Violence in Seamus Heaney’s Poetry

hung in the scales
with beauty and atrocity
(The Grauballe Man)

If, as Seamus Heaney says, quoting Borges, ‘poetry lies in the meeting of poem and reader, not in the lines of symbols printed on pages’,1 then we might recognise that the issues involved in the depiction of violence may differ from reader to reader or, more generally, from one national readership – in this case Irish, British, or American and other Anglophone readers – to another. We know readers have registered their approval of Heaney’s poetry in the sales figures of Waterstone‘s, Barnes & Noble‘s, and other booksellers, and this popularity has been confirmed by most of the prizes. Yet reviewers who might represent these readerships have differed widely in their responses to what the Swedish Academy praised as Heaney’s ‘analysis of the violence in Northern Ireland‘.2

This controversy moved to the centre of Heaney criticism with the publication of the poet’s fourth book North (1975). Among the majority of British critics who praised the book, Neil Corcoran differed from most in his understanding of colonial politics in Ireland and his sympathy with opposing positions. He characterised North as ‘necessary poems’ because they ‘articulate those elements of resentment and hostility at the bottom of the republican-nationalist psyche . . .’ but do so ‘oppressively, self-laceratingly, constrictedly . . .’.3 The American critic Helen Vendler offers nearly unqualified approval of North as ‘one of the crucial poetic interventions of the twentieth century’, but she refuses to read the volume as a political statement, such readings of lyric poetry being, in her view, ‘a fundamental philosophical mistake’.4 Less sure of Heaney’s achievement, Blake Morrison wrote that in certain poems in North, Heaney’s ‘poetry grants sectarian killing in Northern Ireland a historical respectability which it is not usually granted in day-to-day journalism’.5 Among the volume’s detractors, Belfast critic Edna Longley and the Belfast poet Ciaran Carson reject Part I’s ritualising and mythologising of murder which risk making Heaney, in Carson’s phrase, ‘the laureate of violence’.6

Although from autumn of 1968 on – after the publication of his first two volumes – historical events in Northern Ireland provided Heaney with images of public violence, from the beginning his poetry dwelt on rural violence and the country attitude towards death. He wrote out of his own background as the first of nine children born to a laconic cattle-dealer and small farmer and his more verbally animated wife. Born on the forty-acre farm called Mossbawn on the north side of Lough Neagh in the east of Co Derry, he might have lived his life among small farmers, fishermen and village merchants, had not the 1947 Northern Ireland Education Act allowed him to attend on scholarship St Columb’s College in Derry and then Queen’s University, Belfast, and, in Michael Parker‘s words, began ‘to prise open a gap between him and his parents’.7 Poems of the first volume Death of A Naturalist (1966) reveal the sensitive rural youth building in language and verse-structures a stay against farmyard barbarity and the violence of nature, in order ‘to see myself, he says in Personal Helicon, ‘to set the darkness echoing’.8 Among these poems are a group, ‘morbid in their infatuation with grotesque detail’, according to one American critic,9 that can also suggest Heaney’s political uncertainty.

The Early Purges (Death of Naturalist, 23), for example, seems at first reading built on opposing urban and rural attitudes toward cruelty, partly influenced by Ted Hughes’s poems exploring ‘the arrogance of blood and bone’. But Heaney’s tone is uncertain. The poem’s speaker mixes general popular assertions with the farmer’s saws (‘”Prevention of cruelty” talk cuts ice in town’) and the boy’s reactions (‘I just shrug’), so that irony is directed both at the animal-rights sentimentalist and the strong farmer. While at the time of this poem’s composition, the summer of 1964, Heaney may have been, as Parker says, ‘young, relatively unpolitical’, he would have observed decades of sectarian politics, a secondary topic of this poem. Although the Taggarts of Derry are not Calvinists (their minds ‘a white-washed kitchen/hung with texts . . .’,10 as Heaney says of another neighbour in Wintering Out, 1972), Dan Taggart participates in the terseness that characterises both sides of the Northern farming community, and he seems given to facile summaries, such as his ‘Sure isn’t it better for them now’, a sentiment not shared by the drowning kittens, their ‘soft paws scraping like mad’. The tercets – seven, mostly end-stopped stanzas that rhyme aba but eschew the ongoing narrative thrust of terza rima – effectively convey Taggart’s disconnected adages that substitute for ratiocination or more engaged, ongoing thinking.

In this and other poems in the first two volumes, the ‘grotesque detail’ concerns fears in the boy more than the sinister in nature, as the second tercet reveals:

Soft paws scraping like mad. But their tiny din
Was soon soused. They were slung on the snout
Of the pump and the water pumped in.

The eye-rhyme and assonance of ‘tiny din’, which also evokes tin, are enjambed into the next line’s variation of o, oo, ou, and u sounds that accompany the drowning. The repetition of the plosive pump and pumped in completes the drowning and allows the sound associated with the kittens, in, finally to bob to the surface, as it were. The simile that conveys the image of the kittens – ‘Like wet gloves that bobbed and shone . . .’ – hides metonymically the agents of death, Taggart’s hands within the gloves. Without reading into this image too much of the later, subtler Heaney, we can observe two implications. First, the hidden hand suggests the governmental procedure by which all citizens, subalterns as well as colonisers, help govern the body politic. Second, the mystery of death transpires beneath the water’s troubled surface, concealed from the rational, enquiring eye. As suggested in ‘Sunlight’, a prologue poem to North, Heaney evokes, when he cannot depict, what is ‘sunk past its gleam’ within the unconscious.

