'Deep-sunk panoramas': Interrogation And Vision In Heaney's Late Poetry


In his 'first phase' of poetry up to North, Heaney's work pursued an ethic of

...poetry 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)

The 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' (2) to a search for 'images and symbols adequate to our predicament' (3). 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' (4) of the civilised poet's etymological and anthropological efforts. A return to ancestral roots proved ultimately inadequate, promising only to perpetrate existing violence:

There 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)

Ancestral 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 (6) , 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:

I am neither internee nor informer;
An inner émigré, grown long-haired
And thoughtful; a wood-kerne

Escaped from the massacre,
Taking protective colouring
From bole and bark, feeling
Every wind that blows;

Who, blowing up these sparks
For their meagre heat, have missed
The once-in-a-lifetime portent,
The comet's pulsing rose. (7)

Heaney's 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'.

The 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':

The oldest evidence for this attitude appears in the Greek notion that when a lyric poet gives voice, 'it is a god that speaks'.

Heaney's 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.

It 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:

My 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

Or a crack up a gable,
She began to speak.

Heaney, 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 armoured vehicles:

O charioteers, above your dormant guns,
It stands here still, stands vibrant as you pass,
The invisible, untoppled omphalos.

The 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 beyond history':

What 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.

The '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 poetry aspired.

The 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 baptism:

I 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)

Dante's 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.

'Which circle does he tread,
scalding on cobbles,
each one a broken statue's head?

('Leavings', Field Work, p. 57)

The 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:

...that morning
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...

Dawn-sniffing revenant,
Plodder through midnight rain,
Question me again.

(iii, 'Casualty', Field Work, p. 24)

As 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:

She 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.

('An Afterwards', Field Work, p. 44, ll. 1-4)

The '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).

You 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.

The 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'.

This 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':

It 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,

hard at it over the dregs,
laying in in earnest
as the sea darkens
and whitens and darkens
and quotations start to rise

like rehearsed alibis:
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.

('Away from it All', Station Island, p. 16-17, ll. 11-30)

Heaney 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'

because 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' :

When 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

At 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.

(iii, 'The Loaning', Station Island, p. 52, 9-18)

The 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 and renewal.

Lough 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 me -

The '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:

'The alders in the hedge,' I said, 'mushrooms,
dark-clumped grass where cows or horses dunged,
the cluck when pith-lined chestnut shells split open

in your hand, the melt of shells corrupting,
old jampots in a drain clogged up with mud-'
But now Carleton was interrupting:

'All this is like a trout kept in a spring
or maggots sown in wounds -
another life that cleans our element.

We are earthworms of the earth, and all that
has gone through us is what will be our trace.'

(II, `Station Island', Station Island, p. 66)

Carleton 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 and scope.

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:

'But 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.'

'You 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.'

(VIII, 'Station Island' Station Island, p. 83)

The 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:

Then 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,

cunning, narcotic, mimic, definite
as a steel nib's downstroke, quick and clean,
and suddenly he hit a litter basket

with his stick, saying, 'Your obligation
is not discharged by any common rite.
What you must do must be done on your own

so 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

dreaming 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,

let others wear the sackcloth and the ashes.
Let go, let fly, forget.
You've listened long enough. Now strike your note.'

(XII, 'Station Island', p. 92-3)

Joyce, 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:

a waste of time for somebody your age.
That subject people stuff is a cod's game,
infantile, like your peasant pilgrimage.

You 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,

elver-gleams in the dark of the whole sea.'

(XII, 'Station Island', p. 94)

To 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 of vision.

It was as if I had stepped free into space
alone with nothing that I had not known
already. ...

(Ibid., p. 93)

Heaney 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:

Take hold of the shaft of the pen.
Subscribe to the first step taken
from a justified line
into the margin.

To 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 space:

The 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.

The 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.

The 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):

Happy the man, therefore with a natural gift

for practising the right one from the start -
poetry, say, or fishing; whose nights are dreamless;
whose deep-sunk panoramas rise and pass

like daylight through the rod's eye or the nib's eye.

('A Daylight Art', The Haw Lantern, p. 9, ll. 18-22)

The 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.

The 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':

so 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.

The 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 meaning:

The 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.

(no. 7, 'Clearances', The Haw Lantern, p. 31)

There 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:

Our 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.

('The Mud Vision', The Haw Lantern, p. 48, ll. 15-18)

The '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:

Just 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.

('The Mud Vision', p. 49, ll. 52-59)

'The 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 declare:

...A 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.

...The 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:

So 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.

('The Golden Bough', Aeneid, Bk. VI, lines 98-148, from Seeing Things, p. 1, ll. 1-4)

The '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:

Claritas. 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. Nothing else.
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.

('Seeing Things', II, Seeing Things, p. 17, ll. 1-5; ll. 8-11; ll. 15-16)

'Claritas' 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.

Seventh 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.

Vision 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:

I 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.

Heaviness 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.


1. Neil Corcoran, A Student's Guide to Seamus Heaney (Faber and Faber, 1986)

2. Neil Corcoran, English Poetry Since 1940 (Longman, 1993)

3. Seamus Heaney, Death of a Naturalist (Faber and Faber, 1966)

4. 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.

5. Seamus Heaney, Door into the Dark (Faber and Faber, 1969)

6. Seamus Heaney, Wintering Out (Faber and Faber, 1972; 1985 reprint)

7. Seamus Heaney, North (Faber and Faber, 1975; 1981 reprint)

8. Seamus Heaney, Field Work (Faber and Faber, 1979; 1989 reprint)

9. Seamus Heaney, Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968-1978 (Faber and Faber, 1980)

10. Seamus Heaney, Station Island (Faber and Faber, 1984; 1990 reprint)

11. Seamus Heaney, 'Envies and Identifications: Dante and the Modern Poet', Irish University Review, 15:1, Spring 1985, pp. 5-19

12. Seamus Heaney, The Haw Lantern (Faber and Faber, 1987)

13. Seamus Heaney, The Government of the Tongue: The 1986 T. S. Eliot Memorial Lectures and Other Critical Writings (Faber and Faber, 1988; 1989 paperback edition)

14. Seamus Heaney, Seeing Things (Faber and Faber, 1991)

15. 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