Seamus Heaney 1939–
Heaney is widely considered Ireland's
most accomplished contemporary poet
and has often been called the greatest
Irish poet since William Butler Yeats. In
his works, Heaney often focuses on the
proper roles and responsibilities of a
poet in society, exploring themes of
self-discovery and spiritual growth as
well as addressing political and cultural
issues related to Irish history. His poetry
is characterized by sensuous language,
sexual metaphors, and nature imagery.
But it is important to remember that all
of these are themselves stories related
through language.
• When we consider conflict, especially in
Ireland, it is all too easy to concentrate on the
political forgetting the other major areas of
conflict which include:
• With ourselves and who we are or are to
become. Generations (note his poems about
his father.)
• Gender/relationships, love/hate, hunter and
hunted. ( see poem Twice Shy )
• Family
• Class, work, town/country.
• Much of Heaney's poetry addresses the
history of social unrest in Northern Ireland
and considers the relevance of poetry in the
face of violence and political upheaval. In his
next collection Wintering Out, for example,
are a series of "bog poems" that were inspired
by the archaeological excavation of Irish peat
bogs containing preserved human bodies that
had been ritually slaughtered during the Iron
Age. Heaney depicts the victims of such
ancient pagan rites as symbolic of the
bloodshed caused by contemporary violence
in Ireland. A violence that had a social cause**
• ** We should note the in the past the social
cause was to do with rituals concerning crops,
fertility and in this sense the continuation of
life, culture, civilisation as far as it was one,
and the religion/ religious beliefs of the
people of the time. There is more than
enough information on-line without me
repeating here. You can decide for yourself
what the social cause of such violence was at
the time of the troubles in the six counties but
civil rights and fair treatment must come top.
• North (1975) develops this historical theme
further, using myth to widen its universality. In
such poems as "Ocean's Love to Ireland" and
"Act of Union," Heaney portrays the English
colonization of Ireland as an act of violent
sexual conquest. Field Work (1979) does not
depart from Heaney's outrage at the violence
in Northern Ireland but shifts to a more
personal tone. The collection encompasses a
wide range of subjects: love and marriage,
mortality, and the regenerative powers of selfdetermination and the poetic imagination.
The Forge
All I know is a door into the dark.
Outside, old axles and iron hoops rusting;
Inside, the hammered anvil's short-pitched ring,
The unpredictable fantail of sparks
Or hiss when a new shoe toughens in water.
The anvil must be somewhere at the centre,
Horned as a unicorn, at one end square,
Set there immoveable: an altar
Where he expends himself in shape and music.
Sometimes, leather-aproned, hairs in his nose,
He leans out on the jamb, recalls a clatter
Of hoofs where traffic is flashing in rows;
Then grunts and goes in, with a slam and a flick
To beat real iron out, to work the bellows.
• Translating Sweeney Astray (1984) from the Irish
tale Buile Suibhne allowed Heaney to work with
myth, for he brings to the English-speaking world
the warrior-king Sweeney's adventures after a
curse has transformed him into a bird. Station
Island (1984) is also concerned with Irish history
and myth. Patterned after Dante's Divine Comedy
in its tripartite structure, the central section
describes a three day pilgrimage taken by
Catholics to the Irish Station Island seeking
spiritual renewal. There the narrator encounters
the souls of his dead ancestors and Irish literary
figures who speak to him, stirring from him a
meditation on his life and art.
• The Haw Lantern (1987) contains both parables
of Irish life and poems such as "From the Republic
of Conscience" and "From the Canton of
Expectation." This volume also includes a series
of poems entitled "Clearances," which chronicles
his relationship with his mother. In Seeing Things
(1991) Heaney diverges from his previous
emphasis on politics and civic responsibility,
returning to the autobiographical themes of
childhood experience and Irish community ritual.
Feelings of loss and yearning are prominent
motifs in the collection, as many poems evoke
celebratory images of Heaney's deceased father,
who appears frequently throughout the volume.
• Critics of Heaney's early work were immediately
impressed by his freshness of expression and
command of detail. He has been praised for his
political poems, especially those that depict the
violence between Roman Catholics and Protestants in
Northern Ireland. In these poems, it has been noted
that Heaney also addresses Ireland's cultural tensions
and divisions through the linguistic duality of his
poetry, which draws upon both Irish and English
literary traditions. Critical commentary has traced the
thematic development of Heaney's work, contending
that as his later poems continue to address the unrest
in Northern Ireland, they also incorporate a more
personal tone as Heaney depicts the loss of friends and
relatives to the violence. This is to see the personal
within the impersonal, ie. English news programmes.
• His most recent work diverges from his
previous emphasis on politics and civic
responsibility, Heaney returns to the
autobiographical themes of childhood
experience and Irish community ritual. Yet he
manages to combine themes. (See A
Constable Calls on following page) Many
critics have praised these poems for their
imaginative qualities and their focus on
visionary transcendence experienced through
ordinary life events. You need only look at
some of the titles of his poems where there
are titles.
• His bicycle stood at the window-sill,
The rubber cowl of a mud-splasher
Skirting the front mudguard,
Its fat black handlegrips
Heating in sunlight, the "spud"
Of the dynamo gleaming and cocked back,
The pedal treads hanging relieved
Of the boot of the law.
