Seamus Heaney has identified the precise moment at which the process of writing poetry “moved from being simply a matter of achieving the satisfactory verbal icon to being a search for images and symbols adequate to our predicament. “1 It was the “summer of 1969”, when the “original heraldic murderous encounter between Protestant yeoman and Catholic rebel was… initiated again”. 2 Thus the predicament to which Heaney refers in his statement is specifically the resurrection of the sectarian violence that has plagued Northern Ireland for centuries.
However, the poetry of Seamus Heaney is not exclusively concerned with the political climate of his birthplace: it is merely one of a number of concerns that informs his verse. The quest for symbols to communicate the crisis in Northern Ireland at that time forms only a part of the poet’s repertoire, and is primarily manifested in the collection North, although it does also find expression in other collections. In both earlier in later work, Heaney conducts a search for adequate expression of other concerns, whether this expression is through the conceived symbol or by way of a more unobtrusive conversational style. Requiem for the Croppies’ foreshadows Heaney’s fascination with the perpetuation of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland. The poem implies that the seeds of rebellion were sown in the uprising of the United Irishmen of 1798, and further rebellions will inevitably occur. The word “barley” links the first and last lines of the poem, forming a perpetual circle of nature, and of human nature predisposed to violence.
With the ‘troubles’ in Northern Ireland at the forefront of Heaney’s mind from 1969, his poetry became suffused with notions of violence, division and struggle, and the sacrifice of the individual for the benefit of some greater cause. Heaney’s quest to effectively express the state of Northern Ireland was considerably aided by his discovery of P. V. Glob’s book entitled The Bog People. The book, with its images of ancient victims of sacrifice to the Earth Goddess known as Nerthus, provided Heaney with “befitting emblems of adversity”3 because they formed an imaginative parallel to the events in Northern Ireland.
Despite the disparate geography, culture and timescales that divide them, there is an analogy between these sacrificial victims preserved for thousands of years in the bogs of Jutland, and the victims of recent and contemporary bloodshed in Northern Ireland. Both have been subject to the barbarism of human nature in the name of some greater good, specifically to appease the Earth Mother – Nerthus and Kathleen ni Houlihan respectively.
Because of the political climate at the time they were written, the poems that make up North are overwhelmingly influenced by the bogland emblem. I began to get an idea of the bog as the memory of the landscape, or a landscape that remembered everything that happened in and to it. “4 It provides a means of continuity between past and present, and between different cultures. The landscape becomes, in effect, a physical memory: “I had a tentative unrealized need to make a congruence between memory and bogland and, for want of a better word, our national consciousness. “5 The bog poem ‘Strange Fruit’ self-consciously considers the opinion that the poet should adopt towards a “girl’s head”.
The poem depicts her “leathery beauty” and refers to her as a “perishable treasure”; but by the very act of describing her the poet stands in danger of revering the violence that rendered her a fascinating “strange fruit”, the same violence that has claimed more recent victims in Heaney’s country of birth and the very violence he wishes to condemn. Ambiguity of personal response is also dealt with in ‘Punishment’. Heaney takes the role of “the artful voyeur”, witnessing the desecration of the girl recovered from the bog who was once: flaxen-haired, undernourished, and your ar-black face was beautiful.
There is a strong identification with the sacrificial victim on Heaney’s part, as the poet keenly feels her suffering: I can feel the tug of the halter at the nape of her neck, the wind on her naked front. Heaney transcends the thousands of years that separate their lifetimes because of his ability to recognise the ritual brutality of man: “yet understand the exact/ and tribal, intimate revenge. ” The adoption of the emblem of the bogland enables him to “define and interpret the present by bringing it into a significant relationship to the past. 6 This strong identification with the anonymous girl stirs in the poet a social conscience, relating not only to the specific plight of this victim but generally, to all victims of violence.
There is an acknowledgement that he has conspired in the deaths of these martyrs by remaining silent and allowing the reprehensible brutality to occur: “[I] would have cast, I know, / the stones of silence. ” Although the analogy of the bog, with its implications for the crisis in Northern Ireland, is concentrated in North, there are nevertheless several occurrences of this imagery in other volumes of Heaney’s poetry, albeit undeveloped.
Bogland’, from Door into the Dark, discusses the preserving properties of the terrain of the title: Butter sunk under More than a hundred years Was recovered salty and white. This poem establishes the idea of the physical earth forming an important aspect of national identity. “We are not simply inhabitants of a geographical country”7; this terrain informs the mind and identity. ‘The Tollund Man’ which is featured in Wintering Out demonstrates how Heaney has seized the fecund symbol of the bog as one “adequate to our predicament”.