maxresdefaultFrom his earliest poetry, certainly from ‘Personal Helicon’ onward, the poetic speaker’s direction was downward, through digging, the ‘dark drop’, soundings, or ‘striking inward and downwards’. Such probings are part of the poet’s effort to define the self, in great part by characterising what is not self and part of the unconscious, both of himself and of his society. The boy’s first-person probings of the sources of his own fear, central to the first volume, are replaced in the second volume by the adult’s presentation, as in ‘Vision’, ‘The Forge’, and ‘The Outlaw’. In North, Heaney’s psychological intentions are obscured by the accidental conjunction of history – his personal discovery of Peter Vilhelm Glob‘s The Bog People and the resumption of the Troubles. During the composition and publication of Heaney’s first two books, Northern Ireland had remained restless but peaceful. Early in 1967, inspired in part by the Civil Rights movement in the US, the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association was founded in Belfast and joined by many of Heaney’s students at Queens. Civil rights marches began in August 1968. Eliciting unrestrained police batoning as well as provocative behaviour from diehard loyalists, they soon drew in both the British army and the IRA. Although Heaney participated in at least one march, for many months of the first years of the Troubles he was away from the North, travelling in Spain on a fellowship, teaching in Berkeley, and finally moving to Wicklow in 1972, which would lead to a permanent residence in Dublin.

Heaney’s departure from the North hardly eased the pressure on the poet to address issues of the Troubles, to speak out for justice, or otherwise to affirm, in Seamus Deane‘s words, ‘the fidelity of the poet to his community’.11 Looking back from the present, Heaney’s choices may seem determined. Helen Vendler judges that the Troubles ‘forced Heaney (who had been raised a Catholic) into becoming a poet of public as well as private life’ (Seamus Heaney, 1). In reviewing Electric Light (2001), Landon Hammer asserts that ‘when Heaney began to publish poems, the mere presence of his first name in print had a political force, since it marked him as Catholic and therefore a minority speaker in Northern Ireland, and he learned to weigh the public resonance of every poem’.12 In 1975 Conor Cruise O’Brien read North with much the same sense of Heaney’s limited choices: ‘Yeats was free to try . . . on different relations to the tragedy. Heaney’s relation to a deeper tragedy is fixed and pre-ordained’.13 Yet, Heaney was not the first Catholic poet from Ulster to write about the Troubles, and from the model of John Montague‘s Poisoned Lands, which Heaney read in 1963, but especially The Rough Field in 1972, he could find both encouragement and the basis for his own independent approach to the Troubles. Because Montague composed most of The Rough Field before the re-eruption of the Troubles, he sees the sectarian tensions of Ulster through the lenses of Elizabethan and Victorian history and the multi-layered, dream-like perspective of autobiography, ‘the bleak moors of dream’. While history and autobiography – the return to a homeland from which he is permanently separated – give Montague’s multivoiced narrative greater coolness and distance, Heaney employs myth – images of the bog burials that are detailed and obsessive – and his own composed voice to give warmth and immediacy to his more current account of the Troubles.

Heaney’s third volume Wintering Out (1972) reveals the poet’s concern for continuity between his chosen craft and those of his community. More plausibly than in ‘Digging’, where pen and spade are finally discontinuous, the analogues between the poet and local craftsmen are extended from such artisans in Door Into the Dark as the blacksmith and the thatcher to more marginal figures, such as the ‘Servant Boy’ and isolated women in Wintering Out. He often slips from T to ‘we’, and in a half-dozen poems he grounds the poet’s language in the wet and rocky aspects of his landscape, as he proclaims himself ‘lobe and larynx/of the mossy places’ (Wintering Out, 28). With a few exceptions, the poems of Wintering Out back off from violence or signal it obliquely in ‘semaphores of hurt. . .’ (74).

The most direct representation of violence in this volume occurs in The Tollund Man, a prototype of the bog poems in North and Heaney’s first creative response to the rich imagistic mine of RV. Glob‘s The Bog People, an archaelogical study of Iron Age corpses recovered from Jutland bogs.14 In 1974 Heaney said that his profound response to the photographs of these sacrificial victims to the earth goddess Nerthus arose from their parallel to ‘the tradition of Irish political martyrdom . . . whose icon is Kathleen Ni Houlihan’. He continued, This is more than an archaic barbarous rite: it is an archetypal pattern’.15 Consequently, one of these recoveries, the Tollund Man, who is described as a ‘bridegroom’ to the fertility goddess in the poem’s first section, is asked to ‘make germinate’ the bodies of four brothers killed in sectarian violence in the 1920s. Most of the final section records the poet’s imagined response as he makes his pilgrimage to this corpse’s site in Jutland. Neil Corcoran finds the emotional centre of this poem elsewhere than does Heaney in his 1974 comments. The critic argues that while the analogy between sacrificial killings in Jutland and political murder in Ireland ‘clearly supplies the poem with its structure and its rationale, the connection that actually supplies its emotional sustenance is that between the Tollund man and Heaney himself.

Corcoran concludes,
In placing its emotional weight where it does, on the relationship between poet and evoked human figure, The Tollund Man’ . . . dissolves its more ambitious mythical elements into something sharply immediate: the pain of personal incomprehension, isolation and pity.16

So ‘sharply immediate’ is this relationship between poetic persona and this mysterious corpse that the structure of the sentence reflects this emotional disturbance:

In the flat country nearby
Where they dug him out,
His last gruel of winter seeds
Caked in his stomach,

Naked except for
The cap, noose and girdle,
I will stand a long time.

