Heaney notes

Heaney notes
Purdy, Anthony. “The bog body as mnemotope: nationlist archaeologies in Heaney and
Tournier”. Style, Spring, 2002
P: references from Preoccupations, Seamus Heaney
The archaeological view of poetry informs what Heaney sees as his best writing:
… poetry as divination, poetry as revelation of the self to the self as restoration of
the culture to itself; poems as elements of continuity, with the aura and
authenticity of archaeological finds, where the buried shard has an importance
that is not diminished by the importance of the buried city; poetry as a dig, a dig
for finds that end up being plants. (P 41)
In “Digging” (1964) Heaney hestitates between poet as archaeologist and poet as
gardener. In this poem Heaney felt that for the first time he had “done more than make an
arrangement of words” – that he “had let down a shaft into real life” (P 42). In this poem,
real life involves a continuity from father to son: Heaney’s grandfather and father,
assured by their shared prowess with the spade. The poet will take up a metaphorical
spade and conjure continuity from apparent discontinuity (physical labour versus cultural
labour). He will also turn his back on the hint of violence in the opening lines, to embrace
a more bucolic view of poetry as both cultivation and discovery.
Heaney says this poem was not so much written as dug up, “because I have come to
realize that it was laid down in me years before even that” (P 42). He means that the
poem’s unconscious triggers (seeds?) are to be found in the folk wisdom enshrined in
sayings and proverbs which he internalised as a child. Here, language is seen as an
archaeological deposit:
I have always listened for poems, they come sometimes like bodies come out of a
bog, almost complete, seeming to have been laid down a long time ago, surfacing
with a touch of mystery. (P 34)
But it is not just bodies and poems that are born of the bog. Recalling childhood stories of
butter kept fresh for years under the peat, and the taking of the skeleton of a Great Irish
Elk from the bog during his school years, Heaney recounts how the poem “Bogland” was
an attempt to represent the bog as the mythical space or memory of the irish landscape,
A landscape that remembered everything that happened in and to it. In fact, if you
go round the national museum in Dublin, you will realize that a great proportion
of the most cherished material heritage of Ireland was ‘found in a bog’. (P 54)
The bog poems
In 1969 the resumption of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland brought poetry face to
face with new and urgent problems, and prompted Heaney “to make a congruence
between memory and bogland and, for want of a better word, our national consciousness”
(P 54-55). Heaney embarked upon
a search for images and symbols adequate to our predicament . . . a field of force
. . . [in which] it would be possible to encompass the perspectives of a humane
reason and at the same time to grant the religious intensity of the violence its
deplorable authenticity and complexity.(P 56-57)
Heaney found in Glob’s evocations of Iron Age human sacrifice “an archetypal pattern”
connecting events far removed in time:
And the unforgettable photographs of these victims blended in my mind with
photographs of atrocities, past and present, in the long rites of Irish political
struggles. (P 57-58)
The bog bodies disturbingly juxtapose distant past and present. In the context of the
Ulster Troubles this led to charges that Heaney used glob to mythologise history and
aestheticise violence. Heaney’s dilemma in the early 1970s is summarized by Eileen
The poetry of Seamus Heaney articulates an inner world, a private landscape, an
intimate voice. Yet his particular situation as a Catholic nationalist living in
Belfast during the worst of the Troubles challenges his lyricism as precious and
superfluous. Heaney clearly suffers the tension between his personal dedication to
a reflective art and his public responsibility toward political action. (ref??)
Meredith, Dianne. “Landscape or Mindscape? Seamus Heaney’s Bogs”
Heaney calls the bog a psychic as well as geological memory-bank, “a dark casket where
we have found many of the clues tour past and to our cultural identity” (Broadbridge,
1977: 40). He sees the bog as a symbol of the Irish psyche, as contrasted to the American
psyche which, in its pioneering spirit, looks “outwards and upwards, to fulfillment
through movement, advance, exploration and openness” (Corcoran, 1986: 62). The Irish
bog was the “answering myth” to the frontier myth of American consciousness (Heaney,
1980b: 55).
