic and Protestant factions. This is a singular source of Heaney’s own burden as a man and a poet. He tries to explain that in his native county, there was an easy accommodation between sects, which is acknowledged, but as a part of an admonition to “Remember everything and keep your head.” With this counsel in mind, the third section is a return to the pilgrim’s religious origins, but now he has a new awareness of what was previously habitual, a developing consciousness of the full meaning of a litany that had been said almost automatically. Familiar doctrine is joined to an instinctive response to the wonders of the natural world in a widening definition of sacred ground.
The fourth section recalls the pilgrim’s acquaintance years ago with a young priest who was attracted to worldly things and compelled to renounce his calling, a parallel for the pilgrim/poet’s attraction to the allure of the world. He is faced with the question of what he might have to relinquish to serve his own truest calling, his poetry. This is followed by a section in which he expresses his gratitude for the masters of his craft, who have shown him the way to “the great/ moving power and spring of verse.” The parallel between a religious and an artistic quest continues as his mentors are likened directly to the scholar/priests who directed him in his youth. In the sixth section, there is another transition away from a religious focus and toward the things of the world, as the pilgrim, mingling awe and astonishment, recalls the full force of the appearance of women in his life. Unable to deny or resist the ramifications of the romantic imagination, the energy source of his lyric muse, he wonders
Freckle-face, fox-head, pod of the broom,Catkin-pixie, little fern-swish:Where did she arrive from?
The seventh section is central to the mature poet’s attempt to find a way to handle the public demands of the political troubles of Irish history and present strife. Prominent enough to be faced with expectations from many quarters, he fashions an encounter with an old friend, murdered in the plague of sectarian violence, whose appearance he is reluctant to accept but whose claims of fellowship, faith, and fidelity to a humane response in his poetry lead through a harrowing narrative to the pilgrim’s confession of inadequacy. “Forgive the way I have lived indifferent—/ forgive my timid circumspect involvement,” he prays. As the phantom vision fades, he is offered an ambiguous absolution that is not without some succor for his guilt.
The eighth and ninth sections are immediate confrontations with men whose deaths were direct results of sectarian hatreds. First, the poet is challenged for his response to his cousin’s murder by Protestant assassins, his “evasion and artistic tact” placing him in a psychological “Purgatorio.” His recognition of his failure is one of the prime motives for this pilgrimage. He next encounters a rebel martyr who died in prison following a hunger strike. Tormented by feelings of inadequacy, he declares his hatred of “everything/ That made me biddable and unforthcoming.” Nonetheless, he banishes the rebel’s “unquiet soul” to an emblematic burial “in a bog,” and in a version of a classic dark night of the soul reaches a point of clarity—a “different core”—establishing a spiritual foundation.
The tenth section begins to compose this base in terms of any simple object formed for beauty and utility, and the eleventh expands the idea of an object built with reverence and used with respect. In this case, it serves as an analogue for the gift of poetry, “the zenith and glimpsed jewels of any gift” understood and fully appreciated. In the final section, the gift is reformed as a “living fountain”—a symbol of the eternal renewal brought by a spiritual consciousness of the wonders of the world. Here, the poet’s guide is the shade of James Joyce, whose complicated relationship with Ireland might serve as a symbol of the struggle an artist faces. His comment “The main thing is to write/ for the joy of it” is Heaney’s working precept for times to be.
Sources for Further Study
America. CL, June 23, 1984, p. 60.
Book World. XV, January 27, 1985, p. 1.
Collins, Floyd. Seamus Heaney: The Crisis of Identity. Newark: The University of Delaware Press, 2003. Collins puts more emphasis on the Christian aspects of Heaney’s work than other scholars, covering his early life in detail, including photographs and interviews.
Corcoran, Neil. The Poetry of Seamus Heaney: A Critical Study. London: Faber, 1998. A discriminating, knowledgeable study of Heaney’s poetry, using the poet’s literary criticism, relationship to Irish culture, and participation in contemporary social and artistic issues to inform the discussions of poetry.
Heaney, Seamus. Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968-1978. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1980. An appealing account of the poet’s preferences, influences, and intentions, gathered in a series of eloquent, revealing and incisive essays and lectures, notably one on the effect of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poetry on Heaney in religious and aesthetic terms.
Library Journal. CIX, December, 1984, p. 2285.
The New Republic. CXCII, February 18, 1985, p. 37.
The New York Review of Books. XXXII, March 14, 1985, p. 19.
Time. CXXV, February 25, 1985, p. 91.
Times Literary Supplement. October 19, 1984, p. 1191.
Vendler, Helen. Seamus Heaney. New York: HarperCollins, 1998. An enlightening consideration of Heaney’s style, form, and language in terms of an argument that Heaney is primarily a lyric poet.
World Literature Today. LVII, Summer, 1983, p. 365.
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