His fascination with the fruits of the bog is evident from the outset, with the promise that: “Some day I will go to Aarhus / To see his peat-brown head”. The poet closely identifies with the victim reclaimed from the earth; Heaney and the Tollund Man are closely aligned through the syntax of the poem. The delivery of the line: “I will stand a long time” is delayed until the end of the third stanza of the poem, so that until then there is no explicit distinction between the two men. Indeed, the reader is unsure as to whom Heaney is referring in the lines: “Naked except for / The cap, noose and girdle”.
Such firm alignment means that the Tollund Man is treated in a sympathetic and humanising manner by Heaney: the victim is not a remote mythologised figure, but a very tangible and immediate one. Comparisons with the contemporary situation in Northern Ireland are invited by reference to “the old man-killing parishes”: there is the suggestive analogy between one of Glob’s bog people and the victims of Irish political violence. The seductive attraction of the earth is more overt, as the bog is rendered in almost sexual terms: She tightened her torc on him
And opened her fen, Those dark juices working. The earth comes to possess a predatory sexuality, and Heaney recognises the sensuous attractiveness of sacrifice to the alluring Mother Earth: “Bridegroom to the goddess. ” It is no coincidence that the Tollund Man was sacrificed to ensure the fertility of the crops, which can be seen as the product of the sexual embrace of the earth and her male victim. The images and symbols provided by Glob’s The Bog People fulfilled Heaney’s search for an adequate analogical structure to fully express the recurrent violence in Ireland.
Although all his poetry does not exhibit this singularity of purpose, Heaney’s work is nevertheless “a matter of achieving the satisfactory verbal icon”8, characterised by a constant quest for fresh and satisfactory forms of expression. Seamus Heaney has stated: “My hope is that the poems will be vocables adequate to my whole experience”9. As the New Selected Poems charts the poet’s progress, from the sensory explorations of childhood to the more reflective figure of the mature poet, we are able to see how the scope of each poem affects the terms in which it is expressed.
The first volume of poems, Death of a Naturalist, takes a youthful perspective and marks the birth of Heaney’s poetic art. Grounded in the experiences of childhood, the subject matter of these poems is limited to the immediate physical circumstances of the poet and his own selfish desires and emotions, with no awareness of anything outside himself or his environment. The title poem ‘Death of a Naturalist’ evokes a richly sensuous world, offering a wealth of exciting possibilities to the child.
The child’s viewpoint is created through enjambement, which replicates a child’s ebullient speech, and by an immature vocabulary: “Miss Walls would tell us how / The daddy frog was called a bullfrog”. It is an intensely evocative and descriptive poem, rich in detail and constantly appealing to the senses: “Bubbles gargled delicately, bluebottles / Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell. ” But this natural world offers not only imaginative possibilities, but untold terrors and the threat of violence. The reassuring maternal environment is at once transformed into one of disappointment and insecurities: “I sickened, turned, and ran.
The great slime kings / Were gathered there for vengeance. ” Heaney’s early poems relate the search for an adequate voice, and ‘Digging’ forms the first stage in this search: “Finding a voice means that you can get your own feeling into your own words and that the words have a feel of you about them. “10 Heaney, sitting inert at a window in an act of composition11, witnesses his father, and imaginatively his grandfather, engaged in creative physical labour. There is continuity across generations, but simultaneously the awareness that the link of rural, traditional labour binding the family has been broken.
Rather than the literal act of digging, poetry takes on an excavating role and becomes “a dig for finds”, an image that precedes the imaginative parallels of the archaeological digs in Jutland. Thus from the first poem in New Selected Poems, a sense of division is present. Even from a young age, Heaney was conscious of the division that permeates his life and informs much of his poetry: “For if this was the country of community, it was also the realm of division… the lines of sectarian antagonism and affiliation followed the boundaries of the land. 12 Poetry is born out of an acute sense of division: “Poetry… is out of the quarrel with ourselves”13 In Death of a Naturalist Heaney delineates the dichotomies that are an enduring feature of his life.
In later work, he seeks to achieve a balance between the artistic and the rural, the past and the present, and the disparate worlds of the child and the adult. ‘Personal Helicon’ exhibits the childish drive for the exploration of depth and darkness, and introduces as its parallel the act of writing poetry, both of which seek to uncover what is buried. 4 This poem bears out Heaney’s intention to “gesture towards this idea of poetry as a point of entry into the buried life of the feelings or as a point of exit for it. Words are themselves doors. “15 Poetry offers a means of self-exploration, the chance to “rhyme / To see myself”. In ‘Personal Helicon’ the poet conducts a search for a door into the uncharted darkness of the subconscious, from which the material of poetry surfaces. The need to penetrate the darkness in the hope of achieving some light or knowledge is an impulse puissant both in youth and in maturity.
