Almost from the beginning of his poetic career, Seamus Heaney gained public recognition for poems rooted deep in the soil of Northern Ireland and flowering in subtle rhythms and nuanced verbal melodies. In many respects, he pursues a return to poetry’s foundations in Romantic meditations on nature and explorations of the triple relationship among words, emotions, and the imagination. Heaney’s distinctive quality as a poet is that he is at once parochial and universal, grounded in particular localities and microcultures yet branching out to touch every reader. Strangely, this unusual “here and everywhere” note remains with him even when he changes the basic subject matter of his poetry, as he has done frequently. His command of what William Blake called “minute particularity” allows him to conjure up a sense of the universal even when focusing on a distinct individuality—to see “a world in a grain of sand.” He makes the unique seem familiar. Because his success at this was recognized early, he was quickly branded with the label “greatest Irish poet since Yeats”—an appellation that, however laudatory, creates intolerable pressure and unrealizable expectations. Neo-Romantic he certainly is, but not in William Butler Yeats’s vein; Heaney is less mythic, less apocalyptic, less mystical, and much more material and elemental.
In many respects Heaney’s art is conservative, especially in technique. Unlike the forms of the iconoclastic leading poets of the first half of the twentieth century—T. S. Eliot, E. E. Cummings, Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound,William Carlos Williams, andDylan Thomas—Heaney’s meters, figures, diction, and textures are all relatively straightforward. Also in contrast, his poetry is not “difficult” as theirs was; his sentences generally employ standard syntax. Nevertheless, he is a master technician with an ear for fine and subtle verbal melodies. Instead of breaking with the past, his poems much more often depend on forging links; his music often harks back to that of William Wordsworth, John Milton, or Edmund Spenser. However, his diction is common and Irish as well as formal and English. Colloquial speech patterns of the brogue often counterpoint stately cadences of British rhetoric. The combination produces a varied music, blending the different strains in his personal history and in the history of his people and his region. His best poems ring in the memory with echoes of modulated phrase and evocative sound patterns. He has probed the Irish conscience and discovered a way to express it in the English language, to render the Irish soul afresh.
Death of a Naturalist
Heaney’s first book, Death of a Naturalist, laid the groundwork for his achievement. Centered firmly in the country scenes of his youth, these poems declare both his personal heritage from generations of Irish farm laborers and his emancipation from it, acquired by the mastery of a foreign tradition, the literature of the English. His art is Irish in origins and inspiration and English by training. The result is a surprisingly uniform and rich amalgam that incorporates much of Ulster’s complex mix of cultures. The poems become what Heaney at the time hoped was possible for his region: the preservation of both Irish and English traditions by a fusion that transcended either of them separately.
“Digging,” a celebrated poem from this volume, illustrates this idea. It memorializes the typical work he associated with his father’s and grandfather’s generations (and, by implication, those of their ancestors): cutting turf, digging. He deliberately contrasts their tool of choice, the spade, with his, the pen: “I’ve no spade to follow men like them.” By his instrument, he can raise their labor into art, in the process ennobling them.
“Follower” similarly contrasts his labor with his father’s. It captures in paced phrases and exact images his father’s skill at and identification with plowing. This was the ancestral craft of the Heaneys; it makes his father what he is. As a result, it serves as the model of what young Seamus believed he should grow up to become. Sent instead to school, however, he was not reared to the plow and could never do more than hobble in his father’s wake. The poem ends in a complex and disturbing image:
But todayIt is my father who keeps stumblingBehind me, and will not go away.
The meaning is clear and manifold. His father stumbles intellectually—because the son has climbed beyond him—and culturally, for he will never be able to reach this point or even appreciate it. His father also stumbles merely physically, as the older generation does, and he must be cared for by his son when he cannot care for himself. Finally, his father is a clog at Heaney’s heels, hindering him by his heritage: The poet will never be able to evade his father’s influence.
Door into the Dark
Three years later, Door into the Dark found Heaney continuing to explore this material from his upbringing, but it also showed him expanding his range and developing new moral insights. Increasingly he began sensing that the various pasts in his heritage—of family, race, and religion—were reincarnating themselves in the present, that the history of the people was recapitulating itself. This insight bound present and past indissolubly together. What unfolded in the here and now, then, became part of a gradually evolving theme and variations, revealing itself in event and place.
Some of the poems in this volume accordingly focus on events and occupations illustrating continuity in the Irish experience. “Thatcher,” for example, celebrates an ancient Irish craft: thatching roofs out of by-products and discards. The fabric of the poem beautifully reflects and incorporates its subject, for its rhythms and rhymes form parallel patterns that imitate one another and interlock, although the dovetailing is not exact. Left unstated in the poem is an implied theme: The craft of the poet is equally ancient and equally intricate. A similar interweaving of past and present occurs in “The Wife’s Tale,” in which the persona—a farm woman—re-creates simply the routine of laying out a field lunch for laborers during threshing. The narrative is matter-of-fact and prosaic, detached and unemotional, and unspecific in time: It could be almost anytime, a reiterative action. Her action thus binds the generations together, suggesting the sameness of human life regardless of time. The poem also subtly depicts the interdependence of husband and wife—he fights and plants, she nourishes and supports—and their failure to merge completely: “And that was it. I’d come and he had shown me,/ So I belonged no further to the work.”
