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
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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 […]