Seamus Heaney Poems
“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.
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.
Meaning Through Language in Heaney’s Poetry
Two of Seamus Heaney’s poems that rely on the shifts in language to create meaning are “The Strand at Lough Beg” and “Casualty”, both from his Field Work (1979) Anthology. Both poems revolve around the effects of sectarian violence in Ireland alluding to the fact that many Irish are not political driven and are collateral damage in the events. Through rich imagery and strong symbolism, Heaney utilises language to reflect on the Troubles in Ireland.The two poems “The Strand at Lough Beg” and “Casualty” reflect on victims of sectarian violence in Ireland who known personally to Heaney. In “The Strand at Lough Beg”, Heaney tries to give back to his cousin, Colum McCartney, the dignity he lost due to the brutality of his death. McCartney was a victim of a roadside murder as he returned home from a Gaelic football match. Heaney was not actually present at his cousin’s death but visualises an imaginary situation where he assumes the role of Dante from Purgatorio. Similar to this, Heaney invents memories of Louis O’Neill, the man killed in an Irish Republican Army (IRA) pub bombing. Parallels can be drawn between “The Strand at Lough Beg” and “Casualty” as they both utilise intertextuality in the poems through the language and imagery evoked in order to create imagined scenarios and reflect on the Troubles of Ireland.The early stanzas in “The Strand at Lough Beg” utilise pace and intertextuality to convey the sense of pursuit during Colum McCartney’s death. The poem opens with an extract from Dante’s Purgatorio “All around this little island, on the strand … grow the tall rushes from the oozy sand” because Heaney chooses to assume the role of Dante in the poem. The first verses, through enjambment, flow with no pause thus creating a slow pace which is similar to how McCartney may have driven at night in a town that was unknown to him. Heaney writes, “Leaving the white glow of filling stations and a few lonely streetlamps among the fields you climbed the hills towards Newtownhamilton…” the use of language evokes a slow pace within poem which contrasts with the next verse. Heaney uses shorter syllables such as “Goat-beards and dogs’ eyes” to increase the pace and sibilance through “snapping and squealing” which contrasts to the stillness of the previous verses. The effect of language in this long opening sentence foreshadows the setting and nature of Colum McCartney’s death.The use of language in “Casualty” is similar to that in “The Strand at Lough Beg” as Heaney juxtaposes calamity with violence through changes in the language. In the construction of the death of Louis O’Neill, Heaney writes “But my tentative art his turned back watches too…” referring to the previous discussion about how he and O’Neill would talk about “… lore of the horse and cart or the Provisionals”. This discussion uses a regular rhyme scheme of A, B, A, B creating a calm pace especially through the use of phrases such as “at closing time would go in waders…” The calamity is quickly contrasted in the poem as Heaney states that “He (O’Neill) was blown to bits”, a very abrupt manner of describing the death. The alliteration is filtered through the stanza with “blown”, “bits” and “obeyed” which represents the sudden manner of O’Neill’s death. Through the shifts and contrasts in language, Heaney is able to create imagined memories of the sudden nature of sectarian violence in Ireland.Language can be used to make reference to other literary works which Heaney often does to inform the reading of his own poems. As mentioned previously, Heaney uses the Purgatorio in “The Strand at Lough Beg” because he assumes the role of Dante during the death of his cousin. Literary reference is also made to King Sweeney, an Irish myth about a kind who went mad during battle and turned into bird whilst being pursued by demons: “Where Sweeney fled before the bloodied heads”. The imagery used in “The Strand at Lough Beg” also evokes similarities to the Michelangelo’s “La Pieta”, the statue of the Virgin Mary holding Christ after he has come down off the cross. During the imagined scene Heaney writes “I lift you under the arms and lay you flat” evoking tenderness that was absent during his cousin’s actual death. Although Heaney does not necessarily state the literary or artistic influence, the imagery constructed alludes to other texts informing the reading of Heaney’s works.Poets often have a distinct way of writing and parallels can be drawn between Heaney’s past texts in “Casualty”. It is known that Louis O’Neill was not actually a close friend of Heaney but more an acquaintance. Regardless, Heaney constructs a gentle image of himself and O’Neill on a boat going fishing as this was his profession. The poem speaks of how the two men were “on the water… banked under fog” as “the screw purling, turning” took them out to sea and Heaney “tasted freedom with him”. The influence of W.B Yeats’ “Fisherman” is seen here and also the influence of Heaney’s past work, “The Tollund Man” where Heaney wrote about the body who was found in the 1950’s that was a sacrifice to the fertility God, Nerphus. In “The Tolland Man”, Heaney states how “something of his sad freedom… should come to me” resonating the language used in “Casualty”. Furthermore, the Northern Reticence’s which Heaney often speaks is conveyed in “Casualty” similar to how it is conveyed in “The Strand at Lough Beg” and the poem “Whatever You Say, Say Nothing”. The recurring language of the “sideways talkers”, Irish who “spoke an old language of conspirators” and spoke in “smoke signals” is exemplified in many of the texts as Heaney uses symbolic language to mention the North Reticence. The use of recurring language from Heaney’s own work or other literary works is used to enhance the meaning of his poems especially those about the violence in Ireland.Seamus Heaney’s two poems “The Strand at Lough Beg” and “Casualty” rely on language to create meaning about the sectarian violence in Ireland. Heaney refers to his own literary works and other texts to inform the understanding of his own poems. Through vivid imagery, pace, sounds and representations, “The Strand at Lough Beg” and “Casualty” construct partially imagined situations with Colum McCartney and Louis O’Neill in order for Heaney to comment on the Troubles in Ireland.
