Version classiqueVersion mobile
OpenEdition Books

Studies on Seamus Heaney

 | 
Jacqueline Genet

The sense of place in Seamus Heaney’s poetry

Patrick Rafroidi

Texte intégral

  • 1 Seamus Heaney, Preoccupations, Selected Prose, 1968-1978, London and Boston, Faber and Faber, 1980 (...)

1"The Sense of Place" is the subject, and the title, which Seamus Heaney chose for a lecture given in the Ulster Museum in January 1977 and which is reprinted in Preoccupations1. Much of what I have to say will be, of course, based on that lecture, although I won’t, I hope, be guilty of plagiarism since Heaney’s illustrations of his theme are taken from other poets: Wordsworth, Yeats, Kavanagh, Montague, Hewitt or, more briefly, Derek Mahon, Michael Longley and Paul Muldoon and not from his own work which will be my main, if not my sole, concern.

  • 2 Ibid., 136.

2Seamus Heaney is quite aware that the sense of place and "the relationship between a literature and a locale with its common language" are not a "particularly Irish phenomenon"2 but, he asserts, "the peculiar fractures in our history, north and south, and... (the) possession of the land and possession of different languages" have rendered them more important and significant in Ireland.

3"To know who you are, you have to have a place to come from", Carson McCullers stated, and what is true everywhere of the man in the street is perhaps truer still for the poet who, even if he comes from peasant stock, has been forced to swap the plough for the stars. Yeats’ insistence on being rooted, whether when referring to himself or to John Millington Synge, Heaney equating the spade and the pen:

  • 3 Seamus Heaney, Death of a Naturalist, London, Faber and Faber, 1966, 57, p. 14; Selected Poems (SP (...)

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.3

4have always struck me, personally, as typical instances of wishful thinking.

5But mad Ireland, -- more than any other country, -- is bound to hurt her poets into making sure that they belong, and where they belong.

  • 4 Patrick Rafroidi, L’Irlande et le Romantisme, Lille, PUL, Paris, Editions Universitaires, 1972, XX (...)
  • 5 Andrew Carpenter ed., Place, Personality and the Irish Writer, Gerrards, Cross, Colin Smythe, 1977 (...)
  • 6 Preoccupations, 181-189.
  • 7 See my paper: "Goldsmith ou la Géographie du Coeur", Etudes Irlandaises, IX, 1984, 97-105.
  • 8 "A manuscript which we have lost the skill to read", Preoccupations, 132.

6It is not only a question of historical fractures. Many scholars, — including myself4, have insisted, before Heaney, on the inevitable link between soil or landscape and the creative imagination in Ireland. One of the conferences of IASAIL (Galway, 1976) was devoted to "Place, Personality and the Irish Writer" and in the published proceedings of that conference5, Pr. A. Norman Jeffares, among others, stresses the fact that part of the distinctiveness of what he calls Anglo-Irish literature is the constant preoccupation of the authors with the physical entity of Ireland, something typical of Gaelic nature poetry, as Heaney himself reminds us in another essay of his (The God in the Tree)6, but which is transferred very early to Irish literature in English as evidenced, say, in Goldsmith’s The Deserted Village7. The Irish landscape, as Heaney tells us in A Sense of Place, after recalling a phrase by John Montague8, is composed of places steeped in association with the older culture, -- whether the world of the ancient epics or the fairy universe of thorntrees or various symbols of the other world, -- or connected with more modern instances of poetic reconstitution, or both, like Ben Bulben or Knocknarea; it comprises sites that are truly "sacramental" - those, for instance, that are linked with the wanderings of the patron-saint of Ireland, and it is no accident that the setting of the second part of our poet’s last collection, Station Island (1984) should be St. Patrick’s Purgatory on Lough Derg, already used by William Carleton, Sean O’Faolain and others.

  • 9 1981 for the publication in London by Faber and Faber, 70 p.
  • 10 Ibid., 43.
  • 11 Seamus Heaney: North, London, Faber and Faber, 1975, 73 p., 8; SP, 98.
  • 12 Preoccupations, 35.

