Exposure by Seamus Heaney – An Analysis

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“In the Attic”, a portrait of Seamus Heaney by the artist Jeffrey Morgan now hanging in the HomePlace Centre in Bellaghy, Co. Derry.

Exposure

 

It is December in Wicklow:
Alders dripping, birches
Inheriting the last light,
The ash tree cold to look at.

A comet that was lost
Should be visible at sunset,
Those million tons of light
Like a glimmer of haws and rose-hips,

And I sometimes see a falling star.
If I could come on meteorite!
Instead I walk through damp leaves,
Husks, the spent flukes of autumn,

Imagining a hero
On some muddy compound,
His gift like a slingstone
Whirled for the desperate.

How did I end up like this?
I often think of my friends’
Beautiful prismatic counselling
And the anvil brains of some who hate me

As I sit weighing and weighing
My responsible tristia.
For what? For the ear? For the people?
For what is said behind-backs?

Rain comes down through the alders,
Its low conductive voices
Mutter about let-downs and erosions
And yet each drop recalls

The diamond absolutes.
I am neither internee nor informer;
An inner emigre, 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.

– Seamus Heaney

 

Commentary
‘Exposure’ was written in 1975 and significantly is the last poem in the poet’s volume, North. Not only that, but ‘Exposure’ is the final poem in a six poem sequence grouped under the title The Singing School, a phrase borrowed from W. B. Yeats’ famous poem ‘Sailing to Byzantium’, which concludes that great collection. The poem itself is, to an extent, a reflective self-analysis, as Heaney takes stock of his life and poses a series of questions about his role and function as a poet. The poem depicts Heaney’s anxiety and discomfort with his position in society and with his role as a poet. The poem explores Heaney’s dilemma as ‘The Troubles’ detonate and resonate and invade his artistic space. He has removed himself from the North and like his friend Michael Longley, who had already moved to Carrigskeewaun in Mayo, he has thus acquired a new perspective from his cottage in Glanmore in County Wicklow. He is, however, troubled by self-doubt and uncertainty and hurt by the whispers, the innuendo, the charge that he hasn’t taken sides, that he has abandoned his people and taken the English ‘shilling’.

It is a ten stanza poem that is separated into quatrains. The lines do not follow a specific rhyme scheme. They are composed in free verse, meaning there is no pattern of rhyme or rhythm. The poem opens, ‘It is December in Wicklow.’ December is deep winter in Ireland, characterised by its cold bracing wet weather, it is also the end of a year. This sets up a peaceful and tranquil scene providing time for self-reflection and a chance to reappraise his situation. This time affords him an opportunity to analyse his obvious anxiety and discomfort and the horrible tension that has arisen between his private persona and his very public career as a poet. It is a rainy, wintry month, the ‘alders [are] dripping,’ the ‘birches’ are fighting for the ‘last light,’ and ‘the ash tree’ is bare, too cold ‘to look at.’

It is obvious that his main source of frustration is that he feels that he is being dragged unwillingly into the current fraught political situation in his own native place. His former neighbours in Bellaghy have all been forced by circumstances to take sides and here, Bellaghy’s most famous son is seen to be ambivalent and non-committal. Earlier on in North, in the poem ‘Whatever You Say, Say Nothing’, he has made the famous statement:

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, say nothing.

In ‘Exposure’, then, we see the poet is under pressure from all sides to say something and he feels that he is being used by all sides for their own political ends. How then can he solve this dilemma? He tries to wrestle with this dilemma in his solitary walk in the Wicklow hills. He considers the inherent differences between a comet and a meteorite. A comet is predictable and appears after sunset on a set date once every four years or four hundred years. A ‘falling star’ or meteorite is totally unpredictable and appears randomly in the evening sky. The comet ‘visible at sunset’ is expected, it ‘should’ appear. Yet, the ‘falling star’ only ‘sometimes’ appears. Heaney himself admires the meteorite, the ‘falling star’. This is shown through the use of the exclamation mark. Unlike the comet which typically follows a cycle, a meteorite is free, it does not need to keep to a designated orbit. Rather, it is able to float and fall whenever and wherever it wishes. Here, Heaney is making the metaphorical comparison between the comet and the meteorite and his own role as a poet. He wishes to be able to express himself freely yet the political circumstances in Northern Ireland do not allow for such, it forces him to choose sides, and tries to drag him into the conflict. Here, Heaney poses an important question – is he to be simply another insignificant individual pushed around by politics or is he to be an independent figure able to freely voice his own thoughts?

In the next two stanzas, Heaney further ponders his role as a poet. He plaintively asks ‘How did I end up like this?’ There is a certain degree of torment shown through this as he sits, ‘weighing and weighing’ his worth. This repetition places emphasis on his vulnerable psychological state. He identifies two opposing groups: the rational ones with their ‘beautiful prismatic counselling’ and his enemies with their impenetrable ‘anvil brains’. He feels isolated from all groups and becomes an ‘inner émigré’ as he is unable to satisfy the demands of one, without conflicting with the others. Heaney is frustrated that he is unable to change the perceptions of those people, close-minded and devoted to their own beliefs. Once again, he questions his role as a poet; he questions himself as to who he is to please, who should he be serving – the minority, the various political groups or society as a whole?

