An Analysis of ‘Follower’ by Seamus Heaney

                             

Follower

 

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.

– from Death 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,

                                                But today

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,

Yapping always.

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.

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Analysis of ‘The Harvest Bow’ by Seamus Heaney

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The Harvest Bow

                                                  by Seamus Heaney

As you plaited the harvest bow
You implicated the mellowed silence in you
In wheat that does not rust
But brightens as it tightens twist by twist
Into a knowable corona,
A throwaway love-knot of straw.

Hands that aged round ashplants and cane sticks
And lapped the spurs on a lifetime of game cocks
Harked to their gift and worked with fine intent
Until your fingers moved somnambulant:
I tell and finger it like braille,
Gleaning the unsaid off the palpable,

And if I spy into its golden loops
I see us walk between the railway slopes
Into an evening of long grass and midges,
Blue smoke straight up, old beds and ploughs in hedges,
An auction notice on an outhouse wall—
You with a harvest bow in your lapel,

Me with the fishing rod, already homesick
For the big lift of these evenings, as your stick
Whacking the tips off weeds and bushes
Beats out of time, and beats, but flushes
Nothing: that original townland
Still tongue-tied in the straw tied by your hand.

The end of art is peace
Could be the motto of this frail device
That I have pinned up on our deal dresser—
Like a drawn snare
Slipped lately by the spirit of the corn
Yet burnished by its passage, and still warm.

 

Commmentary:  This beautiful tender poem is taken from Heaney’s collection Field Work (1979).  In a way it is fitting that I’m publishing this blog post on Father’s Day because this poem explores the close relationship between Seamus Heaney the poet and Patrick Heaney his father.  Heaney’s Mossbawn poems contain numerous references to family members; his mother, his Aunt Mary, his grandfather, his brother and his father who is mentioned most notably in the poem ‘Digging’ but also in ‘Follower’ and other poems.

Heaney’s poetry contains many references to dying rural crafts and traditions and the harvest bow in one such tradition.  The bow was fashioned from freshly cut straw and often given by the maker as a token of love.  Here it is silently fashioned by the father and given to his son, ‘a throwaway love-knot of straw’.

Patrick Heaney emerges as a strong, no-nonsense, unsentimental country man who strides through his fields ‘whacking the tips off weeds and bushes’.  He is a man of few words, a man ‘tongue-tied’ who prefers to express himself in actions rather than words.  Like Barney Devlin in ‘The Forge’ or the ploughman in ‘Follower’ or his grandfather in ‘Digging’, who ‘cut more turf in a day/ than any other man on Toner’s bog’,  Heaney sees his father as a craftsman teaching the young poet-to-be that the artist expresses himself through his work.  Heaney sees in his father’s attention to detail the attitude he wishes to bring to his own work as a poet.

The poem is a tender exploration of the father/son relationship and it is clear that an unspoken understanding grows between them and is expressed through the gift of the harvest bow, which is being fashioned by the father as they both stroll together through the fields of stubble on an Autumn evening.  The poet fingers the harvest bow and reads it ‘like braille … gleaning the unsaid off the palpable’.  He then translates what he has read for us and puts it into words which he fashions and plaits and weaves into a poem.  This is reminiscent of the poet’s conclusions in ‘Digging’ – he wants to follow in his father’s footsteps but instead of digging with a spade he will use his pen.

This poem was published in 1979 at the height of the Northern ‘Troubles’ and it sees Heaney retreating again to a happy childhood memory to erase the pain of the daily catalogue of shootings and bombings.  The motto used at the beginning of the final stanza, ‘The end of art is peace’, therefore, is rich in meaning and open to many interpretations.  The obvious one is that father and son have achieved a moment of peace and harmony via their respective crafts and of course it has wider political implications also in the context of the continuing conflict in Northern Ireland.  Many commentators at the time accused Heaney of not taking sides, of not highlighting the atrocities of those dark days.  Maybe they have not delved deeply enough into his Mossbawn poems and elsewhere?  (There’s a thesis there for some enterprising young scholar!)

The harvest bow is a symbol of the love and understanding that has developed between the father and son, it is a ‘love-knot’ which joins them together.  The poet remembers those evening rambles with his father through the cornfields and we are struck by the juxtaposition offered us: the young eager poet striding towards his future while the father clings to the traditions and ways of the past:

And if I spy into its golden loops
I see us walk between the railway slopes
Into an evening of long grass and midges,
Blue smoke straight up, old beds and ploughs in hedges,
An auction notice on an outhouse wall—

The harvest bow can also be seen as an emblem of rural life and agricultural labour.  As I’ve mentioned earlier this poem was written during the ‘Troubles’ in his home place and this has a deep, disturbing effect on the poet.  Time and time again he retreats to the safety and womb-like comfort of his Aunt Mary’s kitchen in Mossbawn in an effort to seek some solace and comfort.  There is something deeply psychological and human about this regression of the poet.  He leaves us with this sharp contrast.  The harvest bow is an endearing and enduring symbol of love, a vestige of a long tradition that has been handed down through the generations, yet the poet is forced to live in a society riven with sectarianism and divisions and the annual ‘harvest’ of the dreaded Marching Season, year in year out.

