The Poetry of Seamus Heaney

Digging

by Mary Hanley

(Note:  Leaving Cert Poetry questions have in recent years become more sophisticated and focused on particular aspects of the poet’s work.  The first ever question on Heaney simply expected the candidate to give their personal reaction to his poems – today the focus is given in the question and these are the major aspects which you must address in your answer.  This is then policed firmly by the Examiner’s by their application of the PCLM marking criteria.)

Sample Answer:  Would you agree that Seamus Heaney is an essentially backward looking poet, finding answers only in the past?

Soundbites are dangerous and the thesis stated above does not do Heaney or his poetry justice.  I agree that Seamus Heaney is “an essentially backward looking poet”.  However, I remain steadfastly reserved about Heaney “finding answers only in the past”.  This statement does not give the whole scope of his poetry true justice.  It only skims the surface, and using Heaney’s own analogy, if we are to truly understand his work we must go “down and down for the good turf” before we can get a true estimation of his worth.

Irishness, tradition and identity remain the cornerstones of Heaney’s poetry.  He celebrates local craftsmanship – the diviner, the digger, the blacksmith and the breadmaker.  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.  However, the real subject of the poem is the mystery of the creative process.  The work of the forge serves as an extended metaphor for the work and craftsmanship of poetry.  Even the uncouth and uncommunicative blacksmith of his childhood can create!

Heaney has been branded a nostalgic romantic, a poet whose head remains steadfastly stuck in the sand, and a man when confronted with political violence and trauma regresses back in time to the womb-like warmth of his aunt’s kitchen in Mossbawn.  “Sunlight” is seen as a prime example of Heaney’s romanticism and escapism.  This poem was, after all, written at the height of the ‘Troubles’.  Yet, seemingly in denial of such violence, he hankers back to the security of his childhood.  Can it therefore be said that he is essentially a backward looking poet, finding answers only in the past?  Undoubtedly, Heaney travels back in time but it is to find answers for the present day realities.  On another level, this poem is a search for alternative human values, values no longer to be found in present day society.  Heaney can draw strength from his picture of childhood Eden – ‘the helmeted pump’, ‘scones rising to the tick of two clocks’ and ‘love, like a tinsmith’s scoop sunk past its gleam’.

Heaney is a poet, like Kavanagh and Hartnett, who has remained attached to his home place and the values and traditions of his parents.  ‘All I know is a door into the dark’.  Poets, too, have to force themselves to go into the dark, the unknown.  Their craft is multi-faceted.  They are pioneers, working at the frontier of language.  They are translators, translating for us events that we cannot grasp.  He translates the atrocities of Northern Ireland by excavating and exploring the past.  Heaney can travel through ‘the door into the dark’ only by drawing strength from the past.

The bog plays a major role in the poetry of Heaney.  This soft, malleable ground is ‘kind black butter.  Melting and opening underfoot’.  The bog is the memory of the landscape.  It draws us inwards, downwards and backwards through history.  Our bogs are as deep as the American prairies are wide.  Heaney talks about the ‘Great Irish Elk’ and ‘butter sunk under’.  In offering the poet an opportunity to consider its hoard from the past it affords him some deeper understanding of the present.

It is obvious from his poetry that Heaney needs to distance himself from the immediate face of danger.  Unlike Longley, Heaney is not eager to touch it, to write about it, to feel its flank and guess the shape of an elephant.  He needs space.  He uses the rich tapestry of history to give him perspective and a parallel to confront ‘the Troubles’.  In ‘The Tollund Man’ the discovery of a book gives Heaney a new perspective to explore the past and examine the present.  Make no mistake about it, Heaney here is talking about Northern Ireland.  It is difficult to interpret but this poem is a direct response to the continuing murders and violence of the 70’s and 80’s.  Heaney’s style may not be as direct as Longley’s, but I believe it is still very effective.  I believe he is saying here these atrocities, albeit sometimes more brutal, are just modern day versions of an age old custom.  In every society, people are sacrificed to a political or religious goddess, whether it is the goddess Nerthus or Kathleen Ni Houlihan.  One common motif linking the three parts of the poem is that of a journey.  The sacrificial journey of the Tollund Man, the journey of the brothers ‘flecked for miles along the lines’ and the pilgrimage of Heaney in the final part.  I believe there is one more journey to be made and this Heaney skilfully passes on to the reader.  We, the readers, have to make the final journey ourselves to discover and interpret, to read between the lines and around the happenings of the time the poem was written, to get at the true meaning of the poem.  This analogy can be transferred to all of Heaney’s poems.  He doesn’t do all the work for us but the meaning is more valued when we get to the essence of the poem ourselves.

                   ‘Out there in Jutland in the Old Man killing parishes,

I will feel lost, unhappy and at home.’

