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Station Island is a collection of poems by Seamus Heaney. The titular poem, which makes up the book's entire second section, analyzes Heaney's thoughts and emotions regarding the civil strife in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. Station Island is in Lough Derg, located in County Donegal, Ireland, where there is...

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Station Island is a collection of poems by Seamus Heaney. The titular poem, which makes up the book's entire second section, analyzes Heaney's thoughts and emotions regarding the civil strife in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. Station Island is in Lough Derg, located in County Donegal, Ireland, where there is a pilgrimage site called St. Patrick's Purgatory. This is important to note when trying to understand Heaney's intention with the collection, particularly the poem of the same name, because the poet makes a mental pilgrimage back home to Northern Ireland through conversations with his consciousness.

Heaney left Northern Ireland during the Troubles due to increasing sectarian violence, but he believes that leaving his home does not mean being apathetic towards the issues going on there. The poet himself has said in interviews that he wrote Station Island because he felt attached to what was going on in his homeland despite being away geographically. The poems contain opinions and mixed emotions from various perspectives, as if there are multiple characters giving their opinions on the political crisis going on in Ireland. These varied voices are all representative of Heaney's own complex opinions on the Troubles.

The reader can imagine a group of pilgrims making their way to Station Island, chatting and debating with each other on which is the right position to take regarding the Troubles in Northern Ireland. The collection of poems is a personal journey for Heaney: an outward pilgrimage toward his Irish roots and an inward pilgrimage towards his deepest feelings about the sectarian war.

The collection of poems takes inspiration from Dante's Inferno. Like Dante's epic poem, Heaney journeys through the violence and hatred happening in the streets of Northern Ireland in order to grasp some kind of understanding of why such civil strife and social fragmentation occurs—and eventually what he can learn about humanity by attaining that understanding.

The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1471

“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 relics of a dead aunt.

Part 4 is built around renunciation, first as part of the present pilgrimage, second in the life of a young priest who became a missionary. Heaney’s memory of the priest is ironic; he can recall how the priest became a kind of “holy mascot.” The priest, in turn, accuses Heaney of a kind of a nostalgic return to the Catholic life within which he was reared. The priest wonders if Heaney is endeavoring to take “a last look” at the sources of his own life and mind or is only returning to the devotional habits of his childhood.

Part 5 may in part be a response, since it begins with “a last look” at his schooling in Anahorish school, and especially at Barney Murphy, a master there who taught Latin to Heaney. Murphy and another unnamed schoolmaster soon give way to two of Heaney’s literary “masters,” first the Ulster novelist and short story writer Michael McLaverty, and finally the loud voice of the poet Patrick Kavanagh. Kavanagh speaks rather dismissively of Heaney’s accomplishment as a poet. Perhaps he represents that nagging voice which prompted Heaney to move from his basically lyric poems into longer ventures such as “Station Island” and Sweeney Astray (1983).

Part 6 seems to take its cue from Kavanagh’s final rude and sarcastic remark about chasing women. Again Heaney looks back, into the world of adolescent lust and at an unnamed girl whom he pursued in those days. The present world of the pilgrimage interrupts this reflection and suggests other, more “literary” lines of thought—the pastoral verse of Horace, then the love poetry of Dante.

Part 7 forcefully interrupts the mood of reverie; the ghost here is not some beautiful girl or the poet himself as a rather foolishly lovesick boy, but the victim of a sectarian killing. The poem offers a straightforward account of the murder of the ghost. In one sense, the poem is important for what it does not say. The victim, a small-town shopkeeper, was in fact the Catholic victim of a reprisal killing. The killers were off-duty Protestant policemen. The poem itself invokes no sectarian labels whatsoever; Heaney refuses to follow in that “procession” which is the self-generating cycle of sectarian victimization in his native Ulster. The encounter and the poem that records it cannot wholly escape politics or political commitments; confronted with the existence of such victims as this, Heaney feels guilt over his own, less direct part in the politics of civil rights in Northern Ireland. He asks forgiveness, but none is offered.

Part 8 finds the poet-pilgrim still on his rounds. There he encounters two ghosts from his own past, and the note of guilt deepens. The first ghost is that of one of Heaney’s friends, an archaeologist who worked near Belfast. Heaney regrets now his inability to talk satisfactorily with the man during his final stay in the hospital. Again he can find no forgiveness. A second ghost appears, that of Heaney’s cousin Colum McCartney, another victim of sectarian violence and the subject of the poem “The Strand at Lough Beg” in Field Work (1979).

McCartney, like many of the other ghosts, is angry; he does not find Heaney’s having remade his death into poetry at all a consolation, and indeed rebukes him for his commitment to poetry rather than to the sectarian struggle which cost McCartney his life. Worse still, he says, “You confused evasion with artistic tact”—once again, he did not find the correct words, as he had not with his dying archaeologist friend. The result was a “whitewash” job, prettifying the “ugliness” of the actual killing and hiding it behind “the lovely blinds of the Purgatorio.” Part 9 hears another sectarian voice, that of an Irish Republican Army (IRA) hunger striker. The ghost drives Heaney all the way to “self-disgust”—the emotional low point of the poem—and prompts another apology for lack of full commitment. Heaney goes further: “I hate where I was born.”

Yet as part 10 shows, he is not finished with his own past; more gently and lovingly, he recalls a mug used in his bathroom, once used as a prop by some traveling players near his childhood home. Part 11 again looks back, to an unnamed priest who urges Heaney to translate the Spanish mystic and poet Saint John of the Cross—perhaps as partial answer to the entrapment in the personal and cultural which Heaney seems to feel. The greater part of this section is in fact, just such a translation—of a poem explicitly about the “fountain” of faith and eternal life in God, but implicity about the fountain of poetic inspiration.

