Funeral Rites by Seamus Heaney
I
I shouldered a kind of manhood
stepping in to lift the coffins
of dead relations.
They had been laid out
in tainted rooms,
their eyelids glistening,
their dough-white hands
shackled in rosary beads.
Their puffed knuckles
had unwrinkled, the nails
were darkened, the wrists
obediently sloped.
The dulse-brown shroud,
the quilted satin cribs:
I knelt courteously
admiting it all
as wax melted down
and veined the candles,
the flames hovering
to the women hovering
behind me.
And always, in a corner,
the coffin lid,
its nail-heads dressed
the great chambers of Boyne,
prepare a sepulchre
under the cupmarked stones.
Out of side-streets and bye-roads
purring family cars
nose into line,
the whole country tunes
to the muffled drumming
of ten thousand engines.
Somnambulant women,
left behind, move
through emptied kitchens
imagining our slow triumph
towards the mounds.
Quiet as a serpent
in its grassy boulevard
the procession drags its tail
out of the Gap of the North
as its head already enters
the megalithic doorway.
III
When they have put the stone
back in its mouth
we will drive north again
past Strang and Carling fjords
with little gleaming crosses.
Dear soapstone masks,
kissing their igloo brows
had to suffice
the cud of memory
allayed for once, arbitration
of the feud placated,
imagining those under the hill
before the nails were sunk
and the black glacier
of each funeral
pushed away.
disposed like Gunnar
who lay beautiful
inside his burial mound,
though dead by violence
II
and unavenged.
men said that he was chanting
verses about honour
and that four lights burned
Now as news comes in
of each neighbourly murder
we pine for ceremony,
customary rhythms:
the temperate footsteps
of a cortège, winding past
each blinded home.
I would restore
in corners of the chamber:
which opened then, as he turned
with a joyful face
to look at the moon.
Shamus Heaney describes the traditional Irish funeral
with the body lying in an open coffin in the best room in
the house with friends and relatives calling to pay
respects.
The latter parts are allegorical and involve Irish history
and heroes interwoven with modern Irish politics.
Consider "the troubles" between the North and Eire
which are reflected to some extent in practically every
Irish artwork.
Introduction
Funeral Rites combines the personal and cultural
- the private and the public responses to deaths
that take place in Heaney's family and wider
community. Heaney calls for the deaths to be
marked by private and public ritual. It is through
the rituals of death that resolution and healing
can take place. It is through ritual that the pain of
loss and anger can become dissipated and order,
stability and peace can be restored.
The First Section
In this first section Heaney focuses on family
deaths. We are immediately reminded of the
poem Mid Term Break in which Heaney writes
about the death of his younger brother. Heaney
still at school is called upon to take up the
responsibilities of one of the chief mourners
within his family and wider community. Private
grief is contrasted with Heaney's public display of
grief.
In this poem he is older now. Tall enough to be
one of the coffin bearers and experienced enough
to understand and cope with the loss of a number
of family members. But only just. This humility
and fragility is picked up in the opening phrase 'I
shouldered a kind of manhood'. The pun on the
word 'shouldered' picks up the physical and
emotional role that Heaney now plays within his
community. The phrase, 'a kind of' is informal
and conversational. The poem draws from
everyday and ordinary experiences.
We have to make assumptions about these family
deaths as the focus of the poem here is on the
description of the rooms and the bodies of the
dead. We are on familiar ground here. We are
reminded of poems such as 'The Grauballe Man'
and 'The Tollund Man'.
However unlike 'The Grauballe Man' and 'The
Tollund Man' - whose deaths were violent there is
no direct indication that Heaney's family deaths
referred to here are violent as well. However
Heaney does write elsewhere of family casualties
of the violence in Northern Ireland in poems like
'The Strand at Lough Beg'. Despite there being no
direct reference to violent deaths the description
of his relatives seems to suggest Heaney's
relatives are all laid out in a single room all at the
same time reminding us of the 'Stockinged
corpses/Laid out in the farmyards...' in 'The
Tollund Man'. If Heaney was describing a family
massacre we might expect a more detailed, more
explicit and direct account of it. Instead the
phrase 'And always, in a corner,/the coffin lid,'
the adverb 'always' indicates the progress of time.