A number of the poems in this volume are simply musings on travels in Ireland and on the Continent. At first it is easy to pass over these pieces because the simple, undramatic language and quiet tone do not attract much attention. In fact, however, these meditations are extremely important in the evolution of Heaney’s poetic orientation, for they document his growing awareness of place as a determinant of sensibility. For Heaney, a person’s surroundings, particularly the environment of his or her growing-up years, become the context to which he or she instinctively refers new experiences for evaluation. They become the norms of consciousness, the images from which the individual forms values. In “The Peninsula,” for example, the persona spends a day touring the scenes of his youth. He discovers upon return that he still has “nothing to say,” but he realizes that henceforth he will “uncode all landscapes/ By this.” In “Night Drive,” the speaker, driving through France and thinking of his love in Italy, finds his “ordinariness” renewed by simple things such as signposts and realizes that the same thing is happening to her. Environment forms and frames consciousness.
More important, it also frames historical consciousness, the intersection of the past with the present in the individual. In the poems that first document this idea, Heaney announces what is to be a major theme: the inescapable presence of the past. This emerges in “Requiem for the Croppies,” a long-after-the-fact elegy for the insurrectionist Catholic peasants—designated “croppies” because in the 1790’s they cropped their hair to indicate their support of the French revolutionaries—who were slaughtered by the thousands at Vinegar Hill at the end of the uprising of 1798.
The poem, a simple sonnet, quietly recalls the mood of that campaign, in which unarmed, uneducated plowboys terrorized the great estates of the absent English overlords until they were hemmed in and mowed down by cavalry and cannon. At first, the rebellion was a romp; finally, it became a nightmare and a shame. The poem documents this in one encircling image: The ultimate harvest of the battle is the spilled barley, carried for food, which sprouts from the mass graves the following summer. A better symbol of futility and helplessness could hardly be found. Written in 1969, the year of the recurrence of the Troubles (ethnic conflicts in Ulster between Protestant unionists and Catholic secessionists), the poem both marks Heaney’s allegiances—he was reared Catholic—and records his dismay over the renewal of pointless violence. Significantly, Heaney left Belfast for good in that year, although his major motive was to devote himself to writing full time.
In the same year, Heaney encountered the book The Bog People (1969) by the ethnologist and anthropologist P. V. Glob. This account of a race of Iron Age peoples who inhabited the boglands of northern Europe in the dark past, before the Indo-European migrations of the first millennium b.c.e., was based largely on excavated remains of bodies that had been preserved by immersion in bogs. The photographs of these bodies particularly fired Heaney’s imagination, especially because many of them had been ritualistically sacrificed.
Since the newspapers and magazines had recently been saturated with atrocity punishments and murders, often involving equally primitive rituals, Heaney postulated a connection between the two, forged by the history of terrorism between clans and religions in Northern Ireland: Modern Ulster, despite centuries of alterations in its facade and supposed progress in its politics and civilization, was populated by a race different only in accidentals from its Iron Age progenitors. The same elemental passions and atavistic fears seethed beneath a deceptively civilized surface. Furthermore, those ancient dark mysteries that precipitated the superstitious sacrifices had not been superseded by civilization; they had merely receded into the background. Unsuspected, they continued to be inherited in the blood. Although he nowhere uses the Jungian terminology, Heaney seems to subscribe to the idea of the collective unconscious, the reservoir of instinctive, intuitive behavior acquired genetically.
These ideas bear first fruit in “Bogland,” in which he invents a powerful metaphor for another of his central themes. He visualizes his kind, his culture, as centered on a bog: “Our unfenced country/ Is bog that keeps crusting/ Between the sights of the sun.” The bog simultaneously buries and preserves, destroys and reconstitutes. Through it, the past becomes continuous with the present, represented in it. The bog records all generations of humanity that have grown up alongside it, disclosing continuous occupation: “Every layer they strip/ Seems camped on before.”
The bog is also an analogue of the human mind, which similarly buries and preserves, and which inherits the entire weight of the past. Furthermore, both have fathomless depths, brooding pools, and nameless terrors bubbling up from unplumbed regions. The bog becomes the perfect image of the inexplicable in the self and in society as a whole. Further, it provides Heaney with a device for illustrating the force behind the violence and a means of distancing himself from it. The bog becomes a link with humankind’s preconscious, reptilian past: “The bogholes might be Atlantic seepage./ The wet centre is bottomless.”
Heaney’s third book, Wintering Out, secured his early reputation. Like his first two books, it is rooted in his homeland, but it also includes poems of departure. Places precisely realized play a large part in it; in particular, these places declare themselves through their ancient names. Heaney spins music out of them:
Anahorish, soft gradientof consonant, vowel meadow,after-image of lampsswung through the yardson winter evenings.
Brough, Derrygarve, Ballyshannon voice related melodies, weaving together past and present, counterpointing also with English names: Castledawson, Upperlands. The two languages together stitch the present out of the past.
