Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on October 9, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 368

The Social Role of the Writer

Illustration of PDF document

Download Station Island Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Throughout Station Island, Heaney explores the function a writer serves in the world at large. Heaney addresses the obligation of the writer to be a witness to events that occur in the greater environment and refers to other writers, such as Anton Chekhov, who have taken great interest in the world around them and written about conditions faced by the unfortunate (in Chekhov's case, prisoners). Heaney does not occupy this role without inner turbulence, however. He grapples with a pull between two ideologies. On one hand, he sees poetry's use as a tool of active witness for the historical and political events around him; on the other, he acknowledges that poetry's potential can also lie in a purely aesthetic mode.

The Necessity of Homage to the Dead

Most of the characters which Heaney introduces in Station Island are no longer alive. Part of Heaney's poetic practice of bearing witness involves paying homage to figures he sees as important. These include other writers, such as Dante, who figures prominently in Station Island both in name and in influence. On Heaney's poetic pilgrimage, he also meets and pays his respects to the writers William Carleton, Patrick Kavanagh, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and James Joyce. Heaney also includes other historical characters, such as hunger strikers in Northern Ireland and Heaney's own relatives and former teachers. Heaney's practice of including and paying homage to those who have passed on seems to be a part of how he views his role and responsibility as a poet.

Connections Between Poetry and Religion

The title of the book refers to Station Island, a site of Christian pilgrimage in Donegal. Heaney himself visited Station Island more than once, and the book's titular poem refers to these repeated journeys, which ultimately take on a religious significance—particularly considering Heaney's references to Dante, whose Divine Comedy traced the soul's pilgrimage past death. Heaney's poem refers to multiple victims of sectarian violence, including priests, and includes many references to religious struggle. During the course of the book, Heaney grapples with religious constraints on the life of the poet and compares the poet's own struggles—both of witness and of representation—to those in the life of Christ.

Themes and Meanings

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 196

Several questions repeatedly arise in the poem, all of which bear directly upon the body of Heaney’s own work. What relation should a poet and his work bear to the poet’s own past? Can a poetry, like that of Heaney’s mentor and friend Robert Lowell, which arises from intensely and often mysteriously personal experience, be satisfactory? The poem examines what relation a poet’s work must bear to the (in Heaney’s case, harsh) political realities of his culture. It asks how, if at all, a poet may respond to the chilling fact of death. The poem is a prolonged meditation on Heaney’s commitments, especially to himself and to Ireland. He hears firmly given advice about going his own way and speaking in his own voice; but how, in practical terms, is such advice to be followed?

These questions often are cast in the language of obligation, which makes them particularly pressing in the tortured world of Ulster, where almost any speech is political. The poem’s final advice seems to be in favor of an independence of voice and mood, but that is perhaps offset by a prevailing concern about failure.