SEAMUS HEANEY WAS born the year W. B. Yeats died · a notable coincidence, given that Heaney was eventually to be regarded, both inside and outside Ireland, as the most important Irish poet writing after Yeats. Also in that year, 1939, W. H. Auden (in an elegy on Yeats) made the peculiarly modern observation that "poetry makes nothing happen," a statement that few poets in Auden's wake · and certainly not Heaney · have been able to dismiss without at least some second thoughts. Indeed, for Heaney, an Ulsterman, the question of the value of the poetic enterprise has been particularly pressing; he has watched his literary career develop alongside a steady escalation of sectarian violence in his native Northern Ireland, and while it is one thing to make claims for the validity of art, to justify giving your life to writing poems, in a time of relatively low political voltage, it is quite another to do so when men, women, and children are being killed almost daily in your backyard.
As Yeats had done before him, Heaney has consistently made those claims, and much of his poetry · arguably the best of it · embodies with conviction and candor the poet's struggle to come to terms with urgent political and social realities without compromising the integrity of his art, and without abandoning his faith in art's ability to get at human truths lying beneath the surface of everyday events. In an essay in which he describes T. S. Eliot writing poems in the middle of the bombing of London during World War II, Heaney clearly elucidates that belief in the efficacy of art, a belief that inspires and informs almost all his poetry:
Here is the great paradox of poetry and of the imaginative
arts in general. Faced with the brutality of the historical
onslaught, they are practically useless. Yet they
verify our singularity, they strike and stake out the ore
of self which lies at the base of every individuated life.
In one sense the efficacy of poetry is nil · no lyric has
ever stopped a tank. In another sense, it is unlimited. It
is like the writing in the sand in the face of which accusers
and the accused are left speechless and renewed.
(The Government of The Tongue,p. 107)
This view of the relationship between art and the world requires, among other things, aesthetic distance. Heaney's ability to stand back from the violent conflict between Catholic and Protestant, nationalist and unionist, probably owes more than a little to the circumstances of his life, especially his early years. He was born on 13 April 1939, the oldest of nine children of a Catholic couple, Margaret and Patrick Heaney, living on a farm called Mossbawn, in County Derry, about thirty miles northwest of Belfast. By Heaney's account, the community was a cheerfully mixed one, with Catholics and Protestants living "in proximity to and in harmony with one another." Even the local geography encouraged what Heaney referred to as his capacity for "a kind of double awareness of division": To the west of Mossbawn lay a walled and wooded demesne and a community with the British name of Castledawson; to the east lay bogland, a mysterious, treacherous, powerfully alluring tract of swamp that ran up to the west bank of the river Bann and a village with the distinctly Irish name of Toome. It is no accident that much of Heaney's poetry is rooted in this landscape. For Heaney it represents more than the locale of his childhood memories; it embodies in a highly concrete form many of the political, religious, and cultural divisions that have come to preoccupy his art.
From St. Columb's College in Londonderry, a boarding school to which he won a scholarship in 1951, Heaney went to Queen's University in Belfast, where he was an undergraduate from 1957 to 1961 and where his interest in poetry first began to flower. At Queen's, Heaney read widely in both English and Irish literature and published (under the pen name Incertus) some poems in the university's literary magazine. The year after he graduated, while doing postgraduate work at St. Joseph's College of Education in Belfast, Heaney came to know the English writer Philip Hobsbaum, who had recently come to Queen's to teach and organized a group of young poets, including Derek Mahon and Michael Longley, of which Heaney soon became an active part. In August 1965 he married Marie Devlin, a schoolteacher from County Tyrone. During the next few years, while teaching at a secondary school in Belfast and later as lecturer at St. Joseph's, Heaney began placing poems in journals, and in 1966 Faber and Faber brought out his first full-length book of poems, Death of a Naturalist, to considerable acclaim. Heaney spent most of the next six years teaching at Queen's and writing. His two sons, Michael and Christopher, were born in 1966 and 1968, respectively. Another book, Door into the Dark, appeared in 1969, and a third, Wintering Out, in 1972, both of which greatly enhanced Heaney's steadily rising reputation.
In the academic year 1970-1971, Heaney was a guest lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley, a move that proved to be the first step toward a more or less permanent exile from his native Ulster. The decision to go to Berkeley came less than a year after the civil rights movement on behalf of Ulster Catholics had erupted into violence. In California Heaney found an equally charged political atmosphere and, more important, he became convinced there by what he saw among anti-Vietnam War activists that poetry need not be alienated from politics. As he said later in an interview:
I could see a close connection between the political and
cultural assertions being made at that time by the minority
in the north of Ireland and the protests and consciousness-raising
that were going on in the Bay Area.
And the poets were a part of this and also, pre-eminently,
part of the protest against the Vietnam war. So
that was probably the most important influence I came
under in Berkeley, that awareness that poetry was a
force, almost a mode of power, certainly a mode of resistance.
("An Interview with SeamusHeaney," Ploughshares, p. 20)
A year after his return from California, Heaney and his wife moved with their two sons from Belfast to a house in a rural area of County Wicklow, south of Dublin, known as Glanmore. It was a momentous move in several ways. First, Heaney was giving up the security of his teaching post at Queen's and committing his life fully to writing poetry. Second, he was quite consciously making himself into an exile. The move was seen by some of his fellow Ulstermen as a betrayal, but in Heaney's view it was a necessary break, giving him the distance he needed to write and to think about his writing. The four years in Glanmore were, Heaney later wrote, "an important growth time when I was asking myself questions about the proper function of poets and poetry and learning a new commitment to the art." That new commitment led to two important books, each of which, in different ways, confronted the crisis that Heaney had left behind in Belfast · North, published in 1975, and Field Work, published in 1979.
In 1976, Heaney and his family, which now included a daughter, Catherine Ann, born at Glanmore three years earlier, moved to Dublin, where he had been teaching since 1975 at Caryfort College, a teacher-training institution. Heaney also, in these years, began strengthening the connection with the United States begun during his year at Berkeley, giving frequent readings in America. In 1981 he resigned his post at Caryfort, and a year later accepted a one-semester-a-year position at Harvard University. In 1984, Heaney was appointed Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard, and he began dividing his time between Dublin and Cambridge. In 1984 he published Sweeney Astray, a translation of a Middle Irish romance, and Station Island, his sixth collection of poems. Another collection, The Haw Lantern, appeared in 1987. In 1989 Heaney was elected Professor of Poetry at Oxford University.
