by Seamus Heaney
The flax was pulled by hand once it ripened,
Bound into tall green pillars with rush bands
And buried underwater, roots upwards.
When the dam was full they loaded stones and sods
On top, then left the whole thing for three weeks
To rot, to stink: a pit of rotten eggs
Could not have generated such a fug
As flax decaying, steaming like a bog,
Wafting its heavy, nauseating fall-out.
As soon as stems had turned to slime and smut
The dam was emptied: men stood waist deep
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.