By the time we recover the structure of the simple sentence – ‘In the flat country . . . I will stand. . . .’ – we will have had to blink at the way the participle naked modifies the poet and risks burlesque. If Parker can say that this goddess has a ‘soft spot’ for her bridegroom, then we might venture that the dangling modifier confuses the identity of poet and victim so that both, through the poet’s sympathy and voyeurism, are indecently exposed. We might go beyond Corcoran’s supposition about the poet’s emotions to suggest that one level of this response must arise from a perfection of the photographic images down to fingerprints that have survived centuries of destruction. That this is one of the poet’s deepest wishes, to make poems equally impervious to time, Heaney recognises particularly in North where in his ‘blazon of sweet beauty’s best’ – such as the wrist, heel, instep, and chin of ‘the Grauballe Man’ – he competes with the bog to immortalise distinguishing details of the individual.

Published in 1975, North quickly became, and has remained, Heaney’s most celebrated and controversial volume. It opens with two prefatory poems, then Part I – a long section on the Antaeus myth, bog-burials, Viking myth and art, turbary linguistics, porno-cartography, and tuppingtopography – and a briefer Part II, in which the poet comments more personally on the Troubles. The publicist’s blurb for North declares ‘Heaney has found a myth which . . . gives the book direction, cohesion and cumulative power’ and renders this volume ‘more profound and authoritative’ than his previous books. Most critics focus on Part I, many treating it as just such a myth of Northern violence as a response and tribute to an earth goddess for whom the bog-burials, no less than the current sectarian homicides, provide sacrificial victims.

One may derive a mythic notion from North, but the poems are too exploratory, tentative, and dialectical to compose a coherent myth. For example, in ‘Kinship’ the poet makes no serious claims for the originary myths that might relate current Irish homicides to the Jutland victims: ‘I step through origins/like a dog turning/in memories of wilderness/on the kitchen mat’.17 Although the Irish and Danes share bogland, Heaney does not extend to the Danish his sense of gendered vowels and consonants: ‘This is the vowel of earth/dreaming its root/in flowers and snow/ as the maternal seed-bed is sown in the contrasting seasons of spring and winter. This section IV of ‘Kinship’ opens with a contradiction of Yeats’s ‘Second Coming’ as Corcoran points out: ‘This centre holds/… /sump and seedbed’. Where Yeats envisions the dissolution of an historical epoch within a broader historiographical pattern, Heaney affirms a non-historical, generative basis for life. The section ends: ‘I grew out of all this/like a weeping willow/inclined to/the appetites of gravity’ (North, 43) which intends to say not much more than ‘dust to dust’. ‘Funeral Rites’ and North evade history by linking prehistoric Ireland with Norse legend. Recent victims interred within the passage graves of the Boyne valley link by simile to the poet-hero of Njal’s Saga, as surrogate for Heaney, making poetry amid violence. Revisiting the setting of ‘Shoreline’ from Door Into the Dark, North conjures from ‘the secular/powers of the Atlantic thundering’ voices ‘warning me, lifted again/in violence and epiphany’ (North, 19). Although some irony and linguistic complexity  (e.g. ‘The longship’s swimming tongue//was buoyant with hindsight’) may qualify our sense that Heaney is forcing mythic connections, the author of these three poems might fairly be labelled, as Carson does, ‘a mythmaker, an anthropologist of ritual killing, and . . . in the last resort, a mystifier’.18

Other poems in Part I, however, explore the implications of Glob’s photographs and dramatise the poet’s response rather than imposing meaning. ‘Punishment’ begins with the poet’s reaction (‘I can feel . . .’, ‘I can see . . .’, ‘I almost love . . .’) to photographs of the Windeby girl who at the hands of the tribe suffered death for adultery. The poet compares this ‘tribal, intimate revenge’ to pitchcapping of Catholic girls in the North for consorting with British soldiers. He confesses that he

. . . would have cast, I know
the stones of silence.
I am the artful voyeur.

Corcoran identifies the Biblical reference to the girl taken in adultery in ‘John: 8’. Heaney confesses that he would have violated Christ’s injunction not to judge, on the basis of our common human frailty, and he thereby emphasises his own human weakness. His role as ‘artful voyeur’ is a corruption of his function as poetic observer, and his silence threatens to turn poetic detachment, which he once defended before British journalists as ‘a fine, well-earned and constantly renewed condition’, into the indifference which he decried in that same speech.19

The poem concludes by representing the ambivalence of the poet,

who would connive
in civilized outrage
yet understand the exact
and tribal, intimate revenge.

Quoting these lines, Edna Longley writes,

This is all right if Heaney is merely being ‘outrageously honest about his own reactions, if the paradox ‘connive . . . civilized’ is designed to corner people who think they have risen above the primitive, if the poem exposes a representative Irish conflict between ‘humane reason’ and subconscious allegiances. (Longley, 154)

Although Longley is sceptical, Heaney, in an interview with Seamus Deane soon after the publication of North, insists on maintaining ‘a dialogue’ between the ‘obstinate voice of rationalist humanism’ and that of tribal atavisms (Deane, 63). In ‘Punishment’ and a few other poems in North, such as ‘The Grauballe Man’ and ‘Hercules and Antaeus’, we can recognise what Heaney calls ‘dithering’, what Yeats would call ‘vacillation’, and what we might call a dialectic.

