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Studies on Seamus Heaney

Jacqueline Genet

"We pine for ceremony": ritual and reality in the poetry of Seamus Heaney (1965-1975)

Maurice Harmon

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1The characteristics of Seamus Heaney’s early poetry are well known: it is a poetry in which he seeks to define and repossess the background within which he has been formed; it is a poetry of realistic detail about activities in the countryside, its skills and crafts, in which the poet’s sensuous appreciation of language is a prominent feature. He enjoys the musical possibilities of language, its ability to make sounds that illustrate and echo the meaning. "I rhyme", he says, to "see myself, to set the darkness echoing". To see himself: to clarify and define what has shaped his imagination, to discover nurturing elements within his past, and to find directions in which the poetic self may move. To set the darkness echoing: to bring light to what is hidden both in the past and within the unconscious. Poetry is seen as a performance by which he may see himself, as within a dramatised image that will give back a musical reflection of sounds made by the performer.

2Although it can be said that the poems in Death of a Naturalist are realistic recreations, the tendency is to see particular incidents as evidence of a way in which things are done, as customary, or part of a cycle. Even Digging places the father’s skill in the context of those who dug before him. "By God, the old man could handle a spade./Just like his old man". The poet has no spade to follow men like them but he will use a different implement and be like them and thereby proudly carry on the tradition of skilled work. Death of a Naturalist describes the festering of the flax-dam as something that happens every day. "Here, every spring" he "would fill jampots of the jellied/Specks". The Barn is attentive to conditions and impressions that are constant. "Slowly bright objects formed when you went in". This world has both stability and continuity. The poet wants to create and thereby preserve its reality -- "A scythe’s edge, a clean spade, a pitch-fork’s prongs" -- and at the same time to establish the actuality of continuity, or recurrence. Sometimes a poem falls uncertainly between the literal and the ritualistic. Blackberry Picking fails to form a bridge between the two. While the event and the berries have the appearance of reality, the introduction of involuntary motivation strains against that reality: "that hunger/sent us out with milk-cans, pea-tins, jam-pots ... Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills/We trekked and picked". The packed lines hold on to a concrete mode but the elevation of involuntary instinct to a position of influence is symptomatic of a tendency in Heaney that takes him away from the factual towards the ceremonial. It is this reduction of individuality that makes At a Potato-Digging an example of the risk involved when he turns his perception of actuality into a statement about myth. By presenting the figures in the potato-field as participants in a mindless ritual, devotees of "the famine god", and by interpreting their actions in terms of a psychic response, he dehumanises them to some degree. That reduction can only take place when professional skills are not involved. In poems about the ploughman, the diviner, or the thatcher the individual is in control of his actions. The Diviner has a special power which he handles effectively and in that handling proves himself to be worthy of his gift. "He gripped expectant wrists. The hazel stirred". The poem idealises the union that exists between the given grace of divination and the ability to manage it. In his hands the act of divination is sharp, precise, and magical. All the components of the poem attest to his power: the hazel, magical stick cut from the "green" hedge, its forked shape, the ritualised movements - "Circling the terrain, hunting the pluck/Of water". In the word "Unfussed" Heaney sums up the diviner’s trust in and nonchalant control of his power.

  • 1 Poetry Book Society Bulletin, n° 61, Summer 1969.

3In the intimate relation of man and craft the man enters a different area of living. He is of the world, acts within its contingent reality, but transcends its accidents and escapes from its disabling forces. Thatcher in Door into the Dark is a more comic reflection on the familiar yet, as the poem presumes to show, ultimately unknowable world of another figure. It moves deceptively in the direction of realism, devoting itself to things, not to art. The Forge invites us to celebrate the self-immolation of the blacksmith, to admire "the fantail of sparks" that he beats out on his anvil altar. It is selfconsciously emblematic of what Heaney calls "the intuitive, blurred stirring and shaping of some kinds of art"1. Thatcher invites us to get close to what actually happens, to see the knives, the sods, the rafters; the components of the thatcher’s craft are explicitly, almost defiantly, revealed. The syntax could hardly be simpler: "Next" he did this; "Then" he did that. There is, it seems, no mystery. He brings the materials on his bicycle, he examines the old rigging, he pokes the eaves, he takes out the rods, and gets to work. In two short stanzas the job is done and away he goes.

