In the fouled water, with fork and four-pronged grape
Pitching out sheaves like half-gone carcasses.
They spread it dripping, then, flat on the grass
To crisp and dry hard in the summer sun
Until it could be stooked up, stiff as broom
And whistling in the wind. Toughened to sticks,
The stems were milled, spun, woven into fabrics.
The dam was cleared, poured down into the river
Its poisonous bellyful. “Lint water”
It was called. Across the stream it swirled brown froth
That scummed clean stone and sickened fish to death;
And if the drains were blocked, it still seeped down,
Filtering unseen contamination.
Putrid currents floated trout to the loch,
Their bellies white as linen tablecloths.
This poem was first published in The Times Literary Supplement on August 5th, 1965. Despite being a strong contender for inclusion in his first collection, Heaney seems to have opted instead for a very similar poem, ‘Death of a Naturalist’ after which his first collection is named. The language of the poem, while on the surface appearing to be very matter-of-fact and factual, is loaded with allegorical undertones. Words used to describe the flax dam, ‘rotten eggs’, ‘stink’, ‘decaying’, ‘poisonous’, ‘unseen contamination’, and ‘putrid currents’, are really intended to describe the dysfunctional nature of politics in the North of Ireland. Heaney goes into much more detail here in this poem and the rotting flax is weighed down with ‘stones and sods’ which stands for the violence and coercion he has experienced as a young boy and man.
This poem, therefore, is not as innocent as it seems at first reading. However, it does show early signs of an author who has found a way to illustrate the myriad tensions of his native province before the inevitable meltdown in the late 60s occurred. Unlike other ‘innocent’ poems from his early collections, there is a harsher more jarring approach here in this poem and yet, like much of his earlier poetry, the poem truly reflects his upbringing in Mossbawn and Annahorish. His use of allusion and his reference to the dying rural crafts such as that of the flax farmer, the farrier, the diviner, the ploughman, and his respect for those who worked in the bog is to the fore here also. So, we can see here the germ of an approach that would allow Heaney, in collections such as North and Wintering Out, to explain his unique predicament to an often oblivious and naive world audience.
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
‘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:
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 emperor 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’?
The main purpose of these notes is to assist you in forming an overview of Heaney’s work. For this reason, the material is structured as a series of ‘thinking points’, grouped under general headings. These cover the poet’s main preoccupations and methods, but they are not exhaustive. Neither are they ‘carved in stone’, to be memorised: ideally, they should be altered, added to or deleted as you develop your own set of notes. This priceless pearl of wisdom is relevant for Heaney BUT it equally applies to all the other poets on your course as well!
The following ‘grace notes’ presuppose a basic knowledge of the following poems by Heaney on your Leaving Cert Poetry Syllabus:
The Tollund Man
A Constable Calls
The Harvest Bow
IRISHNESS – HISTORY, MYTHS, POLITICS
In his early poems, Heaney was preoccupied with local history, with communicating the experience of his own place with its numerous customs, rituals and ancient rural crafts (See ‘Sunlight’ and ‘The Forge’).
Then he began to think of history as landscape, exploring downwards, finding evidence of history in the bogs and the very contours of the land, exploring what myth and prehistoric evidence revealed about Irishness (See ‘Bogland’)
Exploring back in time, he makes historical connections between the Iron Age and the present. He draws parallels between ancient human sacrifices and the contemporary violence which was engulfing his native Ulster at the time. He seems to be saying that violence is indeed endemic in all societies throughout history, that human sacrifice is necessary for the integrity of territory, that myths, however savage, are an integral part of the creation of the identity of a people (See ‘The Tollund Man’).
Overall, Heaney’s position has been seen as ambivalent and has been misunderstood by many. His poetry constantly explores the divisions tearing present-day Ulster apart. His position has often met with criticism from all sides regarding his treatment of recent Ulster history. Some critics say he has too much politics in his poetry, while others say he should stand up for his people and take sides. He has been accused of obscuring the horrors of sectarian killings; of endorsing a ‘tribal’ position, or of not endorsing it enough; he has also been accused of evading the issues and being non-committal in his writing.
For many critics, like Elmer Andrews, Heaney doesn’t go far enough: ‘Heaney’s art is fundamentally an art of consciously and carefully cultivated non-engagement’. Do you agree? Is Heaney completely uncritical of his own side? (See ‘Bogland’, ‘The Tollund Man’, ‘A Constable Calls’).
PLACE AND LANDSCAPE
Like Patrick Kavanagh, who is synonymous with his native Inniskeen, Heaney too has immortalised his native place and Mossbawn and Anahorish are mentioned often, especially in those poems which deal with childhood. ‘Sunlight’ presents us with a picture of an idealised childhood, his aunt Mary Heaney’s kitchen is depicted as enveloping him in a womb-like security. His earlier poems, especially those from his collections Death of a Naturalist (1966), Door into the Dark (1969), North (1975), and Field Work (1979), focus very much on home and family, his relationship with his father and mother and the need for continuity between the generations (See ‘Sunlight’, ‘The Harvest Bow’)
Anybody who has read ‘Blackberry Picking’ or ‘Death of a Naturalist’ and other such poems by Heaney will need no convincing that he is a fine descriptive nature poet. Terence Brown says that he has an ‘extraordinary gift in realising the physical world freshly and with vigorous exact economy. Heaney can bring everyday natural events before the readers’ eyes with such telling precision that his images are both recognition and revelation’ (See any of his poems!).
Landscape for Heaney is more than just a subject to be painted: it is a living presence, an ever-present force, a sort of third party to human activity in the poems. This is the same immediate personal presence that we also find in Kavanagh and Wordsworth (See ‘Postscript’, ‘Bogland’, ‘The Tollund Man’).