In ‘Sunlight’ he returns to his Aunt Mary’s warm kitchen for consolation while here he looks to his father and the love  and understanding that has grown between them as a source of comfort at a time of personal and public upheaval and distress.

The end of art is peace
Could be the motto of this frail device

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMARA

A traditionally crafted Harvest Bow

 

Epitaph for John Kelly, Blacksmith

John Kelly in his forge in Maiden Street

John Kelly in his forge in Maiden Street

Epitaph for John Kelly, Blacksmith

By Michael Hartnett

Black clothes do not make mourners:

                                      the cries come out of the heart.

And local men at street corners,

                                      who have stood

                                      and watched grained wood

in horse-hearse and motor-hearse,

                                      white plumes of feathers, blue plumes

of smoke, to the dead man’s part

                                      of  town, to the rain-dumbed tombs,

go, talk his life, chapter and verse,

and of the dead say nothing but good.

 

In Maiden Street

what man will

forget his iron anvil,

in early Monday morning, sweet

as money falling on the footpath flags?

 

Commentary:  This poem was written as a tribute to John Kelly, one of the ‘old stock’[1], one of the characters of Maiden Street and the Coole.  The Coole was an area in Newcastle West, which Michael Hartnett referred to as ‘The Claddagh of the town’.  It encompassed an area running parallel to Lower Maiden Street, a lane behind what we now know as The Silver Dollar Bar.

In bygone days, Sean Kelly, John Kelly’s son tells us that there were three forges in Maiden Street – Big Sean Kelly’s forge was located in The Coole on the site of the present St. Vincent de Paul Charity Shop and his son, John Kelly, the subject of this epitaph, had a forge which was located in what Sean Kelly calls, ‘middle Maiden Street’. The third forge was O’Dwyer’s Forge and this was owned and worked by Bill O’Dwyer, father of the late Ned O’Dwyer. These forges were a focal point for the street and for the town, they were places where town and country met, where stories and news and gossip were exchanged, and where tall stories grew legs.  During a fascinating walkabout during Éigse Michael Hartnett this year (2017),  Sean Kelly and John Cussen gave a very interesting history of Maiden Street.  Sean told his listeners that another source of industry in the street during the 19th century and early 20th century were the four natural sandpits which were located along the street – the street being fortuitously located at the end of an ice-age moraine.  Forges were, however, 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’.  In a way, not only is Hartnett lamenting the death of a man here but also, like Heaney in many of his poems, he is lamenting the loss of an ancient craft which, with the progress of time, has become redundant.

In the Annual Observer, the journal of the Newcastle West Historical Society, published in July 1979, Lizzie Sullivan, a long time resident of the Coole, referred to John Kelly’s father and his importance to the area:

“I can’t forget our blacksmith, Big Shaun Kelly.  He had his forge in a part of the Coole.  He was a fine type of a man, big and brave and he had a voice to go with it.  Many a day the youths of the Coole spent in his forge.  They used to love when they were asked to blow the bellows and Shaun would be singing or telling them stories as they made the sparks fly from the anvil.  He used to have them shivering telling them all about Sprid na Bearna and the dead people he met going home on a Winter’s night.  They believed every word he used to tell them”.

This epitaph, however, is composed to honour Big Shaun Kelly’s son, John, and like all epitaphs, this poem is short and sweet.  In the opening stanza, death and funerals are generalised.  Hartnett doesn’t seem to be talking about any particular death but remembers numerous funerals down the years and he refers to the funeral customs observed in the town.  Quiet men standing at ‘street corners’ looked on the ‘grained wood’ of the coffin as it passed, either in ‘horse-hearse’ or ‘motor-hearse’, on its way to the old graveyard in Churchtown.  There amid ‘the rain-dumbed tombs’ it was customary to speak well of the dead:

          go, talk his life, chapter and verse,

and of the dead say nothing but good.

The second stanza presents us with the real epitaph.  It is short, personalised and very well crafted.  Everyone in Maiden Street will remember the ring of the anvil on a ‘Monday morning’ and Hartnett uses a lovely simile to remember his friend: Heaney uses the image of an ‘unpredictable fantail of sparks’ coming from the anvil in his poem, ‘The Forge’, and here those sparks from John Kelly’s anvil are compared to money falling on the ‘footpath flags’.  His exquisite use of assonance and alliteration in these short lines emphasises his poetic craft.  The poem is also noted for its use of compound words such as ‘horse-hearse’, ‘motor-hearse’,  and ‘rain-dumbed tombs’, which hopefully, in time, will be used as an excellent example of alliterative assonantal onomatopoeia!

