The Unifying Spirit of Seamus Heaney’s ‘Funeral Rites’
‘Funeral Rites’ examines the role of rituals and ‘customary rhythms’ in the ‘arbitration of the feud’ in an Ireland plagued by the incongruous notion of ‘neighbourly murder’. However, in preference to the sterility of ‘tainted rooms’ in which the dead lie ‘shackled’ by religious chains of ‘rosary beads’, Heaney’s affinity for the mythological, archaic ‘serpent’ and the pagan times of the ‘sepulchre’ champion a return to an Ireland unified by pre-Christian beliefs, rather than a country fettered by fragmented sectarian violence of religious origin. Only in this ‘triumph’ will the ‘whole country’ overcome the impasse of violence, allowing victims to peacefully ‘l[ie] beautiful’ and ‘unavenged’.
Immediately, the ‘shoulder[ing]’ of patriarchal duty and the ‘lift[ing]’ of the weight of the coffin deaden the atmosphere in the opening stanzas, as the notion of exertion and effort pervades the funeral. This ‘ceremony’ is a static, heavy burden, and this is also exemplified in the monosyllabic ‘dead’, ending on the heavy sound ‘/d/’, possessing a bluntness that accentuates the finality of death, and introduces a somewhat brusque tone to these stanzas. Additionally, the ‘dulse-brown’ of the ‘shroud’ is an exemplar of Heaney’s discord with this overtly religious ‘ceremony’. In comparing the ‘shroud’ to the ‘dulse’ of seaweed, Heaney apostatizes the holiness of this garment, rendering it dull, papery and lifeless. This sense of lifelessness and stagnancy is a presence that pervades part I of the poem, perpetuated by the description of the women as ‘hovering’ and the flames also as ‘hovering’, this repetition reinforcing the shallowness of the ritual. Furthermore, the ‘hovering’ conjures an image of the ‘women’ flickering like a candle, which compromises a sense of their solidity, rendering them weak and tremulously passive, cowering ‘behind’ Heaney. Heaney exposes the funeral in this way as a fragile and apathetic event of intense torpor, devoid of any dynamism or ardor. It is sterile, ‘always’ the same, and cold, like the ‘igloo brows’ of the distant ‘relations’. While there is a sense of ‘admir[ation]’ for the ‘gleaming crosses’, the adjective ‘little’ introduces a tone of mocking endearment, which reveals that this is out of ‘court[esy]’ and expectation. In an Ireland imbued with religious connections, this tradition seems to fail, but ‘ha[s] to suffice’. Heaney iconoclastically exposes the funeral in this way as lethargic, reflected in the stiff frigidity of the ‘black glacier’, which implies a predictably linear, slow ‘pushing away’, in contrast to the freeform, naturalistic and dynamic snaking motion of the ‘serpent’ procession in part II.
Part II begins with a time shift – ‘now’, which moves away from the consistent past tense register of part I. This nature of this shift becomes apparent as the reader learns that the people of Ireland are now ‘pin[ing]’ for these monotonous, predictable ‘customary rhythms’. This accentuates the desperation of the situation as the verb ‘pine’ implies a disempowerment of the people, in which they are restricted only to an intense longing for closure, rather than able to take concrete action. It reduces their independence, almost as if the people of Ireland are so attenuated and violated by the savagery they are experiencing, that they are pleading for any form of respite, as may be provided by the funeral. Their lives are invaded by the exact opposite of the lull, slow burn of the funerals in part I – they are haunted by the sardonic notion of ‘neighbourly murder’, of which ‘news’ arrives in an ebbing, turbulent flow, as implied by the qualification ‘each’. In referring to the procession as a ‘cortège’ of ‘temperate footsteps’, Heaney retrospectively renders the value of these rituals malleable and ever-changing. The open ‘/è/’ sound, followed by the soft ‘/g/’ sound that ends ‘cortège’ is in contrast to the slick, glassy ‘/c/’ of ‘glacier’, and in this way the ‘cortège’ feels more personal and comforting than the stark, monumental ‘glacier’ it was before. Additionally, the notion of ‘temperate footsteps’ personifies the procession here, that renders it more personable that the cool, silent glide of a ‘glacier’, and the description of the procession as ‘temperate’ evokes the sense of quiet, even footfalls of a steady ‘rhythm’. This ‘rhythm’ is a mitigator amongst the shocking ‘news’ that arrives unpredictably, and is the steady, unwavering anchor to which people can cling during this social turmoil. Formerly, in part I, these mundane funerals epitomized Heaney’s earlier condemnation of traditional euphemism in death, notably present in ‘Mid Term Break’ when Heaney feels swamped and overwhelmed by ‘old men’ and the swamping ‘whispers’ of distant relations. ‘Now’, however, when faced with the abhorrent alternative of uncertainty, this ‘ceremony’ is a pillar of normality and predictability, for which the people ‘pine’.