Digging Up the Past
Seamus Heaney’s poem “Digging,” an eight-stanza poem written in free verse, is the first in his collection of poems entitled Death of a Naturalist, which was published in 1966. Written in first-person narrative, this circularly structured poem utilizes formalistic elements to reconcile the fact that the speaker will not follow in his forebears’ footsteps as a common laborer. However, subtle hints that the speaker does not meet certain aspects of the male stereotype manifest themselves throughout the poem. The poem’s vivid imagery helps reveal that the speaker is trying to rationalize and justify his career choice, but it also unveils his respect for digging, the trade of his ancestors. In the second line of the poem, the speaker describes the pen as resting between his thumb and index finger “snug as a gun” (line 2). This simile suggests that the pen feels warm and comfortable in his hands, yet at the same time, it hints at the pen’s capacity to powerfully fire words, much like a gun powerfully fires bullets. The poet continues this same idea of something fitting when he refers to his father’s boot as “nestled on the lug” of the spade (10). The speaker wonders whether or not he — a well-educated writer — fits in with his ancestors, manual laborers whom he admires. His admiration shines through in the other key image in “Digging”: the father’s “straining rump,” which is described as “stooping in rhythm through potato drills” (7-9). The precision and rhythm of his movements match the precision and rhythm of his spade at work. At this early stage of the poem, the speaker questions whether writing can match the precision, productivity, and odd beauty of manual labor. The poet uses language to accentuate his thoughts on this subject. For example, all of the words in line two — the line that describes his “squat” pen — are short and squat to emphasize the description of the pen (2). When the speaker hears the sound of his father’s spade digging, he allows the reader to hear it too in the word “rasping” (3), an onomatopoeia, and in the hard alliterative sound of “gravelly ground” (4). The speaker also utilizes alliteration to highlight the sharp, precise sound of his father’s spade entering the ground when he describes the “tall tops” and how his father “buried the bright edge deep” (12). The precision of his forebears’ blade is captured again when the poet writes of the “nicking and slicing,” an onomatopoeia that brings the blade’s motion to life to the reader. As the speaker’s father digs deeper, the words become more metallic, and the hollow phrase “down and down” produces an echo that emphasizes the depth of the hole (23). When the smell of potato mold surfaces, the descriptions shift, evoking an image of dampness. The sounds change to words such as “squelch and slap,” an alliterative and onomatopoeic device used to mimic the noise made in wet clay (25). This richly detailed language clearly illustrates the poet’s admiration for the work of his forefathers, but it also begs the question, Why is the speaker so uncertain about being a writer?A gender critic would answer that writing is not as masculine a profession as digging or any other type of manual labor. The almost surfeit of admiration of men certainly warrants a gender-based criticism. Indeed, Heaney’s descriptions of the speaker’s father and grandfather embody the male stereotype of the strong and sturdy man. He describes them with words such as “straining” (6), “coarse” (10), “firm” (11), and “rooted” (12). While a Formalist might construe these words as evidence of the speaker’s adoration for his forefathers, the gender critic notes that these descriptions create an image of roughness, strength, and sturdiness — the alpha male stereotype at its height. Yet interestingly, this description stands in stark contrast to the speaker’s own image, that of a meek, weaker man. While the language describing the spades is full of praise and admiration, Heaney’s pen is only “squat” and is wholly unimpressive (2). At the beginning of the poem, the reader sees Heaney far removed from manual labor, looking down from his window where he is writing as his father works in the garden below. The next time the reader sees Heaney, he is delivering milk to his grandfather instead of working in the fields himself. These differences between Heaney and his forefathers highlight the male stereotype promulgated in the poem.However, also noteworthy is that Heaney does not seem to actually feel pressured to conform to the male stereotype; in the end, he determines that writing is a legitimate profession — and one worthy of his time and pursuit. For example, the poem starts and ends with the same lines “Between my finger and my thumb / The squat pen rests” (1-2), but the first stanza ends with “as snug as a gun” (3), while the last stanza concludes with “I’ll dig with it” (32). Here Heaney has discovered that his pen is just as powerful of a tool as a spade, breathing life into the age-old axiom, “the pen is mightier than the sword.” In doing so, Heaney affirms that he is going to choose his own unique career path as a writer. However, according to Heaney, though he is pursuing a different career, he is still a digger, just like the rest of his family. While his forefathers literally dug into the earth, Heaney realizes that by choosing the pen over the spade, he is in fact digging up the memories of his ancestors. The extended metaphor of digging and roots in the poem helps Heaney convey his conclusion: while we should remember and consider our roots, we should chase our own dreams.
