Anger and nostalgia: Seamus Heaney and the ghost of the father – Critical Essay
EVEN BEFORE Seamus Heaney won the Nobel Prize (1995) and then delivered a bestselling translation of Beowulf(1999), he was for Irish, American, and English readers the most admired and lovable of poets. He won that wide affection both by being the best of all possible ambassadors for his own poetry–one of the most popular readers since Frost–and by the interest and beauty of his poems. Asked to give a lecture on Heaney and Yeats at an American university, I reread the poems collected in Opened Ground (1998) and part of the immense commentary on his work. Surprisingly, the poems seemed bristling with anger and political commitment, far more than I recalled from reading the collections as they were published. Turning to the critics, I found that many (but not all) saw the poems as evasive of politics, as written in sorrow not in anger when the subject was “the Troubles,” evenhanded in their representations of conflict, and inclined to assert that poetry was utterly different from and perhaps helpless before politics. In such commentaries on Heaney’s work the imagined ethos of the speaker of the poem sometimes appeared to dictate how the poetic speech itself was interpreted, and that ethos was the beloved, genial, Irish ambassador for the art of poetry. Perhaps the public personality of Seamus Heaney was overriding the private self that manifests itself over time in the particular poems.
So I gave a lecture on Heaney’s anger with father-figures (mainly his own father, Patrick Heaney, and Yeats) and his emotional identification with the generation of angry young Catholic males who came of age in the 1960s in the North. Many members of the audience, readers and teachers of Irish literature, were quite unwilling to go along with the general tendency of my talk. The question period went on and on, one objection after another: “anger” was not a word for how Seamus Heaney felt about his father or Yeats. His father was a quiet gentleman, affectionate with the young boy whom he rode about on his shoulders (see “Follower,” Opened Ground, 10), and Seamus Heaney was a good son. (1) Heaney did not have feelings in common with those who joined the IRA; poetry isn’t part of all that. Heaney did not see Yeats as a Protestant, just as a great poet. One should not use words like “republican” and “nationalist” in the neighborhood of the name “Seamus Heaney”–this was loose and dangerous talk. It was also best not to say that the poetry of Seamus Heaney is rooted in nostalgia.
These are not quotations, just recollections and interpretations of the lines of objection offered by the audience. In a quick summary of a free-flowing discussion, it is difficult to do justice to each of them, but the questions were good ones and the paper has been reworked, perhaps strengthened, as a result of them. Taken together, they suggest that either the talk was wrong-headed from the start, or that it had touched a nerve, perhaps even a truth that was inadmissable. My point is not that either the character of Seamus Heaney or his poetry should be debunked, but that a public image of the poet, a whatever-you-say,-say-nothing-plainly attitude about the North, and a dogma about the relation between literature and politics may be enforcing certain readings of poems that are actually open both to alternative readings and to mystery. The ancient philosopher Lao Tzu once ranked the kinds of great men: the lowest was the one who was despised, next the one feared, higher still the one known and loved by people, but highest of all was the man barely known. Heaney may be more mysterious than readers who know and love him take him to be.
I. HEANEY’S RELATION TO YEATS, 1977
I do not know Seamus Heaney well, but I did meet him once, and it may be worth it to some future biographer for me to record the little incident. One reason for giving it here is to exemplify how little such anecdotes may actually reveal. In mid-September 1977 I visited Seamus Heaney, then thirty-eight years old, in Dublin. He had taken a job at Carysfort Teacher’s College, and, just a year earlier, moved from Glanmore Cottage in Wicklow to a house in Sandymount, a sizable place in a fashionable Dublin neighborhood. My calling card was that I was the guest-editor of an Irish issue of the Literary Review, and, even at that date, without something by Heaney it would be Hamlet without the Prince. He asked for news of the poets I’d just visited in the North–Longley, Mahon, Simmons, Carson, Ormsby, Muldoon, “Wild Geese” not yet flown. The most genial and tactful of men, Heaney was hospitable with a bottle of red wine, yet he seemed distracted. As he drove me into the city center, he gave a reason for being unsettled. Robert Lowell had died suddenly a few days before (12 September 1977), and that night Heaney was scheduled to do a radio program on RTE about Lowell, and later to give a memorial address in England. Think of it! he exclaimed. I thought of it, but was not quite sure of what he was thinking of it–he was large, and gave an impression of one who could show a lot while still leaving most of himself undisclosed. Having arrived in town, he took me by the arm and led me into a pub near Trinity College and, while he made his way through the crowd, heartily smiled to the right of him and the left of him like a presidential candidate. Famous Seamus. After a minute, he left to give his broadcast, and promised to send along some poems for the Literary Review.
Six months later, just before the issue had to go to press, an envelope finally arrived, with a brief but characteristic note: Mea culpa! Seamus. One of the enclosed two poems especially caught my attention. “The Harvest Bow,” later published in Field Work, seemed to strike a new note of outright loveliness. And in the last stanza appeared a quotation from Yeats, himself quoting Coventry Patmore: “The end of art is peace.” (2) The poetic line in “The Harvest Bow” was longer, more aureate in its fashioning, more iambic than in his previous two collections. From Wintering Out through North, Heaney had normally used an unrhymed quatrain with short lines of irregular metre. One function of such a form was evidently to draw attention to the phonetic and etymological character of the words, and away from their accentual, syntactic, and rhetorical features. Indeed, in Wintering Out, the poems themselves employ a vocabulary of linguistics: plosive, liquids, vocables, vowels, consonants. It is an avant-garde equivalent of a takeover of a landscape he claims the skill to read and the right to reclaim. The linguistic terminology is part of a myth about Irish Gaelic being the very speech of nature in his home locale in South Derry, and English being the language of the settler. Vestiges of the original Gaelic culture show up in place-names like Anahorish and Broagh, from which poems spring in Wintering Out. It is a surprising development of Daniel Corkery’s nationalist thesis in The Hidden Ireland (1925) that aristocratic Gaelic literary culture continued right through the penal times, unintelligible and invisible to settlers ignorant of all but English. Heaney had lectured about Corkery’s book in November 1965 at the Belfast Festival. He did not dwell on Corkery’s still more openly chauvinistic thesis in Synge and Anglo-Irish Literature (1931): that to be Irish is to be Catholic and Irish-speaking and agricultural. Yet the Gaelicism of Wintering Out in 1972 seems like such a nationalism in another form: proud, possessive of the four green fields (“hoarder of common ground”), bitterly resenting the “lost fields” and the hard times with the “strangers” in the house. (3) Yet Heaney perhaps gives hints of an awareness that such a jealous possessiveness is wrong; for instance, in his imaginative possession of the parish, he compares himself to Dives (Latin: “rich man”), and Dives is an archetypal sinner, one who denied help to poor, sick Lazarus, and so is condemned in the next world, repenting when it’s too late (“Gifts of Rain”; Luke 16: 19-31).
Northern Protestant reviewers had worried over the obscure intentions of poems in Wintering Out. Were Protestants after centuries in the Six Counties supposed to be “strangers” unable to pronounce the dialect “gh” in “Broagh”? That would be less difficult for Protestant locals than for Catholics from West Cork. And wouldn’t the river Moyola “spell itself” to Protestant inhabitants and make its music for them with an accuracy and rich fantasy equal to that of any other dwellers on its banks, proportionate to their imaginative powers? The implications of the poems were not plainly evident, but insofar as they were discernible, they were both ideological and threatening. The obscure final two stanzas of “A New Song” in Wintering Out excited particular comment:
But now our river tongues must rise
From licking deep in native haunts
To flood, with vowelling embrace,
Demesnes staked out in consonants.
And Castledawson we’ll enlist
And Upperlands, each planted bawn–
Like bleaching-greens resumed by grass–
A vocable, as rath and bullaun.
Rise from licking to flood Protestant demesnes? Is this love or war, Edna Longley wanted to know? (4) And those Protestant bleaching-greens resumed by green grass–could that refer to the native Irish taking over their long-lost fields, or, John Wilson Foster wondered, to Catholic and Protestant Ulstermen solving their differences on the heels of an imagined departure of the English? (5) In any case, no change at all was evidently not one of the options. Within the rhythms of this new type of recruiting song, there seemed to beat omens of a change arising in the relations between the communities in the North.
Subsequently, Heaney acknowledged the militant intentions of his prosody: “I thought that that music, the melodious grace of the English iambic line was some kind of affront, that it needed to be wrecked.” His narrow quatrains were tools of demolition: “drills … narrow and long and deep,” undermining English edifices of accent, voice, grace, culture, all felt as oppressive. (6) By contrast, in “The Harvest Bow” there appear untroubled echoes of the melodies of Keats’s “To Autumn,” a bass line of iambic pentameters, and that friendly borrowing from Yeats.
