Commentary on the poem ‘The Diviner’ by Seamus Heaney

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

THE DIVINER

 

By Seamus Heaney

Cut from the green hedge a forked hazel stick

That he held tight by the arms of the V:

Circling the terrain, hunting the pluck

Of water, nervous, but professionally

 

Unfussed.  The pluck came sharp as a sting.

The rod jerked down with precise convulsions,

Spring water suddenly broadcasting

Through a green aerial its secret stations.

 

The bystanders would ask to have a try.

He handed them the rod without a word.

It lay dead in their grasp till, nonchalantly,

He gripped expectant wrists.  The hazel stirred.

 

Commentary: Dr Andrew Barker called ‘Digging’ – the first poem in Heaney’s first collection – his Mission Statement Poem.  If that is so, ‘The Diviner’ is an early codicil to that Mission Statement!  It is yet another of Heaney’s poems about rural crafts and craftsmen.  These earlier poems focussed on his rural roots and the local crafts which were synonymous with his local place.  Similar to ‘Digging’ and ‘The Forge’, and ‘Follower’, this poem also explores the poet’s early search for poetic inspiration.  Heaney discovered his own gift by seeing the connection between the local craftsmen and his own burgeoning desire to be different yet the same.

The first thing to notice here is that Heaney doesn’t name the poem ‘The Water Diviner’ – instead, he uses the more generic title ‘The Diviner’.  This allows him to make ancient connections with the meaning of the word.  In the ancient world of Greece and Rome, a diviner was a wise man, a seer, a prophet, a mystic, an oracle.  Even in ancient Ireland in the Bardic tradition, the diviner was a saoi, literally a ‘wise one’, a poet at the pinnacle of his powers.  So, it is evident that Heaney here is making a clear analogy between the work of the local diviner in Bellaghy and the work of a poet.  Heaney is making this connection very early on in his career and so he has already accepted the onerous responsibility of following in the ancient footsteps of the Filí and Bards who had gone before him.

Water is, of course, a vital element and it has to be understood by the modern reader that in Ireland even in the 1950’s, houses, especially in rural areas, did not have water on tap as they do today.  Instead, water for daily household use was still being drawn by bucket from communal wells in each locality.  Therefore, it is no surprise that the person who could locate the presence of water in such springs and wells would be given great recognition and elevated status in the community.

Heaney speaks of this in some of his early poetry in such poems as ‘Personal Helicon’ and ‘Sunlight’.  In ‘Sunlight’, one of two poems dedicated to his Aunt Mary’s home place in Mossbawn, he speaks of the ‘helmeted pump in the yard’; this pump which was the centre of his boyhood universe, where ‘water honeyed in the slung bucket’.  In ‘Personal Helicon’ he tells us that he is inspired by and attracted to the water in wells and springs.  He tells us that as a child ‘they could not keep me from wells’.  However, as an adult, it seems that this activity is frowned upon, so instead, he became a poet!  In a beautiful concluding sentence, he says, ‘I rhyme / To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.’  There is a clear connection suggested here between the young Heaney’s activities and the older Heaney’s poetry.

The diviner in this poem is seen in the same light as his father and grandfather are in ‘Digging’.  The diviner is exploring the hidden depths, the unexplored layers of landscape, seeking out water-bearing aquifers.   This is similar to his father or grandfather toiling in the bog, ‘going down and down for the good turf’.

The jury is still out on whether it is even possible to divine the presence of water by holding a forked hazel stick in one’s hands!  Scientists still seem to frown on the idea yet in Heaney’s home place of South Derry there would have been one or two men with this innate power, just as there would have been a person who had a cure for burns or had the ability to fix a bad back or rid a person of warts.  These cures or remedies had been handed down through the generations from father to son, from mother to daughter.  Heaney has realised that he too has a rare gift and he normalises his own talent as a poet by comparing it to those with rare gifts in his own rural community.