The Honour in Courage: An Explication of ‘Requiem for the Croppies’
“Requiem for the Croppies”, written by Seamus Heaney in 1962, describes the Irish Rebellion of 1798 as seen through the eyes and narrative voice of one random, deceased Irish soldier. The term “croppies” refers to the rebels, attributable to their short hair – a style adopted from French revolutionaries of the same period. In this sonnet, Heaney employs the use of double meanings, metaphors, and other literary devices to convey, in spite of futility, a sense of nationalistic pride through desperation.Heaney opens the poem suggesting the narration’s source to be that of an itinerant male. With “no kitchens on the run” (2), the man—along with most of the community—is confined to rely on barley for nourishment: “The pockets of our greatcoats full of barley.” (1) “No striking camp” (2) works to describe the rebels’ lack of militant training and thus, a deficiency in their preparedness. At the end of the first two lines, Heaney utilizes what is called an em dash. This rhetorical device, defined in this case as aposiopesis, serves to effectively express a sense of the rebels’ focus and urgency in the ensuing battle, making it seem as though the speaker lacks the time to explain the situation further.In line 3, the reader is given the impression of an aggressive Irish uprising despite adversity. The English are attacking, causing the Irish to “[move] quick and sudden in [their] own country.” In portraying the Irish as under siege, Heaney demonstrates the power of England, as the rebellion must stave off intrusion in their home country. Despite this fact, the speaker observes a classless community unite to fight for their kingdom: “The priest lay behind ditches with the tramp.” (4)Heaney details aspects of the war in subsequent lines, while again suggesting that the Irish were not as equipped for battle. This is accomplished through atypical punctuation, breaking up what could be an otherwise smooth sentence: “A people, hardly marching—on the hike—”. To read the line properly is to instil noticeable pauses; this gives one the sense of a nervous, sporadic progression. The adjective “hardly” takes on a double meaning. As a synonym for “barely”, Heaney suggests a contrast to the organized English troops, who advance collectively and are well-prepared; however, taking the word to mean “powerfully” or “impressively” is not incorrect, and insinuates a sense of willpower. Regardless, the Irish attempt “new tactics” (6) so as to compete with the English: “We’d cut through reins and rider with the pike” (7). As the rebellion “stampede cattle into infantry” (8), the feeling is more a sense of desperation than innovation. Originality aside, the Irish must resort to such acts due to their low numbers and lack of substantial weaponry. On the other hand, the use of these methods demonstrates a determination to succeed in defence of the nation.The Irish would see their eventual defeat at Vinegar Hill, a “fatal conclave” (10) that marked the end of the rebellion. While “conclave” can refer simply to a gathering of individuals, it has its roots in religion, specifically denoting the private meetings Catholic cardinals would hold in electing a pope. Heaney fuses the two definitions together in his use of the word; not only are the English soldiers and Irish rebels to assemble on Vinegar Hill, but because the meeting is to prove “fatal” for Ireland, and diverse classes had assembled for the cause of the nation, communities may need to be rebuilt and leaders designated.In line 11 the poet applies rhetorical devices that address the agricultural themes of the poem. In summarizing the battle’s conclusion, the speaker mentions that “terraced thousands died, shaking scythes at cannon.” (11) A “terraced” land is simply an undulating cultivated area with levelled sections, noteworthy as the rebellion is mainly comprised of farmers who relied on the crops, as evidenced in both the first and last lines of the sonnet. At the same time, the reader is presented with fairly brutal imagery, as one likens the terracing of land to the scything of human bodies. “Shaking scythes at cannon” suggests another symbolic interpretation, this time of a lopsided affair between the weak and the