In the 1980's Heaney published two collections of critical essays · Preoccupations: Selected Prose, 1968-1978 (1980) and The Government of the Tongue: The 1986 T S. Eliot Memorial Lectures and Other Critical Writings (1988) · in which he defines the essentially Romantic poetics that underlies his art. For Heaney, the composition of a poem is a matter of "listening," of "a wise passiveness, a surrender to the energies that spring within the center of the mind" (Preoccupations, p. 63). It cannot, therefore, be willed, and cannot be dictated to by specific events, political or otherwise. "The fact is," Heaney writes, "that poetry is its own reality, and no matter how much a poet may concede to the narrative pressures of social, moral, political and historical reality, the ultimate fidelity must be to the demands and promise of the artistic event" (Government, p. 101). And so the poet must find ways of engaging the world around him in his work without sacrificing that "ultimate fidelity." In "Feeling into Words," a lecture given in 1974, five years after the outbreak of violence in Ulster, Heaney said that political pressures had forced him to realize that his art could not turn its back on what was happening in the streets of Belfast and Londonderry; but what he needed, he said, was not polemical arguments but "images and symbols adequate to our predicament":
I felt it imperative to discover a field of force in which,
without abandoning fidelity to the processes and experience
of poetry . . . it would be possible to encompass the
perspectives of humane reason and at the same time to
grant the religious intensity of the violence its deplorable
authenticity and complexity.
That "authenticity and complexity" is the poet's domain; his aim must be, Heaney says, to reach down and back into his country's history, psychology, and mythology to uncover all the forces "implicit in the terms Irish Catholic and Ulster Protestant."
DEATH OF A NATURALIST
Heaney's first book, published three years before the Ulster violence began in earnest, carries few traces of those forces. The poems in Death of a Naturalist describe Heaney's experiences growing up in Mossbawn, and do so, for the most part, neutrally. Standing behind many of them is the twentieth-century Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh, to whom Heaney has acknowledged a large debt. Kavanagh's commitment to writing about his own postage stamp of ground, a piece of land in rural County Monaghan not far in distance or character from the County Derry of Heaney's childhood, made it possible, Heaney said, for him to focus with confidence on the experiences and landscapes of his upbringing. Heaney once said that Kavanagh, more than any other Irish poet, including Yeats, gave all writers coming after him "permission to dwell without cultural anxiety among the usual landmarks of your life." Heaney's evocations of those landmarks differ from Kavanagh's, however, in their Keatsian sensuousness, their richness of sound and image. Here, for example, is a description, taken from the title poem of Death of a Naturalist, of a flax dam:
All year the flax-dam festered in the heart
Of the townland; green and heavy headed
Flax had rotted there, weighted down by huge sods.
Daily it sweltered in the punishing sun.
Bubbles gargled delicately, bluebottles
Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell.
The rich, fecund atmosphere of the dam is felt here partly in the irregular, heavily stressed lines, and in a medley of internal sound patterns, alliterative and assonantal ("flax-dam festered," "heavy headed," "rotted" and "weighted," "strong gauze, and "sound around," among others).
There is something of the musical irregularities of Gerard Manley Hopkins lurking in such passages · and Heaney had read and admired Hopkins at Queen's University: " . . . when I first put pen to paper at university, what flowed out was what flowed in, the bumpy alliterating music, the reporting sounds and ricocheting consonants typical of Hopkins's verse" · but the English poet most important to Heaney's early work is Wordsworth. For one thing, as the title of the volume suggests, Death of a Naturalist is very much concerned with the destruction of youthful illusion, and can in fact be read as a rural Irish version of Wordsworth's notion of the necessary fall from innocence into experience. But Wordsworth and the Romantics are also crucial to Heaney's poetry because of their theories of poetry. In "The Diviner," Heaney takes a phenomenon of the rural life he knew as a child and transforms it into a metaphor for a Romantic concept of poetic inspiration:
Cut from the green hedge a forked hazel stick
That he held tight by the arms of the V:
Circling the terrain, hunting the pluck
Of water, nervous, but professionally
Unfussed. The pluck came sharp as a sting.
The rod jerked down with precise convulsions,
Spring water suddenly broadcasting
Through a green aerial its secret stations.
The bystanders would ask to have a try.
He handed them the rod without a word.
It lay dead in their grasp till nonchalantly
He gripped expectant wrists. The hazel stirred.
The connection here between poet and diviner · felt particularly in that final rhyme between "word" and "stirred" · embodies a thoroughly Romantic aesthetic. As Heaney once said in discussing this poem, the poet, like the diviner, makes "contact with what lies hidden" and makes "palpable what was sensed or raised." Moreover, the comparison argues for a Wordsworthian passivity on the part of the poet · he grips the wrists of others "nonchalantly," for example · and for the Romantic notion of the poet as a chosen vessel; only the diviner has the mysterious power to find the water.
Death of a Naturalist also introduces another, somewhat similar metaphor for the process of poetic creation, and this one informs much of Heaney's later work. In the first poem in the book, "Digging," Heaney defends his work as a poet by describing it as his version of the cutting of turf done by the men in his family before him:
The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I've no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I'll dig with it.
At this point in Heaney's career, what the Romantic poet-as-archaeologist is likely to find is more individual than communal, more personal than public, as the final poem in the volume, "Personal Helicon," asserts: "I rhyme / To see myself, to set the darkness echoing."
Nonetheless, there are signs in Death of a Naturalist of more political concerns. The most ambitious poem in the volume, "At a Potato Digging," explores the relationship between present and past, specifically the past of the Great Famine of the 1840's, in which thousands of Irish died or emigrated when the potato crop failed for several consecutive years. This is a highly charged chapter in Ireland's long and troubled history · the English were (and, in some quarters, still are) blamed for much of the suffering · and Heaney uses the historical perspective to unearth certain cultural fears and attitudes, as well as to make the more general point about how current values, especially in Ireland, are inevitably shaped by the past. After a characteristically vivid description of harvested potatoes,
to the black hutch of clay
where the halved seed shot and clotted
these knobbed and slit-eyed tubers seem
the petrified hearts of drills"
the poem shifts to the past, relying on the phrase "live skulls, blind-eyed," used to describe the potatoes, as a fulcrum:
Live skulls, blind-eyed, balanced on
wild higgeldy skeletons
scoured the land in 'forty-five,
wolfed the blighted root and died.
