his 'first phase' of poetry up to North, Heaney's work pursued
an ethic of
as divination, as a restoration of culture to itself.
...an attempt to define and interpret the present by bringing
it into significant relationship with the past. (1)
early poem 'Digging', from his first collection Death of
a Naturalist (1966), signalled a poetic excavation of meaning,
a delving into the underlying cultural and personal groundwork
in search of emotional and intellectual sustenance, which
was to characterise Heaney's method of poetic inquiry in
his subsequent work. With the advent of sectarian violence
after 1968, his poetry turned outwards, from what Corcoran
terms a 'narcissistic mirror-gazing stare'
to a search for 'images and symbols adequate to our predicament'
This was to lead him to a reconsideration and rediscovery
of the deep, latent heritage and roots of his native culture,
from Door into the Dark (1969) through to Wintering Out
(1972) and North (1975). In the 'images and symbols' of
the Nordic, Gaelic and prehistoric roots of Irish culture,
Heaney discerned a disturbing tendency towards spontaneous
violence. It became a recurrent dark theme which threatened
to 'outstare' the academic and aesthetic 'reverence'
of the civilised poet's etymological and anthropological
efforts. A return to ancestral roots proved ultimately inadequate,
promising only to perpetrate existing violence:
they were, as if our memory hatched them,
As if the unquiet founders walked again:
Two young men with rifles on the hill,
Profane and bracing as their instruments. (5)
violence, uncovered in the bogland culture and other inherited
myths, suggested a threatening atavism in the sectarian
violence of the present, which threatened to be deterministic
and definitive. The tendency towards violence seemed an
inextricable part of the cultural heritage, ready to erupt
beyond the tenuous restraints of civilisation. A call to
roots, far from being a consolatory reminder of solidarity
and common humanity, could become ironically, part of the
polemic rhetoric of a call to arms, part of a tribal war
cry to defend the clan's territory. Poetry's vision of a
'restoration of culture to itself', the excavation of ancestral
'memory', appeared only to 'hatch' further atavistic violence.
It is on this disconcerting note that North draws to its
inconclusive close, and Field Work begins.
At the end of North, the poet whose personal history spans
duo civilisations, English and Irish, whose autobiographical
inquiry has been informed by Wordsworth and Yeats
, finds himself embroiled in a clash between those discrete
cultures from which his identity has been derived. In a
salient recognition of his cross-cultural loyalties, as
well as the demands of his art, the poet imposes a self-exile.
He withdraws to the South with his immediate family, away
from the self-perpetuating immediacy of violence, in an
attempt to regain a proper sense of perspective. At the
same time, however, he risks the impotence and alienation
of distance, of losing context:
am neither internee nor informer;
An inner émigré, grown long-haired
And thoughtful; a wood-kerne
from the massacre,
Taking protective colouring
From bole and bark, feeling
Every wind that blows;
blowing up these sparks
For their meagre heat, have missed
The once-in-a-lifetime portent,
The comet's pulsing rose.
escape, as he is more than eager to assert, is not escapism,
nor a sign of guilt, but the necessary self-preservation
of an intellectual who nurses an artistic vision extending
beyond the polemics of sectarianism and political rhetoric.
But this is a deeply ambiguous position, for the significant
vision, the key event, the crucial signs of change, might
well be derived, sudden as a shooting star and portentous
as a comet, from the heat and immediacy of the historical
moment itself. His is the familiar anxiety of relevance
common to writers who attempt to engage with a politics
of atrocity - the fear of being out of touch with the key
events. By distancing himself from the massacre he is able
to take a more objective and individual panoramic view,
but loses the burning, immediate, vital vision of the participant
eyewitness, and thereby runs the real risk of invalidating
his external, uninvolved viewpoint.
From the work of the international Masters, the English
Wordsworth, the Irish Yeats, from Mandelstam, Chekhov and
others, Heaney comes to glimpse the possibility of a significant
art, a vision, which may transcend sectarian polemics and
ethnic boundaries in its import. Questions of specific relevance
would be rendered irrelevant by the cosmopolitanism of world
art and literature, the particulars of national and personal
history subsumed under the meta-narrative of world history
and world culture. Poetry, therefore, would come to gain
its ultimate authority not from the specifics of its subject
but from its position within and discourse with an international
body of work, from which it would claim its true maturity
and force. The universal outlook eventually becomes paramount,
and the poetic 'vision' becomes a reaching towards a comprehensive
world-view. Heaney records this feeling most vividly in
his introductory essay to The Government of the Tongue,
'Nero, Chekhov's Cognac and a Knocker':
I think the writers of my generation saw themselves as part
of leaven. The fact that a literary action was afoot was
itself a new political condition, and the poets did not
feel the need to address themselves to the specifics of
politics because they assumed that the tolerances and subtleties
of their art were precisely what they had set against the
repetitive intolerance of public life. ...Nothing in the
situation needed to be exposed since it was all entirely
barefaced. It seemed, rather, that conditions had to be
outstripped and it is tempting to view the whole syndrome
in the light of Jung's thesis that an insoluble conflict
is overcome by outgrowing it, developing in the process
a 'new level of consciousness'.
recognition and pursuit of a 'new level of consciousness',
a new, transcendent vision which 'outstrips' and 'outgrows'
the confining particulars of personal culture and history,
constitutes a refinement of Heaney's original project to
'bring the present into significant relationship with the
past'. The turbulent present is envisioned, not as the claustrophobic
determined functionary of the past, but a unique historical
moment, with deeper political, cultural and social implications
relevant to common human experience. The visionary power
of poetry comes closer to the oracular authority of the
poet, with the poet subject to the force of his vision,
approaching 'poetry as divination':
oldest evidence for this attitude appears in the Greek
notion that when a lyric poet gives voice, 'it is a god
The Government of the Tongue (1988) is written from the
authority of his present status as an established, world-renowned
academic and literary figure, a 'Master' in his own right.