The volume opens with “Bog Oak,” which Heaney makes into a symbol for his bog world: It is a relic from the past, wood preserved in a bog where no oaks now stand, excavated to make rafters for new buildings. Furthermore, it is saturated with the bog, so that images of past centuries may be imprinted in it, as on film, to be released as the wood is used and thus to redirect the present. In one more way, then, the past is reincarnated. Dreaming that the oak images will bring him contact with the spirits of past poets, Heaney reminds his readers that the history of poetry is also a means of realizing the past in the present.
Other species of the Irish environment also participate in this process of continuity. “Gifts of Rain,” for example, memorializes the omnipresent threat of rain in the Irish weather, but it also makes the rain into a stream flowing through everything, a liquid voice from the past: “Soft voices of the dead/ Are whispering by the shore.” It becomes a solvent of the Irish experience.
This awareness of and openness to all aspects of life, especially the dark and the violent, leads Heaney to treat some topics in this volume that are quite different from his past choices. Among them is one of the more inexplicable incidents of human cruelty: infanticide by mothers, or maternal rejection of infants. “Limbo” considers an infant drowned shortly after birth and netted by salmon fishermen. Heaney dispassionately records the ironies, beginning with the simple suggestion that this child’s baptism was in fact murder, the most extreme sacrilege, although he fully sympathizes with the mother’s agony. Still, the child died without baptism; hence, it is ineligible for Heaven and must be relegated to Limbo, a place of painless exile, according to orthodox Catholic doctrine. Such a conclusion, however, is so unjust that it seems incompatible with any God who claims to incarnate love: “Even Christ’s palms, unhealed,/ Smart and cannot fish here.”
Similarly, “Bye-Child” re-creates the perspective of a child shut up by his mother in a henhouse, without vital human contact. The inscription states that he could not speak. Heaney seems astounded that anyone could deny a human the possibility of communication: to be human is to communicate. This child, as a result, becomes in turn a curiosity, a rodent, an alien, a “moon man”—nothing human. Still, his response to his rescuers reveals an attempt to communicate, to reach “beyond love.”
The experience that apparently enabled Heaney to contemplate such events took place through Glob’s The Bog People. He was so struck by the images of some of the recovered bodies—particularly those sacrificed in earth mother rites and those punished for crimes—that he wrote poems about them. The first, the three-part “The Tolland Man,” first published in Wintering Out, has become one of his most widely reprinted poems. Heaney first describes the body, now displayed at the Natural History Museum at rhus, Denmark, and briefly alludes to his fate: Given a last meal, he was hauled in a tumbril to the bog, strangled, and deposited as a consort to the bog goddess, who needed a male to guarantee another season of fertility. In the second section, Heaney suggests that the ritual makes as much sense as the retaliatory, ritualistic executions of the Troubles; the current practice is as likely to improve germination. The third section establishes a link between survivors and victims, past and present. It implies that all humans are equally involved, equally responsible, if only by complicity or failure to act. Heaney suggests that senseless violence and complacent acceptance of it are both parts of human nature.
Heaney’s next book, Stations, marked both an advance and a setback. The advance was compound, both formal and topical. Formally, the book consists of a series of prose poems; topically, they all deal with the experience of growing up rural and Catholic in an industrialized, Protestant-dominated culture. The title Stations alludes to this: The events detailed here constitute the contemporary equivalent of the Stations of the Cross, the sufferings Christ endured in his passion and death; moreover, they are the way stations of modern education, the stopping points of the soul. The poems show Heaney returning to his childhood to identify and document his indoctrination into the complicity he finds unacceptable in Wintering Out. In all these ways, the book celebrates gains.
The individual poems of Stations are less successful and less uniform than his earlier work. They disclose an artificiality, a staginess, a contrived quality formerly absent. They also depend on a good bit of private information for comprehension. In some respects, this is curious, because Heaney managed to avoid any hint of these weaknesses elsewhere, either in his poetry or in the retrospective prose that also dates from around this time. To an extent, this uneasiness must be associated with his private uncertainty during this period, when he was trying to justify his leaving Ulster rather than staying to take a stand. Whatever the reason, it left the poetry of the same time intact.
His second book of 1975, North, capitalized on his previous successes; significantly, the title indicates that all these poems still focus on the poet’s Ulster experiences. The book includes more meditations on place and place-names, such as “Mossbawn”; there are also a few more nature pieces and reminiscences. Far and away the majority of the collection, however, deals with the cultural conflict of the North, the pagan heritage of Ireland, and the continuity of past and present through the mediation of the bog people. A series based on bone fragments from the past supplements the bog material. Practically all of Heaney’s best-known poems are found in this volume.
This is the first of Heaney’s books that is more than a mere collection. The order and arrangement are designed to create an integrated reading experience; groupings reflect, refract, and diffuse patterns and themes. The basic structure of the book is twofold, with each part using distinctive verse forms. Part 1 focuses on the “North” of northern Europe from the time of its first population to the present. The basic verse is the taut, unrhymed or off-rhymed quatrain developed for Wintering Out; much of the diction is formal or archaic, and the atmosphere is solemn and austere. Part 2 takes “North” as contemporary Ulster. The root verse is the standard pentametric rhymed quatrain; the diction and tone are informal and playful. The polarity seems to reflect the two kinds of poetry Heaney describes repeatedly in Preoccupations: poetry that is “made” and poetry that is “given.”