The diviner described here was a real expert and he put on a performance for the onlookers present.  His actions were ceremonial, just like a priest at the altar on Sunday – he refers to the diviner ‘Circling the terrain’. The poet creates a mood of tension as the ritual performance commences; words like ‘tight’, ‘hunting’, ‘pluck’, ‘nervous’, sharp’, ‘sting’, ‘jerked’, ‘convulsions’, convey tension, urgency, doubt, and expectation in the reader.  The tone of the final stanza is far more relaxed and of course, this is because the diviner has been successful in his quest for water and so he ‘nonchalantly’ grips the ‘expectant’ wrists of those who have asked to have a turn and see if the hazel stick will work for them.

Notice the poet’s clever use of the word ‘nervous’ here in stanza one.  He is referring to the fact that our nervous system carries messages to the brain – but here it is the diviner who is the path along which the message from the underground water will be carried.

The poet tries to demystify the work of the diviner by using the analogy of a radio signal picking up foreign radio stations as one turned the dial on the old cumbersome radios that were a feature in many rural homes in the Fifties.  The hazel stick is likened to ‘a green aerial’, which picks up the unseen signals the water gives off from underground caverns.  We know the diviner has picked up the signal when Heaney says in the second stanza, ‘The rod jerked with precise convulsions’.  This image of the water broadcasting its position presents us with the notion that the diviner is the receiver and interpreter of messages that ordinary mortals cannot experience or understand.  In Heaney’s view, this is also an exact analogy with his work as a poet.

The word ‘convulsions’ suggests to me that the diviner is not in control of his movements and of course the fact that these ‘convulsions’, these involuntary movements, are visible to the bystanders adds to their sense of wonder and awe.

The style of the poem is very matter-of-fact – as if the poet is reporting for his local newspaper!  There is also the subtle innuendo that it’s all some kind of hoax that is being perpetrated here by the diviner – that he is some kind of charlatan, pulling the wool over the eyes of his unsuspecting, gullible audience.  These notions are finally dispelled and underlined by the final short sentence: ‘The hazel stirred’.

Another interesting feature of the poem that we need to explore is that we are not told what the diviner looks like.  This helps the poet to create the feeling of awe and wonder.  This is in marked contrast to other poems such as ‘The Forge’ and ‘Digging’, for example, where we are given little pen pictures, sometimes uncomplimentary, of his father and the blacksmith.  In ‘Digging’ he looks down from his upstairs study window and sees his father digging in the flower garden: ‘I look down / Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds / Bends low’.  In ‘The Forge’ he describes the blacksmith, Barney Devlin, in a very Chaucerian manner: ‘Sometimes, leather-aproned, hairs in his nose,  / He leans out on the jamb, …’.  However, in ‘The Diviner’ he refrains from making any of these derogatory comments and therefore the mystique of the diviner is maintained right to the end.

The reason Heaney is drawn to these rural craftsmen and their various trades is that he is in awe of the power of the diviner, the turf-cutter, the ploughman, talents that he doesn’t possess but ones that he admires.  In ‘Digging’ he tells us, ‘But I’ve no spade to follow men like them’.  He is drawn to these people who divine for water, dig in gardens and plough the land and shoe horses because he wants to follow in their footsteps but in his own unique way.

In many ways, these poems, particularly the ones from the collection Death of a Naturalist, are efforts to pacify and appease worried parents who have suspicions that their young son is different.  In this, his first collection, he is reassuring them that he’s not that different but that they will have to accept his choice of career: he will be a poet to be reckoned with, he will dig and plough and divine – but with his pen.  Fittingly then, thirty or so years later, The Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to Seamus Heaney in 1995, “for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past’.

