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Studies on Seamus Heaney

Jacqueline Genet

Seamus Heaney: the makings of the poet

Caroline MacDonogh

Texte intégral

  • 1 Preoccupations, Seamus Heaney, Faber and Faber, New-York, 1980, 61.
  • 2 Ibid., 43.

1Seamus Heaney names his essay on Wordsworth’s distinctive poetic rhythms The Makings of Music and explains this choice by saying "I chose the word making for the title because it gestures towards the testings and hesitations of the workshop, the approaches towards utterance, the discovery of lines and then the intuitive extension of the vital element in those lines over a whole passage"1. Through Heaney’s definition the word "makings" here evolves into an extensive development of meaning, and emphasizes the tentative, exploratory quality, the vital almost organic energy at the root of the individual poetic voice. He uses the verb "gestures": "it gestures towards the testings and hesitations" and he speaks of the "approaches towards utterance", "the discovery and the intuitive extension", as if he were describing a process of gradual and initially difficult birth and eventual growth. Another essay title in the same collection, Feeling into Words, finds its explanation too when he declares that "Finding a voice means that you can get your feelings into your own words and that your words have the feel of you about them"2. In both these examples we distinguish a common characteristic; a kind of primitive approach to the mystery of a poet’s intimate melody and rhythm, the "vital element" in the first example we gave is paralleled in the second by the word "feeling", that is, a living impulse, an imperative form of guidance springing from within. This pristine seizure of mystery, this realistic interpretation of its working, is one of the most salient features in Heaney’s writing, and that he should speak of the craft of verse in such terms is in keeping with his work itself. "Your words have the feel of you about them", the poet’s presence is a most palpable sensual one.

  • 3 Ibid., 35.

2Our aim is to explore the origins of this particularly sensorial voice, those "testings and hesitations", those "approaches towards utterance", and then "the feeling into words", that is the final outcome of such a tentative process. There are, we may suppose, several possible fields of exploration, among them: childhood experience, place, history, literary, political background, culture, language, these all indissolubly linked, together form a total ethos. As Heaney declares "One half of one’s sensibility is in a cast of mind that comes from belonging to a place, an ancestry, a history, a culture, whatever we want to call it"3.

3Heaney’s essays are some of the most illuminating and primitive appreciations of what the poetic quest may be, both considered in the light of his own particular evolution and in relation to other writers’ works, and his poems uphold the fact that most poetry is a meditation on itself, a form of perpetual self-commentary with regard to its own secret processes, even when the poem is obviously a declaration on some precise subject other than poetry.

  • 4 Ibid., 41.
  • 5 Ibid., 41-42.
  • 6 Ibid., 42.

4Heaney’s opening poem to his first collection, Death of a Naturalist, is called Digging and is a most blatant statement on his stance as a poet, making a parallel between the family peasant ascendancy whose tool of work is the spade, and his new self-chosen trade, that of poetry, with his pen. This parallel allows two universes to coexist within the poem’s unfolding revelations; the secret, abstract workings of the poet’s mind are seen in terms of the physical activity where sharp cutting work contrasts with the soft liquid movements of earth. It is one of Heaney’s earliest poems, written when he first began to "dabble in verse" as he says4. He affirms the essential role of this poem as expressive of a kind of incentive energy: "I now believe that the Digging poem had for me the force of an initiation... having experienced the excitement and release of it once, I was doomed to look for it again and again"5. The word "initiation" here is most relevant to the theme of our discussion for does it not imply that incipient moment, the birth of a poet, with which we are concerned? The poem’s analogy for the writing process indeed, that of working the earth, will repeat itself "again and again" throughout the following poems, and when Heaney here declares himself "doomed" to this repetitive process, he is in fact expressing the almost physical force with which the muse, the poetic impulse or call it what you will - pushes him onwards, digging and digging further. Naturally, the creative force of such an impulse springs from a central source, and the Freudian echoes Heaney suggests are frequent in his verse "digging becomes a sexual metaphor, an emblem of initiation, like putting your hand into the bush or robbing the nest, one of the various natural analogies for uncovering and touching the hidden thing"6.

  • 7 Ibid., 43.
  • 8 Ibid., 43.

