"How does Seamus Heaney use his poetry to explore the past?"
Many of Seamus Heaney’s poems involve the past. Having grown up in Ireland during the ‘Troubles’, we have reflection on public history, while we also get a glimpse of private history in some of his other poems, such as where he tells us about relationships with family and friends. I aim to describe how this inspires him.
The first poem I wish to look at is ‘Digging’, from Death of a Naturalist. In it, he describes how the many generations of his family have all been farmers, working the land. But he has strayed from this path to become a poet, and in doing this has broken the link to his past. This poem is influenced by his personal, private history, that of his family and especially his father. The second / third stanza gives us an air of nostalgia as he looks out to see his father twenty years ago:
"My father, digging. I look down
Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away"
He begins to describe his father at work, levering out dirt and scattering potatoes
while "loving their cool hardness in our hands
". The fourth stanza has words such as nestle
, all of which tell you exactly what his father was doing. He could have just said "my father buried potatoes", but instead he chooses to go into remarkable
depth about what is, essentially, another day’s work. To me, this suggests that he paid very close attention to what his father was doing, soaking up all this imagery that now is released onto the paper for us to share.
The next stanza is just two lines long, but it has quite an impact on the poem.
"By god, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man."
Here he begins to go into the history
behind the poem, and we begin to find another meaning to the poem. He is now telling us how his grandfather dug, how he was the best there was ("My grandfather could cut more… than any other man on Toner’s bog
.") The imagery is increased by the use of onomatopoeia
, with words such as nick and slice sounding just right for what they are describing. These are precision
words; they are the absolute, the best words that can be used to describe it.
Stanza seven brings all this to a climax, with heavy use of imagery in the language again to start with, but then finishing with "But I’ve not spade to follow men like them." He has turned his back on the digging he has described, and traded his spade for a pen. He cannot continue what his family have been doing for generations. This is significant because many of his poems refer to traditions, digging being just one of them.
At the very beginning of the poem he gives a cryptic introduction:
"Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun"
To me, this seemed like a diversion
away from the main message of the poem. ‘What’s he doing, talking about a gun? This poem’s about digging.’ I thought. But at the end of the poem he returns with this quote, and an answer:
"Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it."
He has decided to honour their work through a poem; he doesn’t need a spade, he can dig up words with his pen. There is another possible link towards the use of a gun as a metaphor
. A gun, as you know, fires bullets. A pen, ‘fires’ words. The link is uncanny, and I feel that it is quite deliberate.
Peat is a recurring theme in many of Heaney’s poems. It is symbolic of the land, and the creatures, which lived there. It is an excellent preservative and just about anything that is dropped into it will remain virtually untouched. It is quite common throughout Ireland and Great Britain, and many things have been found in it. Things such as bodies. Heaney has written a poem around this theme (bodies in the peat). This poem is ‘Punishment’ from ‘North’.
From the very beginning of the poem, we see Heaney trying to put himself in the girl’s position, empathising with her.
"I can feel the tug
of the halter at the nape
of her neck, the wind
on her naked front."
Here, he is trying to imagine what it must be like, how she much have felt, and convey
it in words at the same time. He continues to describe the situation she has been found in, using phrases like "frail rigging
" to tell us about her ribs. He tells us what he sees, drowned in a bog and weighed down with a stone, then describing her as a tree: "oak-bone" and "brain firkin
". She is a "barked sapling", a tree that has been dug up before her time. Heaney does not believe that she has been killed for a fair reason, and has been "dug up", or killed, far too soon.
He refers to her as "little adulteress", and looks upon her tarred and blackened face as beautiful. He thinks of her sexually, despite knowing he would have wanted this done to her if he was there at the time, and thinks of himself as the "artful voyeur" of her innards, the "numbered bones" having been laid out before him by the archaeologists who found her.
"I almost love you
but would have cast, I know,
the stones of silence."
He begins to think about her in relation to the troubles in Northern Ireland
. He knows that he, too, would have punished her in the same situation, just as he has done in modern times with girls being tarred and strung up, just for being a Catholic
, who had the misfortune of falling in love with an English soldier.
"I who have stood dumb
when your betraying sisters
cauled in tar,
wept by the railings,
who would connive
in civilized outrage
yet understand the exact
and tribal, intimate revenge."
He has silently watched these "betraying
sisters" being hung on the railing, yet although feeling sorry for them, has also felt sympathy for those who wish for ‘tribal, intimate revenge
’. He doesn’t know which ‘camp’ to fall into: does he side with those who want to effectively lynch deviants, or does he instead stand for them to be treated in a different way? This looks into his own personal feelings about a very public history. This is a direct contrast to ‘Digging
’ and shows that Heaney
does not choose to take his inspiration from his personal history alone.
For my third poem, I want to show another public history, one which Heaney grew up around and knows all too well. This poem is called "Act of Union". The poem is arranged into two stanzas, I and II respectively. In this poem, very sexual language is used, suggesting that the act of union is of a similar nature. He refers to his subject as female, and describes her as having geological features – her back as ‘a firm line of eastern coast’, her arms and legs ‘thrown beyond your gradual hills’, and he talks of caressing ‘the heaving province where our past has grown’.
In this second stanza that we get to learn a little history lesson, in a cleverly-disguised section of text:
"And I am still imperially
Male, leaving you with the pain,
The rending process in the colony,
The battering ram, the boom burst from within."
What he describes now isn’t sex
, in the loving sense of the word – it’s rape
. The poem is not describing an act of lovemaking, instead it is telling us how England
has ‘raped’ Ireland. It is about conquest.
He describes "parasitical / And ignorant little fists" beating at her (Ireland’s) borders – the English army. "No treaty I foresee will salve completely your tracked / and stretch marked body”, he continues, telling us that no matter how many peace treaties and ceasefires there are (or have been) , Ireland will always show the marks, the scars, of the ongoing conflict.
Heaney died on August 30, 2013 in Dublin, Ireland after a period of poor health at the of 74.