Seamus Heaney Poems
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.
Disturbed Earth: A Lament for the ‘Tollund Man’, and for Ireland
‘The Tollund Man’, as is his ‘sad freedom’, seems tellingly paradoxical in death – ‘naked’ and exposed, yet somehow venerated as a ‘trove’ and a ‘bridegroom to the goddess’. He is destroyed, but elevated as a sacred symbol of serenity after this sacrifice. This peaceful death is emblematic of Heaney’s concerns in this poem, as he conflates the metaphorical meaning of this death and the violent turmoil of a socially ruptured Ireland.
The description of the Tollund man’s head and eyelids as a ‘peat-brown head’ and ‘mild pods’ imparts a richness to his skin; a sensory description that is evocative of the organic softness of smooth, nutrient-rich clay and the potent ‘dark juices’ that, like ‘juice’, seem sweet and intense. Heaney in this way depicts the bog body in a sort of perverse union in death, a quasi-divine ‘bridegroom’ to the ‘goddess’ of the earth, who ‘tighten[s] her torc on him’. The word ‘tightened’ evokes that this relationship is one of ardent devotion, that it is muscular and powerful, and subsequently, Heaney depicts the bog body is experiencing a sort of sacred rebirth, with life anew in death. The alliteration in ‘tightened her torc’ imparts a steadiness of rhythm to this line, which accentuates the impression that this union is one of peace, though ferocious and ardent. As Heaney gazes at the ‘mild pods’, this close focus illuminates the scale of the body’s preservation, which indicates that Heaney is enraptured by this nature-defying corpse. The Tollund Man is emblematic of an ineffable, preservative strength and as such, he is the harbinger of Heaney’s later prayer to harness this seemingly supernatural power of the Tollund Man for rebirth in his own situation.
In contrast to the tranquillity of the Tollund Man, the ‘scattered’ ‘flesh’ of labourers that Heaney wishes to ‘germinate’ in part II is redolent with savagery and violence. Firstly, the reverence with which Heaney treats the Tollund Man due to the extent of his preservation is decimated. In praying for these particles of ‘flesh’ to ‘germinate’ like seeds, Heaney implies that they are like the ‘seeds’ ‘caked in [the Tollund Man’s] stomach’. This creates a striking visual image in which the size of the Tollund Man utterly swamps and overwhelms the meagre remains of the ‘young brothers’, whose ‘skin’ is like confetti, ‘flecked’ along the ‘sleepers’ of the railway line on which they were killed. They have been so ruthlessly massacred that they are reduced to these ‘fleck[s]’ that seem papery and lifeless in contrast with the richness of the Tollund Man’s ‘mild pods’. Heaney in this way imparts that the sort of resurrection for which he is hoping is inconceivable, and irrational, since the ‘scattered, ambushed’ remains are so distant from the wholeness and peace Heaney extols in the Tollund Man. As the skin and teeth are ‘trailed for miles along the lines’, the internal rhyming between ‘miles’ and ‘lines’ is evocative and tactile; the extended vowel sounds mirror the dragging and ‘trail[ing]’ of the corpses along the ‘lines’, and in this way the reader is sonically pulled along the ‘lines’, just like the ‘young brothers’ were, and in this way Heaney may hope to emphasize the savagery of the act, and engender an understanding of this in the reader.