Longley would withhold this designation from ‘Bog Queen’ which she argues ‘renews that well-worn genre the aisling by presenting Ireland as her landscape, weather, geography and history, and by pushing her “old hag” incarnation to an extreme’ (Longley, 79). Without specifying this eighteenth century Irish genre, Corcoran agrees: ‘Bog Queen’ is ‘a kind of Kathleen ni Houlihan, a kind of Mother Ireland… a symbol for disaffected native resentment, biding its time underground …’. (Corcoran, Seamus Heaney, 114). To read this poem as an aisling, we might expect the attributes of this corpse, found in Co Down in the eighteenth century, to be more specifically Irish rather than ‘Baltic’ or ‘phoenician’ or Nordic, feeling ‘the nuzzle of fjords’, and we could expect some final rebirth or disclosure to reveal or promise a radiant Ireland. The emotional centre of the poem, however, is Heaney’s lifelong fascination with the body and with its relation to spirit. This cadaver offers herself for interpretation and meaning: ‘My body was braille’; ‘the illiterate roots/pondered . . .’; her gemstones are ‘like the bearings of history’, but she can no more undergo the ‘triumphant re-birth’ some critics attribute to her (Parker, 136) than she can emerge into the light of reason and understanding. She is interwoven into the bog by apocopated rhyme:

wrinkling, dyed weaves
and phoenician stitchwork
retted on my breasts’

soft moraines.
I knew winter cold
like the nuzzle of fjords
at my thighs –

the soaked fledge, the heavy
swaddle of hides.

She disintegrates into a paratactic series of parts as she emerges from the dark of the unconscious into the light of reason:

and I rose from the dark,
hacked bone, skull-ware,
frayed stitches, tufts,
small gleams on the bank.

To paraphrase Yeats, Heaney cannot know rationally what the body as matter means; he can only ’embody’ this in a poem, which he does here successfully. Heaney has every right to explore and dramatise his own irrational, atavistic responses to death and violence. As he said in regard to ‘The Tollund Man’: ‘And just how persistent the barbaric attitudes are, not onlyin the slaughter but in the psyche, I discovered, again when the frisson of the poem itself had passed . . .’ (Preoccupations, 59). Complaints become legitimate, however, concerning those few poems where he suggests that the violence in Northern Ireland and ancient Denmark are cognate and determined by psychological forces present in ancient Northern rituals of sacrifice, a suggestion supported by neither argument nor real evidence. These poems are too few, however, to justify Carson’s assertion that all of Part I belongs to ‘the laureate of violence’. If critics are fair in finding Carson’s review ‘fiercely hostile’,20 the basis for such hostility might lodge in the word laureate as much as in violence.

In spite of the differences between the two parts of North and among the four primary texts Heaney had published, readers recognise the poet’s voice and his positioning of himself as the poet, representative of his tribe and, progressively, of poetry. Even in his most dramatic poems, such as the monologues of Station Island, the voice in the poem remains familiar and the persona congenial and, usually, trustworthy. In a 1974 lecture, Heaney offers his popular poem ‘Digging’ as ‘an example of what we call “finding a

Finding a voice means that you can get your own feeling into your own words;… a poetic voice is probably very intimately connected with the poet’s natural voice…. A voice is like a fingerprint, possessing a constant and unique signature. . . . (Preoccupations, 43)

What Heaney characterises as a writer’s aspiration, Ian Gregson believes Heaney had already fully established:

As always when reading Heaney, there is a strong sense of the implied author: one of his most remarkable achievements has been to construct a version of himself as a poet which his readers recognise. This is partly a matter of his public persona, the 50-ish year old public smiling man . . . old-fashioned as a poet should be, and above all actually a very nice man.21

Whereas Gregson speaks of constructing a persona, Heaney would find or disclose it, sometimes delving to recover some more original or authentic self. In that frequently quoted interview with Deane in 1977, Heaney stated, ‘Poetry is born out of the watermarks and colourings of the self. But that self in some ways takes its spiritual pulse from the inwards spiritual structure of the community to which it belongs’ (Deane, 62).

A dozen years later in a lecture at Oxford, Heaney said,

In emergent cultures the struggle of an individual consciousness towards affirmations and distinctness may be analogous, if not coterminous, with a collective straining toward self-definition; there is a mutual susceptibility between the formation of a new tradition and the self-fashioning of individual talent. {Redress of Poetry, 6)

The echoes of Eliot and Arnold are appropriate for a poet establishing continuities and differences between himself and guardians of English culture. The author of Tradition and the Individual Talent’ meant by tradition the canon of European Christendom rather than the Catholic nationalist community of Northern Ireland and by individual talent a depersonalised, ‘transforming catalyst’22 rather than Heaney’s integrated poetic persona.

Poets such as John Kinsella, Anne Carson, Paul Muldoon and Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, who offer fragmented selves and deflect personality, may question the value of such a consistently recognisable voice. David Lloyd, perhaps Heaney’s harshest critic, identifies this ‘strong sense of the implied author’ with conservatism and caution:

The cautious limits which Heaney’s poetry sets round any potential for disruptive, immanent questioning may be the reason for the extraordinary inflation of his current reputation. If Heaney is held to be ‘the most trusted poet of our [sic] islands’, by the same token he is the most institutionalized of recent poets.23

Lloyd‘s sic refers to the proprietariness of the English critic Christopher Ricks, whom he is quoting. Ricks’s trust in Heaney, no doubt, was grounded on Heaney’s frank rebukes to English audiences and critics who were honouring him. For example, in 1983 he reminded editors who had made him the keystone in an anthology of ‘British’ poetry that ‘No glass of ours was ever raised/To toast The Queen’24 and in 1988 upon receiving the Sunday Times Award, the skald turned scold as he candidly told an admiring English audience that ‘policies which Downing Street presumably regards as a hard line against terrorism can feel like a high-handed disregard for the self-respect of the Irish people in general’.25

Nevertheless, the esteemed English poet and critic Donald Davie, shortly before his death in 1995, offered Heaney remarkable praise:

In the world of English language poetry Seamus Heaney has . . . a position of unchallenged authority. And that is a boon for all of us who inhabit that world; one shudders to think how it would have been for the rest of us if that authority, earned by solid accomplishment, had been vested in a person less generous and less prudent…. It is a main part of Heaney’s claim upon us that he has offered that romantic role, refused the privileges that it offered him. He has consistently refused, in the face of tempting offers, to be either outlandish or partisan.26

Such praise, not unique to Davie, may account for some of Heaney’s own uneasiness as he balances tribal solidarity with his individual role as the representative poet. As he and many Northern poets – Catholic and Protestant – must have recognised, for critics and readers along the English mainstream, Irish poets were, literally, outlandish and partisan.

