Seamus Heaney Poems
The Value of Indigenous Language in Literature: Seamus Heaney and Grace Nichols
The study and value of indigenous literature has been increasing in the past years and regional literature is now getting more attention and praise than ever before. The value which indigenous language brings to the variety of our literature is impeccable. With greats such as Seamus Heaney, Grace Nichols and Bob Marley, it can be seen that their literature is being credited for and appreciated all around the world due to the use of their own language, dialect, and style of writing.
As the world evolves, so does language. We are constantly moving towards speaking very similarly depending on where we live, grew up, and got educated in. When it comes to modern Standard English that is in use today, we have actually forgotten the value that indigenous, cultural language brings to literature and it is an aspect that many of us have never looked in to.
Seamus Heaney, a Nobel Prize winning author for Literature in 1995 “for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past.” was infamous for his use of traditional Irish language as well as Irish imagery in his poems. Heaney expresses a deep concern with landscape as well as language in his collections, and regards art as a way of expressing being Irish as well as being a metaphor of identity. In Heaney’s poetry, the language with distinct Irish characteristics represents landscape, showing the Irish local world, echoing the claims of Irish cultural nationalism, resisting the colonial rule of Great Britain. This shows the importance of traditional language as it is a form of identity and helps preserve the originality as well as traditions of a culture that can be often be forgotten with modern day use of language. In Heaney’s poem Blackberry – Picking, he writes, “We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.” Byre refers to a cowshed in old English. Through the use of byre, the poem achieves a flow, which could not be attained if another word, such as shed was used. As well as that, byre creates a visual image in the reader’s mind that places you subconsciously in the Irish suburbs and allows you to immerse yourself in the poem. It places you in Northern Ireland, which is what the poem is trying to do, and is an art of writing using regional language.
In addition, Grace Nichols is a poet whose work has been essential in understanding the British – Caribbean culture for over 30 years. Nichols was born in 1950 in Guyana, and moved to the United Kingdom in 1977. Her work is largely influenced by the history and heritage of her hometown, especially the oral story-telling tradition with its fantastic folk tales, its history and the landscape.
Moreover, her poetry is profound for combining the rich Guyanese – Creole dialect with Standard English to produce pieces of art that are unique, distinct, and fascinating. The effect this has on the reader is quite immense. When reading her poems, it is quite easy to spot grammatical errors and language mistakes that you would never see in published articles. However, one has to look over this and see the bigger picture in order to understand the message and intention of the poem. In her poem, I Coming Back, she starts with the line, “I coming back Massa”. Primarily, this line places the poem in context exemplifying the Caribbean’s vast history of enslavement, which delves us into the purpose of this poem. What Nichols has remarkably done is use the language to place us into Guyana. It does not take long to spot that the line is not grammatically correct but when read out loud, the correct way “I am coming back master” would not do justice to the rhythm, flow and tone of this poem. The value regional language brings to this poem is exponential as without incorporating the indigenous feel into the poem, it would not be as meaningful as it is. As well as that, throughout the poem Nichols uses “yuh” instead of the Standard English version “your”. Guyanese, along with other West – Indian dialects have a strong traditional accent that often makes the word “your” sound like “yuh”. Using “yuh” makes the poem flow easier and distinguishes it from other poems when read out loud also. If this poem or any other one of Grace Nichols’ poems were to be written in Standard English, they would lose their boldness and spirit and go down the very long path of similar style, standard poems as we have seen in the recent past.
All in all, without diversity and culture influencing or shaping us, modern day literature would all be too similar to distinct between. What Seamus Heaney and Grace Nichols have remarkably done in their lifetime is to reject the status quo and incorporate their culture, history, and heritage to produce works of art that are recognized around the world. Works by such greats emphasizes the importance and value that regional, indigenous literature brings to our portfolio of renowned literature. Having diverse cultures present in modern literature allows different styles of writing, language, and vocabulary to be seen opening up a new dimension of literature that is needed in the world.
The Analysis of the Poem “Mid-term Break” by Seamus Heaney
“Mid-term break” is about childhood memories. This poem shows how a child perceives a death, and the thoughts he encountered during this time of tragedy. At first glance, the poem has the child-like feel. Seamus Heaney portrays his emotions without directly referring to them. He has subtly incorporated various elements and techniques to depict the theme of death. Specifically, by use of imagery and tone, Seamus Heaney in his poem “Mid-term break” sets up the atmosphere of grief and helps a reader to empathize with the speaker during his journey from detachment to acceptance of death.
The use of imagery helps to enhance the poem’s depth of feeling and reveals dismal settings. The first stanza tells us that the boy sat all morning “in the college sick bay”(1). He is personally detached from his reality since he is focusing on the bell sound. The imagery “bells knelling” (2) immediately suggests an ominous atmosphere. The use of word “knelling” to describe bells, implies a funeral bell. The atmosphere and tension are building up by the second stanza as we learn of the father The proceeding scene seems emotionless as the poet, on seeing the corpse does not experience an outflow of emotions, unlike his mother’s “angry tearless sighs”. The poet’s impassive description of the corpse “stanched and bandaged by nurses”, further asserts his lack of comprehension, inability to react to such situation.
The last image in the poem makes the reader believe that the older brother is going to show some emotion, but he does not. This truly shows how the brother is unable to react to the death. He is still in a state of shock and has not realized what is going onWe also see another member of the family who does not know what is going on and is impassive towards the death of his brother. Heaney states, ” The baby cooed and laughed and rocked to the pram” (7). The older brother and the baby show detachment from brother’s death. The older brother had been away at college and was not spending every day with the little boy. During the second and the third stanzas, the reader can sense a change of tone from impassive to mournful. In the final stanzas the atmosphere has changed to one in which the author appears to have understood the tragic circumstances of his brother death.
In the last stanza the narrator uses phrase “A four foot box, a foot for every year”.By this quote, the boy is saying that his brother was four years old when he died, the image gives a certain relief and acceptance of his brother death, instead of crying for him, he analyzes mathematically the situation. This image is very effective, it immediately make the reader feel that death is not chaos. “Mid-term” break is clearly a poem about a tragic event in the poet’s life. In order to fully express the grief, he uses imagery and tone to snow the change in his emotions about brother’s death: from isolation to realization. The descriptions and the underlying emotions make the reader feel the desolation and dismal settings of the entire poem.
Seamus Heaney. Early Life and Literary Influences
“Old yew, which graspest at the stones / That name the underlying dead, / Thy fibres net the dreamless head, / Thy roots are wrapped about the bones” (Lord Tennyson 1-4). As a budding college student at Queen’s University Belfast, Heaney was introduced to authors such as Tennyson, Keats, and Wordsworth. This quote, by Lord Tennyson, acted as a turning point for Seamus Heaney in that it pushed him off the precipice of ambivalent writing into a chasm of emotion-based poetry. During his last year of college, Heaney read another poem by Louis MacNeice and was struck by the words, “The pier glittering with crystal lumps…” and “the hard cold fire of this northerner” (O’Driscoll 50). Borrowing from these famous poets’ techniques and incorporating a bit of his own panache, Heaney began to develop his own literary and poetic style which, combined, grew to make his poems the striking works that they are today. However, not all of Heaney’s experiences at Belfast were overtly positive. Throughout and after his schooling at Belfast in the Republic of Ireland, Heaney lived amidst war, and thus was inevitably introduced to the atrocities of murder and brutality. His later encounters with bog bodies helped Heaney release the emotions trapped inside of him because of the war. He compiled those emotions into poems and, in “The Grauballe Man,” focused those feelings into one idea: society does not deem the sanctity of human life worth preserving, especially during times of war.