Couchant for days on sods above the rafters
He shaved and flushed the butts, attached all together
Into a sloped honeycomb, a stubble patch,
And left them gaping at his Midas touch.

4The actual moment of transformation, the trick at the heart of the alchemist’s art remains invisible, even though we have been invited to attend closely to everything that he did. It is the old magic of the conjuror, the magician, the artist and as always we cannot pluck out the heart of the mystery. This man is unfussed and nonchalant. He moves to his own rhythm and is in confident command of what he does.

5Thatcher enacts its own mystery. It invites us to enter the theatre of the imagination. It encourages us to participate, as all drama does, to join with the writer, the actor and the spectators. We participate, we experience the power of the theatre in which magic and sacramental rituals also have a place. We too are left "gaping" at the end, entertained and reawakened to the truth of the performance: that art is magical and we are grateful to have been brought into such close and revealing contact with it. That we experienced the illusion of total insight only adds to the illumination; the joke, happily, is on us.

6Door into the Dark is not one of Heaney’s best collections. Many of its poems are descriptive, realistic and one-dimensional. Even those, like The Given Note, about music acquired from the spirit world, or The Plantation, about being deluded in a fairy place, do not quite transcend the ordinary world. They gesture towards mystery but are tethered to reality. Nevertheless, in The Wife’s Tale and Bogland the interaction between realism and ceremony is crucial. For all its realistic texture of harvesting and harvesters, The Wife’s Tale is about ceremony, about the ways in which something is annually done. The dialogue between the wife and the husband is neither casual nor haphazard, nor does it vary much from one year to the next. Both figures play an allotted part in a drama of revelation. Their dialogue is designed to fulfill the measured stages of an annual ritual and to express a relationship that is both intimate and incomplete. A shape of inevitability attends the unfolding narrative in which the wife’s incomprehension is an important element. She carries out her wifely tasks amid the alien corn; she enters upon a stage made strange by its imagery, its machinery, its very sounds and above all by its male figures. On it they are supreme, almost divine. At the end they sit in a closed circle while she moves away with the exit line, dramatic also in its imagery of the folded cloths, T gathered cups and folded up the cloths". The gesture marks the completion of the action.

  • 2 Manchester Guardian, May 25, 1972.

7In Bogland the resisting realities of some of the other poems dissolve. The poem celebrates the generosity of submission, of potential within the Irish landscape, within the Irish character. Heaney’s mimetic, ritualising imagination finds here a metaphor of paradox to encompass and to develop his dual vision of death and rebirth, reality and ritual, loss and renewal. The poem is a statement of trust in the sources from which the imagination may be nourished; it is an act of faith in the powers both of craft and divination, combining the significance of both; it is a richer acknowledgment of contact with the immediate rural contexts in Derry and in Ireland generally with the difference that whereas poems like Digging, Follower, Blackberry Picking, or Peninsula concentrate on the actual, Bogland, in an act of personal adventure and liberation, goes beneath the surface, beyond the possibilities of the real. It signals a new stage in Heaney’s development and the emergence of a new style. "I have always listened for poems", he tells us, "they come sometimes like bodies out of a bog, almost complete, seeming to have been laid down a long time ago, surfacing with a touch of mystery"2.

8The poem proceeds by declarations of evidence in support of its theme. The artifacts of the Irish past have been taken out of the bogs.

They’ve taken the skeleton
Of the Great Irish Elk
Out of the peat, set it up
An astounding crate full of air.

9The processes involved are endless, the sources are limitless.

The ground itself is king, black butter
Melting and opening underfoot,
Missing its last definition
By millions of years

10It is a Jungian concept of the Irish past and of the Irish psyche as richly layered and opening inwards in a series of endless discoveries. This centre is bottomless. This centre holds.

Our pioneers keep striking
Inwards and downwards,
Every layer they strip
Seems camped on before.
The bogholes might be Atlantic seepage.
The wet centre is bottomles.

11The quality of affirmative release that the poem expresses in language, tone and rhythm is virtually self-perpetuating and self-renewing. The metaphor encompasses history and the imagination. At the same time Bogland has a direct contemporary relevance. If Northern Ireland is locked within a numbing, no-win political contest that freezes the imagination, the perspectives opened into the past by Bogland offer rich creative alternatives.