Works Cited

Seamus Heaney.  100 Poems, Faber and Faber, 2018

The Nobel Prize in Literature citation 1995:

<https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/1995/summary/&gt;

Further Reading by the same author:

A more comprehensive analysis of ‘The Forge’ is available here

A more comprehensive analysis of recurring themes in the poetry of Seamus Heaney (with particular benefit to Leaving Cert Students) is available here

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The Poetry of Seamus Heaney: Some Recurring Themes

 

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The main purpose of these notes is to assist you in forming an overview of Heaney’s work.  For this reason, the material is structured as a series of ‘thinking points’, grouped under general headings.  These cover the poet’s main preoccupations and methods, but they are not exhaustive.  Neither are they ‘carved in stone’, to be memorised: ideally, they should be altered, added to or deleted as you develop your own set of notes.  This priceless pearl of wisdom is relevant for Heaney BUT it equally applies to all the other poets on your course as well!

The following ‘grace notes’ presuppose a basic knowledge of the following poems by Heaney on your Leaving Cert Poetry Syllabus:

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

IRISHNESS – HISTORY, MYTHS, POLITICS

  • In his early poems, Heaney was preoccupied with local history, with communicating the experience of his own place with its numerous customs, rituals and ancient rural crafts (See ‘Sunlight’ and ‘The Forge’).
  • Then he began to think of history as landscape, exploring downwards, finding evidence of history in the bogs and the very contours of the land, exploring what myth and prehistoric evidence revealed about Irishness (See ‘Bogland’)
  • Exploring back in time, he makes historical connections between the Iron Age and the present. He draws parallels between ancient human sacrifices and the contemporary violence which was engulfing his native Ulster at the time.  He seems to be saying that violence is indeed endemic in all societies throughout history, that human sacrifice is necessary for the integrity of territory, that myths, however savage, are an integral part of the creation of the identity of a people (See ‘The Tollund Man’).
  • Overall, Heaney’s position has been seen as ambivalent and has been misunderstood by many. His poetry constantly explores the divisions tearing present-day Ulster apart.  His position has often met with criticism from all sides regarding his treatment of recent Ulster history.  Some critics say he has too much politics in his poetry, while others say he should stand up for his people and take sides.  He has been accused of obscuring the horrors of sectarian killings; of endorsing a ‘tribal’ position, or of not endorsing it enough; he has also been accused of evading the issues and being non-committal in his writing.

For many critics, like Elmer Andrews, Heaney doesn’t go far enough: ‘Heaney’s art is fundamentally an art of consciously and carefully cultivated non-engagement’.  Do you agree?  Is Heaney completely uncritical of his own side? (See ‘Bogland’, ‘The Tollund Man’, ‘A Constable Calls’).

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A traditionally crafted Harvest Bow

PLACE AND LANDSCAPE

  • Like Patrick Kavanagh, who is synonymous with his native Inniskeen, Heaney too has immortalised his native place and Mossbawn and Anahorish are mentioned often, especially in those poems which deal with childhood. ‘Sunlight’ presents us with a picture of an idealised childhood, his aunt Mary Heaney’s kitchen is depicted as enveloping him in a womb-like security.  His earlier poems, especially those from his collections Death of a Naturalist (1966), Door into the Dark (1969), North (1975), and Field Work (1979), focus very much on home and family, his relationship with his father and mother and the need for continuity between the generations (See ‘Sunlight’, ‘The Harvest Bow’)
  • Anybody who has read ‘Blackberry Picking’ or ‘Death of a Naturalist’ and other such poems by Heaney will need no convincing that he is a fine descriptive nature poet. Terence Brown says that he has an ‘extraordinary gift in realising the physical world freshly and with vigorous exact economy.  Heaney can bring everyday natural events before the readers’ eyes with such telling precision that his images are both recognition and revelation’ (See any of his poems!).
  • Landscape for Heaney is more than just a subject to be painted: it is a living presence, an ever-present force, a sort of third party to human activity in the poems. This is the same immediate personal presence that we also find in Kavanagh and Wordsworth (See ‘Postscript’, ‘Bogland’, ‘The Tollund Man’).
  • He shows us differing aspects, different faces, of the landscape: from the life force (‘spirit of the corn’) to the threatening, menacing aspect (‘the bottomless bog’). When writing about the farming traditions of his community he also presents us with the juxtaposing ideas of growth and decay.
  • Heaney believes that people have a human and a religious relationship with the landscape (See ‘Bogland’, ‘The Tollund Man’, ‘The Harvest Bow’).
  • The landscape is seen as essentially female, often with erotic associations in its relationship with man (Examine ‘The Tollund Man’ closely).
  • Heaney’s landscape is dominated by the earth rather than the sky, with the bog providing a metaphor for Irish consciousness (See ‘Bogland’, ‘The Tollund Man’).
  • ‘The landscape for me is an image and it’s almost an element to work with as much as it is an object of admiration or description’. Heaney often uses nature metaphors to express his feelings of frustration and loneliness.  For example, in ‘The Harvest Bow’ he describes his frustrating attempts at communicating with his father like this: ‘your stick / Whacking the tops off weeds and bushes / Beats out of time, and beats, but flushes / Nothing’ (See also ‘Postscript’).
  • Driving out west along the now famous Wild Atlantic Way, along by Flaggy Shore near Ballyvaughan on the West Coast of Clare, the poet explores the beauty of the Irish landscape as a tourist would.  Heaney describes the beauty of the landscape and the changing light and the feelings it will inspire.  It is a journey poem where the poet finds himself caught between wild things and settled things, between things earthed and things in flight.  The sonnet-like structure of the poem gives it a postcard quality  ending with simple and powerful words: ‘And catch the heart off guard and blow it open’ (‘Postscript’)
  • Above all, the landscape for Heaney is a source of creativity and insight: ‘poems … come up … like bodies out of the bog of my own imagination’ (See ‘Bogland’, ‘The Tollund Man’).
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Listen to Heaney read ‘The Tollund Man’ below:

