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Studies on Seamus Heaney

Jacqueline Genet

Grammars of Feeling: syntax and subject in the poetry of Seamus Heaney

Colin Meir

Texte intégral

  • 1 Wordsworth and Coleridge: Lyrical Ballads, eds Brett and Jones, London, Methuen, 1963, Preface, 24 (...)
  • 2 Seamus Heaney, Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968-1978, London, Faber, 1980, 51-52.

1The title of Seamus Heaney’s most frequently quoted essay, "Feeling into Words" (from Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968-78), which establishes sympathetic understanding of the sources of Wordsworth’s poetic powers is taken from the 1800 Preface to Lyrical Ballads. Emphasizing what is distinctive about the poems in his collection, Wordsworth asserts that "the feeling therein developed gives importance to the action and situation, and not the action and situation to the feeling"1. As his essay amply illustrates, Heaney’s own view of the necessary relationship between feeling and the way a poet approaches his subject strongly underwrites that of Wordsworth, but in shifting from the concept of "feeling into action and situation" to "feeling into words", Heaney characteristically gives an importance to language itself which is quite different from Wordsworth’s injunctions about diction. Arguing that Wordsworth’s poem, The Thorn, provides "a nicely documented example of feeling getting into words, in ways that paralleled much in my own experience", Heaney nonetheless admits that "it is hard to discriminate between feeling getting into words and words turning into feeling"2. Almost immediately, this difficulty is seen as a necessary function of the poetic process:

  • 3 Ibid.

When I called my second book Door into the Dark I intended to gesture towards this idea of poetry as a point of entry into the buried life of the feelings or as point of exit from it. Words themselves are doors; Janus is to a certain extent their deity, looking back to a ramification of roots and associations and forward to a clarification of sense and meaning3.

  • 4 Lacan, for example, argues that "It is the world of words that creates the world of things". See E (...)

2Clearly, Heaney wants it both ways (and modern theorists like Derrida and Lacan would seem to support him4); Wordsworth emphatically did not.

3Wordsworth’s insistence that feeling give importance to action and situation is not only an exact prescription against verse which, like that of the popular poetry of his day, was merely descriptive or narrative; it is preeminently a means of using simple language for profound purposes. The basic argument of this paper is that by failing "to discriminate between feeling getting into words and words turning to feeling", by claiming that the artistic dilemma so defined provides a dual avenue for his work, Heaney articulates the poetics behind Selected Poems: 1965-1975, which I take as my set text, and at the same time unwittingly offers an explanation for the changes evident in that volume, some of which enhance and some of which impede the development of his art.

4The Wordsworthian dictum which Heaney appropriates and modifies is perhaps best illustrated in one of the Lucy poems from Lyrical Ballads:

Strange fits of passion have I known:
And I will dare to tell,
But in the Lover’s ear alone,
What once to me befell.

When she I loved looked every day
Fresh as a rose in June,
I to her cottage bent my way,
Beneath an evening-moon.

Upon the moon I fixed my eye,
All over the wide lea;
With quickening pace my horse drew nigh
Those paths so dear to me.

And now we reached the orchard-plot;
And, as we climbed the hill,
The sinking moon to Lucy’s cot
Came near, and nearer still.

In one of those sweet dreams I slept,
Kind Nature’s gentlest boon!
And all the while my eyes I kept
On the descending moon.

My horse moved on; hoof after hoof
He raised, and never stopped:
When down behind the cottage roof,
At once, the bright moon dropped.

What fond and wayward thoughts will slide
Into a Lover’s head!
"O mercy!" to myself I cried,
"If Lucy should be dead!"