• His cap was upside down
On the floor, next his chair.
The line of its pressure ran like a bevel
In his slightly sweating hair.
• He had unstrapped
The heavy ledger, and my father
Was making tillage returns
In acres, roods, and perches.
Arithmetic and fear.
I sat staring at the polished holster
With its buttoned flap, the braid cord
Looped into the revolver butt.
"Any other root crops?
Mangolds? Marrowstems? Anything like that?"
"No." But was there not a line
Of turnips where the seed ran out
• In the potato field? I assumed
Small guilts and sat
Imagining the black hole in the barracks.
He stood up, shifted the baton-case
Further round on his belt,
Closed the domesday book,
Fitted his cap back with two hands,
And looked at me as he said goodbye.
A shadow bobbed in the window.
He was snapping the carrier spring
Over the ledger. His boot pushed off
And the bicycle ticked, ticked, ticked.
• : "I learned that my local County Derry
[childhood] experience, which I had
considered archaic and irrelevant to 'the
modern world' was to be trusted. They
taught me that trust and helped me to
articulate it.“ Heaney is here referring to the
shared experiences of us all at the level of
the parish. See Kavanagh’s poem ‘Epic’, and
consider Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ set as it is in
Dublin on 16th June 1906.
• Heaney’s work has always been most
concerned with the past, even his earliest
poems of the 1960s
• A general spirit of regard toward the past (that is being
able to live with the past and not just ‘in’)helped
Heaney resolve some of his awkwardness about being
a writer: he could serve his own community by
preserving in literature its customs and crafts, yet
simultaneously gain access to a larger community of
letters. Indeed, Heaney's earliest poetry collections—
Death of a Naturalist (1966) and Door into the Dark
(1969)—evoke a hard, mainly rural life with rare
exactness, Using descriptions of rural labourers and
their tasks and contemplations of natural
phenomena—filtered through childhood and
adulthood—Heaney makes you see, hear, smell, taste
this life, which in his words is not provincial, but
parochial; provincialism hints at the minor or the
mediocre, but all parishes, rural or urban, are equal as
communities of the human spirit.
• As a poet from Northern Ireland, Heaney used
his work to reflect upon the "Troubles," the
often-violent political struggles that plagued
the country during Heaney’s young adulthood.
The poet sought to weave the on going Irish
troubles into a broader historical frame
embracing the general human situation in the
books Wintering Out (1973) and North (1975).
• some reviewers criticized Heaney for being an
apologist and mythologizer, however the role
of political spokesman has never particularly
suited Heaney.
• "has written poems directly about the
Troubles as well as elegies for friends and
acquaintances who have died in them; he has
tried to discover a historical framework in
which to interpret the current unrest; and he
has taken on the mantle of public spokesman,
someone looked to for comment and
guidance. But he has also shown signs of
deeply resenting this role, defending the right
of poets to be private and apolitical, and
questioning the extent to which poetry,
however 'committed,' can influence the
course of history.
• We should note really carefully that even
Heaney's most overtly political poems contain
depths that subtly alter their meanings. Those
who see Seamus Heaney as a symbol of hope in a
troubled land are not, of course, wrong to do so,
there is much to commend though they may be
missing much of the undercutting complexities of
his poetry, the backwash of ironies which make
him as dark as he is bright, it is all too easy to
look at the surface and find only what you want.
There is much here in common with the work of
Swift see especially ‘Gulliver's Travels’ the last
two stories, ‘The Tale of a Tub’ and such poems
as ‘On a Beautiful Young Nymph going to Bed’.
• Heaney’s first work of translation is the Irish lyric poem Buile
Suibhne. The work concerns an ancient king who, cursed by
the church, is transformed into a mad bird-man and forced to
wander in the harsh and inhospitable countryside. Heaney's
translation of this epic was published as Sweeney Astray: A
Version from the Irish (1984). New York Times Book Review
contributor Brendan Kennelly deemed the poem "a balanced
statement about a tragically unbalanced mind. This bond is
extended into Heaney's 1984 volume Station Island, where a
series of poems titled "Sweeney Redivivus" take up Sweeney's
voice once more. The poems reflect one of the book’s larger
themes, the connections between personal choices, dramas
and losses and larger, more universal forces such as history ,
not just Irish History but our shared European one, as it is
related or told to us and language. ** Remember that we
share a common heritage and culture irrespective of our
differences something that is as true of the 6 Counties as
• In The Haw Lantern (1987) Heaney extends many
of these preoccupations and Heaney's focus:—
childhood, farm life, politics and culture in
Northern Ireland, other poets past and present—
Heaney works and ‘forges’ time and again at the
taproot of language, examining its genetic
structures, trying to discover how it has served, in
all its changes, as a culture bearer, a world to
contain and explore imaginations, at once a
rhetorical weapon and yet something to feed the
spirit or soul, the wonderful aesthetic value. He
writes of these matters with rare discrimination
and resourcefulness, and a winning impatience
with received wisdom, ironically including his
own OR how he is seen and spoken about by
others: some trying to claim him as their own.