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.