5The poem makes an archetypal analogy between loss of light and loss of life; and the shock of awareness, as is often the case in early Wordsworth, comes from a dislocation of the normal processes of time and space which occurs because of a trick of perspective. (Other familiar examples include the episodes of boating and skating from Book I of The Prelude). The feeling at the quick of the poem is the speaker’s sense of loss in the actual event and his retrospective recognition that lovers are blissfully unaware of time and changes. This feeling gives such importance to what happens in the story that even what appear to be the poem’s most prosaic lines -- "My horse moved on; hoof after hoof/He raised, and never stopped" -- precisely convey both the movement which is necessary to the shift in perspective which drops the moon behind the cottage roof, and at the same time, in their repetitive, mesmerizing rhythm, image the way in which by "Kind Nature’s gentlest boon" the speaker is protected from consciousness of his lover’s mortality (and by implication, of course, his own), a state which he innocently avows in stanza two: "When she I loved looked every day/Fresh as a rose in June". So what appears at first sight simplistic or puerile is vital to the poem’s meaning because it is invested with feeling. Critical argument still rages over whether the literal measurement of the pond in Wordsworth’s The Thorn does not overdo things a bit; and elsewhere, such as in certain details from Simon Lee or The Idiot Boy, the issue turns on Wordsworth’s tendency at times to load the action and situation with too much emotion. In the Lucy poem nothing is superfluous. The lines from Michael might be more effective -- "... many and many a day he thither went/And never lifted up a single stone" -- because they bear the whole weight of pathos engendered by a very long narrative; but "Strange fits of passion"... briefly and powerfully fuses lyric and balladic: passion in this poem is event and action, and what is personal becomes universal.

  • 5 Preoccupations, 43.

6While the linguistic restraint which is such a marked feature of many of Wordsworth’s best lyrics cannot be said to be a characteristic of Heaney’s work as a whole, it is plain that in the latter’s early volumes the motivation of the poetry frequently comes from a combination of emotion and thought rather than from words and their associations. Even in Digging (which Heaney has called "a coarse-grained navvy of a poem"5) the effect of the crude spade/pen equation, obvious as it is, is superseded by the central meaning which has to to with the poet’s feeling of separation from his farming background and his need to work in a different medium. So too with other early poems whose subject appears to be the description of some rural activity but whose sub-text is about the business of writing poetry. These include The Forge, Thatcher, and two poems whose genesis is amply documented in Preoccupations, The Diviner and Undine. They are not, however, as similar in function as their common hidden subject might imply, and it is directly apposite to the theme of this lecture that Undine (from Door into the Dark, 1969) is a heavier poem, verbally and metaphorically, than the earlier The Diviner (from Death of a Naturalist, 1966). The first collection, however, contains several pieces whose subject matter gathers a more significant momentum throughout the selected volume and whose style bears careful assessment.

7Structurally, the title poem of Death of a Naturalist sets up an opposition between innocence and experience, between delight and fear. Both sections of the poem work through a descriptive syntax which is germane to the state of feeling being expressed, not merely, as is sometimes the case in early Heaney, to the object or process which is being described. In the first section, the poet as a child repeats the school lesson about frogspawn in a breathless, unpunctuated and artless acceptance of the information:

... Miss Walls would tell us how
The daddy frog was called a bullfrog
And how he croaked and how the mammy frog
Laid hundreds of little eggs and this was
Frogspawn. You could tell the weather by frogs too
For they were yellow in the sun and brown
In rain.

8In the second, it is not only the ugliness and violence of the scene which takes effect: in complete accordance with the shocked feelings of horror and fear, the syntax shortens, carrying vivid similes of noise and action:

  • 6 Seamus Heaney, Selected Poems: 1966-1975, London Faber, 1980, 12-13.

... The air was thick with a bass chorus.
Right down the dam gross-bellied frogs were cocked
On sods; their loose necks pulsed like sails. Some hopped: The
slap and plop were obscene threats. Some sat poised like mud
grenades, their blunt heads farting6.