12Seamus Heaney’s ability to reach out and identify with objects and people becomes particularly evident in Wintering Out. He identifies with "the long-seasoned rib/under the first thatch" in Bog Oak, with the hired boy in Servant Boy — "how you draw me into your trail" -- with the young mother in Limbo who drowns her baby, with the confined boy in Bye Child, with the resentful, violent figure in The Last Mummer, with the lonely wife in Shore Woman, with the uprooted mermaid in Maigdean mora. Unlike figures in the earlier poems, ploughman or thatcher, these are all outcasts. They suffer exposure, neglect, or cruelty; they belong to the outback, they haunt the pagus. Heaney insinuates himself into their lives; they are masks for his sense of nationalist, Catholic isolation in a province governed by Unionists, Presbyterians and Planters. The view from the hidden Ireland is ably represented in The Other Side where the Presbyterian neighbour possesses the good land. These poems anticipate the more explicit political clarification of the Ministry of Fear and A Constable Calls found at the end of North. In the Bog Oak Heaney reaches back through four hundred years of history, accomplishing the transition in an act of familiarity, in the force of "tarry" and "eavesdrop" in the lines "I might tarry/with the moustached /dead" and "eavesdrop on/their hopeless wisdom". By such means he assumes proximity and persuades us by his mimetic skill that his imaginative pilgrimage is credible, that he is one with these ancestors. It is a form of role-playing, with the self as familiar of the past. All these poems are acts of empathetic imagining in which the poet enters the life and the situation of others, putting on the mask of other reactions and experiences. The best way he can express how he feels about the experience is to become one with those who experience. He imagines, creates and participates in one fluid motion. He is a kind of mummer. The artist as blacksmith or water diviner is now linked more closely with people, places and objects; he becomes what he describes. In Oracle he is the nameless presence in the hollow trunk of the willow tree, "its listening familiar", the

small mouth and ear
in the woody cleft
lobe and larynx
of the mossy places.

  • 3 Irish Times, May, 19, 1972.

13He inhabits natural objects; he creates minuscule histories in the etymologies of place-names, in the identifying linguistic properties of townlands, in the tell-tale dialect words. His care for language, formerly a sensuous delight, is now a way in which he can nurture the reality of Northern Ireland. By attending to the fidelities of spoken words he can touch upon history and culture in an intimate and unspectacular way3. It is a less histrionic means of expressing an identity with place and ancestry.

  • 4 Manchester Guardian, May 25, 1972.

Our farm was called Mossbawn, Moss, a Scots word probably carried to Ulster by the Planters, and bawn, the name the English colonists gave to their fortified farmhouses. Mossbawn, the planter’s house on the bog. Yet in spite of this Ordnance Survey spelling, we pronounced it Moss bann, and ban is the Gaelic word for white. So might not the thing mean the white moss, the moss of bog-cotton? In the syllables of my home I see a metaphor of the split culture of Ulster.4

14The poems that grow from the auditory imagination are chords of attachment binding him to the landscape.

He is hooped to where he planted
and sky and ground
are running naturally among his arms
that grope the cropping land.

15They are in effect mating calls by which the land rises to delight the poet, this "hoarder of common ground", who hoards it like a miser in love with its riches, with the "Soft voices of the dead / ... whispering by the shore", whose perception of that ground is of an archaeological hoard waiting to be revealed. "Strangers" cannot "manage" the sounds of this personal world in which words like Broagh, Anahorish, Moyola, Mossbawn or Castledawson form a literary landscape that like a braille text has to be felt to be known.

But now our river tongues must rise
From licking deep in native haunts
To flood, with vowelling embrace,
Demesnes staked out in consonants.