To varying degrees in his next two volumes, Heaney’s uneasiness will accompany the treatment of violence that appears in elegies in Field Work (1979) and poems that bear witness in Station Island (1984). The poems of witness in Cantos VII & VIII of ‘Station Island’ depart from Heaney’s intention in the elegies of Field Work The Strand at Lough Beg, A Postcard from North Antrim, and Casualty – ‘to assuage’, in Parker’s words, ‘his sense of loss, and to strike sharp, clear notes in celebration’ (Parker, 159). The first of these elegies The Strand at Lough Beg offers gripping details of Colum McCartney’s fatal outing and of his grisly corpse. However, from the Dantean epigraph through the recognition that the legendary, Heaney resurrected Sweeney fled along this same road, we know we are travelling a parallel but separate course, between which and the actuality of death is what Heaney will later call ‘the frontier of writing’. These three elegies close with evocations of Dante, perhaps of The Odyssey, and of literary ghosts, such as Hamlet’s father or the Yeats-Swift apparition from T.S. Eliot’s ‘Little Gidding’ (in Four Quartets), as the three victims, all ‘dawn-sniffing revenants’, observe new curfews and haunt new margins between mortality and literary memorial. The comfort Heaney brings to the reader and to the memory of McCartney, Armstrong and O’Neill derives from the elegiac and legendary side of this divide.

While the poems about victims of violence in the sequence ‘Station Island’ are as meticulously formed and phrased as the three poems in Field Work, they differ from these elegies by conveying what Heaney ascribes to poets of witness, ‘the impulse to elevate truth above beauty’.27 He writes, ‘”The poet as witness” . . . represents poetry’s solidarity with the doomed, the deprived, the victimized, the under-privileged’ (Government of the Tongue, xvi), so that the poet, who offered ablutions at the end of ‘The Strand at Lough Beg’, now yields to the victim’s viewpoint and voice which upbraids the poet because he ‘drew/the lovely blinds of the Purgatorial and saccharined my death with morning dew’.28 The aestheticising of brutal history, for which Heaney’s character upbraids him, was denounced especially by the post-war East European poets whom Heaney was reading in the late 1970s:

In the words of Zbigniew Herbert, the task of the poet now was ‘to salvage out of the catastrophe of history at least two words, without which all poetry is an empty play of meanings and appearances, namely: justice and truth’. (Government of the Tongue, xviii)

Perhaps the narrow but important distinction between elegy and witness emerges most clearly in Canto VII, in which a pharmacist and former football teammate William Strathearn recounts his own late-night murder by two off-duty policemen who roused him from his sleep and shot him through the head. Eschewing the Dantean locomotor of terza rima^ Heaney gains some of his master’s momentum by employing independent tercets rhyming aba cdc but whose lines are rarely end-stopped (e.g. lines from the first seven tercets end in only one full stop). Rhyme is usually slant and dissembling, first and third words sometimes claiming kinship through concept rather than sound: ‘. . . behind the curtain/ . . . with the doors open’;’. . . end-all/ . . . jail’; and,most indicative of ‘the impulse to elevate truth above beauty’, ‘. . . sportscoat/. . . racket’, where for meter and rhyme, ‘jacket’ would seem the obviouschoice but where ‘sportscoat’ makes a slightly more precise class distinction.

Whereas in Field Work the poet performs ablutions, invites the victim to ‘Get up from your blood on the floor’, and challenges him to ‘Question me again’, in ‘Station Island’ he apologises for the elegist’s self-reflective presumption and returns Strathearn to his mutilated body – ‘a stun of pain seemed to go through him’ – an archaeologist friend dead at 32 to his disappointment, and his cousin McCartney to his rage. So caustic is the selfcriticism of these cantos and so graphic the representation of atrocities that one might have expected Heaney to continue such witness, at least for the duration of the Troubles.

A reader might be surprised, consequently, that violence vanishes from Heaney’s next two volumes, appearing only occasionally and at a remove in The Haw Lantern (1987) and Seeing Things (1991). In The Haw Lantern the one poem that explicitly represents an aspect of the Troubles ‘From the Frontier of Writing’29 may also offer clues to the cessation of hostilities elsewhere in this volume and the next. The first four tercets of the poem recount the anxiety and affront many Irish experienced in crossing through

British-manned border-checkpoints.
The tightness and the nilness round that space
when the car stops in the road, the troops inspect
its make and number and, as one bends his face
towards your window, you catch sight of more
on a hill beyond, eyeing with intent
down cradled guns that hold you under cover

Beginning with so, a word that will serve many purposes for Heaney butwhich here means ‘in a similar fashion’, the next four tercets repeat muchof the content of the poem’s first half. Helen Vendler asks, ‘Did the (real) road-block turn up as a metaphor for a creative block, or did the subjugation of the writer at a real road-block make him aware of an inner equivalent when writing?’ (Vendler, 117) If we look at the closing two tercets, we might find a variation of the second reading more plausible:

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.