He shows us differing aspects, different faces, of the landscape: from the life force (‘spirit of the corn’) to the threatening, menacing aspect (‘the bottomless bog’). When writing about the farming traditions of his community he also presents us with the juxtaposing ideas of growth and decay.
Heaney believes that people have a human and a religious relationship with the landscape (See ‘Bogland’, ‘The Tollund Man’, ‘The Harvest Bow’).
The landscape is seen as essentially female, often with erotic associations in its relationship with man (Examine ‘The Tollund Man’ closely).
Heaney’s landscape is dominated by the earth rather than the sky, with the bog providing a metaphor for Irish consciousness (See ‘Bogland’, ‘The Tollund Man’).
‘The landscape for me is an image and it’s almost an element to work with as much as it is an object of admiration or description’. Heaney often uses nature metaphors to express his feelings of frustration and loneliness. For example, in ‘The Harvest Bow’ he describes his frustrating attempts at communicating with his father like this: ‘your stick / Whacking the tops off weeds and bushes / Beats out of time, and beats, but flushes / Nothing’ (See also ‘Postscript’).
Driving out west along the now famous Wild Atlantic Way, along by Flaggy Shore near Ballyvaughan on the West Coast of Clare, the poet explores the beauty of the Irish landscape as a tourist would. Heaney describes the beauty of the landscape and the changing light and the feelings it will inspire. It is a journey poem where the poet finds himself caught between wild things and settled things, between things earthed and things in flight. The sonnet-like structure of the poem gives it a postcard quality ending with simple and powerful words: ‘And catch the heart off guard and blow it open’ (‘Postscript’)
Above all, the landscape for Heaney is a source of creativity and insight: ‘poems … come up … like bodies out of the bog of my own imagination’ (See ‘Bogland’, ‘The Tollund Man’).
TRADITION AND IDENTITY
For Heaney, an awareness of one’s tradition is fundamental to a sense of identity. He explains and explores his own roots, celebrating the ancient skills and crafts that sustained the farming community that nurtured him and his family for generations: the digging, the ploughing, the water-divining, the bread-making, the skills of the farmer, the blacksmith, etc. These skills are described in a reverential way as if they were sacred rituals. (See ‘Sunlight’, ‘The Forge’).
Sometimes he still hankers back to the womb-like security of that life of early childhood. Some interpret these poems describing his Aunt Mary’s kitchen in Mossbawn as a form of regression or escapism from the daily horrors of life in Northern Ireland in the Seventies and Eighties (See ‘Sunlight’). Sometimes he needs to re-forge, reinterpret and understand his links with family in order to rediscover his identity (See ‘The Harvest Bow’ where he says, ‘I tell and finger it like braille’).
‘Our sense of the past, our sense of the land and perhaps even our sense of identity are inextricably interwoven,’ according to Heaney (The Irish Press, June 1st 1974). Therefore, finding and maintaining a sense of continuity is vital to Heaney: family, traditions, customs and values come to him as memories in his poetry and reassure and comfort him amidst the mayhem and uncertainty of daily atrocities in his home place (See ‘Sunlight’, ‘The Harvest Bow’).
He explores his Catholic roots too, as set against the other traditions. According to Robert Welch: ‘Heaney is engaged upon a cultural and tribal exploration; he is testing out his cultural inheritance to see where the significant deposits are located; but he is not engaged upon a mindless submission to the old tradition of the goddess or whatever.’ (See ‘Sunlight’, ‘The Harvest Bow’, ‘Bogland’, ‘The Tollund Man’).
There are times in his writing when his personal identity has overtones of victimhood about it. He certainly seems to identify with victims: ‘something of this sad freedom … should come to me.’ (See ‘The Tollund Man’, ‘A Constable Calls’).
IDENTITY AND POETRY
Heaney’s identity as a poet is inextricably linked in with his historical and cultural identity. The autographical voice we encounter in his first collection, Death of a Naturalist, becomes the spokesperson of his people in the later collection, Door into the Dark (See ‘Bogland’).
He identifies with the bog – he takes on board the implied insult that he is ‘a bogman’ and he owns it! The bog, with all its implications, becomes a kind of subconscious racial memory for him, providing him with inspiration for his poetry. The Danes weren’t the only ones to bury their dead in the bog – there were numerous victims of violence ‘disappeared’ during ‘The Troubles’ and buried in remote, windswept locations on this island too (See ‘The Tollund Man’, ‘Bogland’).
Elmer Andrews describes Heaney’s method in this way: ‘He is proposing an idea of poetry which combines psychic investigation with historical enquiry’. In an essay entitled ‘Feeling into Words’, Heaney himself spoke of ‘poetry as divination, poetry as revelation of the self to the self, as restoration of the culture to itself; poems as elements of continuity, with the aura of authenticity of archaeological finds, where the buried shard has an importance that is not diminished by the importance of the buried city; poetry as a dig, a dig for finds that end up being plants’ (Preoccupations, 1980) (See also ‘The Tollund Man’, ‘Bogland’).
Heaney sees the craft of poetry not just as something mechanical but rather a ‘combination of imagination and skill. He uses a brilliant analogy to describe a poem as ‘a completely successful love act between the craft and the gift’ (See ‘The Forge’).
Heaney’s voice in his poems is often indecisive, timid and ambiguous, his position is that of a hesitant observer on the fringes of the scene. For example, in The Forge he is outside looking in, afraid of the darkness within.
Heaney and other Northern poets such as Montague, Mahon, and Longley have come to prominence because of their efforts to make poetry relevant in a difficult political backdrop. He feels at times that poetry may be powerless to influence politics but nevertheless, it is vital to a sense of identity.
SAMPLE ANSWER: What are the recurring themes in the poetry of Seamus Heaney?