9The fact that this psychic change, witnessed in rhythm and diction, echoes that of Stephen Dedalus between the first page of Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and the point in chapter three of that novel where he is horrified by his own sense of sin, makes it appropriate to identify Heaney’s style in Death of a Naturalist as a kind of stream of consciousness, an interior monologue. What it means is that feeling is given form through the closest possible relationship between what is perceived and how it is expressed. The last poem in the 1966 collection, Personal Helicon, provides a more sophisticated development of the same process. The poem has to do with an enquiry into the poet’s own nature, but it dispenses entirely with any sort of investigative syntax, full of clausal demands or qualifications. (Perhaps Yeats proved himself too good at this to be copied: in such major poems as The Cold Heaven. Under Saturn, A Prayer for my Daughter, and Among School Children, to cite but a few). Each of Heaney’s five stanzas has a separate, simply descriptive purpose. There is no enjambement from stanza to stanza, but read in sequence they engage a movement which marks development and exhibits exploration. The feeling is vested in the image of a well which is presented in each stanza with a different set of responses to it by the poet, but with one common factor, that of his own reflection. In stanza two the well is so deep no reflection can be seen; in the next stanza, "A white face hovers over the bottom"; in the next, "... a rat slapped across my reflection"; and in the last, Heaney transforms his childhood fascination for the smells and sounds and generative mystery of the well into a metaphor to explain his purpose in making poems:

  • 7 Ibid., 27.

Now, to pry into roots, to finger slime,
To stare, big-eyed Narcissus, into some spring
Is beneath all adult dignity. I rhyme
To see myself, to set the darkness echoing7.

10Description which becomes revelation in both these poems from Death of a Naturalist links forward through subsequent collections, through The Other Side and Summer Home of Wintering Out (1972), for example, to Exposure, the last poem of the selected volume from North (1975). (It also heads to several pieces in Field Work (1979), but that text is outside my brief for this paper). What all these poems share is a quality of self-examination; syntactically this moves from the immediacy of feeling into language in Death of Naturalist to the anxious ambivalence of Exposure, where Heaney questions his self-exile from the North of Ireland:

  • 8 Ibid., 135.

... I walk through damp leaves,
Husks, the spent flukes of autumn,
Imagining a hero
On some muddy compound
His gift like a slingstone
Whirled for the desperate.
How did I end up like this?8

11The sharpness of that last short line (as of other questions in the poem) jars deliberately against the ruminative rhythms with which it is juxtaposed, whose references incorporate through the word "husks" an allusion to the impoverished exile of the Prodigal Son. Such features, however, are best seen in contrast with the more predominant styles of the volumes between 1969-1975.

12When in his critical prose Heaney distinguishes between what he calls "technique" and what he calls "craft", he makes it perfectly clear that the process of poetic composition goes from feeling to thought to words:

  • 9 Preoccupations, 49.

The crucial action is pre-verbal... Robert Frost put it this way: "a poem begins as a lump in the throat, a homesickness, a lovesick-ness. It finds the thought and the thought finds the words". As far as I am concerned, technique is more vitally concerned with that first activity where the "lump in the throat" finds "the thought" than with "the thought" finding "the words". That first emergence involves the divining, vatic, oracular function; the second, the making function9.

13All well and good, but three pages later in this same essay we find Heaney arguing that a poem can start the other way around; that is, out of the effects of sound and meaning in a single word:

  • 10 Ibid., 52.

... in Door into the Dark there are a number of poems that arise out of the almost unnameable energies that, for me, hovered over certain bits of language and landscape10.

14A few years later it is this contradiction of his own (and Wordsworth’s and Robert Frost’s) initial order of priority which preoccupies his thinking. Two brief quotations secure his viewpoint. In a magazine article he writes:

  • 11 Seamus Heaney, The Poet as Christian", The Furrow, vol. XXIX, n° 10, October 1978, 604.

Landscape is sacramental, a system of signs that call automatically upon systems of thinking and feeling.11

15And in a Crane Bag interview he declares:

  • 12 The Crane Bag, vol. I, n° 1, 1977, 62.

... poetry emerges from the beat coming off images, from the aura surrounding certain words12.