TRADITION AND IDENTITY

  • For Heaney, an awareness of one’s tradition is fundamental to a sense of identity. He explains and explores his own roots, celebrating the ancient skills and crafts that sustained the farming community that nurtured him and his family for generations: the digging, the ploughing, the water-divining, the bread-making, the skills of the farmer, the blacksmith, etc.  These skills are described in a reverential way as if they were sacred rituals. (See ‘Sunlight’, ‘The Forge’).
  • Sometimes he still hankers back to the womb-like security of that life of early childhood. Some interpret these poems describing his Aunt Mary’s kitchen in Mossbawn as a form of regression or escapism from the daily horrors of life in Northern Ireland in the Seventies and Eighties (See ‘Sunlight’).  Sometimes he needs to re-forge, reinterpret and understand his links with family in order to rediscover his identity (See ‘The Harvest Bow’ where he says, ‘I tell and finger it like braille’).
  • ‘Our sense of the past, our sense of the land and perhaps even our sense of identity are inextricably interwoven,’ according to Heaney (The Irish Press, June 1st 1974). Therefore, finding and maintaining a sense of continuity is vital to Heaney: family, traditions, customs and values come to him as memories in his poetry and reassure and comfort him amidst the mayhem and uncertainty of daily atrocities in his home place (See ‘Sunlight’, ‘The Harvest Bow’).
  • He explores his Catholic roots too, as set against the other traditions. According to Robert Welch: ‘Heaney is engaged upon a cultural and tribal exploration; he is testing out his cultural inheritance to see where the significant deposits are located; but he is not engaged upon a mindless submission to the old tradition of the goddess or whatever.’ (See ‘Sunlight’, ‘The Harvest Bow’, ‘Bogland’, ‘The Tollund Man’).
  • There are times in his writing when his personal identity has overtones of victimhood about it. He certainly seems to identify with victims: ‘something of this sad freedom … should come to me.’  (See ‘The Tollund Man’, ‘A Constable Calls’).
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The Forge, situated on the Hillhead Road, near Castledawson and dates from the 19th Century. (www.georgemcintyre.tripod.com)