Heaney traces back similar convictions to as early as Field
Work (1979), the next collection after North.
is in Field Work that 'Sibyls' first appear, but the poet
here is still fresh from the 'weighing and weighing' of
self-doubt manifest in 'Exposure' and North. The poet still
questions, rather than envisions:
tongue moved, a swung relaxing hinge.
I said to her, 'What will become of us?'
And as forgotten water in a well might shake
At an explosion under morning
a crack up a gable,
She began to speak.
in the fresh autonomy of a voice detached from the sectarian
turmoil of the North, begins to interrogate once more the
possibility of a unifying vision, a 'comet's pulsing rose'
of his own. Here, external forces other than the rhetoric
of politics and religion are perceived, for instance economic
materialism and self interest - 'My people think money /
and talk weather. Oil-rigs lull their future / On single
acquisitive stems.'('Sibyl', ll. 13-14). The poet comes
to rely on an autonomous voice, an omnipresent resource,
external to the individual's limitations, from which insight,
inspiration and vision may be drawn. He speaks of an 'invisible,
untoppled omphalos' confronting the intrusive presence of
charioteers, above your dormant guns,
It stands here still, stands vibrant as you pass,
The invisible, untoppled omphalos.
poet is a figure who appreciates vision, a 'bringer of bad
news', because he recognises or foresees the larger implications
of events. In Field Work, this larger perspective is brought
to bear in a poignant reassessment of his relationship with
the events and participants of the turmoil he had escaped
in order to comprehend. This extended viewpoint comes to
be suggested and informed by Heaney's encounter of and engagement
with Dante. It represents a comprehensive and tried angle
of approach which could accomodate his ties with his native
lands, with its simultaneous, familiar warmth and violence,
while granting him the broad apprehension of 'a perspective
I first loved in the Commedia was the local intensity,
the vehemence and fondness attaching to individual shades,
the way personalities and values were emotionally soldered
together, the strong strain of what has been called personal
realism in the celebration of bonds of friendship and
bonds of enmity. The way in which Dante could place himself
in an historical world yet submit that world to scrutiny
from a perspective beyond history, the way he could accommodate
the political and the transcendent, this too encouraged
my attempt at a sequence of poems which would explore
the typical strains which the consciousness labours under
in this country. The main tension is between two often
contradictory commands: to be faithful to the collective
historical experience and to be true to the recognitions
of the emerging self. I hoped that I could dramatize these
strains by meeting shades from my own dream-life who had
also been inhabitants of the actual Irish world. They
could perhaps voice the claims of orthodoxy and the necessity
to refuse those claims. They could probe the validity
of one's commitment.
'sequence of poems' alluded to in Heaney's essay is 'Station
Island', from the collection bearing its title, and it will
be considered later. In his poetry, Heaney's engagement
with Dante's Divine Comedy emerges in its initial stages
in Field Work, where Dante becomes a voice of authority.
In the essay cited above, Heaney mentions that his first
direct creative response to Dante was to render his own
translation of 'Ugolino' (which appears at the end of Field
Work) and the first four cantos of Dante's poem. Dante was,
for Heaney, a sovereign 'example'. Medieval Florentine Catholic
spoke to the modern Northern Irish Catholic; the political
exile of Florentine sectarian conflict spoke to the 'inner émigré'; Poet spoke to poet. He would also
have seen the influence of Dante on the literary pioneers
of the twentieth century, Eliot, Pound, and in particular,
Joyce. Heaney could identify, broadly speaking, with Dante's
political and artistic situation, while his essential 'foreignness'
(of nationality, language and historical moment) provided
the key towards a global perspective. As an acknowledged
canonical figure in the larger sphere of world literature,
Dante the poet and Dante's poetry became emblematic of the
grander, more inclusive, more universal scope to which Heaney's
Dante which emerges in Field Work is a ground-breaking Old
Master whose accumulated pool of images, tropes and wisdom
might be employed in the engagement between the poet and
his social and artistic environment. Dante's strength, for
Heaney, is his ability to 'accommodate the political and
the transcendent'; a cosmic perspective, encompassing the
whole of Creation, can nevertheless be anchored by significant
encounters and meaningful interaction with individuals.
Consequently, Dante's authority, in particular his 'local
intensity', is borrowed by the poet, in a collection of
poems marked primarily by elegies and poetic assessments
of social relationships. By framing the problems and questions
raised by the crisis in Dantean terms, Heaney sought to
make sense of the tragic implications nearest to him. In
'The Strand at Lough Beg' (Field Work, pp. 17-18), Heaney
quotes Dante as an eloquent epigrammatic preface to an elegy
for his cousin, Colum McCartney, as if the beautiful words
could serve as an anointment and an epitaph; a substitute
for the undignified death of a victim of violence, a postmortem
turn...to find you on your knees
With blood and roadside muck in your hair and eyes,
Then kneel in front of you in brimming grass
And gather up cold handfuls of the dew
To wash you, cousin. I dab you clean with moss
Fine as the drizzle out of a low cloud.
I lift you under the arms and lay you flat.
With rushes that shoot green again, I plait
Green scapulars to wear over your shroud.
('The Strand at Lough Beg, ll. 35-44)
poetry becomes the means by which Heaney mourns, a voice
through which his grief may be articulated. Heaney enacts,
through the Dantean episode, a life-affirming poetic ritual
to replace the dignified death rites denied to the victim,
and thus comes to terms with his own grief.
Even in Field Work, the Dantean presence manifests a shift
in position, from literary source and authority to active
inquisition. In 'Leavings', history itself is interrogated
for the subtle and indirect routes by which the present
state of conflict has been arrived at. Riding 'down England',
the poet passes by the ruins of 'Ely's Lady Chapel', one
of the many extant testimonies to the excesses of the English
Reformation, orchestrated by Thomas Cromwell.
circle does he tread,
scalding on cobbles,
each one a broken statue's head?