powerful, again exemplifying the Irish’s dogged spirit in the face of defeat.When Heaney notes that “the hillside blushed” (12), he uses a metaphor in order to represent the shame that comes with defeat on native soil and also the red from the blood of the dead rebels. When the fighting dies out to see English rule triumph, the Irish soldiers are “buried … without shroud or coffin” (13), indicative of gross disrespect, perhaps on account of their defeat; although, when coupled with line 14, it seems Heaney is alluding to the recurring violence in Ireland. In “the barley grew up out of our grave” (14), one gets the sense that Heaney is perpetuating conflict in Ireland and accepting it as recycled through generations, given that “barley” is mentioned in the sonnet’s first line and will provide sustenance for the next batch of soldiers.“Requiem”, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is “something that resembles … a solemn chant for the repose of the dead.” Seamus Heaney’s “Requiem for the Croppies” is such a chant, intended to pay respects to those that fought and died for Ireland in the 1798 rebellion. The poem is rife with literary devices in the form of metaphors, double meanings, and revealing imagery, and presented in a manner that makes clear the soldiers’ pride and fortitude in fighting for their country.Works CitedGahan, Daniel. “The 1798 Rebellion in Wexford.” Multitext Project in Irish History. University College Cork, n.d. Web. 15 Oct. 2009.”requiem.” Merriam-Webster Online. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 19 Oct. 2009.
Culpability of the Fisherman in Seamus Heaney’s “Casualty”
Seamus Heaney’s “Casualty” is written as an elegy for a friend who was killed in a bombing in Northern Ireland shortly after Bloody Sunday. His friend, who was a Catholic, failed to obey a curfew set in place by the Irish Republican Army. He was consequently killed in the bombing of the pub he often frequented. “Casualty” serves as an elegy for this friend in that Heaney uses it to remember and honor the deceased. The poem also allows Heaney to express his opinion on the relative guilt of his friend and of the I.R.A.Central to “Casualty” is the question of the Fisherman’s responsibility in bringing about his own death. Heaney asks the reader, “How culpable was he/ That last night when he broke/ Our tribe’s complicity?” (78-80) He can imagine his friend replying, “Puzzle me/ The right answer to that one.” (83-84) The poem ends with an echo of this question as Heaney suggests, “Question me again.” (112) This repetition of the question of the guilt of the friend suggests to the reader that this poem was meant to convey a political message in addition to its function as an elegy that Heaney uses to pay respects to his friend. We are meant to analyze this poem to determine for ourselves whether the violation of this curfew, imposed by the Fisherman’s own people, was enough to warrant his death. By choosing not to follow the curfew agreed upon by the Catholics in Northern Ireland, the Fisherman is seen as going against his people, his “tribe.” Therefore the question of his guilt seems to rely upon deciding whether the rights of an individual should be valued higher than the collective good of his or her people. The Fisherman’s crime was turning his back on his people. Heaney reinforces this theme with imagery describing the Fisherman as he was all those nights in the pub, “His fisherman’s quick eye/ And turned, observant back.” (19-20) Heaney is comparing the literal way in which the Fisherman sat in the bar, with his back turned to the rest of the patrons, to the figurative way he turned his back on his people. The Fisherman goes against the agreement of the Catholic community to fulfill his individual desires. Heaney seems to find issue with this being a justification for his death and he asks reader to consider whether the crime of disobeying the will of one’s people is enough to warrant murder. Both Heaney and the Fisherman were Catholic and were therefore expected to obey the curfew imposed by the Irish Republic Army. However, Heaney portrays the Fisherman as having little choice about breaking the curfew in that he was compelled by his habit to seek the alcohol: For he drank like a fish Nightly, naturally Swimming towards the lure Of warm lit-up places (70-74)Here, Heaney makes it seem as if the Fisherman’s need to drink made it so “he would not be held/ At home by his own crowd/ Whatever threats were phoned.” (60-63) Fueled by his addiction, it seems the Fisherman had little control over his choice to disobey curfew. Heaney describes how he can imagine his friend in the moments leading up to his death: I see him as he turned In that bombed offending place, Remorse fused with terror In his still knowable face (64-67)That his face, in Heaney’s imagination, showed remorse, indicates that the Fisherman was aware of his transgression. His compulsion coupled