Sunday, December 5, 2010

Brief Survey of Heaney’s Poetry

His Maiden Work
Heaney has been called “the most important Irish poet since Yeats”. Critics have been mostly positive about his work, and it remains hugely popular, selling by the tens of thousands. His first book of poems, ‘Death of a Naturalist’ was published by Faber and Faber in 1966, when Heaney was just 27 years old. It was unusually well received for a first collection, and critics subsequently had huge expectations of him, comparing him to previous greats such as Wordsworth.

The theme running through his first collection is nature, images of his native hometown, and his farm Mossbawn. This is where he grew up, and he was very much attached to it. His early influences come through in this volume, more so than the others—Robert Frost, Ted Hughes, Wordsworth, Gerard Manley Hopkins and even Dante.
The ‘Naturalist’ in His Work
The ‘naturalist’ of the title is a child whom Wordsworth or Blake would have recognised. He is a naturalist in two senses, firstly because he lives in a close relationship with nature, and secondly, because he acts in accordance with his instincts rather than the rules of society.
Heaney’s first book is people with such free spirits, whom it is difficult to tie down, to hold back. The child prying and fingering slime in Personal Helicon, splashing “delightedly” through “the sucking clabber” in Poem. Heaney’s children experience a moment of intense drama which changes them forever, perhaps paralleling his own childhood experiences which changed him. The death of his brother, which he records in Mid-Term Break, a poem about a father’s helplessness in the face of death forces his young son to take responsibility, may be the turning point which changed Heaney. The subsequent move away from Mossbawn affected him deeply, and nowhere does he write so fondly and with such great affection as he writes of his early days spent in the farm. Just as the naturalist of the poem, he himself had uninhibited freedom to roam the countryside, dwelling on the delights of nature.
Personal Helicon
The poem Personal Helicon is dedicated to Michael Longley, a member of Hobsbaum’s group. It introduces an abiding interest and concern for that which lies deep within the earth. Mount Helicon is a mountain in Greece, which according to ancient myth was sacred to Apollo, and from it flowed two fountains of poetic inspiration. Heaney is here portraying his own fountain of inspiration, the “dark drop” into the depths of the wells of his childhood memories. Though he has now grown up, and is too mature to scramble about on his hands and knees’ looking into deep crevices of the earth, he can do that in his poetry; glimpsing into places where “there is no reflection”, only the sound of a rhyme, like a bucket, setting “the darkness echoing”.
By the time this volume was written, Heaney had come to understand the reason for that moment of early sorrow. In this collection, he is grieving, for what he calls the “fall into manhood”, and the subsequent loss of childhood. As he tries to defend that “secret nest” of childhood, his “small imperfect limits would keep breaking, just like the dams he recalls building in Poem, which “burst before the rising autumn rain”.
Reason for Writing
Appearing for the first time in public with poems about the loss of childhood is risky, as it inevitably brought him comparison with poets such as Blake or Wordsworth. For Heaney however, it wasn’t so much a choice as a compulsion. He seems to be relieving himself of a burden, at the same time honouring an obligation. He isn’t interested in analysing those events of the past, he just pens them down, in an effort to acknowledge them, and set himself free. Like a film-maker, he freezes the last ‘frame’ of a poem at the moment of pained discovery, like the child who turns from the flax-dam, or stands at the foot of his brother’s four-foot coffin, leaving a stark image in the mind of the reader.
These poems can be seen not only as lyrical evocations of loss, but also a portrait of the state of mind of the poet. A sense of guilt and alienation from his family comes across in this volume. Digging and Follower elaborates on this theme. Coming from a family of rural farmers, who aren’t particularly literary, for him to make the decision to become a poet wasn’t easy, most likely a path fraught with obstacles.
Use of Sensual Imagery
To recreate the world of his childhood, Heaney has made use of the senses. His poems are filled with colour, packed with images of sight, smell, taste and touch. This volume presents a precisely detailed picture of Mossbawn: its people, their work, their customs and their language. The sense of place is intense, the people of Mossbawn move in and out of the poems, too absorbed in their work to stop and speak. The work these people do and their places of work are minutely observed.
Death of a Naturalist is torn by conflicting impulses: a sense of release and new found independence on the one hand, and a desire to recapture what is lost on the other. As Heaney has said, “Poetry is out of the quarrel with ourselves”. Through verbalizing the quarrel, Heaney finds his poetic voice.