5The poet treats this poem with humorous realism by calling it "a big coarse-grained navvy of a poem,"7 and when we read later subtler and finer textured poems we are inclined to agree. However, as an opening poem to his collection, and to our talk, its heavy explicitness serves to declare the essential "earthiness" of his art. As he tells us "it is interesting as an example of what we call finding a voice"8.

  • 9 The Poet’s Calling, Robin Skelton, Heinemann, London, 1975, 18-19.

6It has been said of course that poets are born, not made. It is rather the hen or the egg question: does the poet have a particular form of experience because his inner nature provokes such experience, or does a strange experience at a sensitive age trigger off the poetic impulse? I am more inclined to feel that the first solution is the true one, and that the initial step in the poet’s quest is the result of a specific poetic sensibility for which all experience has the taste of wonder. Wordsworth’s emphasis on childhood solitude enhances the legendary necessity of a certain kind of environment for this sensibility to be able to evolve, he says "the child is father of the man". There is an original inner force or drive guiding and feeding the poetic vision from an early age. Robin Skelton in an interesting study of the relationship between the secret workings of the imaginative faculties and the surrounding environment, quotes several poets’ personal experience and concludes that solitary children seem to be subject to poetic trance and likely to experience between about twelve and fifteen years of age a vision, "foretaste of Paradise", says Robert Graves, "the Divine Sophia" says John Montague9.

  • 10 Ibid., 20.
  • 11 Ibid., 21.
  • 12 Preoccupations, 19.

7It is strange indeed, that of these various poets quoted by Skelton, the one whose childhood anecdote holds the closest parallel to Heaney’s is John Montague. Speaking of "dialogues" of adolescents with trees, rocks, etc., Skelton goes on to cite Montague’s intense communion with the Earth Mother: "in very early puberty I used to go there, (a wood and river) and I used to take off all my clothes slowly and I used to get into the trees and going from tree to tree with my body very excited, then drop from the trees into the soft mud below and then go and wash in the river"10. Robin Skelton refers to this as "an almost ritual embrace of the earth"11. We have only to turn to the opening pages of Heaney’s collection of essays, to read: ’To this day, green, wet corners, flooded wastes, soft rushy bottoms, any place with the invitation of watery ground and tundra vegetation, even glimpsed from a car or a train, possess an immediate and deeply peaceful attraction. It is as if I am betrothed to them, and I believe my betrothal happened one summer evening, thirty years ago, when another boy and myself stripped to the white country skin and bathed in a moss-hole, treading the river thick mud, unsettling a smoky muck off the bottom and coming out smeared and weedy and darkened. We dressed again and went home in our wet clothes, smelling of the ground and the standing pool, somehow initiated"12.

8These two contemporary Irish poets, both from Northern Ireland, lived their childhood communion with nature in very similar fashion. Then-particular origins may be the same geographically, but this "initiation" itself is universal, and such an earthly paradise experience may be lived by children anywhere. The common feature is water, and it may be the greatest link of all, flowing as it does through the "vases communicants", the "uische" or "ochor" running through the veins of the gods:

  • 13 Jan Le Witt, "Water" Temenos, I, 1981,

................. waters
the oldest and deepest mirror
on the face of the earth13.

  • 14 Edwin Honig, The Dark Conceit, Oxford University Press, 1966, 173-174.

9In these childhood "moments privilégiés" the vision consists of mortality /immortality in the paradoxical flux and constancy of earth, a kind of synthesis between Dionysiac and Apollonian, in which the poet finds a terse form of balance poised as he is between life and death. As a making of the poet it seems to be the first necessary baptism in these two personal accounts, and in the case of Heaney we can discover a very neat evolutive pattern springing from this initial vision, for is it not a close confrontation between poet and nature, from whence he must emerge to become the mature artist persona? This process follows a classical pattern as evoked by Edwin Honig in his study of allegory entitled The Dark Conceit: "The initiation symbolizes a dying, a rebirth, a sleep and a new awakening, analogous with the cyclic forces at work in nature. In regaining selfhood, one gains or is integrated with the universe"14.

10This orphic myth is seen in Heaney’s title poem to his fust collection, Death of a Naturalist; this poem expresses a certain kind of death to this childhood encounter with nature, and the next collection will then take a step beyond this, denoting a kind of rebirth in Door into the Dark.

  • 15 "Undine", Door into the Dark, Selected Poems, Faber and Faber, New-York, 1980, 56.