Heaney’s experiences with injustice and war at Belfast shaped his feelings about human violence, and thus, the disregard for the sacredness of human life. He wrote of his feelings about the war, “the weary twisted emotions…are rolled like a ball of hooks and sinkers in the heart” (Heaney 30). The horror of surviving explosions and seeing families torn apart by death and suffering, and living with the Army constantly watching with pointed guns took its toll on Heaney. Raising a young family during all of the surrounding turmoil was extremely difficult. Constantly worrying about his wife, children, and his own life, Heaney came to abhor the agony and savagery of war, but had very few ways to express his feelings. In Feeling Into Words he wrote, “I felt it imperative to discover a field of force in which, without abandoning fidelity to the processes and experience of poetry as I have outlined them, it would be possible to encompass the perspectives of a humane reason…” (Heaney 56).
The inspiration for that “field of force” struck Heaney in 1969 while reading about the bog bodies of Denmark in a book he had bought himself for Christmas. He read the words of P.V. Glob in The Bog People: Iron Age Man Preserved, pouring over descriptions and images of the mummified, leathery, human remains. Imagining the lives of these mud-caked bodies, and concocting in his mind tales of their fates, Heaney was enthralled by these mysterious remains. He determined to travel and see the bog bodies which so inspired him.
Before he could visit the museum, however, Heaney was just another viewer of the photographs of the bodies. In the beginning of “The Grauballe Man,” Heaney shows the public’s portrayal, and his own original dehumanizing opinion, of the bog bodies. He describes the remains as aquatic, vegetative, mineral, animalistic, and lastly, fetal material. Line five of “The Grauaballe Man” reads, “the black river of himself.” Heaney here depicts the Grauballe man as a river, a non-living entity, dirty and disgusting. Lines 6-7: “The grain of his wrists / is like bog oak,” characterizing the Grauballe man as a plant or a tree with a wood-like grain apparent on his wrists. In this line we can see Heaney imitating Tennyson in using organic matter to provide imagery of the body, just as Tennyson wrote “Thy roots are wrapped around the bones,” (Lord Tennyson 4). Then, in lines 8-9, “the ball of his heel like a basalt egg:” here Heaney shows the Grauballe man as nothing more than a hard, porous, black rock. With the word “egg” he also moves towards describing the remains as animalistic. He then writes “his instep has shrunk cold as a swan’s foot or a wet swamp root” in lines 10-12, moving further into the animalistic characterization and reminding the reader of the vegetative aspects of the body as well. In this part of the poem Heaney metaphorically removes any trace of humanity from the body. This dehumanization is a reflection of the way the British dehumanized the Irish during The Troubles. The British treated the Irish just as they would a log of oak in a bog or a black rock on the side of the road: they would kick them with a boot or trample them without a second thought.
The next lines, 13-16 read, “His hips are the ridge / and purse of a mussel, / his spine an eel arrested / under a glisten of mud.” Continuing his animal comparison, Heaney describes the body as sea creatures—his hips like a mussel, and his spine like an eel encased in mud. Later in the poem Heaney depicts the body, “And his rusted hair, / a mat unlikely as a foetus’s…a head and shoulder / out of the peat, / bruised like a forceps baby.” He here exhibits the body as fetal matter, as if a baby, roughly grabbed in the doctor’s forceps as he’s plucked from the womb and exposed to daylight. Heaney composed these lines to portray a potent opinion: that the world views the bog bodies as England viewed Ireland, and as the world views all victims of war and violence—as less than human and unworthy of respect, meant only to be put on display and exhibited to the world.
At the end of the poem, Heaney compares the dehumanization of the bog bodies to the dehumanization of the Irish citizens victimized during The Troubles. The archeological history of the Grauballe man paralleled some of the injustices of Operation Demetrius, a British army operation in the course of the war (Operation Demetrius 1). For example, the last words of “The Grauballe Man” are “each hooded victim slashed and dumped.” During Operation Demetrius, 14 men were captured and tortured. As part of their torture, each man was hooded, and exposed to loud hissing noises, deprived of sleep, denied food and water, and finally, were taken on a helicopter, told they were far above the ground (when in reality they were only a few feet above the earth) in order to scare them, and then were dumped off the helicopter (Operation Demetrius 1). The poem also mentions “the grain of his wrists.” Operation Demetrius involved hand-cuffing the prisoners, which left deep bruises on their wrists (Operation Demetrius 1). These 14 men, just like the Grauballe man, were seen as mere bodies instead of actual human beings.
As a representation of the continued dehumanization of the Irish citizens which occurred as the British troops overtook Ireland and the citizens were forced to militarize, Heaney also characterizes the Grauballe man as a knight. As a soldier, or a knight, one’s humanity and individuality is lost as war is thrust upon them. They must succumb to the violence, fighting for survival. In lines 17-20, he illustrates “The head lifts, / the chin is a visor / raised above the vent / of his slashed throat.” The Grauballe man has been so completely militarized in these lines that his chin is described as a visor. And not at all referred to as a person, his body parts are noted individually: “the head,” “the chin.” Almost as an afterthought, it is written that the Grauballe man’s throat is slashed, showing the British army’s utter disregard for human life. Heaney continues to use the craft of poetry to further impress his opinion that people are completely disregarded and disrespected during times of war.
At the Mosegaard Museum in Aarhus, Heaney saw the Grauballe man in person. Scribbling words on a paper which happened to be in his pocket, Heaney wrote the notes which later were transformed into “The Grauballe Man.” For the first time, he realized the Grauballe man, and all the bog people, were individuals with unique stories, just like each of the Irish victims of the war. The media and news portrayed the Irish citizens as mere showpieces and stories to create profit. The museums exhibited the bog bodies in that same light. In his poem, Heaney addresses this media and public dehumanization of real people as if it were the same as the British dehumanization of the Irish.
Towards the end of the poem he compares the body to the Dying Gaul, a famous sculpture of a fallen gladiator. Here Heaney changes the mood of the poem. In depicting the body as a wounded gladiator, he brings a sense of majesty and valor in direct juxtaposition to the disrespect and flippancy shown to the Grauballe man (and thus, Ireland) by the world throughout the rest of the poem. Later, in lines 25-28, Heaney wrote “Who will say ‘corpse’ / to his vivid cast? / Who will say ‘body’ / to his opaque repose?” As if in response to this question, Heaney’s characterization of the body as a gladiator instead of a knight seems to scream “I will!” and portray his respect, respect which was so thoroughly denied the Grauballe man by the public.