The title of Heaney’s second collection links the book to the final lines of Death of a Naturalist. He opens this collection with The Forge, whose opening line provides his new title “All I know is a door into the dark”. The word ‘dark’ echoes throughout the second book, seeming to be almost over-intended and programmatic. The darkness of the self suggested in Personal Helicon is only one of the several aspects of this ‘darkness’. He also uses ‘it to refer to artistic creation itself, and increasingly towards the end of the book, to allude to the Irish landscape and its history.
Heaney described using his title as a ‘point of entry’ into his feelings, or even as an exit. For him words themselves are doors, leading one either closer to or further away from the darkness.
New Sense of Confidence
With this second volume of poetry Heaney can be said to have come of age. In his first collection he was coming to terms with his chosen path in life, working out his problems with his family. His success with his first work gave him a sense of achievement, helping him to come to terms with the pressures of his past, and providing him with the confidence in himself and his ability to take risks and chart new territory.
This confidence and adventure is reflected in the title of his second volume, ‘Door into the Dark’, which has a defiant ring to it, suggesting that Heaney has voluntarily chosen to leave behind familiar territory and set out on the road less travelled.
Imagery of Movement
Encouraged by his first resounding success, Heaney is now ready to explore poetic possibilities extensively. He uses this second book as a point of departure on a fresh voyage of exploration. His artistic vitality is sustained by moving forward: staying still, hesitating in any form before the door into the dark is to stagnate. And for a poet such as Heaney, to stagnate is akin to retreating backwards.
Small wonder then that this volume is infused with a sense of constant movement, freedom, positive change. It has a purposeful, epic quality at places, in others it is movement simply for movement’s sake, for example in Night Drive this sense of release comes from the idea of getting into a car and the thrill of driving it.
This spirit of purposeful, exhilarating movement is characterised in ‘Door into the Dark’ by the image of flowing water that emerges throughout the poems. In Death of a Naturalist water “festered” in stagnant flax-dams, lay trapped in wells, or had to be carefully tracked to its “secret stations” by an expert; here it flows freely over the landscape through trenches, drains, pipes and streams. Water here is the master, no longer controlled by man, dominating the fishermen’s lives where it claims a “victim every year”, or shaping the destiny of Ireland by carrying succeeding waves of intruders to its shores.
This image pattern of free-flowing water makes ‘Door into the Dark’ a work of creative release. Heaney describes the act of poetic creation in precisely the same terms as this all-pervading water, washing over everything, taking it over, leaving no crevice untouched by its magnificence.
Metrical Experiments
The newfound spirit of adventure in Heaney corresponds to a willingness to experiment with metrical forms, differing verse lengths and unusual styles. The heavy, decasyllabic verses of Death of a Naturalist give way to shorter, more rhythmic lines. These more adventurous lines contain two or three stresses each, visually representing the poet’s theme.
The terse, spare, concentrated quatrains of verse in Bogland or The Plantation cascade like shafts into the earth, mirroring as nearly as possible for the reader the poet’s own experience of his deeper ‘digging’.
‘Beyond Sargasso’
Beyond Sargasso is Heaney’s most technically ambitious poem, a ‘shape-poem’, constructed in a masterful fashion. It has a rigid structure of six syllables to the line, and sound, rhythm, and line length creates a visual and aural impact that mirrors beautifully the outward and homebound journeys of the eel through the Atlantic currents.
‘Requiem for the Croppies’
This poem, featuring in Heaney’s second volume ‘Door into the Dark’ directly focuses on an important and tragic event in Irish history— the battle on Vinegar Hill. In this battle, between the Catholic rebels and the Protestant rulers, many thousand men died, and Heaney attempts to commemorate that moment in his poem, portraying that indignity and unneccesarity of the people’s suffering.
This poem is narrated by one of the rebels, describing their stealthy attack through the woods and fields. The inadequacy of the soldiers’ weapons, their lack of planned strategy and tough conditions led them to a scathing defeat. They were buried without ceremony, and the next year, the barley they carried in their pockets for food, took root and grew into a harvest crop.
The poem is narrated as a folk tale as the poet endeavours to communicate with the ordinary people of the soil. The rhyme scheme is simple and straightforward, mirroring the style of the ballads of yore. This is one of his few poems, addressing an actual Irish event, and demonstrates the fact that Heaney did as matter of fact, write, and extensively, about his homeland and his people.
Wintering Out Survey of Wintering Out
The title of this collection suggests how reluctant Heaney is to succeed where politicians had failed, by offering a solution to the troubles. The atmosphere of this book is as bleak and pessimistic as the title suggests. Just as trees find strength to survive winter, Heaney advocates endurance to the people of Ireland to survive the winter of Ireland.