11No longer is it merely a question of this closed communion of his or Montague’s account, this secretive "huis clos", now mother earth ultimately leads him beyond her forces, back to himself, and coming full circle she sets him off on a long poetic quest. Here the water and earth take a further mythopoeic dimension, already enhanced by the pantheistic impact of those earthly youthful days, water now stirs him, channels him into greater distances. In Undine, a poem in Door into the Dark, this river-goddess creature, inspired by a definition of Paracelsus, herself recites the poem’s lines. That she should be the recitant is most meaningful, for it reveals how the evolution has indeed come full circle15. Jung’s conjunctio meeting between the animus and anima leads to full awareness of the total self:

But once he knew my welcome, I alone,
Could give him subtle increase and reflection.

12The important osmosis between child and nature, has now become an essential spiritual process, blending violence as in the poem’s opening lines:

He slashed the briars... I ran quick for him,

13with the reflective mirror-like exchange of the poem’s development.

  • 16 Honig, op. cit., 174.

14This is a most striking example of how the poet’s early formative vision may evolve and become a process we can interpret in the light of myth, an archetypal moment in the history of a soul and ultimately of man himself. "The ever-new sense of the body of the world discoverable in a single individual body, in a single human experience"16.

  • 17 Preoccupations, 53.
  • 18 Ibid., 53

15Paracelsus, says Heaney, inspired Undine when he read how she is a water-spirit who can obtain a human soul by bearing a child to a human husband17. Is this not indeed, the fusion of spirit and flesh, of anima and animus, the Jungian unity and self-realisation, expressed in terms redolent of the poet’s childhood awareness. In his essay he refers to Undine as "an orphaned memory", that of "watching a man clearing out an old spongy growth from a drain between two fields". Whilst immediately relevant to the quest for unity within the self, the poem expresses the wonder of finding that unity through the other, the anima, as Heaney himself declares: "This image was gathered into a more conscious reading of the myth as being about the liberating, humanizing effect of sexual encounter"18.

  • 19 "Personal Helicon", Death of a Naturalist, Selected Poems, 40.

16The mirror-like theme underlying Undine is also in the poem which is chosen to close his first collection, and it forms a kind of link with Door into the Dark which follows19. The dark of Personal Helicon is that of the well, and the fascinated gaze of childhood: "As a child, they could not keep me from wells" says the first line. The transition from the squelchy, watery experience such as he shares with Montague is refused here in a most declarative, final verse:

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 echoing.

  • 20 Skelton, op. cit., 22.
  • 21 "The Forge", Door into the Dark, Selected Poems, 49.

17Thus in Personal Helicon the lines trace an evolution from the simple childhood gaze upon the well, and demonstrate how the opaque reality of youth has given way to the creation of a mirror-opus within which the darkness echoes. This reciprocal gaze between water and child’s face is recounted by Kathleen Raine; in her girlhood gaze it was "deep red flower petals", which led her to declare "flowers were, for me, a first experience and knowledge of things in themselves perfect, of the faces, one might say, with which the world looks at us, and we at the world’s face"20. This experience of flowers was, she says, "a constant absolute, and complete thing in itself". For Heaney’s boyhood knowledge of nature too, we feel the complete reality of the thing itself, and then, as in Personal Helicon, we see how this first meeting opens on to an inner landscape, and how the child’s innocent exploration takes on a completely unexpected depth. The Forge whose first line is the title of his second collection makes an ironically limiting statement: "All I know is a door into the dark"21. Ironical it is, for the child who sees only the dark open gap of the forge doorway can then imagine beyond it, the creative activity of he who is inside:

The animal must be somewhere in the centre,
Horned as a unicorn, at one end square,
Set there immoveable; an altar
Where he expends himself in shape and music.