Through “The Grauballe Man,” Heaney composes a representation of his realization of the horrors of war-plagued reality. He used the poetic skills he learned while studying at Belfast to show that the exhibition of the bog bodies is akin to the dehumanization and militarization of the Irish citizen during The Troubles, and further, all victims of war. This exhibition is essentially the public preying on the lives and deaths of people fallen victim to the tragedies of human violence, which is unacceptable. The poetically described fate of the Grauballe man cries out as an emblem of the fate of many fallen victim to war and terror. His remains are a symbol of the injustices of humanity throughout generations.
The Prosody of Scaffolding by Seamus Heaney. Poetry Analysis
Rhythm, meter, and overarching sound effects – also known as prosody – bring the words of a poem to life and offer readers a deeper understanding of the piece overall. To best grasp a poem’s prosody, the reader must first analyze and interpret the poem through the process of scansion. Analysis of scansion allows the reader to understand why a poet might establish particular patterns of rhythm and meter, perhaps uncovering the true tone of a piece or newfound significance in the verse. In Seamus Heaney’s poem, “Scaffolding,” the benefits of scansion become clearly visible. A conscious reader notices that the poem’s prosody actually supports and compliments the semantics of the poem in ways invisible prior to proper analysis. On the poem’s surface, Heaney uses metaphor to establish a connection between a well-built bridge and a well-built relationship. After analysis of the piece, an attentive reader will notice that Seamus Heaney’s use of rhyme and iambic pentameter bring consistency and structure to his poem, mirroring the overall motif of the work. Heaney’s ability to parallel the poem’s structure alongside its story is significant because it creates a confident relationship between the poem and the reader. By understanding this correlation between the poem’s semantics and prosody, readers of “Scaffolding” may begin to appreciate the beauty within this poem that lives beyond the page.
Many readers would classify “Scaffolding” as a loving and uplifting poem, a piece of art that eloquently transforms a person’s passion into verse. Yet, many of these same readers might not know why they find this poem so powerful. The answers to why this poem functions as a meaningful work of art become apparent through proper scansion. In this poem, Heaney utilizes an easy to understand couplet rhyme scheme. Through rhyme, Heaney forms trust and comfort between himself and the readers of the poem. Rhyme creates rhythm. Rhythm generates feelings of security because it gives readers a sense of familiarity and consistency with the poem – when the words consistently rhyme, readers know what to expect. This familiar relationship between poem and reader helps Heaney express the type of relationship he explicitly mentions within the poem – a relationship involving familiarity, confidence and stability. By integrating rhyme throughout the poem, Heaney creates a firm foundation for the reader to move confidently between lines. Heaney mentions this firm foundation using ideas such as “never fear” and “confident that we have built our wall.” Through rhyme and rhythm, Heaney establishes a foundation that helps the reader feel instantly familiar with the piece, creating a sense of understanding of what may come in the future. Heaney writes of a lasting relationship built using the precision of a master mason while also constructing the physical poem with an equally satisfactory attention to detail.
Heaney again utilizes his mason-like precision while constructing the meter of the poem. Following analysis, the astute reader notices that Heaney “built” this poem using the foundations of iambic pentameter. All lines consist of ten syllables except for the last and many contain feet that follow the iamb structure of alternating stresses. Heaney uses words such as “careful,” “solid,” and “confident” to describe the relationship within the poem. These same words mirror Heaney’s construction of the poem itself. His use of iambic pentameter creates a sense of confidence in the reader because – similar to the scaffolding described within the poem – it lays a foundation for the reader to use. This foundation enables the reader to continue through the poem feeling secure in what they read.
In the last line of the poem, Heaney breaks away from the comfort of pentameter. He writes,
“So if, my dear, there sometimes seems to be
Old bridges breaking between you and me
Never fear. We may let the scaffolds fall
Confident that we have built our wall.”
The last line includes only nine syllables, breaking the ten-syllable pentameter. Heaney uses words such as “breaking” and “fall” and then commits such actions by withdrawing from his pentameter. By doing this, Heaney again constructs a situation in which the prosody of the poem compliments the semantics of the piece. Readers see Heaney testing both his poem and his readers in the exact same way he tests the relationship in the example above. Without fear, Heaney breaks the scaffolds that have established the poem’s meter, confident that his poem and his relationship with his readers will stand just as confident as before.
Heaney’s use of prosody compliments the poem’s semantics with a unique sense of intelligence and true beauty. Simultaneously, Heaney creates a relationship between the poem’s story, structure, and the readers of the poem. His use of rhyme and iambic pentameter establish a rhythmic relationship with the reader, similar to the relationship explicitly stated in the poem. With the final line, Heaney “lets the scaffolds fall” and breaks his pentameter; however, he seems confident that he has “built a wall” using prosody that enables readers to feel a profound connection and understanding with this poem. A connection that brings readers to understand emotionally what Heaney explicitly stated within his poem.
The Harmony of Realism and Idealism in Heaney’s Poetry
The universal image of childhood that is ‘rang[ing]’ frogspawn on ‘window-sills’, ‘wait[ing] and watch[ing]’, with a fervent curiosity and admiration, until the ‘fattening dots’ dynamically metamorphose into ‘nimble swimming tadpoles’ is one, very relatable and nostalgic aspect of Heaney’s poetry that extols the carefree innocence and idyllic nature of youth. However, as these fascinating dots transfigure into ‘angry’ ‘slime kings’, Heaney’s poetry displays an underlying duality, as two spheres of thought pervade the collection; this idealistic sphere of childhood and positivity, and another more pragmatic, realist sphere which concentrates on the saddeningly scarce ‘last gruel of winter seeds’ in the Tollund Man’s stomach and the achingly ‘swollen feet’ of his mother, despite her eminent and radiant ‘light’ that indicates she deserves more than a life of cheap ‘elastic stocking[s]’.
In ‘Death of a Naturalist’, a sensory experience is created for the reader as the effect of striking thermal impact of the ‘punishing sun’ is felt by the ‘swelter[ing] flax’. The poem indulges every sense of the reader; the ‘smell’ of the ‘rott[ing]’ flax, the impenetrable mesh-like ‘gauze of sound’ that is, in contrast, delicately ‘wove’ around; this oxymoron creates a complex sound that is both invasive and strong, but also undulating, nuanced, and that it is almost alive and breathing. Heaney evidently marvels at the fecundity of diversity that lies before him. He is entranced whilst others may simply see the mundane; the oxymoron of the bubbles who ‘gargle delicately’, emphasizing Heaney’s overarching inquisitiveness, a gift honed by childhood.
However, this innocence is eventually violated by the stark revelation that confronts Heaney on the ‘one hot day’ that punctures this dream-like ritual of visiting the dam ‘every spring’. This is signposted by the short and abrupt final line of the first stanza – ‘In rain.’ – which diverts from the sing-song, steady iambic pentameter of the opening lines, before the division of verse provides the ultimate sense of separation. The humanized ‘mammy’ and ‘daddy’ frogs (which also serves to evoke the child-like voice that permeates the first verse of the poem) are now replaced with dominant ‘slime kings’ with a ‘coarse’ abrasive croaking. Where the minute ‘tadpoles’ were once confined to the boy’s ‘jampot[s]’, they are now capable of energetic, abrupt and threatening movement compared to a gun as the frogs sit ‘cocked’ like ‘mud grenades’, ready to fire or explode. The underlying ominous tones dominating the stanza, like the ‘punishing’ sun and ‘rott[ing]’ plants, now take precedence over the childhood innocence, which is lost forever, as the realist influence of adulthood overwhelms this idyllic childlike world, and Heaney is thrust into a challenging and confronting world, perhaps prematurely.