This poem helps him resolve his dilemma and therefore it is a seminal poem in which he takes his lonely stand as an artist and refuses to be drawn in and forced to take sides – he will be his own man – the epiphany comes like Austin Clarke’s ‘The Lost Heifer’ appearing out of the mist. He clarifies the reference to ‘the alders’ in stanza one and this time the image is clearer and more definite:

Rain comes down through the alders,
Its low conductive voices
Mutter about let-downs and erosions
And yet each drop recalls

The diamond absolutes.

This is more hopeful as Heaney gradually comes to terms with himself. He realises, despite the rain causing ‘let-downs and erosions,’ it is able to ‘(recall) the diamond absolutes.’ Through his self-imposed ‘exile’ in Wicklow, he has ‘grown long-haired and thoughtful.’ He repudiates both extremes – the fanaticism of ‘the internee’ languishing ‘on some muddy compound’ in Long Kesk and the despicable betrayal of ‘the informer’. He emphatically states that ‘I am neither’. Instead, he has gained wisdom and realised that like the ‘wood-kerne,’ the Irish soldiers of old who having lost the battle retreat to the woods to regroup, he is able to use his writing as a way of controlling and fighting for his voice in society. His solitary trek through the winter woods has given him a deeper insight into his role as a poet in a society devastated by violence and divisions.

In ‘Exposure’, Heaney reflects on his changed circumstances and on his present situation living and writing in the quiet backwater of Glanmore in County Wicklow. He reflects on the great expectations being placed on him as a poet of standing. This marks a drastically different approach to that seen in earlier collections such as Death of a Naturalist. In this final poem of The Singing School sequence and the final poem in the collection, North, Heaney wonders whether his move South will have any effect. Will it give him the perspective he craves or will he be exposed to ridicule like the king without clothes in the children’s fable. He knows he is taking a risk and giving his critics and the ‘anvil brains’ ammunition to mortally wound him. What if after all the brouhaha he only produces the odd spark to illuminate the daily atrocities taking place further North when what the situation really needs is the arrival of a ‘comet’s pulsing rose’?

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Analysis of “The Forge” by Seamus Heaney

The Forge, situated on the Hillhead Road, near Castledawson and dates from the 19th Century. (www.georgemcintyre.tripod.com)
The Forge, situated on the Hillhead Road, near Castledawson and dates from the 19th Century. (www.georgemcintyre.tripod.com)

 

The Forge
by Seamus Heaney

All I know is a door into the dark.
Outside, old axles and iron hoops rusting;
Inside, the hammered anvil’s short-pitched ring,
The unpredictable fantail of sparks
Or hiss when a new shoe toughens in water.
The anvil must be somewhere in the centre,
Horned as a unicorn, at one end and square,
Set there immoveable: an altar
Where he expends himself in shape and music.
Sometimes, leather-aproned, hairs in his nose,
He leans out on the jamb, recalls a clatter
Of hoofs where traffic is flashing in rows;
Then grunts and goes in, with a slam and flick
To beat real iron out, to work the bellows.

“The Forge” appears in Seamus Heaney’s second volume of poetry, Door into the Dark (1969), and the title of the collection is taken from the first line of this poem.  Like many other poems by Heaney this poem explores and glorifies country crafts, many of which are now redundant.  This, in time, may pose problems for those younger generations who come to explore the poems of Heaney and other great poets: few of our young people have reason to visit the forge today, fewer still know what a diviner did and in these ecological times turf is no longer our default fuel! However, not too long ago, the forge was an essential part of Irish rural life and farmers, in particular, used the services of the blacksmith to shoe their horses and make and repair their ploughs and iron gates and other farm utensils.  Indeed in harsher, more troubled times the forge also doubled as an ‘armaments factory’ where ancient pikes, and rudimentary spears and swords were forged and tempered in a clandestine way and often ‘hidden in the thatch’!

Many of his earlier poems evoke, “a hard, mainly rural life with rare exactness,” according to critic Michael Wood[1]. These early poems use descriptions of rural labourers digging, turf-cutting, divining for water, purging unwanted farm animals, and their many and varied other tasks and contemplations of natural phenomena — and they are filtered through childhood and adulthood.

‘The Forge’ was owned and worked by local blacksmith Barney Devlin and it had been handed down to him by his father before him.  Heaney used to pass by this mysterious cornucopia of scrap metal, farm machinery and the obligatory three or four strong farm horses on his way to school at Hillhead near Bellaghy, in rural County Derry.  Heaney’s boyhood fascination with the mysterious goings on at the local forge is compounded by the eerie darkness of its interior.  Later when he began to write, he uses the forge and the work of the blacksmith as an extended analogy or metaphor for his own artistic development and creations – as he does also in “Digging” and other poems.