In ‘Maiden Street Ballad’, Hartnett similarly remembers with fondness the work of John Kelly:

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I awoke one fine morning down in Maiden Street

to John Kelly’s forge-music ringing so sweet,

saw the sparks flying out like thick golden sleet

from the force of his hammer and anvil:

and the red horse-shoes spat in their bucket of steam

and the big horses bucked and their white eyes did gleam

nineteen forty-nine I remember the year –

the first time I got my new sandals.

 

There is a strong ‘local’ element to Hartnett’s writing – he tells us in Maiden Street Ballad that,

A poet’s not a poet until the day he

                             can write a few songs for his people.

This loyalty to his native place and space and the people who live there is admirable and is acknowledged with gratitude by those same locals to this day.  Seamus Heaney, in his introduction to John McDonagh and Stephen Newman’s collection of essays on Hartnett, entitled Remembering Michael Hartnett, says that,

Solidarity with the local community and a shoulder to shoulder, eye to eye relationship with local people distinguish Hartnett and make him the authentic heir to the poets of the Maigue.

These local people, John Kelly and his father before him included, had a great influence on the young Hartnett as Heaney also points out in that same introduction:

The young Hartnett rang the bell, and images from the world of the smithy would turn up in some of his most haunting work, as when a rib of grey in a woman’s hair is compared to a fine steel, ‘filing on a forge floor’ (‘The Retreat of Ita Cagney’).

But I’ll leave the last word to Lizzie Sullivan remembering Big Shaun Kelly and his contribution to life in Maiden Street and The Coole :

“When the circus was coming to town, Shaun the Smith would be talking for days before it came… It was lovely to see all the fine horses and ponies.  There would be thirty or forty going up to Kelly’s Forge.  Then, when the circus was gone away he would be still talking about it for days.  He would let Sprid na Bearna rest, and all the other ghosts he used to see.  He made many a one happy, especially the young lads listening to him….. God be with the Coole and all the fine people that are gone!

 

[1] Hartnett assures us in a footnote to ‘Maiden Street Ballad’ that to qualify as ‘old stock’ a family had to be established in the town for at least three generations.  He goes on to say that the phrase can also be very useful if you meet someone in the street and you can’t remember their name!

Works Cited

McDonagh, John and Newman, Stephen eds. Remembering Michael Hartnett, Four Courts Press: Dublin, 2006

Maiden Street

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Photograph courtesy of Niall Hartnett

Maiden Street

By Michael Hartnett

Full of stolen autumn apples

we watched the tinkers fight it out,

the cause, a woman or a horse.

Games came in their seasons,

horseshoes, bowling, cracking nuts,

Sceilg, marbles – frozen knuckled,

Bonfire Night, the skipping-rope

And small voices on the golden road

At this infant incantation:

        ‘There’s a lady from the mountains

Who she is i cannot tell,

All she wants is gold and silver

And a fine young gentleman’.

 

We could make epics with our coloured chalks

traced in simple rainbows on the road,

or hunt the dreaded crawfish in the weeds

sunk in galleons of glass and rust,

or make unknown incursions on a walk

killing tribes of ragworth that were yellow-browed:

we were such golden children, never to be dust

singing in the street alive and loud:

        ‘There’s a lady from the mountains

Who she is I cannot tell,

All she wants is gold and silver

And a fine young gentleman’.      

 

Commentary:  In the preface to the beautiful, bitter sweet ‘Maiden Street Ballad’, which Hartnett wrote as a Christmas present for his father, Denis Hartnett, in December 1980, he writes:

Everyone has a Maiden Street.  It is the street of strange characters, wits, odd old women and eccentrics; in short the street of youth.

This earlier poem published in 1967 is one of Michael Hartnett’s most romantic, sentimental and nostalgic poems about the street where he was reared as a child in the 1940’s.  It is a poem brimming with childhood games and activities – all outdoors by the way!  The games ‘came in their seasons’, throwing horseshoes, bowling, cracking chestnuts, playing sceilg and then there was street entertainment as they watched ‘the tinkers fight it out’.

Hartnett himself in an article in The Irish Times in the 1970’s explains the games that were played in Maiden Street in his early years:

Old customs survived for a long time.  I played ‘Skeilg’ once a year, chasing unmarried girls with ropes through the street, threatening to take them to Skeilg Mhicíl; I lit bonfires along the street on Bonfire Night; I put pebbles in a toisín (a twisted cone of paper in which shopkeepers sold sweets) and threw it on the road.  If anyone picked it up and opened it, you lost your warts, a pebble for each one in the paper, and the person who picked up the paper took the warts from me of his own free will.