18This, like the well in the earlier Personal Helicon, is also a form of darkness, echoing with vibrant activity, the creative shaping of form and sound. As in much of Heaney’s writing an obvious reference reveals the poem’s orientation. Helikon, favorite seat of the muses, and sometimes referred to as a fountain, designates the meaning of this young child’s favorite watery haunt, and how it leads him to apprehend the world beyond, the platonic reality beyond the appearance. To both this poem and The Forge, we owe concise evocations of the poet’s, and indeed of the artist’s act. In Personal Helicon, "he rhymes to set the darkness echoing", a kind of magic bringing to life, setting the darkness, as when a child makes his voice echo in the well’s depth. Does this not recall some lost mythological universe too, where the oracle Helikon responds to the gods, setting the dark forests and mountains alive with their magic existence beyond the mere appearances of landscape? In the same way, in The Forge the blacksmith "expends himself in shape and music". Here the poetic process is realised through a very precise verbal image ex-pendere to weigh out, i.e. the poet gives his own weight (value) in shape and music, weighing out his inner resources into a palpable reality for the world to hear and see. We remember the legendary role of the blacksmith, an artisan of great social importance as in The Tain for example.

  • 22 "Kindship", North, Selected Poems, 195.
  • 23 Honig, op. cit., 169.

19These developments of childhood haunts, their transformation into a further poetic reality, is an essentially formative experience, and central to our theme of the poet’s makings. We have not yet touched on the most striking examples of this however. In Kinship, the poet visits yet another of his childhood landscapes, and indeed treads this bogland with all the verbal dexterity and ingenuity of his maturer verse22. This collection, North, is a significant landmark in his work, for it states a yet more profound exchange between language and place, a complete symbiosis with all the magic of the poet’s craft stirring his surroundings into life. In Kinship it is not simply youthful memories, but an ancestral memory, a whole ascendency, a deep "kinship" which is the work of centuries: "I step through origins like a dog turning its memories of wilderness on the kitchen mat". Later in this poem, Heaney asserts how that gradual growing towards poetry, where we’ve seen the child as father of the man, has now reached a kind of equilibrium, he is related to his earth, in a natural allegiance: "This is the vowel of earth dreaming its roots in flowers and snow, mutation of weathers and seasons, a windfall composing the floor it rots into. I grew out of all this like a weeping willow inclined to the appetites of gravity". This is a most explicit statement of the downward gaze, the "underworld" drawing the poet with magnetic force, Heaney’s mythological universe par excellence. In relation to this perfect equilibrium arising out of boyhood memory we may refer to Honig when speaking of pastoralism: "The pastoralists say that there is a paradise buried in each man’s heart, a personal myth or an image in memory, which will lead him to rediscover his true relationship with nature and with other men"23.

  • 24 Preoccupations, 18.

20The poise and equihbrium, the perfect situating of self as Honig evokes it, a vital link with hidden, secret working, is to be felt in this line just quoted: "I grew out of all this like a weeping willow inclined to the appetites of gravity". In his essay in Preoccupations we find that willow tree, as another childhood haunt: "I spent time in the throat of an old willow tree at the end of the farmyard. It was a hollow tree, with gnarled, spreading roots, a soft, perishing bark and a pithy inside. Its mouth was like the fat and solid opening in a horse’s collar, and, once you squeezed in through it, you were at the heart of a different life, looking out on the familiar yard as if it were suddenly behind a pane of strangeness. Above your head, the living tree flourished and breathed, you shouldered the slightly vibrant bole, and if you put your forehead to the rough pith you felt the whole lithe and whispering crown of willow moving in the sky above you. In that tight cleft, you sensed the embrace of light and branches, you were a little Atlas shouldering it all, a little Cerunnos pivoting a world of antlers"24.

  • 25 Daithi O Hogain, The Visionary Voice. A Survey of Popular Attitudes to Poetry in Irish Tradition", (...)
  • 26 "Oracle", Wintering Out, Selected Poems, 106.
  • 27 Robin Skelton, The Poetic Pattern, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1956, 78.
  • 28 See Graham Hough, Image and Experience, Gerald Duckworth, London, 1960, 128-129.