Part II of the poem also marks a dramatic tonal shift from part I; dynamic verbs such as ‘risk’ force a marked contrast to the restful ‘repose’ and slow, seeping ‘juices’ of the previous stanzas. This is underlined by the forceful, alliterative plosive sounds in ‘consecrate’ which are jarring, and impart a new seething undercurrent to the poem; one of anger, disturbance, and above all, will. Heaney is now involved in the poem, emotionally challenged, as opposed to his peaceful and passive role as a voyeur in part I, as he ‘stand[s]’, entranced by the Tollund Man. In part I, Heaney says ‘I will go to Aarhus’, but as part II begins, a sense of discordance is also conveyed by the word ‘could’ in line one, as it evokes that, in contrast, action in this situation for Heaney here is merely a possibility. This immediately conjures in the reader an appreciation for the scale of the social situation in Ireland, for it is one of such austerity that Heaney feels so trapped that he is unable to act. This notion of desolation in the Irish landscape is underscored as Heaney refers to the land of Ireland as a ‘cauldron bog’. The ‘cauldron’ has connotations of the occult, and of diabolism, and in this way it is as if Ireland is the ‘cauldron’ to a coven of plotting, ominous figures setting it on a doom-filled trajectory of abhorrence. Furthermore, it also instils an idea that the very earth is poisoned and imbued with these acts of political violence. This is a particularly striking notion as Heaney treats nature with such reverence in many of his other poems, and it seems as if this beauty is inalienable. If the sumptuous ‘black butter’ of the earth (Bogland), has now been distorted into a ‘cauldron’, the audience comes to understand the magnitude of the problem; it has violated the land which Heaney holds so dear. It is therefore understandable as to why Heaney feels that his hands are tied, for the problem may now be so deeply rooted in the very fabric of Ireland, that nothing can be done. Again a sense of helplessness is encapsulated in the proposed outcome of Heaney’s ‘pray[er]’; he wishes to transfigure this ‘cauldron bog’ into a ‘holy ground’. Since the connotations of ‘cauldron’ are antithetic to all this ‘holy’ or sacred, and the sloppy, formless ‘bog’ contrasts with the steady and definite ‘ground’, this sort of transformation therefore seems implausible, and Heaney depicts that the disparity between what Ireland should be and what it currently is, is gaping, and irreconcilable.
Confirming the analogous significance of the Tollund Man is Heaney’s final proclamation that out in the ‘old man-killing parishes’ where the Tollund Man was killed, he ‘will feel lost, unhappy and at home’. The seemingly paradoxical of being both ‘lost’ and ‘at home’ is resolved in the notion that there are between Heaney’s native Ireland and Jutland – that both experience violence in the name of belief, at different times. The constancy of violence renders Heaney ‘unhappy’, but there is also a pervading sense of time’s expansiveness as the poem draws to a close. Consistent with the shifting tenses of the parts of the poem (past, present and future), the poem is all-encompassing concerning time. When Heaney refers to the Tollund Man’s death-cart as a ‘tumbril’, connections are drawn with the French revolution, in which these ‘tumbril[s]’ were used, and when Heaney describes the violence in Jutland with the archaic ‘man-killing’, the reader is transported back to pagan society, evoking a sense of the primitive nature of these deaths. Heaney is this way inexplicably establishes that violence is an unwavering, unavoidable and constant presence in life and society. While the immediacy of the events in Ireland leave him ‘unhappy’, this sense of resignation to violence seems to be the only mitigator in a poem that is sobering and confronting in its examination of the social situation in Ireland. As such, the audience is left to hope that Ireland may one day return to being ‘holy ground’.
Seamus Heaney’s Poetic Struggle with the Past
In his critically acclaimed collection North, contemporary Irish poet Seamus Heaney reveals a very personal side of himself and of his identity as a writer. Although each individual poem explores its own storyline and employs its own metaphors, one common thread seems to unravel throughout the collection: the past, particularly that of Ireland. And Heaney’s angst-ridden endeavor to recount this past, though perpetuated throughout the entire book, is especially lucid in the relationship between the two back-to-back poems “North” and “Trial Pieces.” Viewing these pieces as one consecutive development of theme rather than as two separate entities, Heaney’s readers are better able to grasp a fundamental constant in both his work and himself: a sense of obligation to preserve the past and a conflicting fear of misrepresenting or exploiting it.