In the first dozen lines, the windscreen provides the poet a clear view of menacing sharpshooters. The second version tames the threat into ‘posted soldiers’ who metamorphose ‘like tree shadows’ in the glass. This windscreen transforms its subject less like Joyce’s ‘cracked looking glass of a servant’ than like Wordsworth’s transforming memory which in Book IV of The Prelude blends the reflection and motion of ‘one downbending from the side/Of a slow-moving boat’ (247-8) with the submerged contents and current of the stream.

‘From the Frontier of Writing’ reminds us that from his beginning Heaney’s poems about violence have all carried as subtexts – explored or unexplored – questions about the relation of art to life, about those spaces where poetry impinges on political reality and vice versa and which Conor Cruise O’Brien had sign-posted as ‘an unhealthy intersection’.30 Heaney’s Ellmann lectures at Emory, one year after the publication of The Haw Lantern, locate this junction in the work of post-colonial writers:

Irish poets, Polish poets, South African poets, West Indian poets (those in London as well as those in the Caribbean) and many others . . . have been caught at a crossroads where the essentially aesthetic demand of their vocation encountered the different demand that their work participate in a general debate which . . . concerns the political rights and cultural loyalties of different social or racial groups resulting from separate heritages . . .3I

In The Haw Lantern this crossroads becomes more like parallel motorways, roads leading through the Republic of Conscience or the Canton of Expectation or the land visited by mud visions that offer a perspective on the accustomed world without intersecting its path. In a 1988 interview with Rand Brandes, Heaney admitted that ‘some of the poems are abstracted versions of what has been fleshed out already in other things, poems of an allegorical sort . . .’32 Helen Vendler speaks of ‘the allegorical and parabolic poetry’ of The Haw Lantern, but more helpfully she characterises this volume as ‘Heaney’s first book of the virtual’ (113). We benefit from this characterisation of imaginary space – the realm of the aesthetic, peatbog preservations, memorialised life, spaces held out of, while reflecting on, time – because virtual avoids the conventional Otherworld of Irish narratives and substitutes a universal concept familiar to children and other cyberspace-cadets while remaining mysterious to adult readers.

Heaney’s reflections on the imaginative world and the world we think we share find full expression in The Redress of Poetry published in 1995 from lectures delivered at Oxford University between 1989 and 1994 when Heaney was Professor of Poetry. He concludes this volume with a simplified version of these two worlds:

Within our individual selves we can reconcile two orders of knowledge which we might call the practical and the poetic;… each form of knowledge redresses the other and . . . the frontier between them is there for the crossing. (203)

He then cites a poem from Seeing Things (1991) based on a meeting of these two worlds as recorded in The Annals of the Four Masters. A ship from the Otherworld gets its tackle accidentally entangled in the altar rail of an oratory. The poem concludes:

A crewman shinned and grappled down the rope
And struggled to release it. But in vain.
‘This man can’t bear our life here and will drown,’

The abbot said, ‘unless we help him.’ So
They did, the freed ship sailed, and the man climbed back
Out of the marvellous as he had known it.33

He opens The Redress of Poetry by speaking about ‘crossing from the domain of the matter-of-fact into the domain of the imagined’ (xiii), but as we see from the Annals poem, in Seeing Things traffic sails both ways.

However, as he develops and extends his idea of redress, the metaphor of traffic and crossroads yields to an unstated metaphor of a thin partition between these two worlds: ‘The nobility of poetry says Wallace Stevens “is a violence from within that protects us from a violence without”. It is the imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality’ (Redress of Poetry, 1). The ‘frontier of writing’ becomes then a scrim or narrow boundary – what Paul Muldoon has written about, the feth fiada or mistcurtain which separates this world from the Irish Otherworld.34 From either side public reality and personal imagination contend. From within the imagined and poetic, the writer seeks ‘reparation of, satisfaction or compensation for, a wrong sustained or the loss resulting from this’ (Redress of Poetry, 15). More generally, poetry redresses by restoring balance or direction. Poetry does not transgress this boundary but rather exerts its pressure from its own transformative realm:

Even when the redress of poetry is operative in the first sense in which I employed it – poetry, that is, being instrumental in adjusting and correcting imbalances in the world . . . – even then, poetry is involved with supreme fictions . . . a world to which ‘we turn incessantly and without knowing it’. (192.)

One gathers from the discussion of John Hewitt in the concluding lecture in this volume that poetic redress within the realm of one audience, in this case Northern Ireland, may redress differently or not redress at all an imbalance in a larger realm, such as the United Kingdom or the West.

This distinction becomes important in understanding the shift back from celebrating the miraculousness of this world in Seeing Things to depicting extreme violence in The Spirit Level (1996). ‘Keeping Going’ eulogises the poet’s brother for maintaining his equanimity in the face of Northern Ireland’s atrocities, a balance he achieves through a transformative imagination. The souvenir for this transformation, a whitewash brush that servedas a sporran in the brother’s clowning, can continue to redress because like the mug with a cornflower pattern from ‘Station Island, X’, once it has crossed the frontier into the imaginative realm, it remains ‘glamoured from this translation’ (Station Island, 87). The poem ends with the gesture of one just back or about to enter that otherworld: ‘Then rubbing your eyes and seeing our old brush/Up on the byre door, and keeping going’.35 This icon of redress, however, must weigh against the art-enhanced horror of a murder in the town centre of a part-time reservist, a memory that re-emerges for the brother in the steam of his morning gruel:

Grey matter like gruel flecked with blood
In spatters on the whitewash. A clean spot
Where his head had been, other stains subsumed
In the parched wall he leant his back against

The poet’s representation of memory – the transitional gruel, the animistic ‘parched’, ‘whitewash’ connecting the murder scene to the brush – sharpens the terror, to such an extent that the reader may doubt the efficacy of poetic redress.