Some of the poems in part 1 actually fall partly outside this overly neat division. “Funeral Rites,” an often-praised poem, joins the urgency of funerals during the Troubles with the legacy of pagan burials. The theme of the poem is that the frequent occurrence of funerals today has cheapened them: they lack the impact of ancient funerals, when death still meant something, still could be beautiful, and still could give promise of resurrection. The title poem also crosses the established border of the book. It centers on the imagination of the poet in the present, where he must work with what he finds—which falls far short of the epic standards of the past. Voices out of the water advise him to search the past of the race and express it through the roots of his language.
The center of part 1 is the past. Here the bog poems take precedence. There are six of them, all powerful. “The Grauballe Man” depicts another victim of the bog mother cult, this one written as if the persona were in the presence of the body. Heaney arranges a series of metaphors drawn from biology to create the image of the body, then inserts the line “The head lifts”—and the body seems to come alive before the mind’s eye. The persona explicitly denies that this can be called a “corpse.” Previously, seen only in photographs, the man seemed dead, “bruised like a forceps baby.” Now he is “hung in the scales/ with beauty and atrocity”—he has taken on the life of enduring art yet also testifies to humanity’s eternal and ongoing depravity. Violence creates beauty, and vice versa.
“Punishment” portrays another category of victim among the bog people. According to the Roman historian Tacitus, the ancestral Germans punished women taken in adultery by shaving off their hair and immersing them naked in the bog, weighed down with stones and logs, until they drowned. This barely postpubescent girl of Heaney’s poem illustrates the practice: undernourished, shaved, and blindfolded, she has no visible wounds. The persona sees her as a “scapegoat,” a figure of terror: “her shaved head/ like a stubble of black corn.” However, she was also “beautiful,” one who could arouse love. Nevertheless, he recognizes that had he been present, he “would have cast . . ./ the stones of silence,” in an allusion to the New Testament story of the woman taken in adultery. Heaney asserts that all human beings comply with the practices of their tribe, and then he finds the perfect modern parallel. In the early 1970’s, young Catholic women who consorted with British soldiers were punished similarly by the Irish Republican Army: They were shaved, tarred, feathered, and chained to public railings. Again all spectators comply, and the past, the primitive past, is present.
In “Strange Fruit,” Heaney borrows the metaphor in the title from an African American civil rights protest song, in which “strange fruit” refers to the bodies of lynched blacks hanging from gallows. The fruit in the poem is ancient: an accidentally preserved severed head of a young woman. Here there is no justification in ritual; the woman is simply the victim of random violence or tribal conflict. Heaney, as before, suggests that exhuming the head from its bog grave is equivalent to restoring it to life and beauty. This time, however, he finds the consolation of art itself disturbing. He adds a new note, alluding to another Roman historian: “Diodorus Siculus confessed/ His gradual ease among the likes of this.” Multiple atrocities generate complacency as well as complicity. Thus this girl stops short of beauty; far from attractive, she has “eyeholes blank as pools in the old workings.” This is an image of the forlorn, the abandoned. These black eyeholes—lacking eyes—still outstare “what had begun to feel like reverence.” Tolerating atrocities may not be the state human beings finally want to reach.
Heaney’s next book, Field Work, poses a series of questions, mostly dealing with the relationship between art and social conscience. The questions cast doubts on both the attitude he had adopted toward contemporary violence and the resolution to which he had come about his life. Still, the answers he finds basically confirm his decisions. He chooses here the path of civilization, of art, the “field work” of the practicing artist. At the balancing point of this book rest the Glanmore sonnets, a series of ten sonnets reflecting his life at the country estate of Glanmore, County Wicklow, his retreat after Belfast. In terms of subject matter, he returns overtly to the natural settings and homely ways of his first two books. In this work, however, he is much more concerned with the poetic temperament, its influences, and its relation to society.
Accordingly, several of the sounds trace the parallels between Heaney and other figures who used rural solitude to comment on society: the Roman poets Horace and Vergil, the mythical Irish hero Sweeney, and the English poet Wordsworth. The sonnets themselves are the densest, most intricate poems he had written to this point, rich and finely fashioned, delicate and subtle. Typical is sonnet 5, which commemorates the elderberry bush that served as refuge for the poet as a boy; he shapes it and his reminiscences about it into a symbol of his searches into the roots of language and memory.
Another major section of the book is devoted to elegies—three for victims of civil violence, three for fellow poets, and one for a relative killed in World War I. These are more conventional poems of mourning than his earlier meditations, which lamented but also accepted. They reflect a sense of absolute and final loss, the senseless wasting away that the pace of modern life leads people to take for granted, anger that so much good should be squandered so casually. Still, death is relentless and undiscriminating, taking the small with the great: “You were not keyed or pitched like these true-blue ones/ Though all of you consort now underground.”