('Leavings', Field Work, p. 57)
Reformation which resulted in the fundamental division of
the Christian church, has, of course, its reverberations
and echos in the sectarianism of Northern Irish conflict.
In Dante's symmetrical universe, all punishments fit the
crime - Cromwell is consigned to damnation by the poem,
not least because of his disruption of the original harmony
inherent in the Church and in its artistic artifacts. Therefore,
'broken statue's heads' are his inevitable doom, although
the extent and full repercussions of his personal crime,
the depth of the 'circle' he treads, remains to be assessed.
Already in Field Work, however, Heaney is deeply uneasy
with a purely aesthetic conception of the crises of Northern
Ireland. The 'educated man' in 'Casualty' (Field Work, p.
23) is left speechless when asked to judge the actions of
one of the dead ('How culpable was he'), and asked to '"Puzzle
me the right answer to that one."' - a difficult but
necessary question to answer in a proper appraisal of the
tragedy. It is only too easy to find one's own comfortable
niche and accommodating, academic answers, to stop questioning:
I was taken in his boat,
The screw purling, turning
Indolent fathoms white,
I tasted freedom with him.
To get out early, haul
Steadily off the bottom,
Dispraise the catch, and smile
As you find a rhythm
Working you, slow mile by mile,
Into your proper haunt
Somewhere, well out, beyond...
Plodder through midnight rain,
Question me again.
(iii, 'Casualty', Field Work, p. 24)
the poet catches himself drifting off into indulgent, inviting
complacency, he catches himself, and invites the 'revenant'
to question him again, to put him once again on trial, and
to remind him that there are difficult but critical questions
to answer. His wistful, nostalgic lapse of solemnity and
vigour strikes him as a fault, an abandonment of vision,
a turning away. He is to pay the price of conscience for
this and other lapses, in 'Station Island' as the 'revenants'
confront him and question his commitment.
In 'An Afterwards', the poet's whimsical subjection of himself
to 'damnation', is itself the sign of a deeper self-questioning
and displaced guilt:
would plunge all poets in the ninth circle
And fix them, tooth in skull, tonguing for brain;
For backbiting in life she'd make their hell
A rabid egotistical daisy-chain.
Afterwards', Field Work, p. 44, ll. 1-4)
'she' is the supposed poet's wife, who would have 'all poets'
damned for that peculiarly solipsistic activity, poetry
'making'. The caricature of the poet presented here is the
bohemian, self-absorbed, self-indulgent and self-righteous
figure, defensive, 'unyielding, spurred, ambitious, unblunted'
and above all, intensely antisocial. He is guilty of that
primal sin, Pride, and thus relegated to Dante's ninth circle
which is its designated place. In his self-absorption, he
has neglected his familial and social ties ('Why could you
not have, oftener, in our years / Unclenched, and come down
laughing from your room / And walked the twilight with me
and your children', ll. 16-18).
weren't the worst. You aspired to a kind,
Indifferent, faults-on-both-sides tact.
You left us first, and then those books, behind.
('An Afterwards', ll. 22-24)
The poem's final amelioration of the charge brings the charge
back to Heaney, reinforcing his own innate unease at his
seemingly noncommittal position. The accusations in the
poem are the poet's own, directed towards himself, accusing
himself of indulgence, of dodging issues, of neglecting
his social life. The Dantean landscape has returned to its
manifestation as a moral and ethical landscape where the
discourse of guilt is dramatised and enacted. It is a place
of interrogation, of relentless questioning and accusation.
Having failed to achieve Dante's own unified and transcendent
vision, the poet's anxiety is startlingly realized - he
has moved from a position as an interrogator to that of
one interrogated, one of the accused, perhaps even one of
the damned. The hinge between damnation and salvation appears
to be, again, 'commitment' - commitment to one's public
and social obligations simultaneous with a commitment to
the integrity of one's pursued vision and calling.
problems of commitments and of conflicting loyalties are
not resolved in Field Work but are given voice, elegised.
Heaney's last elegy in the collection, 'In Memoriam Francis
Ledwidge' (p. 59-60), leaves the poet and the reader with
a 'dead enigma, / all the strains Criss-cross in useless
equilibrium', perpetuating the 'puzzle' and the hapless
'indifference'. To take a stand or not to take a stand?
Field Work sets up a mode of inquiry and fields the questions,
but retains an inability to move beyond the point of deadlock.
Alternatively, it evades the issues and escapes into a seemingly
complacent pastoral mode of 'rushes', 'moss' and fishing
boats. The vision of the 'omphalos' remains, but is undirected,
defensive, passive, as the convoy passes by, ultimately
indifferent beyond the event. If poetry is to engage in
a satisfactorily committed and judicious vision, it seems,
it must bring itself to an extreme of interrogation. It
must first go through hell.
The final piece of the collection is Heaney's version of
Dante's 'Ugolino' episode (Field Work, p. 61-64) becomes
a paradigm of the cannibalistic ferocity of sectarian violence.
It poses an open question to the reader, and becomes the
point at which the reader is implicated, refused a position
of neutrality by the accusative 'you' of the last stanza.
Atrocity is ultimately the responsibility of all; the suffering
of the innocent is an atrocity for which all humanity is
culpable. The position of 'neutrality' had already been
exposed as a myth in 'Punishment' in North - it implied
a 'casting of the stone of silence', passive consent by
default. At the end of Field Work, in the pathos of the
Dantean episode, Heaney has found an idiom by which the
reader too is interrogated, and 'probed' for 'commitment'.
process of self interrogation, as Heaney suggests in the
essay cited earlier, led to the purgatorial self-questioning
dramatised in the 'Station Island' sequence, in Station
Island (1984). The poems preceding the 'Station Island'
sequence proper set the scene, and reiterate the position
from which the poet has traversed to this juncture. 'Away
from it All' seems to allude to a similar escapist sentiment
- and gray, non-committed, consenting neutrality - as his
jaunt in the fishing boat in 'Casualty':
was twilight, twilight, twilight
as the questions hopped and rooted.
