The Tragic and Unnaturally Static Nature of Death in Heaney’s ‘Opened Ground’
Seamus Heaney’s ‘Mid Term Break’ and ‘In Memoriam Francis Ledwidge’ lament needless violence, as well as the one-dimensional and euphemistic way with which general society deals with the loss of innocent, pure lives, whether it be a personal tragedy, or a swathe of atrocities wreaked on society by war. To do this, Heaney depicts these lives as seeming to belong ‘among the dolorous and lovely’, rather than as a bleak, ‘pallid’ figure or a ‘stanched’, ‘bandaged’ corpse; the mournful and saddening end which gratuitous death has conferred upon them, and exposes the falsity of normalized modern practices which cheapen and reduce both tragedies and sacrifices which end in death.
‘In Memoriam Francis Ledwidge’ begins with the young Heaney gazing up at the ‘bronze soldier hitch[ing] a bronze cape’, the repetition of the word ‘bronze’ may represent the idea that such a concrete, fixed object can never begin to encompass the complexity of the tragedies of war, but also elucidates the shallowness of this memorial, its staunchly respectable and shining monotony later contrasting with the weak, mottled ‘pallid Catholic face’ that ‘ghost[s] the trenches’. The solidity of this metallic bronze man, who acts as an everyman for all fallen soldiers, contrasts with the translucent sense of Ledwidge being ‘ghost’-like, that evokes the impression that he is weak, waning, and clinging to life in the trenches, trapped between a lopsided, unbalanced state of life and death. This war has robbed him of the purity and vibrancy that surrounded him when he lived among the rich ‘May’ warmth of a holy and decorative, abundant ‘altar of wild flowers’ and the free-flowing holiness of ‘Easter water’, its ‘sprinkl[ing]’conveying a sense of lightness and airiness, which juxtaposes against the weighty statue. The ‘bronze’ of the statue fabricates a strength which is simply false. Here Heaney may be condemning this glorification of war, and challenging the construction of memorials which seek to falsely idolize the bravery and heroism of servicemen, as they oxymoronically hitch capes that ‘crumple stiffly in imagined wind’.
Heaney contrasts the static and the dynamic to further convey the mendacity of memorials such as these, and the unnatural nature of these deaths; the soldier depicted in the memorial is confined to a ‘sudden, hunkering run’ that will leave him ‘forever craned / Over Flanders.’ The use of the word ‘craned’ evokes an awkwardness, a lumbering stance that imprisons him in discomfort, forever entrapped over the battleground upon which he met his demise, at ‘Flanders’. It is evident that this position, in all its recurring trauma and discomfort, seeks to evoke movement and power, is incomparable to the carefree ‘pedall[ing]’ on ‘the leafy road’, the lush vegetative imagery evoked by the ‘leafy’ descriptor engendering a picturesque and warm landscape, Ledwidge’s ‘pedall[ing]’ exhibiting a freeness of movement and energy. This juxtaposition emphasizes Heaney’s view that war and death is an invasive and destructive presence in life, robbing people such as Ledwidge of their happiness and tranquillity, and Ledwidge acts as an everyman for the living soldiers, just as the statue does for those who lie dead.
Moreover, Heaney uses other public figures to exemplify the disparity between those fallen in the war and those living through further references to mobility, through the walk ‘Along the Portstewart prom, then round the crescent to thread the Castle Walk out to the strand’. The use of multiple prepositions such as ‘along’ and ‘round’ emphasizes the scale and freedom of Heaney and his aunt’s ability to move in an awful contrast with the soldier who lies ‘forever’ frozen in the statue, this infinite punishment seeming scathingly unjust. Furthermore, this sense of motion is highlighted by the image of ‘thread’-like walking, creating a sense of a meandering and leisurely stroll which winds around bends and corners in dynamic freedom. This contrast in mobility is also highlighted by ‘courting couples’ who ‘r[i]se out of the scooped dunes’, the ‘sail[ing] pilot’ and the soldier eternally confined to his ‘lumbering’ pose, which is stark and confronting in its emphasis of the pathos of the statue.