After Field Work Heaney moved for a while in a different direction. Sweeney Astray is an adaptation of the medieval Gaelic epic Buile Suibhne. Heaney had long been fascinated by the character of Sweeney, at once king and poet, and had used him as one of the persona’s alter egos in Field Work. In the poem, Sweeney fails in a quest and suffers the curse of Saint Ronan, the peacemaker, after repeatedly violating truces and killing one of the saint’s clerics. Already nicknamed “Mad” because of his battle rages, Sweeney is now transformed into a bird and driven into the wilderness, doomed to be hunted by humans and beasts alike and to suffer delusions. The poem is more an anthology of rhapsodic songs and laments made by Sweeney in his exile than the standard heroic quest-poem. It is easy to detect the sources of Heaney’s fascination, which include the easily overlooked rhyme of Sweeney’s name with his own—the kind of thing he would spot immediately. Like Heaney, Sweeney is driven out of a violent society, though given to violence himself; he feels a natural kinship with animals, birds, trees, plants, and the things of the wild; he identifies with the places of his exile; and he senses the elemental divine pulse beating in and unifying everything. Furthermore, he represents the wounded imagination, in love with and repelled by the ways of humans in the world.
Although widely praised and honored, Sweeney Astray seems to have fallen short of Heaney’s expectations. It did receive some hostile reviews, from Irish critics who did not really believe that English is a suitable medium for anything Gaelic and English critics who viewed Irish writers as plotting a hostile takeover of things British. The extent of Heaney’s disappointment appears in the layout of New Selected Poems, 1966-1987, in which this book is the most scantily represented of his major works, being given only sixteen pages as against sixty-six for Station Island and forty-four for North. Clearly, it is more difficult to cull from a continuous sequence than from a collection; yet it is also true that ever since the publication of North, Heaney had paid considerable attention to the organization of his books, so that, theoretically at least, excerpting should be difficult from any of them.
Station Island is Heaney’s amplest, most diversified, and most highly integrated book of poems. It consists essentially of three parts: a collection of separate lyrics, many family-centered and some combined into mini-sequences; the title sequence, centered on Station Island, also called St. Patrick’s Purgatory, in west Ireland, a favorite Irish pilgrimage site; and a series named “Sweeney Redivivus,” in which he creates new poems through the persona of the poet-hero brought back to life in himself and committed to reveal what remains of the past in the here and now. The lyrics show Heaney experimenting with new line lengths, new forms, and new approaches. They include meditations reminiscent of W. H. Auden, such as “Chekhov on Sakhalin,” and a series on found objects called “Shelf Life”; both provide him with occasions for discovering unexpected epiphanies.
Similarly, the Sweeney poems disclose Heaney deepening his vision. The identification with his mythic predecessor required by the translation brings him to a new vantage point: He realizes that perceptive and imaginative as Sweeney was, deeply as he penetrated to the soul of things, he still remained alien from the bulk of the people, and he had not changed much. Heaney writes out of a new humility and also now out of relief. He concludes that he need not blame himself for having abandoned his people in the Troubles. They were not really his people, in retrospect; his values were not theirs. He could not accomplish much for them that would last, thus it was better to pursue his poetry.
The title series also teaches him that lesson, though in a different way. It is Heaney’s major triumph, consolidating and drawing on strengths he had been establishing since early in his career. It is the quintessential place-poem, for Station Island has many places and provides multiple occasions for poetry. Situated on Lough Derg in County Tipperary, Eire, the island was originally a primitive settlement; in the eighth or ninth century it became a locus of pilgrimage, renowned as a place of penitence. A number of foundation rings remain, the relics of either monastic cells or primitive dwellings. Devotees complete the act of repentance by making a circuit of these, kneeling and praying at each in turn, and by this act gaining remission of punishment for past sins.
Heaney bases his cycle on the persona’s return to the island in middle age. Although by this point in his life he was an unbeliever, he finds the island well populated with souls eager to establish common ground with the living. For the devout, St. Patrick’s Purgatory is a place of personal repentance, expiation, and rectification. For the literary, as a purgatorial site it has a forerunner in Dante’s Purgatorio (in La divina commedia, c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802). Heaney uses the experience as a poetic examination of conscience, a Catholic devotional exercise: He reviews his career as a poet, attempting to determine once again the proper relationship between poetry and society. In this process, he gains assistance and insight from the attendant ghosts, who include a number of figures from his private and literary past, notably including James Joyce. Heaney records their conversations, often weaving their voices together in terza rima, the verse form used by Dante. In the twelfth and last poem, Joyce advises Heaney to follow his lead in concentrating on art and ignoring the politics of the moment.