It is this epiphany, and consciousness of these two contrasting domains, which later enable Heaney to explore the vast foci of his collection, expanding into more pertinently adult realms. The “bog poems”, to which ‘The Tollund Man’ belongs, draw parallels between the social and political violence of modern Ireland and the sacrificial violence of earlier pagan civilizations. ‘The Tollund Man’ demonstrates Heaney’s ability to blend both the realist and idealist spheres; the idealist presence forthcoming in the description of the bog body as ‘saint-like’ and a precious ‘trove’. The body is depicted as carefully fed and doted, worked upon by nutrient-rich ‘dark juices’, cared for by the transcendent ‘goddess’ of the earth to whom he will be cherished as a ‘bridegroom’. This idealism makes for a powerful ‘pray[er]’; that the ‘labourers’ ‘laid out in the farmyards’ will somehow mirror this stillness and purposefulness in death. The realist sphere of Heaney’s being however, contradicts this; he knows that their flesh is ‘scattered’, contrasting with the wholeness of the bog body, and that they were ‘ambushed’, sprung upon and unprepared to be unnaturally propelled into death. This duality allows Heaney to reflect upon the pathos of the event, but in an idealistic light that also consoles these atrocities. This idea is paralleled by many of Heaney’s other poems, notably ‘Requiem for the Croppies’ in which the striking realist notion of the ‘blushing’ hillside stained with blood, is comforted by the peaceful image of the barley growing out of the soldier’s shallow graves, acting as a motif for new life and a symbol to keep the flickering flame of nationalist rebellion against the oppressive British rule alight. ‘
The Swing’ sees the transition from innocence to experience come full circle; the older Heaney is able to reflect on childhood in a new, far more retrospective and reminiscent light. The scene is dream-like, religiously tranquil, as the ‘light of heaven’ shines off lush, vivid ‘green grass’, to paint a ‘Nativity’ scene. This idealism emphasizes the beauty of the child-like state, which is almost utopian. His mother is like a Madonna figure amongst all this heavenly imagery; she is an ‘empress’ whose majesty imparts a value to the most commonplace of objects; boiling water from a kettle becomes ‘an opulent, steaming arc’ whose ‘plout’ is ‘music’. Again, Heaney’s sense of realism reveals more to this situation; she exhibits a duplicity, as her feet are contrastingly ‘swollen’ and painful, and she is unjustly denied what she as such a ‘majestic figure’ is owed; she imperatively ‘should’ have the luxury of ‘fresh linen’, the doting attention of ‘ministrations by attendants, procession and amazement’, but is instead left ‘roll[ing]’ the ‘elastic stocking’, suffering a disjointed state of existence as she is burdened by the life is ‘not meant for’, but she determinedly ‘would not fail’.
The swing likely acts as a metaphor for the very transition which acts as an undercurrent to Heaney’s work; a rite of passage of sorts that breaks the barrier between this heavenly child-like, and the sometimes unpalatable adult world, as the children swing ‘sky high’ into a new existence, where the worldly concerns of ‘Hiroshima’ and ‘Concorde’ swamp the comparatively meaningless ignorance of childhood. Heaney poses a question to the reader; ‘who were we to want to hang back there in spite of all?’. The phrase ‘in spite of all’ takes on a summative dualism here; its first use, in conjunction with ‘who were we’ refers to these events which are so significant we are forced to impelled to involve ourselves. Its second use however, is in contrast to this, conferring a sense of reluctance to swing, ‘in spite of all, we sailed above’; this may be a final attempt to cling onto this childhood oblivion and peace, and in this way a sense of limbo is conveyed, fragmented between two choices.
Through the swing, Heaney implies to the reader that the only logical path is to enter the adult world, despite its challenges, but to nurture and tend to the idealism so synonymous with childhood. Heaney asks ‘Who [are] we’ to be selfish enough so as to deny ourselves a wider knowledge of the world, and the troubles that go on, challenging as they may be? (In comparison to the peachy and idyllic state of childhood). The intermingling of these two spheres ultimately allows Heaney to reflect, as the realism reveals the pathos of the deaths of the common ‘labourers’, and the injustices inflicted upon figures like his mother, and the idealism acts as a mitigator amongst all this, a soother that reveals beauty and peace amongst the pain and pathos that permeates his reality.
On Criticizing Familial Love
One of the most universally acknowledged beliefs states that there is no bond as strong, forgiving, and irreplaceable as a mother’s love for her child. On the contrary, poet Seamus Heaney challenges this conviction throughout his poem “Bye-Child” in which the presence of social norms and religious doctrines takes priority over dignity and affection. Based upon a true story, “Bye-Child” is a testimony of seven-year-old Kevin Murphy’s tragic beginning as an illegitimate child born into a strictly Catholic Ireland where children out of wedlock were socially unacceptable. Panicked, his mother hid him for seven years inside a chicken coop in hopes of forever concealing her secret. Through his extended use of semantic fields, similes, and shifts in tone, Heaney conveys the importance of hope and patience to emphasize the omnipresence of love even in the darkest of times.
The young boy’s solitude and exile from society are recurring notions throughout the poem. The fact that the poem is structured in six stanzas with exactly five lines per stanza and no rhyme scheme indicates that social norms in Catholic Ireland were extremely rigid, unforgiving, and subject to traditional Christian beliefs. The semantic field of light in the first stanza “lamp”, “glowed”, “light”, and “chink” suggests that the only signs of life that he sees are extremely limited while the line “the child in the outhouse” directly proclaims his status as a social outcast. Even the use of the personal pronoun “their” to name his mother and her husband creates a distressing distance that emphasizes his isolation from the entire world, including his own family. Moreover, the second line “a yolk of light” creates a disturbing allusion to hens with whom the boy lives due to the noun “yolk”, the central part of an egg that nourishes an embryo. The last line of the first stanza, “put his eye to a chink–” further exemplifies the boy’s status as a social outcast since there is a definite contrast between the darkness in the chicken coop in which he lives and the light he sees from the exterior; in effect, his curiosity demonstrates an animalistic behavior consistent with his forced isolation and seclusion from society.
Hence, the boy’s confinement is equally so tied to his experiences of physical abuse and neglect. There is a rupture in tone from the first to the second stanza whilst Heaney suddenly adopts a profoundly compassionate attitude and switches from a third-person to a second-person point of view. Heaney’s use of the personal pronoun “you” for the boy creates a sense of intimacy and unsettling empathy for him since it allows Heaney to directly address readers whereas the metonymy “little henhouse boy” to name Kevin is virtually derogatory because it makes a reference to his prison: the henhouse. Furthermore, the first simile “sharp-faced as new moons” provides strong visual imagery of his malnourishment while in the second simile “glimpsed like a rodent / on the floor of my mind,” Heaney imagines the boy as a tiny animal huddled inside the henhouse which is made particularly vivid through the figurative use of the noun “floor.” The boy’s appalling physical features are further accentuated in the lines “your frail shape” and “weightless” in which Heaney suggests that years of malnutrition made the boy subject to illness, starvation, and deformation. The third stanza reiterates how the boy lives on the lowest brink of existence by calling him “kennelled and faithful” and thus compares him to a dog— paradoxically, an animal which much like Kevin himself remains faithful to his master despite atrocious treatment. Heaney establishes a heightening sense of pity where he describes how “at the foot of the yard,” Kevin was confined to live in unbearable conditions. Finally, the use of the present continuous tense in “[he] is stirring the dust” emphasizes the duration of the boy’s long-lasting agony in his squalid environment.