Despite this longing for ritual, Heaney seeks an alternative to the ‘obedien[ce]’ and ‘shackl[ing]’ of the religious ceremonies, which are remnants of the religious roots of the ‘feud’. Instead the focus is moved to the image of a ‘serpent’ procession. Through the image of the archaic ‘serpent’ and the ‘megalithic doorway’, evocative of a primeval, prehistoric existence, and of Celtic symbolism, Heaney supersedes modern Christianity, and, in conjunction with a shift from the personal pronoun ‘I’ in part I, to ‘we’ and ‘our’ in part II, hopes to unify the ‘whole country’ by their collective roots in pagan spiritual beliefs that existed without confrontation. Through descriptions such as ‘purring’ and ‘muffled’, Heaney creates a gentle symphony of stillness and background noise, embodying the peace which Heaney aims to conjure in this section, as mirrored by the ‘quiet’ and ‘slow’ procession. This tranquillity resembles that of the stillness in part I, but it is somehow imbued with positivity. Where descriptions like ‘dulse’ in part I render the environment dull, the lush, bucolic notion of a ‘grassy boulevard’ in part II is more vibrant and sensory compared to the cool, alabaster ‘soapstone’. Aurally, the word ‘grassy’ conjures a sense that the ‘serpent’ procession is ‘dragg[ing]’ and rustling through whistling blades of grass, and it evokes a complex olfactory melange of dank earthiness, yet one that is fresh, sedgy and verdant. These images immerse the reader in a scene of naturalness that galvanizes an appreciation for freedom and airiness in the reader that is in contrast to the confined ‘rooms’ of part I. Drawing from the geographically recognizable Irish symbols of the ‘great chambers of Boyne’ and the ‘Gap of the North’, Heaney resurrects an intrinsically Irish Ireland – a unified halcyon of pre-Christian beliefs, where unrest is non-existent and peace is so profuse that the environment is almost soporific, as embodied by the ‘somnambulant women’.
The sense of solidarity and ritual continues in part III. The action of ‘put[ting] the stone back’ is evocative of kinship and co-operation; required to move a heavy boulder. Furthermore, this image is highly suggestive and reminiscent of the Christian belief in the stone of Jesus’ Holy Sepulchre being replaced after he was entombed, which could imply many things. Heaney may be attempting to coalesce aspects of the Christian faith and the Irish spiritual faiths in a further demonstration of unity, or he may be suggesting that those buried in the ‘sepulchre’ which he has ‘prepare[d]’ will be resurrected like Jesus, which purports this new ceremonial unity as transcendent and all-powerful. Either way, this sense of “sealing away” of the dispute is said to ‘allay’ the ‘cud of memory’ of the feud. The description of the memory as a ‘cud’ evinces that it is something which Heaney has been trying to digest, but simply cannot, implying that the violence is so repulsive it is almost emetic. Sonically, the monosyllabic bluntness of the ‘/ud/’ sound in ‘cud’ reinforces this sense of disgust, and the glottal ‘/c/’ mirrors the process of regurgitation, which engenders a sensory connection in the reader with the rawness and magnitude of Heaney’s revulsion at Ireland’s social turmoil.
Consistent with the pagan society from which he has drawn, Heaney introduces another primordial figure; ‘Gunnar’, whose Nordic name means ‘warrior’. Gunnar’s intrinsic identity is one therefore imbued with violence and savagery – pervaded by notions of ‘honour’ and revenge. Gunnar’s ‘unavenged’ death breaks this cycle of violence and retaliation, and the breaking of this cycle seems to invoke a sort of metanoia in him, as he begins to ‘chant’. The word ‘chanting’ concerning Gunnar, conveys a sense of frenzied and impassioned speech, evoking that something has been awoken in him. This is mirrored by the radiant image of ‘four lights burn[ing] in [the] corners’, which pierce and illuminate the darkness of the closed tomb, as if sparks in a mind closed to the light of truth. The sense of symmetry conferred by the specific placement of the fires (in the ‘corners’) creates a sense of ritual and purpose in this occasion, which furthers the impression that this is a miraculous, divine and ineffable stimulation. Gunnar has undergone a transfiguration from bloodthirsty warrior to a placated, ‘joyful’ being, who ‘turn[s]’ to the ‘moon’. The word ‘turn’ is significant as it encapsulates Gunnar’s change; ‘turn[ing]’ away from the impasse of abhorrence, and instead centred on all that it inherently good and calm, embodied by the ‘moon’, which acts a symbol of luminescence and stillness, as it evokes an image of a radiant orb, suspended as a beacon of light amongst the dark of the sky (just as the lights in the burial chamber).
The description of the tomb of those Heaney’s procession has buried as a ‘hill’, parallels Gunnar’s ‘mound’, and the poet begins immediately to draw spatial and physical connections between the two through this geometric and visual similarity. This is but one of the parallels drawn between the Irish and Gunnar: most notably, Gunnar’s rebirth came about due to ritual, mirrored by the ritual Heaney hopes for in part II. Through ‘Funeral Rites’, Heaney therefore suggests that through unified ritual, the people of Ireland may forge their own ‘Gunnar’; an unexpected mould-breaker, invaded by an incomprehensible inner catalyst for peace. This messiah-like figure will conquer the unrelenting deadlock of violence, to reveal to the Irish people the beauty of peace, allowing their own resurrection and rebirth, and to be ‘joyful’ once more.
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‘Funeral Rites’ examines the role of rituals and ‘customary rhythms’ in the ‘arbitration of the feud’ in an Ireland plagued by the incongruous notion of ‘neighbourly murder’. However, in preference […]