The Haw Lantern
The Haw Lantern continues in the direction mapped out in Station Island. It is among the slightest of Heaney’s collections: thirty-one poems in fifty-two pages. His topics, too, are rather commonplace: hailstones, alphabets, fishing lures, a peacock’s feather, and (in the title poem) the fruit of the hawthorn. Heaney transforms this brilliant red winter fruit metaphorically into a lantern, an instrument for seeing and for measuring human values. Commonly used for hedging in the British Isles, this thorny shrub becomes a means of testing human integrity in the daily situations that finally count. The book also contains another of Heaney’s trademark sequences. “Clearances,” a set of eight sonnets written to commemorate the death of Heaney’s mother, moves him to another stage in the definition of his poetic character. Symbolically, this constitutes Heaney’s prayer at his mother’s deathbed, bonding him to the past and committing him to the future. It also sets him apart from Joyce, his spiritual mentor, who made his refusal to pray at his mother’s bedside a pivotal scene in A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man (1916) and Ulysses (1922).
Despite being an active writer and continuing to produce published collections, Heaney seemed to move toward poetry that had a decidedly “later” feel about it beginning in the 1990’s, as if the poet were consistently revisiting old scenes, revising opinions, refining thoughts once had, and critiquing versions of self presented in previous poems. In Seeing Things, Heaney appears to reach for a lightness, moving away from the thickets of alliteration and sensuality found in the early work or the harsh minimal realities of the bog period or even the casual sublimities of daily life found in both Field Work and, to a lesser extent, The Haw Lantern.
The Spirit Level and Opened Ground
The Spirit Level explores the themes of politics, humanism, and nature. It includes in its composition a plea for hope, innocence, and balance, and to seek eventually that “bubble for the spirit level.” Here he balances the personal with the universal, as well as the process of life to death, in an attempt to seek an equilibrium. Opened Ground provides a comprehensive overview of his poetry from 1966 to 1996, with works from the 1990’s heavily represented: Much of The Spirit Level is reproduced here. By chronologically following his progression as a poet, readers can discern Heaney’s peculiar wistful and earthy mixture of rural reverie and high public speech and see how his interests broaden in the middle and later poems when the poet seeks out Greek myths, Irish epics, and Scandinavian archaeological digs to look for correlatives appropriate for his meditations.
Perhaps Heaney’s most reflective collection during this period is Electric Light. Using a compilation of poetic genres and styles—including eclogue, elegy, epigram, yarn, meditation, and ecstatic lyric—Heaney meditates on the origins and inevitable ending of his life and art. His array of verse styles showcases Heaney’s will and ability to speak of many kinds of experiences to many kinds of reader. Above all, his awareness of his aging, from which he turns away in memory and looks past in poems about death, gives the collection special coherence and expression. In “The Gaeltacht,” modeled on a poem by Dante, he examines his literary fame, his desire for release from it, and a return to primal things. Heaney wishes he were in the Gaeltacht, a Gaelic-speaking region of northwestern Ireland, with one of his old pals “and that it was again nineteen sixty.” Then other friends now old or dead would also be with them “talking Irish.”
He also celebrates nature with a range of poems that explore landscapes, such as his birthplace of Northern Ireland, imprinted by human life, its meanings and violence handed down through the generations. Heaney’s use of dialect and feeling-laden place-names distinctly help convey this theme. Notable literary figures make appearances here as well: He elegizes the Russian poet Joseph Brodsky, offers translations of Vergil and the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, and has memorial poems for the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert and American translator Robert Fitzgerald.
District and Circle
District and Circle contains forty-four poems and several short prose pieces, including “One Christmas Day in the Morning” and “Fiddleheads.” The poems differ significantly in structure and topic, and Heaney’s poetic rhythms vary widely between the classical and contemporary. The poet employs many familiar themes evident in his previous work, such as remembrances of his rural Irish childhood, the lives of country folk, and Catholicism and the Catholic rites, but the poems all relate to the collective theme of memory.
The opening poem, “The Turnip-Snedder,” a relatively short poem about an ancient turnip-mashing machine, is constructed as ten unrhymed couplets. The rhythm within the poem varies between and against the two-beat line and extends even further by Heaney’s pairing of phrases throughout. The exact year of the poem is not noted, but the nostalgia-infused image of rural life and farmwork suggests a time when the agrarian lifestyle involved hard physical labor. Farmwork is the topic of several other poems in this collection.
“District and Circle,” the title poem, has a more urban setting, involving train stations and rail travel. The poem is constructed as five stanzas of fourteen lines, except the third stanza, which is thirteen lines. This use of the fourteen-line stanza could be seen as Heaney’s modern interpretation of a sonnet since he also combines the fourteen-line stanza with iambic pentameter. “District and Circle” places the speaker of the poem in an underground train station, waiting along with other travelers, and evokes an image of the jostle inherent in mass transit. The poem also addresses themes of identity and of isolation, even while in a familiar setting such as a crowded train station.
Heaney’s tendency to retool the sonnet form also is evident in the poem “In Iowa,” which depicts an old Mennonite mowing machine covered with snow. This poem consists of three unrhymed quatrains and a final couplet, which serves as the turn, or volta. Like other contemporary poets, Heaney incorporates the Petrarchan form in a modern narrative poetic structure. Within “In Iowa,” Heaney takes certain artistic liberties that are not restricted by the strict metrical or rhyme schemes associated with the traditional Petrarchan form.
In this collection, Heaney recalls the people and sights of the rural Ireland of his childhood. Some of the poems within are overtly nostalgic, while others are imbued with a more subtle message elevating the agrarian lifestyle.