Furthermore ‘Personal Helicon’, in its inclusion of “big-eyed Narcissus” and the Helicon, introduces the notion of the myth, which in his later work – and particularly in the bog poems in which the bog comes to assume a mythological status – becomes an important force for Heaney. The collection Death of a Naturalist is an immature finding of a poetic voice, an attempt to establish a style and subject matter and a quest to establish the proper purpose and place of poetry itself.
Although over-simplistic, Heaney’s early poetry constitutes the tentative efforts to break out of the darkness and into the light. He relates many unremarkable predicaments, none as pertinent as the Ireland crisis, and employs sensuous but simple imagery to do this. In his early work Seamus Heaney found a means of poetic expression and considered in their infancy issues such as division, the importance of landscape and nature and the proper role of art and poetry.
This subject matter then gave way to an exploration of the violence in Northern Ireland with reference to the ancient sacrificial rituals of Jutland. Heaney’s later work marks a departure from a focus on such universal issues, as the poet attempts to come to personal terms with the political situation in Northern Ireland. The mature poet finds himself able to express and commit to his own political loyalties in Northern Ireland with new-found confidence. In Field Work, the scope of Heaney’s poetry widens.
The political dimension to Heaney’s poetry is simultaneously accompanied by an appreciation of how this impinges on individual lives and identities. A historical dimension to everyday life is also central to Heaney’s consciousness. Thus the poetry is released from the limited but intense formula of the symbol communicating “our predicament”, in which the ancient ritual sacrifices to the earth goddess provided the only imaginative structure. Later poems exhibit more discursive style, with longer lines that convey a conversational tone accompanied by a decline in linguistic intensity.
This concentration on the individual predicament does not however mark the end of the quest for fitting symbols and images. All poetry is to some extent the striving for symbols with which to communicate experience or thought. Field Work marks a change in the poetry of Heaney only in the sense that it is a search for symbols to express not a shared but an individual condition. Accordingly, the style and form of his poems is subject to considerable revision. This personal tone begins in the final poem of North, ‘Exposure’.
It is a reflective poem, written at a time when Heaney was leaving the divided Northern Ireland for a more settled existence in Eire. In it, the poet expresses his anxieties and doubts, and evaluates the proper role of his poetry: My responsible tristia. For what? For the ear? For the people? For what is said behind-backs? There is a strong political dimension to the poem; Heaney reflects that the move from north to south will be interpreted as a statement of political alignment, and the political term “inner i?? migri?? comes to refer to his own psychological state. ‘Oysters’ demonstrates Heaney’s focus on everyday events, and takes as it starting point the unremarkable social occasion of a meal. As with his earlier poetry, ‘Oysters’ is alive with rich metaphorical imagery: “My tongue was a filling estuary, / My palate hung with starlight”. Yet unlike his earlier poetry it then moves beyond a simple recollection of the past experiences to invoke a social and historical dimension, which provoke in the poet sentiments of anger and guilt.
The act of eating oysters in the present moment is suffused with historical associations, and Heaney expresses anger at his inability to exist solely in the present moment, and to create a “perfect memory”. The poem is a meditation on the difficulty of avoiding the larger contingencies of life. The possession of a social and historical consciousness prevents Heaney from living for the moment, and the only way to reconcile the past with the present is through the art of poetry: I ate the day Deliberately, that its tang
Might quicken me into verb, pure verb. In ‘Station Island’ Heaney adopts the model employed by Dante in ‘The Divine Comedy’, and confronts his ghosts in order to reassess the innate attitudes and assumptions of his earlier work. 16. It is an ambitious symbolic process: a range of different voices finds expression in this extended poem, from the lyric, to the disguised and the dramatic, and Heaney confronts both personal, public and material ghosts. By returning a voice to the dead, Heaney seeks to resolve the tensions within himself.
The various ghosts advise Heaney on his responsibilities with regard to morality and art17: What you do you must do on your own. The main thing is to write for the joy of it. Cultivate a work-lust that imagines its haven like your hands at night. Having departed from the social world at the start of the poem, he returns to it at the end with a new clarity. The ghosts of ‘Station Island’ have suggested the limits and impositions of religion and culture on the individual consciousness. 8 The extended image adopted in ‘Station Island’, though ambitious, is too predictable and over-insistent. Nevertheless, the poem was a necessary one for Heaney to write in terms of artistic integrity. It demonstrates that, although North saw the achievement of Heaney’s statement of intent – that is the discovery of “images and symbols adequate” to the predicament of political violence in Northern Ireland – the quest for the “satisfactory verbal icon” is nevertheless ongoing.
This searching for satisfactory expression may not be successful, and the symbols and images employed may not be convincing, but what is more important than attainment is the constant searching and the intellectual probing that opens up a whole new imaginative dimension to the reader. The constant quest for expression is a persistent and stimulating feature of all Heaney’s poetry.