. . .
Stinking potatoes fouled the land,
pits turned pus into filthy mounds:
and where potato diggers are
you still smell the running sore.
The ground here, like the landscape in a number of Heaney's later bog poems, is a cultural and political memory bank, a constant reminder of a history of injustice and suffering. And so, when the poem returns to the present, the relative prosperity of the contemporary potato farmer is made to seem precarious, shadowed by a disastrous past that is evoked in certain words and images associated with death and starvation, and so with the famine:
Under a gay flotilla of gulls
The rhythm deadens, the workers stop.
Brown bread and tea in bright canfuls
Are served for lunch. Dead-beat, they flop
Down in the ditch and take their fill,
Thankfully breaking timeless fasts;
Then, stretched on the faithless ground, spill
Libations of cold tea, scatter crusts.
DOOR INTO THE DARK
There are flaws in Death of a Naturalist, most of them the result of overwriting · of loading each rift with too much ore, of working too hard for the image that will shock (from "Waterfall": "water goes over / Like villains dropped screaming to justice"). Some of this is ironed out in Heaney's next book, Door into the Dark. The descriptions of rural life in Heaney's native County Derry tend to be somewhat sparer and more streamlined in this book, the lines less clogged with heavy stresses. In "Gone," for example, Heaney describes an absence rather than a presence, a place left uninhabited and therefore incomplete, all of which is reflected in the way that the poem resists the completeness of full rhyme and the stability of regular stanzas:
Green froth that lathered each end
Of the shining bit
Is a cobweb of grass-dust.
The sweaty twist of the bellyband
Has stiffened, cold in the hand
And pads of the blinkers
Bulge through the ticking.
Reins, chains and traces
Droop in a tangle.
His hot reek is lost.
The place is old in his must.
He cleared in a hurry
Clad only in shods
Leaving this stable unmade.
Similarly, the strain of violent sexuality that runs through a number of Heaney's nature poems in Death of a Naturalist is often tempered in Door into the Dark, usually by a gentle, wry sense of humor. In "Rite of Spring," Heaney playfully describes in sexual terms that are anything but threatening the process of thawing a frozen pump by wrapping it with straw and then setting the straw on fire:
. . . then a light
That sent the pump up in flame.
It cooled, we lifted her latch,
Her entrance was wet, and she came.
And there is an erotic tenderness in "Undine" that is hard to find anywhere in Death of a Naturalist. This poem retells a myth about a water spirit who has to marry a human and have a child by him before she can be human; and even though Heaney's version of the legend clearly suggests some kind of parallel between political and sexual conquest, it is finally a poem celebrating the union it describes:
He slashed the briars, shovelled up grey silt
To give me right of way in my own drains
And I ran quick for him, cleaned out my rust.
He halted, saw me finally disrobed,
Running clear, with apparent unconcern.
Then he walked by me. I rippled and I churned
Where ditches intersected near the river
Until he dug a spade deep in my flank
And took me to him. I swallowed his trench
Gratefully, dispersing myself for love
Down in his roots, climbing his brassy grain ·
But once he knew my welcome, I alone
Could give him subtle increase and reflection.
He explored me so completely, each limb
Lost its cold freedom. Human, warmed to him.
At the same time, a darkly introspective strain can be discerned in Door into the Dark. There is a poem, for example, entitled "Dream," in which Heaney describes himself driving a billhook into someone's skull; there is "The Forge," in which the image of the poet-as-diviner in Death of a Naturalist is replaced by that of poet-as-blacksmith, creating in darkness ("All I know is a door into the dark"); there is a poem entitled "Shoreline," in which Heaney sees the Irish consciousness as haunted by the nightmare of invasion:
Is rummaging in
At the foot of all fields,
All cliffs and shingles.
Listen. Is it the Danes,
A black hawk bent on the sail?
Or the chinking Normans?
And, last but hardly least, there is the final poem in the collection, "Bogland" · Heaney's first bog poem · in which the landscape of the bog is presented as a memory bank holding all the past in its watery embrace, and threatening to open a door into places unknown and terrifying:
We have no prairies
To slice a big sun at evening ·
Everywhere the eye concedes to
Is wooed into the cyclops' eye
Of a tarn. Our unfenced country
Is bog that keeps crusting
Between the sights of the sun.
. . .
They'll never dig coal here,
Only the waterlogged trunks
Of great firs, soft as pulp.
Our pioneers keep striking
Inwards and downwards,
Every layer they strip
Seems camped on before.
The bogholes might be Atlantic seepage.
The wet centre is bottomless.
In "Feeling into Words" Heaney described "Bogland" as a poem that laid down "an answering Irish myth" (Preoccupations, p. 55) to the legend of the American frontier · significantly, a vertical rather than a horizontal myth. But it was not until after the violence in Northern Ireland erupted that he was able to carry this idea an important step further, to use this notion of the bog as a means of unearthing in his poetry the cultural attitudes and values that lay beneath the terrible daily events that, as a poet born and brought up in Ulster, he could not ignore.
The difference between 1969, the year Door into the Dark was published, and 1972, when his next collection, Wintering Out, appeared, is registered forcefully in the dedicatory poem to Wintering Out. Here the pastoral landscape of Heaney's childhood, evoked so vividly in his first two books, gives way to one of war:
This morning from a dewy motorway
I saw the new camp for the internees:
a bomb had left a crater of fresh clay
in the roadside, and over in the trees
machine-gun posts defined a real stockade.
There was that white mist you get on a tow ground
and it was déjà-vu, some film made
ofStalag 17,a bad dream with no sound.
Is there a life before death? That's chalked up
on a wall downtown. Competence with pain,
coherent miseries, a bite and sup,
we hug our little destiny again.
In Wintering Out, Heaney approaches this terrain of pain and misery along two principal routes · one linguistic, one metaphoric · each of which enables him to confront the violence while maintaining the integrity of his art.