When it first appeared, ‘Wintering Out’ received rather indifferent reviews. One of the primary reasons was the expectation that people who had read the collection would be geared towards the conflict in Ireland, as it was gaining height at the time. However, though it may not have addressed the conflict itself, the collection does address the context from which the conflict emerged.
These poems reveal a truly individual talent coming into his own. The electricity and vibrancy, the stirring of confidence, the promise of future excellence, is all evident in this work, and demonstrates that Heaney is truly an outstanding poet.
His inability to reconcile his English influences with his Irish upbringing caused much inner turmoil in the past, reflected in the turmoil without. The suffering, the killing, the internment camps are all new to him, yet old to a world which has just recently seen two world wars. His struggle to find new images to portray old sufferings, causes him to write:
‘There was that white mist you get on low ground
and it was deja-vu, some film made
of Stalag 17, a bad dream
no sound.’
The difficulty of finding new images makes him resort to witticisms, “Is there a life before death?” Wintering Out attempts to find a voice for Heaney, a voice for suffering, an inner turmoil, a voice for endurance and for patience to await the spring.
The overriding image of Wintering Out is found in the last poem, A Northern Hoard, Heaney remembers trying to strike fire from flints as a child, which he depicts as “cold beads of history and home” which he “fingered”. This memorial rosary forms an image for Wintering Out, which fondles old memories, objects, names from Heaney’s past. The collection is influenced heavily by the Irish situation, despite not addressing it overtly. The poetry is responsive to the conflict; however, as Heaney is a poet who detests writing as if he were a journalist, his poems draw from the situation subtly.
The “Tollund Man” a precursor to more bog-poems that appear in “North”, stands as an image for the conflict of Ireland. The bog people are supposed to be sacrifices to the fertility goddess, “Nerthus”, killed in the winter in the hope of better crops in the spring. Heaney draws an analogy between the bog people and the victims of the political violence in Ireland.
The Fatalism Expressed by Heaney
Heaney is keenly aware that far from offering a concrete solution to the problems of Ulster, he isn’t even defining clearly his own stand on the affairs. The closest he comes is to express a sense of being in the dark, “lost” and “unhappy”.
In an interview in 1972, Heaney confessed that the mood of the collection was fatalistic, and offered only a small ray of hope in the title:
It is a phrase associated with cattle, and with hired boys also. In some ways, it links up with a very resonant line of English verse that every schoolboy knows: ‘Now is the winter of our discontent’. It is meant to gesture towards the distresses that we are all undergoing in this country at the minute. It is meant to be, I suppose, comfortless enough, but with a notion of survival in it.
The message given by the poet is distinctly defensive, and one of “survival”. He sense that the present crisis is like “the back-end of a bad year”, and advocates to the people a policy of lying low, keeping out of the way of the troubles, and letting them “winter out”.
Throughout this volume of poetry, Heaney presents examples of figures who have benefited from this policy. He praises the servant boy who “kept his patience / and his counsel”; the mummer, though “travelled / in the taboos of the country”, is too crafty to take sides; the creature in The Gift of Rain who tests out the water before risking movement. Despite these proofs of the prudence of a defensive attitude, he is unable to provide solace to the victims of the conflict, ones who have lost relatives and friends; they will not be consoled by the idea of caution.
It is easier to understand Heaney’s stance if one has read “Door into the Dark”, where he glimpses the door into Ireland’s dark historic past. He believes that the history of communal violence is repeating itself, and Ireland’s future lies in the resolutions of its past.
Structure of ‘Wintering Out’
This volume is characterised by a sense of ambiguity of language; lack of clarity on whether to continue the vein of exploration begun in the previous volume, or to turn away from it; indecision and inability to proffer a solution to the troubles; and division in the theme of the book. Heaney’s third volume appears to be a failed attempt, and outwardly should be succeeded by lowering of public expectations for the poet. In actuality, the volume has been hailed by critics as a breaking-off point for Heaney, where he proves his mettle beyond a provincial nature poet, stuck in a rut of description. With this volume he opens up possibilities, avenues of thought, paths yet to be charted.
‘Wintering Out’, due to its complexities of themes, imagery and myths, is difficult to comprehend, and demands far more of its reader than previous collections. No longer can a reader appreciate simply the beauty of nature as he richly describes it. The reader needs to be able to follow Heaney down his path of legend, Irish mythology, imagination and philosophy. This volume takes images from the Irish past and transcribes them with Heaney’s emotions, conflicts and feelings. An unknowing student of his poetry will be taken unawares by this collection.