As the collection’s namesake, the poem “North” takes on the responsibility of establishing author’s purpose and encompassing the general mood of the book, which it accomplishes pretty successfully. The poem opens with the words, “I returned…,” immediately setting a precedent of memory and a desire to go back. Heaney proceeds to describe the present condition of his setting as “secular” and “unmagical” and acutely contrastive to those who had once been rich with life and glory (“those fabulous raiders/ those lying in Orkney and Dublin”). He expands on this idea by describing the rusting of their swords–the swords embodying those he wishes to preserve and the rust implying their senescence. He pays notice to their “ocean-deafened voices,” and his word choice here is a particularly salient foreshadowment of his duty to write on behalf of those whose voices have metaphorically sunk. This ocean metaphor is sustained in the next stanza when he describes their ships as “buoyant with hindsight,” reinforcing the necessity of memory as something which can quite literally keep a person or thing afloat. The final three stanzas of the poem take a turn for the personal as Heaney discloses what the memories have told him. He begins, “It said, ‘Lie down/ in the word-hoard, burrow/ the coil and gleam/ of your furrowed brain.” This term “word-hoard” is conspicuously in reference to his own writing; his viewing it as a “hoard” indicates that he is perhaps ashamed of it in all its spontaneous, jumbled, and obsessive glory. But despite any personal shame, Heaney feels compelled by these voices to contemplate the value of language. In the last stanzas, the voice tells him to “compose in darkness,” to “keep [his] eye clear,” and to “trust the feel of what nubbed treasure/ [his] hands have known.” The switch to imperative mood is certainly worth noting; here, Heaney does not view his writing as a product of free will but rather as a command from the past. The task at hand has now become indispensable; it is not an easy one and not necessarily even a pleasant one, but rather an anxious and utterly necessary one.
By the end of “North,” Heaney seems to have embraced his objective of preserving the past, relying on written memory to make the unmagical magical again. “Trial Pieces” plays off of this resolution and broadens his struggle with it. Part I opens with Heaney examining an artifact, really any arbitrary bone or fossil, and getting drawn in by its captivating exterior (“…trellis to conjure in/ Like a child’s tongue/ following the toils”). The first part ends ominously as this object begins “eluding the hand/ that fed it,” creating tension between the memory and the rememberer. Part II reveals that the object is what Heaney likes to call a “trial piece” and reiterates the enticement of its “foliage, bestiaries/ elaborate interlacings.” This trial piece, he says, must be “magnified on display.” The mention here of “display” is the poem’s first referral to an overarching theme of voyeurism–yet another agent of tension between Heaney and his subject matter. In this instance of magnification, the viewer is an opportunist and the trial piece a victim of gratuitous scrutiny–a relationship which now represents the one between the poet and his poetic inspirations. In Parts II and III, he continues his exploration of the artifact and compares this exploration to reaching in “for shards of the vertebrae,” a physically dangerous task to parallel the risky ventures of writing. Part IV begins, “That enters my longhand/ turns cursive, unscarfing/ a zoomorphic wake/ a worm of thought,” creating a foray of newfound anxiety, characterized by thoughts flowing quickly and togetherly, similar to the way cursive letters would. And this anxiety only builds when Heaney compares himself to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, painting himself as a victim of doubt and indecision and morally ambiguous responsibilities. He goes on to say that he is a “skull-handler, parablist/ smeller of rot,” suggesting that his subjects can feel dangerous or unpleasant (i.e., metaphorical skulls and rot), and he concludes Part IV with “dithering, blathering,” an incoherent resolution to match his anxiety-stricken mind. The last stanza of the poem finally offers a visual to this notion of skull-handling as he details the way his words might “lick around/ cobbled quays” and tread cautiously “over the skull-capped ground.” For Seamus Heaney, the past is a ground of vertebrae, and his duty as a writer is to maneuver his way through it without shattering one.
In both “North” and “Trial Pieces,” Heaney’s relationship with his subject matter is a recurrent focus, one which shifts constantly and always seems to leave him in a disturbed and inspired state of doubt. In “North,” the reader learns his motive: the fear that, if he as a writer fails to employ his own unique means of expression, a rich past and its inimitable culture could sink like a ship. “Trial Pieces” takes this principle and complicates it further, building up a paradoxical guilt through what could be described as exploitation of the past for Heaney’s own selfish poetic purposes. He is afraid to speak on behalf of a time that will never belong to him and entirely uncertain of his ability to do it justice. These conclusions drawn from the conjunctional “North” and “Trial Pieces” signify something beyond mere patriotism or reverence; Heaney’s overwhelming anxieties surrounding the past ultimately reveal his truest form of devotion as an Irish writer and rememberer.