Having grown up in an area both Protestant and Catholic, unionist and nationalist, Heaney understands full well the political depth charges buried in language · in the choice of one word over another, in the way the same word might be pronounced. In Wintering Out, Heaney re-views the places of his childhood through a linguistic lens, and thereby politicizes the landscape. As he said in an interview, "Wintering Out tries to insinuate itself into the roots of the political myths by feeling along the lines of language." And so the village of Toome, to the east of Mossbawn, emerges in this book more as a linguistic event than as a geographical one:
My mouth holds round
the soft blastings,
as under the dislodged
slab of the tongue
I push into a souterrain
prospecting what new
in a hundred centuries'
loam, flints, musket-balls,
torcs and fish-bones
till I am sleeved in
alluvial mud that shelves
bogwater and tributaries,
and elvers tail my hair.
Heaney is fully aware of the political implications of this kind of linguistic prospecting. The replacement of Irish by English as Ireland's principal language represents a crucial kind of conquest because it facilitates the erosion of Irish culture and traditions. Heaney does not, however, recommend turning back the clock of politics or of language. For better or worse, English is the modern Irish poet's language, and he must find ways to use the tongue of the conqueror to validate and maintain the heritage that it threatens. As he says in "A New Song":
But now our river tongues must rise
From licking deep in native haunts
To flood, with vowelling embrace,
Demesnes staked out in consonants.
If these lines argue for some kind of acceptance of English as Ireland's language · even some kind of "embrace" of those linguistic demesnes marked by consonants rather than vowels · they also, on a more strictly political level, insist that it is not realistic to assume that centuries of British presence in Ireland can be dismissed with the sweep of a hand, or of a hand grenade.
Wintering Out contains the first of Heaney's poems in which bogland is used metaphorically to interpret the conflict in Northern Ireland. In 1969, Heaney came across a photograph of a man from the Iron Age whose body was found preserved in the bogs of Jutland. The photograph appeared in a book entitled The Bog People (1969), and its author, P. V. Glob, argued that many of the bodies found strangled or with cut throats in the peat bogs of Jutland were victims of ritual sacrifices to an earth goddess, killed and buried each year to ensure the fertility of the land in the coming spring. For Heaney, as he later said in "Feeling into Words," the parallels with the political tradition of blood sacrifice in Ireland were striking:
Taken in relation to the tradition of Irish political martyrdom
for that cause whose icon is Kathleen Ni Houlihan,
this is more than an archaic barbarous rite: it is an
archetypal pattern. And the unforgettable photographs
of these victims blended in my mind with photographs
of atrocities, past and present, in the long rites of Irish
political and religious struggles.
(Preoccupations, pp. 57-58)
These correspondences came together in "The Tollund Man," a poem in which Heaney connects the Irish political tradition of blood sacrifice to a long history of fanaticism going back to the primitive Jutes, and suggests, chiefly through images of the victims, that this kind of ritualistic faith leads to sterility, not fertility:
I could risk blasphemy,
Consecrate the cauldron bog
Our holy ground and pray
Him to make germinate
The scattered, ambushed
Flesh of labourers,
Laid out in the farmyards,
Tell-tale skin and teeth
Flecking the sleepers
Of four young brothers, trailed
For miles along the lines.
Like many of Heaney's poems about the North, "The Tollund Man" also turns a critical eye on its author, exploring with candor his own ambiguous position. At the end of the poem, Heaney concedes that as an Irishman he cannot help but identify to some extent with the violence and its motives, even though he is appalled by it. Imagining driving through Jutland, he sees himself as both alienated and implicated: "Out there in Jutland / In the old man-killing parishes / I will feel lost, / Unhappy and at home."
Heaney later said that when he wrote "The Tollund Man," he realized that it represented an important development in his work:
I had a sense of crossing a line really, that my whole
being was involved in the sense of · the root sense · of
religion. . . . And that was a moment of commitment not
in the political sense but in the deeper sense of your life,
committing yourself to something. I think that brought
me a new possibility of seriousness in the poetic enterprise.
("An Interview with Seamus Heaney," Ploughshares, p. 20)
That new possibility reached its full flowering in Heaney's fourth book of poems, North, which contains a series of poems in which the metaphor of the bog is used to delve into Ireland's rich, tumultuous past, and to exhume attitudes and values that explain, insofar as explanations are possible, the violence in contemporary Ulster. The bog poems in North see that violence as part of a long line of atrocity stretching back into the dimness of ancient history, and thus as a manifestation of a deep-seated human need to resort to bloodshed in the name of one cause or another.
In "The Grabaulle Man," for example, Heaney presents an arresting image of the body of a victim found in the bogs of Jutland · "The head lifts / the chin is a visor / raised above the vent / of his slashed throat / that has tanned and toughened" · and uses it to explore the human capacity for transforming such victims into political martyrs or heroes. Heaney also worries in this poem about how the artist can transform reality, sometimes in similarly disconcerting ways. For him, the Grabaulle Man, whom he first encountered in a photograph, has become "perfected in my memory," a product of his imagination. That abstracted image needs, Heaney says, to be weighed against the brutal reality of the victim's actual death and, more to the point, against "the actual weight / of each hooded victim, / slashed and dumped" in contemporary Northern Ireland.
This notion that the poet, like the political partisan, may be guilty of remaking reality for his own purpose is part of the self-reflexive doubt that runs through much of Heaney's writing about the North. Heaney's moral ambiguity about his responsibilities is perhaps nowhere more movingly expressed than in "Punishment," a poem in which the body of a Viking adulteress dug up from the bog, still bearing the marks of her public disgrace, is connected with the contemporary practice of tarring and feathering Ulster Catholic girls caught going out with British soldiers:
before they punished you
you were flaxen-haired,
undernourished, and your
tar-black face was beautiful.
My poor scapegoat,
I almost love you
but would have cast, I know,
the stones of silence.
I am the artful voyeur
of your brain's exposed
and darkened combs,
your muscles' webbing
and all your numbered bones:
I who have stood dumb
when your betraying sisters,
cauled in tar,
wept by the railings,
who would connive
in civilized outrage
yet understand the exact
and tribal, intimate revenge.
Part of Heaney's self-questioning here has to do with his commitment to writing poems about the North rather than taking some more obviously relevant action · with being, as he says, an "artful voyeur" of the catastrophe. But the poem is also concerned with the broader ambivalence explored in "The Tollund Man." On the one hand, from the perspective of "civilized outrage," Heaney abhors the violence and cruelty. On the other, he understands, in his bones, the feelings that lie behind it; as an Irishman · and as a human being · he cannot help but identify with that desire for "a tribal, intimate revenge."