It was oarsmen's backs and oars
hauled against and lifting.
And more power to us, my friend,
at it over the dregs,
laying in in earnest
as the sea darkens
and whitens and darkens
and quotations start to rise
I was stretched between contemplation
of a motionless point
and the command to participate
actively in history.
'Actively? What do you mean?'
The light at the rim of the sea
is rendered down to a fine
graduation, somewhere between
balance and inanition.
from it All', Station Island, p. 16-17, ll. 11-30)
quotes from Czeslaw Milosz (ll. 22-25) to sum up the dilemma
which plagues the poetry of Field Work and before - the
tension between the autonomous, inward impulses of the artist,
and fidelity to the particulars of the historical moment.
Milosz is one of the Eastern European writers with whom
Heaney felt a solidarity of situation, together with 'Mandelstam
and other poets from Eastern bloc countries'
there is something in their situation that makes them attractive
to a reader whose formative experience has been largely
Irish. There is an unsettled aspect to the different worlds
they inhabit, and one of the challenges they face is to
survive amphibiously, in the realm of 'the times' and the
realm of their moral and artistic self-respect.
In other words, Heaney's own dilemma. His use of the quotation
in ‘Away from it All’, it is recognised, is
also a 'rehearsed alibi', part of the self-perpetrating
polemic paradox of his situation, caught in anxieties of
'the limbo of lost words' :
you are tired or terrified
your voice slips back into its old first place
and makes the sound your shades make there ...
When Dante snapped a twig in the bleeding wood
a voice sighed out of blood that bubbled up
like sap at the end of green sticks on a fire
the click of a cell lock somewhere now
the interrogator steels his introibo,
the light motes blaze, a blood-red cigarette
startles the shades, screeching and beseeching.
'The Loaning', Station Island, p. 52, 9-18)
suggestion of an interrogation cell reinforces the motif
of interrogation of familiar personal demons, but also recalls
an earlier poem 'Chekhov on Sakhalin' (Ibid., p. 18-19).
He makes the association between the penal colony and Dante's
Inferno; the visitor Chekhov 'shadowed a convict guide'
through the institution, alluding to Dante's own convict
guide in penal Inferno, the shade of Virgil. Chekhov visits
the penal colony to record the condition and experiences
of the prisoners, echoing Dante's visit through hell, and
his own interrogation of the spirits. In Heaney's scheme,
the 'cognac' Chekhov consumes is a paradigm of his art;
his 'joy' at its consumption is 'an image of the poet appeased;
justified and unabashed by the suffering which surrounds
him because unflinchingly responsible to it.'
Chekhov, in his own purgatorial attempt to 'squeeze / His
slave's blood out and waken the free man' ('Chekhov on Sakhalin',
p. 19, p. 26-28) offers a way out for Heaney's own impasse
- it is Dante's route, Brigid's route - the long way back,
through hell and purgatory - a journey of spiritual resolve
Derg, a purgatorio in itself, the site of a three-day
pilgrimage involving a dark night and a bright morning,
a departure from the world and a return to it. I would
not have dared to go to Lough Derg...had I not become
entranced with The Divine Comedy in translation...With
Dante's example, however, I was encouraged to make an
advantage of what could otherwise be regarded as a disadvantage,
namely, that other writers had been to Lough Derg before
'other writers' become the foster fathers, the Virgils in
Heaney's own purgatorio. Each shade poses unique problems,
but offers invaluable lessons, each 'voices the claims of
orthodoxy and the necessity to refuse those claims.' The
first, Simon Sweeney (I, 'Station Island', Station Island,
p. 61-63) associated with Heaney's own alter-ego the mythological
Sweeney, advices him to 'Stay clear of all processions!'.
The second, William Carleton (II, 'Station Island', p. 64-6),
tells him that the road to be travelled 'you travel on your
own'. The shade of Carleton rebukes the poet-pilgrim's 'defensiveness'
of stance. 'You have to try to make sense of what comes,
' he insists, 'Remember everything and keep your head.'
(II, 'Station Island', p. 66). The poet-pilgrim offers in
response images representative of the naturalistic pastoralism
typical of Heaney's past poetry:
alders in the hedge,' I said, 'mushrooms,
dark-clumped grass where cows or horses dunged,
the cluck when pith-lined chestnut shells split open
your hand, the melt of shells corrupting,
old jampots in a drain clogged up with mud-'
But now Carleton was interrupting:
this is like a trout kept in a spring
or maggots sown in wounds -
another life that cleans our element.
are earthworms of the earth, and all that
has gone through us is what will be our trace.'
`Station Island', Station Island, p. 66)
points the poet away from pure indulgence in imagery, towards
an idea of vision as refinement; the poets are the 'earthworms
of the earth', digesting its dross and leaving behind fertile
material, ready to germinate. The earthworm engages with
the fundamentals of earth, the basic 'element' from which
all other life arises. The image of the earthworm thus suggests
at once a great humility of stance, and a protean pervasiveness
Purgatory involves penitence and confession as well as instruction.
In sections (VII) and (VIII), the poet-pilgrim encounters
two accusatory spirits, confronting his 'timid circumspect
involvement'. One of these is the shade of Colum McCarthney,
the subject of Heaney's elegy 'The Strand at Lough Beg',
and we know this because he attacks that very elegy:
they were getting crisis
first-hand, Colum, they had happened in on
live sectarian assassination.
I was dumb, encountering what was destined.'
And so I pleaded with my second cousin.
'I kept seeing a grey stretch of Lough Beg
and the strand empty at daybreak.
