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.
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