Heaney’s poetry brings us to our senses! There is a tactile, sensuous quality to his poetry and his poetry is often multi-layered. When he says that he will ‘dig’ with his pen he is referring to how layer after layer of meaning can be revealed in the act of writing. In ‘The Forge’ he records a changing way of life as the horse and car make way for the motorcar, but the poem also reveals a growing awareness of the mystery of the creative process. It becomes, therefore, a poem about poetry.
His poetry often draws on childhood memories of growing up on a farm in Co. Derry. In ‘Sunlight’ and ‘A Constable Calls’ he presents us with two contrasting memories, one beautifully tranquil, the other troubled and uneasy. Place is of vital importance, as in Kavanagh’s poetry, but so too are the people associated with that place: the exhumed Tollund man, his Aunt Mary in the family kitchen, his father ‘making tillage returns /In acres, roods and perches’, and his father making the harvest bow.
There is, therefore, a preoccupation with the past and a fascination with it. In both ‘Bogland’ and ‘The Tollund Man’ Heaney, like the ‘pioneers’ who keep ‘striking / Inwards and downwards’, prompts us to think across thousands of years. ‘Bogland’ speaks of how our ancestors’ lives are recorded and contained within the bog. ‘The Tollund Man’, though it also speaks of a bog find, is a more complex poem in that it relates a violent death that took place two thousand years ago in Jutland to the violent deaths which occurred almost daily in Northern Ireland from 1969 until the signing of the Belfast Agreement on Good Friday in 1998. Though Heaney writes about contemporary events, he does so sometimes at a tangent. Heaney himself has said that he has searched for ‘images and symbols adequate to our predicament’. And despite what some of his critics say, he never shirks or avoids the savage reality of violence: in ‘The Tollund Man’ he writes with stark realism of how the mutilated bodies of four young brothers were dragged along the train tracks, their skin and teeth flecking the railway sleepers.
Heaney’s lyric voice is often straightforward. Lines can be plain, unadorned, and deceptively simple: ‘His bicycle stood at the windowsill’, but these opening lines open up and at the same time deepen our understanding of a particular experience. In Heaney’s own words a poem preserves an experience, but ‘it should also open experience up and move it along … so that, first of all, the poet and then the reader, hopefully, gets carried away a little.’
‘So’ is a key word in Heaney’s poetry. It signals a clear-sighted focus on the scene before. For example, in ‘Sunlight’ he says, ‘So her hands scuffled / over the bakeboard’. By his use of this simple word, he achieves an immediate, direct, warm tone in his poetry. Also in ‘Sunlight’, we can see how his use of a shift in tense from past to present indicates how memory or a remembered event can be given a living quality within the poem. The poem begins in the past – ‘There was a sunlit absence’ – but ends in the present – ‘Now she dusts the board … now sits broad-lapped …
And here is love
like a tinsmith’s scoop
sunk past its gleam
in the meal-bin.
Throughout his career, Heaney was very interested in poetic form and structure. ‘The Forge’ is a sonnet and other poems on our course reveal a mastery of many forms – a variety of line lengths and differently shaped stanzas. In ‘The Harvest Bow’ the intricacies of the making of the bow is mirrored in the intricacies of the poem itself: in a line such as ‘brightens and tightens twist by twist’, with its perfect example of internal rhyme and repetition.
Heaney’s poetry is both sensitive and sympathetic. He identifies and understands others. Relationships are at the heart of his poetry, his relationships with loved ones, family, and also his relationship with significant places such as Mossbawn and later Glanmore. He recognises what is good and he cherishes and celebrates it. In his poems he is capable of delight and astonishment; the ordinary becomes marvellous, and such moments are conveyed with wonder, humility and gratitude.
You might also like to read some of the following:
Andrews, Elmer (ed). The Poetry of Seamus Heaney: Essays, Articles, Reviews. Columbia University Press (Icon Books Limited), 1998.
Brown, Terence. The Literature of Ireland: Culture and Criticism. Cambridge University Press, 2010.
Heaney, Seamus. The Government of the Tongue, Faber and Faber, 1989.
Heaney here scrutinizes the work of several poets, British and Irish, American and European, whose work he considers might call into question the rights of poetic utterance. The author asks whether the voice of the poet should be governed, or whether it should be the governor.
Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney’s first collection of prose, Preoccupations, begins with a vivid account of his early years on his father’s farm in Northern Ireland and his coming of age as a student and teacher in Belfast. Subsequent essays include critical work on Gerard Manley Hopkins, William Wordsworth, John Keats, Robert Lowell, William Butler Yeats, John Montague, Patrick Kavanagh, Ted Hughes, Geoffrey Hill, and Philip Larkin.
Welch, Robert (ed). Irish Writers and Religion, Rowman and Littlefield, 1992
I live in a beautiful area of West Limerick and next door is the townland of Ahalin (or Aughalin). The townland has been referred to in English as Ahalin since at least 1867 when a weighty limestone plaque was erected on the new National School recently opened in the area – this read ‘Ahalin National School 1867’. The retranslation of this placename (Ahalin) into Irish has caused debate for decades. The famous Limerick academic P.W. Joyce in his seminal work, The Origin and History of Irish Placenames published in 1910 by M.H. Gill and Son, has it as ‘the ford of the pool’ and this indeed is one literal translation, ‘Áth’ being the Irish for a ford over a river or stream and ‘Linn’ being the Irish for a pool. (Dublin was once Dubh Linn or Blackpool!). However, as former local headmaster, Michéal de Búrca pointed out to anyone who would listen, ‘there isn’t a pool within miles of this place, and there’s no ford in the place because there’s no river’.