No one can deny that Heaney is “essentially a backward looking poet”.  Yet he makes no apologies for it.  The influence of Kavanagh and his writings on Monaghan gave him a strength to continue writing about the traditions and customs of his local community.  The cynic may see it as escapism but Heaney finds inspiration about the present in his wealth of memory.  He finds a metaphor for the finely crafted work of the poet in such poems as “The Forge”.  The bog offers Heaney a perspective.  In “Bogland” and “Tollund Man” Heaney finally turns to the security of his youth to find an answer to the shocking realities of violence and death.  It stands as an antidote to the brutal reality of the wider society.  Heaney’s poetry also stands as an antidote, dealing with harsh issues in a gentle retrospective yet effective way.

                   ‘Then grunts and goes in with a slam and flick

To beat real iron out, to work the bellows.’

Therefore, I would be in agreement with The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing when it says of Heaney’s poetry that it is, ‘excavating in every sense, reaching down into the ground and back into the past’.

Digging by Seamus Heaney copy

OUT OF THE MOUTHS OF BABES…..

…….. comes wisdom – of a sort!  For thirty years I spent my summers correcting Leaving Cert English scripts and it never failed to amaze me the chances chancers will take when rote learning hits the cold reality of the North face of The Eiger!  I began my work with the Department in June 1978 and I corrected Junior Cert Geography that year.  I learnt that  the name of the shipyard in Belfast was called Harland and Wolf Tone and that along with cheese and butter and yoghurt (which had just arrived on the shop shelves) milk of magnesia was also a dairy product!

Shakespeare usually threw up gems of lucidity and erudition.  I learnt that  Othello, ‘although his exterior may be black he is pure and good on the inside’.  Desdemona is very forgiving also because,  ‘she shows great love for Othello even after he has suffocated her’.  King Lear suffered because, ‘he wanted to keep his revenue and all his followers’.   Also, ‘in those days you didn’t divide your kingdom – you left a will’.  In a moment of weakness Lear is overheard talking to The Fool on the Heath: ‘Go in man you’ll catch your death out here’.  Whereas Hamlet, ‘is the victim of exaggerated procrastination complex’ and as well as that he suffered from ‘an anti disposition’ and then later ‘an antique disposition’.  I can visualise vividly  in my mind’s eye harried teachers on cold winter’s mornings explaining what an arras was only for that information to be completely corrupted by June: ‘He killed Polonius through the arse’ and in another script sponsored by Toyota, ‘Hamlet stabbed Polonius behind the Yaris’.  Also Hamlet was only mad North North West so therefore according to the mathematicians, he ‘was only one sixteenth mad’.

Yeats always yielded up a great variety of hoary old chestnuts.  Indeed I was reliably informed that in that great poem Among School Children, ‘the chestnut tree may not be called the bole, blossom or the branch – it is all three.’  Everybody also seemed to know that, ‘he stalked Maud Gonne, proposing to her many times’.  Elsewhere in a rather revealing Freudian (or Faustian) slip Maud Gonne is referred to as, ‘Mad Gun McBride’.   The poem Sailing to Byzantium can apparently, ‘be summed up in four words: ‘perne in a gyre’.  The poem The Fisherman is about, ‘a man in Connemara clothes living in a shed on the top of a hill’.  In this great poem Yeats apparently is struggling to reconcile the opposing images, trying to describe, ‘the ideal man versus the reel man’.  One candidate suggested that Yeats was a sad case because, ‘he was plagued with immortality and involved in politics.’

O’Casey’s plays also provided rich seams of unintended humour, double entendres and other heaven sent certainties. One candidate mentioned the fact that, ‘Johnny is no longer able to work because of an accident where he lost an arm and now he walks with a limp’ and continued to dig a deep hole by saying, ‘a job on a building site wouldn’t strain his arms because it’s not his legs he’s mixing it with.’  Captain Boyle was not understood at all, ‘there is nothing attractive or endearing about Captain Boyle, he is literally a boyle on the butt of humanity’.  It is also suggested that, ‘he attends drinking seminars in a local pub’.   Summing up Juno and the Paycock one candidate suggests that, ‘Joxer is the parasite and Boyle is the dope (sic)’.  Bessy Burgess in The Plough and the Stars is described as, ‘a pearl containing oyster of a woman’!   She has a sharp tongue in her head and she says, ‘that Mrs. Gogan’s wedding vowels are not valid’.  Christy Mahon in The Playboy of the Western World is beautifully described as having. ‘small feet which is a sign of great breathing’.  These candidates may not have gone down in English – most of them anyway! – but they will definitely go down in history!

Lord of the Flies by William Golding always gave rise to unexpected surprises.  The boys, ‘find they are on an island inhabited by pigs and bugs’  and, ‘they have to defend for themselves’ and then we discover that, ‘any pigment of control is lost when Piggy dies’.

Personal essays also provided an amazing array of views on the vagaries of teenage life: the following are some of the many gems which brought a smile to my face.