16In these poems the language of love, of intercourse, is sometimes the only adequate measure of the bonding closeness by which Heaney seeks to realise his sense of oneness with the land and its "Traditions". Or else, even more physically, the vocal organs themselves, or the units of words, the vowels and the consonants, are themselves the image and the metaphor for the idea heard like music in the sound of its saying: "the soft gradient of consonant", "Our guttural muse/was bulled long ago/by the alliterative tradition". Or else, in a mirroring perspective, the processes of the natural world are linguistic codes: Broagh is a "low tattoo/among the windy boortrees/and rhubarb-blades". Anahorish is a "vowel-meadow", it evokes a way of life of "mound-dwellers" who "go waist-deep in mist". In these poems Heaney comes close to the music of what happens; the ideal is music itself, pure idea. And in terms of realism and ceremony it is clear that such poems blend the actual and the ritual; what is verifiably real is drawn into metaphor, intimately mated in the act of poetic speech.

17Heaney’s liberating break-through into the infinite possibilities of the bogland was strengthened by his discovery of P. V. Glob’s The Bog People. Once again there is a coming together of different elements in his work, a focussing of recent achievements. The Tollund Man is another victim of cruelty; ceremony enfolds the speaker, the victim in Denmark, the victims in Ireland, the country people, and the pilgrimage itself. Nature embalms the body so that like the incorruptible flesh of christian martyr-saints it may transcend mortality, may bear witness to its own saintliness, and may comfortingly guarantee that death is a purposeful part of a larger design.

18The poem is reverently geared to create this design: the preserved body, so gently and lovingly described, is evidence of sanctity; the tone is reverent, as befits a pilgrim’s promise. Therefore, in section II, in an act of apparent heresy, the catholic poet "can risk blasphemy" by worshipping at a pagan shrine, can re-enact the vegetation ritual by which a human was sacrificed to Nerthus, the goddess of fertility. He can pray to the saint to bring germination not to crops or vegetation but to the dead of Northern Ireland, victims like him of ritual violence, whose flesh has been broadcast like seed upon the land. The final section too belongs to ceremony: it is a pilgrimage, the placenames are like numinous stations along the way, the pointing hands of country people express in simple, unambiguous gesture that this is the way of salvation leading to the stunning moment of insight, of illumination, the final sign of the saint’s power.

Out there in Jutland
In the old man-killing parishes
I will feel lost,
Unhappy and at home.

19The whole poem contributes economically and formally to its harmonious oneness of direction. The journey can be imagined with conviction, it can be enacted in words. With his mask of pagan pilgrim Heaney comments indirectly on the savagery let loose in Northern Ireland where deeds of deadly violence are committed in the name of that other goddess of the land, Kathleen Ni Houlihan. He expresses a fervent prayer for the violence to end, for life not death, for a community in which he will not feel lost and unhappy. In that image of displacement and alienation we see the significance of poems about the dispossessed, the resentful mummer, the mistreated boy, the unhappy wife, the mother drowning her baby; even those poems about the social, religious and political divisions of Northern Ireland, felt in the language of place, in the metaphor of marriages that are verbal not actual are personal registers of what it feels like to be Seamus Heaney.

20Some rituals are metaphors for a wished-for healing. Others are strangely phantasmagoric. Wedding Day begins with the admission "I am afraid" and ends with an appeal to the bride for comfort. In between are references to reeling images, wild grief, mourning and a bride who persists madly with the ritual.

You sing behind the tall cake
Like a deserted bride
Who persists, demented,
And goes through the ritual.

21At this stage of Heaney’s development we may begin to wonder about the elusive, multiple, adaptable persona of Heaney’s poetry. The Tollund Man, even though it is really about violence at home, skirts that reality, preferring a ceremonial mask and an adopted role. Wedding Day suggests unhappiness and uses ritual as a shield in an almost desperate manner; when the heart of love is "skewered" he must cling to the beloved. The one who clings is less the poet as antic dissembler, than the poet in real life, with particular fears and anxieties. If we search for poetry of unmasked self-revelation, we find Summer Home which tells of a bitter, ugly quarrel between the poet and his wife. The portrait of the self is both unattractive and honest. He takes the "blame" for the quarrel which they solve by making love. The love-making itself is a ceremonial act; it follows on the offering of flowers, evocative of Maytime commemorations of Mary

The loosened flowers between us
gather in, compose
for a May altar of sorts.