As you can see above the eponymous Master Burke goes on to give further information regarding the etymology of the placename Aughalin, which had been handed down through the years. He is obviously lecturing the representative of the Placenames Commission who has come a calling and (unfortunately for us) they both seem to be looking at an Ordnance Survey map as they speak:
And there is the correct pronunciation, (Aughalin) it means ‘the field of the flax’ and the flax field is staring them just over there across ‘the high field of the flax’ – and the high field is there and the flax-hole in the corner. Here is the cross (Wall’s Cross), and here is the old school, and here’s ‘achalinwest’ (297) …… they simply call it The Big Field now (301) and even that fort is gone and this other one (field) outside it again (just to the south of it) there’s also another flax-hole (there) ….’.
Amazingly then, in spite of all this overwhelming local knowledge and traditional usage, in the Placenames (Co. Limerick) Order 2003 the townland of Ahalin is given as Aughalin (which is ok) and the official Irish version of the townland is given as Áith Liní (which is not). In Irish ‘Áith’ means ‘a kiln’ and there is some evidence from old maps of the area that there were at least two disused kilns in the area in question. However, ‘Liní’ has no obvious meaning or no local connotations. (To add insult to injury, of course, the same Placenames (Co. Limerick) Order 2003 also refers to Cloncagh instead of the more traditional Clouncagh, and Cluain Cath instead of the more correct Cluain Catha – but that’s a story for another day!)
The more correct rendering in Irish of the anglicised word Ahalin (or Aughalin) is, in fact, Achadh Lín which directly translates as ‘the field of the flax’. This is the Irish version used locally to this day – the new school in Ahalin (opened in October 1963) is known as Scoil Mhuire, Achadh Lín. In fact, if one does even the minimum of research (i.e. talking to the locals) they will without hesitation tell you exactly where ‘the field of the flax’ is situated.
I have long been fascinated by the fact that not too long ago, well maybe at some time during the nineteenth century, flax was grown in the parish of Knockaderry in County Limerick and there was a flax-hole or flax-dam in my own neighbouring townland, and, as Seamus Heaney describes so well in his poem, ‘Death of a Naturalist’ :
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.
So how come we have a townland in rural County Limerick which is associated with the growing of flax? More than likely it was an endeavour of the local landlords, the D’Arcy family who at one time lived in the townland of Ahalin and later moved to Knockaderry House or maybe the growing of flax was promoted by the Fetherson or Fitzgerald families who also owned substantial estates and were associated with Ahalin.
At the time of Griffith’s Valuation, completed in County Limerick in June 1853, Robert Fetherston held land in Ahalin in the parish of Clonelty, barony of Glenquin and at Bruree, barony of Connello Upper, County Limerick. In February 1855 his 565 acres at Ahalin, barony of Glenquin, on which there was a “neat cottage residence suited for a gentleman’s family”, were advertised for sale. This residence and some land were sold to Mr J.D. Fitzgerald Member of Parliament for £2,350. The “cottage” in question was located in the townland of Ahalin directly behind where Mr Dave Downes and family now live. The holding consisted of the main dwelling house, a stable, a coach house, two cow houses, a piggery, a fowl house, a boiling house and a barn.
It is this Mr. Fitzgerald, who was appointed Attorney General for Ireland in 1856 and who served as MP for Clare (1852 – 1860), who gave the land for the first National School in Ahalin, which was opened in 1867. It is also very probable that it is this same Mr Fitzgerald MP, or his agent, who Master Burke is referring to when he says ‘some eejit came in 1867 and he put up on the old school AHALIN N.S. and you could not correct it!’ This suggests that Master Burke would have been happier with ‘Aughalin’ rather than ‘Ahalin’ as the correct anglicisation of the townland – as this is nearest to the Irish version of the placename, Achadh Lín.
In more recent times this cottage was the property of the Flynn brothers. In the returns of the 1901 Census, there were six people living here: Patrick Flynn aged 30, Kate Flynn aged 27, Michael Flynn aged 25, Julia Flynn aged 22, Philip Flynn aged 18 and Martin Flynn aged 12. In the Census returns for 1911, it seems that Michael and Julia have left the family home and Molly Greaney (aged 16) is registered as a General Domestic Servant by the family. The property was still owned by the Flynns up to the late 1950’s and at that time Philip (who was blind) and Martin were the two surviving brothers living in the cottage. It is said locally that they were the first house in the parish to own a radio. Molly O’Neill was their housekeeper up to the end. Before that Cis Harrold was the housekeeper. She was a sister to Mike, Willie and Brian Harrold and an aunt to Batt O’Connor.
As far back as 1654, the Limerick Civil Survey records a tuck mill for flax (and later for grain up to 1924) in nearby Ballinoe. This mill was known as Reeves’s Mill and was located where the Enright’s own land today near Ballinoe Bridge on the Kilmeedy side of Ballinoe Cross near where Johnny Corkery and his family now live. In Bailiúchán na Scol, a folklore project organised by the Folklore Commission in National Schools throughout the country in 1937–38 Nora Nash from Ballinoe and attending the Girls School in Ahalin stated that ‘flour was made locally in Re(e)ves’ Mill in Ballynoe’ and she further states that ‘it is to be seen still at Enright’s where the mill was’. This Mill was built on the banks of the Ábha na Scáth river which rises near Knockfierna and flows through Clouncagh and into the River Deel near Bunoke Bridge.
We also know from research carried out by the Rathkeale Historical Society that as early as 1709 Thomas Southwell (Rathkeale), whose family had inherited some of the old Billingsley/Dowdall estate (mainly centred in Kilfinny), introduced over 120 Palatine refugee families to the townlands of Courtmatrix, Killeheen, Ballingrane and Pallas(kenry). These families augmented an already established English settlement which had been introduced to assist in the development of the linen/flax industry in the West Limerick area.