I felt like the bottom of a dried-up lake.'
saw that, and you wrote that - not the fact.
You confused evasion and artistic tact.
The Protestant who shot me through the head
I accuse directly, but indirectly, you
for the way you whitewashed ugliness and drew
the lovely blinds of the Purgatorio
and saccharined my death with morning dew.'
'Station Island' Station Island, p. 83)
pilgrim's remarks again recall the polemics of Heaney's
own earlier position, and it is in this section that he
confronts the underlying anxieties with his art, which are
suggested in Field Work. We see his tendency towards a nostalgic
excavation and obsession with the past, and the deadlock
of deterministic pessimism to which it brought him by the
end of North. His quotation of Dante in the elegy amounts
to another 'rehearsed alibi', a stock, epigrammatic 'evasion',
the aesthetic 'whitewash' of an ugly issue of political
violence - albeit motivated by a sense of grief and loss.
The empty and misleading orthodox 'Danteanism' of 'The Strand
at Lough Beg' is contrasted against the creative reinvention
and rewriting of Purgatorio which the sequence 'Station
Island' represents. Dante, the Old Master and Establishment
poet of beautiful, wise lines and deep answers, has become,
by 'Station Island' a poet of vigorous and radical self-interrogation
and discourse, a kin spirit and predecessor rather than
an orthodox authority. It is this reinterpretation of Dante
that marks Heaney's transition; with the recognition of
the essential responsibility of art to life, as it were,
he awakens from his 'somnambulism', the subconscious 'mistrust'
and 'connivance' with rhetoric and passive consent. (IX,
p. 85). Heaney has in fact cast 'stones of silence', and
the recognition of his own guilt of insensitivities and
insecurities forms the contrition and penance in his purgatorial
experience. A clarification of ground has occurred, the
paradox not so much resolved as recognised and disarmed, ‘outstripped’; he is 'no more adrift, / My feet
touched bottom and my heart revived.' (IX, p.85)
At the end of the sequence, shriven, 'no more adrift' and
'convalescent' he encounters the shade of Joyce, a figure
of mythic stature in its self-awareness and protean energy:
I knew him in the flesh
His voice eddying with the vowels of all rivers
came back to me, though he did not speak yet,
a voice like a prosecutors's or a singer's,
narcotic, mimic, definite
as a steel nib's downstroke, quick and clean,
and suddenly he hit a litter basket
his stick, saying, 'Your obligation
is not discharged by any common rite.
What you must do must be done on your own
get back in harness. The main thing is to write
for the joy of it. Cultivate a work-lust
that imagines its haven like your hands at night
the sun in the sunspot of a breast.
You are fasted now, light-headed, dangerous.
Take off from here. And don't be so earnest,
others wear the sackcloth and the ashes.
Let go, let fly, forget.
You've listened long enough. Now strike your note.'
'Station Island', p. 92-3)
or rather the radical, creative and subversive Joycean spirit,
reiterates the movement towards an ethic of intellectual
autonomy which characterises the entire purgatorial sequence.
A 'work-lust' is advocated; reinforcing the suggestion of
a redemptive work-ethic hinted at earlier in Station Island,
in 'Shelf Life' ('To work...is to move a certain mass /
through a certain distance, / is to pull your weight and
feel / exact and equal to it. / Feel dragged upon. And buoyant.',
'2. Old Smoothing Iron', p. 22).
The old dilemmas of cultural discontinuity and relevance,
of ancestral determinism become:
waste of time for somebody your age.
That subject people stuff is a cod's game,
infantile, like your peasant pilgrimage.
lose more of yourself than you redeem
doing the decent thing. Keep at a tangent.
When they make the circle wide, it's time to swim
out on your own and fill the element
with signatures on your own frequency,
echo soundings, searches, probes, allurements,
in the dark of the whole sea.'
(XII, 'Station Island', p. 94)
do the decent thing is to bow to convention and to the established
orthodox ideology; it is to write the expected elegies which
whitewash, and it is to resort to stock 'rehearsed alibis'.
It is this conservative dogmatic which perpetrates the cultural
violence, the same passive consent which led to the atrocities
of Nazism. Joyce himself is a prime example of the intellectual
who transcends the limitations of his cultural and historical
locality, without compromising a lasting fidelity, both
to that locality and to the intellectual cutting edge of
international modernism. The key is, once more, a protean
subversiveness and expansiveness of vision, and the courage
to 'keep at a tangent', believing that 'Utterance itself
was self-justifying and creative, like nature.' It is only
with this autonomy of vision that the necessary scope for
a comprehensive, universal even oracular perspective is
available. The poet-pilgrim feels the vitality and giddy,
'dangerous' subversiveness of his new position, on the brink
was as if I had stepped free into space
alone with nothing that I had not known
(Ibid., p. 93)
recalls and enacts Dante's own leap, at the end of Purgatorio,
towards the stars and the final, transcendent vision of
Paradiso. Heaney knows better than to promise such a vision,
but it is clear that he acknowledges it is Dante's own radical
inventiveness that makes his exemplary vision the possible.
The remainder of Station Island, 'Sweeney Revividus, is
a celebration of his newfound perspective, of the discarding
of 'old icons' and the embracing of a new ethic of subversiveness.
It is a convalescent 'refreshment' and revivication as he
anticipates his own 'book of changes', his own visionary
experience to come. The sequence As the title suggests 'Sweeney
Revividus' constitutes an intellectual and spiritual rebirth;
'The First Gloss' heralds this rebirth, enacting its implications
in its very first act; it recalls 'Digging' as a poetic
statement of new beginning:
hold of the shaft of the pen.