  • Summer holidays from school are great – your only worry is have you put enough sun screen on your nose.
  • Life is like meeting the man of your dreams and then meeting his beautiful wife!
  • It was a buzzing party so there were no straight people there…..
  • In Second Year there were thirty-one of us in our class – I was the one!!
  • Waiting for the school bus is a mating ritual…..
  • The mood is electrical…..
  • There was a climatic moment as the aria was played……..
  • Dreaming is actually one of the things I’m good at…..
  • The internet is a gateway to child pornography and a perverse culture used by losers and sad cases….

I could go on and on but suffice it to say that all these slips of the pen brightened up my hazy July days and needless to say they were all – well nearly all! – rewarded accordingly!  I will give the final word to one young statistician who summed up our national predicament quite succinctly: ‘We are a 100 per cent white, 95 per cent Catholic and 110 per cent naïve country’.  Out of the mouths of babes…….

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Speechless Without the Bard

 

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The English language may have ‘seen better days’ but ‘for better or for worse’, even ‘blinking idiots’ still quote Shakespeare liberally, albeit without knowing it. Indeed, if it were not for these bon mots we’d be nearly speechless.

We have all come across Shakespeare in school, we may even have seen one of his plays on television or in the cinema, yet there are few of us – even those of few words – who don’t quote Shakespeare almost every day. Once in a while we know we’re doing so, but most of the time we use his words to season our speech without knowing the source. Some of his expressions have changed a little with 400 years of everyday use, though even these can easily be traced to him.

If this doesn’t make sense to you and you say, it’s Greek to me, you are quoting Shakespeare. If you think my point is without rhyme or reason and you say I’m a laughing stock or a blinking idiot or bloody minded or a rotten apple or a stony-hearted villain or even the devil incarnate, you are also quoting him. And if you bid me good riddance or send me packing or wish I was hoist with his own petard or dead as a doornailat one fell swoop – you are still quoting him.

When we say that it’s a mad world or not in my book or neither here nor there or last but not least, these phrases – and all the others in bold print here – are Shakespeare’s. And when we use such expressions such as poor but honest or as luck would have it or what’s done is done, we’re equally indebted to him. Whether you are holding your tongue or simply tongue-tied, you just can’t get away from the fact (the more fool you are) that you are quoting Shakespeare. But maybe that was the unkindest cut of all. And if you think this remark smells to heaven, you’re at it once more.

Be that as it may – and though you still insist that I’m living in a fool’s paradisewe can have too much of a good thing. And there we go quoting him again. For the long and the short of it is that we’d be nearly speechless without Shakespeare.

When we talk of someone showing his heels or having no stomach for a fight or leading a charmed life; when we speak of cold comfort or grim necessity or bag and baggage or the mind’s eye, we’re quoting him. When we refer to our salad days or our heart of hearts or our heart’s desire; when we deplore the beginning of the end we’re doing the same.

If we claim to be more sinned against than sinning; if we act more in sorrow than in anger; if our wish is father to the thought; if something we’ve lost has vanished into thin air, we’re borrowing from the Bard. If we refuse to budge an inch or suffer from green-eyed jealousy; if we’ve played fast and loose; if we’ve been a tower of strength or hoodwinked or in a pickle, we’re still doing so.

If you have knitted your brows or stood on ceremony or made a virtue of necessity or danced attendance on or laughed yourself into stitches or had short shrift, you’re using Shakespeare’s words. If you say you haven’t slept a wink or are as sound as a bell or can only die once or that your family is eating you out of house and home, you’re not being very original.

When you state that love is blind or there is method in his madness (or someone has made you mad) or the truth will come to light or the world is my oyster, you are also borrowing your bon mots from the Bard. If you have seen better days or think it is early days yet or high time; if you lie low till the crack of doom, because you suspect foul play; if you tell the truth and shame the devil, even if it involves your own flesh and blood and you believe the game is up, you are at the same game as before!

If you have your teeth set on edge or have a tongue in your head, then by Jove or Tut, tut or for goodness sake or what the dickens or but me no buts – it’s all one to me, for you are simply quoting Shakespeare.

Besides these and many more of our everyday phrases, we are also indebted to him for a host of words. Accommodation, assassination, dexterously, obscene, premeditated, reliance, allurement, alliance, antipathy, critical, armada, demonstrate, dire, emphasis, emulate, horrid, initiate, mediate, modest, vast and submerged are only a few that made their first appearance in his plays.

Indeed, it is obvious that Shakespeare was a man who loved to experiment with words. Most of all he had an extraordinary ability to write memorable combinations of words. Scores of his phrases, as we have seen, have entered the English language and some have even become clichés. One play alone, Hamlet, is a treasure house of ‘quotable quotes’ or, as someone once said, it is ‘full of quotations’! Among them are the following: Frailty thy name is woman!…..The primrose path of dalliance… Something is rotten in the state of Denmark  … Brevity is the soul of wit…… I must be cruel, only to be kind …  The rest is silence.

The English-speaking world is indeed indebted to William Shakespeare more than to any writer in any language who ever lived. “He was not of an age,” said his contemporary Ben Jonson, “but for all time”.

Adapted from an article by Paul Hurley in The Irish Times

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