Local historian, Sean Kelly in the NCW Historical Journal, The Annual Observer, in his excellent article on the history of Phelans Mill (situated where Objekt Design Space have their home accessory store today) states that for a time in the 1800’s this mill (then under the ownership of Robert Quaid and his family) was used as a scutching mill for flax and that there was a flax-dam and bleaching area nearby on the banks of the Arra River near where Dr O’Brien and Dr Barrett once resided and on land which is now owned by Ballygowan Mineral Water Company.
So while flax growing, and the linen industry it supported, was a predominantly Northern Ireland industry, remnants of it were also to be found in Munster and Limerick and even in Knockaderry itself! It is no surprise, therefore, to come across references to flax and the linen industry in the local placenames such as Ahalin. Readers may also be aware of another placename in Limerick, Monaleen, which is from the Irish ‘Móin a Lín’, literally ‘the flax meadow’ or ‘field of flax’.
Flax, itself, was a very labour intensive crop to grow and demanded much skill. The land had to be ploughed, harrowed, cross ploughed, and harrowed again and rolled. The seed was then sown, harrowed in and rolled again. Nature and the elements took over, but the better the seedbed, the better would be the crop. Much depended on the ploughman. Usually, he was a quiet fellow of good skill, much in harmony with his pair of horses. The excellence of linen depended on this quiet fellow, who ploughed a straight furrow. There was much preparation for flax growing and it was said that it took more out of the land than any other crop.
Nature responded, and in due course, thousands of flax stems grew up, three to four feet in height. A tiny blue blossom appeared on their tips, followed by a natural coloured seed pod; and the flax was ready for pulling.
Flax pulling by hand was a back-breaking job, taken on by casual workers, who needed the cash. Hand pulling was necessary because the whole stem, from root to tip, was required to give the longest fibre, for the finest quality linen cloth. The pulled flax was tied up in beats (sheaves) and put in rows or stooks on the flax field. The stooks were collected and put into flax holes, or dams, and kept under water for ten to fourteen days. This was to `rat’ or `rot’ the inside wood part from the outside fibres.
Then began the most difficult job in the making of linen, lifting the heavy, smelly, slimy, wet beats from the flax hole to the bank. Men had to work for hours, up to the waist in this wet clabber, while others took the beats and spread them on the fields to dry or bleach
Spreading was also a back-breaking job, as was lifting some days later, when dry. The flax was ready for scutching, a dusty and dangerous art. This meant the removal of the centre wood part from the outside fibres and was done when the scutcher pressed handfuls of flax against a large four-bladed flail revolving at speed. It cut away the wood part and left the scutcher with handfuls of long blonde fibres, like a young lady’s head of long blonde hair. Many an arm or hand was cut off in this process. The wood part was known as ‘shives’ which were burned as waste.
So, where can we find this ‘high field of the flax’ today or even the flax-hole in the corner of the field? As we have already noted from comments made by Master Burke to the authorities at the time it seems the flax field was situated between Wall’s Cross and the old school in Ahalin. As already mentioned, if one does even the minimum of research in the area locals will without hesitation tell you exactly where ‘the field of the flax’ is situated. Most local sources (whom I have spoken to) say that the ‘flax field’ is today owned by Mickey Magner and the field lies to the left of what is locally known as Ahalin Avenue. In times gone by there was a fort in the middle of this field but all evidence of this fort has since been removed although it can still be seen clearly in some old Ordnance Survey maps of the area.
So, it seems that while evidence of a fort can be obliterated from the landscape the folk memory associated with the growing of flax in the area cannot. The beautiful, enigmatic placename of Aughalin or Achadh Lín and its rich history lives on strongly in the folk memory of the people of Knockaderry to this day.
 Clonelty Parish, roughly corresponding to the parish of Knockaderry today. The townland of Aughalin consisted of 571 acres, 3 roods and 2 perches.
 John David Fitzgerald of Dublin was the son of David Fitzgerald, a Dublin merchant. He was Member of Parliament for Ennis 1852-1860 and was appointed Attorney General for Ireland in 1856. At the time of Griffith’s Valuation, he held land in the parish of Quin, barony of Bunratty Upper, County Clare and in the parish of Rathkeale, barony of Connello Lower, County Limerick. In 1860 he married his second wife Jane Mary Matilda Southwell, sister of the 4th Viscount Southwell. In 1882 he was made a life peer as Baron Fitzgerald of Kilmarnock. In the 1870s he owned 1,393 acres in County Clare and 1,324 acres in County Limerick including ‘a gentleman’s cottage’ and land in Aughalin.
 The tuck mill was used in the woollen industry to improve the quality of the woven fabric by repeatedly combing it, producing a warm worsted fabric.
 Bailiúchán na Scol, Imleabhar 0490, Leathanach 42. Here, just to add to the confusion, the school is named as Áth an Lín (Cailiní), Baile an Gharrdha, (Uimhir Rolla 9633).
Commentary: In the title poem of his first ever collection, Death of a Naturalist, Seamus Heaney gives a very sensuous and sumptuous description of the goings on at his local flax-hole. This hole or ‘flax-dam’ contained the flax which had been harvested and was now being soaked in a man-made hole in the corner of the flax-field in August. When the process was complete the flax was taken out and became the raw material for the thriving linen industry which had long flourished in Northern Ireland but was now showing some signs of decay in the nineteen fifties. The poem has an added resonance for me because I live in a beautiful part of West Limerick and next door to me is the townland of Ahalin, or Achadh Lín in Irish, which means the ‘field of the flax’. Each time I read this poem I am reminded that at some time maybe in the 1800’s or before just over the road from me was our very own flax-field with its festering flax-dam!
