Patricia Coughlan*, in a very thought-provoking article, finds two opposing but possibly complimentary representations of sex roles in Heaney’s poetry:
- A dominant masculine figure who explores, describes, loves and has compassion for a passive feminine figure, and
- A woman who ‘dooms, destroys, puzzles and encompasses the man, but also assists him to his self-discovery: the mother stereotype, but merged intriguingly with the spouse.’
It is easy enough to identify the first representation as the speaker of the poems. Coughlan traces male activities and attitudes of the speakers in Heaney’s first book, Death of a Naturalist – ploughing, digging, and its equivalent, writing – as well as significant male attitudes, such as the importance of following in the footsteps of ancestors and imitating their prowess, in poems such as ‘Digging’, ‘Follower’, and ‘Ancestral Photograph’. She traces the development of male identity in such poems as ‘Death of a Naturalist’ and ‘An Advancement of Learning’, where the young boy passes a test of male courage in facing up to a rat. The identification of the speaker with the natural maleness of creatures such as the bull and the trout (‘Outlaw’ and ‘The Trout’) is noticed in the second volume, Door into the Dark.
Heaney views the creative process as a particularly male activity in ‘The Forge’ – the violence of the activity, the archetypal maleness of the protagonist, leading to the suggestion that the truth of art is forged out of violence and brute strength. But the poetic process of ‘seeing things’ in the later poetry is a more spiritual, even intuitive practice. The image of the poet changes to one of seer, or mediator between states of awareness (‘Field of Vision’, ‘Lightenings VIII’, ‘St. Kevin and the Blackbird’.
Something of the prowess of ancestors is present in the speaker’s celebration of his father’s gift in ‘The Harvest Bow’. It is a quintessentially male prowess (‘lapped the spurs on a lifetime of game cocks’), yet the skill involved in making the bow exhibits an understanding of the spirit and a delicate craftsmanship. Indeed plaiting the bow is a female art form, at least in traditional thinking. So perhaps sex roles are not so clear-cut here, as the male ancestor is celebrated for his prowess at a feminine craft.
The representation of woman in the poems on the Leaving Cert. course leads to the consideration of a number of issues.
WOMAN AS LOVER
Consider ‘Twice Shy’ and ‘Valediction’. In ‘Twice Shy’ woman is the love object; perhaps there is even a suggestion in the imagery of being victim to the male (‘tremulously we held / As hawk and prey apart’). But this is balanced just after this by an equality of rights, by the mutual recognition that each had a past and that each had a right to be cautious, even timorous, in the new relationship (‘Our juvenilia / Had taught us both to wait’).
In ‘Valediction’, roles are reversed. Not only is the woman the source of stability in the speaker’s life but she is in complete control of the relationship, ‘Until you resume command / Self is in mutiny’. Nevertheless the image of woman here is traditional and somewhat stereotyped: an object of beauty, defined by dress and pretty, natural allusions such as the frilled blouse, the smile, and the ‘flower-tender voice’. So in these poems there seems to be a traditional visual concept of woman, combined with a more varied understanding of role, both as love object and as controlling force.
Woman in ‘The Skunk’ is very much sex object, alluring, exciting in a primitive, animal way:
By the sootfall of your things at bedtime,
Your head-down, tail-up hunt in a bottom drawer
For the black plunge-neck nightdress.
Here she is an object of desire, observed with controlled voyeurism by the speaker.
WOMAN AS MOTHER
In ‘Mossbawn: 1. Sunlight’ the female figure is associated with traditional domestic skills, in this instance baking. The mother figure (in this case, his aunt, Mary Heaney) is one of the central props in Heaney’s ideal picture of rural life. His aunt is characterised as being ‘broad-lapped’ signifying her warm and loving nature and her kitchen is a womb of security for the young boy, radiating warmth, nurture, and love, as well as being a forger of identity, offering links with tradition and values mediated by the female figures.
A feminist critique would argue that this representation is denying women the freedom to develop fully, by giving them fixed roles within the domestic environment and by associating them with what is maternal rather than with any intellectual activity. As Patricia Coughlan says: ‘Woman, the primary inhabiter and constituent of the domestic realm, is admiringly observed, centre stage but silent.’
THE EARTH AS FEMALE
Nature – the earth and both the physical territory and the political spirit of Ireland – is viewed as feminine by Heaney. There was a hint of this in the soft, preserving, womb-like quality of the earth in ‘Bogland’. This feminine aspect becomes explicitly sexual in such poems as ‘Rite of Spring’ and ‘Undine’. But the female principle is destructive to man in such poems as ‘The Tollund Man’, where the male is sacrificed to the goddess, who is female lover, killer, and principle of new life and growth, all at once.
She tightened her torc on him
And opened her fen,
Those dark juices working
Him to a saint’s kept body.
Coughlan feels that the female energy here is represented as ‘both inert and devouring’ and that if the poem is understood, ‘as a way of thinking about women rather than about Irish political murder, it reveals an intense alienation from the female.’ But can it be divorced from its political context? And was not Caitlín Ní hUallacháin always the femme fatale of Irish political revolutionaries? And hadn’t this fatalistic attraction almost a frisson of sexual passion about it, coupled with maternal devotion? The poem reveals the danger of the attraction, but surely it was a willing consummation? The poet envies Tollund Man ‘his sad freedom’, so perhaps the poem reveals less an intense alienation than a fatalistic attraction to the female.
The feminist critique certainly throws some light on central aspects of Heaney’s writing – among them a very traditional view of woman – but there is too much complexity in his vision to allow us to view the encounter of the sexes in his poetry as simply antagonistic.
* ‘Bog Queens’: The Representation of Women in the Poetry of John Montague and Seamus Heaney by Patricia Coughlan, in Theorising Ireland, ed. Clare Connolly, pages 41-60. NY: Palmgrove, 2003.