"Station Island" by Seamus Heaney

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"Station Island" Summary

(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

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 entire section is 1,260 words.)