Each stanza comes to an end with a lyrical, lilting skipping-rope incantation.  The poet looks back with nostalgia to a time of childhood innocence and the grinding poverty experienced by all in Lower Maiden Street during the ‘40’s is set aside for a time at least.

While the games and activities mentioned in the first stanza are mainly autumnal, those of the second stanza take place in high summer – similar to Kavanagh’s Canal Bank poems.  Here the children play in the road drawing with coloured chalks on the footpath or fishing for minnows or crayfish in the Arra as it flows down North Quay and continues on parallel to Maiden Street.  They fished using jam-jars or tin cans and they imagined them to be Spanish ‘galleons’ bobbing in the stream.  The imagination of the young children is again highlighted as the young urchins from the ‘golden road’ carry out military-like incursions into the surrounding countryside, with sticks for swords, as they kill ‘tribes of ragworth’, the yellow  perennial weeds which were the bane of every farmer’s life in the country.  The stanza then ends with the beautiful, poignant phrase:

            ‘We were such golden children, never to be dust’

Many poets, such as Seamus Heaney and Dylan Thomas, have also romanticised their childhood and maybe its just that human nature has decreed that we look back on our childhood through rose-tinted glasses.  However, our memory is never a good witness: Hartnett’s mood here resembles Dylan Thomas in Fern Hill; childhood is forever remembered as high summer and ‘it was all shining, it was Adam and maiden’.   There is a fairytale, Garden of Eden, ‘Mossbawn kitchen’ element to this poem also with its lilting chorus and his references to the ‘golden road’ in stanza one and the ‘golden children’ in stanza two.

The object of this poem, and also the much longer ‘Maiden Street Ballad’, is to evoke and preserve ‘times past’ and to do so without being too sentimental and maudlin.  Hartnett has said elsewhere that, ‘Maiden Street was no Tír na nÓg’, and he admonishes us that:

Too many of our songs (and poems) gloss over the hardships of the ‘good old  days’ and omit the facts of hunger, bad sanitation and child-neglect.

It is quite obvious that he hasn’t taken his own advice when writing this poem!  He has written eloquently about the hardship and poverty experienced during those early years, particularly in his prose writing where he shows a great aptitude as an incisive and insightful social commentator.  However here in this poem, the poet, now in his twenties, recalls a happy childhood, living in his own imaginative world playing on ‘the golden road’ or along the banks of the Arra River.

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  ‘Such golden children never to be dust….’

William Wordsworth’s Poetry

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Wordsworth was a poet who had a huge influence, not only on poetry, but on the whole thought of the 19th century and beyond.  His avowed aim was to make poetry out of the commonest experiences of life and in the language of the common man.  The essential part of his poetic work is almost entirely comprised in the period 1797 – 1807.  He believed that his poetry was not an immediate response to the stimulus of beauty, but the welling up of feeling long stored in the heart, and brooded over, resulting in the ‘spirit of a landscape rather than the detail’.  His poems were ‘delayed action’.

(He attempts to explain his theory of poetry and to defend it in the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads.  Below are some extracts from this, but it would be worth your while to read the Preface for yourself to obtain a greater understanding of his work.)

Wordsworth was one of the earliest of the Romantic poets.  He was one of a number of poets who composed in a new way and who treated subjects that had previously been shunned in poetry.  The Romantic poets sought to reject artificiality; they appear to be sincere to themselves and to their readers.  Wordsworth, unlike his predecessors, sought out his subject matter in the simplicity of rustic life, which he had grown to love as a child.

Wordsworth rejected, therefore, the traditions of the Augustan poets that preceded him.  Poets such as Alexander Pope had composed poetry with an emphasis on elegant expression and emotional restraint.  For the Romantic poet, imagination rather than reason, became central in shaping poetry.  Freshness and spontaneity were the new key ‘buzz words’ at the beginning of the 19th. Century

Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads (1798!) marked the beginning of the Romantic Movement in English poetry.  The work met with critical hostility and so Wordsworth added his famous Preface to the second edition, which was published in 1801.  He intended the Preface as a defense of his unconventional theory on poetry.  The main assertion of the Preface was that the source of poetic truth was in the direct experience of the senses.  This theory went completely against poetry of the day, which was very intellectual in approach and tended to shun personal emotion.  The critics, however, were unconvinced by Wordsworth’s methods, and their opposition to his principles continued until the 1820’s, when his reputation began to grow.