North is divided into two sections, a division that proves significant in the development of Heaney's poetry. At the end of the first section of the book, in a poem titled "Hercules and Antaeus," Heaney retells the classical story of how Hercules defeated Antaeus by holding him up, keeping him from the ground that nourished him:
Hercules lifts his arms
in a remorseless V,
his triumph unassailed
by the powers he has shaken
and lifts and banks Antaeus
high as a profiled ridge,
a sleeping giant,
pap for the dispossessed.
This can be read as a version of the conquest of Ireland by England, of the destruction of the dark, vertical, earth-nourished culture of the Irish at the hands of the more rational, more "enlightened" culture of the English; robbed of its contact with the soil, the Irish tradition becomes "a sleeping giant" or, worse, "pap for the dispossessed." For Heaney, however, this myth had an additional significance; it represented an attempt on his part to put behind him the vertical, archaeological poetry of the first part of his career, and to try to establish for himself a more open, more socially conscious, more public voice. As he said in an interview, Hercules for him "represents the possibility of the play of intelligence," and he was at this time looking in his own work for "an intonation that could be called public," a voice that is "set out . . . a voice that could talk out as well as go into a trance" ("Seamus Heaney," Viewpoints: Poets in Conversation, p. 70).
That new Hercules voice sounds distinctly in the second part of North. "Whatever You Say Say Nothing," for example, is informed by the same self-criticism at work in "The Grabaulle Man" and "Punishment," but in this poem Heaney's questions about the efficacy of his art are expressed directly, even colloquially, and the richly suggestive metaphor of the bog is replaced by direct references to the seventeenth-century Battle of the Boyne:
Christ, it's near time that some small leak was sprung
In the great dykes the Dutchman made
To dam the dangerous tide that followedSeamus.
Yet for all this art and sedentary trade
I am incapable. The famous
Northern reticence, the tight gag of place
And times: yes, yes. Of the "wee six" I sing
Where to be saved you only must save face
And whatever you say, you say nothing.
The tone here is uncharacteristically acerbic, but that note of candid, critical self-examination informs much of Heaney's poetry in the late 1970's and 1980's. In the last poem of North, "Exposure," Heaney directs that inquiring gaze at his decision to move to Wicklow in 1972. To some extent, the poem can be read as a defense of that move · Heaney says that he is "neither internee nor informer" · but the poem ends in genuine doubt about the morality of his choosing to leave Ulster behind him, and about what he might have lost, as a poet, by doing so:
I am neither internee nor informer;
An inner émigré, grown long-haired
And thoughtful; a wood-kerne
Escaped from the massacre,
Taking protective colouring
From bole and bark, feeling
Every wind that blows;
Who, blowing up these sparks
For their meagre heat, have missed
The once-in-a-lifetime portent,
The comet's pulsing rose.
Whatever misgivings Heaney might have entertained when he was writing North, the move to Glanmore and the full commitment to writing proved to be, at least for his readers, good decisions. Heaney's next collection, Field Work · a book very much tied, as its title suggests, to Heaney's experience in Glanmore · was received by many critics as his most accomplished book by far. It also carried Heaney considerably forward in his attempt to develop a more Herculean poetics. In an interview conducted the year Field Work was published, Heaney said, "I remember writing a letter to Brian Friel [the Irish playwright] just after North was published, saying I no longer wanted a door into the dark · I want a door into the light" ("An Interview with Seamus Heaney," Ploughshares, p. 20). In the remarkably flexible and open voice that characterizes most of the poems in it, and in Heaney's willingness to speak directly and often autobiographically about events in the North, Field Work clearly opens that door.
Heaney's response to the Ulster violence in this book takes the form largely of elegies written about people he knew. Although this approach might be seen as a means of sidestepping unqualified political commitment · and Heaney does seem to be taking his cue in these poems from Yeats's observation in "Easter 1916" that the poet's role in such matters is chiefly "To murmur name upon name" · the form of the elegy provides Heaney with a way of writing about the pressing political and social realities of his native Ulster while maintaining the aesthetic distance from outright advocacy that he sees as necessary for the poet. This need for poetic independence is itself the theme of several of the elegies in Field Work. In perhaps the most moving of them, "Casualty," Heaney identifies his poetic self with a Catholic fisherman named Louis O'Neill, who was killed when he violated a curfew in Belfast. The curfew was imposed by Catholics in mourning for thirteen men shot to death by British paratroopers; O'Neill was killed, in other words, not because of any political actions on his part but because he ignored restrictions placed on his individual freedom in the name of political necessity · placed there by his own "side" in the conflict.
Heaney's admiration for the fisherman rests on O'Neill's willingness to follow his own instincts, but characteristically, when he describes the scene of O'Neill's death, he asks a question that clearly interrogates his own instincts to steer clear of political advocacy in his art: "How culpable was he / That last night when he broke / Our tribe's complicity?" Nonetheless, Heaney insists that the poet must aim for some point beyond the day-to-day conflict. At the end of the poem, the scene of O'Neill's funeral dissolves into a memory of a fishing expedition that Heaney and O'Neill once took together, a memory in which Heaney both defines his essentially Romantic aesthetics (the poet, like the fisherman, hauls "off the bottom" and must surrender to rhythms and feelings that are "working you"), and affirms his faith in the need for the poet to follow his instincts "well out" and "beyond" the press of daily events:
I missed his funeral,
Those quiet walkers
And sideways talkers
Shoaling out of his lane
To the respectable
Purring of the hearse . . .
They move in equal pace
With the habitual
Of a dawdling engine,
The line lifted, hand
Over fist, cold sunshine
On the water, the land
Banked under fog: that morning
I was taken in his boat,
The screw purling, turning
Indolent fathoms white,
I tasted freedom with him.
To get out early, haul
Steadily off the bottom,
Dispraise the catch, and smile
As you find a rhythm
Working you, slow mile by mile,
Into your proper haunt
Somewhere, well out, beyond . . .