22Like sacramental oil their blooms "Anoint" the hurtful "wound". Scar tissue, stronger than original flesh, is a promise that out of pain comes a stronger bonding. That notion sponsors the final reassuring metaphor of grain, vines and tuneful stalactites, all part of a natural, creative process. Love-making itself belongs to a ceremony of recurrence, a tried and trusted means of healing -- "once more/we sap/the white, trodden/path to the heart"; the images of music, grain and sap replace those of foul corruption and the ugly sounds of anger with which the poem begins. While the voice is primarily the poet’s without his masks, the manner is only confessional in part; its aim is not to unmask but to atone by creating a drama of rupture and healing, to absorb bitterness and regret into the elevating language of forces that are greater than individual imperfections and that must be respected.

23The metaphor of ceremony permeates North, a collection deeply concerned with the violence of Northern Ireland. The poems do not confront that violence. They do not speak of individual pain or individual outrage. Instead Heaney adopts a communal response. Whatever personal feelings he has about death and suffering are deflected into large, ceremonial gestures. In Funeral Rites everything in the poem is appropriated into the ceremony. The boy achieves "a kind of manhood" when he helps to carry the coffins of dead relations, the dead themselves are transfigured, earning his admiration; even the coffins have a sombre beauty. The language of section I is similar in tone to the language of The Tollund Man and the style is formal and measured:

The dulse-brown shroud,
the quilted satin cribs:
I knelt courteously
admiring it all

24Courtesy and unqualified admiration carry the description forward in an effortless syntactical momentum which is quietly filled with precise visual images of the dead, whose appearance belies the ravages of death.

Their eye-lids glistening
their dough-white hands
shackled m rosary beads.

25The northern violence disrupts such orderly initiation into the rites of manhood in which the ugliness of death is alleviated by agreeable ritual. The poem does not try to register the reality of "each neighbourly murder" or even to develop the cruel paradox in which a murder can be neighbourly. Instead Heaney declares in his communal persona

We pine for ceremony
customary rhythm.

26The remaining six stanzas of section II provide supportive evidence for that statement, accumulating soothing images for a massive funeral composed of "temperate footsteps", "purring cars", "Somnambulant women" - a whole country tuned to the "muffled drumming" of "ten thousand engines". The progress of the funeral is a "slow triumph" towards the great megalithic burial chambers at the Boyne, its quiet shape linking the north of Ireland with the ancient tombs. What the community "longs for" is this peaceful shape, this process that transmutes horror into peace, that binds people harmoniously together.

27When, in section III, the mourners return to the place of division and hatred their grief has been assuaged. They are capable of responding to the beauty of Gunnar in his tomb. In the original saga Gunnar’s transfiguration in death is an arresting incident. We read that when two people were driving cattle past his burial mound "it seemed to them that Gunnar was in good humour and chanting verses inside the mound". When his son and some others stand outside the mound

  • 5 Njat’s Saga, Penguin, 1960, 173.

Suddenly it seemed to them that the mound was open;
Gunnar had turned round to face the moon. There
seemed to be four lights burning inside the mound,
illuminating the whole chamber. They could see
that Gunnar was happy; his face was exultant. He
chanted a verse so loudly that this could have been
heard clearly from much further away5

28Heaney writes

imagining those under the hill
disposed like Gunnar
who lay beautiful
inside his burial mound
though dead by violence
and unavenged.
Men said that he was chanting
verses about honour
and that four lights burned
in corners of the chamber:
which opened then, as he turned
with a joyful face to look at the moon.

29The introduction of the allusion to Gunnar is careful: the state of peace which the mourners have achieved through their participation in the trancelike ceremony of the extended, binding procession enables them to allay their preoccupation with the past, to feel that the divisions that caused feuding have been placated and in this state of forgetting and of forgiving they imagine that the victims of violence from their community whom they have buried are "disposed" like Gunnar "though dead by violence" also and similarly "unavenged". Gunnar sang about honour in battle, about preferring to die than to submit and by his words drove his son and his followers to avenge his death. Understandably, Heaney omits the consequences of Gunnar’s song. For his comforting, assuaging purposes the image of Gunnar stands for peaceful coexistence, for the avoidance of sectarian feuds, and for the liberation of a people from self-perpetuating hatreds. When Gunnar turns a joyful face to the moon that joy belongs to a man who has transcended violence, responding instead to beauty and all that the moon traditionally represents.