Subscribe to the first step taken
from a justified line
into the margin.
step into the margin is to step out of the 'procession'
of the 'justified line' - the orthodox arrangement of text
and the culture for which it is a synecdoche. It is also
to inhabit the space normally reserved for criticism, commentary,
where the tutor leaves his marks. Like the poet's own status
in contemporary culture, it is at once a marginalised space
and an elect position of authority, a new frontier, a free
achievement of a poem, after all, is an experience of
release. In that liberated moment, when the lyric discovers
its buoyant completion and the timeless formal pleasure
comes to fullness and exhaustion, something occurs which
is equidistant from self-justification and self-obliteration.
A plane is - fleetingly - established where the poet is
intensified in his being and freed from his predicaments.
process of deliberation, discipline, interrogation and deliverance
into vision enacted in Station Island become emblematic
of the liberating process of poetry itself. The catharsis
of poetry is related directly with the purgatorial experience
of the pilgrim. The poet-pilgrim's subsequent 'clarification'
or 'clearance', therefore, also accrue to the intellectual
processes of poetry, clearing the ground of crippling ambiguities
and allowing for the possibility of vision.
Haw Lantern (1987) and Seeing Things (1991) exist in the
creative aftermath of the crisis of Station Island, and
lead on from its premises.
'Alphabets', the Phi Beta Kappa poem in The Haw Lantern
indicates a growing engagement and interrogation within
the discourse of language. The acquisition of language,
it suggests, begins with an extension and conditioning of
visual perception, of making palpable associations between
signs. ('This is writing. A swan's neck and swan's back
/ Make the 2 he can see as well as say.'). The imposition
of orthodox values also begins at this stage ('there is
a right / Way to hold a pen and a wrong way.' / First it
is 'copying out', and then 'English' / Marked correct with
a little leaning hoe.'). The poem's technique of defamiliarisation,
of 'making strange' our assumed associations between visual
shape and sound, and between alphabet and meaningful language,
serves precisely to highlight the artifice of those associations,
and of the pre-scripted identity out of which it is formed.
The associations are not necessarily arbitrary, it must
be noted - the visual shape and articulation of the 'O'
correspond to the shape of the globe it is meant to represent.
And the artificial globe is a correspondent of the primal
'O' of the world, the great globe itself, which only the
astronaut can see, from his transcendent viewpoint over
the world. His panoramic perspective, the ultimate product
of science and the '0' of mathematics, also validates the
necromancer's viewpoint, that the arcane 'figure of a universe'
has its actual correspondents. The 'O', the symbol of completion,
unity, unifies and relates the 'O' of visual and articulated
language, the 'O' of the globe and Globe, the primal ovum
and the awed, silent 'O' of the 'wide pre-reflective stare'.
This defamiliarising interrogation of language yields the
startling possibility of coherence, of a valid 'figure of
the world', of an underlying, unified principle which may
lead to a comprehensive vision of existence.
This is suggested again, in 'A Daylight Art' (p. 9):
the man, therefore with a natural gift
practising the right one from the start -
poetry, say, or fishing; whose nights are dreamless;
whose deep-sunk panoramas rise and pass
daylight through the rod's eye or the nib's eye.
Daylight Art', The Haw Lantern, p. 9, ll. 18-22)
poet's art is a gift; he is part of an elect, an elite,
and his oracular or Platonic claim to transcendent vision is traditional. But 'poetry' is associated
with 'fishing', a recurrent motif in Heaney's work. Both
activities require expertise, discipline and a certain amount
of talent - they are both natural gifts. Each has its area
of influence, its range of values and sphere of operation.
As 'Alphabets' seems to suggest, if a 'deep-sunk panorama',
an underlying principle governs the universe, its imprint
exists in all forms and all protean combinations, discernible
to those who would immerse themselves in scrutiny and activity.
Haw Lantern furthers the technique and metaphor of interrogation
as a way of 'seeing things', as a means of testing and perceiving
meaning. 'The Frontier of Writing' (p. 6) is an interrogation
of interrogatory experience in its multiple manifestations
- political (the military roadblock), social (the mass media)
and intellectual ('writing'; the poem itself). The poem
deftly conflates and therebypoliticises all three terms
at once. The traversal of boundaries at the frontier of
writing involves a subversive, pioneering movement into
the margins enacted at the end of Station Island its deeper,
radical political implications are implicated here.
The title poem, 'The Haw Lantern' (p. 7) is also a poem
of interrogation; that of the 'roaming shape of Diogenes
/ with his lantern, seeking one just man':
you end up scrutinized from behind the haw
he holds up at eye-level on its twig,
and you flinch before its bonded pith and stone,
its blood-prick that you wish would test and clear you,
its pecked-at ripeness that scans you, then moves on.
lantern is a parable for the conscience, but it is also
a 'wick of self-respect', in other words a test of personal
integrity and worth, the constant self-searching, appraisal
and interrogation crucial to the artist who would be true
to his vision.
In the elegiac sonnet sequence, 'Clearances', Heaney returns
to the original theme of origins as he re-explores his relationship
with his late mother. The dedicatory piece is framed in
the metaphors of 'Digging', a reassessment of origins -
'Teach me now to listen, / To strike it rich behind the
linear black' ('Clearances', p. 24). 'Striking it rich'
in linear black conjures a metaphor of mining - the rich
veins, of blood-ties and of the ore of language, may yield
deep, valuable associations. The prevailing mood of the
sequence is one of quiet familiarity, where individual,
undistinguished moments, the marginal episodes of a shared
life, become the memories most infused with remembrance
and significance. Familial rituals and rules become part
of the inextricable inheritance bequeathed from generation
to generation, and the event of death is the ultimate shared
act which reinstates those definitive, formative familial
ties in the 'shining room together.' (no. 1, p. 26). Death
was a homecoming. A moment of togetherness, peeling potatoes,
becomes their closest point of contact - 'Never closer the
whole rest of our lives.' (no. 3, p. 27). The differentiations
and divergences between individuals and generations exist
(no. 4, p. 28), but are ameliorated by the compromises which
make all relationships possible. The moment of passing itself,
is charged with an awed, visionary, wordless and communal
searching for a pulsebeat was abandoned
And we all knew one thing by being there.