The extent of abuse stems beyond mere physical neglect but encompasses emotional deprivation too. By forcing him to live in a shed fit for hens in filthy conditions and feeding him “dry smells from scraps”, the boy’s mother purposely rejects him and refuses to integrate him with the rest of the family, let alone the rest of the world. In fact, the use of the pronoun “she” to name the mother creates an enormous distance between her and her son to prove that she was a cold, heedless woman. The fact that she put food through the boy’s “trapdoor” demonstrates that she fed and treated her own son like a prisoner in solitary confinement which presents an enormous paradox since Kevin was abused by his own mother, a figure nearly always associated with warmth and protectiveness. The semantic field of abuse “silence”, “vigils”, “solitudes”, “fasts”, “tears”, and “puzzled love” reveals that the lack of human contact resulted in an accumulation of physical and psychological conditions that will haunt Kevin in the long-term and rob him of understanding love. Additionally, the fact that his tears were “unchristened” indicates that by not being baptized, he becomes a nameless figure without an identity. The subsequent presence of enjambment and the line “morning and evening” reflect on the difficulty of the boy’s life and how emotional abuse made all of his days endless and painful.
Nonetheless, by employing another rupture in tone in the fifth line of the fifth stanza, Heaney introduces an impossible concept: hope. The semantic field of the universe “new moons”, “luminous”, “weightless”, “light”, “lunar distances”, and “travelled” alludes to the skepticism in the 1960s concerning the possibility of space travel, a reference which is directly applicable to Kevin; in spite of his isolation from the rest of the world (much like space itself), there is hope for his integration in society and the general restoration of his wellbeing. For instance, the line “but now you speak at last” conveys a promising tone since Kevin has finally learned to communicate, whereas the semantic field of speech “speak”, “remote mime”, “patience”, and “gaping wordless proof” demonstrates that while his progress remains a lifelong journey, there is hope for Kevin. Likewise, the semantic field of the universe is paradoxical since Heaney worships the moon and not God while it is religion that put the boy in his situation. The use of the present continuous verb tense as well as the fact that he doesn’t understand most affection received do not necessarily condemn him to a failed life, but rather imply that an eternal memory of his dark childhood will often haunt him in the process of his progress. On the contrary, Heaney glorifies the boy for his endurance and survival of severe mistreatment as well as his capability to remain loyal and faithful to a mother as phlegmatic as his own.
In spite of contradicting the common notion that all mothers love their children endlessly, Heaney’s poem is still a powerful affirmation of the power of love and patience even in the most inhumane situations. Young Kevin Murphy has embodied everything that a child should never withstand: confinement and abuse in all its forms. Regardless, his loyalty to his mother and baby steps towards integration and communication reiterate the values of positivity and patience in reintroducing love in an individual’s life. While Kevin’s journey is an undesirable one, it is nevertheless an unbelievable testimony of a single individual’s strength and resilience even in the face of a living nightmare. Guiding Questions:How does the poet create empathy and compassion?How does the poet emphasize the child’s physical and emotional pain?Word Count: 1227 words
Life, Death, and Fatherhood in “A Call”
“A Call” Commentary“A Call,” by Seamus Heaney, traces the growing import of death, and therefore appreciation of life, on the speaker. By making a simple call to his father, he is thrown into a series of reflections on his father, as well as time, which force him to deal with the inescapability of time and unpredictability of death. The speaker’s intense reflection on his father, his joyful yet rueful process of weeding, and the inevitability of time and death, leads him to realize the brevity of human life and the suddenness of death’s “call,” producing an intense feeling of love for his father.
In the first stanza, the trivial nature of the call, and the mother’s rhetoric, reflects the lack of concern the speaker has for his father. Presumably after the speaker has asked to speak to his father, his mother replies “hold on” (1), stressing the lack of urgency in the interaction, and revealing that neither party on the call is concerned about time. While the father is about to be summoned, the mother makes some small talk with her son, noting that the “weather here’s so good” (2). These trivial bits of conversation again highlight the two’s lack of concern for time, and the calm, serene nature of the weather reinforces the expectations of this call being a simple check in to see how his father is doing. However, the word “here” reveals that there is a distance between the speaker and his mother, and when the mother has to “run out” (1) to reach the father, the speaker begins to reflect on his father once their separation is highlighted. This state of reflection is accentuated when the mother mentions how his father “took the chance” (3) to do work, showing that he is not capable at all times to do the hard work that weeding entails. Though still quite healthy, he is not in perfect condition, leading the speaker to begin pondering the state of his father, however unjustified this worry may be given the lack of urgency or worry in the nature of a simple “check up.”
In the second stanza, the speaker, intimately reflective in his recollection of his father’s weeding process, imagines the saving yet destructive nature of weeding, causing him to grapple with life and death. The indentation of the first line, which seems to literally stem off of the previous stanza, is a key piece of structure, which reveals the speaker’s constant flow of thought and progression towards reflection. Though the speaker does not literally see his father, he is so close to his father in spirit that he is able to perfectly picture him weeding, “[seeing] him” (4) in his mind. Still, the speaker is still not concerned about his father’s health, as his father is able to preform the difficult processes of “touching, inspecting, [and] separating” quite successfully (6). Despite this sense of normality and content, as he reflects further, he finds his father pulling the plants up which are “not tapered, frail and leafless” (8). This, albeit gentle, ending of lives firmly plants the idea of death in the speaker’s mind, an idea that he will become extremely preoccupied with as his reflection continues. His father, in this situation the bringer of death, is both “pleased” (9) by the removal of weeds, but also “rueful” (10). Though the father, by this weeding, is bringing about life and growth for the garden, highlighting the necessity of this process, he is also taking life away, which is inescapable in weeding and leads the father to feel regret. This necessity for death begins to instill worry in the speaker, and begins to manifest itself in his increasingly moribund thoughts and reflective progression, stressed by the ellipsis that links the poem to his next, grave train of thought.