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EXTRACTS FROM PREFACE TO THE LYRICAL BALLADS

  • ‘The principal object, then, proposed in these Poems was to choose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them, throughout, as far as possible in a selection of language really used by men, and, at the same time, to throw over them a certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual aspect; and further, and above all, to make these incidents and situations interesting by tracing in them the primary laws of our nature: chiefly, as far as regards the manner in which we associate ideas in a state of excitement.’  In other words, he does not invent imaginary worlds; rather he directs our attention back to the real world in which we all live.
  • ‘For all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: and though this be true, poems to which any value may be attached were never produced on any variety of subjects but by a man who, being possessed of more than usual organic sensibility, had also thought long and deeply.  For our continued influxes of feeling are modified and directed by our thoughts, which are indeed the representatives of our past feelings.’
  • ‘Poetry is the image of man and nature.’  Nature was to him a living soul that reveals herself in the movements of the stars, the yearnings of the heart, the sleep of a great city, or the decay of a flower.  His poetry makes no division between man and the world in which he lives.  He thinks of all created things, human and inanimate, as part of one great whole, filling their appointed place, moving in their established order.  He wanted to open up to the reader the ‘loveliness and the wonders’ of nature and to write poetry that would ‘interest mankind permanently’.  He wanted to encourage people to look at nature, and at themselves, in a new way.
  • ‘I have said that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility: the emotion is contemplated till, by a species of reaction, the tranquility disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind.  In this mood successful composition generally begins, and in a mood similar to this it is carried on; but the emotion, of whatever kind, and in whatever degree, from various causes, is qualified by various pleasures, so that in describing any passions whatsoever, which are voluntarily described, the mind will, upon the whole, be in a state of enjoyment.’

To a greater or lesser degree within individual poems, Wordsworth’s subject matter and his style conform to these principles.  Tintern Abbey, for example, certainly justifies the conception of poetry as ‘the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,’ a kind of poetry that takes its origin in ‘emotion recollected in tranquility’.  However, there are passages of language in the poem that are nothing like that of ordinary men.  Nonetheless, Tintern Abbey also includes conversational language and phrasing.  If you read the poem aloud you should be able to hear the way his language moves in eddies, as it would in conversation – there are moments of certainty, moments of hesitancy, pauses to reflect or to doubt, backward reflections and forward glances.  These are as much features of conversational language today as they were 200 years ago.

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WILLIAM WORDSWORTH – THE OVERVIEW

Much of Wordsworth’s poetry was composed out of doors.  He often composed while walking, speaking the words aloud, but he rarely wrote as a tourist.  He felt that he belonged to or lived in the places he describes and celebrates in his poetry and his poetry was startlingly original in its day.  ‘Wordsworth was a revolutionary in that his writings ultimately changed the way in which most of us now perceive the natural world’, argues Ronald Sands.  Dorothy Wordsworth, his sister, said of her brother that ‘starlight walks and winter winds are his delight’ and Wordsworth’s love of nature marked a significant change from the preceding age, during which Dr. Samuel Johnson pronounced that, ‘The man who is tired of London is tired of life’.  For Wordsworth, however, ‘High mountains are a feeling, the hum of cities torture’.

Wordsworth belongs to what is now known as the Romantic Age and the age preceding it was known as the Augustan Age.  In Augustan England people wore wigs and dressed elaborately and social life centred on the city.  The countryside was preferred when eventually it had been tamed, arranged, controlled, ordered; buildings were ornate and landscaped gardens were very popular.  The Augustan poets favoured heroic couplets while Wordsworth frequently wrote in blank verse, as in Tintern Abbey and The Prelude.  The Romantic poets focused on rugged, wild, untamed nature.  They also focused on the imagination and, in Wordsworth’s case, on how in nature we can discover our own nature.  The Augustans, on the other hand, preferred to view nature through their drawing room window!

For Wordsworth, the poet is ‘a man speaking to men’.  He deliberately chose ‘incidents and situations from common life, and wanted to relate or describe them … in a selection of language really used by men.’  and yet Wordsworth is not an ‘easy’ poet by any stretch of the imagination, not even in his language, as he sometimes liked to think.  By and large his poetry can be described as Pastoral, a poetry celebrating the countryside and rural life.  He writes about shepherds, beggars and ordinary people living ordinary lives in a fresh and original way.

In Wordsworth’s poetry we are not only reminded of how nature affords us great pleasure but it also allows us to understand ourselves as creatures living in time and place.  Nature, for him, is the great teacher.  Tintern Abbey documents how his relationship with nature has grown and developed over time.  First there was the physical response and boyish delight, then ‘the aching joys’ and ‘dizzy raptures’ of the young man and finally the combination of the senses and the intellect.  Indeed growth can be said to be a central theme in his poetry and his wife subtitled The Prelude – Growth of a Poet’s Mind.