In this poem, ‘Death of a Naturalist’, Seamus Heaney gives a brilliant description of the local flax-hole. It is a memory poem, one of the many poems written about his childhood and early school days. Heaney, in this first collection of early poems mines a rich vein of childhood memory. It is, however, embellished memory – childhood through a rosy adult lens. The poem is extremely sensual and evokes the senses of sight and sound and smell to perfection. Indeed, the poem invites the reader to read it aloud such are the myriad examples of assonance and alliteration scattered throughout.
The flax-dam or flax hole came into its own each August when the flax crop was ready for harvest. Flax pulling by hand was a backbreaking job, taken on by casual, often transient workers. Hand pulling was necessary because the whole stem, from root to tip, was required to give the longest fibre, for the finest quality linen cloth. The pulled flax was tied up in beats (sheaves) and put in rows or stooks on the flax field. The stooks were collected and put into flax holes, or dams, and kept under water for ten to fourteen days. This was to `rat’ or `rot’ the inside wood part from the outside fibres.
The ‘flax-dam’ festered and ‘sweltered in the punishing sun’ in high Summer. We can almost hear the bluebottles as they,
‘Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell’.
Each August the flax was immersed in the flax hole and sods of earth were used to keep it submerged.
The flax hole may have only been used by the farmers during the harvest but of course, it lay there unused all year round. The young poet, as naturalist, is obviously drawn to the pool at other times of the year as well, especially when there were great clots of frogspawn evident each Spring. He also visits in May to see the dragonflies and every July and August to spot the butterflies:
There were dragonflies, spotted butterflies,
But best of all was the warm thick slobber
Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water
In the shade of the banks.
The poet uses onomatopoeia to great effect to aid his description: ‘bubbles gargled’, ‘slobber of frogspawn’, ‘coarse croaking’, ‘the slap and plop’, and the brilliant ‘blunt heads farting’. We are also reminded of his age with the use of the word ‘jampotfuls’ and by the childish simile ‘Poised like mud grenades’.
Like all other budding young naturalists, he is lucky to have a great teacher! ‘Miss Walls’ encourages him and provides him with the necessary information, always appropriate to his age of course!
Miss Walls would tell us how
The daddy frog was called a bullfrog
And how he croaked and how the mammy frog
Laid hundreds of little eggs and this was
Her ecology classes sent him out to the meadows to collect samples for the classroom and for the windowsill at home in his kitchen in Mossbawn. Miss Walls also imparted other vital pieces of information which are seized upon by the young eager naturalist:
You could tell the weather by frogs too
For they were yellow in the sun and brown
There is a sense of childhood foreboding and fear of the flax hole and the mating frogs which is recreated with great accuracy by the poet – he knew, or he had been told by his elders, that ‘if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it’. These stories were obviously very effective in keeping inquisitive young boys away from the vicinity of these dangerous flax dams and he feels threatened and frightened by the scene that confronts him at the flax-dam.
The great slime kings
Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew
That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.
Indeed, the whole poem can be seen as a metaphor for growing up, laden with imagery that could be interpreted as sexual: we sense a child’s revulsion as he discovers the facts of life and his ensuing loss of innocence. He will never feel the same again about the countryside after this encounter with the bullfrogs! As the poem’s title suggests, therefore, his days as a naturalist are drawing to an end!
Interestingly, a poem very similar to ‘Death of a Naturalist’ called ‘Lint Water’ was published in the Times Literary Supplement on August 5th, 1965. In my view, this poem was not included in Heaney’s first collection Death of a Naturalist (or anywhere else) because of its more blatantly political undertone. In his book, On Seamus Heaney, Roy Foster suggests that ’The quintessential Ulster industry of linen-making provided a metaphor for the poisoning of running water and ….. the idea of a poisoned terrain (also used by Montague for his landmark collection, Poisoned Lands, in 1961) was both irresistible and significant’. His days as a naturalist may be drawing to a close but it is clear here that his political sense has already begun to develop. So, we can see that from a very early stage in his poetic development Heaney is deeply aware that there is indeed something rotten in the state of Denmark. And while the poem ‘Death of a Naturalist’ is a memory of a childhood experience and so merits inclusion in his first collection, in ‘Lint Water’ Heaney signals the way that he would choose to approach and unpick the political and sectarian tensions of his native province as they unfolded in the 1960s and thereafter.
Foster, R. F., ‘Roy Foster on Seamus Heaney: the Belfast years’, in The Irish Times, Saturday, September 5th, 2020, an extract from his book On Seamus Heaney, published by Princeton University Press, 2020.
My father worked with a horse plough,
His shoulders globed like a full sail strung
Between the shafts and the furrow.
The horses strained at his clicking tongue.
An expert. He would set the wing
And fit the bright-pointed sock.
The sod rolled over without breaking.
At the headrig, with a single pluck.
Of reins, the sweating team turned round
And back into the land. His eye
Narrowed and angled at the ground,
Mapping the furrow exactly.
I stumbled in his hobnailed wake,
Fell sometimes on the polished sod;
Sometimes he rode me on his back
Dipping and rising to his plod.
I wanted to grow up and plough,
To close one eye, stiffen my arm.
All I ever did was follow
In his broad shadow around the farm.
I was a nuisance, tripping, falling,
Yapping always. But today
It is my father who keeps stumbling
Behind me, and will not go away.
– fromDeath of a Naturalist, 1966
Commentary: This poem appears in Heaney’s first collection, Death of a Naturalist, published in 1966. In this collection, Heaney is keen to introduce himself and tell us where he comes from. The collection includes poems such as ‘Digging’, ‘Churning Day’, ‘Early Purges’, ‘The Diviner’ and ‘Follower’. All of these poems reflect his farming background and they depict a world view and country crafts and skills that are now redundant and no longer to be readily seen in the Irish countryside. We are introduced to men who dig in gardens, men who cut turf, who sell their cattle at the local fair, and who rid the farmyard of unwanted kittens. Heaney tells us that he intends to follow in their footsteps – to dig ‘down and down for the good turf’, to plough his lonely furrow as a poet.