In the years before Robert Lowell's death in 1977, Lowell and Heaney became well acquainted, and when Lowell died, Heaney wrote an elegy for him in which Lowell becomes the vehicle for Heaney's faith in the independence and integrity of art. From Heaney's point of view, he and Lowell had much in common; just as Heaney's writing had been inevitably shaped by the sectarian violence in Ulster, so Lowell had had to fashion his art in the context of the Vietnam War and a range of powerful political and social forces, some of which Heaney had observed during the year he spent at Berkeley at the beginning of the 1970's. "You drank America / like the heart's / iron vodka," Heaney says in "Elegy," but what he most admired about Lowell was his unwavering commitment, in the face of personal and public catastrophe, to "promulgating art's / deliberate, peremptory / love and arrogance."
If Kavanagh can be seen as an important influence in Heaney's early poems, Lowell strongly affected Heaney's work in the late 1970's and 1980's. That influence is most distinctly felt in the "Glanmore Sonnets," a sequence of ten poems in Field Work in which Heaney, taking Lowell's late sonnets as his model, defends his commitment to art, particularly to the new voice, something like Lowell's, that he is working to establish. The second sonnet, for example, drawing on the same kind of colloquial but compressed diction and rhythms observable in Lowell's sonnets, and written in the same autobiographical mode, describes this position:
Then I landed in the hedge-school of Glanmore
And from the backs of ditches hoped to raise
A voice caught back off slug-horn and slow chanter
That might continue, hold, dispel, appease:
Vowels ploughed into other, opened ground,
Each verse returning like the plough turned round.
By the time Field Work was published, the Wicklow experiment was over. Also, Heaney had lived through a decade in which his native Ulster was racked by sectarian violence · a situation that again and again had tested his commitment to being a poet. If the poems of Field Work may be taken as a reliable barometer, Heaney emerged from that test with a strengthened faith in his art; it is there in his elegy to Lowell, in the "Glanmore Sonnets," and, perhaps most movingly, in a poem titled "The Harvest Bow," set in the rural County Derry of his childhood. The poem opens with a description of Heaney's father tying a harvest bow from strands of straw, one of the local rituals that both defined a sense of place for Heaney and harkened back to a long tradition of lore and superstition, of magic and poetry:
As you plaited the harvest bow
You implicated the mellowed silence in you
In wheat that does not rust
But brightens as it tightens twist by twist
Into a knowable corona,
A throwaway love-knot of straw.
Like a poem or a story, the harvest bow opens a path for memory and imagination to travel. The middle of the poem recalls Heaney as a child out walking with his father, "You with a harvest bow in your lapel," a memory that leads to a final affirmation of a thoroughly Romantic faith in art's capacity to evoke the reality of the spirit, and thereby make something happen:
The end of art is peace
Could be the motto of this frail device
That I have pinned up on our deal dresser ·
Like a drawn snare
Slipped lately by the spirit of the corn
Yet burnished by its passage, and still warm.
This trust in art's authority, and the corresponding commitment to artistic independence, are major themes of Heaney's poetry in the 1980's. If the Tollund man or the Grabaulle man is the dominating figure in much of Heaney's work in the 1970's, in the following decade it is Mad Sweeney, the poet-hero of a Middle Irish romance and, for Heaney, a powerful symbol of poetic freedom. The story of Sweeney, which surfaced in Ireland in written form sometime between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries, is one of rebellion against the establishment: Sweeney, a king, is put under a curse by a saint after preventing the construction of a church in his kingdom, and is transformed through the curse into a birdlike creature condemned to wander in exile and apparent madness. In his exile, Sweeney discovers that he has a gift for poetry, and much of the tale consists of the poems about Ireland that he writes in his wanderings.
This tale has been used by several modern Irish writers · most notably Flann O'Brien in his comic metafictional novel At Swim-Two-Birds · to explore the relationship between the artist and society. While he was living in Wicklow, Heaney worked on his translation of the story, publishing it in Ireland as Sweeney Astray in 1983. In his introduction he makes clear the ways in which, as a contemporary poet from Ulster living out of Ulster, he identifies with the figure of Mad Sweeney. "Insofar as Sweeney is also a figure of the artist," he says, "displaced, guilty, assuaging himself by his utterance, it is possible to read the work as an aspect of the quarrel between free creative imagination and the constraints of religious, political, and domestic obligation."
This quarrel is at the center of Heaney's most important book of the 1980's, Station Island, arguably one of the most ambitious and accomplished collection of poems that he has published. The book is divided into three sections: a collection of various lyrics; a twelve-poem sequence entitled "Station Island" and based on a famous religious pilgrimage made by Irish Catholics; and a group of poems collected under the heading "Sweeney Redivivus" and spoken in the voice of a contemporary Sweeney. Several of the lyrics in the first section of the book explore the conflict between "free creative imagination" and the political obligations arising from the violence in Ulster, concluding with the same ambiguity and self-doubt that color much of Heaney's earlier work concerned with this question. In "Sandstone Keepsake," for example, Heaney depicts himself, in a clearly self-deprecating way, as inhabiting a world of illusion, alienated from social and political realities. The poem recalls an evening when he was out wading in an estuary across from a soldiers' camp:
Anyhow, there I was with the wet red stone
in my hand, staring across at the watch-towers
from my free state of image and allusion,
swooped on, then dropped by trained binoculars:
a silhouette not worth bothering about,
out for the evening in scarf and waders
and not about to set times wrong or right,
stooping along, one of the venerators.
An even less forgiving self-indictment occurs in the eighth section of "Station Island," describing an imagined encounter between Heaney, on his pilgrimage to Lough Derg, and the ghost of a cousin killed in the Ulster fighting and remembered earlier in a poem in Field Work titled "The Strand at Lough Beg." That poem opens with an epigraph taken from Dante's Purgatorio, and in "Station Island," Heaney turns this back on himself with a vengeance. The cousin tells him:
You confused evasion and artistic tact.
The Protestant who shot me through the head
accuse directly, but indirectly, you
who now atone perhaps upon this bed
for the way you whitewashed ugliness and drew
the lovely blinds of thePurgatorio
and saccharined my death with morning dew.
