(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...

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(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

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.