‘Mycenae Lookout’ is one of several sinewy poems in The Spirit Level that can stand with Heaney’s best poetry. In his helpful reading, Daniel Tobin recognises the sentry as a surrogate for the poet, always ‘at the ready’, but I cannot agree that ‘the violent world of Ulster finds its objective correlative in the often savage world of Greek myth’.36 The tone of the Lookout, ‘posted and forgotten’, is too cynical, the rhyme too smart-ass, the details too heavymetal, the abrupt lines too spiky:

Her soiled vest,
her little breasts,
her clipped, devast-

ated, scabbed
punk head,
the char-eyed

famine gawk –
she looked

and simple.

As Vendler says, ‘Heaney has never before permitted himself such brutal strokes in delineating a victim’, and, she continues, ‘Agamemnon . . . is equally violently sketched’ (170). Indeed, Heaney’s Agamemnon is so menacing he might have sprung from the head of Ted Hughes’s Crow. After the ceasefire of 1994 and the ungoing negotiations for peace, the reader might have expected pacific poems such as ‘Tolland’, the penultimate poem in this volume, in which the site of prehistoric violence has become ‘the bright “Townland of Peace” ‘ (Spirit Level, 80). The eruption of ‘Mycenae Lookout’ into this ceasefire has the effect of reminding us that homicide was not endemic to Ulster and ‘That killing-fest, the life-warp and worldwrong/ . . . still augured and endured’ (34). For that reason, the attempt to redress seems directed toward a realm larger than Northern Ireland.

The relation of poetry to practical life occupies Heaney in Electric Light (2001).37 Some reviewers found that the book had an insufficiency of joules, although the title poem was universally admired. Because it indirectly but significantly addresses the question of the location of poetry, ‘Electric Light’ should be the best place to end this essay. In a Poetry Book Society Bulletin, reprinted in The Guardian on Bloomsday of 2001, Heaney identified the old woman as his grandmother: ‘There are clues to show that she is ancient, archetypal and central to the family’. Heaney says further, ‘The brightness of my grandmother’s house is associated in my mind with a beautiful line from the Mass of the Dead – “Et lux perpetua luceat eis”, “And let perpetual light shine upon them . . . . ” ‘ He continues,’ “The stilly night” is mentioned and to anyone who knows the Thomas Moore song, the phrase inevitably calls up “the light/Of other days around me” \38 Electric Light, then, represented the new and wonderful and lit the boy’s aspirations toward the outside world:

If I stood on the bow-backed chair, I could reach
The light switch. They let me and they watched me.
A touch of the little pip would work the magic.

A turn of their wireless knob and light came on
In the dial. They let me and they watched me
As I roamed at will the stations of the world.

It also represents the glow of memory and imagination as it lights the past and the dead, appropriate to setting the elegies that fill most of this volume. Several reviewers were attracted to the description of the old woman’s thumbnail which opens the poem:

Candle-grease congealed, dark-streaked with wick-soot. . .
The smashed thumb-nail
Of that ancient mangled thumb was puckered pearl,

Rucked quartz, a littered Cumae.
In the first house where I saw electric light

The thumbnail also closes it:

Electric light shone over us, I feared

The dirt-tracked flint and fissure of her nail,
So plectrum-hard, glit-glittery, it must still keep
Among beads and vertebrae in the Derry ground.

Beyond connecting this woman to Cumae and, thereby, to the oldest of the prophetesses who served Apollo, god of light and poetry, the nails of this diviner of the future signify her pre-electrical past with candles and lanterns. Moreover, they relate her to the corpses in North, those of relatives whose ‘nails/were darkened . . .’ (15) and those of the bog-burials who had  ‘bruised berries under… [their] nails’ (North, 33).
Of the Grabaulle Man, he writes,

but now he lies
perfected in my memory
down to the red horn
of his nails

hung in the scales
with beauty and atrocity

If, as argued earlier in this essay, the bog-corpses in their perfection and their mysterious Otherness, human in origin but inhuman, as much excrescence as the nails themselves, become analogues to works of art, then the old woman represents the translated object of art, poetry itself in its elegiac light.

Heaney’s sibyl holds a curious kinship with another demigod called The Nymph who appears in the ‘Calypso’ and ‘Circe’ episodes of Joyce’s Ulysses. Born as a Photo Bits gatefold, The Bath of the Nymph, framed by Bloom as a ‘splendid masterpiece in art colours’, serves to illustrate Bloom’s explanation to Molly of metempsychosis. More basically, she manifests Bloom’s confusion, not of beauty and atrocity, Heaney’s distinction, but of art and pornography, a distinction that elsewhere occupies Stephen Dedalus. Accused by her of drafting her into his sexual fantasies, Bloom responds by evoking Keatsian aesthetics: ‘Your classic curves, beautiful immortal, I was glad to look on you, to praise you, a thing of beauty, almost to pray’.39 The wildly comic encounter with its psychological subtext contains a startling confession by the Nymph who associates herself with reproductions of Greek sculpture in the National Museum: ‘We immortals . . . are stonecold and pure. We eat electric light’ (Ulysses, 449). The ingested light provides the art’s radiance,what Stephen calls its claritas. The coldness arises from the necessary detachment of the work of art, in Stephen’s Thomist vocabulary its integritas: ‘The esthetic image is first luminously apprehended as selfbounded and selfcontained upon the immeasurable background of space or time which is not it’.4° This frigidity, which Keats calls ‘Cold Pastoral’, Yeats assigns to all great works of art.