If Heaney seems in some ways to be atoning in "Station Island" for such poetic sins, on the whole this dream version of the actual pilgrimage that Irish Catholics have been making to Lough Derg for centuries to atone for their sins describes a renewed and strengthened faith in his art, and in his commitment to maintaining the aesthetic distance that he sees as necessary to it. On his imagined pilgrimage, Heaney meets a series of ghosts from his past and from the tradition of Irish literature · among others, a man named Simon Sweeney from his childhood (another version of Mad Sweeney), the Irish novelist William Carleton (whose "Lough Derg Pilgrim" is a centerpiece of nineteenth-century satire on Catholic superstition), Patrick Kavanagh, and James Joyce. Most of them advise him to steer clear of what Joyce's Stephen Dedalus describes as the nets of nationality, language, and religion. "Stay clear of all processions!" old Simon Sweeney tells Heaney just as he feels himself being swept up in the crowd of pilgrims heading for Lough Derg (section 1). Carleton, authorized by his own Sweeney-like rebellion against conventionality · both in his life and in his art · reminds Heaney that, for the artist, all experience must be seen as secondary; looking around at the pilgrims, he says, "All this is like a trout kept in a spring / or maggots sewn in wounds · / another life that cleans our element" (section 2).
Appropriately enough, it is Joyce · the exile who rebelled against nationality, language, and religion and then spent his life writing about them from a distance · who gets the last word in "Station Island." He begins by telling Heaney that "Your obligation / is not discharged by any common rite." "That subject people stuff is," in Joyce's view, "a cod's game, / infantile, like your peasant pilgrimage." His final piece of advice · and the last voice that Heaney hears in "Station Island" · blends Joycean references to signatures and circles with Heaney's archaeological imagery of soundings, searches, and probes to make a powerful appeal for the kind of artistic authority and independence that, for Heaney and many other modern writers, Joyce is a model of:
You lose more of yourself than you redeem
doing the decent thing. Keep at a tangent.
When they make the circle wide, it's time to swim
out on your own and fill the element
with signatures on your own frequency,
echo soundings, searches, probes, allurements,
elver-gleams in the dark of the whole sea.
That Heaney was listening to these voices, especially Joyce's, is evident in the "Sweeney Redivivus" section of Station Island. In a strikingly postmodern gesture, Heaney produces in these poems still another version of the Sweeney story that he translated and published as Sweeney Astray, this time written in the idiom of contemporary speech, and with Sweeney and Heaney more obviously, and sometimes quite overtly, merged into one figure of the contemporary poet. In "The First Flight," the reborn Sweeney unambiguously pictures himself as having escaped those Joycean nets that Heaney sees as threatening to the poet's independence and integrity, and he does so in terms that obviously invoke Heaney's situation as an Ulster-born poet confronted with the conflict in Northern Ireland:
I was mired in attachment
until they began to pronounce me
a feeder off battlefields
so I mastered new rungs of the air
to survey out of reach
their bonfires on hills, their hosting
and fasting, the levies from Scotland
as always, and the people of art
diverting their rhythmical chants
to fend off the onslaught of winds
I would welcome and climb
at the top of my bent.
"The Cleric" retells the story of Mad Sweeney's reaction to the saint's attempts to build a church in his kingdom but, again, its language and implications are distinctly contemporary:
If he had stuck to his own
cramp-jawed abbesses and intoners
dibbling round the enclosure,
his Latin and blather of love,
his parchments and scheming
in letters shipped over water ·
but no, he overbore
with his unctions and orders,
he had to get in on the ground.
Heaney's attitudes toward the Irish Catholicism of his upbringing are considerably more moderate than Sweeney's are here · he once said in an interview, "I've never felt any need to rebel or do a casting-off of God or anything like that" · but at the end of this poem, Sweeney and Heaney merge completely again, this time in an assertion of how the poet may achieve independence through confrontation with opposition, with those forces of "religious, political, and domestic obligation" that seem so powerfully ranged against his art. Sweeney here argues that even though it may seem that he has lost his battle with the saint, it was the struggle that enabled him to see the importance of his ultimate commitment to poetic freedom:
History that planted its standards
on his gables and spires
ousted me to the marches
of skulking and whingeing.
Or did I desert?
Give him his due, in the end
he opened my path to a kingdom
of such scope and neuter allegiance
my emptiness reigns at its whim.
If this is Mad Sweeney recrowned as poet rather than political ruler, it is also Heaney crowned as a contemporary Irish poet, an artist of "neuter allegiance" who reigns by virtue of his "emptiness," his refusal to permit the political demands of the moment to control his art. And if there is a Yeatsian swell to the last line, it is one to which Heaney has, by this time in his career, earned every right.
Given Heaney's views on the precarious status and nature of art, that version of the poet as ruler, however high it may ride on the winds of Yeatsian self-confidence, cannot reign without qualification. Station Island does not end with it; the book instead concludes with the decidedly less ebullient image of the poet searching for inspiration, waiting for the spirit to "raise a dust / in the font of exhaustion" ("On the Road").
THE HAW LANTERN
And it is that image which characterizes much of the atmosphere of The Haw Lantern (1987). Heaney was forty-eight when this book was published, and many of the poems in it are clearly the work of someone who has, in his life and art, been increasingly forced to confront loss. At the center of the book · in much the same way the "Glanmore Sonnets are at the center of Field Work · is a sequence of sonnets titled "Clearances," written in response to the death of Heaney's mother in 1984. These poems offer moving testimony to Heaney's relationship with his mother and to his grief at her passing, but they are also, in the self-reflexive manner of much of his writing, concerned with the relationship between his mother's death and his writing about his mother's death. More specifically, they have to do with the question of how art is able to convert absence into presence, to create an artificial reality out of the loss of an actual one. In the final poem of the sequence, Heaney gets at this question by recalling a chestnut tree that he had planted when he was a child and that has since been cut down. The loss of the tree · like the loss of his mother · leaves a real vacuum, but in the hands of the artist that absence is made palpable, and the poem seeks to provide access to a spiritual reality made possible by a physical loss. What is empty is also, for the artist, "utterly a source":
I thought of walking round and round a space
Utterly empty, utterly a source
Where the decked chestnut tree had lost its place
In our front hedge above the wallflowers.
. . .
Deep planted and long gone, my coeval
Chestnut from a jam jar in a hole,
Its heft and hush become a bright nowhere,
A soul ramifying and forever
Silent, beyond silence listened for.