7But the historical fractures have, evidently, played their part: the little room left to the natives may very well have had an influence on their topographical minuteness even when, like Joyce, they had left the country to become town-dwellers generations ago. His father used to say of him: "If that fellow was dropped in the middle of the Sahara, he’d sit, be God, and make a map of it". Also the linguistic dispossession -- the changes of place names -- of which Brian Friel, Heaney’s friend, has made such an extraordinary dramatisation in his 1980 play: Translations9 set at the period of the Great Famine when British authorities out of love for the sister-island - this is, at least, what the commanding officer said - decided to standardise, and therefore anglicize, all such names, to make up an ordnance survey. In Friel’s work, another English officer (whose sympathy for Ireland will prove fatal) remarks, however, that "something is being eroded"10 and recites the litany of Gaelic words with love. Heaney, in his turn, finds in the name of his native farm (referred to, for instance, in the introductory poems of North11 with its double possible etymology for the second term (Mossbawn = bawn: the name the English colonists gave to their fortified farmhouses or ban, gaelic for "white")" a metaphor of the split culture of Ulster"12, and it is hardly necessary to insist on his propensity to recite the place-names of his province and express his delight in them:

  • 13 Seamus Heaney, Door into the Dark, London, Faber and Faber, 1969, 56 p.; SP, 52.
  • 14 Seamus Heaney, Wintering Out, London, Faber and Faber, 1972, 80 p., 16; SP, 58.

Strangford, Arklow, Carrickfergus
Belmullet and Ventry
Stay, forgotten like sentries.
Shoreline13
Anahorish
My "place of clear water"...
Anahorish, soft gradient
of consonant, vowel-meadow...
Anahorish14

  • 15 Ibid., 27; SP, 66.
  • 16 Ibid., 33; SP, 70.
  • 17 Blake Morrison, Seamus Heaney, London and New-York, Methuen, 1982, 95 p., 41.
  • 18 Preoccupations, 131.

8and the linguistic awareness is to be found in many other poems as well, in Broagh15, in A new Song16, whenever the river Moyola is mentioned, for instance. The Antaeus-like delight of the dispossessed is obviously shared by both Heaney and Joyce, and the former’s "astonishing number of place names... dotted about his work" (I quote from Blake Morrison who has had the courage to draw up a list17) "make a good large-scale map of Ireland a useful thing to have to hand when reading him" as it is with the dinnseanches, the old Celtic poems which, as Heaney tells us in Preoccupations again18, "relate the original meanings of (these) names and constitute a form of mythological etymology".

9The nature of Seamus Heaney’s interest for places is undoubtedly to be found in such ancestral practice, as well as in the dispossession and in the political desire to repossess; in instinct as well as culture. The latter distinction he makes in A Sense of Place:

  • 19 Ibid.

I think there are two ways in which place is known and
cherished, two ways which may be complementary but which are
just likely to be antipathetic. One is lived, illiterate and
unconscious, the other learned, literate and conscious19.

10Patrick Kavanagh represents for him the first group, John Montague the second. He does not state, however, where he places himself.

11Yet, we can easily find the answer elsewhere, apart from his practice, for instance in his preface to Sweeney Astray:

  • 20 Seamus Heaney, Sweeney Astray, a version from the Irish, Deny, Field Day Publications, 1983, XX, 7 (...)

My fundamental relation with Sweeney ... is topographical. His kingdom lay in what is now south County and north County Down, and for over thirty years I lived on the verges of that territory, in sight of some of Sweeney’s places and in earshot of others -- Slemish, Rasharkin, Benevenagh, Dunseverick, the Bann, the Roe, the Mournes - (The litany again!). When I began work on the version, I had just moved to Wicklow, not all that far from Sweeney’s final resting ground at St. Mullins20.