The theme of this poem is the relationship between father and son. In poetry, fathers are constant ghostly shadows offering nostalgic, intimate images of a safe and tender childhood. Heaney explores this theme here in ‘Follower’ and in many other poems like ‘Digging’ and ‘The Harvest Bow’. In ‘The Harvest Bow’, Seamus Heaney’s father, Patrick, emerges as a strong ‘tongue tied’ man, a man of action and of few words. He has fashioned the harvest bow for his son as a ‘throwaway love-knot of straw’. The poem is a tender exploration of the Father/Son relationship and it is clear that an unspoken understanding has grown between them, lovingly expressed by the harvest bow which Heaney fingers and reads ‘like braille ….. gleaning the unsaid off the palpable’. Heaney then translates what he has read and puts it into words which he fashions and plaits and weaves into a tender ‘love-knot’ of a poem. In ‘Digging’ he explores other aspects of this same theme. He looks down from his window and paints a rather unflattering picture of his father, ‘his straining rump among the flowerbeds’ reminds him of a scene twenty years earlier as his father was digging out potatoes on the home farm. Here, in ‘Follower’ he juxtaposes his father’s patience with him as a child with his own grown up impatience and annoyance,
It is my father who keeps stumbling
Behind me, and will not go away.
The poem is titled ‘Follower’ and Heaney invites us to explore the various meanings of the word as it is used today – he follows in his father’s footsteps, we follow Man United, she is a follower of Christ, a disciple. The poem ends with a denouement when the roles are suddenly reversed and now the father is seen ‘stumbling behind me’. The great irony here, of course, is that Heaney was not a follower – he was a trailblazer, a man outstanding in his own field, so to speak! Mark Patrick Hederman OSB, former Abbot of Glenstal Abbey, County Limerick, uses a lovely analogy to describe poets and other artists in his book, The Haunted Inkwell– he says that artists are like the dove that Noah released from the Ark after 40 days to check if the waters were receding. Eventually, the third dove brought back an olive branch – we need trailblazers and scouts like that to go before us, to take the risks, and help us explore our unchartered waters. Heaney is a poet, like Kavanagh and Hartnett, who has remained attached to his home place and the values and the traditions of his parents, ‘All I know is a door into the dark’. We can be grateful that our poets are pioneers, working at the frontier of language. They are translators, translating for us events that we cannot grasp.
These early poems in Death of a Naturalist are all metaphors, endeavouring to crystallise the meaning of art and the role of the artist in our world – the poet is described as gardener, turf-cutter, as diviner, as smithy, as ploughman. He celebrates this local craftsmanship – the diviner, the digger, the blacksmith and the breadmaker and he hankers back to his childhood and the community of that childhood for several reasons. Indeed, part of the excitement of reading his poetry is the way in which he leads you from the parish of Anahorish in County Derry outwards in space and time, making connections with kindred spirits, both living and dead, so that he verifies for us Patrick Kavanagh’s belief that the local is universal. For example in ‘The Forge’, he appears at first glance to be looking back with fond nostalgia at the work of the local village blacksmith, Barney Devlin. However, the real subject of the poem is the mystery of the creative process – writing poetry is like ‘a door into the dark’. The work of the forge serves, therefore, as an extended metaphor for the creative work and craftsmanship of poetry.
In ‘Follower’, like ‘Digging’, he continues to use this extended metaphor as he focuses on his father as farmer and ploughman. His father is ‘an expert’. He recalls precious scenes and memories from his childhood with great accuracy. He mentions the plough and all its individual parts, ‘the shafts’, ‘the wing’, ‘the bright steel-pointed sock’, the horse’s ‘headrig’. The opening lines cleverly introduce the simile of his father’s shoulders ‘globed like a full sail’ and he then follows this with the exquisite metaphor of his father as ancient mariner using angles and eyesight ‘mapping the furrow exactly’ while the young Heaney struggles and stumbles ‘in his hob-nailed wake’. His childhood is spent in his father’s shadow and he decides that ‘I wanted to grow up and plough’. Similar to ‘Digging’, the very first poem in Death of a Naturalist, he wants to follow in his father and grandfather’s footsteps and dig except he realises that ‘I’ve no spade to follow men like them’. Instead, he decides that he will follow in their footsteps but instead of a spade he will dig with his pen:
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.
‘Follower’ ends with a jolt. The poet is suddenly back in the present, the childhood reverie over. He juxtaposes the past with the present: his youthful self,
.. was a nuisance, tripping, falling,
This memory is sharply contrasted with the awkward reality that time has passed and now it is his ageing father who is the ‘nuisance’,
It is my father who keeps stumbling
Behind me and will not go away.
During the last three verses, the poet returns to the present time and he says that nowadays his father is the one who is stumbling behind him because of his age. The word ‘Behind’ used by Seamus Heaney in the last verse, forces us to accept the total reversal of roles which have taken place. The poet is no longer the follower and now his once stoical and patient father struggles to keep up as his impatient twenty-seven-year-old son sets sail on his own adventure. He has finally moved out of his father’s shadow and now must plough his own unique and lonely furrow.
The poem is one of many which pays homage to the poet’s humble beginnings in Bellaghy, Mossbawn, and Anahorish. It is interesting to note that many of the later poems in this collection, Death of a Naturalist, describe his developing relationship with Marie Devlin, his future wife (the collection is dedicated to her). Surefooted, he begins his odyssey away from Mossbawn and on to Belfast, Glanmore, Oxford and Harvard, and into our hearts forever.