So I think these are the natural deaths of elderly
relatives. Perhaps the 'Their puffed knuckles/had
unwrinkled' suggests age. And the contrasting
nouns of the first section's 'deaths' with the
second section's 'murders' makes this point. But
it is not clear - perhaps deliberately.
But Heaney does something similar with these
corpses as he does with the other violent bog
corpses of say 'Bog Queen' or 'Punishment'. What
he does is soften them. He transforms death into
something of beauty, something familiar and
comforting. The distances that death creates are
shortened through a series of phrases
culminating with 'Dear soapstone masks,/Kissing
their igloo brows...'. In the selective descriptions
of the corpses and the paraphernalia of death for example the 'little gleaming crosses' and
'rosary beads' these deaths are turned into
portraits of love, respect and even awe. They
become a kind of work of art.
The Second Section
In the second section there is a broadening of the
scope of the poem. Heaney's focus turns from
family deaths to 'neighbourly murder[s]'. In this
term he is referring to the sectarian violence that
dominated Northern Irish politics during the
mid- twentieth century.
This violence is an expression of the conflict
between two cultures, religions and national
identities. On one side is the Roman Catholic and
Republican community. Their goal is a united
Ireland independent of British rule and influence.
This community draws its identity from prehistory, from Viking, Celtic and the early
Christianity of Patrick in the 5th century and the
Classical civilization. The second group are
Protestant, British and Unionist. A country
occupied and deeply influenced by the Roman
Empire and Norman France as well as Viking.
Britain is seen as a seafaring nation that
developed a strong culture of trading,
industrialisation and colonisation.
The conflict between these two groups has
developed over hundreds of years and Heaney
refers to this conflict specifically in the second
and third sections of the poem. We are shocked
by the phrase 'neighbourly murder' - the idea of
murders taking place within communities is
picked up in poems like 'The Tollund Man' and
'Punishment'. These murders have taken place on
British soil. And not one murder but hundreds of
murders stretched out over decades. The need for
ritual is described as instinctive and powerful.
Yet Heaney describes the rituals as comforting
and peaceful. The phrase 'temperate footsteps'
the adjective 'temperate' picks up on moderation
and restraint rather than anger and revenge the
traditional response to sectarian violence.
Heaney draws on the distant and recent Irish
past to give the rituals of death and peace
authority and legitimacy. He wants to break the
culture of violence so embedded with the Roman
Catholic culture. So he makes a reference to the
burial 'chambers of the Boyne'. These are
neolithic burial mounds built around 2000 years
ago. The markings link the stones to the bronzeage.
Heaney imagines a funeral procession. It moves
to the sounds of thousands of car engines as a
whole nation mourns its deaths. The sound of the
engines becomes the music for these imagined
funerals. Heaney is making a point about the
traditional rituals of sectarian funerals
accompanied with gunshots, drumming and
tribal music. The picture here is one of peace and
resolution. It is 'somnambulant women' the
widows that contemplate the 'triumph' of a
peaceful funeral picked up in the noun phrase,
'Quiet as a serpent' - a Celtic symbol.
I think that Heaney is desperate for some
resolution to the situation in Ireland. For Heaney
I think that conventional Christianity - in the
form of Roman Catholicism and Protestantism has failed. It cannot offer Ireland the solutions it
needs. It exists in Ireland as a tribal, sectarian
and empty of spiritual power. Only representing
and reduced to the political identities of two
conflicting ideologies. Therefore he turns to a pre
Christian spiritual tradition for inspiration.
Heaney is vague about what the past can offer.
He seems to have turned his back on Christ and
the full meaning of that sacrifice. Instead he
looks to Ireland's ancient past and the figure of
Gunnar - a great Norse warrior.
He offers a message of peace to these divided
communities. I don't think his message of peace
would have been received sympathetically by the
extremists in these communities and his message
as a poet must have come at a price
The Third Section
In the final section of the poem Heaney offers his
readers an alternative to a barbaric image we
have of the past of waring tribes motivated by
hatred and revenge.
He uses this image to guide the present and
future state of Ireland. He continues to imagine a
funeral where personal pain and loss are no
longer transformed into hatred, anger, and
revenge.
Seamus Heaney's Poetry and
its Exploration of the Irish
Troubles and the Human
Experience
An examination of the context of Heaney's work.