with his repentance seems to lessen his guilt, make him seem less “culpable” and less deserving of his fate.The idea that Heaney is defending his friend, the Fisherman, can be supported through analysis of how Heaney presents the man’s character throughout the poem. The poem begins with Heaney remembering how his friend behaved at the pub. He describes him as a quiet man who kept to himself: He would drink by himself And raise a weathered thumb Towards the high shelf, Calling another rum And blackcurrant, without Having to raise his voice (1-6)Because he keeps to himself, we can infer that the Fisherman was not one to cause trouble or bother those around him. Occasionally, the Fisherman would start a conversation with Heaney and would attempt to discuss poetry with him, “In the pause after a slug/ He mentioned poetry/ We would be on our own.” (27-29) From this quote, we can build on our perception of this man as quiet and as a loner. Heaney points out that when the Fisherman would begin a conversation, they would be alone; it would not be a public conversation where others would be able to intrude. Heaney’s portrayal of his friend, coupled with the imagery of his “turned, observant back,” suggests that this Fisherman, because he was a loner, did not seek out the company of others often and he therefore seems to be an outsider of society. The final lines of the poem, Heaney’s final comment on the guilt of the Fisherman, leave the reader with the impression that Heaney does not find the Fisherman culpable in his decision to break curfew. Heaney describes a fishing trip he took with his friend, “When he took me in his boat/ The screw purling, turning.” (99-100) He describes the setting in the boat, on the water as the Fisherman’s natural habitat:As you find a rhythm Working you, slow mile by mile, Into your proper haunt Somewhere, well out, beyond… (106-109)This isolated setting fits in with Heaney’s portrayal of his friend as a loner. During this trip, Heaney understands and empathizes with the Fisherman’s love of these peaceful voyages. Heaney begins to enjoy the isolation as well and describes his empathy for the Fisherman to the reader, “I tasted freedom with him.” (102) Because Heaney understands the time alone on the boat to be “freedom” to the Fisherman, it suggests that he does not find fault in his friend for living outside the boundaries of society. He accepts that to his friend, it is not a disgraceful thing to wish to be outside of society. The Fisherman finds solace in the freedom that his time away from people gives him. The last stanzas of the poem seem to show that Heaney’s opinion is that his friend was justified when he put his individual rights, his freedom, above the rules of his people. In “Casualty” Heaney asks the reader to examine the culpability of his friend, the Fisherman, for ignoring the rules set in place by his people, the Catholics of Northern Ireland. Although he ultimately leaves it to the reader to decide the extent of the Fisherman’s guilt, Heaney makes his opinion on the matter clear throughout the poem. The central theme of individual’s rights versus the good of a people is central to the poem. Heaney suggests that his friend’s addiction to alcohol compelled him to break curfew and suggests that he must have felt remorse for this decision. He portrays his friend as a loner who kept to himself and was never a problem to those around him or society as a whole. Heaney sympathizes with this man’s need for isolation, recognizing this social isolation as freedom to the Fisherman. Taking all these things into account, it seems as if Heaney is suggesting that his friend, who lived his life as an outsider of society, was justified in disobeying its rules to seek out and fulfill his individual needs.
The Significance of Heritage in Friel’s ‘Translations’ and Heaney’s Collection ‘District and Circle’
Heritage appears as a central theme both to ‘Translations’ and ‘District and Circle’. Heritage can be described within the context of these texts as a set of ideas, traditions or explicit values that gives a sense of identity or belonging to a community. Friel’s play is set in Ireland, 1833, which is changing from a predominantly rural, Catholic, Gaelic speaking country to an increasingly modern, British-influenced country under colonial rule. Similarly, Heaney’s upbringing sets him at the heart of this change, presented with a father from rural, Catholic Irish countryside and a mother from industrial, Protestant Ulster. Both Heaney and Friel present the danger of forced assimilation, which leads to alienation, and the loss of identity through the transformation of language and a lack of communication. Friel looks on the changes in Irish heritage with a cool perspective whereas Heaney looks with a more nostalgic sense. What they both exhibit to us is that every culture has heritage, and it is about accommodating both in the best possible manner.