21This passage ends in the opposite direction to that "appetite of gravity" of the weeping willow leaning downwards in Kinship, for here the poet is a little Atlas linking earth - and sky, of Cerunnos whose antlers reach upwards towards the light. The description achieves a most striking synthesis between the earth - fed life of the tree, gnarled, with a pithy inside, and the lithe and whispering crown of willow reacting to the sky. The centre where all these elements come together is in the boy’s own perception, poised as he is in the throat of the tree, in the mouth, "at the heart of a different life" caught in that tight cleft. The boy is already the poet here, hidden within the "throat"; ancient Irish poets referred "the gift of poetry to specific parts of the body"... and in particular "the mouth" and "the tongue", thus stressing the oral tradition, says Daithi O Hogain in an article significantly entitled The Visionary Voice25. Heaney’s bodily kinship with the throat - like tree would seem to incarnate this magic and oracular/oral function. In Oracle the boyhood pleasure of hiding from the calls of the family opens the poem: "Hide in the hollow trunk of the willow tree, its listening familiar, until, as usual, they cuckoo your name across the fields. You can hear them draw the poles of stiles as they approach calling you out"26. The poem then concludes by stating the double function of the poet as subjective listener and active voice, the "vases communicants" where oral/auricular unify within the concept of the title, Oracle: "Small mouth and ear in a woody cleft, lobe and larynx of the mossy places". The essential paradox of such a memory, a backward glance in time, is that it recreates in language, a moment of timelessness, as in Eliot’s "Still point of the turning world". Rilke, as referred to by Robin Skelton in another study of his, The Poetic Pattern, found "the ideal condition of the poet in something akin to childhood, when what lies behind is not the past and no future lies before, when in what he calls some interspace between the world and a plaything we entertain ourselves with the everlasting"27. In Heaney’s prose reminiscence and poem, the plaything is the willow, where the "interspace" is indeed weighty with the "everlasting" being as it is the throat, the lobe, the larynx and a link with the earth goddess herself. Indeed, this title Oracle as it is interpreted here, makes a kind of image cluster, a series of connecting ideas which link myth, mystery, within the voice and ear of the listening boy or poet. Mythos -- the word in the sense of the most ancient original account of the world is strangely related to mystery by the common root of muien -- "to close up" which evolved into mystery, mystic, secret. Thus the Greek mu — originally an inarticulate sound made by a beast - became both mystery and myth. Here the primitive organs of lobe and larynx are the receptacle of mystery, and incarnate the myth of the oracle. Also, we think of the theory according to which there was originally one single primitive meaning in which abstract and concrete were undifferentiated. Spiritus was not simply breath evolving by metaphor into the principle of life -- both meanings existed at the origin. It is as if Heaney is aiming at reendowing language with this original pristine unity, as indeed does most poetic language try to restore "this primitive wholeness"28.

  • 29 Preoccupations, 131.
  • 30 Ibid., 186.

22So far we have only mentioned the makings of the poet in relation to the child, but this has necessarily brought us to talk of "place", and by so doing, we are in fact going beyond the strictly personal, biographical concept of the child, to the wider concept of an ascendancy, an ethos of a particular countryside. In the case of Irish poetry, as Seamus himself tells us by the title of his essay, The Sense of Place is essential to Irish writers. As he says on opening his essay: "In Irish poetry there is a whole genre of writing called dinnseanchas, poems and tales which relate the original meanings of place names and constitute a form of mythological etymology"29. Just before this, he has said something of most vital interest to our subject: "I think there are two ways in which place is known and cherished, two ways which may be complementary but which are just as likely to be antipathetic. One is lived illiterate and unconscious, the other learned, literate and conscious. In the literary sensibility, both are likely to co-exist in a conscious and unconscious tension"... In the domain of the "illiterate" and "unconscious" here, we have seen how the child has "known and cherished" his place of birth, and when this is allied as in Oracle to a mythological truth, it becomes also a "learned literate and conscious" reality. In an essay entitled The God in the Tree, the mythological ascendancy becomes more specific in that we may not only relate it to a universal Greek and classical universe, but also to the ancestral myths of Ireland. Heaney refers to Mad Sweeney in his essay, the mad Ulster king who will feature in his latest collection, Station Island; "a foliate head, another wood lover and tree-hugger, a picker of herbs and drinker of wells"30. Thus a natural boyhood feeling for trees reveals itself as also an integral part of the literary and mythological heritage, and there is as it were an osmosis between these two aspects. Heaney speaks of earlier, literate and illiterate, conscious and unconscious, or as we could say, in the vein of our theme, the child and the man have once again come together within the poem’s unfolding.

23It is each time this process which interests us, the poet is formed, shaped from the source of the child’s experience, and what is an immediate awareness of immanence, whether in a tree or a bog, becomes an awareness of further mythological and transcendental realities, and their translation into mythopoeic form.

  • 31 "The Barn", Death of a Naturalist, Selected Poems, 7.
  • 32 Death of a Naturalist, 10.
  • 33 "Blackberry Picking", 10.
  • 34 "Mid-Term Break", 18.
  • 35 "Summer 1969", North, Selected Poems, 224.