Wordsworth has also been credited with being the poet of childhood but this description, a view encouraged by the Victorians (late 19th Century), does not do him justice.  He was more interested in the development of the adult mind, the adult moral sense.  Seamus Heaney puts it very well when he points out that Wordsworth, more than any writer before him, established how truly ‘the child is father to the man’ – in other words, our early life often determines how we will live as adults.

Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709 – 1784) defined the poet as ‘an inventor; an author of fiction; a writer of poems; one who writes in measure’.  Wordsworth’s definition saw the poet as comforter, moral guide, prophet.  He believed that poetic, creative minds ‘build up greatest things / From least suggestions’.  Thus the poet is an observer, a watcher and Wordsworth definitely fits this bill because he was a poet who kept his eyes open and he wanted to hear what people had to tell.  He was, in Robert Woof’s words, ‘a poet who listened’ and he is also a poet who shares with the reader his understandings and insights.

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SAMPLE ANSWER:

 ‘There are many wide-ranging attitudes to nature in Wordsworth’s poetry’.  Discuss.

 

One of the principal concerns in Wordsworth’s poetry is nature.  In reading his poetry, it becomes apparent that he explored nature from a number of different perspectives.  Certainly, he celebrates its beauty; it is often also a source of delight and joy.  In other poems, nature is presented as a great teacher.  He also examines the way in which nature acts as a comforter.  Finally, Wordsworth, in his more mature relationship with nature, sees it as a means of developing his own visionary insight, when nature’s almost divine presence seems to awaken a spiritual wisdom within the poet.

Wordsworth’s love of nature had been nurtured in his early childhood, when he swam in the local rivers and lakes and walked through woods and over hills.  There are numerous sketches and portraits of nature’s beauty in his work.  In To My Sister, the poet celebrates the ‘first mild day of March’ which awakens in him the desire to leave the indoors and immerse himself in nature, to ‘Come forth and feel the sun’.  In Tintern Abbey, the poet sees again those ‘steep and lofty cliffs’ and other ‘beauteous forms’ such as ‘plots of cottage-ground’, ‘orchard tufts’, and ‘sportive wood’.  His account of his escapade on the lakes in Boating includes several very evocative and quite beautiful descriptions of nature, such as the movement of his small boat out onto the lake, ‘Leaving behind her still on either side, / Small circles glittering idly in the moon, / Until they melted all into one track / Of sparkling light.’

In Wordsworth’s poetry, however, nature is not merely a landscape, a background or setting.  It also becomes a source of sustenance and comfort.  In Tintern Abbey, he touches on several aspects of nature and his relationship with it.  He seems convinced in this poem that a communion with nature can restore well-being and provide hope to those who have endured moments of despair and disillusionment.  In the poem he proposes a deeply held conviction that nature and humankind can and should exist in a form of partnership, out of which inner peace and calm may be attained.  While the poem opens with scenes of beautifully visualised landscape, it soon becomes clear that Wordsworth is keen to explore the effect of these surroundings upon his own inner well-being.  The poet reflects on how memories of the scene have comforted him during times of dejection and restored his more tranquil state of mind, when ‘oft, in lonely rooms, and mid the din / Of towns and cities, I have owed to them, / In hours of weariness, sensations sweet.’  Paradoxically, in his poem about London, Upon Westminster Bridge, the glory of a summer’s morning veils the city with a beauty that fills the poet with awe, and prompts him to remark that he never before ‘saw, never felt, a calm so deep!’

In his Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth wrote that ‘Every great poet is a teacher.’  Wordsworth believed that his poetry could be instructive to people.  He is often the solitary thinker, alive to his feelings and thoughts and sincere in his convictions.  However, although the experiences he describes in his work are very local and arise from particular circumstances in his own life, the conclusions he draws from those experiences, feelings and thoughts are intended to have universal significance.  The idea of nature as teacher is quite evident in Tintern Abbey and also in To My Sister.  This poem is an explicit statement of the poet’s belief in the power of feeling over reason as the ultimate source of truth.  In the poem the speaker calls on his sister to forego her chores and her studies.  He encourages her to enjoy the beauty of a spring day, in which, ‘One moment now may give us more / Than years of toiling reason’.

A further development in Wordsworth’s perspective on nature occurs when he avows that the landscape has also shaped his moral development.  One childhood experience that shows the beginning of this development is recalled in his poem The Stolen Boat.  Here, the slightly troubled boy rows from the shore in the stolen boat only to see the mountains loom before him, dark and threatening.  In the boy’s imagination, nature is admonishing him for his theft.  The terrified boy returns the boat to its mooring-place and crosses the meadows towards home ‘in grave / And serious mood’.