12The departure point is not the literary connection, but the fact that the places have been linked with Heaney’s abode or abodes. The connection comes only after, as it does, for that matter, with Station Island. In the beginning is the flesh. And I am under the impression that it may remain to the end.

  • 21 "Bogland", Door into the Dark, 56; SP, 54.

13For if anything can be described as nearly obsessive in the place-poetry of our author, it definitely is the male-female relationship, the male attitude of the poet towards the female earth or country, or spot: bogland whose "wet centre is bottomless"21 is called elsewhere:

insatiable bride.
sword-swallower,

14and the narrator carries on:

  • 22 "Kinship", North, 41-42; SP, 120-121.

I found a turf-spade
hidden under bracken,
laid flat, and overgrown
with a green fog
As I raised it
the soft lips of the growth
muttered and split
a tawny rut
opening at my feet
like a shed skin
the shaft wettish
as I sank it upright...22

15Among countries described, it is not only Ireland that is shown to partake of feminity. In Night Drive:

  • 23 Door into the Dark, 34,; SP, 37.

Italy
Laid its loin to France on the darkened sphere23

16not to mention the feminine allusion in the verb "to bleed" used a few times before describing a harvesting machine:

A combine groaning its way late
bled seeds across it work-light.

  • 24 North, 46.

17But Ireland is, of course, foremost in descriptions of the type, in Ocean’s Love to Ireland24, in Act of Union where England speaking asserts:

And I am still imperially
Male, leaving you with the pain,
The rending process in the colony,

  • 25 Ibid., 49-50; SP, 125-126.

The battering ram, the boom burst from within...
No treaty
I foresee will salve completely your tracked
And stretchmarked body, the big pain
That leaves you raw, like opened ground, again25.

18as it was in Traditions where her "guttural muse" was "bulled" by English poetry,

  • 26 Wintering Out, 31; SP, 68.

while custom, that most
sovereign mistress’
beds us down into
the British isles26.

  • 27 Door into the Dark, 26; SP, 34. The prose quotations come from "Feeling into Words", Preoccupation (...)

19And for more limited spots, there is of course the "old spongy growth from a drain between two fields" which Heaney once saw a man clearing out and which inspired him with the poem Undine27 spoken by the freed water personified as a nympha poem which is entirely made up of one prolonged sexual metaphor:

He slashed the briars, shovelled up grey silt
To give me right of way in my own drains
And I ran quick for him, cleaned out my rust.
He halted, saw me finally disrobed,
Running clear, with apparent unconcern.
The he walked by me. I rippled and I churned
Where ditches intersected near the river
Until he dug a spade deep in my flank
And took me to him. I swallowed his trench
Gratefully, dispersing myself for love
Down in his roots, climbing his brassy grain -
But once he knew my welcome, I alone
Could give him subtle increase and reflection
He explored me so completely, each limb
Lost its cold freedom. Human, warmed to him.

20More than the fact that this may be, in Heaney’s words, "a myth about agriculture, about the way water is tamed and humanized when . . . (it) becomes involved with seed", an explanation to which he did not seem to attach extraordinary importance ("it is as good as any", he said), what matters is the real human metamorphosis emphasised in the last line. Seamus Heaney does not go all the way towards pantheism as his master Wordsworth did in Tintern Abbey but he certainly courts a form of "pancosmism" in which the beauteous forms of the larger world assume the shape of his beloved creatures.

21In Fosterage, the poem from North dedicated to Michael Mc Laverty, Heaney quotes the saying:

  • 28 North, 71; SP, 134.

Description is revelation28

22the phrase applies wonderfully well to him.

23Seamus Heaney’s involvement with Irish places and landscape (although he does not seem to like the latter word:

  • 29 Heaney, in a television inteview with Patrick Garland: "Poets on Poetry", The Listener, XC, 2.328, (...)

I don’t think of (the territory that I know) as the
Irish landscape. I think of it as a place that I
know is ordinary, and I can lay my hand on it and
know it, and the words come alive and get a kind of personality
when they’re involved with it29.