24Perhaps we have put the cart before the horse but only now do I wish to speak of the presence in Heaney’s early poetry of that apprehension of palpable, tangible reality which emerges with spontaneity and immediacy in some of his poems. That is, the mythopoeic transmutation has not really occured — the thing is very much itself, it is an initial step, in what will later become a much more elaborate and mature process. To make clearer what I mean, we have only to glance at the poem entitled The Bam from his first collection. The child sees within the poorly lighted barn the sharp outline of impressively cutting objects: "A scythe’s edge, a clean spade, a pitchfork’s prongs; Slowly bright objects formed when you went in"31. The final lines express what I wish to say by this distinctive form of perception: "I was chaff to be pecked up when birds shot through the air-slits. I lay face-down to shun the fear above. The two lugged sacks moved in like great blind rats". Now the inherent presence of evil has come in, the child’s imagination has enhanced the place, and imbued it with a further form of life, so it has become mythopoeic too, but here we remain within the domain of a make-believe world although evil is also a reality, as much as that oracular power given to the child in the willow tree, but the process is not the same. In Death of a Naturalist this experience of evil is seen also as a step beyond the mere reality of things. Expressed in childlike music, especially centred on the vowel "o" sound Seamus really recounts his tadpoles expeditions "The waver thick slobber of frogspawn that grew like clotted water". He would fill "jampotfulls" and "watch until the fattening dots burst". At the end of the poem, the toads become "great slime kings" ... "gathered there for vengeance"32. The fresh innocence of the boy’s fishing has become infested; this is the Paradise lost of Blackberry Picking where the immediate joyful reality of blackberry picking is also conveyed by this strangely childish echo of the "o" - "a glossy purple clot" "hard as a knot" - "jampots", "boots",... "potato drills"... "bottom" ... "on top" "big dark blobs", etc. A very obvious degradation of the initial joy sets in "The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour". And the poem ends on a musically nostalgic echo of the earlier "o" sound: "That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot. Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not"33. These two "o"s of rot and not are hard sounds, and claim to be ironically linked with the knot of the early lines, the clot, and the jampots. Another poem of obvious childhood relevance is Mid-Term Break, on the death of his little brother, and here the experience is an account, anecdotal with less immanent sense of its inherent content of evil, for the event is evil. Instead, the child’s world is communicated in a series of concise, almost prosaic images of the surrounding suffering, and the pathos of it is conveyed only at the end but in the "o" sound. "Snowdrops, poppy, foot, cot - a four foot box"34. (This is almost an aside, as the development of my theme does not permit me to follow this interesting tangent further, this strangeness of the "o" as perhaps an expression of the child’s immediate presence within the poem?)In any case, to sum up here, this form of exploration in memory leads into a kind of dead end, the cul-de-sac of lost paradise; it is only in poems such as Personal Helicon, where his well gazing sets the darkness echoing, or his discovery of that door in The Forge, that the child engenders the creative imagination as an opening into a fertile transcendental world. Evil is indeed that rank sourness in Death of a Naturalist remembered suddenly in the heat of Madrid "Stinks of the fishmarket rose like the reek off a flax-dam", or the "patent leather of the Guardia Civil Gleamed like fish bellies in flax-poisoned waters"35. Here political evil has the sudden remembered stench of childhood evil.

  • 36 Preoccupations, 148-149.
  • 37 "The Tollund Man", Wintering Out, Selected Poems, 126.
  • 38 Preoccupations, 36-37.