In North, published in 1975, Heaney alluded to Yeats five or six times, but often in a spirit of dissent or correction. (7) For example, Yeats says of Western civilization at the time of World War I and the Russian Revolution, “The centre cannot hold” (“The Second Coming”); in a reverie about bogland, Heaney says, “This centre holds / and spreads” (“Kinship,” OG, 117), leaving tacit “unlike that other centre of Yeats.” In other allusions to Yeats in North, there are bitter if tacit ironies: in “Funeral Rites,” faced with news of “each neighbourly murder,” Heaney says “we pine for ceremony / customary rhythms,” but it isn’t the ceremony of the dinner table at a country house or the customary manners of demure daughters as in “A Prayer for My Daughter” (OG, 96), or even for the folk customs surrounding Irish Catholic wakes. Instead, faced with such massive grounds for grief, Heaney longs for a great national funeral march to the sacred megalithic tombs in the Republic near the Boyne, the most primeval of native customs for mourning the dead.
In Part II of North, Heaney again alludes directly to Yeats in a sequence addressed to his school-friend, the critic Seamus Deane. The title “Singing School” is, of course, from “Sailing to Byzantium.” In the sequence, Heaney makes poems out of episodes in the life of a young Catholic male from the North: being stopped at gunpoint by police while driving home from a date, suffering the menace of Orange drums during the July marching season, and, hushed up, watching the visit of a constable to the family farm–and that’s all in the days before the Troubles. Such was the Loyalist terror that fostered the young poet’s sensibility, its “ministry of fear” (OG, 126). For Yeats, it was different. For an epigraph to “Singing School,” Heaney selected a passage from Yeats’s Autobiography in which he recalls that his first experience of poetry was in Orange rhymes taught him by a Sligo stable-boy, so that he dreamed of dying while fighting Fenians. (8) Is there any sharper way of saying that Yeats was on the other side? The overall effect of the allusions in North is to give the impression that with eloquent nobility Yeats raised a question about the struggle for decolonization, “O when will it suffice?” (“Never,” is Heaney’s despairing answer), (9) but he raised it for another era, and as an Anglo-Irish Protestant.
Until the early 1970s, when Heaney was writing North, he had in fact never much read Yeats. (10) Given a chance of taking Yeats or Frost as an examination subject at Queen’s University in the late 1950s, Heaney picked Frost. (11) Indeed, over the course of Heaney’s work, there has been a long sequence of master-poets emulated in the successive books: Hughes, Hopkins, Frost, Roethke, Lawrence, Lowell, Mandelstam, Zbigniew Herbert, along with greats like Dante and the poet of Beowulf. (As a consumer of poetic models, Heaney has a large appetite and dines with relish.) In this long series of influences, Yeats would not obviously figure as the most important; however, reviewers of Death of a Naturalist in 1966, Door into the Dark in 1969, and Wintering Out in 1972 often called Heaney “the best Irish poet since Yeats,” a standard of praise used earlier of Clarke, Kavanagh, Kinsella, and Montague, in a sort of stairway the generations climbed toward unattainable past greatness. (12) When Heaney finally got around to reading Yeats, he was evidently struck by the full sectarian force of the difference between their experiences of life. Giving a lecture at the University of Surrey in 1978 (three years after the publication of North), Heaney borrowed a title from Auden, “Yeats as an Example,” but added a question mark: could someone so different–so peremptory, cold, equestrian, patriarchal (he doesn’t say Protestant)–be of any use to him? (13)
In my dissertation I had argued that in fact Yeats could be used by Heaney, and had been. The title poem of North does not allude to phrases by Yeats, but it does follow his example in the theatrical way it stages the self in a moment of vision (OG, 98-99):
I returned to a long strand,
the hammered curve of a bay,
and found only the secular
powers of the Atlantic thundering.
I faced the unmagical
invitations of Iceland,
the pathetic colonies
of Greenland, and suddenly
those fabulous raiders,
those lying in Orkney and Dublin
their long swords rusting,
those in the solid
belly of stone ships,
those hacked and glinting
in the gravel of thawed streams
were ocean-deafened voices
warning me, lifted again
in violence and epiphany …
The poem is written in the first person; it is meditative, world-historical, self-dramatizing, and declarative in ways characteristic of Yeats, but up until that point not characteristic of Heaney, who had been accustomed to representing himself as a child or not representing himself at all. (14) Dramatic monologues, fugal narratives featuring an eel, compact portraits of thatchers, blacksmiths, water-diviners, and potato-diggers, and associative litanies of landscape and language all left the poet largely off stage. In “North,” Heaney is the mage under the spotlight in a symbolist theatre of Yeats’s design. Even the word “suddenly” comes straight from Yeats’s personal code for the moment of vision, his Ali Baba’s open sesame! It occurs thirty-six times in his poetry. (15) Like Yeats in time of civil war, in “North” Heaney looks for auguries of the coming times and, appropriating his home ground, speaks as one of a particular people. It is just a different people, and the voice speaking is very much Heaney’s own invention: endlessly metaphorical, a mouth in love with words, the rarer the better (bleb, althing), mournful even when angry, full of wishes unfulfilled, prayerful but weak of faith. His visionary experience also stands between the mystical and the metaphorical, rather than straightforwardly purporting to be supernatural as in the case of Yeats. Heaney, for instance, says that the bodies of Vikings still lying in Dublin and Orkney now speak to him, as if he is comprehending the significance of figures in a museum or book, and the prow of a Viking boat–“the longship’s swimming tongue”–gives him a view of past and present. We don’t imagine that the boat spoke out loud; we understand that this is a figure of speech for how the poet came to understand or represent the significance of a past culture from its archaelogical remains.
Even if Heaney remains himself in the poem–lies down in his own word-hoard, burrows into his own rural sensibility–I still have reservations about this poem and the volume from which it comes. Certainly, it is an impressive performance: the lifting up into detail of a whole hallucination about an archaic, violent cultural pattern–from Denmark and Normandy to Ireland and beyond to Iceland–now being reenacted in the Troubles. Yet we are to understand that Heaney did not really hear such voices; he did not see such ghosts; and one doubts he thinks the killings in the North are in any real sense sacrifices to an earth goddess, though doubtless he felt they may as well have been, for all the good they’d do. When the voices speak to him (or he reads the significance of Viking remains), they tell him how to get on with his poetry, not how the rest of the people from the North can get on with life. For them, North holds out for offer a myth for endlessness, cyclicity, and irrationality, one that remains very much a poet’s myth. It is not just that Yeats speaks as a public poet to a nation about public events, and that we overhear Heaney talking to himself in response to public events. For Yeats a ghost was a ghost and a vision wasn’t just a myth: he did have a genuinely religious relationship to his material. It is as if Heaney tried to learn a technique of greatness from Yeats, but in this stage of his work, that technique still carried traces of willfulness or emulativeness. (16)
So “The Harvest Bow” in the winter of 1978 seemed like an interesting change of direction, including a line from Yeats to which Heaney fully assents in the course of a poem rich with his own mellow voice. In the restless manner of the older poet, Heaney had cast off one way of writing and faced off into another area of his experience? What was that experience for which a new metre permitted expression. (17) More mellow, personal, lyrical, and certain of itself; at least for the time being, less balked by historical misery. (18) But frankly I did not understand the context of this poem in 1979, not at all. Who was being addressed? Who made that harvest bow–man or woman, family or friend? Was it made recently or a long time ago? I didn’t have the answers.
II: HEANEY’S RELATION TO HIS FATHER, 1939-1966
Now thanks to the research of Michael Parker, Henry Hart, Jonathan Allison, and others, and thanks to Seamus Heaney’s interviews and autobiographical poems, some facts about the poet’s life and development have emerged. So one understands that “The Harvest Bow” is a poem to Patrick Heaney, the poet’s father, a strict, “tongue-tied” man, so the son has to “glean the unsaid off the palpable.” And the boy with his fishing rod, “already homesick / For the big lift of these evenings,” must be on summer vacation from boarding school, and troubled by the fact that he has to return as the days shorten and autumn arrives. Biography opens a new prospect upon Heaney’s poetry, and a story unfolds in which Yeats will in the end suddenly return to play the role of ghostly guide in Heaney’s imaginative life. (19)
Heaney once quoted the wonderful defense of biography given by Yeats (some may recognize it as the epigraph to Roy Foster’s life of Yeats): (20)
[A poet’s] life is an experiment in living and those who come after him
have a right to know it. Above all, it is necessary that the lyric poet’s
life be known, that we should understand that his poetry is not a rootless
flower but the speech of a man; that it is no little thing to achieve
anything in art, to stand alone perhaps for many years, to go a path no
other man has gone, to accept one’s own thought when the thought of others
has the authority of the world behind it … to give one’s own life as well
as one’s words (which are so much nearer one’s soul) to the criticism of
In the 1980s, Heaney certainly gave his life to the criticism of the world: he granted over fifty interviews for publication, so many that in 1990 he told Eileen Battersby of the Irish Times that “I don’t even believe I was born on a farm in Derry anymore.” (21) The biographical record is nothing like complete, but enough has come to light to throw certain crucial poems into new relief.