In the third stanza, the speaker’s inundation with the incessant ticking of time causes him to realize the unceasing and ultimate power that time, and therefore death, holds, no matter how tranquil a life may be. As mortality overtakes the speaker’s thoughts, he notes that he “found himself listening” (11) to clocks. This passive action shows the powerlessness of the speaker to ignore death, and its inevitability in both the mind and in life. However, the active verb, “listening,” works to reveal his current awareness of time’s passing, and his recognition of the relevant threat it poses. Furthermore, the “amplified grave ticking” (12) shows that the passing of time has taken a greater significance to the speaker, as when he hears it, it is “amplified.” The description of the ticking as “grave” shows how uncontrollably morbid his thoughts have become: death has invaded his mind, and its inevitability is all too apparent. However, all of this has happened in a place of “calm” (13), full of “sunstruck pendulums” (14). This is even more ominous for the speaker, as the unavoidable call of death can penetrate even the most serene, beautiful, and ordinary situations. This has a massive import on the speaker, as he realizes that although his father’s life seems to be in no apparent danger, which certainly will not prevent death from calling, when the time comes. This leads the speaker to feel intense fear for his father’s life, which is compounded in the next line as an ellipsis again connects the two and highlights the morbid flow of thought which the speaker is a victim of.
In the 4th stanza, the speaker’s comparison of the suddenness of death in morality plays and the graceful nature of time and death at his father’s home instills fear in death’s unpredictable inevitability, highlighting the great significance of the “call.” Again, just as in the third stanza, the speaker is both active and passive in his reflection, noting that he “found himself then thinking” (15). His passive nature once again reveals death’s envelopment of his mind as he loses control to escape his macabre reflection. However, the “then” shows the constant flow of thought which is overtaking him, and the active verb “thinking” shows that not only is he again actively dealing with this frightful subject, and taking in its unpleasant implications, but also beginning to understand the significance of the call. This significance is made explicit with the allegory of “Death summon[ing] Everyman” (16) introducing the truly morbid idea of the unpredictable nature of death. In the morality play to which the speaker alludes to, when it is time for the unknowing Everyman to die, he gets a tap on the shoulder from death, and is instantly dead. This is the climax of the speaker’s fearful reflection, as he now fully comprehends the importance of the phone call he has made. Everyman being tapped on the shoulder stresses the suddenness and unpredictability of death, and the speaker connects this to his father, as his death could be just as sudden and unpredictable. Thus, the significance of this call is that it is not simply a “check up,” but could in reality his father’s death, because of the suddenness with which death calls. Once the true significance of the call is appreciated, the speaker can stop his process of reflection and deal with the unsettling reality of what he has just come to terms with.
The final line’s intense outburst of passion reveals that the minutes of deep reflection the speaker has gone through has caused him to be overwhelmed by an powerful appreciation and love for his father’s life. The speaker’s thought process has been abruptly interrupted by the “Next thing [his father] spoke” (17), revealing that this intense willpower that he used to reflect has now been replaced by the pure emotions that follow. However, the speaker refrains from expressing his true emotions, and notes that, “I nearly said I loved him”. This abstention from brining up the speaker’s important revelations shows what he has truly learned, as if he had told the father of death’s unpredictable call, which could occur at any moment, this would frighten the father. The importance of nearly telling him highlights the power in the irony of what is left unsaid, as what is really important is to appreciate the beauty of life, and the mortality of human life is what makes it even more special, and worthy of being appreciated. Thus, the purpose of the reflection is to show that what should be focused on and reflected upon is not mortality, which the speaker has been consumed with, but rather the importance and beauty of life, which remains for the speaker to appreciate in a silent fortitude.
The speaker’s intense reflection and understanding of the significance of the call truly show the meaning of life. Despite his increasing worry over his father from stanza to stanza, in reality, his father is perfectly fine, reflected by the calm tone throughout, especially in the beginning, and instead of worrying about his father’s possible death, the speaker learns to appreciate the beauty and meaning of his life. Life indeed does end, but this is what makes it so valuable and necessary to focus and cherish its beauty while it still exists, and live everyday with an intense sense of appreciation for the life humans are allowed to experience with each other.
“Mid-Term Break” Grief
“Mid-Term Break,” by Seamus Heaney, traces the emotional progression of a teenage boy after finding out that his little brother has died in a horrific accident. The harsh realities of life force him into a despondent blur, and he is not able to truly interact with his own emotions and receive solace due to the inadequacy of the various appropriate and expecting coping mechanisms of others. However, as he begins to interact with his brother, he develops his own coping mechanism, and begins the process of accepting reality. Heaney uses the speaker’s isolated despondency and inability to find comfort to show the true grief caused by his brother’s death, forcing him to realize the legitimacy of his restrained coping process and the integral role acceptance plays in moving forward.
The speaker’s inundation with shock, isolation, and grief stress the difficulty in processing traumatic events such as death. The speaker, using the personal pronoun “I” (1), is isolated and alone after receiving the news of his brother’s death, forcing him into an inconsolable grief. Though he tries to avoid processing reality, he can’t help but count the “bells knelling” (2) around his college. Knelling is a slow ring of bells that accompanies a funeral service, showing that even the most mundane is turned morbid in the speaker’s unconscious. This inability to escape thoughts of death stresses the intense grief the speaker is grappling with. The bells being described as “knelling” also reinforce the themes of finality, which the speaker cannot escape. Furthermore, the assonance of “bells knelling” creates a feeling of repetition, which almost distorts time, revealing the speaker’s true shock as he temporarily loses grasp of reality. The introduction of a specific time, “two o’clock” (3), reveals the traumatic nature of the event, as often specific obscure details such as these are what are stick in the mind the most during times of shock and disbelief. Lastly, his parent’s apparent inability to pick him up, and reliance on “our neighbors” (3) to do so, reveals both the intense trauma of the event, which has incapacitated his parents, and also the lack of consolation the speaker has received, as he has been detached from his family “all morning” (1) until past two, when he is finally able to return home. The speaker’s shock and grief are yet to be dealt with or comforted, and inability to cope with the trauma his brother’s death has caused leads the speaker to feel despondent and distant from reality.
The speaker, now desperately searching for solace, is unable to obtain it amidst various forms of appropriate and expected coping mechanisms, leaving him distraught and lost. As the speaker returns to his home, he notes that encounters his “father crying” (4), despite him always being able to take funerals “in his stride” (5). The fact that the figure who is usually expected to be composed cannot remain so only emphasizes the perception of grief the speaker gives off, as if the strong leader of the family is broken, the teenage son can only be feeling exponentially more lost, and this is only compounded as it is made clear that he will receive no consolation from his distraught father. Furthermore, the truly unusual and horrific nature of the event, revealed by the father’s sudden inability to deal with funerals easily, as he did before, only accentuates the grief the speaker must be feeling. As the speaker is met with attempts to be consoled, he notices the baby “coo[ing] and laugh[ing] and rock[ing] the pram” (7). The boisterous and energetic rhythm that the baby has, encapsulated by words such as “cooed” and “rocking,” contrasts the somber tone and slow pace of the poem thus far. However, this seemingly strange behavior, given the circumstance, is actually to be expected and is appropriate from an infant, only highlighting the reality of the speaker’s situation and exacerbating the speaker’s grief. He searches for any possible coping mechanism, but all prove inadequate, as he was “embarrassed by old men” (8-9), who appropriately offer to “shake [his] hand” (9). Though this process is entirely appropriate, and expected to offer solace, it provides little, leaving the speaker feeling “embarrassed.” There is a disconnect between the speakers own emotions and the ways in which they need to be assured, and his inability to receive comfort from guiding figures in his life only magnifies his confusion and grief. This disconnect is further revealed by the enjambment between lines 9 to 10, which intensifies the idea of the evasiveness of comfort and the disconnect between expected responses and appropriate coping mechanisms, and the coping mechanism the speaker truly requires. The “whispers” and “strangers” (11) that overwhelm reveal the lost daze that he has been thrown into, and show his inability to comprehend his surroundings as his currently inconsolably grief engulfs him, just as the whispers and strangers do. Even his mother attempts to comfort him, but alas she too is unable to, as despite the physical connection between their held hands, she could only “cough[ed] out angry tearless sighs” (13). She has cried so much that she cannot physically express her grief with intense emotion any longer, and her muted effort to console her son is unsuccessful, yet again leaving him searching for an adequate way to interact with his emotions and discover an adequate coping mechanism. Yet another enjambment, between lines 12 and 13, stresses another disconnect between what the speaker feels and how the expected coping mechanisms attempt to console him, and the distance between others’ ability to deal with their emotions and grief, and his. However, the family is now forced to receive “the corpse” (16), indicating that the speaker is going to have to interact with both the reality of his situation and his own emotions. He is still despondent and detached from his feelings and grief, and the description of his brother as a corpse, which completely lacks a personal connection, or even, humanity, highlights this. The speaker has yet to find comfort or an adequate coping mechanism, but forced interaction with his brother may soon change his experience.