25This leads us to our last point, and one which you can only be expecting. The cultural, political heritage as the makings of the poet. In The Sense of Place he writes: "We are no longer innocent, we are no longer just parishioners of the local. We go to Paris at Easter instead of rolling eggs on the hill at the gable. "Chicken Marengo! it’s a far cry from the Moy", Paul Muldoon says in a line depth - charged with architectural history. Yet these primary laws of our nature are still operative. We are dwellers, we are namers, we are lovers, we make homes and search for our histories"36. This, taken from A Sense of Place, is not explicitly political, it does however imply politics. Seamus did not have to go far to "search for his political history" anyway; as in Whatever You Say, Say Nothing, we can see history active at his frontdoor in this satirical portrait of the North. There is another North too however, that ancestral history which he seeks in archeological places, in Scandinavia. As he says in The Tollund Man, "Out there in Jutland in the old man-killing parishes I will feel lost, unhappy and at home"37. As a schoolchild brought up within a British governed province nourished on Gaelic literature he is part of that "divided mind" which is the legacy of every Irish writer indeed, but more so for the North. Here, it is language rather than politics that enter into account; his poetry is fathered so to speak by a forked tongue. He says: "Certainly the secret of being a poet, Irish or otherwise, lies in the summoning of the energies of words. But my quest for definition, while it may lead backward, is conducted in the living speech of the landscape I was born into. If you like, I began as a poet when my roots were crossed with my reading. I think of the personal and Irish pieties as vowels, and the literary awareness nourished on English as consonants"38. Interesting, this point about vowels and consonants!

26Our final poem will be Freedman, a most succinct statement of his "makings", an explicit one as it concerns school and religious background, and ends on one of the most relevant summaries of how a writer feels in any political context when he turns away from that context to write elsewhere and of other things:

27Indeed, slavery comes nearest to its justification in the early Roman Empire: for a man from a backward race might be brought within the pale of civilization, educated and trained in a craft or a profession, and turned into a useful member of society.

  • 39 "Freedman", North, Selected Poems, 216.

R.H. Barrow: The Romans
Subjugated yearly under arches,
Manumitted by parchments and degrees,
My murex was the purple dye of lents
On calendars all fast and abstinence.
Memento homo quia pulvis es.
I would kneel to be impressed by ashes,
A silk friction, a light stipple of dust -
I was under that thumb too like all my caste.
One of the earth-starred denizens, indelibly,
I sought the mark in vain on the groomed optimi:
Their estimating, census-taking eyes
Fastened on my mouldy brow like lampreys.
Then poetry arrived in that city -
I would abjure all cant and self-pity-
And poetry wiped my brow and sped me.
Now they will say I bite the hand that fed me39.

28Suffering, certainly, has nourished the mature work of Heaney, who calls himself an "inner émigré", and when we read of his "schooling" as he exposes it here in Freedman, we remember Keats in a letter of 1819: "Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and Troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a Soul?"


1 Preoccupations, Seamus Heaney, Faber and Faber, New-York, 1980, 61.

2 Ibid., 43.

3 Ibid., 35.

4 Ibid., 41.

5 Ibid., 41-42.

6 Ibid., 42.

7 Ibid., 43.

8 Ibid., 43.

9 The Poet’s Calling, Robin Skelton, Heinemann, London, 1975, 18-19.

10 Ibid., 20.

11 Ibid., 21.

12 Preoccupations, 19.

13 Jan Le Witt, "Water" Temenos, I, 1981,

14 Edwin Honig, The Dark Conceit, Oxford University Press, 1966, 173-174.

15 "Undine", Door into the Dark, Selected Poems, Faber and Faber, New-York, 1980, 56.

16 Honig, op. cit., 174.

17 Preoccupations, 53.

18 Ibid., 53

19 "Personal Helicon", Death of a Naturalist, Selected Poems, 40.

20 Skelton, op. cit., 22.

21 "The Forge", Door into the Dark, Selected Poems, 49.

22 "Kindship", North, Selected Poems, 195.

23 Honig, op. cit., 169.

24 Preoccupations, 18.

25 Daithi O Hogain, The Visionary Voice. A Survey of Popular Attitudes to Poetry in Irish Tradition", Irish University Review, Spring 1979, 49-50.

26 "Oracle", Wintering Out, Selected Poems, 106.

27 Robin Skelton, The Poetic Pattern, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1956, 78.

28 See Graham Hough, Image and Experience, Gerald Duckworth, London, 1960, 128-129.

29 Preoccupations, 131.

30 Ibid., 186.

31 "The Barn", Death of a Naturalist, Selected Poems, 7.

32 Death of a Naturalist, 10.

33 "Blackberry Picking", 10.

34 "Mid-Term Break", 18.

35 "Summer 1969", North, Selected Poems, 224.

36 Preoccupations, 148-149.

37 "The Tollund Man", Wintering Out, Selected Poems, 126.

38 Preoccupations, 36-37.

39 "Freedman", North, Selected Poems, 216.

© Presses universitaires de Caen, 1987

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