‘The Forge’ is a sonnet with a clear division into an octave (the first eight lines) and a sestet (the final six lines). While the octave, apart from its initial reference to the narrator, focuses solely on the inanimate objects and occurrences inside and outside the forge, the sestet describes the blacksmith himself, and what he does. Interestingly, the transition from the octave to the sestet is a run-on or enjambment containing one of the key metaphors of the poem, the anvil as altar:

Set there immovable: an altar

Where he expends himself in shape and music.

The poem can be read as elegy to the past, and a lament to the lost tradition of the blacksmith. The anvil is constructed as an altar, and the blacksmith is beating out “real iron”, which the world in 1969, was beginning to dispense with, as cars and tractors began to whizz by ‘flashing in rows’ to the few and far between main dealers!

In one of the many other ways of reading this poem, the blacksmith figure can also be compared to the creative role of the poet as one who opens “door[s] into the dark”, “expends himself in shape and music”, and who “grunts” with the exertion of forging his poems.  Heaney drags us back into the earliest reaches of civilization.  The blacksmith, after all, was one of the most important members of the  agricultural community – he kept horses shod, he kept ploughshares sharp after having cast them in the first place; he was able to transmute iron and other metals into the tools humans needed to build civilization.

Heaney’s  blacksmith evokes Vulcan, the Roman God of the forge. He doesn’t speak – he only “grunts”, and is described as “leather-aproned, hairs in his nose,” like a caricature from Chaucer.  He is powerful as well, able “to beat real iron out.” It’s also wonderful the way Heaney compares the blacksmith’s forge to a church.  The anvil sits in the centre, “immoveable: an altar / Where he expends himself in shape and music.”  And yet, this is all pretty subtle in the poem. It’s not overtly religious; it allows the reader to stick to a literal interpretation about a man whose job is disappearing as the world changes around him, while also allowing a reader who wants to grasp those deeper images another path into the poem.

We have focussed much on the forge and the blacksmith so far but it is essential that we also concentrate on the wordsmith and his craftsmanship at work here also.   One effect of this is to enable us to experience the anvil or altar as a magical point of transition between the material and immovable world of objects and the fluid, musical world of human consciousness. We have already mentioned that this is a sonnet, but even here the poet is experimenting and the rhyme scheme of the sonnet is: abba cddc efgfef, which is a departure from the standard Shakespearean (abab cdcd efef gg) or Petrarchan (abba abba cde cde).

Heaney uses the extended analogy of the forge as a centre of creativity and he posits the thesis that the blacksmith’s work is synonymous with the creative work of the poet. He uses the beautiful simile “horned as a unicorn” to compare the anvil at the centre to the mythical ancient unicorn.   He also cleverly introduces the metaphor of the anvil as altar, comparing the poet’s devotion to the creation of a poem to religious worship or prayer. The poet uses juxtaposition to contrast the exterior of the forge, which may symbolise the mundane, unpoetic world of modern life (“the traffic is flashing in rows”), which the blacksmith/poet seems to scorn in favour of the remembered past (“recalls a clatter of hoofs”) and the supposedly more real activity of beating “real iron out” inside the forge, i.e. poetic activity. There is also the sharp contrast made between the old and the new – the “clatter of hoofs” and “traffic .. flashing in rows”.   The poem abounds with examples of alliteration and assonance, “a door into the dark”, “outside, old axles”.  Another grace note used by the poet is the combination of repeated long syllables with assonance, as in “new shoe” and “beat real iron out”.  The noisy, boisterous forge is brought to life also by numerous examples of onomatopoeia: “hiss”, “clatter”, “grunt”, “slam”, “flick”.  In truth, whether one is a wordsmith or a blacksmith, a playwright or a wheelwright, one has to stand amazed at the sensual delights conjured up by phrases like, “the hammered anvil’s short-pitched ring”, or “the unpredictable fantail of sparks”.

For me the satisfaction of reading Seamus Heaney’s work is the way in which he leads you from the local, from the parish of Anahorish, from his homestead in Mossbawn, or later Glanmore, outwards in space and time, proving Kavanagh’s theory that the local is universal.  In Ireland, our greatest poets are poets of place and they depict the people who live in those places ‘warts and all’, and despite some criticism that Heaney labours the analogy here in this poem, I agree wholeheartedly with P.R. King [2] when he states:

The precise and unadorned diction of the poem represents as honest a piece of craftsmanship as the subject he describes … (The Forge) is accurate, it comes alive as it records the last moments of a dying craft, and after it has been read it lingers in the mind.

Barney Devlin (95) with a prized painting of himself and Seamus Heaney. His father is the blacksmith referred to by Heaney in The Forge.
Barney Devlin (95), the inspiration for this poem, in his home with a prized painting of himself and the poet,  Seamus Heaney. (www.breakingnews.com)

[1] Michael Wood, in Parnassus (copyright © by Parnassus: Poetry in Review), Spring/Summer, 1974

[2] King, Peter R., Nine Contemporary Poets: A Critical Introduction, London: Methuen, 1979. (Selections from the work of Philip Larkin, Charles Tomlinson, Thom Gunn, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, Seamus Heaney, Douglas Dunn, Tom Paulin, and Paul Mills).