Like many common reactions to death, Heaney depicts this visit to the memorial as euphemistic, and in a way treated as distant and meaningless. He ‘grip[s]’ his Aunt Mary by the hand as the ‘loyal, fallen names on the embossed plaque’ signify little ‘to the worried pet’. The implication of the young Heaney’s ‘grip’ is that he will simply go where his aunt leads him; Heaney has simply been pulled by the hand to the memorial, where Heaney evokes the idea that raw pity for these men is diluted by the ritualistic behavior of visiting memorials such as these at a young age, at which the spectrum of a child’s understanding is so under-developed that the lack of meaning these statues have is unfortunately misplaced and integrated into normal life before mature emotions are able to digest the tragedy. Heaney uses his transition from ‘a worried pet’ to a conscious poet to quantify this idea, as he is now able to reflect on this normalization as the raw meaning and sorrow of these deaths are lost.
This idea is mirrored in ‘Mid Term Break’ by the strange, ‘old men’ who are ‘“sorry for [Heaney]’s troubles”’. Heaney’s use of quotation marks around this condolence indicate that it is a regurgitated, unfeeling line which offers nothing but a cold sense of disjointed and feigned pity for the small child. ‘Big Jim Evans’ and the ironic pain of his description of the accident as ‘a hard blow’ emphasize the single-minded and shallow nature with which members of society approach death, disregarding the raw and striking emotion of the event and instead focusing on general, bland consolations, which are unfailingly used as repetitive and basic responses to create a shallow sense of sympathy, when in fact the true tragedy of such a death is never felt by characters such as the distant ‘old men’, ‘strangers’ or ‘Jim Evans’, showcased by the clumsiness and bland euphemism of their words which only exacerbate the very unique and personal pain which Heaney cradles in this poem.
Heaney highlights the deep emotional impacts of this one-dimensional mourning using rhythm and enjambment in ‘Mid Term Break’; while an ominous stillness of rhythm is established in the first stanza through internal rhyming between ‘bells’ and ‘knelling’ and the alliteration of ‘classes to a close’ when Heaney is confined to his own thoughts, the polysyndetonic syntax of ‘the baby coo[ing] and laugh[ing] and rock[ing] the pram’ forces the reader to speed up and imparts a stress and new vulnerability as Heaney is swamped by the clustered tangle of ‘strangers’ whose furtive and hushed ‘whispers’ seem to surround and choke him in their plurality. Here Heaney introduces enjambment to the stanzas which impart a fragmented and confused voice in contrast to the earlier stanzas and their rounded full stops. A tonal shift is marked by a distinct separation (‘up’ and into another ‘room’) as Heaney regains his peaceful privacy, shielded from the euphemistic pity that discredits the intensity of his own grief and frustration. An ardent, rushed tone is here replaced by a reverence conferred by the sibilant assonance of the ‘snowdrops and candles which sooth the bedside’. This works in conjunction with the concluding rhyme between ‘clear’ and ‘year’, which imparts a finality that contrasts directly with the flowing and rapid rhythm of the stanzas in which Heaney’s mourning peace is invaded. These changes in rhythm reflect the idea that death is a transcendent, subjective and personal experience which cannot be resolved by weak and unfeeling euphemisms offered in place of true emotional outpouring. Only the mother offers this, ‘cough[ing] out angry tearless sighs’, the multitude of sounds and emotions, an unnatural, seemingly impossible simultaneous mixture of two different sounds, ‘cough[s]’ and ‘sighs’, here depicts a complex tapestry which more accurately mirrors a true and perceptive emotional experience of death, which simply cannot be mimicked.
Heaney depicts death as a presence which is fundamentally ineffable and unquantifiable. Our own human attempts to erect statues in place of real pity, or offer meaningless euphemistic phrases are essentially futile; Heaney tells us that true grief is internalized and personal, and must be found in the deepest crevices of oneself. Nevertheless, needless deaths such as those of the talented poet, once happily ‘court[ing] at the seaside’, now lying dead, and Heaney’s brother, laying in his ‘four foot box’, are tragic. Death claimed them unnaturally, and Heaney condemns this deep loss extensively, lamenting that the two are ultimately, no longer ‘where they belong’.
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