“Digging” is the poem with which Heaney begins all his various collections and selections, the wellhead of his verse, the first poem in which he felt he had “let down a shaft into real life.” (22) Earlier it was understood that this poem concerned the generation gap created by modernization in Ireland, one particularly opened up by the 1947 Education Act, which enabled children from poor families to go to university. What seemed remarkable was the sentiment: the son did not scorn old ways in the manner of the modern young man who knows it all; full of filial piety, he revered the commonest labor of his father and grandfather on the farm and bog, and promised to carry on family traditions in his writing. In the poem’s moment of experience, one imagines the father still on the farm, tilling the family acres, while the poet in a university town bends over his lonely desk, recalling a time he was in his room writing or studying while he saw his father below the window working in the garden. And certainly in the poems that followed in The Death of a Naturalist and Door into the Dark, he appeared to be as good as his word: their whole vector delves back and down and under, and the emotion remains one of reverence for rural craftsmen.
A problem remained in the poem for critics, a detail that did not fit. In the first lines of the poem, Heaney’s pen strangely rests “snug as a gun” between his finger and thumb–
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.
In the repetition of the opening lines at the end, the gun is gone:
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.
As guns don’t rest between a finger and a thumb, the simile is awkward, rammed into the poem. Why was the gun put in? And why did it disappear? A famous rule for the art of dramatic composition is attributed to Chekhov: if there’s a gun in Act One, it must go off in Act Four. This poem breaks that basic rule. The gun is still loaded, lying around unfired when the poem ends. For that matter, in this collection weapons are buried all over the farm: grenades, safety-catch, armoury, gun-barrel, cache, bombs all turn up in Death of a Naturalist. (23)
Several explanations have been offered for the gun in “Digging.” One is that it is the result of imitation of Ted Hughes, whose early nature poems are full of arbitrary violent imagery. That was the going explanation in 1966 when Heaney’s first book was published; after all, the first Civil Rights marches were not to come until August 1968. Certainly, a recent poem in memory of Hughes appears to confirm that his verse had a liberating effect on the Irish poet: “I felt like one come out of an upper room / To fret no more and walk abroad confirmed.” (24) Yet ascribing the mention of the gun in “Digging” to imitation of Hughes makes that image, and all such imagery in the collection, derivative, decorative, and inessential to poet or poem. Another explanation, offered by Denis Donoghue, then humorously accepted by the poet himself, is that Heaney had been watching a lot of Westerns in the 1950s, and the gunslinger was one fantasy role-model for a young man. But that explanation leaves unanswered the questions of why the poet chose this simile from the vast accumulation of images in his memory, or what the function of that image is in the poem.
If these explanations “explain away” the gun image, Helen Vendler has an explanation that fully reintegrates the gun into the significance of the poem. She says that the speaker is choosing not between two things, but three: between being a farmer (the spade), an IRA man (the gun), and a writer (the pen). She rightly points out that the IRA Border War (1955-62) could have impinged on the consciousness of Seamus Heaney, so the issue of Armalite versus Ballot-Box that came to the fore after 1968 was also present before “Digging” was written. Vendler wants to assert that right at the beginning of Heaney’s work there is a fundamental rejection of politics and violence in favor of an art that provides readers with poems that yield “warmth (like his grandfather’s turf for fires) and nourishment (like his father’s potatoes).” (25)
This is a characteristically clear and brilliant analysis by Vendler, but it seems imposed by force of intellect upon the language of the poem. If the poem were meant to be a rejection of politics and violence, would it not develop more fully the temptation and the reasons for rejection? Outside of a metonymic indication, the gun is never fleshed out as a way of life or course of action, yet this interpretation promotes it to the significance of a choice equal with that of being a farmer or writer, both of which are developed in the poem. Furthermore, far from rejecting the gun, the one thing we learn about the poet’s relation to it is that the gun and the pen are comparably “snug” in his hand: comfortable and comforting, a good fit, anagrammatically inevitable. In addition, the potatoes and slabs of turf seem too definitively converted by Vendler’s analysis into symbols of warmth and nourishment. The poem’s language associates potatoes instead with “cool hardness” and the turf with “squelch and slap”: the sensuous properties of the things themselves, not the utilitarian functions of those things or their cultural symbolism. In other words, if a reader looks in the language of the poem for a motivation of the device, one does not see either potato or turf being turned into a symbol of nourishment or warmth, and they are not automatically in Heaney’s work used as fixed symbols. In “At a Potato Digging,” for instance, spuds are “live skulls” (Death of a Naturalist, 32). The language of the poem does not motivate, or at least compel, the conclusion that it is a rejection of politics and a vote in favor of warmth and nourishment. The gun does not harmonize with the public character of the poet–warm, kindly, and humane; it remains troubling, mysterious. What could that gun have to do with Heaney’s relation to his father or to his vocation?
There is also the matter of the possibly oedipal character of the poem–its troubled gaze at the patriarchs, while the speaker holds in his hand what is a smaller tool. The poems of Heaney’s young manhood were rife with rude or disturbing sexuality. In a poem about one of his favorite subjects, the pump at the farm, he explains how it can become frigid or frozen, by what means it can then be primed, etc., then “Her entrance was wet and she came” (“Rite of Spring”), as if it were a man with a cold woman–she’s no problem if you’ve got the know-how. (26) The title poem of Death of a Naturalist makes frogspawn appear so much like male sperm that the ending–“I knew / That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it” (OG, 5)–suggests the terrors of puberty and masturbation. The crude sexualization of the pictures of life in these early books is rarely discussed fully. Yet liberation from a sexually repressive culture was surely an attraction of these early poems; there is a Lawrentian release in their capacity to feel a companionate pulse with the things of nature. Is there also an imagining of the sexual threat of the father–as in Theodore Roethke’s The Lost Son and Other Poems? (27) In “Digging” the sexual element is not explicit, but the poem is still alive with disturbance: there is an oedipal verso of the statements of filial admiration. Those “curt cuts of an edge / Through living roots” that “waken in [the poet’s] head” as he writes suggest some severance of past from present, father from son, even as they claim an imaginative identity or mental repossession.
Who was the strong, good, potato-digging father in “Digging”? Heaney’s father, Patrick, born in 1910, was a cattle-dealer with a forty-acre farm in Derry, situated alongside a railway, the now-famous Mossbawn, sacred omphalos of his first-born son’s poetry. (28) Patrick Heaney served on the local council and, in a dignified, edgy way, tried to get on with his Protestant neighbors. The locale seems to have been somewhat sheltered from the wider sectarianism of the six counties. (29) After Seamus Heaney was born in 1939, his mother, Margaret McCann Heaney, had eight more children. From 1945 until 1951, when Seamus Heaney was twelve, he attended the primary school at Anahorish. Heaney has time and again evoked his childhood at Mossbawn: the barn where terrifying rats might come at you, the well that was his “Personal Helicon,” his aunt in a floury apron, her hands scuffling over the bakeboard as sunlight poured on the floor; the sofa on which the many children pretended to be a chugging railway carriage; the telegraph wires near the railway along which the children imagine messages sizzling toward their destinations, carried in raindrops. (30)
This family idyll came to a sudden stop when Heaney was twelve: he then won one of the new Education Act scholarships and left Mossbawn for a Catholic boarding school in Derry, St. Columb’s, a school mainly devoted to training priests. Heaney was terribly homesick. In fury he threw the biscuits sent from home over the school walls, as he recalls in “The Ministry of Fear.” Yet there he was stuck term after term, classes six days a week, with the chance to go into Derry one Saturday in three. At Christmastime or for summer holidays, the St. Columb’s boarder might go back home, go fishing with his father, try to learn the crafts of the farm, or attend Irish classes in Donegal, (31) but otherwise he had nothing before him but to please his schoolmasters, and that he did.