Heaney’s poetry in this third collection resembles T.S. Eliot’s, in that it is as inaccessible to the common man. His readers now need to have a working knowledge of the people and situations that Heaney is referring to, in order for them to appreciate his references. Aside from this knowledge, the reader requires a high degree of imagination. These unconventional poems ignore time-frames, and are preoccupied with the endurance of myth, the romance of legend, the reinvention and repetition of history. In poems such as Tollund Man and The Last Mummer, the reader is led through a maze of past and present, structural skyscrapers and voluminous valleys. A sense of dream-like sequences, nightmarish creatures, surreal happenings and projections into the future characterize these poems.
Sound treatment in these poems too, unlike the loud, definitive rhythms of ‘Death of a Naturalist’ are subtle and understated. The alliterated ‘b’ in the second line of The Servant Boy provides an avenue for a release of anger in an otherwise meditative poem. The sense of mystery achieved in the first section of The Last Mummer is achieved through Heaney’s subtle use of assonation.
‘Wintering Out’ also differs from ‘Death of a Naturalist’ in its lack of conventional narrative structure. The latter left nothing to the imagination, describing everything meticulously for the reader. In the former collection it is just the opposite; the poems are fragmented, revealing disjointed images which the reader then has to piece together. The literal and symbolic elements flow together, and have to be separated out for a more complete picture.
The terse, concentrated verse structure of ‘Wintering Out’ suits its tone perfectly—the cold, barren, dejected landscape. The poems have a skeletal look to them, symbolic of the skeletal remains of Irish society. The fragmented images are left to the reader to piece together, just as he is meant to piece together the fragments of life in Ulster.
In this third volume Heaney is attempting to unite what he terms the ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ voices. Instead of using his poetry passively, and evoke lost memories, feelings, emotions, he wants to use it actively, to convey ideas and tackle pressing philosophical issues. Poetry of this type has no place for flowery description, instead it presents images to be deciphered.
Even Heaney’s poems about love are burdened with grief, with ah unnamed and unnatural fear. He begins the poem Wedding Day with a strange feeling—”I am afraid”. Almost as if the poet was trying to shock his readers with an unconventional aspect of this traditionally glorious and happy day.
Heaney depicts the atmosphere with fearful and gloomy images, painting the picture of a “deserted bride” who takes refuge behind the cake, and “goes through the ritual” despite deep sorrow. He superimposes the image of the ghastly and infamous Miss Havisham in Dicken’s Great Expectations. Using phrases like “sound has stopped”, “wild grief and “skewered heart” he depicts a totally alien picture of a wedding day. Whereas the reader would associate this day with happiness, excitement, maybe a touch of nervousness, Heaney depicts it to be a nightmare that the bride and groom are enduring.
Only in the end, when the poet chances upon the doodle of a heart pierced with an arrow, does he remember that their wedding day is ultimately really about love, true love between a man and woman. Then, and only then, does he calm down, anticipating the peaceful journey to the airport with his loving wife, the end of the stressful wedding, and the beginning of their marriage.
‘Wintering Out’ must be read and studied in the context of the events taking place in Ulster at the time. Despite attempts to move into topics such as marriage, family etc, he is drawn repeatedly back to the problems of his homeland. His divided loyalties, confused self-portrayal, inability to reach certain decisions characterise this volume of poetry. It represents his attempt to understand himself, and thus comprehend the world around him.
This volume charts new territory for Heaney—he breaks away form the confines of being purely a nature poet and breaks fresh ground. He is able to experiment with different techniques of writing, metrical forms, varied imagery and a different range of dictions and language techniques. His true mettle as a writer shines through.
Despite the increased comprehension and competence demanded of his readers, the volume is successful as it demonstrates the hatching of a truly great poet. Amidst the troubled times, the despair, and slow death of humanitarian philosophy in the land, Heaney’s talent and work are akin to a rainbow of hope stretching across the region, encompassing the minds and hearts of readers in Ireland, demonstrating the good that can emerge in troubled times.
Heaney’s fourth volume of poetry, “North” was published in 1975, three years after the move to Wicklow from Belfast. In response to the disappointed critics of the previous volume, who expected Heaney to write about the crisis in Northern Ireland, this volume contains a fair number of poems contemplating the Ulster conflict. By this time the poet had discovered the bog people, and used them to draw an analogy to the Irish situation. This helped him overcome his misgivings about becoming purely a journalistic writer, merely reporting events, or expressing This agitation. He was now able to create, within his poetic world, figures and images representing the times, using them to portray his perceptions, fears and solutions.
Themes of ‘North’
In this volume Heaney attempts to move beyond merely writing of personal experiences, and sets them in a larger historical context. Thus the poems display an interest in archaeology and the larger sociological patterns. He tries to synthesise Irish myth with present nightmare, giving birth to ambitions, ‘epic’ poetry of sorts, providing Heaney with a base for his musings on the Irish situation.