The space we stood around had been emptied
Into us to keep, it penetrated
Clearances that suddenly stood open.
High cries were felled and a pure change happened.
7, 'Clearances', The Haw Lantern, p. 31)
is a compelling sense of something wordless, sacred and
shared, a 'pure change' not short of miracle, which 'penetrated
everyone' and opened 'clearances' between them. The experience
is a moment of utter communion, to the point where words
or 'high cries' become unnecessary; a sacredness had been
imprinted onto the communal 'us' to 'keep'. The moment of
death becomes as visionary as the moment of birth . The
result is precisely a perception of the spiritual dimension,
the reaffirmation of 'a soul ramifying and forever / Silent,
beyond silence listened for.' (no. 8, p. 32).
The Haw Lantern and Seeing Things both suggest the growing
anticipation of a 'cloudburst' to come after the apparitions
of 'Station Island'; they inherit from that sequence the
sense of being on the threshold of visionary experience.
'Clearances' in The Haw Lantern records a sacred moment
of communion, a shared, transcendent vision of sorts, to
which subsequent poems long. The almost-vision of 'The Mud
Vision' is another manifestation of the notion of communal
vision, typically arising out of the land which represents
the lives, livelihood and heritage of Heaney's Ireland:
mud vision, as if a rose window of mud Had invented itself
out of the glittery damp,
A gossamer wheel, concentric with its own hub
Of nebulous dirt, sullied yet lucent.
Mud Vision', The Haw Lantern, p. 48, ll. 15-18)
'vision' of the 'rose window' evokes a Gothic cathedral,
that gargantuan civil project which embodied the pooled
will, efforts and resources of an entire community. The
missed vision of Heaney's poem suggests the possibility
for such a communion and solidarity of community, at the
same time that it shows up the debilitating lack of unified
will and identity within that community. There is the air
of missed chances:
like that, we forgot that the vision was ours, Our one
chance to know the incomparable
And dive to a future. What might have been origin
We dissipated in news. The clarified place
Had retrieved neither us nor itself - except
You could say we survived. So say that, and watch us
Who had our chance to be mud-men, convinced and estranged,
Figure in our own eyes for the eyes of the world.
Mud Vision', p. 49, ll. 52-59)
clarified place' is the place prepared for vision; it is
the equivalent of the 'clarified' pilgrim after the purgatorial
experience, ready for higher vision. 'Clearances' allowed
a moment of communa vision, and it is to this shared perception
that his poetry is directed. Poetry, in its own apprehension
of deep structures (or 'deep-sunk panoramas', if you will),
reaches towards a collective vision, the universal 'voices
of the world'.
When I thought of 'the government of the tongue' as a general
title for these lectures, what I had in mind was the aspect
of poetry as its own vindicating force. In this dispensation,
the tongue, (representing both a poet's personal gift of
utterance and the common resources of language itself) has
been granted the right to govern. As readers, we submit
to the jurisdiction of achieved form, even though that form
is achieved not by dint of the moral and ethical exercise
of mind but by the self-validating operations of what we
call inspiration - especially if we think of inspiration
in the terms supplied by the Polish poet Anna Swir, who
writes of it as a psychosomatic phenomenon' and goeson to
poet becomes then an antenna capturing the voices of the
world, a medium expressing his own subconscious and the
collective subconscious. For one moment he possesses wealth
usually inaccessible to him, and he loses it when that
moment is over.
poet is credited with the power to open unexpected and
unedited communications between our nature and the nature
of the reality we inhabit.
Seeing Things apprehends the potential for visionary perception
within the basic building blocks of the world, from 'Alphabets'
to primal mud, to the wordless empathy of close relationships.
It returns to a world of oracular vision, to poetry as divination
as a fresh attempt to contact the primeval, latentvisions
suggested and perceived in The Haw Lantern:
from the back of her shrine the Sibyl of Cumae
Chanted fearful equivocal words and made the cave echo
With sayings where clear truths and mysteries
Were inextricably twined.
Golden Bough', Aeneid, Bk. VI, lines 98-148, from Seeing
Things, p. 1, ll. 1-4)
'Golden Bough' becomes a paradigm of the poet's art, a key
to visionary perception. In 'The Journey Back', 'Larkin's
shade' terms himself 'A nine-to-five man who has seen poetry'
(Seeing Things, p. 7, l. 14). Poetry becomes a visionary
spectacle in itself. The poetic eye roams from fieldto field,
discerning 'Markings' (p. 8-9), patterns, fields of vision
(p. 22), 'Wheels within Wheels (p. 46), 'Squarings' and
measurings, ways of looking. The title poem, 'Seeing Things'
(p. 16-17) is about looking at things and into things, but
also about seeing, and seeing things, perceiving the inexplicable:
The dry-eyed Latin word
Is perfect for the carved stone of the water
Where Jesus stands up to his unwet knees
And John the Baptist pours out more water
Over his head:...
...Down between the lines Little antic fish are all go.
And yet in that utter visibility
The stone's alive with what's invisible:
And the air we stood up to our eyes in wavered
Like the zig-zag hieroglyph for life itself.
Things', II, Seeing Things, p. 17, ll. 1-5; ll. 8-11;
once more evokes the 'clarification', 'clearance' or 'clarity'
required for vision. In Seeing Things, the ordinary landscape
takes on metaphysical significance, precisely because of
those invisible physical forces at work around us; the mysterious
forces of physics, chemistry, microscopic biology and chaotic
systems. But there are also emotional, spiritual and intellectual
energies at work, as The Haw Lantern demonstrates. In practice,
the distinction between the physical land and the life which
depends upon it and derives from it, is largely academic.