Prompted by the story of a baby’s body dredged up by fishermen Heaney traces a path through the emotional, maternal, religious and spiritual ramifications of infanticide from within the confused mother’s experience.
‘The poem may be read as a parable for an Ireland in which ‘tribal taboos and laws can so easily outweigh ‘civilized’ humane values’ (MP114-5). Heaney suggests, without passing judgment on her himself that, rather than suffer the ostracism faced by unmarried mothers in the so-called ‘christian’ communities in which she lived, the mother has tried unsuccessfully to cleanse herself of sin by drowning her new-born..
A gruesome discovery, splashed as a news headline, Fishermen at Ballyshannon/ Netted an infant last night generates in the poet an image of epiphany: a child’s body lying, fishlike, amongst the salmon haul, a fish out of water, conceived out of wedlock (An illegitimate spawning) and discarded as an unwanted fish: A small one thrown back/ To the waters.
Heaney avoids joining the predictable chorus of outrage, persuaded (But I’m sure) that what happened should not be written off automatically as a monster’s cold, heartless murder of her new-born child.
To counter Catholic doctrine whereby unbaptized children, prevented from entering heaven, lived on in eternal limbo Heaney presents the act of infanticide as a scene of baptism: the mother motionless in the shallows; her child immersed compassionately beneath the sea’s surface Ducking him tenderly; water-chill numbing her body: Till the frozen knobs of her wrists / Were dead as the gravel; her consciousness still stinging with the pain of childbirth (He was a minnow with hooks/Tearing her open).
Irrationally she sees what she is doing as an act of love releasing her child from future social rejection as a bastard. Her distorted act of blessing, a mock baptism (She waded in under/ The sign of her cross), is exposed by the light of day He was hauled in with the fish.
Intolerance and a mother’s subsequent despair have sentenced the child to limbo. He will not be alone (A cold glitterofsouls) in its vast expanse (somefar briny zone).
Without intending sacrilege, perhaps, Heaney suggests that Christ, himself a crucified victim and a lover of children, might shy away from the issue of baptism and redemptive intervention: salt water is too painful for the open wounds Jesus sustained on the Cross – Christ’s palms, unhealed, / Smart and cannot fish there.
Heaney is questioning aspects of Catholic doctrine: the mother’s failure to baptize the child formally has condemned it to eternal limbo; Heaney suggests that Christ would place himself in an impossible situation were he to intervene contrary to dogma taught in his name.
- Jesus’ compassion for little children is reported in the Holy Bible by the Gospels (for example Luke 18:15-17 reports as follows: 15 And they brought unto him also infants, that he would touch them: but when his disciples saw it, they rebuked them. 16 But Jesus called them unto him, and said, Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God. 17 Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child shall in no wise enter therein).
- limbo: (Latin ‘limbus’ edge, boundary) place to which, supposedly, the souls of unbaptized children (too young to have committed sin but not freed from Original Sin) went after death, in this case infanticide at the hands of the child’s mother;
- netted: caught in a fishing net;
- illegitimate: born to unmarried parents; also unauthorised, forbidden, against the rules;
- spawning: ‘spawn’ refers to fish eggs released into water; used figuratively and insultingly to with reference to offspring;
- thrown back: fishermen would return small or damaged fish to the sea as having no sale-value;
- shallows: where the water is not deep;
- ducking: immersing, pushing underwater;
- knobs: rounded lumps;
- minnow: tiddlers, small fish (generally freshwater);
- soul: spiritual, intangible part of the human body; by synecdoche ‘person’;
- sign of the cross(Latin:signum crucis), is a ritual blessing made by members of many branches ofChristianity. This blessing is made by the tracing a cross across the body with the right hand;.
- Christ’s palms: allusion to the stigmata, marks left by the nails that attached the crucified Jesus to the cross;
- smart: sting, burn;
- 5 quartets in 7 sentences; line length 5-8 syllables; unrhymed;
- the balance between enjambed lines and punctuation regulates the breath groups of oral delivery;
- simple past tense of reported story; present tense of reflection on the report;
- ‘illegitimate spawning’: clever juxtaposition that subsumes the fish parallel (‘salmon’), the notion of a bastard child frowned upon in narrow Irish Catholic communities, the body committed to the waves;
- metonymy ‘waters’ for sea;
- vocabulary denoting tiny size: ‘infant … small one … minnow’;
- euphemistic ‘ducking’ deliberately non-violent;
- feelings of the mother evoke sympathy: ’tenderly … tearing her open’ (physical act of childbirth and, ironically, her maternal feelings at the very moment she is killing her child);
- numbness/ death extended from her body to the child: ‘frozen knobs … dead’; simile: wrists as lacking in feeling as inanimate gravel;
- paradoxical Christian notion of blessedness; note ‘her’ cross’, certainly different from the norm;
- the child’s eternal wandering will take place, no outside some underworld Hell but rather in this marine environment: ‘limbo … cold glitter of souls … far briny zone’;
- implicit criticism of Catholic doctrine (Jesus Christ, both ‘fisher of men’ and a victim, cannot receive an unbaptized infant into his care) delivered through the metaphor of raw wounds and salty sea;
- Heaney is a meticulous craftsman using combinations of vowel and consonant to form a poem that is something to be listened to;
- the music of the poem: eleven assonant strands are woven into the text; Heaney places them grouped within specific areas to create internal rhymes , or reprises them at intervals or threads them through the text.