16The first poem to illustrate both theories working together is At a Potato Digging, from the 1966 collection. Although landscape here is limited to a specific scene, it is shown in section I in intimate pagan relationship with the life of the labourers as they gather in the crop from "the black/ Mother" earth, which is seen both as "the famine god" and as "a seasonal altar" inspiring fear and homage. Such early myth-making images in Heaney are already at a far remove from the close contiguity of reality and language which informs the syntax of the title poem of the volume, but the central analogy of At a Potato Digging depends upon a daring metaphoric shift of meaning from the evocative description of potatoes as "live skulls, blind-eyed" in the last line of section II to its repetition in the opening line of section III, which deals with the Great Famine:

Live skulls, blind-eyed, balanced on
wild higgledy skeletons
scoured the land in ’forty-five,
wolfed the blighted root and died.

The new potato, sound as a stone,
putrified when it had lain
three days in the long clay pit.
Millions rotted along with it.

Mouths tightened in, eyes died hard,
faces chilled to a plucked bird.
In a million wicker huts
beaks of famine snapped at guts.

A people hungering from birth,
grubbing, like plants, in the bitch earth,
were grafted with a great sorrow.
Hope rotted like a marrow

  • 13 Selected Poems, 22.

Stinking potatoes fouled the land,
pits turned pus into filthy mounds:
and where potato diggers are
you still smell the running sore13.

17As the link between stanzas two and three implies, the blight on the race worked in the same appalling fashion as that on the plant. Heaney makes telling use of the couplet rhyme here, with its brief, clipped syntax; but it doesn’t allow for anything other than curt descriptive statements. The condition is being emphatically defined, not investigated; and without the other sections within which it is placed, this sequence would be too spare in meaning. What the other three sections do is to identify the memory of the past in the present, a method which becomes emblematic in the bog poems of succeeding volumes. If it contains some infelicitous terms -- such as the forced rhyme of "Hope rotted like a marrow" -- Heaney’s poem about the Famine doesn’t overwork its subject; nor do the opening poems in the selection from Door into the Dark when read at their face value. The verbs of Thatcher, for example, -- "poked", "opened", "flicked", "twisted", and so on -- exactly picture the actual process of thatching, but we have to give them a lot of leeway to accommodate the idea of making a poem, even in the minor sense of craft rather than technique. (An explanation of the maverick word "Couchant" in this context might have to call in a French idiom for the way a poet courts his material!) Literally they are exact; metaphorically they are inappropriate and excessive. When Heaney in the same volume turns to sexual analogies, the result can be embarrassing, not because of the subject matter itself but because the poet’s metaphoric use of it is often both facile and repetitive. Wisely he omitted from his Selected Poems Rite of Spring where the release of a frozen water pump is described in orgasmic terms, but Undine is almost equally naive:

... he dug a spade deep in my flank
And took me to him. I swallowed his trench

  • 14 Ibid., 34.

Gratefully, dispersing myself for love
Down in his roots, climbing his brassy grain --14

18Heaney’s commentary on this poem in Feeling into Words is more interesting than the poem itself, not least because it shows that the poem’s source was the sound of the word "undine", not an emotion, and that the making of the poem was dominated by images which are elevated to the status of myth-makers. Heaney’s explicit comparison of the genesis of Undine with that of Wordsworth’s The Thorn shows how far he has misunderstood the latter’s methods and purpose. Undine warns of the excesses Heaney’s imagination is heir to.

19Not so in Bogland, the germinal poem of a series which extends through the next two volumes. Its unrhymed quatrains are built from descriptive statements which move from the landscape’s surface to its interior, from sharp definition of daylight reality Bog that keeps crusting/Between the sights of the sun" -- to the land’s properties of preservation, actual and metaphorical. Heaney explains how the poem came into being:

  • 15 Preoccupations, 54-55.

