“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...
(The entire section is 1471 words.)