After he’d been there two years, he was called home in February for the funeral of his four-year-old brother, Christopher, killed by a car. Heaney’s poem about this death, “Mid-Term Break,” was his first publication (Kilkenny Magazine, Spring 1963) and it has (regrettably) gone into many school anthologies since, but it is weirdly unfeeling (OG, II). It is certainly a “well-made” poem, the stanza taken from Montague’s aestheticizing “Water-Carrier,” indeed as well made as a coffin, “A four-foot box, a foot for every year.” The poem apparently proposes that its formal detachment should stand in for feelings unexpressed. One is meant, it seems, to recognize the inadequacy of all expressions of grief–the “old men” who shake the poet’s hand and say they are “sorry for [his] trouble,” “Big Jim Evans saying it was a hard blow.” Yet this recognition of the shortcomings of all condolence covers the poem also: it is wholly inadequate, and seems exploitative of a feeling it does not comprehend but knows is significant. The speaker is like a man still in shock: he sees clearly the things around him, and sleepwalking, notes them in a daze, but cannot see the meaning of anything. We assume something important is passing within the poet, but what it is, besides a poem, is impossible to say.
Following that death, Patrick Heaney moved house, leaving Mossbawn behind. Patrick Heaney, his wife, his sister, and his children all moved to the town of Bellaghy, where a new house was built. In Seeing Things (1991), Heaney describes that house (OG, 352):
… The house that he had planned
`Plain, big, straight, ordinary, you know,’
A paradigm of rigour and correction,
Rebuke to fanciness and shrine to limit,
Stood firmer than ever for its own idea
Like a printed X-ray for the X-rayed body.
This is a description of a house not loved by the son, however characteristic it is said to be of the strict and tightly controlled father. One wonders if the house had a hearth. In an interview, Heaney talked sadly of the massive transition in the ways people lived in the Irish countryside, from the sacred to the profane he calls it, when people left their thatched cottages for block-built, slate-roofed bungalows, many of them without a chimney, so “hearthless,” which, Heaney points out, given the Latin etymology, means unfocused. (32) It is a changeover from the charm of backwardness to unpicturesque, unmagical modernization; and it was more or less total across the thirty-two counties, so that now a cottage with the thatch still on it is a rare sight. His father’s Bellaghy house is not elsewhere described in the poetry, and few mentions of the town appear either, but that is where his family lived from the time Heaney was about fifteen. The cattle-fairs in the North were going the way of traditional customs throughout the island, and his father’s ashplant for herding stock stood behind the door of the new bungalow; by the time “Digging” was written, Patrick Heaney’s cattle-trading days belonged to the past.
At St. Columb’s College in the mid-1950s, Heaney was coming into manhood among the new class of super-bright, educated Catholic males from the North. Two years ahead of him was John Hume, later the leader of the liberal nationalist SDLP, and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. In his own class was Seamus Deane, from the Bogside in Derry, who soon became his closest school friend; later Deane would become a fiercely intelligent writer about Irish culture, someone whose politics evidently had more in common with Gerry Adams than John Hume. Spending time in Derry with Deane was a revelation: “your first instinct was to throw a stone if you saw a policeman,” Deane recalled; “if you met a priest, you kept your head down.” (33)
Another classmate, a quiet-natured boy, would end up interned at Long Kesh for being associated with more militant boys; yet another would later join the IRA and pay an undated call on the poet, just to say, “When, for fuck’s sake, are you going to write / Something for us?” Heaney has himself replying, “If I do write something, / Whatever it is, I’ll be writing for myself.” (34) Still, the voice of the young Seamus Heaney is a voice of one of them, “aggravated young Catholics,” tired of police harassment and second-class citizenship, many of them furious with the way their fathers had put up with oppression. (35) In an interview with a French journal, Heaney recalls himself as becoming aware of the ongoing IRA campaign (1955-62) that involved bombing border outposts; he himself was then, he says, “very papist and republican.” (36) It was the Northern Ireland of Lord Brookeborough, Prime Minister at Stormont from 1943 to 1963: Unionists held all the seats in Parliament, and Brookeborough thought having a Catholic employed on the staff would be like “the British Government during the last War having a German in the War Office”; the B-Specials had free rein to keep “the enemy within” from getting out of line, which one time involved arresting Seamus Heaney driving home from Mass one Sunday–a very good time to catch Catholics by the carload. In “The Border Campaign,” recently published in Electric Light, the poet recalled the moment in 1956, just before leaving St. Columb’s, when his life entered the history of recent tribal warfare: there was an IRA attack on the Derry courthouse, blowing a hole in the roof: “All that was written / And to come I was a part of then, / At one with clan chiefs galloping down paths, / To gaze at the talon Beowulf had nailed / High on the gable, the sky still moving grandly.” (37)
From St. Columb’s College, Heaney went to Queen’s University, Belfast, in 1957, again on scholarship, again performing as a star student of English, and then on to teacher-training college in 1962, all the while publishing poems in school magazines, then city newspapers, then national quarterlies. By November 1964, the poems Heaney is reading to Philip Hobsbaum’s Group in Belfast are remarkable for their sectarian anger and political point. In “National Trust,” he shows an English tourist who is puzzled by the triumphalist symbols on Carrickfergus Castle, but that’s heritage in Northern Ireland. In “Docker,” a Protestant shipyard worker is described with loathing and terror: he’s evidently a wife-beater, and the beating of a Catholic too could also happen again at any time. (38) Along with these poems, in November 1964 at a meeting of the “Belfast Group,” he read the poem he had written that summer, “Digging,” with its gun and pledge of fealty to ancestors who tilled the fields.
An uncollected poem from 1965 casts that filial piety in another light. “Boy Driving His Father to Confession” speaks of how “four times” the speaker “found chinks in the paternal mail”–the pun on mail is youthfully obvious–“To find you lost like me, quite vulnerable.” If the father is well-armored, the son is rising to attack. “What confession are you preparing,” he asks: “Does the same hectic rage [beat] in our one blood? What is going on / Under that thick grey skull?” (39) The raging desire to communicate with a silent father is plain as day. “Digging” itself was first titled “Going Away.” In one of his many interviews, Heaney recalled that as he was going away to school and leaving Mossbawn behind, a local man said to him that he was right to do so, for the pen’s lighter than the spade. (40) This is just the simile at the heart of “Digging.” The poem may indeed be a way of looking back on that moment of separation of the son from his father and from the day-to-day life of his family, from a whole world that will have to be recovered through the book, because after the son goes away to college, Mossbawn will be abandoned, and the door closed upon his return to childhood. So the hectic rage of the son at the father (in “Boy Driving …”) could be for moving away from Mossbawn, keeping a lid on his feelings, and setting the example of being “timid, circumspect,” “biddable and unforthcoming” (to quote from Heaney’s confessions in Station Island). (41)
Not much documentation exists for this hypothesis, and anyway these are shadowy waters of biography. In a critical reading of “The Harvest Bow,” Henry Hart speculates that it depicts Patrick Heaney (the “you” in the poem) as “both overtly brutal and appealingly mellow”; Hart also argues that the poet finds fault with his father’s “shaping intent” in weaving the harvest bow–such a thing is, while charming, “apolitical” and a “snare.” (42) “Brutal” does not seem borne out by the language of the poem, and does it make sense to speak of a harvest bow as either political or apolitical in this context? Still, phrasing aside, Hart may be fundamentally right. The son is trying to reach an understanding and make peace with his father, and that implies a prologue of misunderstanding and conflict, a prologue that may stretch as far back as 1964, when “Digging” was composed. For one so wholly a poet as Heaney to have a father who was a man of few words, even a contempt for speech, is certainly notable. There may be between father and son a greater gap to cross in “Digging” than was once suspected. The poem had to be rewritten and the bridge reconstructed again and again fifteen and twenty and twenty-five and thirty years later. “The generation gap” divides, on the one hand, an older generation of Irish Catholics that were attractive in their immemorial rural customs yet contemptible in their acceptance of Protestant hegemony, and, on the other hand, a younger one adrift in urban modernism, nostalgic for a pre-capitalist sense of community, many of them determined to bring about political change by persuasion or by force.
III. THE UNDERGROUND NATIONALISM OF SEAMUS HEANEY, 1966-1984
In a tense and now famous 1977 interview with Seamus Deane, Heaney talks about the literary transformations of rage. Whereas in his early poems he confronted sectarianism in the North in a direct way, once he came under the influence of Ted Hughes, this impulse, Heaney says, “went underground,” and he cultivated “the private county Derry childhood part of [him]self rather than the slightly aggravated young Catholic male part.” (43) Poetry, Heaney goes on to speculate, derives from “inchoate pieties, prejudices, world-views, whatever,” in his case, ones that are “Catholic and nationalist,” so his own poetry is a “slow, obstinate, papish burn, emanating from the ground I was brought up on.” (44) This originative source is a well from which very different kinds of poems can be drawn up. The “ground” of being can be the first fresh sense of the natural world upon the entrance of consciousness into the lively multitude of things that can be perceived. Second, it can be the ground over which two groups struggle, unionists against nationalists, and so arising from not just a phenomenological, but a political, origin. Third, the ground of a person’s being may be (in one sense, must be) his mother and father, out of whom are also born the million subplots of the one great family romance–in other words, a genetic, psychological, and fostering origin. For the sake of illustration, the origin can be analyzed into parts in this fashion; Heaney does not so analyze them. He leaves them inchoate, and he is right to do so. Left together, they fructify for him.