I had been vaguely wishing to write a poem about bogland, chiefly because it is a landscape that has a strange assuaging effect on me, one with associations reaching back into early childhood... So I began to get this idea of bog as the memory of the landscape, or as a landscape that remembered everything that had happened to it... Moreover, since memory was the faculty that supplied me with the first quickening of my own poetry, I had a tentative unrealized need to make a congruence between memory and bogland and, for want of a better word, our national consciousness. And it all released itself after "We "have no prairies..." -- but we have bogs15.

20I quote here at length not to encroach on someone else’s topic but to emphasize that Bogland began with emotion -- "associations reaching back into early childhood" -- and then to thought and image, so that thought and image serve the feeling:

Butter sunk under
More than a hundred years
Was recovered salty and white.
The ground itself is kind, black butter

Melting and opening underfoot,
Missing its last definition
By millions of years.
They’ll never dig coal here...

21The plain statement of Heaney’s childhood fascination for the preservative powers of bogland is set against the assonantal rhythms of "Melting ... opening... Missing" which convey what it is like to walk on bogs and at the same time invoke a primeval time-scale. The directness of "They’ll never dig coal here" adjusts the level of meaning again before the next lines whose metaphor initiates the connection with history and race which later poems will expand and explore:

Our pioneers keep striking
Inwards and downwards,

  • 16 Selected Poems, 53-54.

Every layer they strip
Seems camped on before.
The bogholes might be Atlantic seepage.
The wet centre is bottomless16.

22Because no distinction is made in this poem between the syntax that carries straightforward description or statement and that which incorporates fertile analogies, both modes share the same ring of truth to experience.

23The contradiction of Heaney’s next volume, Wintering Out, is that as his list of subjects widens, his forms threaten to become less flexible, even to stiffen into mannerism. And there is a danger, too, that the governing images which link landscape with sex and language with race may be too simplistically conceived, such as the insistence -- underlined in Preoccupations -- on Ireland as a female goddess, and England as male imperialist invader; or Irish words as vowels, English as consonants. Such schemes breed a rather limited set of confrontations in poetry, as well as inviting crippling ambiguities or illogical arguments. The touchstone always has to do with the quality of the emotion invested in the poem rather than with its ideas or imagery. It is in these terms that Summer Home way be distinguished from Traditions. The latter poem opens with a syntactical confidence which is exposed as shallow by the ineptness of the rural sexual metaphor used to describe the complexity of language change:

  • 17 Ibid., 68.

Our guttural muse
was bulled long ago
by the alliterative tradition...17

  • 18 John Wilson Foster, "The Poetry of Seamus Heaney", Critical Quarterly, vol. 16, n°1, spring 1974, (...)
  • 19 Ibid.,

24And if Heaney here is also playing on the sense of "Irish bull" in order to link with the third section of the poem which invokes Shakespeare’s stage Irishman, MacMorris, then he is plainly intending that words should carry meanings irrespective of their grammatical functions. In any case, as John Wilson Foster points out, "Tradition is a broken-backed syllogism and poem"18. In an essay published in 1974, which remains one of the most perceptive assessments of Heaney’s work up to Wintering Out, Foster wrestles with te contradictory implications of the poem’simagery and asserts that "Neither in emotion nor in logic are we prepared by the first two premissparts of the poem for its flat conclusion"19. (Part one talks of rape of language and culture, part two about features of English as we speak it in Ireland, and part three invokes MacMorris and Joyce’s Leopold Bloom in an unsatisfactory relationship about the problem of identity). Clearly, in this poem words and their attendant ideas have superseded feeling and made a pretty bad job of it. In passing, it is worth noting that when, as in Anahorish, Heaney is content to write a poem about his response to the sound of a word, its rhythmic invocation of place and people is limpidly beautiful:

My "place of clear water",
the first hill in the world
where springs washed into
the shiny grass

and darkened cobbles
in the bed of the lane.
Anahorish, soft-gradient
of consonant, vowel-meadow,

after-image of lamps
swung through the yards
on winter evenings.
With pails and barrows

  • 20 Selected Poems, 58.

those mound-dwellers
go waist-deep in mist
to break the light ice
at wells and dunghills20.