Language is a fundamental part of what constitutes a nation to be unique. Heaney displays the importance of language by using classical and Irish language references in his poetry, such as “Jupiter…hurls his lightning” and “snedder”. These instances of elevated and colloquial language helps to construct the identity of the nation in which they were used: one of kudos and one of a familial centre. Heaney’s desire to preserve these languages stemmed from the fact that, he was taught Latin and Gaelic, and thus wants to preserve these languages, incarnating them in his poetry due to his nostalgia. Heaney admitted himself that “I learned that my local county Derry experience, which I had considered archaic and irrelevant to ‘the modern world’ was to be trusted” which suggests why he focuses his writing on preserving these cultures. In ‘Translations’, language is used to exhibit the obvious tensions between British men, conducting the Ordinance survey in the 1830s, and native Irish in how they felt towards the removal of the Gaelic language. Yolland, a British officer, displays a sensitivity for Irish culture by saying “I hope we’re not too – too crude an intrusion on your lives”. This polite tone covers a more sincere meaning, and the nervy stutter makes vivid the idea of uncomfortable change, but a beneficial one. The two antithetical pronouns ‘we’ and ‘you’ is an effective way of illustrating a segregation through the language and the use of periphrasis is to prevent tension. Heaney, in The ‘Turnip Snedder’, conveys a similar lamentation of the change and a nostalgia for the traditional rustic Ireland: “barrel-chested breast-plate/ standing guard/ on four braced greaves”. The prevalent plosive ‘b’ sounds sound assertive and strong, and the enjambed “standing guard” in its own clause is mimetic of a prideful object; as if it is proud of all the traditional values it represents.
Communication is so important for social discourse, and Friel makes evident the fact that it is essential that when translating, one must reinterpret the meaning to align with the original culture. Indeed, Steiner, a particular influence on Friel, said “the untranslatability of one language to another is difficult as something is always lost in translation as there is no equivalence between languages”. Owen becomes confused with his loyalties, and this stems from the fact he is facilitating the loss of the Gaelic language: “Owen – Roland – what the hell. It’s only a name. It’s the same me, isn’t it? Well, isn’t it?” and this synecdoche for this loss and the searching, aposiopetic register shows his need of reassurance and his difficulty in alliance to modernism or traditionalism. The heavy ‘o’ assonantal resemblance between the English name, Yolland, and the misinterpreted Irish, Roland, is perhaps suggestive of the innate desire by these soldiers to anglicise unknown entities so they seem easier to relate to. Indeed, the irony in this quote that the British have misinterpreted his name through miscommunication and this comes to stand for the whole of the British operation. Heaney illustrates the consequences of misused power, stemming from a lack of communication, in his poem ‘A Shiver’: “Posture required to swing this heavy tool: your two knees locked, your lower back/ shock-fast”. This disruptive capacity of power, Heaney exhibits as deriving from a lack of understanding between the communities, and the heavy assonance sounds abrupt and out of control here. Friel, however, has a more positive outlook than Heaney and sets his play in English yet we understand that both Gaelic and English are being spoken at times, perhaps is a hint at the idea that both languages can be spoken in harmony and that suitable translation can be made if they accommodate both.
Forced assimilation and the removal of things which people have always known, results in alienation. Heaney was well known for preserving his political views from the public eye, and the critic Morrison stated that “Heaney would never reduce political situations to false simple clarity, and never thought his role should be as a political spokesman” which is what the likes of Rilke and Seferis, who heavily influenced his writing, believed in. They withheld political opinion in public yet, as a result, they as the poets become alienated. In ‘George Seferis in the Underworld’, Heaney writes “a last word meant to break/ your much contested silence” and this highlights the dramatic, consequential impact poets can have on situations and for this reason, he reserves judgement. The line break enacts the sharp snapping of the silence and the monosyllables emphasise a certain awareness of a poet’s influence. The increasing influence of British colonial rule on Ireland with the imposition of language, removal of Gaelic speaking schools and the introduction of the first National schools in 1831, presents a rapid cultural change in Ireland. Indeed, this influx of change affects many different characters in ‘Translations’ over the course of the play, some resulting with an internal reaction, others with an external, bolder reaction. Maire, who represents the latter, alienates herself from her original culture, saying that “I don’t want Latin. I don’t want Greek…I want to be able to speak English… Maire remains standing” which through the pithy sentences and the anaphora, sounds assertive, with the stage direction giving a visual impact of her being strong in wanting to seek a prosperous future. Heaney’s influence by people like Ted Hughes, who created poetry out of local and native backgrounds, aided him in writing sensitive poetry, like in ‘Rilke: After the Fire’. It refers bleakly to the concept of a man’s past being destroyed, and is suddenly alienated after a fire: “emptiness behind him/ scorched linden trees…he was changed: a foreigner among them”. Heaney here is trying to emphasise the significance of the past in shaping us, the connections we make with society and the memories, which are enhanced through the metonymy of the ‘linden trees’ which represent his past. The unembellished tone of the description of the man highlights the bleak reality of his situation.