Seamus Heaney, in his body of work ‘North’ uses his art
to explore both the Irish ‘Troubles’ and the human
experience. Heaney makes a connection between the
mythical and the logical and the past and the present to
describe his thoughts and emotions concerning the Irish
Troubles and the human experience. It is through the use
of this myriad of imagery and the use of structural
techniques that Heaney depicts his feelings toward the
Irish Trouble and the various aspects and problems of
the human experience. The poems ‘Funeral Rites’ and
‘Punishment’ use mythological figures and metaphors to
represent the problems of the past in order to explore the
present issues and contemporary conflicts. In them, the
reader gains an insight to the Irish Troubles and the
various aspects and problems of the human experience
via the connection between the past and present.
The poem ‘Funeral Rites’ is separated into three sections,
which represents the movement from past to present. It
makes the connection between memory and mythology
and the present day, and this connection serves to relate
the problems of the past to the Irish Troubles and the
problems of the human experience.
In the first section of the poem, the reader discovers that
the victim is a Catholic, as this is represented by the
‘rosary beads’ and ‘crucifixes’. However, despite the fact
that Heaney is an Irish Catholic, the faith is not glorified
by this poem, as Catholic symbols are accompanied by
images of imprisonment and service, such as ‘shackled’
and ?the wrists | obediently sloped.? Accompanying the
images of imprisonment and service are icy images such
as ‘the black glacier’ and ‘their igloo brows’ all of which
represent the restrictive practices of religion. Such
practices have been a cause of the Irish Troubles in the
past and present. In this section the past is represented
by the ‘funerals’ being ‘pushed away’, a religious practice
of the ancient times.
When the persona states that he ‘Shouldered a kind of
manhood’ it symbolizes a loss of innocence, and the
mechanical nature of religious duties and those of war,
the persona now begins a new phase in his life, by which
he leaves his past behind, and lives in the present reality
of civil war in Ireland.
The run on lines which occur in many stanzas create a
conversational tone, however in the lines ‘dough white
hands | Shackled in rosary beads’ and ‘the1 wrists |
obediently sloped’ Heaney creates contrasting imagery
between the present and the dead. The tone of the first
section of the poem is somber and meditative, as the
reader reflects the past, represented by the allusions to a
cold, disconnected and quite funeral parlor, where ‘They
had been laid out || in tainted rooms’. The first section of
the poem uses the myths of Catholic beliefs to symbolize
the restrictiveness of religious practices, obviously seen
as a problem of the human experience by the poet.
In section two of the poem the imagery centers on the
past, referring to the ancient Norse and Irish mythology,
and the arrival of St Patrick to the shores of Ire. The tone
is very reflective, as the reader follows the procession to
the victim’s burial. To enter the ‘megalithic doorway’ is
to go underground, working back into a prehistory.
Section two portrays an extremely long and wholly male
procession that has its head at the tombs of North West
of Dublin, and its tail at the ‘Gap of the North’.
In the second section, males are represented by a
‘serpent’. On a psychological level this is a phallic
symbol, and this phallocentric discourse imposes many
ways of the past onto society. It represents the Catholic
Church and Christianity in general, and confirms the
importance of service in religion. Furthermore it imposes
patriarchal practices on females, causing those women
who stepped out of line to be publicly humiliated, which
is also a way of the past. The serpent is also a symbol of
destruction, like the Norse serpent Jormungand, who
destroyed the realm of humans. This link to the past
serves to illustrate the poet’s opinion of the military role
in the Irish Troubles by using the mythological
‘Jormungand’ to symbolize the destructive nature of
humans.
The run on lines now give a sense that the serpent is
moving toward the present from the past. The serpent is
also a symbol for the lines of memory and
communication. The ‘muffled drumming’ confirms that
the victim was a soldier as these drums were used at
military funerals. The fact that the nation ‘tunes’ to the
drumming means that they are making an effort and
going out of their way to incorporate the violence into
their lives. This is a part of the Irish troubles, as many
people began to accept the violence occurring around
them, and so decided to ‘tune’ to it, meaning that no one
would speak out against the social and political injustices
happening all around them.