Since North’s publication in 1975, it has received a great deal of acclaim and has even contributed to Heaney’s receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature two decades later. Today’s readers would most likely agree that his recount of Ireland’s past has been more than satisfactory. And, by virtue of publishing his works, Heaney has ended his poetic saga composedly–the necessity of preserving his culture presumably taking final precedence over all else.
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.
Religious Intolerance Explored in Bog Poems
Seamus Heaney wrote poems on a wide variety of subjects; from reflecting on his experiences with nature as a child to a period of political turmoil that plagued Ireland in the early 20th century called the “Troubles.” Some of his poems address many issues together and have recurring themes and ideas. An example is a series of poems called Bog poems: ‘Bogland,’ ‘Tollund man’ and ‘The Grauballe man,’ which share an obvious geographic theme but also show a similar concern towards themes like violence, religion, and terror.
The first poem Bogland is a poem that looks at Bogs more from a nationalistic point of view. Bog lands are wetlands that accumulate peat, a deposit of dead plant material. Bogs are a topographic feature of Ireland and are a common occurrence in countries part of the Northern Hemisphere. The speaker of the poem opens the first stanza with the word ‘We’, which is a possessive pronoun and conveys a sense of unity with the land. In the opening lines, there is a contrast between the physical geography of United States with the Irish landscape,“We have no prairies/ To slice a big sun at evening”, and what apparently seems as a negative statement is turned into a positive assertion with words like “ encroaching horizon” and “unfenced country. Concurrently, the poem sheds light on the unrealized features of bogs, the layers upon layers of the land, enclosed with a rich history and ‘ bog that keeps crusting’ far and beyond. Moreover, the bogs are in layers and each layer is a page from a history book, but like an encroaching sun it at first doesn’t reveal anything, hence giving a feeling of absence.Bogs are also used as a metaphor to show a connection of the present to the past through the constancy of the land, evident from the verse “Butter sunk under/ More than a hundred years” which “Was recovered salty and white”.
The conserving nature of the bogs is also discussed in “Tollund Man” where Seamus Heaney takes it one step further by calling the land “goddess”. Tollund Man is a poem full of promising things, for one there is the promising pilgrimage, “Someday I will go to Aarhus”. In this very first line the tone is willful and expectant, however, there is a presence of aloofness towards the future from the time that is being spoken in. The speaker harkens to see the “peat brown head” of the sacred body, but assume an impersonal tone when noting the physical features of the Tollund man’s body. Later; however, he feels a personal connection to the Tollund man when he says “I will stand a long time” only after he exposes his vulnerability to religious victimization. He then again glorifies it, and this time that to the status of a saint. But he uses a more ominous and forceful tone as he does this, he personifies the bog into a deity and equates it to Ireland, feminine in nature and overwhelming “she tightened her torc on him”. The kind of language used indicates the powerlessness of the Tollund man in the face of superior and supernatural forces, but then insists on the quasi-divine nature coming into effect and “working/ Him to a saint’s kept body”, a surrogate Christ perhaps, who is left at chance “trove of the turf cutters” for now and will be resurrected again “his stained face/ Reposes”. There is a deliberate attempt at linking religion with the circle of violence for the sake of bringing peace. This attempt becomes clearer in the second stanza where the speaker’s tone becomes more emphatic as he breaks the stillness of the last line in the first stanza to boldly confront the violence caused by religion. His boldness is exemplified from when he says “I could risk blasphemy” (that is by averting to Pagan beliefs), in an attempt to resurrect the victims of sectarian violence. As a sacrificial victim to the goddess of germination, Tollund man carries the potential of bringing the dead back to life (“gruel of winter seeds”), this may also be an allusion to the “Requiem for the Croppies” where the fighters’ graves sprouted as a result of barley seeds in their pockets as they died. Hence perhaps aligning himself to pagan beliefs and then praying to Tollund, the speaker imagines he may have a shot at reviving the victims of religious violence.