Friel makes it feel odd that two cultures are suddenly brought together and are expected to work in harmony immediately – this adaptation must be gradual for things to work out effectively. Friel admits he believes the British implemented things too quickly and, as a result, many Irish felt isolated from their own culture, and some, like the Donelly twins, took up arms against British rule by joining the a Fenian uprising in 1867. Owen, after Lancey has patronisingly spoken to the Hedge school “as if they were children”, in a comic, bathetic contrast, says “It might be better if you assume they understand you” and, in this juxtaposition, Friel is presenting the difference in understanding of culture, and making explicit the way in which the forced assimilation causes alienation. Heaney’s poem, ‘Anything Can Happen’, which reflects on the atrocities of 9/11 and wider current conflict with terrorism and in the Middle East, comments on the ‘coming-to-terms’ with the abruptness of such events: “He galloped his thunder cart and his horses/ Across a clear blue sky. It shook the earth/ The clogged underearth, the River Styx, / The winding streams, the Atlantic shore itself”. The enumeratio in asyndeton sounds breathless and panicked, increasing the impact of large devastation that can be caused, which here is the destruction of lives and a city, but in ‘Translations’ is the removal of community which leads to isolation. Throughout the play, Friel consciously undermines the pompous military characters with colloquial, comical contrasts which increase the distance between the two cultures. Indeed, Yolland explicitly says in a moment of realisation “Even if I did speak Irish I’d always be an outsider here, wouldn’t I?” which hints at the idea that heritage is never removed, because outsiders always feel conspicuous. His interrogating tone evokes a kind of pathos for the ‘ousider’, and the searching question feels like he is probing for reassurance, which we pity. Similarly, the protagonist in ‘The Tollund Man in Springtime’, who feels he is in “another world, unlearnable and so”, depressed and isolated from the contemporary workings of the earth because he is from an ancient era, emphasised here by the caesura which splices, yet also pairs, the ‘world’ with the fact it is ‘unlearnable’. Sarah is an example of an introverted reaction to change. At the start of the play, she is learning to convey meaning through speech, towards the end, when things begin to go wrong, she finds it difficult to even verbalise her name “I’m sorry…I’m sorry…I’m so sorry…Manus”, and the elliptic anaphora here, and the repetition of apology, is poignant and emotional, allowing the reader to reflect on what is happening.
The inevitability of change and the loss of identity, play a vital role in both ‘District and Circle’ and ‘Translations’ concerning heritage. O’Toole once said the “Greatest achievement of play is the message to 20th century Ireland that confused identities were worth the price if peace was the result”. Indeed, Friel presents us with the similar idea that if the anxieties of this period resulted in a better Ireland, it would be worthwhile. Owen, early on, describes how he “can’t believe it! [he] comes back after six years and everything is as it was!…’civilised’ people” which probes at the idea of a need for this development, emphasised by the incredulous tone adopted here and the exclamatory remarks. Heaney similarly acknowledges a need for progression, perhaps helped by his rural-based father and Ulster-revolutionary mother which kept him aware of the necessary balance between maintenance of the past and the welcoming of the future. Andrew Motion said in a review that “Heaney has remained closer to home and the familiar” which perhaps obliquely refers to the fact that he has rationally looked at what is best for Ireland, and embraced it. In his poem ‘A Clip’, a barber’s shop, which has character, yet is desolate and run down, comes to stand for Ireland as a whole. The images of “Harry Boyle’s one chair, one chimney…the strong-armed chair” are surrounded by “loose hair in windfalls blown across the floor”, and the anaphora of ‘one’ with the colloquial Irish name and the personified compound adjective, makes the whole scene seem familiar. Yet the melancholy tone at the end of the poem sounds empty, as if Heaney is admitting to the need to progress. Hugh shows his worldly ignorance when he questions “Wordsworth? …no. I’m afraid we’re not familiar with your literature” which exhibits a blatant isolation from exterior influence and is meant to sound comical to a worldly, modern audience.