25The preponderance of hyphenated words here -- four of them in the last three stanzas -- shows Heaney trying to get a lot into a little space, but it doesn’t disturb the restraint of the poem as a whole. With Traditions in mind as an example of the damage mere ideas can do, it’s a blessing Heaney didn’t attempt to graft political or national references on to this poem.

26Gifts of Rain presents a much fuller and more sensitive development of the style of Anahorish, both formally, with each of its four sections in different stanzaic and syntactic structures appropriate to changes in subject and approach and consequently rhythmically. This, for example, from the shift between sections I and II:

He fords
his life by sounding.


A man wading lost fields
breaks the pane of flood:

a flower of mud-
water blooms up to his reflection

like a cut swaying
its red spoors through a basin.

... So
he is hooped to where he planted
and sky and ground

are running naturally among his arms
that grope the cropping land.

27Or this from section IV:

The tawny guttural water
spells itself: Moyola
is its own score and consort,

bedding the locale
in the utterance,
reed music, an old chanter

breathing its mists
through vowels and history.
A swollen river,

  • 21 Ibid., 63-65.

a mating call of sound
rises to pleasure me, Dives,
hoarder of common ground21.

28Even here Heaney’s tendency to expand his meanings appears in "through vowels and history", though to be fair the zeugma merely summarizes what has already been explored in the previous section of the poem. Less excusable, perhaps, is the sexual image of the final triplet, whose superficiality awkwardly undermines the tone of the poem. Again, idea incapacitates emotion. Summer Home avoids these blemishes because, as a very private and personal poem about the relationship between two people, ideas simply do not have a place in its make-up: it deals with subtle changes of feeling which are carried through each of its five sections by expressive changes of rhythm and syntax, as when the delicate mood of:

.... and once more
we sap
the white, trodden
path to the heart

29is shattered by the matter-of-factness of section V, harsh in flat decasyllables:

  • 22 Ibid., 83-84. For a perceptive analysis of this poem, see Philip Hobsbaum, "Craft and Technique in (...)

My children weep out the hot foreign night.
We walk the floor, my foul mouth takes it out
On you and we lie stiff till dawn...22

  • 23 Preoccupations, 57-58.
  • 24 Edna Longley, Poetry in the Wars, Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe Press, 1986, 151-152. An earlier f (...)

30The most famous poem of Wintering Out, The Tollund Man, gives the best example of Heaney’s deployment of the short-lined quatrain. The germinal importance of P. V. Glob’s The Bog People in the poet’s imagination is amply documented and needs no further commentary23, but it is relevant to see, as Edna Longley acutely points out24, that The Tollund Man is invested with the excitement of Heaney’s discovery of the metaphoric ramifications of these exacavations. His fascination with Glob’s photograph of the unearthed body is conveyed in the opening stanza’s description, which is at once exact and evocative:

Some day I will go to Aarhus
To see his peat-brown head,
The mild pods of his eyelids,
His pointed skin cap.

31Then as religious and sexual imagery suggests relationships between pagan ritual sacrifice and Christian worship (the capitalized "Him" is not inconsequential here), the syntax loosens into longer appositional qualifications:

Bridegroom to the goddess,

She tightened her torc on him
And opened her fen,
Those dark juices working
Him to a saint’s kept body,

Trove of the turfcutter’s
Honeycombed workings...

32It is the exactness of those last two lines, successive spade cuttings in a bank of turf make just such a pattern, which allows for the sensuousness of the image in the previous stanza. Section II calls up the bitter memory of atrocities committed in Ireland, but its mood and tense -- "I could risk blasphemy/... and pray/Him to make germinate... "-- convey a salutary awareness in the poet that the identification he is making between ancient ritual sacrifice and the sectarian murder of Catholics in the 1920’s is figurative, not absolute. And when Section III shifts to the poet himself, again the tense conveys a fastidious hesitancy:

Something of his sad freedom
As he rode the tumbrel
Should come to me...