Clarifying what is inchoate in the emotions arising from this origin–“aggravation,” “a burn”–is not simple. Anger can be how guilt presents itself, or resentment, regret, love, need, frustration, a sense of injustice. It may take any form from wild rage and hatred to forced composure and deliberate kindness, from speechlessness to screaming. In Heaney’s case, anger rarely appears at either extreme. “Aggravation” signals an ever worsening irritability or sense of injustice; a “long, slow burn” implies an inflammation that is possibly suppressed but also inextinguishable–an emotion that will neither burn out nor burn up what feeds it. In “The Artist” (thinking of Paul Cezanne), Heaney says, “I love the thought of his anger” (OG, 259); in his own poems, however, he does not love to let anger flare out and show itself. In the Crane Bag interview, Heaney accepted the application to his own work of a statement by Adorno that “the conciliatory nature of art is in direct relation to the rage which produced it.” (45) His own poems are less frequently direct expressions of anger than palliations of it.
A look at a few poems from Door into the Dark, Death of a Naturalist, and Wintering Out illustrates both the anger and its transformations. First, consider “Requiem for the Croppies,” an obviously political poem Heaney wrote in April 1966, at the time of the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rebellion, a time also rich with recollections of the 1798 Rebellion. Heaney was living in Belfast, where Ian Paisley was whipping up loyalist fears about the 1916 commemoration. Launching the Protestant Telegraph in April, Paisley warned of a new Easter rising by Catholics. (46) Hammering at the fact that a tricolor was hanging in the Belfast headquarters of the Republican Labour party, Paisley provoked the RUC to break in and tear it down, in the face of two thousand protestors. Heaney’s poem itself threatens, at the level of imagery, the rising about which Paisley sounded his warnings. In “Requiem for the Croppies,” the seeds carried in the pockets of rebels slaughtered in 1798 germinate and grow up out of their graves: trouble would hatch out in time, the poem implied. This was the sort of thing that made Paisley’s paper talk of Heaney as the “well-known papist propagandist” who belonged in the “popish republic.” (47)
Meanwhile, in the July 1966 New Statesman Heaney spoke of Paisley as one about whom opinion was divided: was he more “a Fascist or a bloated bullfrog”? (48) “Bloated bull-frog” is interesting: it recalls the “gross-bellied frogs” “cocked / on sods” in “Death of a Naturalist,” “Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting” (OG, 5). The terror, nausea, and phobia about swollen masculinity may correspond to his feelings about the Arch-Loyalist–an example of how psychosexual energies can infuse a political opinion. In the land of feeling, the borders are always open between poetry and politics, between instincts and opinions.
Another example of rage transformed is “Tinder” in Wintering Out (1972), a poem constructed from two earlier poems published in the New Statesmen in May and June of 1970, entitled “Tinder” and “The Last Camp.” First a quick review of events leading up to the period of the poem’s composition: the Civil Rights movement had its first marches in August 1968; in January 1969, Paisleyite loyalists cudgeled and petrol bombed marchers at Burntollet Bridge; in August of that year, the British Army was called in to protect Catholics under siege in Derry; in January of 1970, the Provisionals split from the Official IRA and within months began a bombing campaign. (49) “The Last Camp” speaks for a tribe enduring its own ruin after a holocaust, a tribe expropriated, ethnically cleansed, defeated, hopeless, yet holding on and ready to fight with its teeth and fingernails if it comes to that. The first versions make perfectly clear that those who have burned them out are Orange Loyalists marching to their Lambeg drums. The Wintering Out version, however, drops the explicit finger-pointing at Orangemen, 12th of July marches, and the burning out of Catholic neighborhoods.
“TINDER” 05 May 1970)
We picked flints,
Pale and dirt-veined,
So small finger and thumb
Ached around them;
Cold beads of history and home
We fingered, a cave-mouth flame
Of leaf and stick
Trembling at the mind’s wick.
We clicked stone on stone
That sparked a weak flame-pollen
And failed, our knuckle joints
Striking as often as the flints.
What did we know then
Of tinder, charred linen and iron,
Huddled at dusk in a ring,
Our fists shut, our hope shrunken?
What could strike a blaze
From our dead igneous days?
But the man came with a tinder-box
And left ash like brown phlox Red-eyed,
Settling after the flame’s soft thunder
On blackened wall and live cinder
He came with face blank as anvil
His kettledrum, the kick and rattle
Of flint on iron
From the box tossing at his groin.
“TINDER” (Wintering Out, 1972)
[First nine stanzas same
as first version]
[Revised ending follows]
Now we squat on cold cinder
after the flame’s soft thunder
And our thoughts settle like ash
We face the tundra’s whistling brush
With new history, flint, and iron,
Cast-offs, scraps, nail, canine.
Following is the source material for the Wintering Out version:
“The Last Camp” 12 June 1970)
Purses shrivelled like figs,
Cast-offs, spent cartridges–
God we will defend these
Scraps with nails and canines,
Our bonded detritus,
Pieties, rare droppings.
From his interesting comparison of these texts, Michael Molino concludes that Heaney’s motive in revising was “clearly … to break with entrenched and apparently unproductive debates among exclusive groups and discourses”; Heaney aimed, Molino says, “to promote an emancipating discourse that retains a capacity to address current issues without taking a side” [my italics]. (50) One has to agree that the final version is both more obscure and less accusatory than the first versions, but hasn’t the anger just gone underground into the images? It seems quite wrong to say that Heaney is not taking a side. Heaney has, admittedly, somewhat drawn the poem’s teeth, but he is still with those people who endure a holocaust, he speaks for them, and he still speaks of a search for flint to strike a blaze from their dead igneous days, whether the better to endure or to fight back is not obvious; instead, it is obscure, ominous.
The evidence does not enable one to judge the degree to which the choices made in drafting the final version of “Tinder” were choices of the better images over the worse, while letting syntax and narrative drop (simply an aesthetic choice), or the more effective or fitting statement of the position of his people over the less effective or fitting (partly a political choice), or finally the more preferable way of representing himself over the less comfortable (a psychologically motivated choice). These are mysteries, fascinating but inascertainable by the scholar, clawing “in the margin of texts of praise,” to quote “The Scribes” (OG, 257). It could be that it is not to this poet’s taste, not in the grain of his disposition, to represent his feelings in the frankest intensity of their assertion. At any rate, this is not an ethical or aesthetic question: some smoulder, some blaze, and good people or great poets may do either. For Heaney, his donne, what he has to express, is “a kind of slow, obstinate, papish burn, emanating from the ground I was brought up on.” (51) That buried anger is creative. Naturally, he might yearn to “strike a blaze” (OG, 61) or to possess “the diamond absolutes” (OG, 136), but that could be a very dangerous desire, better kept unfulfilled, kept as desire.
Yet, considering Heaney’s relation to the Troubles as a whole, it seems misleading to say, and it is often said, that when he speaks of dithering, equivocating, and Hamletizing about the Troubles, that he hesitates because he is unable to take a side. He is not unable to take a side between unionism and nationalism. What he stands between is two forms of intellectual nationalism, both hitherto ineffectual, between, if you like, his schoolfellows John Hume and Seamus Deane, the SDLP and Sinn Fein, liberal nationalism and physical-force republicanism.
Heaney hates IRA violence, but he understands the maimed young men who could no longer put up with being servant-boys; indeed, he can identify with them. “Servant Boy” from Wintering Out (1972) fumes with furious epithets for the servility of the expropriated (OG, 48). A menial who hires himself out for day labor market-fairs, the servant boy is called
a jobber among shadows.
Old work-whore, slave-blood
who stepped fair-hills
under each bidder’s eye
and kept your patience
and your counsel, how
you draw me into
your trail …
Historical shame and resentment is here straightforwardly acknowledged, impenitently. In between “keeping patience” and “keeping counsel,” a class of men waits for a chance at taking revenge or striking out for freedom and respect.