Nature as moral guide is very evident in Tintern Abbey.  Here, Wordsworth explains that in gaining pleasure from nature he has been enabled to enter into a ‘serene and blessed’ mood, which culminates in his seeing beyond the superficial and into the ‘life of things’.  Nature has, therefore, facilitated the development of the poet’s understanding of things that previously remained unintelligible.  It is very clear in this poem that nature is not merely an object of love; it has become an inspiration, a provider of moral and spiritual guidance.  The poet seems deeply indebted to nature which has become, ‘The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse, / The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul / Of all my moral being’.

In the final section of Tintern Abbey the poet prays to nature to be a similar source of guidance to Dorothy, his sister.  He is confident that nature will bestow on her similar gifts of understanding and trust, ‘Knowing that Nature never did betray / The heart that loved her’.  (This invocation is very similar to The Memorare, a prayer addressed to Mary, Mother of God, ‘And never was it known that anyone to fled to thy protection, implored thy help or sought thy intercession was left unaided …. ).  Wordsworth reminds Dorothy of nature’s power: he tells her it can ‘lead from joy to joy’, ‘can so inform the mind’, ‘so impress with quietness and beauty’ and ‘so feed with lofty thoughts’ that she can be assured that even the ‘dreary intercourse of daily life’ shall not destroy her ‘cheerful faith’.

Wordsworth, therefore, presents nature from a number of perspectives.  It is a delight to the senses and a source of aesthetic beauty and its pleasures can be evoked through memory to fortify the poet at times of distress in the ‘din’ of towns and cities.  It is a comforter to those in despair, and it can enrich our physical well-being and restore mental health.  It can teach us lessons about our humanity, and it can inspire a fellow-feeling for humankind, so that we too might respond with ‘acts / Of kindness and of love’.

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 Note: You might also like to have a look at ‘Tintern Abbey – An Analyis’ in my Archives for a more detailed exploration of that poem.


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).

The Treatment of Women in Seamus Heaney’s Poetry – a feminist critique.

"Seamus Heaney in Toner's Bog" by Liam O'Neill

“Seamus Heaney in Toner’s Bog” by Liam O’Neill

 

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:

stirred

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.

 

 

Portrait of Seamus Heaney by Paul McCloskey. (www.paulmccloskeyart.com)

Portrait of Seamus Heaney by Paul McCloskey. (www.paulmccloskeyart.com)

 *  ‘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: The Poet’s Poet

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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.

 

The Cabot Trail, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia

The Cabot Trail, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia

Analysis of Seamus Heaney’s poem ‘The Blackbird of Glanmore’.

The Blackbird of Glanmore

 by Seamus Heaney

On the grass when I arrive,
Filling the stillness with life,
But ready to scare off
At the very first wrong move.
In the ivy when I leave.

 It’s you, blackbird, I love.

I park, pause, take heed.
Breathe. Just breathe and sit
And lines I once translated
Come back: “I want away
To the house of death, to my father

Under the low clay roof.”

And I think of one gone to him,
A little stillness dancer –
Haunter-son, lost brother –
Cavorting through the yard,
So glad to see me home,

My homesick first term over.

And think of a neighbour’s words
Long after the accident:
“Yon bird on the shed roof,
Up on the ridge for weeks –
I said nothing at the time

But I never liked yon bird.”

The automatic lock
Clunks shut, the blackbird’s panic
Is shortlived, for a second
I’ve a bird’s eye view of myself,
A shadow on raked gravel

In front of my house of life.

Hedge-hop, I am absolute
For you, your ready talkback,
Your each stand-offish comeback,
Your picky, nervy goldbeak –
On the grass when I arrive,

In the ivy when I leave.

This beautiful, haunting poem is the last poem in Heaney’s celebrated collection District and Circle – and for a very good reason.  The final words of the poem are ‘when I leave’ and thoughts of death and leaving are scattered throughout the poem.  This may be a poem, therefore, where Heaney confronts his own mortality and we also know that he was very ill during the writing of the poems in this collection.  He tells us elsewhere that in order to understand the North he had to leave it  and after his move South, to gain a greater perspective of his home place, Glanmore became his haven, his ‘house of life’; it became, in effect,  a place of inspiration to rival Mossbawn and Anahorish of his youth.  The poem opens as he returns home to Glanmore in his car and as he pulls up on the driveway he sees a blackbird and he recalls lines he has translated,

 I want away

                              To the house of death, to my father,

Under the low clay roof.

He also recalls another earlier poem Mid Term Break which tells of his young brother who died tragically in a road accident.   It is as if the blackbird, presiding spirit in the background, has brought him full circle, to the last word, ‘when I leave’.