33- and the poem ends on an ambiguous note:

  • 25 Selected Poems, 78-79.

Out there in Jutland
In the old man-killing parishes
I will feel lost,
Unhappy and at home25.

34Despite the change of tense from "should" to "will", the antithesis here falls short of paradox and the mood of the poem remains tentative, governed by exploratory feeling.

  • 26 Preoccupations, 56.
  • 27 Derek Mathon, The Hunt by Night, Oxford University Press, 1982, back cover.

35The danger in North (1975) is that the poetry may be governed more by its mythologizing purposes than by the poet’s own essentially ambivalent response to experience. As fascinating as the bog image is, and as richly and sensuously as Heaney exploits it, there are nonetheless warning signs of its limitations, if not of its overuse, in the repetitive emphases on the colour and texture of the preserved remains, on the seed ready to germinate from the dead, and on the dark, mysterious properties of the bog. (That this "field of force"26 in Heaney’s imagination threatened to trap him into cliché is disconcertingly apparent in the blurb he wrote for his friend Derek Mahon’s volume The Hunt by Night (1982), which reads: "Some creative tremor has given him deepening access to his sources of power27.) But the most striking evidence of the obsessional nature of these myth-making images in North lies in the poet’s choice of form, of syntax, and of languages. Poem after poem in the selected volume adopts the short unrhymed four-line stanza which allows for easy enjambement yet draws attention to the impact of each separate line; it also provides for the proliferation of the appositive and the adjectival. So, in The Grauballe Man we have a series of exact similes:

... The grain of his wrists
is like bog oak
the ball of his heel

like a basalt egg.
His instep has shrunk
cold as a swan’s foot
or a wet swamp root.

His hips are the ridge
and purse of a mussel,
his spine an eel arrested
under a glisten of mud...

36Such vivid detail shows the poet’s talent for observation and definition of natural objects, which was hailed by critics in his first volume, now brought to mastery. The evocative accuracy of the terms used, set as they are within the assertion of the copula verb, brooks no qualification or dissent from the reader. But at the end of the poem the same assertive, definitive tone is employed for matters mythical and metaphorical:

but now he lies
perfected in my memory
down to the red horn
of his nails,

hung in the scales
with beauty and atrocity:
with the Dying Gaul
too strictly compassed

  • 28 Selected Poems, 114-115.

on his shield,
with the actual weight
of each hooded victim,
slashed and dumped28.

  • 29 Edna Longley, Poetry in the Wars, 165.

37The main persuasive force here is of course adjectival (Edna Longley’s penetrating and painstaking essay exposes the poet’s over-weening fondness for the hard -ed endings, as in "compassed", "slashed", "dumped")29, and since the form is the same as in the opening stanzas, the reader is being powerfully induced to give the same imaginative credit to both areas of the poem’s meaning.

38Elsewhere in North the quatrain lends itself to a testimony of appositional descriptions, as in:

But bog
Meaning soft,
the fall of windless rain,
pupil of amber.

Ruminant ground,
digestion of mollusc
and seed-pod,
deep pollen bin.

  • 30 Selected Poems, 120.

Earth-pantry, bone-vault,
sun-bank, embalmer
of votive goods
and sabred fugitives...30

39or to an extension of descriptive ideas which risk being both inappropriate and superfluous, as in:

My diadem grew carious,
gemstones dropped
in the peat floe
like the bearings of history.

My sash was a black glacier
wrinkling, dyed weaves
and phoenician stitchwork
retted on my breast’s

  • 31 Ibid., 112 (from "Bog Queen").

soft moraines.
I knew winter cold
like the nuzzle of fjords
at my thighs31

40The quotation from Synge’s Playboy of the Western World in the last section of Viking Dublin: Trial Pieces shows, however, the poet’s capacity to mock his own tendency to excess:

"Did you ever hear tell,"
said Jimmy Farrell,
"of the skulls they have
in the city of Dublin?