24does not bind him to the peculiar limitations from which they suffer but he manages each time to find a way out.

  • 30 Quoted in Preoccupations, 139.

25There is, first of all, the danger of excessive regionalism, which Heaney is far from being alone to fear: Irish writers would not have emphasised so heavily the universality of the local otherwise, from Yeats’ "the grass-blade carries the universe upon its point"; Joyce’s: "If I can get to the heart of Dublin, I can get to the heart of all the cities in the world. In the particular is contained the universal; "Patrick Kavanagh’s "Parochialism" is universal; it deals with the fundamentals"30.

  • 31 "Poetry in Northern Ireland", Twentieth Century Studies, IV, nov. 1970, 89-93.

26Seamus Heaney evidently shares Derek Mahon’s search for "a voice which, whilst remaining true to the ancient intonations, (has) something to say beyond the shores of Ireland"31. The shores of Ulster might have appeared more problematic at any rate before the recent poetical flowering but surely not the West, since Synge’s Riders to the Sea. Is it on account of that already recognised universal quality that Heaney chooses the Aran Islands as the setting of his least parochial place-poem?

  • 32 "Lovers on Aran", Death of a Naturalist, 47; SP, 25.

The timeless waves, bright sifting, broken glass,
Came dazzling around, into the rocks,
Came glinting, sifting from the Americas
To possess Aran. Or did Aran rush
To throw wide arms of rock around a tide
That yielded with an ebb, with a soft crash?
Did sea define the land or land the sea?
Each drew new meaning from the wave’s collision.
Sea broke on land to full identity32.

  • 33 Door into the Dark, 51; SP, 51.

27But in Shoreline33, the Northern coast is seen to partake in the general seascape of Ireland as a whole. And anyway, outside Ireland, the particular problem which I have raised would probably never arise at all...

28The Irish landscape is more limited than the seascape:

  • 34 "Bogland", Door into the Dark, 55; SP, 53.

We have no prairies
To slice a big sun at evening -
Everywhere the eye concedes to
Encroaching horizon,
Is wooed into the cyclops’ eye
Of a tarn. Our unfenced country
Is bog that keeps crusting
Between the sights of the sun34.

  • 35 James Randall,"An Interview with Seamus Heaney", Ploughshares, V, 3, 1979, 7, 22, 17-19.
  • 36 First performed 1975, London and Boston, Faber and Faber, 1979, 70 p.
  • 37 Wintering Out, 23; SP, 63.

29The Irish landscape, particularly if compared to the American one as sung by Theodore Roethke, is limited horizontally on the surface, but not vertically in depth, for there is the bog, another of Heaney’s obsessions, he tells us in an interview by James Randall35. The bog is linked up with the instinctive sense of place which I have been trying to foreground ("The smell of turf-smoke, for example, has a terrific nostalgic effect on me. It has to do with the script that’s written into your senses from the minute you begin to breathe") but it introduces an archeological dimension and archeology seems to have a certain fascination for Irish writers from the North: beside Heaney with his diggings, soundings or trial pieces recovered from Viking Dublin, we find Brian Friel again, this time with Volunteers36, a play inscribed to Heaney. Bogland, with the objects that can be exhumed from it, or even the buried corpses like the Iron Age Jutland Tollundman whom P. J. Glob’s The Bog People revealed, thus adds memory to the landscape. The landscape could itself offer an image of history, as in Gifts of Rain37 where such words as "lost fields", "uncastled", "planted", "cropping", "crops rotted", conjure up the Irish past. But the underground allows better to unravel the successive layers of history and consciousness, some happy, most others sinister, which are essential parts of Ireland’s history and pre-history but in some ways also common to the rest of Europe:

Some day I will go to Aarhus

  • 38 Wintering Out, 47-48; SP, 78-79.

30Heaney says in The Tollund Man38 -- he did --

  • 39 My italics.

Out there in Jutland
In the old man-killing parishes
I will feel
Unhappy and at home39.