A third and final poem of the series is ‘The Grauballe man’, where bogs act as a metaphysical conceit of history and highlight the recrudescence of religious violence that is associated with Ireland. However unlike Tollund man, this poem is less a myth-making and promising things, the terror in this poem comes from the depiction of the mummy as a grotesque art. The strong imagery in the poem conflicts with the state of tranquility in which Grauballe man is at first described. What seems even more unreal is once again the assumption of an impersonal tone and the absence of a commentary on such powerful images. There is even a lack of human empathy that would normally be present in such a scenario and it seems as if Grauballe man is presented as aesthetically horrific, yet appreciable. There is nothing passive or ‘mild’ about the Grauballe man, his murder has been perhaps described overt at best: “The head lifts/ the chin is a visor/ raised above the vent/ of his slashed throat”. The lines that follow this description show a shift, where now the description ends and the rationale for the description is given, but first as a reflection of his self-discourse with respect to Grauballe being art and then as realization of the actual terror-embedded-reality, “I saw his twisted face/ in a photograph, /a head and a shoulder/ out of the peat/ bruised like a forceps baby”, overshadowing the art. Here Seamus Heaney uses bogs as a different metaphor to create awareness regarding a clash between myth and reality. In the end, art is looked upon as a reflection of life but with certain limitations. The poem itself is limited in expressing the true horrors of life, however, it makes an attempt by using metaphorical techniques to create strong images of reality.
All in all, it can be noted that in all three of the poems there are recurring topics, metaphors (metaphysical conceit) and explicit use of imagery in order to show Heaney’s concern towards the chain of violence which can be connected back to a single source: religious intolerance. Moreover, he tries to discover violence by exploring the victims of Irish pagan cultures in the past and comments on how religious intolerance has been a lost culture of the land that was being revived during the “Troubles”.
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.
An Examination of “Intimate Revenge” in Seamus Heaney’s “Punishment”
The poem “Punishment” by Seamus Heaney was written in 1975 as a part of the anthology North. It is a part of Heaney’s bog series, in which he describes the Irish bogland, and the different artifacts and remains that have been found within the Northern European bogs. In these poems, the bog imagery is metaphoric of Heaney’s Irish homeland, specifically Northern Ireland. Written during the bloodiest year of the Irish Troubles, “Punishment” delves deeper into this metaphor to examine relations during the time period. In “Punishment,” the poetic persona observes the body of a bog woman, the Windeby Girl. She has a noose around her neck, and as he looks at her corpse he imagines the context in which she was hanged. Throughout this first section of the poem, Heaney creates a very empathetic tone through the persona’s description of the woman and the circumstances surrounding her death. Toward the end of the poem, the persona admits that some part of him does not regret her execution, and almost condones it. In “Punishment,” Heaney uses contrasting images of the bog woman and metaphor of the Irish Troubles to create tension and explore the internal conflict between empathy and revenge.
Heaney begins to develop an empathetic tone from the very first beginning of “Punishment.” The first three lines read: “I can feel the tug / of the halter at the nape / of her neck.” Immediately, the word tug pulls the reader into the persona’s experience. Heaney’s wonderful use of enjambment in this first stanza also leads to the creation of rousing interest. These features work together to draw the reader into the story of the bog woman simply from the initial image of her.
Heaney continues to establish empathy through the persona’s continued imagery. The persona uses very vivid visual analogies to draw attention to the young age and unfortunate situation of the bog girl. In lines 7-8, the wind “shakes the frail rigging / of her ribs.” The word frail highlights her weakness and vulnerability. The persona can see her ribs. She is completely exposed. In this, Heaney establishes physical infirmity. Until the fourth stanza, the reader has no perception of age. In line 14, the persona calls her a “barked sapling.” A sapling is a young, weak tree. Barking is a practice in which a row of bark is stripped from a tree, inevitably killing it. Combined, these two simple terms create an incredibly evocative image of nature slaughtered by man. They suggest to the reader that this girl’s death is an act against nature and is inherently wrong. The persona continues to describe her in this manner, until line 20. Perhaps one of the most puzzling lines in “Punishment,” it refers to the noose around her neck. The persona compares it to “a ring / to store / the memories of love” (20-22). A noose generally brings about a negative connotation. However in this context, it is presented with a somewhat ironic and nostalgic tone. At its most basic purpose, the metaphor is alluding to the revelation in the next line. Yet, at a deeper level, the line could represent the persona’s understanding and justification of the bog girl’s crime. This appreciation is further exemplified by the persona’s personal connection to the girl.