Another connection is drawn between past servitude and present rebellion in “Badgers” (OG, 151) from Field Work 1979). Heaney has said that this poem explores inwardly his feelings about the Provisionals. How are badgers like members of the IRA? They both move in the night, the idea of their proximity among the laurels is frightening, they are associated with carcasses on the roads, they are at once “notorious” and “vaguely honoured,” yet in fact they are of the “pig family / and not at all what [they’re] painted.” Finally, in the bodily frame of the badger, the poet finds “The unquestionable houseboy’s shoulders / that could have been my own,” a clear connection with “Servant Boy.” He too could have been a menial servant boy, even a paramilitary, through a refusal to “love the life we’re shown.” How dangerous is it not to accept the way things are? It could wind up costing you your life. And is it wrong to refuse to accept the way things are? Although it might be right and good to love the created world of corncrakes and cuckoos in the evening, of mist over furrows, of elder-berries like swart caviar of shot (images from the “Glanmore Sonnets”), is it necessarily good to love the world one is shown, in which one’s own class position is subordinate, unequal, disrespected, a world in which your part is to bring the warm eggs to the back doors of the farmers pretending to be barons? Through the shifting equivalences of the poem (badger/paramilitary/houseboy/honored man/poet), a haunted complexity of emotions flows. Certainly, there is in the poem a shudder of fear and disgust at this “bogey of fern country,” but the poet also compassionates with the “violent shattered boy” for whom something “got mislaid” between his birth and violent death. Unlike those who speak of the “hard men” as inexplicable or monstrous, this remarkable poem makes an effort–evidently it’s not easy–at sympathetic identification. (52)
The most deliberate, painful effort of imaginative identification he has undertaken, however, is on behalf of victims of violence. It has been pointed out that where these victims are identifiable in sectarian terms, they are most often Catholics, sometimes indeed neighbors and kin of the Heaneys in Derry. And so the poems have been seen by Northern Protestant readers as unduly concerned only with tragedies that befall the nationalist community. However, the force of these funeral poems, and there are many powerful ones–“Casualty,” “The Strand at Lough Beg,” “Station Island” (VII to IX)–is to count the cost of violence, and not at all to whip up a desire for reprisal. They honor the dead individual; they do not dwell on the villainy of the killers. Heaney’s poems that are not about the Troubles intensify for readers their sense of the beauty of life–for instance, of the bliss of eating an oyster, so the “tongue is a filling estuary,” the “palate hung with starlight” (“Oysters,” OG, 139). This intensification of beauty may be better than any story of, or sermon on, the pathos of needless death. Heaney’s particular genius is to write peace poems, whatever he writes.
Nonetheless, one should not as a result conclude that for him peace on any terms is satisfactory. Ultimately, Heaney wants peaceful change, but he also sees it is obvious that there will be “No Surrender” from Loyalists. His daydream in “The Tollund Man” is to be a revolutionary martyr riding the tumbril through crowds in a strange land, like Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities; (53) his bad dream is that he throws the stones of silence when Republican punishments occur; his recurrent self-image is that of the psalmist David facing the big English Goliath, unable to fling a stone. (54) The riddle for Seamus Heaney is, “What can a non-combatant do?” not “On which side do you stand?” And it must be said that, however frustrated and helpless he has felt through the terrible decades of pointless waste, as a non-combatant Heaney has done a great deal. He brought glory to the Republic, to which he moved in 1972, in part because he wanted to “distance himself from the corrupt set-up” in the North. (55) The Irish government associates itself with his name, person, and sensibility every chance it gets, because its members know it does them a world of good. In the course of meriting the Nobel Prize, Heaney also raised the status of Northern nationalists as reasonable citizens not mad criminals, while Loyalists were left to appear angry, fanatical bullies. Margaret Thatcher devoted her years in government to criminalizing Republicanism and legitimizing Unionism, but the Prime Minister did not enjoy the success of the poet. Anger gone underground has done its undermining work very effectively.
IV. HEANEY’S RELATION TO HIS FATHER AND TO YEATS, 1987-1996
In the 1980s, Heaney’s emotional life suddenly took a sharp turn. It was not just that in 1982 he began to teach half the year at Harvard, or that after the complete collapse of the power-sharing Assembly in 1976, the fizzle of the Peace Movement in 1977, and the dreadful protraction of Hunger Strikes in 1981, he felt that, “imaginatively speaking,” the tragedy in the North was “ashes,” “almost nil as a stimulant to the imagination.” (56) “The most important thing that has happened to me in the last ten years,” he said of the 1980s, “is being at two death-beds.” (57) First, his mother died in late 1984; his father followed two years later. Consequently, he was occupied with a vast new theme: not the predicament of the poet as citizen, but death.
His poems about his mother in “Clearances” are an important part of this preoccupation, but I am concentrating on his poems to his father. There are many of these–“The Stone Verdict” (OG, 280), “Man and Boy,” (OG, 314), “Seeing Things” (OG, 315), “Poet’s Chair” (OG, 398), and several of the numbered sections of “Squarings” (especially XXXII to XXXIV, OG, 351-53). In them, the poet visits the underworld, where subdued anger meets his brother guilt, and a different man returns, one full of tenderness. In a fisherman’s metaphor from “Squarings, XLIV,” he describes the death of another as “like a caught line snapping, / That moment of admission of All gone, / When the rod butt loses touch and the tip drools / And eddies swirl a dead leaf past in silence / Swifter (it seems) than the water’s passage” (OG, 362). This is a magical, slow-motion, close-focus description, signaling the evocation of a revelatory moment. What is revealed? It is as if anger had been the tension on the line, the way of being in relationship through a life, one of the forms of love; what happens after anger goes?
A spirit of atonement flows in, to judge by “The Stone Verdict”:
When he stands in the judgement place
With his stick in his hand and the broad hat
Still on his head, maimed by self-doubt
And an old disdain of sweet talk and excuses,
It will be no justice if the sentence is blabbed out.
He will expect more than words in the ultimate court
He relied on through a lifetime’s speechlessness.
Let it be like the judgement of Hermes,
God of the stone heap, where the stones were verdicts
Cast solidly at his feet, piling up around him
Until he stood waist-deep in the cairn
Of his own absolution: maybe a gate-pillar
Or a tumbled wallstead where hogweed earths the silence
Somebody will break at last to say, `Here
His spirit lingers,’ and will have said too much.
I’d like to bring in something here that has only a slanted relation to the subject–a parable Helen Vendler calls attention to, and which Heaney used to explain the good works of poetry. He tells how Jesus, hectored by Pharisees, wrote in the sand with a stick, and the Pharisees, convicted by their consciences, departed; this resembles, of course, the way Jesus stopped the killing of the woman taken in adultery by asking, “He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone.” (58) It is a parable that ramifies through Heaney’s many allusions to himself as a David who can’t throw the stone. But in the case of “The Stone Verdict,” the stone as symbol of anger has been transformed: it becomes a token of acceptance of his father’s silence, disdain, and crabbiness, a sign of absolution. Setting up a beautiful transition, the poem begins with a gentle humor about Heaven’s gate, as in a joke about a man who comes to St. Peter and refuses to speak up; then the poem moves into a solemn and tender imagining of the building of a grave among the things of this world, and they are specifically the things Patrick Heaney’s generation of Irishmen have left behind–the ruins of a lost way of life: “a gate-pillar / Or a tumbled wallstead.” Ubi Sunt? Where have they gone, many sons must be asking, those ancestral generations who made Ireland Irish, and us ourselves? “Still about us” is the poem’s answer, which it makes persuasive by poetic means. In its silence, the stone now symbolizes marvels beyond understanding, that are part of this, our ordinary life. That is what Seamus Heaney must for the life of him do: save the presences of his absent parents, not in a heaven in which he can’t believe, but here, “earthed” in silence. The stone is another image for that “space / Utterly empty, utterly a source” out of which Heaney draws a stream of the marvelous and immortal throughout the latter poetry. He has moved from awareness of the absence of presence in the world after Mossbawn, to crediting the presence of absence in the lingering souls of his parents. In a post-Catholic culture, this is emergency work. Out of the emptiness of secularism some sense of the numinous must be saved, or else you might be successful, free, and on your own, but also desolate and dead to all that you were.
One can see how Yeats would be useful to a man trying to see the spirits of the dead: the comprehension of such marvels is the whole quest of Yeats’s life. In “Squarings, XXII,” Heaney asks,
Where does the spirit live? Inside or outside
Things remembered, made things, things unmade?
What came first, the seabird’s cry or the soul
Imagined in the dawn cold when it cried?
And after more deep riddles, he closes with a “Post-It” note to himself: (“Set questions for the ghost of W.B.”) (OG, 346). Once seen as an alien majesty, a turn-of-the-century Protestant Anglo-Irishman, Yeats has become familiar, wise, ghostly, and possibly helpful.