Heaney uses an ingenious structure in this poem, alternating between five-line and one-line stanzas. The single lines create a feeling of a set of refrains (repetition), although they are all different. The repeated structures also create a sense of return, so that the poem keeps coming back to the passing moment in which it is set.  The first and last lines of the first stanza, “On the grass when I arrive” and “In the ivy when I leave” are also the first line and last line of the poem itself.   This clever circular composition emphasises the completeness of the moment. It also suggests the cycle of life – and of course there is also an allusion to the title of the collection District and Circle, a reference to the London Underground.   The tight, united form is echoed by the use of half-rhyme throughout the poem, which is particularly noticeable in the second last stanza: “talkback”, “comeback”,  “goldbeak”.

This is a poem about the act of witnessing.   The poet reminds us that our lives are as much about observation as action and in this poem Heaney explores the act of ‘coming home’ through the ironic presence of a blackbird, a creature sometimes associated with being a harbinger of death.

As mentioned earlier, this poem is also an echo and a remembrance of Heaney’s wonderfully poignant earlier poem Mid Term Break which specifically examined the death of the poet’s younger brother Christopher.   This meeting of texts and meeting here  with the blackbird who we are told, had ironically witnessed the earlier death, reveal how we are all mixed up in each other’s exits and entrances into life and death and we always try to make sense of our world less we slip down into the despairing melancholy of utter absence.

Heaney’s evocation of his brother’s absence through death, and yet continued presence through memory,  is a perfectly compressed elegy to tenderness and love:  A little stillness dancer’.  He is always about, haunting the edge of the poet’s consciousness, at the edge of his thoughts and observations, watching him perhaps too, perfectly preserved through time.

There are places in the poem where the sound of the words suggests an influence from Old English poetry, which used alliteration and combined nouns: “Haunter-son” and “Hedge-hop” illustrate this.   “Hedge-hop” is a perfect description of a blackbird, and its two-syllable alliteration mimics the bird’s movement.  In places Heaney uses the sound of words to create specific effects: the car lock “clunks shut”; here assonance of the ‘uh’ sound emphasises the onomatopoeia of  “clunks”.

The paradoxical (seemingly contradictory) image of the “little stillness dancer” is thought provoking, and captures the idea that the blackbird, even though it stays where it is, is filled with energy and the potential for movement.  Coining metaphors like this is one way in which Heaney creates a fresh look at nature.

The imagery of the translated lines about the “house of death” also repeat the idea of a journey between life and death, confirmed in the narrator’s memory “one gone to him [God]”. The “house of death” is then mirrored and reversed by the phrase “my house of life” towards the end of the poem. Whether it’s a metaphorical or real house, this image undoes the narrator’s sadness, and is a reminder of his good fortune at living a long life.   It seems to me that there are echoes here of Emily Dickinson’s poem,  ‘Because I could not stop for Death’

                        We paused before a House that seemed

                        A Swelling of the Ground-

                        The Roof was scarcely visible-

                        The Cornice-in the Ground-

However, despite these associations with death, the poem favours the energy and life of the blackbird. There is the bird’s “ready talkback”, which suggests cheekiness, and although there is “panic” at the sound of the car lock, it is “shortlived”.

The poem seems to be a mixture of sadness and hope or pleasure in the bird, the memories and the moment.  Blackbirds are often used in Irish poetry as mystical, mythical messengers (cf. Austin Clarke’s great poem, The Blackbird of Derrycairn) and this is picked up by the introduction of the superstitious neighbour, but it is not supported by the pleasure of seeing the blackbird in the rest of the poem. In direct address to the bird at the end of the poem, the narrator tells him he is “absolute/for you”, linking back to the love described in the second stanza.  Like the blackbird, the poem is full of suppressed movement, so that although it is only a moment in time and place, it contains much more, allowing Heaney to reflect on the passing of life, and the circularity of life.

The poem contains numerous snapshot moments of the poet’s personal experiences – some remembered moments are up to  fifty years old. He refers to the reported words of a neighbour who once used ‘Yon bird’ to refer to the death (ghost) of this brother. It becomes clearer from this point that the use of the word ‘bird’ suddenly becomes redolent of death. He uses ‘a bird’s eye view of myself’ to say that he reflected on himself and  on his own impending death, ‘A shadow on raked gravel’, with ‘shadow’ being a metaphor for his death or ghost.

So already at the end of District and Circle in the final poem of that collection, The Blackbird of Glanmore, we have the poet doing what poets do best, confronting one of the great elephants in the room, his own mortality.  Like Dickinson, whom we referred to earlier, the poet seems to have had an intimation of sorts, it’s as if this day in Glanmore is the day,

                        I first surmised the Horses Heads

                        Were toward Eternity-

We are also somewhat disconcerted by the realisation that grieving and bereavement is a life-long process and his young brother Christopher’s memory is always but a wingbeat away.  Like the earlier ‘Sunlight’ poems depicting his aunt’s kitchen in Mossbawn this beautiful poem is deceptive at first but like all of Heaney’s work deserving of a second look!

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