Heaney’s use of apostrophe creates an especially strong sense of empathy in “Punishment.” The persona directly addresses the exhibited woman as a “little adulteress” (23). Once again, the persona draws attention literally to her youth and paltry size through the use of little. However, this is also a term of endearment, as one would call his or her own child, further codifying the connection the persona feels with the bog woman. In this line, the reader is informed for the first time of the reason for the girl’s death. She committed a crime and she suffered the punishment. In the subsequent lines, the images transition from frailty in death to beauty in life. The persona describes her “tar-black face” as once being “beautiful” (27). This stark contrast highlights the tension of her life and death and demonstrates the empathy the persona feels for the girl. The final definitive sympathy the reader observes is in line 28, as the persona addresses the girl as “my poor scapegoat.” The possessive adjective my demonstrates the empathy the persona experiences, and the line as a whole shows a great display of sympathy. The implication of the word scapegoat is that she was punished so that others would not be. She is an example, even though the persona recognizes the unfairness of her situation.
In the next stanzas, the persona begins to reveal his personal cowardice and sin. The most poignantly ashamed lines come directly after vehemently expressed empathy. The persona directly addresses the bog girl for the final time: “I almost love you / but would have cast, I know, / the stones of silence” (29-31). The images that have been developing empathy and endearment from the first line suddenly dissolve as the persona’s sympathy is proven insufficient. Despite his convictions, he does not feel strongly enough to speak out against his peers and save her. If he does, he cannot bring himself to do so for the simplest reason. Some part of him understands why she is killed, and agrees with the punishment.
In the poem, the persona compares the punishment of the bog girl to the punishment of Catholic girls during the Irish Troubles. During this time, cruel punishments for seemingly minor offenses were not uncommon. The Troubles were a conflict between Irish Catholics and British Protestants. In this poem, Heaney specifically references the penalty for fraternization between these two groups. If a Catholic girl was discovered associating with a British soldier, she was “cauled in tar,” and shamed publicly (39). This is comparative to a hanging for adultery as public degradation. She is made an example, just as the bog girl is made an example.
The metaphor extends not only to the literal “punishment,” but also to the emotional conflict the persona experiences. He is the “artful voyeur” of a murdered girl (32). This demonstrates a sense of guilt as he witnesses the atrocity in front of him, yet he only watches. Equally, he has “stood dumb” as he has watched his own people being punished by his own people (37). He “would connive in civilized outrage,” yet do nothing to stop the act. It is through these contradictions that the persona’s internal conflict is revealed. The persona can “understand the exact / and tribal, intimate revenge,” yet also feel boundless empathy for those punished (43-44). It is through this conflict that Heaney looks at relations during the Irish Troubles.
As a prominent figure in the Catholic minority, Seamus Heaney was often called upon to make political statements in his poetry. “Punishment” exemplifies betrayal, not between the two sides, but within one. It is not degrading the Protestants, nor is it a rallying cry for the Catholics. Instead, Heaney examines revenge, empathy, and betrayal at their core. Throughout the majority of the poem, the images of the bog woman create a great feeling of empathy. Yet, it is also understood that the persona would have done nothing to save her. She executed an “intimate” betrayal, and thus deserved an “intimate revenge” (44). The allusion to Catholics during the Troubles presents an especially personal connection for Heaney. In the intense emotion of innermost betrayal, moral convictions may be set aside for the satisfaction of revenge. “Punishment” examines the ethical dilemma faced both by Catholics during the Troubles and by any person in a situation of war, either personal or intercontinental. The resolution Heaney reaches is uncomfortable. The persona stands in silence and accepts the violence, despite empathy for the victim. The reader’s discomfort comes in the understanding of why he does so. It is the question of love over hate, of peace over war, one each person must answer individually. Though Heaney rarely added fuel to the political fire of the Irish Troubles, perhaps through this poem he is asking whether this struggle is worth the pain it created.