IDENTITY AND POETRY

  • Heaney’s identity as a poet is inextricably linked in with his historical and cultural identity. The autographical voice we encounter in his first collection, Death of a Naturalist, becomes the spokesperson of his people in the later collection, Door into the Dark  (See ‘Bogland’).
  • He identifies with the bog – he takes on board the implied insult that he is ‘a bogman’ and he owns it! The bog, with all its implications, becomes a kind of subconscious racial memory for him, providing him with inspiration for his poetry.  The Danes weren’t the only ones to bury their dead in the bog – there were numerous victims of violence ‘disappeared’ during ‘The Troubles’ and buried in remote, windswept locations on this island too (See ‘The Tollund Man’, ‘Bogland’).
  • Elmer Andrews describes Heaney’s method in this way: ‘He is proposing an idea of poetry which combines psychic investigation with historical enquiry’. In an essay  entitled ‘Feeling into Words’, Heaney himself spoke of ‘poetry as divination, poetry as revelation of the self to the self, as restoration of the culture to itself; poems as elements of continuity, with the aura of authenticity of archaeological finds, where the buried shard has an importance that is not diminished by the importance of the buried city; poetry as a dig, a dig for finds that end up being plants’ (Preoccupations, 1980) (See also ‘The Tollund Man’, ‘Bogland’).
  • Heaney sees the craft of poetry not just as something mechanical but rather a ‘combination of imagination and skill. He uses a brilliant analogy to describe a poem as ‘a completely successful love act between the craft and the gift’ (See ‘The Forge’).
  • Heaney’s voice in his poems is often indecisive, timid and ambiguous, his position is that of a hesitant observer on the fringes of the scene. For example, in The Forge he is outside looking in, afraid of the darkness within.
  • Heaney and other Northern poets such as Montague, Mahon, and Longley have come to prominence because of their efforts to make poetry relevant in a difficult political backdrop. He feels at times that poetry may be powerless to influence politics but nevertheless, it is vital to a sense of identity.
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“In the Attic”, a portrait of Seamus Heaney by the artist Jeffrey Morgan now hanging in the HomePlace Centre in Bellaghy, Co. Derry.

SAMPLE ANSWER: What are the recurring themes in the poetry of Seamus Heaney?

Heaney’s poetry brings us to our senses!  There is a tactile, sensuous quality to his poetry and his poetry is often multi-layered.  When he says that he will ‘dig’ with his pen he is referring to how layer after layer of meaning can be revealed in the act of writing.  In ‘The Forge’ he records a changing way of life as the horse and car make way for the motorcar, but the poem also reveals a growing awareness of the mystery of the creative process.  It becomes, therefore, a poem about poetry.

His poetry often draws on childhood memories of growing up on a farm in Co. Derry.  In ‘Sunlight’ and ‘A Constable Calls’ he presents us with two contrasting memories, one beautifully tranquil, the other troubled and uneasy.  Place is of vital importance, as in Kavanagh’s poetry, but so too are the people associated with that place: the exhumed Tollund man, his Aunt Mary in the family kitchen, his father ‘making tillage returns /In acres, roods and perches’, and his father making the harvest bow.

There is, therefore, a preoccupation with the past and a fascination with it.  In both ‘Bogland’ and ‘The Tollund Man’ Heaney, like the ‘pioneers’ who keep ‘striking / Inwards and downwards’, prompts us to think across thousands of years.  ‘Bogland’ speaks of how our ancestors’ lives are recorded and contained within the bog.  ‘The Tollund Man’, though it also speaks of a bog find, is a more complex poem in that it relates a violent death that took place two thousand years ago in Jutland to the violent deaths which occurred almost daily in Northern Ireland from 1969 until the signing of the Belfast Agreement on Good Friday in 1998.  Though Heaney writes about contemporary events, he does so sometimes at a tangent.  Heaney himself has said that he has searched for ‘images and symbols adequate to our predicament’.  And despite what some of his critics say, he never shirks or avoids the savage reality of violence: in ‘The Tollund Man’ he writes with stark realism of how the mutilated bodies of four young brothers were dragged along the train tracks, their skin and teeth flecking the railway sleepers.