Heaney arrived at the metaphorical significance of the bog through his friendship with
landscape artist T.P. Flanagan and their shared affinity for the bog. Flanagan, to whom
“Bogland” is dedicated, described the bog as “the fundamental Irish landscape” which
had “primeval connection” with a pagan past. His perceptions were of “the moistness, the
softness of the bog, its fecundity, its femininity…” (Parker 1993: 87). Heaney discovered
in the bog an image for the unconscious past of Ireland through a natural feature of the
landscape where history reposed and was revealed (King 1986; Foster 1989).
Glob’s writing also influenced the bog poems. Glob speculated that some of the bog
bodies were bridegroom sacrifices to the pre-Christian Germanic Earth Goddess, Nertha.
A sense of this ancient ritualism is echoed in Heaney’s own boyhood experience as he
describes the boglands next to Mossbawn, where he grew up:
It is as if I am betrothed to them, and I believe my betrothal happened one
summer evening, thirty years ago, when another boy and myself stripped to the
whit and bathed in a moss-hole, treading the liver-thick mud, unsettling a smoky
muck off the bottom and coming out smeared and weedy and darkened. We
dressed again and went home in our wet clothes . . . somehow initiated. (Heaney,
1980b: 19)
Heaney also saw in the ancient sacrificial victims of the bog bodies an analog to the
“troubles’ in Northern Ireland. In a radio interview he said “I’ve tried to make a
connection lately between things that came to the surface in bogs, in particular in Danish
bogs, and the violence that was coming to the surface in Northern Ireland” (Broadbridge
1977: 10). He felt an intense emotion of mythical reverence for sacrificial victims of the
past, combined with and compounded by the more recent horror of violence (Parker,
Seamus Deane sees Heaney as bringing the Viking dead alive through an “act of
ventriloquism”, making them speak for contemporary victims in northern Ireland (Deane,
1996: 28).
As Heaney contemplated the bogs as historical repositories, he concluded that they were
“bottomless” (“Bogland”). When Heaney was a child, there was a bog behind his house
which he was told never to go near; such bogs were “rushy and treacherous, no place for
children” (Broadbridge, 1977: 17). He was told that under the moss and grass, the bog
was bottomless:
They said it so often I firmly believed it, and in a different way I believe it still.
As a child I used to imagine my helpless body whistling down a black shaft
forever and ever; now I imagine the imagination itself sinking endlessly down and
under that heathery expanse. (Broadbridge, 1977: 39)
In his poem “Kinship” Heaney writes “I step through origins” into the “bottomless
centre” of the bog, “repository of history” (Foster, 1990: 28). Heaney was influenced by
the geographer E. Estyn Evans and his book Irish Folkways which chronicled “the
sequences of landscape and human culture going back several thousand years” (Morrison,
1982: 45). The line “digestion of mollusk” and “Atlantic seepage” from “Bogland”
connect Ireland’s bogs to the ocean (of memory?).
In “Kinship” he calls the bog “ruminant ground”, implying both swallowing and bringing
up. From “Kinship”:
Earth-pantry, bone-vault,
sun-bank, embalmer
of votive goods
and sabred fugitives.
Insatiable bride.
casket, midden,
floe of history.
Whether yielding up bodies, butter, Iron Age swords, the skeleton of an extinct Irish elk,
roadways or buildings, Heaney presents the bogs as a bottomless cache of artefacts,
revealing ancient origins, magically preserved. In this way landscape seems transformed
into mindscape as imagination ruminates over origins and histories, real or fictive. For
Heaney, the presence of the bog is “Nesting ground, / Outback of my mind” (“Kinship”).
This mindscape provides Heaney with a metaphor to communicate the sense of a living
landscape, continually in process. In the final analysis, it is
… this feeling, assenting, equable marriage between the geographical country and
the country of the mind, whether that country of the mind takes its tone
unconsciously from a shared oral inherited culture, or from a consciously
savoured literary culture, or from both; it is this marriage that constitutes the sense
of place in its richest possible manifestation. (Heaney 1980: 132)
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