This new bond between the poets also highlights a difference: one feels that Yeats was in pursuit of immortality for himself; Heaney mainly shows himself as wanting it for his mother and father. It’s a difference with deep taproots; it shows up in the early poems that became the signature pieces for each. Yeats’s “Lake Isle of Innisfree” is an expression of a young man lonely in London, on the pavement grey, who imagines a solitary home on an island in a Sligo lake. Why? Partly because his family had no regular place to call its own, a father always on the move and in debt, a disappointed mother dropped into fifteen years of silence, and a sense of alienation as someone seen by the English as Irish and therefore less than equal–Sligo holidays were as close as childhood got to heaven. By the way, it’s a curious fact that Yeats wrote no poem for his wonderful if prodigal father. (59) In his own signature poem (to return to “Digging” yet another time), Heaney longs for an easy family relation with his father and grandfather, gathered proud and immemorial at Mossbawn, because Heaney had a most happy childhood. During childhood in Mossbawn he enjoyed “early intercourse / In presence of sublime or beautiful forms”; it still gives “substance and life to what [he] feel[s]”; it is his Wordsworthian source, the hiding place of power, his human heaven, that still opens when he approaches it in memory. (60) That childhood, along with the traumatic break from it when he was twelve years old, made him (after Thomas Hardy) the most astonishingly nostalgic poet of the twentieth century. In his recent books he has turned nostalgia into vivid perceptiveness about the life that is lost, and a continuation of the spiritual value of what’s now invisible. Nostalgia is for Heaney what prophecy was to Blake and vision was to Yeats.
What is nostalgia and why is it held in suspicion? It arises from long absence from home; it inhabits imaginatively an origin elsewhere and long ago. In the Oxford English Dictionary, nostalgia is classified, interestingly, as a form of melancholy, even though idiomatically the word now suggests a form of remembering in which what is painful is removed, emphasizing the pleasure rather than the sadness of nostalgia. In this kind of dreaming back, the aim is to drink again the sweetness of the past and to melt away the present. Childhood wishes resurface; adult pains receive a narcotic. In a curious marriage poem addressed to “Marie,” and first published in Death of a Naturalist (OG, 13), the poet-speaker promises “to perfect for you the child / Who diligently potters in my brain, / Digging with heavy spade”; he expects that she too will perfect for him that child. “Perfect . . . the child” could mean, of course, “mature into a man,” but it seems likelier a sign that from early on Heaney identified his gift as a poet with an inner child whose connection with childhood imaginings had to be kept alive.
Possible problems with drawing upon nostalgia as one’s main inspiration are that it sweetens its picture of the past (thus falsifying it), and that, like other forms of melancholia, it endlessly repeats a single phase of experience, stalling development. To borrow a distinction from Freud, melancholia compared with mourning does not involve working through painful memories; instead, the pre-traumatic form of life is reenacted in symbolic form without stop in the present. Is Heaney’s nostalgia such a form of melancholia? Is there a trauma that is being endlessly evaded by dreaming back? My hypothesis is that there was a trauma, and that it may have been connected to the poet going away to school, the death of Christopher Heaney, his father Patrick Heaney, and the departure of the family from Mossbawn. This is not precise, but whereof one does not know very much thereof one cannot say very much. In those poems published after his father’s death, it does seem that Heaney is mourning in Freud’s sense of the term, working through past experiences of pain as well as sweetness. Poetry such as that found in “Squarings” does not feel melancholic: the poems seem to stream rapidly out of a newly opened source, whether of tears, smiles, intimations, or simply reminiscences, under a spell of liberation and discovery, even if the mindscape traversed is Mossbawn once again, now full of what John Montague calls “slight but memoried life.” (61)
Psychoanalytic models, of course, are reductive (that is how they clarify). The poems that follow the death of Patrick Heaney yearn for a psychic experience that is more than psychological and yet is not as much as religious. It is a late-twentieth century spiritual investigation conducted with alertness, gravity, guesswork, and due skepticism. The poem is regarded by its own maker reverently, as a possible oracle of a spirit presence not before correctly named or perfectly described by other people–occurring in an underworld and afterlife created by the emptying out within the living of a space that exactly fits the shape of a person who had stood for years vividly among them, a hole that delineates a figure, or shadow that captures a silhouette (OG, 289, 290). So Heaney visits a region where Virgil went before, and Dante, and Yeats, but takes a path they did not take.
In addition to underworlds, Heaney discovers or fabricates heavens in these late books, ways in which the dead remain among us, kingdoms of heaven that are here and now. “The Poet’s Chair,” for instance, in the first section meditates as Yeats does on art and immortality, the miracles that can occur once a person is “out of nature” (OG, 398-99). The second section gives a freeze-frame image of Socrates in the hour before his death (as pictured in the Phaedo) during which he proved the soul immortal and brought his own spirit vividly to rest. To our minds, death must be for the philosopher what he made it be, endlessly deferred and understood. The final section of the poem is built up out of a memory of Patrick Heaney ploughing a field, but that memory partakes both of Yeats’s sense of immortality through art and Socrates’ proof of the immortality of the soul, so that Heaney can hold still the past thought of a foreknowledge of his father’s “being here for good in every sense,” even at a time when his father is bodily there no longer. Blessing the father here confers a kind of immortality, as for good has two meanings, first the sense of being virtuous and conducing to virtue in others, and second of being forever (the classic Christian paradox: the good do not die).
The skill and tact the poet uses in the invention of afterlives is remarkable, but the “marvels” he observes and creates seem a home for the memory of the dead, but not a place in which the departed soul can enjoy consciousness or continued pleasure in its own existence–a very significant difference between Heaney’s heavens and the Christian one. For instance, in the final section of “Seeing Things,” there is an anecdote about Patrick Heaney never letting his son come with him into the fields to spray the potatoes–the boy might get in the way, be injured, or frighten the horse, etc. But one day, with the father out alone, the horse was frightened and it tumbled Patrick Heaney and his rig into the river. As the father came back to the house, wet footprints behind him, the poet saw Patrick Heaney with “his ghosthood immanent,” like a man who could have died, and indeed would die, but just then was alive and present. And standing face to face, all paternal scolding and filial resentment forgotten, “there was nothing between us there,” the poet concludes, “That might not still be happily ever after” (OG, 317). Such visions of atonement, of his father being there for good, still happily ever after, are constructed out of insights, multiple perspectives, memory traces projected into symbols, double meanings, and metaphors, to give an illusion of everlastingness. The danger belonging to the form of consolation offered by such poems is the same danger, if it is one, that belongs to religion: both hold forth beliefs that can be neither demonstrated nor disproved, but happen to answer perfectly to what we wish could be true.
To be fair, it must be added that while these poems credit wishes, they credit them as wishes, and they don’t suppress mention of doubts. Heaney’s fabrication of heavens is presented as both fabrication and the discovery of an idea in which a man might live, the fabricator that is, if not the one mourned. When it comes down to it, by my book there just is no immortality in fact or fiction, religion or reality, that is anywhere near as good as this passing life each possesses under a sentence of toil, sexual selving, sickness, and death. Part of what makes that passing life good, however, is the value we give to perishable individuals, especially those who brought us life, or to whom we brought life, or with whom we engendered others. Such value is the sweetness of life while we have it; it exists in thought and feeling, and can be communicated and even enhanced through art. That enhancement is of no small importance.
So, even though the recent quest of Seamus Heaney is undertaken on account of private needs, and what is sought is a personal consolation, it certainly has public interest. Tens of thousands of people now follow the journey of Seamus Heaney (and it must be difficult under such conditions for him to cross into “the frontier of writing”), but it is understandable that so many want to watch. It is no little thing, as Yeats said, to achieve anything in art. What is written about a living poet is provisional journalism, a sketch on little evidence of today’s view of present events, but it seems safe to say that Heaney has indeed done some things that will last, and looks well set to do a good deal more, adding to what the world has that it did not have before, a further enlargement.
(1) Seamus Heaney, Opened Ground (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998), 10. Hereafter cited as OG.
(2) W.B. Yeats, Samhain (1905), reprinted in Explorations (London: Macmillan, 1962).
(3) OG, 53, 51, 55.
(4) Edna Longley, Poetry in the Wars (Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe, 1986), 176.
(5) Robert F. Garratt, ed., Critical Essays on Seamus Heaney (New York: G. K. Hall, 1995), 35-37.
(6) James Randall, “An Interview with Seamus Heaney,” Ploughshares 5:3 (1979), 10-13.
(7) Jon Stallworthy, “The Poet as Archaeologist: W. B. Yeats and Seamus Heaney,” Review of English Studies 33:130 (1982), 158-74, reprinted in Garratt, Critical Essays, 172-86.
(8) W. B. Yeats, The Autobiography of William Butler Yeats (New York: Collier, 1965), 7, 29.
(9) For Heaney’s despairing allusion to Yeats’s question about the revolutionary martyrs’ sacrifice in “Easter 1916,” “O when may it suffice?” see “Kinship” in North: “this/`island of the ocean’/ where nothing will suffice,” (OG, 119).