Realizing the legitimacy of his own restrained and serene coping process, the speaker finally begins the process of acceptance and his return to reality. As the speaker confronts his brother’s dead body, he initially ignores it, fixated on “snowdrops and candles” (16-17). These items both symbolize life, but to the same extent they are reminiscent of a funeral. However, these items “soothed him” (17), showing that although they are meant to accompany the body, they also serve as a coping mechanism for the speaker, and they place death on the periphery as he focuses on these funereal aspects. Additionally, enjambments between lines 16 and 17, and 17 and 18, mimic the peaceful reflection that is occurring and the gradual process of acceptance and realization that is beginning. To do this, he continues obscuring his brother’s death, and notices the differences between when he last saw him and now. He observes that his brother is “paler now” (18), showing that he is still unable to process the reality of his situation. He also minimizes the horror of his brother’s corpse by describing an obviously significant, possibly life ending injury as his brother “wearing a poppy bruise” (19). This diction works to obscure reality as it is referred to as a flower, a peaceful and beautiful image, but also the notion that his brother was “wearing” the bruise implies that it could be removed. The speaker is again separating himself from reality, but doing so in order to be able to be in the presence of his dead brother and not be destroyed by grief. Furthermore, the serenity that is endemic in his descriptions also hints at the success of his coping process, which restrains his emotions and lessens the import of this horrific situation on his reality. He then uses this peace found in his coping mechanism to gradually begin to process his brother’s death, describing his coffin as a “cot” (20), as well as using pronouns such as “his,” “he,” and “him” (19-21). Though still not fully accepting reality, by equating the coffin to a baby’s bed, he is finally accepting that this corpse is indeed a person, and realizing the personal connection he has with the dead body. Then, with the final line of the poem, his true process of acceptance has clearly been initiated. The “four foot box” (20, 22) shows that like previously, he still seeks to minimize the effects of this traumatic event and stay detached from reality, completely taking the morbid connotation out of the coffin. However, as he has begun to interact with his brother, as well as his own emotions, this becomes impossible, and a caesura highlights the significant pause he takes, finally jumping from his obscured reality, which was created by his coping mechanism, to his actual reality. The box had very specific measurements, four feet long, and as the speaker has begun to interact with his brother, he cannot ignore the fact that there is a “foot for every year” (22). Furthermore, the final line being on its own stresses the realization that has been made, and the finality that the speaker must accept. However, it also signifies the beginning of a moving forward. Reality has finally overpowered him, and his process of acceptance, that his four-year old brother has indeed died, has finally been initiated. However this is necessary, and in truth beneficial, as it can subside the grief, which was left not dealt with, and can help more past these detrimental emotions. The title reinforces this entire notion, as a Mid-Term Break, unlike a summer or winter break, is but a short, temporary pause from schooling, and within it there is the idea that a return to school, or in the speaker’s case, reality, in imminent, and unavoidable. Additionally, the fact that Heaney ends the poem with a singular, unique couplet, again pointing out the finality of the last line, but also because the rhyme scheme has slightly changed, from half rhyme to full rhyme, the couplet signifies a break from the inescapable emotions that were previously pervasive, and that the process of progress has truly begun. Thus, the speaker’s coping mechanism proves vital, as it allows him to begin to accept his brother’s death and begin to move forward in his life.
The speaker’s despondency and distressing search for comfort show the difficult nature of accepting traumatic events, but the speaker’s ability to realize his own legitimate, solitary coping process allows him to finally accept his brother’s death and live in reality once more. Despite the intense grief and despondency throughout the poem, which never truly leaves, the speaker is able to realize these emotions in his own personal context, as well as the context of reality, and escape the anguish, confusion, and sense of being lost that tormented him during his experiences with traditional coping mechanisms. Life indeed does go on, and although grief is an emotion that cannot be avoided or ignored, it must be dealt with, in order to cope with the harsh realities of life and be able to live prosperously without the hindrance that harrowing events can cause.
The Digging Skeleton and Bone Dreams are poems written by Seamus Heaney during a time of conflict between England and Ireland. He writes poems in hope to bring peace and to stop the fighting and bloodshed. He reflects this mindset in his poems with the use of imageries. His main focus seems to be around corpses and incorporates a lot of corpse imageries within his poems. The skeletons seem to be representing dead soldiers during the conflict between England and Ireland and the traitor that they speak of could be interpreted as Seamus Heaney. This might be because of the guilt Heaney feels for not participating in the war. In Bone Dreams, Heaney uses very abstract yet intimate language to describe his love for his country. Then, he makes the poem and his language much more concrete as to describe a dead animal which symbolizes the dead soldiers within the country. In the poems The Digging Skeleton and Bone Dreams Seamus Heaney uses skeleton and dead animal imageries to represent the lost soldiers during the conflict between England and Ireland.
In The Digging Skeleton, Heaney makes the skeletons come alive as they dig in the ground and speak of a traitor. They seem to be working under extreme conditions and their “spines hooped toward the sunken edge” (Heaney, 17). As they are digging in the “unrelenting soil” they give the implications that there is a traitor among them. This traitor that they speak of seem to bear resemblance to Seamus Heaney himself. The poem is set at a time where England and Ireland are currently in a violent conflict. During this conflict, Heaney refuses to join the army to fight and instead decides to write poems in hope to restore peace between the two countries. Because of this, he might feel guilty since he feels that he let many people die while he writes poems in safety. This guilt might lead to him feeling like he was the “traitor”. He also uses many first person plural pronouns like “we”, by using this pronoun, he is including himself with the skeletons implying that the skeletons might hold some significant meaning or sentiment to him. In referring to the soldiers as the skeletons, he makes himself the “traitor” to compensate for the guilt that he feels. The skeletons may also be an illusion ghosting in Heaney’s mind. Therefore, the skeletons are moving and seem to have lives of their own, because Heaney has not forgiven himself so he feels haunted with the image of the deceased soldiers. In order for the skeletons to cease their digging and gain eternal rest, Heaney must first forgive himself and let go of the guilt that he holds in his heart.