Heaney’s belief that the history of his country lies beneath it, in the bog, gives rise to a variety of subjects to write about. His bog poems form the central anchor in “North”, however he draw upon several other objects retrieved from the bog as inspiration for his work. Viking curios, a long ship, a spade covered with moss, a white bone—these and others form the subjects of his poems. Even the language spoken on the ground, fragmented words of which remain—”moss”, “bawn”, and “bone-house”—find their way into his work. In these musings, Ireland’s history of conquests, first by the Vikings, then by the English, is recorded. The conquests themselves are portrayed in terms of Greek myths of Hercules and Antaeus, and in sexual terms of ‘rape’ of a civilisation.
The mythological poems cover only the first part of “North”. The second part deals directly with the Irish present. Heaney himself, in 1977, in an interview[2] refers to it:
The two halves of the book constitute two different types of utterance, each of which arose out of a necessity to shape and give palpable linguistic form to two kinds of urgency—one symbolic, one explicit.
The two-part structure represents the twin effort on the poet’s part to offer both a contemplative and a pragmatic response to the situation.
In the title poem to his fourth volume, Heaney takes his role as a poet who questions the world and tries to find answers to the same seriously. He doesn’t search within himself, unlike many other poets he looks for the answers without.
In previous works he has used other objects or situations as metaphors, to help him understand the Irish conflict. Here he chooses the ancient Irish link to the Vikings. In this, and later poems in the same volume, he attempts to understand his world through the actions of the ancient warriors in theirs.
The Vikings seem to be advising the poet, telling him to trust his instincts when it came to writing. They appear to be advocating spontaneity and risk-taking, and remind him to be patient in his quest for the appropriate words.
Keep your eye clear
as the bleb of the icicle,
trust the feel of what nubbed treasure
your hands have known.
Response to the Conflict
The poet who had deliberately distanced himself from comment on the situation, dedicating an entire volume of poetry to it seems not only bizarre, but against his very nature. The reason behind it seems simply that the poet succumbed to public expectations and censure.
There had been a time when Heaney had commented that “the uncommitted and sceptical tend to leave”. After his move to Wicklow, he had to prove that his flight signified neither scepticism nor lack of commitment on his part. The artistic people were meant to comment on the situation, if possible find a solution and Ireland looked to one of its greatest artists to do just that.
Unfortunately after the dejection and pessimism of “Wintering Out”, Heaney had even less optimism and even fewer solutions to proffer. In such a situation Heaney is only able to write of his own emotions and feelings arising from the troubles. In the second part of “North”, the more so-called ‘explicit’ poems, he is unable to go beyond analysing himself ad recording the effect which the crisis has on him as both an Irish citizen and a poet.
The most he can do is draw strength from the roots of Irish history and cultural life, and provide a ray of hope in poems like Sunlight.
At the publication of “North” in 1975, critics supported the view that it was a compilation of a varied range of subjects and matter, different from any of his previous collections. This collection is more introspective, its themes cohere around the social and political implications of being ‘north’. It refines the images, techniques and conclusions of the previous volume, honing and refining it a great deal.
The themes remain similar—a divided sense of loyalty, symbols of adversity and pain, and intense self-exploration. However, these themes are given a new colour, a new depth, linking them to the larger theme of trouble around him. Some of his best poems are contained in this volume, Punishment, Funeral Rites, Exposure.
This work may be viewed as one of consolidation and completion, tying up loose ends, ending one phase of Heaney’s creative life. As the tired lines of his final poem Exposure indicate, the poet instead of finding the “meteorite” of new imagination, prefers to stick to familiar, even exhausted topics:
I walk through damp leaves,
Husks, the spent flukes of autumn.’”
Isolated in a landscape that is creatively as well as physically wintry, the poet looks back instead of ahead, metaphorically retracing his steps, asking “How did I end up like this?”
Field Work
Published after ‘North’, this collection of poems is dedicated to Heaney’s friends and relations, the ones whom he lost to the Irish troubles. Some of them were shot, others killed in bomb blasts.
The Ministry of Fear
This poem illustrates how the Catholics in Ulster have always lived in a state of fear. The poem opens with Heaney’s description of his years at boarding school, and his friendship with the poet Seamus Deane, with whom he corresponded regularly, sharing their poetry with each other.
He describes his feeling of inadequacy, as though his education was somehow inferior—”Catholics, in general, don’t speak / As well as students from Protestant schools”.
This feeling of inadequacy is repeated when he is made to answer questions by the policeman, picking on him more when he revealed his Catholic name.

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