(10) Randall, “An Interview,” 13.
(11) Michael Parker, Seamus Heaney: The Making of a Poet (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1993), 23.
(12) In a helpful article, Jonathan Allison comprehensively reviews connections between the two Irish poets in “Seamus Heaney’s Yeats,” Studies in Modern Literature 14 (1996), 19-47.
(13) Seamus Heaney, Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968-78 (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1980), 98-114.
(14) There are significant exceptions, such as the self-disclosures in “Wedding Day” and in the final section of “The Tollund Man” in Wintering Out (OG, 65, 63).
(15) In WBY’s poems, “suddenly” occurs thirty-six times; “sudden” thirty-two times. See A Concordance to the Poems of W. B. Yeats, ed. Stephen M. Painter (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1963).
(16) It seems strange to say that there’s something unsatisfactory about this book, most often judged to be the best book by the best poet of our times. Admittedly, a number of poems from the collection–“Sunlight,” “The Seed-Cutters,” “Punishment,” “Exposure”-belong in my own anthology of the best of Seamus Heaney.
(17) Seamus Heaney, Preoccupations, 110.
(18) The “peace” in “The Harvest Bow” does not seem to have much to do with the ceasefire that endlessly eluded the parties in Northern Ireland.
(19) For accounts of Heaney’s relation to his father in “The Harvest Bow,” see Henry Hart, “Seamus Heaney’s Anxiety of Trust in Field Work,” Chicago Review 36:3-4 (1989), 87-108; Neil Corcoran, Seamus Heaney (London: Faber and Faber, 1986); Parker, Seamus Heaney: The Making of a Poet, 173. Parker thinks the poem an affectionate tribute; Hart believes it is a “guilty, mistrustful” critique of a personally brutal but politically complacent father.
(20) Seamus Heaney, Preoccupations, 101.
(21) Eileen Battersby, “Weekend,” Irish Times, 29 September 1990, 51 Rand Brandes, “Secondary Sources: A Gloss on the Critical Reception of Seamus Heaney, 1965-1993,” Colby Quarterly 30:1 (March 1994), 63-77.
(22) Seamus Heaney, Preoccupations, 41.
(23) Allusions to weaponry appear in “Digging,” “Death of a Naturalist,” “In Small Townlands,” “The Barn,” “Churning Day,” and “The Trout.”
(24) Seamus Heaney, Electric Light (London: Faber and Faber, 2001), 61.
(25) Helen Vendler, Seamus Heaney (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998), 29.
(26) Seamus Heaney, Door into the Dark (London: Faber, 1969), 25.
(27) According to Michael Parker, Heaney first read Roethke (The Far Field) in 1965, after the composition of “Digging,” so it is not a question of direct influence (56).
(28) Michael Parker, Seamus Heaney, 1. Parker is my source for facts about Heaney’s life, unless otherwise noted.
(29) “In a 1989 interview on the British Desert Island Disc radio program, Seamus Heaney says that although he grew up in South County Derry as a member of the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland, as a child he never personally felt the physical brunt of sectarianism. Aware of the cultural differences dividing the province, he felt his home was `secure’ and devoid of what he calls `sectarian energy,'” Modern Irish Writers, Alexander G. Gonzalez, ed. (Aldwych Press, 1997). This innocence vanished in his teenage years.
(30) “The Barn” and “Personal Helicon” are from Death of a Naturalist (London: Faber, 1966), “Sunlight” from North (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990), “A Sofa in the Forties” from The Spirit Level (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996), and “The Railway Children” from Station Island (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1985).
(31) See “The Stations of the West,” OG, 88.
(32) Rand Brandes, Interview with Seamus Heaney, Salmagundi 80 (Fall 1988), 6.
(33) Michael Parker interview with Seamus Deane, in Parker, Seamus Heaney, 16.
(34) “The Flight Path,” OG, 385. There are several possible readings of “Whatever it is, I’ll be writing for myself”: (a) a rejection of shared feelings and statement of independence; (b) an acceptance of shared feelings and statement of independence.
(35) Seamus Heaney, “Unhappy and at Home,” interview by Seamus Deane, Crane Bag 1:1 (Spring 1977), 66.
(36) March 1973 interview with Les Lettres Nouvelles; qtd. in Parker, 16.
(37) Heaney, Electric Light, 18.
(38) “Docker,” Death of a Naturalist, 22.
(39) Qtd. in Henry Hart, “Seamus Heaney’s Anxiety of Trust,” 99.
(40) Seamus Heaney, Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968-1978, 42.
(41) From “Station Island, VII” (OG, 237) and “Station Island, IX” (OG, 241). The poet speaks of his father’s own “self-doubt” in “The Stone Verdict” (OG, 280).
(42) Henry Hart, “Seamus Heaney’s Anxiety of Trust,” 98.
(43) Seamus Heaney, “Unhappy and at Home,” interview by Seamus Deane, Crane Bag 1:1 (Spring 1977), 66.
(44) Ibid, 67.
(45) Ibid, 68.
(46) J. Bower Bell, The Irish Troubles: A Generation of Violence, 1967-1992 (New York: St. Martin’s, 1992), 52-53.
(47) Qtd. from New Statesman (July 1966) by Michael Parker in Seamus Heaney: The Making of a Poet, 120.
(48) Qtd. in Parker, Seamus Heaney: The Making of a Poet, 55-56.
(49) Heaney’s attitude to the Civil Rights movement was that the state should have shown some goodwill toward the idea of being Irish and given way to the reasonable demands of the protestors, among which he counted himself. As for the violence of nationalists, his tendency was neither to criticize nor apologize; he lamented and explained. See Seamus Heaney, “Old Derry Walls,” The Listener (24 October 1968), 522.
(50) Michael Molino, “Flying by the Nets of Language and Nationality: Seamus Heaney, the `English’ Language, and Ulster’s Troubles,” Modern Philology 91:2 (1993), (187).
(51) Seamus Heaney, “Unhappy and at Home,” interview by Seamus Deane, Crane Bag 1:1 (Spring 1977), 67.
(52) “Station Island, IX,” Heaney’s poem to Francis Hughes, an IRA man who died on hunger strike, ultimately compares him not to a badger but a weasel, yet also expresses sympathy for the “unquiet soul” of a boy hiding from the law in a “byre loft” (OG, 240).
(53) The Sydney Canon comparison is taken from an article by Francis Dixon, who argues that Heaney feels guilty because he has not risked dying; see Dixon’s “Gathering Impressions in Heaney’s Wintering Out,” The Critical Review 30 (1990), 108.
(54) The David-Goliath image occurs, for instance, in “The Other Side” (OG, 60), “Bone Dreams” (OG, 104), “Exposure” (OG, 135), “Sandstone Keepsake” (OG, 204). He imagines enjoying the “sad freedom” of riding the tumbril in “The Tollund Man” (OG, 62-63) and throws the “stones of silence” in “Punishment” (OG, 112).
(55) Michael Parker, Seamus Heaney: The Making of a Poet, 120.
(56) “Poet of the Bogs,” interview with Francis Clines, New York Times Book Review (2 December 1983), 42-43, 98-99, 104; qtd. Tim Hancock, “‘Daring to make free’: Seamus Heaney and Ulster Politics, 1968-1979,” English 47 (Summer 1998), 118.
(57) Blake Morrison, Interview with Seamus Heaney, Independent on Sunday (19 May 1991).
(58) Seamus Heaney, The Government of the Tongue (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1988), 107-08; discussed by Helen Vendler in Seamus Heaney, 11-12.
(59) He is named, of course, in “Beautiful Lofty Things,” when JBY mocks the Catholic nationalists protesting “The Playboy”: “‘This Land of Saints’ and then as the applause died out,/Of plaster saints”; Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats, ed. Richard J. Finneran (New York: Macmillan, 1989), 303.
(60) William Wordsworth, The Prelude 14.165; 12.279-80, 284.
(61) John Montague, “The Water Carrier,” Collected Poems (Winston-Salem: Wake Forest University Press, 1995), 180. This particular Montague poem, incidentally, has been instructive for Heaney, both in its form (compare “Mid-Term Break”) and subject (compare “Personal Helicon” and “Terminus”).
ADRIAN FRAZIER is Director of the M.A. in Drama and Theatre Studies in the English Department of the National University of Ireland, Galway, and Research Professor of English at Union College, NY. In addition to articles on Irish poets, he is the author of Behind the Scenes: Yeats, Horniman, and the Struggle for the Abbey Theatre (1990) and George Moore: 1852-1933 (2000). Part of the research for the Moore biography was carried out in Galway while Frazier was an Irish American Cultural Institute Fellow in Autumn 1997.
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