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.
Elizabeth Bishop has garnered the reputation of being one of the finest, one of the most formally perfect, poets of the second half of the twentieth century. Irish poets Seamus Heaney and Paul Muldoon have testified in lectures and in essays on her poetry, to the unchallengeable subtlety of her work. And if she has been called a poet’s poet she is also pre-eminently a reader’s poet, and a poet whom it is always a serious joy to teach – students come alive when asked to discuss her work, partly because she communicates with an eager, unforced directness, partly because of the wit, the sheer pizazz and style with which she writes.
In the 1980s, there was a serious resistance to her work: she never came out as a lesbian, refused to appear in all-women anthologies, guarded her privacy and did not take direct political stances like her friend Robert Lowell. She was seen as insufficiently political, a misreading of her work, which identifies with black Americans, and with the struggle of the poor and oppressed in South America. But she, wisely, does not draw attention to those themes. She designs beautiful cadences, perfect shapes, and then she runs a counter-theme against them: ugliness, bad taste, rough or unbroken surfaces and sounds infiltrate her paradise of pure form and make it both more ideal and more real.
In ‘Cape Breton’, she draws our attention to the “weaving water”, and then offsets it with “hackmatack”, the name of a hard American spruce much admired by Walt Whitman. She also introduces an “irregular nervous saw-tooth edge”, and a “rough-adzed pole”. A gifted amateur painter, she designs a composition which plays the rough against the smooth, and allows a coded unhappiness and anxiety to disturb the surface of her art.
Bishop’s personal life – like many other poets – was often unhappy – two lovers committed suicide – and she became an alcoholic as a young woman. Behind the formal façade of her poems, there is a homeless, orphaned imagination, whose loneliness was expressed in her insatiable letter-writing and in late-night phone calls to friends.
She was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, on February 11th, 1911. Her mother was from Nova Scotia, her father, who was half Canadian, half American, died in 1911, eight months after she was born. Her mother became deeply disorientated over the next five years, was diagnosed as permanently insane in 1916 and died in a public sanatorium in Nova Scotia in 1934. Bishop lived alternately with her grandparents in Nova Scotia and New England, and later with an aunt. She suffered poor health and hadn’t much formal education until she was fifteen. In 1930 she attended Vassar College and joined a brilliant generation there.
Bishop impressed everyone she met – she was musical, very well read, and was also a painter with a great knowledge of the visual arts. She was a compulsive traveller, who manages to avoid all the pitfalls of tourist verse.
The roots of Bishop’s art can be traced to her undergraduate years at Vassar, and rather unusually it is to a single academic essay that we must turn to understand her idea of form and beauty. As an undergraduate she read a famous essay by the distinguished scholar, M. W. Croll. It was called ‘The Baroque Style in Prose’ and is one of the classic essays on prose style (it can be found in a collection of essays called The English Language, edited by George Watson). Croll’s concept of baroque style – ‘not a thought, but a mind thinking’ – spoke to Bishop like a vocation. She quoted Croll’s essay in letters to friends, because what she admired in the baroque was the “ardour” and dramatic energy and immediacy of an idea as it was formulated and experienced. The result is a poetry of intense visual and vocal power, where the play of rhythm, rhyme, spoken inflection and carefully composed, sometimes abraded images, has a spontaneity and deft authority whose perfect cadences create that “unique feeling of timeliness” which she sought and admired in poetry.
We can see this in ‘Cape Breton’ where she places against the rapid movement of the song-sparrow songs as they float upward “freely, dispassionately, through the mist” – the sudden short, heavily stressed line “in brown-wet, fine, torn fish-nets”. It’s this difference of movement and texture that makes Bishop such a continuously interesting and alive poet.
We can see her delight in rapidly changing tones and surfaces in one of her wittiest and most painterly poems, ‘Seascape’, where she describes “white herons got up as angels,/flying as high as they want”. She is making the picture baroque, and her delicate ear starts a run of ee sounds: the herons fly “in tiers and tiers of immaculate reflections”. In the next line the word “region” picks up the ee sound, then hands it on to bright green leaves edged neatly with bird-droppings”.
The reason why Bishop appeals so strongly to fellow poets can be seen in the sudden uncomfortable word “edged”, which brings in the idea of a margin and the marginal, as it abruptly breaks the pair of ee sounds in “green leaves”, before letting the sound come back with emphasis in “neatly”. The two ds in “edged” are echoed in “bird droppings” to design an uncomfortable, deliberately bad-taste moment. That moment of unease frays against the aesthetic surface she is designing, a surface she reasserts by transforming their faecal randomness into “illumination in silver”. This use of images of discomfort and unease also suffuses Seamus Heaney’s poetry from Death of a Naturalist on – it is as though he has developed the ontological anxiety in her poetry into a form of social and political anxiety.
In Bishop, this tension between the aesthetic and a type of anti-aesthetic effect is one expression of her puritan upbringing – it introduces an anxiety into the delineation of a beautiful image, and this discomfiting effect then helps strengthen and make more flexible the particular aesthetic moment.
Bishop was also a gifted short story writer (her collected prose has been published), and she was also a marvellous translator. Many of her translations came out of the fifteen years she spent in Brazil, where she moved in 1952 to live with Lota de Macedo Soares. She moved back to New York in 1967, and it was there that Lota committed suicide later that year.
Though Bishop continued to travel, she based herself in Boston and died there on October 6th, 1979. She is one of the greatest American poets of the last century, and is the subject of many books, essays and academic dissertations; 35 years after her death, her work is revered and admired more than ever.
Edited extracts from an essay by Tom Paulin first published in The Irish Times, Saturday, September 11th 2004.
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