The third section provides closure on both the death of
his ‘relative’ and the Irish violence. The ‘cud of memory’
has being ‘allayed’, meaning that the feelings of hatred
and vengeance have being soothed, and the victim dies
honorably, yet unavenged like Gunnar and Jesus. The
reference to Jesus occurs in the first two lines of the
third section ‘When they have put the stone | back in its
mouth’. The final lines:
‘which opened then, as he turned
with a joyful face
to look at the moon’
are a joint reference to Jesus and Gunnar, as they both
rose from there tombs. This reference symbolizes hope
for the future and the present, as represented in the past.
The poet causes the reader to reflect upon the hope that
the future holds.
‘Funeral Rites’ is a journey from the home to eternity, as
symbolized by Gunnar. The juxtaposition of the logical
present and the mythological past serves to represent the
way that the Irish Troubles and the problems of the
human experience can be reconciled by looking to the
past, at figure like Gunnar and Jesus.
In ‘Punishment’ the Winderby Girl, a bog body found in
Denmark, is juxtaposed with women who were involved
in the Irish Troubles in contemporary times. The girl is
ancient, from the Iron Age, and represents the past. The
Irish women symbolize the present. The girl is a
metaphor for Ireland on many levels. Firstly, she
represents the girls who were punished for socialized
with British soldiers during the 1960’s. These girls were
‘cauled in tar’ and publicly humiliated.
Secondly, she represents the political and social
punishment of Irish Catholics in Northern Ireland. These
people had their right to vote stripped from them, and
lower preference for state housing and welfare. And
finally the punishment of the Girl herself, the ‘little
Adulteress’.
The poem opens by sexually describing the girl, from the
‘frail rigging | of her ribs’ to the ‘amber beads’ of her
nipples. The persona, a silent onlooker, describes the
Girl almost pornographically, scrutinizing her into parts.
This racy and vivid imagery causes the reader to examine
the place of women in society, and to prove that from
past to present, sexual discrimination is still a problem
of the human experience. The ‘frail rigging’ creates an
image of a ship, in an overwhelming cultural storm. This
particular ship was drowned in that storm, and a
supposedly innocent life was taken.
The girl is also a symbol of Ireland. Although both the
Girl and Ireland were sacrificed at the hands of
oppressors (the British) they have managed to preserve
their culture. The Winderby Girl contains a myriad of
information about the Iron Age, and this was preserved,
despite the fact that she was killed. Irish culture has also
been preserved throughout the ages, and has spread and
flourished throughout the world. The metaphor positions
the reader to examine the results of the past atrocities
committed against Ireland and the Girl and how the
oppressors have failed to halt their success in the present
times (the Winderby Girl’s fame and Ireland’s cultural
influence).
The ‘betraying sisters’ is also a metaphor. From the past,
they are the family and siblings of the sacrificial victim,
and in present terms they are a reference to France and
Spain, the powerful Catholic nations that refuse to help
their oppressed little sister, Ireland. This metaphor
serves to position the reader to examine the Irish
Troubles from a Catholic point of view, by portraying the
Catholic population as a little sister, in need of
protection.
The poem juxtaposes archeology and the past with the
present, with the persona watching the Winderby Girl
dying and Heaney watching Ireland and the social
results of the occupation. This tension between memory
and certainty causes the reader to scrutinize the role that
the artist had in the Irish Troubles, by looking at
Heaney’s role in the civil war. However he argues also
that in the face of ‘tribal, intimate revenge’ the individual
finds it almost impossible to speak out against his own
people.
‘Punishment’ is a poem that can be constructed on many
levels. One level tells of the plight of contemporary Irish
women, whilst another describes the brutal treatment of
an Iron Age female. It discusses the treatment of Ireland
by Britain and tells of various aspects of the human
experience, from betrayal to death. Ultimately it uses the
link between past and present to explore the various
aspects and problems of the human experience as well as
the Irish Troubles via the use of figures of the past as
metaphors for the present.
In conclusion, ‘Funeral Rites’ discusses the contribution
of males, the military and the Church to the Irish
troubles, and ‘Punishment’ discusses the plight of
individual groups and minorities in Irish society and
how they are affected by the Irish troubles. Both poems
investigate the various aspects of the human experience
via the use of the link between the past and present.
The poems ‘Punishment’ and ‘Funeral Rites’ draw upon a
link between the past and the present, often through the
use of mythological figures, such as Gunnar, to explore
the various aspects and problems of the human
experience.
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Funeral Rites by Seamus Heaney