The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Station Island” is a long meditation on Seamus Heaney’s own poetry. The poem sets forth a series of encounters with “ghosts” or remembered figures, many of them from Heaney’s own life, some from his reading. The poem takes its title and major setting from Station Island in County Donegal, a devotional shrine; the “stations” there are fixed locations of prayer. The poem is, briefly, a parallel to Dante’s Purgatorio (c. 1320).

The “I” of the poem is Heaney himself. A few of the ghosts are identified by the text or by Heaney’s notes. What is more important is what they say to the poet—the advice and counsel they give him about how to write and how not to “break covenants and fail obligations” to himself, to his art, and to his culture.

Part 1 seems to take place largely in memory. The boy Heaney, on his way to church, encounters an old man, breaking the Sabbath by collecting wood. It is Simon Sweeney, head of a family of tinkers who camped near Heaney’s boyhood home. Heaney, hearing bell-notes which are both part of the remembered Sunday and part of the procession on Station Island, sees “a crowd of shawled women,” who may very well be his fellow pilgrims. Like the poem itself, the crowd grows into a larger crowd of “half-remembered faces.” Heaney sets out “to face into my station.” Sweeney, however, is not done with him yet: “Stay clear of all processions” is his shouted advice—processions of religion, politics, and literary and cultural conformity.

Part 2 seems to occur on shore, before Heaney has taken the ferry ride to the island. Seated in his car, he is approached by an angry ghost, who proves to be the nineteenth century Irish novelist and folklorist William Carleton. Carleton was Catholic by birth but converted to the (Protestant) Church of Ireland. Much of his writing records the life of rural peasantry and the sectarian hostilities evident in it even more than a century ago. He is connected to Station Island by way of his first published work, “The Loch Derg Pilgrim,” which describes his own visit to the shrine.

Heaney admits that he has read the “Pilgrim.” Carleton, perhaps somehow having read Heaney’s own accounts of the current sectarian violence in Ulster, is struck by the long persistence of such violence.

Heaney tries to reject the model of Carleton and goes on to suggest how closely his own Derry upbringing imitates the peasant life observed and described by Carleton. It is another example of persistence, yet seemingly a less threatening one than the persistence of the Ribbonmen (Catholic nationalists) and “Orange bigots” (Protestants claiming a loyalty to England) whom Carleton notices. Carleton begins to show some of the self-doubt that will shortly overcome Heaney as well, condemning his conversion as the act of a “turncoat.” He has been a man who followed Sweeney’s advice and refused to follow the expected processions. A part of what Carleton goes on to advise—“Remember everything and keep your head”—is advice that Heaney seems long before to have followed. Maybe he acknowledges this in his enigmatic last message, a strange and not very pleasant metaphor for an art rooted, like Heaney’s, in the details of a particular rural way of life.

Part 3 finds Heaney hearing in the devotions of the present a direct continuation of the religious devotions of his childhood. The ghost here is Heaney himself, as a child saying his prayers with the family and rather mischievously hiding in a large oak sideboard. There he finds the family’s...

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Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The poem moves through a variety of forms. There is occasional rhyme and near rhyme in the five-line stanzas of part 1 and the quatrains of part 3 and part 10; there is a careful approximation of Dante’s terza rima in the tercets of parts 2 and 12, and less elaborately in part 7. The translation from Saint John of the Cross in part 11 is in short rhymed stanzas with a refrain. Ironically, Colum McCartney rejects poetic elegance generally (part 8) in elaborately rhymed verse. Parts 5 and 6 are written in ten-or eleven-syllable free-verse lines.

The most evident and consistent device is the appearance of what Heaney calls “Presences,” which are in fact recollections and imaginations—“ghosts,” but more accurately enactments of Heaney’s own self-accusing voice.

Station Island

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

Seamus Heaney’s main concern in Station Island is the spiritual life of the poet that he is. Spread out over three sections, this theme expresses itself in several motifs: Part 1 takes up the isolation of the poet; part 2, “Station Island,” his return to the past and back to the present; and part 3, “Sweeney Redivivus,” his exile. As symbols and words are important to the first section, so are ghosts and spiritual revival to the second one and the uses of exile to the third.

“The Underground,” the first poem of part 1, shows the narrator cut off from someone he loves, yearning for her but unable either to catch or forget her. The “lives in their element” that hold onto his memory in “Away from It All” make him wish that he could be rid of them, for he is a loner and so cannot be defined by them. As a poet, he cannot even belong to the community of exiles—the prisoners whose guard regards him as “a silhouette not worth bothering about” (“Sandstone Keepsake”). Anton Chekhov, Heaney says, may have gone further in identifying himself with prisoners (“Chekhov on Sakhalin”), but he is still an artist, still moved by that fact, still isolated from the most isolated of humans by it. There are those, too, in the poet’s memory who stand for the very isolation that he feels; Brigid in “A Migration” must not only survive as an outcast constantly on the move (which is how the poet seems to feel about himself), but her connection with the poet is brought to bear when he calls her fetching water “a spill of syllables.” The dead Irishman in “Last Look” also becomes an image for the poet as one apart, beyond even the attention of a beautiful and legendary woman.

Not that the poet is dead to sex; in fact, the female part of it symbolizes life itself and, having “nothing to hide,” lets him do what he wants with it as his batlike soul follows its bent for distractions. The sexual is, after all, domestic and social, and though it bids the poet to “’look at me to your heart’s content,’” it also bids him to “’look at every other thing’”—that is, to be free and thus a loner (“Sheelagh na Gig”).

The truth is, as “The King of the Ditchbacks” states, the poet is like the Prodigal Son, “leaving everything he had/ for a migrant solitude.” Unlike the Prodigal Son, however, the poet, in returning to his roots (which he cannot help doing if only in memory), must “resist/ the words of coming to rest” (“The Birthplace”). When he says, “your voice slips back into its old first place/ and makes the sound your shades make there” (“The Loaning”), he emphasizes the pull of what no longer exists except in words and in this sense guarantees his isolation.

The poet is actually a paradox in the world of humans and nature: His loyalty to words makes him a kind of pariah, but the things from which his calling cuts him off (the rural settings and people he knew when he was young) give birth to his words. The objects in that world become symbols which words convey: Chips of granite mean both moral callousness and mental sharpness, an iron means the satisfaction of hard work, a railroad spike even means the distance between things and what the poet wants them to mean (“Shelf Life”). Heaney, indeed, often looks back over his origins, rummaging in the “limbo of lost words,” which are the countryside—its vehicles and roads, its shelters, its “throats,” its earth and sky (“The Loaning”). He remembers when words were magical in his childhood, part of the “sizzling wires” of the telegraph, and remembering the carved boat that was made for him for Christmas when he was a boy, he calls “speech all toys and carpentry” (“An Ulster Twilight”). In “Changes,” he wants his exile in the city to be refreshed by the memory of simple things and their sounds.

So the poet has his words to keep him company and believes it, it seems, when he is told to “be dialect,/ tell of this wind coming past the zinc hut” (“Making Strange”). It is right and comforting for him to do this, but the strangeness of it never leaves him, making him an alien, as exotic (if lovely) as the music made in “Widgeon” by blowing on a dead bird’s windpipe.

The guilt which Heaney seems to feel for being a man apart moves him to make up for it...

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(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.