Poems like this clearly break new ground for Heaney, whose work tends to be deeply rooted in actual landscapes. In the essay "The Placeless Heaven: Another Look at Kavanagh," Heaney describes this new concern with the poetic evocation of the spiritual by comparing the early, realistic rural poems of Patrick Kavanagh with the spiritually inclined verse that Kavanagh, after recovering from what was thought to be a terminal illness, wrote late in his career. Heaney specifically talks about the image of the chestnut tree in the final sonnet of "Clearances":
. . .all of a sudden, a couple of years ago, I began to think
of the space where the tree had been or would have been.
In my mind's eye I saw it as a kind of luminous emptiness,
a warp and waver of light, and once again, in a way
that I find hard to define, I began to identify with that
space just as years before I had identified with the young
Except that this time it was not so much a matter of
attaching oneself to a living symbol of being rooted in
the native ground; it was more a matter of preparing to
be unrooted, to be spirited away into some transparent,
yet indigenous afterlife. The new place was all idea, if
you like; it was generated out of my experience of the old
place but it was not a topographical location. It was and
remains an imagined realm, even if it can be located at
an earthly spot, a placeless heaven rather than a heavenly
This is a richly Romantic passage, one showing that Wordsworth's importance for Heaney has become, if anything, even greater in his later work than it was in his earlier. In a poem titled "Hailstones," Heaney uses a distinctly Wordsworthian moment, or "spot of time," to evoke the idea of this placeless heaven that he sees as the rightful province of the poet. This poem, an important one for tracking recent changes in Heaney's poetics, opens with a striking metaphor for the notion of art as a process that is constantly consuming the experience on which it builds, constantly creating an absence by transforming the terms of experience into the terms of art:
I made a small hard ball
of burning water running from my hand
just as I make this now
out of the melt of the real thing
smarting into its absence.
The poem concludes with a decidedly Romantic memory of a prophetic moment just after the end of a hail shower, a moment through which Heaney insists on art's capacity to create beauty and perfection out of the bleakly ordinary and transient:
. . .there you had
the truest foretaste of your aftermath ·
in that dilation
when the light opened in silence
and a car with wipers going still
laid perfect tracks in the slush.
Much of The Haw Lantern is concerned with how art makes perfect tracks in the slush of experience, and an important part of that experience for Heaney is the political situation in contemporary Northern Ireland. In "From the Frontier of Writing," Heaney focuses on the process of artistic creation · in this case an experience connected to the Ulster violence · and he insists on the value of that process. In a postmodern gesture, the poem provides two versions of the same event: being stopped by soldiers at a roadblock. The first, supposedly the immediate, realistic account before the event is filtered through memory and imagination, underscores the feeling of emptiness or absence that the experience engendered:
and everything is pure interrogation
until a rifle motions and you move
with guarded unconcerned acceleration ·
a little emptier, a little spent
as always by that quiver in the self,
subjugated, yes, and obedient.
In the second version of the incident, that loss is converted into gain through the power of the imagination to remake reality ("So you drive on to the frontier of writing / where it happens again"). The result is not subjugation but a kind of freedom:
And suddenly you're through, arraigned yet freed,
as if you'd passed from behind a waterfall
on the black current of a tarmac road
past armour-plated vehicles, out between
the posted soldiers flowing and receding
like tree shadows into the polished windscreen.
Art's ability to re-create experience is also investigated in The Haw Lantern through an exploration of allegory, fantasy, and parable. Even a listing of some of the titles in this volume indicates this interest in the wide variety of transforming forms that the artist has to hand: "Parable Island," "From the Republic of Conscience," "From the Land of the Unspoken," "The Song of the Bullets," "From the Canton of Expectation," "The Mud Vision," "The Riddle." In a number of these poems, Heaney specifically examines the political realities of contemporary Ireland through these deliberately distorting lenses (from "The Land of the Unspoken": "We are a dispersed people whose history / is a sensation of opaque fidelity"; from "Parable Island": "Although they are an occupied nation / and their only border is an inland one / they yield to nobody in their belief / that the country is an island"). "The Mud Vision," a characteristically self-doubting poem, questions whether the visionary power of poetry can have much effect on the real world. In this poem, Heaney imagines the routine of contemporary life in Ireland disrupted by the sudden appearance of a vision, "as if a rose window of mud / Had invented itself out of the glittery damp, / . . . sullied yet lucent." This symbol of spiritual possibility, or at least of radical societal reformation, is never understood, however; and when it fades, it leaves behind nothing but ignorance:
One day it was gone and the east gable
Where its trembling corolla had balanced
Was starkly a ruin again, with dandelions
Blowing high up on the ledges, and moss
That slumbered on through its increase. As cameras raked
The site from every angle, experts
Began their post factum jabber and all of us
Crowded in tight for the big explanations.
Just like that, we forgot that the vision was ours,
Our one chance to know the incomparable
And dive to a future. What might have been origin
We dissipated in news. The clarified place
Had retrieved neither us nor itself . . .
For Heaney, it seems, there must always be some nagging doubts about the worth of those clarified places that his art makes. At the very least, he is too much a postmodern poet not to be constantly scrutinizing himself and his work, constantly worrying about whether, in the end, poetry can make anything happen. In the title poem of The Haw Lantern, Heaney settles on a somewhat unlikely image to convey this postmodern need for the artist to monitor himself tirelessly; the poem describes the hawthorn berry as taking the form of Diogenes and his lantern, ever on the search for "one just man." It is a passage that says much about Heaney's own efforts to be both a poet and a just man:
But sometimes when your breath plumes in the frost
it takes the roaming shape of Diogenes
with his lantern, seeking one just man;
so you end up scrutinized from behind the haw
he holds up at eye-level on its twig,
and you flinch before its bonded pith and stone,
its blood-prick that you wish would test and clear you,
its pecked-at ripeness that scans you, then moves on.
Given who he is and the world in which he lives, it seems unlikely that Heaney can ever finally be tested and cleared. At the heart of his poetry is both a faith in the efficacy of his art and the need for constant reexamination of that faith. And if this is a process that seems to have no end, it is also one that perhaps identifies the position of the poet in contemporary society. Moreover, there is certainly much to admire in the candor and courage with which Heaney puts himself through the process, and in his unwavering if never wholly unqualified belief that poetry can make something happen, even if that something is not always immediately clear, not always even visible.
From: Gregory A. Schirmer. "Seamus (Justin) Heaney." British Writers, Supplement 2, edited by George Stade, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1992.