In the poem Bone Dreams, Heaney describes a series of bones in a way that is like a maiden, then in the end, he recounts a dead animal that he finds in the early morning. Heaney describes the series of bones in a very intimate way suggesting that the bones represent something that Heaney holds dear. Therefore, the bones can come to represent Ireland or the soldiers that are in the war. Heaney then goes on to describe a dead animal on the road. This animal can also represent the dead soldiers as he depicts the animal as “small and cold as the thick of a chisel”, this makes the animal seem like a mere tool or weapon much like the soldiers fighting in the conflict. He expresses resentment towards the war as he compares the soldiers with tools. This shows that he believes the soldiers are dehumanized and the country is treating them only as tools and not as humans. Therefore, he is, in a way, protesting the war with his poems and imageries. This part of the poem is also much more concrete than before. He goes from declaring love for his country to expressing guilt towards the dead soldiers. His imageries transition from abstract to concrete by starting with the country and ending with the soldiers fighting for the country.
These two poems are very similar as they both incorporate the deceased and make them come to life. The description of the deceased can both reflect his guilt towards the deceased soldiers from the conflict between Ireland and England. He also expresses attachment and admiration towards his country as he uses very intimate language to describe it. They both reflect the guilt he feels about not being able to participate in the war as well. These two poems are also both very abstract but they both have some very explicit, concrete element within. For example, in The Digging Skeleton they speak of the idea of a traitor which is fairly concrete and in Bone Dreams the vivid description of the dead animal is the concrete element. However, Heaney still uses very abstract language in most of the poems and that seem to be a theme throughout most of his poems as he seems to have a pension for using very abstruse language when he describes a scenario. These two poems have very similar aspects within as they both use the dead in order to reflect Seamus Heaney’s mindset on the war between England and Ireland.
Seamus Heaney uses imageries of skeletons and dead animals in the poems The Digging Skeleton and Bone Dreams to represent the deceased soldiers lost during the conflict between England and Ireland. These poems are written during a time of conflict between England and Ireland. Seamus Heaney did not participate in this conflict and instead he chooses to write poems to express his desire for peace. His mindset can be seen all through his poems as they are full of imageries of the dead like skeletons, bog bodies, and dead animals. The skeletons within The Digging Skeleton speak of a traitor who seems to be Heaney as he feels guilty for not being in the war and letting people die. He also writes of a dead animal in Bone Dreams representing the dead soldiers as well. He also has a common theme with these two poems as they are both very abstract poems with some sort of concrete element within. This unique style of writing made his poems a symbolic marker of this time period.
The Famine and Irish Identity in Seamus Heaney’s “At a Potato Digging”
Seamus Heaney paints a picture of Ireland through his poems, at times describing its culture and at other times its politics. In poems like ‘Digging’ and ‘The Follower’ he ascribes a sense of dignity to the act of farming, comparing it to the art of writing poetry. Northern Ireland, where Heaney was born in 1939, was predominantly an agrarian economy. Heaney himself grew up on a farm, which played a large role in making the land a dominant motif in his poems. In ‘At a Potato Digging’ Heaney strips farming of its dignity, in order to describe a change in the Irish person’s relationship with the land due to the Potato Famine of 1845-50. Potatoes were an integral part of Irish existence, forming the staple diet as well as the main source of livelihood; it lay at the root of Irish culture. When the blight struck, acres of farmland were reduced to a pile of rotting mud. Out of a population of five million, one million died and two million immigrated. Potato ceased to be a staple crop, shaking the foundation of the Irish identity. His poem is divided into four parts, the first and last depicting the present which is still haunted by memories of the Famine, the second describing the potato as something beautiful, yet repulsive and the third recounts the famine itself. Heaney narrates the indelible horrors of the potato famine to describe the changed attitude of mistrust towards the land in order to bring out the altered notion of an Irish Identity.
The poem opens with the description of farming in the present as an activity devoid of dignity. Heaney uses the onomatopoeic words “stumble”, “crumbled” and “fumble” that also form an internal rhythm to evoke images of clumsiness. The loss of dignity is further emphasised in “humbled knees.” “Humbled” implies that there was once pride in farming, which had been lost due to the Famine. Being forced to bow down is poignantly described in “like crows attacking crow-black fields”, where an image of scavenging is evoked. The earth is elucidated as something that died in the famine. Loss of faith in the soil is enumerated by the superstition of paying “homage to the harvest god.” Northern Ireland is mostly Catholic, following a monotheistic doctrine. Paying homage to the Harvest God (a pagan figure) reflects shaking of existing identities due to the horrors of the Famine. The first section of the poem follows a loose iambic meter, which imitates the rhythm of digging. A rhyme scheme of abab distinguishes the present from the past.
The potato imagery acts as a link between the past and the present. Described in free verse with a loose trochaic meter, the potato is both beautiful and repulsive. Enjambment plays an important role in distinguishing the two contrasting evocations: “slit-eyed tubers seem \ the petrified hearts of drills. Split / by the spade they show white as cream.” While “slit-eyed” evokes the image of disease, “white as cream” is a positive image of freshness inside the potato. “Good smells” express a sense of fulfillment, distinguishing the tone of the second section from the first. While the first reflects mistrust and fear of the land, the second constructs a sense of reverence through images of birth. This reverence predates the Famine. “Inflated pebbles” and “slit eyed tubers” set the stage for recollection of the Famine in the next section by describing disease. The physical description of the potato’s sprouting points as “blind eyes” and the potato itself as a “live skull” acts as a transitory line to connect the second and third section.
Repetition of the image of “live skulls, blind-eyed” evokes images of starvation when it surfaces again later in the poem. This time the highly tactile image holds a metaphorical meaning where it stands for the lives lost in the famine. Rotting is a predominant image that runs through the section, establishing a connection between the rotting crops and the human bodies that wasted away a century ago. Human beings are “grubbing, like plants, in the bitch earth.” Drawing a parallel between the potato and the humans highlights that the crop is an integral part of Irish Identity. “Grafted” refers to both transplanting of crops as well as immigration of human beings, who left behind their cultural roots and fled for survival. Two million people migrated during the famine. Anger at the earth for letting down the people and rotting away boils through in the description of the “bitch earth.” It is compared to an unhealed wound which stinks of a “running sore”, with “pits turned pus.” The rhyme scheme of abcc is an unusual one, reflecting the unnatural and sudden circumstance of the blight. The slant rhyme in the last two lines acts as a transition to the present, which is still throbbing with the scars left by the Famine.
The Irish Potato Famine shook the essence of Irish identity, scattering the population across the globe. Farming ceased to be an occupation that held dignity. Occupations shifted, as did diets. Memories of the famine haunt the Irish psyche, as the Irish continue to spill libations onto the earth in Heaney’s poem, praying that such a famine never happens again. Though Heaney’s poem is about Ireland, his notion of an identity and human relationships with the land is universal. He portrays situations that are both local and universal, translating one human situation into another almost effortlessly.