Heaney’s lyric voice is often straightforward.  Lines can be plain, unadorned, and deceptively simple: ‘His bicycle stood at the windowsill’, but these opening lines open up and at the same time deepen our understanding of a particular experience.  In Heaney’s own words a poem preserves an experience, but ‘it should also open experience up and move it along … so that, first of all, the poet and then the reader, hopefully, gets carried away a little.’

‘So’ is a key word in Heaney’s poetry.  It signals a clear-sighted focus on the scene before.  For example, in ‘Sunlight’ he says, ‘So her hands scuffled / over the bakeboard’.  By his use of this simple word, he achieves an immediate, direct, warm tone in his poetry.  Also in ‘Sunlight’, we can see how his use of a shift in tense from past to present indicates how memory or a remembered event can be given a living quality within the poem.  The poem begins in the past – ‘There was a sunlit absence’ – but ends in the present – ‘Now she dusts the board … now sits broad-lapped …

And here is love

like a tinsmith’s scoop

sunk past its gleam

in the meal-bin.

Throughout his career, Heaney was very interested in poetic form and structure.  ‘The Forge’ is a sonnet and other poems on our course reveal a mastery of many forms – a variety of line lengths and differently shaped stanzas.  In ‘The Harvest Bow’ the intricacies of the making of the bow is mirrored in the intricacies of the poem itself: in a line such as ‘brightens and tightens twist by twist’, with its perfect example of internal rhyme and repetition.

Heaney’s poetry is both sensitive and sympathetic.  He identifies and understands others.  Relationships are at the heart of his poetry, his relationships with loved ones, family, and also his relationship with significant places such as Mossbawn and later Glanmore.  He recognises what is good and he cherishes and celebrates it.  In his poems he is capable of delight and astonishment; the ordinary becomes marvellous, and such moments are conveyed with wonder, humility and gratitude.

Further Reading

You might also like to read some of the following:

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

 Digging

 Works Cited

Andrews, Elmer (ed). The Poetry of Seamus Heaney: Essays, Articles, Reviews. Columbia University Press (Icon Books Limited), 1998.

Brown, Terence. The Literature of Ireland: Culture and Criticism. Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Heaney, Seamus. The Government of the Tongue, Faber and Faber, 1989.

Heaney here scrutinizes the work of several poets, British and Irish, American and European, whose work he considers might call into question the rights of poetic utterance. The author asks whether the voice of the poet should be governed, or whether it should be the governor.

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

Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney’s first collection of prose, Preoccupations, begins with a vivid account of his early years on his father’s farm in Northern Ireland and his coming of age as a student and teacher in Belfast. Subsequent essays include critical work on Gerard Manley Hopkins, William Wordsworth, John Keats, Robert Lowell, William Butler Yeats, John Montague, Patrick Kavanagh, Ted Hughes, Geoffrey Hill, and Philip Larkin.

Welch, Robert (ed).  Irish Writers and Religion, Rowman and Littlefield, 1992

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

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A traditionally crafted Harvest Bow

Epitaph for John Kelly, Blacksmith

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Kelly’s Forge in the 1940’s. L to R: J. O’Kelly, D. Nash, C. McAuliffe, S. O’Kelly. C. Fitzgerald (Information credit Newcastle West in Close Up – Snapshots of an Irish Provincial Town published by Newcastle West Historical Society, 2017)

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.

Eigse Michael Hartnett - Sean Kelly
Sean Kelly former teacher and local historian and also the last blacksmith in Maiden Street and son of John Kelly the subject of Michae Hartnett’s Epitaph.

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:

XXXVIII

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!

FullSizeRender (12) Big Shaun Kelly
Town Crier Bill Poster and General Carrier John Lenihan pictured at the left of the door of big Sean Kelly’s house in Maiden Street. Sean Kelly is seen smoking his pipe. Information gleaned from Newcastle West in Close Up – Snapshots of an Irish Provincial Town  published by Newcastle West Historical Society (2017).

[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

Newcastle West Historical Society publishers of ‘Newcastle West in Close Up – Snapshots of an Irish Provincial Town’ (2017).

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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