  • 32 Ibid., 110.

White skulls and black skulls
and yellow skulls, and some
with full teeth, and some
haven’t only but one"32,

41And in Funeral Rites Heaney is able to use the quatrain for a delicate combination of lyric and narrative which ends, not in the reader being persuaded to political or historical comparisons too insistently imposed, but in evocative allusion:

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

  • 33 Ibid., 103-104.

in corners of the chamber:
which opened then, as he turned
with a joyful face
to look at the moon33

42This poem avoids the rhetorical and adjectival assertion that is so frequently prominent elsewhere in Part I of North, and its narrative movement eliminates any sense of a pre-fabricated syntax within the set form of the quatrain. Furthermore, as we have seen, Exposure clearly demonstrates the poet’s ability to adapt this same form as a vehicle for deeply personal investigations.

  • 34 The Crane Bag, vol. I, n° 1, 1977, 63 and 67.

43Shortly after the publication of North, Heaney articulates in his critical prose a distinction between two kinds of language for poetry: what he calls the Antaean, meaning instinctual/given; and the Herculean, meaning rational/consciously worked out34. The latter, referred to as masculine, ties in with Heane/s notion of "craft, while the former’s female connotations (in the poet’s terms) align it with what he calls "technique", whose source is the inner promptings of the imagination. These polarities are immediately apparent in the layout of North between Part I and Part II, but it is ironic both that Exposure should be placed in Part II, and that the Antaean values of Part I are at times threatened by dominating mythical analogies. Exposure fits best into what Heaney meant his language to achieve in Part I of North; and, as subsequent volumes of his verse have shown, it is Exposure which marks the way forward: not a rhetoric of assertion, but a syntax which exhibits personal feeling. Wordsworth, after all, was right.


1 Wordsworth and Coleridge: Lyrical Ballads, eds Brett and Jones, London, Methuen, 1963, Preface, 248.

2 Seamus Heaney, Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968-1978, London, Faber, 1980, 51-52.

3 Ibid.

4 Lacan, for example, argues that "It is the world of words that creates the world of things". See Ecrits, 1966.

5 Preoccupations, 43.

6 Seamus Heaney, Selected Poems: 1966-1975, London Faber, 1980, 12-13.

7 Ibid., 27.

8 Ibid., 135.

9 Preoccupations, 49.

10 Ibid., 52.

11 Seamus Heaney, The Poet as Christian", The Furrow, vol. XXIX, n° 10, October 1978, 604.

12 The Crane Bag, vol. I, n° 1, 1977, 62.

13 Selected Poems, 22.

14 Ibid., 34.

15 Preoccupations, 54-55.

16 Selected Poems, 53-54.

17 Ibid., 68.

18 John Wilson Foster, "The Poetry of Seamus Heaney", Critical Quarterly, vol. 16, n°1, spring 1974, 45.

19 Ibid.,

20 Selected Poems, 58.

21 Ibid., 63-65.

22 Ibid., 83-84. For a perceptive analysis of this poem, see Philip Hobsbaum, "Craft and Technique in Wintering Out", The An of Seamus Heaney, ed. Tony Curtis, Poetry Wales Press, 1982, 41-42.

23 Preoccupations, 57-58.

24 Edna Longley, Poetry in the Wars, Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe Press, 1986, 151-152. An earlier form of the essay referred to here was originally published in The Art of Seamus Heaney, ed. Tony Curtis.

25 Selected Poems, 78-79.

26 Preoccupations, 56.

27 Derek Mathon, The Hunt by Night, Oxford University Press, 1982, back cover.

28 Selected Poems, 114-115.

29 Edna Longley, Poetry in the Wars, 165.

30 Selected Poems, 120.

31 Ibid., 112 (from "Bog Queen").

32 Ibid., 110.

33 Ibid., 103-104.

34 The Crane Bag, vol. I, n° 1, 1977, 63 and 67.


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