30The image is poised above the strife; in its peace and triumphant joy the ceremonial elements of the poem reach their highest point. North is also a poem of visionary communication with the Viking dead. First their voices warn the "I" figure against the reality of their recurrent violence, their thick-witted couplings, their revenges. Several stanzas express alternative elements of the Norse sagas: "those fabulous raiders ... those hacked and glinting/in the gravel of thawed streams". But their voices warn him, "with hindsight", of violence, of "memory incubating the spilled blood". It was the "cud" of such memory that Funeral Rites sought to erase. When we realise that the powerful destructive forces of the Vikings are paradigms for the way things are in Heaney’s own province, then the choices heard in the last three stanzas, conveyed from the Viking dead, wiser in death than in life, prefigure the issues that have dominated Heaney’s more recent work. The dead tell him to be true to himself, to work with language, to use his mind, to compose in darkness, to expect only occasional illuminations, to be clear-eyed, to rely on what he knows from his own experience. The advice comes in a series of commands: "Lie down ... burrow ... Compose ... Expect ... Keep... trust".

Lie down
in the word-hoard, burrow
the coil and gleam
of your furrowed brain.
Compose in darkness.
Expect aurora borealis
in the long foray
but no cascade of light.
Keep your eye clear
as the bleb of the icicle,
trust the feel of what nubbed treasure
your hands have known.’

31When we incline to the idea that Heaney’s work seems to drift away from the issues that surround him, a poem like North reminds us of the complex, indirect, allusive, metaphorical way in which he handles some of them. The voices are also the means by which he declares his priorities as a poet.

32In the image of Gunnar and in the advice of the dead violence is overcome by an aesthetic counter-force, by the beauty of the singing corpse, by the wisdom of the "ocean-deafened voices". It is, as it were, the function of the poet to create an aesthetic imperative equal to the world of barbaric butchery. The Grauballe Man also creates a portrait of the resurrected victim in images of beauty and repose; the anatomical details are represented in grave, natural images: "the grain of his wrists/is like bog oak", "the ball of his heel" is "like a basalt egg". The ennobling simile is a favourite mode of picturing the dead. Even the signs of violence have been altered: "the slashed throat", for example, has "tanned and toughened"; the "cured wound/opens inwards to a dark/elderberry place". Having thus created images through which violent death has been transmuted into beauty Heaney can pose the rhetorical questions:

Who will say "corpse"
to his vivid cast?
Who will say "body"
to his opaque repose?

33The figure, he declares, lies "perfected" in his memory, imprinted from Glob’s book, and goes on to create a perfect equation in which "beauty" balances "atrocity".

hung in the scales
with beauty and atrocity:
with the Dying Gaul
too strictly compassed
on his shield,
with the actual weight
of each hooded victim,
slashed and dumped.

34On the one hand is the classic figure representing beauty, on the other the hooded victims representing atrocity. A static image poised at the end of the poem, like Gunnar, brings savagery under control. The dying Gaul, symmetrically disposed, is in Heaney’s eyes too neatly placed within the rim of his shield; but while he may be an aesthetic mask for a violent death, his image functions as a counter force to human disorder. Like the Grauballe man he too has been perfected in the artist’s memory. But the poem does not equate the Viking with the Gaul or with the hooded victims. He is shared equally with them; he hangs in the scales with them, encompassing the two forces that they represent. In these poised images Heaney’s virtuoso kinetic art is replaced by a style in which an aesthetic image is distanced and stilled for our contemplation.

35Heaney’s empathetic imagination is fully engaged in the accounts of the processes by which the bog victims are made beautiful. His account of physical detail has a curious intimacy. That there is something voyeuristic and exploitative in such artistic use of the human body is the theme of Punishment. The tender address, "Little adulteress", and the sentimental image of the "flaxen-haired girl" prepares for the declaration "I almost love you". She is his "poor scapegoat"; he is an "artful voyeur". The confession of complicity and passivity stems from the conflict he feels in himself in relation to the troubles in Northern Ireland. He has not condemned violence, has identified with civilized outrage yet understands "the exact/and tribal, intimate revenge". By adopting the voice of the victim or by celebrating in itemised epiphanies the redeeming processes of the bogs Heaney avoids having to state directly how he feels. It is the bog queen who narrates her story; it is the Viking dead from the early iron age whose bodies become things of beauty. By analogy present horror is subsumed in the account of past atrocity and becomes an object of beauty. In Punishment the method, intended to clarify personal ambivalence, sweetens savagery; its soft intimacy is an affront to the girl’s dignity. Strange Fruit atones for that lapse. Here the beheaded girl outstares both atrocity and beauty, both "axe/And beatification", and escapes the poet’s invasive "reverence".