In 'A Haul' from 'Three Drawings' (p. 12), two fishermen
are cast as mythological titans, 'Thor' and 'Hymer', their
prey 'was the world-serpent itself'. The fiction and artifice
becomes clear 'when Thor's foot went through the boards',
an un-godlike thing to do. And yet the investment of their
activity with the vocabulary of gods, results nevertheless
in an atmosphere of heroism - the spontaneous heroism of
absorbed human endeavour. The element of fabulous 'surprise'
at the end of the poem is a moment of incredulous delight,
the recognition that a spontaneous and autonomous vitality
exists external to the self, defining itself against it.
It is a sudden heightened awareness, akin to vision, that
thingshave a life of their own. To be surprised is the sign
of a new experience - it is to find new meaning, new avenues
for awareness and vision.
It is with this understanding and assurance, that Heaney
ultimately comes to accept the intermittence of vision,
the 'glimpses and dapples' rather than the resplendent glory
of a Dantean Paradiso. The ultimate vision may have 'escaped'
him like the prey does 'Thor', but the opportunity for vision
exists as long as life persists and perhaps beyond. As Charon's
objection to Dante implies, ultimate 'claritas' is promised
to those who have passed beyond the crisis of damnation.
heaven may be
The whole truth of a sixth sense come to pass. At
any rate, when light breaks over me
That day I'll be in step with what escaped me.
is ultimately a matter of perception, a way of seeing, and
it is in this function that it relates to the poetic project.
In Heaney's early work, the impulse was towards an excavation
of original truths, a project which became increasingly
untenable and misleading in the distorting perspective of
sectarian violence. The vision of unifying cultural roots
was found wanting, after the discovery that its trends and
myths appeared only to portent a heritage of historical
violence. The pressures of a growing reputation and individuated
poetic voice, however, demanded a withdrawal from the centre
of violence, in an attempt to renegotiate a panoramic view
of the problem of Northern Ireland.
The interrogation of prehistory having been frustrated,
Heaney attempted an initial 'clearing' of the ground by
attempting to define his boundaries, surveying the field,
and lay the ground work for further discussion. This field
work unearthed compelling and resilient questions about
the relationship of the artist, his art and his cultural-historical
moment. The attempt to compromise by adopting a diplomatic,
noncommittal line of neutrality led only to confusion. It
was the beginning, however, of what was to prove to be a
fruitful engagement with Dante and other international writers
coming from a landscape of violence and repression. Vision
could be linked with the Modernist project of cosmopolitanism,
achieving a trans-global perspective and reception.
With the example of Dante, however, Heaney staged a pilgrimage
and confrontation with personal and cultural demons in 'Station
Island', a return to a religious metaphor and conception
of vision. He emerged with a new found self-assurance and
subversive energy. The ground was now cleared, ready for
wonders. No doubt his religiously informed experiences in
Lough Derg inform the parable-forms and allegories of The
Haw Lantern. His engagement with the phenomenon of his mother's
death sharpened his sense of vision as only loss and grief
can - a resultant moment of sacred communion reinforced
his sense of having been definitively 'cleared', in name,
in mind, and in soul.
With Seeing Things, in the context of his father's death,
Heaney's poetry culminates in a reinvestiture of the landscape
of his earliest poetry with a new clarity of vision and
coherence of perception. Poetry no longer excavates for
meaning, but sees it, perceives it in the ordinary. The
interrogation of experience in order to yield meaning has
given way to a 'clearance', to the possibility of spontaneous
Grace and the apprehension of an invisible world. In his
latest volume of poetry, Heaney comes to re experience the
physical, intellectual and spiritual landscape of his past
- so prominent in his past poetry - with a renewed sense
of wonder, so typical of perception that has passed through
regeneration after crisis. Heaney's poetry has moved from
an urgent interrogation of the historical and physical landscape,
to a celebration of its potent revelations, its 'deep-sunk'
continuities, its marvels:
can't remember never having known
The immanent hydraulics of a land
Of glar and glit and floods at dailigone.
My silting hope. My lowlands of the mind.
of being. And poetry
Sluggish in the doldrums of what happens.
Me waiting until I was nearly fifty
To credit marvels. Like the tree-clock of tin cans
The tinkers made. So long for air to brighten,
Time to be dazzled and the heart to lighten.
Neil Corcoran, A Student's Guide to Seamus Heaney (Faber and Faber, 1986)
Neil Corcoran, English Poetry Since 1940 (Longman,
Seamus Heaney, Death of a Naturalist (Faber and
John Haffenden, Interview with Seamus Heaney, Viewpoints:
Poets in Conversation (London, 1981, pp. 57-75).
Originally published as 'Meeting Seamus Heaney',
London Magazine, June 1979, pp. 5-28.
Seamus Heaney, Door into the Dark (Faber and Faber,
Seamus Heaney, Wintering Out (Faber and Faber, 1972;
Seamus Heaney, North (Faber and Faber, 1975; 1981
Seamus Heaney, Field Work (Faber and Faber, 1979;
Seamus Heaney, Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968-1978 (Faber and Faber, 1980)
Seamus Heaney, Station Island (Faber and Faber,
1984; 1990 reprint)
Seamus Heaney, 'Envies and Identifications: Dante
and the Modern Poet', Irish University Review, 15:1,
Spring 1985, pp. 5-19
Seamus Heaney, The Haw Lantern (Faber and Faber,
Seamus Heaney, The Government of the Tongue: The
1986 T. S. Eliot Memorial Lectures and Other Critical
Writings (Faber and Faber, 1988; 1989 paperback
Seamus Heaney, Seeing Things (Faber and Faber, 1991)
Stan Smith, 'Seamus Heaney: The Distance Between',
The Chosen ground: essays on the contemporary poetry
of Northern Ireland, ed. Neil Corcoran (Seren Books,
1992), pp. 35-61