heaney_565We might deduce three explanations for the reappearance of the term for art’s diet in Heaney’s title poem: Heaney deliberately recycled the term from Joyce but left it to us to uncover the implications of this exchange; thephrase ‘Electric Light’ resonates for Heaney beyond its autobiographical associations,but he does not recall its source in his quite familiar Ulysses; the recurrence of the phrase Joyce used in Heaney’s poetry is purely accidental although the phrase reaves in quite similar aesthetic concerns. Whatever the fuller sources for this phrase, it points to the gravity of Heaney’s concerns about the place of art, the possibility of and manner in which art impinges on political realities, the uses of art in facing troubles, and poetry and violence. It may be the frequent expression of such concerns, rather than any superiority of his poetry, that will distinguish Heaney from his brilliant Irish contemporaries, a generation likely to be remembered with the Elizabethan, Jacobean and Romantic British poets and the post-Depression American poets as marvellous gatherings of talent. But that conclusion must wait for another time.


Source: The Cambridge Companion to Contemporary Irish Poetry Edited by Matthew Campbell Cambridge University Press 2003



1 The Redress of Poetry (London: Faber and Faber, 1995), p. 8.
2 Swedish Academy, 5 October 1995.
3 Neil Corcoran, Poets of Modern Ireland (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1999), p. 116.
4 Helen Vendler, Seamus Heaney (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998), p. 9.
5 Blake Morrison, Seamus Heaney (London: Methuen, 1982), p. 68.
6 Ciaran Carson, “Escaped from the Massacre?” The Honest Ulsterman, No. 50 (Winter 1975), 183-6. Coming from a fellow poet who has retained his residency and raised his family in Belfast, Carson’s criticism had a particular authority and mordancy. Edna Longley, Poetry in the Wars (Newcastle: Bloodaxe, 1986).
7 Michael Parker, Seamus Heaney: The Making of the Poet (University of Iowa Press, 1993), p. 11.
8 Seamus Heaney, Death of A Naturalist (London: Faber and Faber, 1966), p. 57.
9 Henry Hart, Seamus Heaney: Poet of Contrary Progressions (Syracuse UniversityPress, 1992-), p. 3i-
10 Seamus Heaney, Wintering Out (London: Faber and Faber, 1972), p. 35.
11 Seamus Deane, “Unhappy and at Home: Interview with Seamus Heaney”, The Crane Bag, vol. 1, No. 1 (Spring, 1977), pp. 61-7, 61.
12 ‘Talking Irish’, The New York Times on the Web, April 8, 2001. Archiveds.
13 Conor Cruise O’Brien, review of North, Listener, 25 Sept 1975.
14 P.V. Glob, The Bog People (London: Faber and Faber, 1969).
15 Seamus Heaney, Preoccupations: Selected Prose, i^68-y8 (London: Faber and Faber, 1980), p. 57.
16 Neil Corcoran, Seamus Heaney (London: Faber and Faber, 1986), pp. 79-80.
17 Seamus Heaney, North (London: Faber and Faber, 1975), P- 4°-
18 Carson,’ “Escaped from the Massacre” ‘, p. 183.
19 Seamus Heaney, “Anglo-Irish Occasions”, London Review of Books, 5 May 1988, p. 9.
20 Bernard O’Donoghue, Seamus Heaney and the Language of Poetry (Brighton: Harvester, 1994), p. 69.
21 Ian Gregson, The Male Image: Representations of Masculinity in Postwar Poetry (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1999), p. 130.
22 T.S. Eliot, Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot ed. with intro by Frank Kermode (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1975), P- 41-
23 David Lloyd, Anomalous States (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993), P- 35-
24 Seamus Heaney, ‘An Open Letter’, A Field Day Pamphlet, 2 (Derry: Field Day,1983), p. 9-
25 ‘Anglo-Irish Occasions’, London Review of Books, 5 May 1988, p. 9.
26 Donald Davie, ‘Donald Davie on Critics and Essayists’, Poetry Review 85:3 (Autumn 1995), p. 38.
27 Seamus Heaney, The Government of the Tongue (London: Faber and Faber, 1988), p. xviii.
28 Seamus Heaney, Station Island (London: Faber and Faber, 1984), p. 83.
29 Seamus Heaney, The Haw Lantern (London: Faber and Faber, 1987), p. 6.
30 Conor Cruise O’Brien, ‘An Unhealthy Intersection’. The New Review, 2:16 (i975), 3-8.
31 Seamus Heaney, The Place of Writing, intro. by Ronald Schuchard (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1989), p. 36-7.
32 Rand Brandes, ‘Seamus Heaney: An Interview’, Salmagundi, No. 80 (Fall 1988), p. 18.
33 Seamus Heaney, Seeing Things (London: Faber and Faber, 1991), p. 62.
34 Paul Muldoon, To Ireland, I (Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 7.
35 Seamus Heaney, The Spirit Level (London: Faber and Faber, 1996), p. 16.
36 Daniel Tobin, Passage to the Center: Imagination and the Sacred in the Poetry of Seamus Heaney (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1999), p. 287.
37 Seamus Heaney, Electric Light (London: Faber and Faber, 2001).
38 ‘Seamus Heaney on the Making of His Recent Collection, Electric Light’ Poetry Book Society


Categories: Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Literature, Poetry

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