- alliterative effects allow pulses or beats or soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies:
- the first lines, for example, brings together labio-dental fricative [f] a cluster of alveolar sounds (plosive[t], approximant [l] and nasal [n]) alongside gentle sibilants [s] [sh];
- it is well worth teasing out the sound clusters for yourself to admire the poet’s sonic engineering:
- Consonants (with their phonetic symbols) can be classed according to where in the mouth they occur
- Front-of-mouth soundsvoiceless bi-labial plosive [p] voiced bi-labial plosive [b]; voiceless labio-dental fricative [f] voiced labio-dental fricative [v]; bi-labial nasal [m]; bilabial continuant [w]
- Behind-the-teeth sounds voiceless alveolar plosive [t] voiced alveolar plosive [d]; voiceless alveolar fricative as in church match[tʃ]; voiced alveolar fricative as in judge age [dʒ]; voiceless dental fricative [θ] as in thin path; voiced dental fricative as in this other [ð]; voiceless alveolar fricative [s] voiced alveolar fricative [z]; continuant [h] alveolar nasal [n] alveolar approximant [l]; alveolar trill [r]; dental ‘y’ [j] as in yet
- Rear-of-mouthsounds voiceless velar plosive [k] voiced velar plosive [g]; voiceless post-alveolar fricative [ʃ] as in ship sure, voiced post- alveolar fricative [ʒ] as in pleasure; palatal nasal [ŋ] as in ring/ anger.
- ‘According to a medieval Catholic doctrine, once powerful but now discarded, the souls of unbaptized children could not enter heaven but were thought to be consigned to a place called Limbo – from the Latin limbus, ‘border’ – where they were denied the beatific vision … By turning his gaze from the abundances and confirming rituals of family life to a dark and cruel underside of the culture he was bred in, and by directing his gaze away from artisanry and agriculture to illegitimacy and intimidated women, Heaney admitted – in a characteristic enquiry into facets of his culture that were taken for granted – long standing anonymities that were other than benevolent’(HV32-3);
- ‘Wintering ‘Out (1972), takes up anonymity with a different and new sharpness, exposing the raw underside of rural ‘decency’, and investigating the plight of women in a sexually repressive culture. In ‘Limbo’ a newborn baby, never christened and therefore never given a name, is drowned by its shamed mother and dragged up by fishermen… For such poems, which silently reprove the pieties condemning sexuality outside marriage, Heaney abandoned the broad and placid pentameter that had served him well for poems about churning and thatching and dowsing, turning instead to lines that are short, sharp, taciturn and, for all their pity, ‘cold’ and ‘lunar’ (ibid);
- ‘in I969 and 1970, I’d written the group of poems about women in distress (including) ‘Limbo’ … those narratives and monologues formed one segment of the contents’ (DOD124);
- ‘In line six … a second voice ( ) probes the tragic sub-text of the story … Heaney makes it clear that the woman is no heartless monster, but rather a frightened and confused human being. Having endured the fear and loneliness of her secret pregnancy and the harrowing ordeal of childbirth (‘Tearing her open ‘) she agonises over a deed which will bring not the temporary ‘relief’ she imagines, but rather an eternity of guilt … One must assume that the forgiveness that Christ showed to the woman taken in adultery has no place in Ballyshannon’ (MP113);
- ‘Perhaps the most usual way poets devise to be anonymous is to turn to myth and legend (whether classical, Christian or folk-derived), and Heaney takes this path as well. In a rather self-conscious early poem called ‘Undine’ … the poem announces Heaney’s interest in assuming (as in ‘The Wife’s Tale’, ‘Mother’, ‘Limbo’, ‘Shore Woman’ and elsewhere) a special type of anonymity: what it might mean to imagine oneself inside a woman’s experience’ (HV22-3);
- ‘As regards Heaney’s attitude to religion at this stage in his career: if Christianity did not possess either relevance or moral force why would it appear (Christ’s palms) in such major poems as ‘Limbo? ‘Clearly Catholicism permeates his poetic consciousness, with its weighty emphasis on ritual supplication, on awe, grace, guilt, humility, responsibility, discipline, and its burdened and burdening vocabulary’ (MP114-5);
- ‘The suffering and endurance of the imagined or recalled figures of ‘Wintering Out’ are complemented by the volume’s two references to Christ: at the end of ‘Limbo’, ‘where he is a figure of the most intense exclusion and ineffectualness (‘Even Christ’s palms, unhealed, I Smart and cannot fish there’)’, and in ‘the surreal image of the final line of ‘Westering’ – and therefore of the whole book – where, in a figure of lonely unconnectedness which perhaps draws on Salvador Dalì, the poem locates ‘Christ weighing by his hands’ in the moon’s gravity.’ (NC40);