31Bogland, in other words, not only brings depth into Seamus Heaney’s landscape. It also adds to its width: North, as the collection of the name showed, ceased to be Northern Ireland alone to include Scandinavia as well, there are several ways of joining the European Community.

32But, as with all his Irish predecessors, there would have been no broadening process for Heaney if it had not started in the motherland to which his thoughts come back even when "westering in California" six thousand miles away, to which he will cling even when, in his later poetry, he learns

to look on nature, not as in the hour
of thoughtless youth.

33and he comes to favour the inner world more than the external one.

Notes

1 Seamus Heaney, Preoccupations, Selected Prose, 1968-1978, London and Boston, Faber and Faber, 1980, 224 p. 131-149.

2 Ibid., 136.

3 Seamus Heaney, Death of a Naturalist, London, Faber and Faber, 1966, 57, p. 14; Selected Poems (SP), 1965-1975, London and Boston, Faber and Faber, 1980, 136 p., 11.

4 Patrick Rafroidi, L’Irlande et le Romantisme, Lille, PUL, Paris, Editions Universitaires, 1972, XX, 783 p., 338 sq.... (English translation: Irish Literature in English, The Romantic Period, Gerrards Cross, Colin Smythe, 1980, 261 sq.)

5 Andrew Carpenter ed., Place, Personality and the Irish Writer, Gerrards, Cross, Colin Smythe, 1977, 199 p., "Irish Literary Studies, 1."

6 Preoccupations, 181-189.

7 See my paper: "Goldsmith ou la Géographie du Coeur", Etudes Irlandaises, IX, 1984, 97-105.

8 "A manuscript which we have lost the skill to read", Preoccupations, 132.

9 1981 for the publication in London by Faber and Faber, 70 p.

10 Ibid., 43.

11 Seamus Heaney: North, London, Faber and Faber, 1975, 73 p., 8; SP, 98.

12 Preoccupations, 35.

13 Seamus Heaney, Door into the Dark, London, Faber and Faber, 1969, 56 p.; SP, 52.

14 Seamus Heaney, Wintering Out, London, Faber and Faber, 1972, 80 p., 16; SP, 58.

15 Ibid., 27; SP, 66.

16 Ibid., 33; SP, 70.

17 Blake Morrison, Seamus Heaney, London and New-York, Methuen, 1982, 95 p., 41.

18 Preoccupations, 131.

19 Ibid.

20 Seamus Heaney, Sweeney Astray, a version from the Irish, Deny, Field Day Publications, 1983, XX, 77 p., IX.

21 "Bogland", Door into the Dark, 56; SP, 54.

22 "Kinship", North, 41-42; SP, 120-121.

23 Door into the Dark, 34,; SP, 37.

24 North, 46.

25 Ibid., 49-50; SP, 125-126.

26 Wintering Out, 31; SP, 68.

27 Door into the Dark, 26; SP, 34. The prose quotations come from "Feeling into Words", Preoccupations, 52-54.

28 North, 71; SP, 134.

29 Heaney, in a television inteview with Patrick Garland: "Poets on Poetry", The Listener, XC, 2.328, 8 nov. 1973, 629.

30 Quoted in Preoccupations, 139.

31 "Poetry in Northern Ireland", Twentieth Century Studies, IV, nov. 1970, 89-93.

32 "Lovers on Aran", Death of a Naturalist, 47; SP, 25.

33 Door into the Dark, 51; SP, 51.

34 "Bogland", Door into the Dark, 55; SP, 53.

35 James Randall,"An Interview with Seamus Heaney", Ploughshares, V, 3, 1979, 7, 22, 17-19.

36 First performed 1975, London and Boston, Faber and Faber, 1979, 70 p.

37 Wintering Out, 23; SP, 63.

38 Wintering Out, 47-48; SP, 78-79.

39 My italics.

© Presses universitaires de Caen, 1987

Conditions d’utilisation : http://www.openedition.org/6540