The fact that, again, the pronoun is split from the possessive pronoun makes vivid through the language, a distance in understanding of the two cultures. O’Toole says that there is “Underlying feeling for the tragedy of people who get caught up in myths and mindsets that cannot adapt to change” and this relates to Manus, who cannot comprehend this change, this loss of what has always been, and thus contests it. Similarly, Heaney’s Tollund Man is trying to comprehend “what has happened and what was meant to be”, portraying a sentimental outlook on this loss of what he knew. He comes to stand for the tensions between unspoilt purity and destructiveness of modernisation, as does Heaney himself. The Tollund Man’s “absorbed face/ coming and going, neither God nor ghost,/ not at odds or at one, but simply lost/ to you and yours” which experiences “the early bird still singing” but now is now surrounded by “exhaust fumes, silage reek”. The isocolon and mirroring created in the description of his face and then which is mimicked in a separate clause by the people who should be observing him is an effective way of showing how people disregard nature now and identity but rather are fixated by the “thickened traffic/ swarming” which through the enjambment and harsh consonants, feels animated, almost alive, as if this industry has replaced the animals of nature. The fact the poem is written in a series of six sonnets, traditionally associated with love poetry, perhaps Heaney is hinting at the idea that if you treasure heritage within and what is unique about you within yourself, beneficial modernisation will be more bearable. “As a man would cutting turf…[The Tollund Man] spirited himself into the street”, which is what Heaney believes Ireland has to do: embrace the change, by treasuring the memories of the past as well as the benefits of the future.
Symbolically, this is what Hugh does by the end of the play, saying “We must learn where we live. We must learn to make them our own. We must learn to make them our new home” and in saying this, he accepts the whole idea that the antiquated, patriotic approach to Ireland’s future was flawed. The anaphora and the short, assured sentences, with the melancholy but acknowledging ‘w’ alliteration in the first clause, help develop an emotion of acceptance and how heritage can be conserved if people accommodate the change into their lives- every culture is going to have separate values, even if one is influenced by the other.
Both Friel and Heaney take images of Irish culture and question and interrogate their meaning, and celebrate a fantastic uniqueness of these meanings. The fact that both Heaney and Friel were involved in the Field Day Theatre company, set up in 1980, which angled at traditional productions, manifests their similar desires to preserve heritage. However, to an extent, they show how crucial it is to accept change and to keep up with the time, if you are to uphold any form of heritage – because it is down to the people who live there and how they identify, as to whether the heritage belonging to that place is upheld.
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Ordnance Survey Ireland, Historical Mapping: A look back in time
Seamus Deane, In conversation with Seamus Heaney, New York Times, 1979
Poetry Foundation, Seamus Heaney: 1939-2013
Joanne Piavanini, 9/11 and Transnational Memory: Seamus Heaney’s ‘Anything Can Happen’, Australian Humanities Review, 2016
Andrew Motion, Review of District and Circle, The Guardian, 2006
Brad Leithauser, Wild Irish: Review of District and Circle, 2006
Sean O’Brien, Review of District and Circle, The Independent, 2006
David Fawbert, District and Circle- Poetry Analysis- Seamus Heaney, www.fawbie.co.uk
 Seamus Deane, In conversation with Seamus Heaney, New York Times, 1979 Ordnance Survey Ireland, Historical Mapping: A look back in time George Steiner, After Babel, (Oxford, 1975) pg. 242 Poetry Foundation, Seamus Heaney: 1939-2013 Ulf Dantanus, Brian Friel: A Study, Faber and Faber, 1988 Padraig Ó Concubhair, Fenians were Dreadful Men : The 1867 Rising in Ireland, Mercier Press, 2010 Joanne Piavanini, 9/11 and Transnational Memory: Seamus Heaney’s ‘Anything Can Happen’, Australian Humanities Review, 2016 Fintan O’Toole, Ireland and the Arts, The Irish Times, 1982 Andrew Motion, Review of District and Circle, The Guardian, 2006 Fintan O’Toole, The truth according to Brian Friel, The Irish Times, 2015 Marilyn J. Richtarik, Acting Between the Lines: The Field Day Theatre Company and Irish Cultural Politics 1980-1984, Oxford: Clarendon Press