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.
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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 […]