36Heaney is more successful when he keeps his distance or allows the figure itself to speak. The method of playful immersion in the elemental forces of the bog and in its useful metaphorical complexity of death and rebirth, winter and summer, past and present, Ireland and Denmark, works best when projected in a drama of self-revelation. "Kinship" is a celebration of oneness with the processes of absorption, preservation and renewal, an affirmation of affections: "I love this turf face"... "I love the spring/off the ground"... "This centre holds" ... "I grew out of all this". Yet these joyful claims lead to a puzzling conclusion that begins with the address to Tacitus who in Agricola had described the Irish and in Germania the cult of Nerthus. The relevant chapter in Germania begins "In an island of the ocean is a holy grove". Heaney writes

And you, Tacitus,
observe how I make my grove
an old crannog
piled by the fearful dead:
a desolate peace.

  • 6 Manchester Guardian, May 25, 1972.

37Grove, for Heaney, is associated with translations from the classics, "a sunlit symmetrical treeline, a tonsured hillock approached by white-robed priests"6. His preference for the old Irish lake-dwelling, the crannog, is deliberate and an appropriate rooting for his work. That it should hold "a desolate peace" echoes what Tacitus said of the Roman legionaries: that they made a desolate place and called it peace. Ireland is desolate because soured with "the blood / of her faithful". The legionaries who stare indifferently are the British forces. The last three stanzas invite Tacitus, the civilized voice of the outsider, not the voice of the intimate insider who understands the exact and tribal revenge, to "Read" and to "report" fairly what things are actually like in the island "where nothing will suffice", where there is no solution.

Read the inhumed faces
of casualty and victim;
report us faily
how we slaughter
for the common good
and shave the heads
of the notorious,
how the goddess swallows
our love and terror.

38The tone is both deeply ironic and regretful. In the context of a poem that has celebrated the capacity of the bogs to swallow and renew, the final couplet at best expresses a faith in process, a belief that time will eventually resolve Northern Ireland’s sour legacy in an even-handed manner. For all its self-energising delight Kinship is only marginally positive in its conclusion. That the goddess absorbs both love and terror is another version of that balanced view of beauty and atrocity found in The Grauballe Man but without the consolations of ceremony.

39The operation of the playful imagination is seen to best effect in Viking Dublin: Trial Pieces which is about the art of dissembling. Beginning with speculation about the reality of an object recovered from Viking Dublin and put on display in the National Museum, it quickly moves away from such relatively unimportant consideration with "anyhow" and the transition to the design cut on the object, "a small outline",... "a cage/or trellis to conjure in". It is the act of conjuring that is important, the ability of the craftsman to create a design that "amazes itself’, escapes, as it were, from "the hand/that fed it". The pieces on display are trial pieces, and the poem, in a complex, free-wheeling associative linking interprets the lines in a variety of ways: "foliage, bestiaries", lines of "ancestors and trade", the poet’s script. Magnified, the imagined "nostril" of the design becomes the prow of a Viking ship entering the Liffey, "dissembling itself in the various artifacts recovered by the archaeologists.

40Section III tells of the ship becoming stuck in the mud, the repository now, in another act of recovery, of artifacts, including the particular trial piece on which the poem expands. Section IV adopts this object, this trellis made for conjuring and proceeds by a series of imaginative leaps, via Saxo Grammaticus and Shakespeare, to a histrionic performance.

I am Hamlet the Dane,
skull-handler, parablist,
smeller of rot
in the state, infused
with its poisons,
pinioned by ghosts
and affections

41In this uninhibited exploitation of the artifact Heaney identifies with Hamlet: like him he interprets the dead, speaks in parables, knows there is corruption in the state, is "pinioned" by the dead and by his own affections for his country. Like Hamlet he is "coming to consciousness/by jumping in graves/dithering, blathering". To put on such an antic disposition is to be a mummer and a moralist, a realist and a romantic visionary; the artist who sees and the artist who feels but who retains his freedom. His ability to execute his dance of the imagination within the circumstances of his place is an expression of awareness and an admission of an inability to act decisively to rectify what is wrong.