In part 12, Heaney returns to the shore, but he is not done with ghosts quite yet. A final figure appears; it is James Joyce, who rebuffs the poet’s effort to discuss his A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916). Joyce offers advice which echoes Sweeney’s. Against Carleton’s insistence that Heaney attend to and remember the details of Irish life, Joyce argues for a freer path. The poem as a whole thus ends with the notes of radical self-doubt and “Irishness” as an obligation rejected unequivocally.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 120

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

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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 somehow. His narrator humbles himself to the past in which he participated mostly as an observer, and it is in this vulnerable mood, in the title poem, that he meets the ghosts from that past. The twelve sections of “Station Island” suggest, in concentrated form, an epic on the scale of the Aeneid, as does its trip to—in effect—the land of the dead. Here the ghosts give the narrator advice or wisdom or insight. Simon Sweeney, “an old Sabbath-breaker,” a spirit of isolation and rebellion and the prototype for the Sweeney of part 3, “Sweeney Redivivus,” shouts at the narrator to “’Stay clear of all processions!’”—meaning the herd of the guilt-ridden, the penance seekers. Carleton the “old fork-tongued turncoat” says, “’you have to try to make sense of what comes./ Remember everything and keep your head.’” In section 5, the ghost of an old teacher insists that the source of poetry is “’Feeling, and/ in particular, love.’” Wisdom such as this is accompanied by insights. The dead priest of section 4 becomes an image of isolation without the freedom and warmth of the poet; as a missionary, the priest was repelled by “’Bare-breasted/ women and rat-ribbed men.’” In the presence of the ghost of his old girlfriend, the narrator remembers “Haunting the granaries of words like breasts“—seeing in this way a source for poetry in sex. He sees that a quiet isolation does not save one from sudden death, as his dead friend the archaeologist makes clear, nor does it save the narrator from being accused, for his cousin, a political murder victim, tells him that he was with the poets the whole time and “’saccharined my death with morning dew.’”

Other encounters with the dead put the narrator in a repentant mood. To the murdered shopkeeper in section 7 he says, “’Forgive the way I have lived indifferent—/ forgive my timid circumspect involvement.’” To the terrorist in section 9 he says, “’I repent/ My unweaned life that kept me competent/ To sleepwalk with connivance and mistrust.’” He even goes so far as to say, “’I hate where I was born, hate everything/ That made me biddable and unforthcoming.’” Here his anger at being vulnerable and his guilt for being withdrawn fuse.

At this point, the narrator begins to save face by finding an image for himself that merges endurance and passion: His metaphor is a mug on a shelf, and he concentrates on “its patient sheen and turbulent atoms.” The narrator seems strong enough now to disburden himself to the ghost of the monk confessor, who assures him that what has failed him in his life will be renewed and gives him what turns out to be a penultimate piece of advice: “’Read poems as prayers.’” The rest of section 11 is a litany which makes the advice ironic, for the refrain insists on the unnameable power behind all things, which turns both prayers and poems into nothing.

Emptied now, the narrator returns to the present. He is like an epic hero without the trappings coming back to the shore from the underworld. He is unlike the survivor of such a journey in that his guide (his Sibyl, his Vergil) shows up only now. The narrator’s guide, his final source of advice, is the arch-poet James Joyce, brandishing his ashplant stick like the Sibyl’s Golden Bough. Joyce’s blindness as well gives an added touch, for it alludes to the prophet Tiresias. He says, “’The main thing is to write/ for the joy of it’” and “’Let go, let fly, forget.’” He adds that mooning over political oppression is “’infantile,’” and that the poet-narrator must listen to the poet alone in him, exploring whatever interests him without guilt or the need for others’ approval.

The poet is now in a good position to see his isolation as a blessing. He is like Sweeney, the medieval Celtic king, whose penance was exile, but whose exile had its uses. For one thing, old assumptions fall away: “from there on everything/ is going to be learning.” This is the view of “Unwinding,” near the beginning of part 3. Sweeney sentimentalizes nature in “Drifting Off” (perhaps because he has been turned into a birdman), but his intimacy with it allows him to see beyond the commonplace. Religion is useful, too, for it forces a character such as Sweeney, or the poet, into rebellion, isolation, and self-discovery (“The Cleric”). For the exile, old maxims have a power that they did not have before (“The Master”). In “In the Chestnut Tree” and “Sweeney’s Returns,” the reader is shown how the solitary adventurer is always drawn back to the domestic world or the female; the difference is that the adventurer cannot really return, and woman becomes for him not only the secret of the domestic but also magical. Finally, exile teaches endurance: The artist in “An Artist” may hate “his own embrace/ of working” at his art—this being the activity that has the greatest value for him—but, as the poem says, “his fortitude held and hardened/ because he did what he knew.” Sweeney may have to “roost a night/ on the slab of exile”—in short, keep moving and never have a home; still his “spirit,” worn out as he himself is, can break out of the mortality by which it is captured.

Seamus Heaney has gone to much trouble in Station Island to define what it means for him to be a poet. He finds that his experience of where he comes from, whom he knew, and what he did there, is a problem because he is a poet. Because he must write about these things rather than assume them, he is drawn to them while refusing to give in to them. He explores as many facets as come to him of being in the middle like this, and he decides, using a time-tested versification as honed as it is resonant, that the poet must love the world in the only way that he can: through the words that the world itself has given him with which to love it.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 213

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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