The Poetry of Seamus Heaney: Some Recurring Themes

 

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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:

  • Sunlight
  • The Forge
  • Bogland
  • The Tollund Man
  • A Constable Calls
  • The Harvest Bow
  • Lightenings VIII
  • Postscript

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’).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMARA
A traditionally crafted Harvest Bow

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’).
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Listen to Heaney read ‘The Tollund Man’ below:

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

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.
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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.

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.

Further Reading

You might also like to read some of the following:

  • a comprehensive analysis of ‘The Forge’ here
  • an analysis of ‘The Harvest Bow’ here
  • an analysis of ‘The Blackbird of Glanmore’ here
  • an analysis of ‘Follower’ here
  • a brief analysis of ‘Death of a Naturalist’ here
  • a discussion on the treatment of women in Heaney’s poetry here
  • another sample essay on Heaney’s poetry here

 Digging

 Works Cited

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.

Heaney, Seamus. Preoccupation: Selected Prose 1968 – 1978,  Faber and Faber 1980.

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

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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).