  • 7 A. P. Smyth, Scandinavian Kings in the British Isles, 850-880, chapter XIV, 1977.

42Section V invites us to participate in this play of identifications -- "Come fly with me/come sniff the wind" -- become a Viking, enter their way of life, understand their behaviour. The lines recall their murderous, mercenary ways, even their ritual mutilation of defeated rivals in which the rib-case was torn apart from the spine and made to resemble the spread-eagle saturated in gore?7

With a butcher’s aplomb
they spread out your lungs
and made you warm wings
for your shoulders.

43Such behaviour is outrageous but not more so than atrocities closer to home. Heaney’s apostrophe, "Old fathers, be with us", may remind us of Joyce and Yeats, but the point is to remind us that these "old cunning assessors" are like us. The poem concludes in milder movement by way of another theatrical connection: Synge’s Playboy of the Western World in which Jimmy Farrel gives a confused but self-delighting account of Viking skulls in Dublin. It ends with Heaney’s quiet acknowledgement of his own fascination with that city’s "skull-capped ground", a fascination that the poem has ably demonstrated in its imaginative playfulness.

44The combination of reality and ritual in the poetry of Seamus Heaney during this ten-year period gives way in Part II of North to a realistic portrayal of the social self. Exposure uses a mask but creates a drama of internal irresolution in which much is revealed and little is resolved. Its web of choices contrasts with the one-dimensional contrasts and parallels of previous poems. When Heaney says of his father and of himself

I deified the man
who rode there,
god of the wagon,
the hearth - feeder.
I was his privileged
attendant, a bearer
of bread and drink
the squire of his circuits.

45we recognise the claim of the romantic imagination to transform actuality into something else. "I deified the man": I made him into a god. It is this linguistic alchemy in Heaney’s poetry that turns reality into ritual, that allows him to assume a variety of roles in a continuous drama, and that enables him to use the Viking world as a court of appeal. It is however based on a one to one equation. Exposure is more subdued and less affirmative. At the same time it has depth and elusiveness. Its imagery and allusions are both literal and symbolic, it is explicitly personal, yet its meanings live within the lines and disappear. We sense more than we can account for. Instead of certainties, unanswered questions are exposed: "How did I end up like this?" The voices that reply lack the reassurance of the Viking dead; they speak with forked tongues of "let-downs and erosions" but also of "diamond absolutes". Instead of solutions they echo internal divisions. The imagined hero stands for a simplified ideal of action that is inapplicable. Heaney’s defensive "I am neither internee nor informer" distances him from the nationalist perspective, but the alternatives, the one acceptable, the other contemptible, cancel each other out. The mask of the wood-kerne, neither historical validation nor comforting metaphor, simply explains his need for space and time in which to decide how best to live. He is an "inner émigré", one, like Osip Mandelstam, who is within the state yet removed from it, and one who lives, as in this poem, within himself. His withdrawal may seem to be an opting out, but is not. Paradoxically, by hiding he is exposed to "Every wind that blows". The ending to these, and other, complexities, lacks the affirmation of Bogland and the playfulness of Viking Dublin: Trial Pieces, but has a quieter strength. Regrettably, he has missed

The once-in-a-lifetime portent,
The comet’s pulsing rose.

46but he is about the proper business of the poet: he attends the fire of the imagination, modestly and sensibly imaged here not even as aurora borealis but as "sparks" that give but "a meagre heat".


1 Poetry Book Society Bulletin, n° 61, Summer 1969.

2 Manchester Guardian, May 25, 1972.

3 Irish Times, May, 19, 1972.

4 Manchester Guardian, May 25, 1972.

5 Njat’s Saga, Penguin, 1960, 173.

6 Manchester Guardian, May 25, 1972.

7 A. P. Smyth, Scandinavian Kings in the British Isles, 850-880, chapter XIV, 1977.

© Presses universitaires de Caen, 1987

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