Sunday, December 5, 2010

Heaney is essentially Irish and naturalist in that his larger poetic vision is nourished and enriched by the occurrences in these two domains. Discuss.

Born in the year which marks the beginning of World War II, 1939, Seamus Heaney wrote poetry that records the anxiety of the age as much as the common man’s life overshadowed with political developments. Though one can mark an urge in him to remain on the edge, away from the centre of the contemporary troubles, the spirit of political conflict is so overpowering that its traces are visible in nearly everything that he wrote. It is perhaps difficult for any Irish writer to entirely escape this; violence and death remain disconcerting facts in the public life.

Nevertheless, a greater talent seeks to transcend these to address to the larger issues. Indeed he/she has a rare opportunity to transform the troubles—the daily occurrences of gunbattle, streetfights and such like incidents—into poetic articulations of weightier philosophical significance. These experiences feed his/her poetic vision in a way that is not available to poets in any other situation. In this way an Irish poet is placed in a special position. We see this in both W.B. Yeats and Seamus Heaney. Heaney’s vision is larger, encompassing the more prominent concerns about human life and destinies. This is evident in his first volume of poems entitled ‘Death of a Naturalist’ which appeared in 1966. This book started him on a journey full of accolades. It earned him the Somerset Maugham Award in 1968 and the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize.
He chose nature as his subject and showed an extending perception in treating various aspects and moods of nature. Critics received it well: Michael Longley of the ‘Irish Times’ believed that “his childhood landscape has acquired the validity of myth”.
The theme of his collection is nature, images of his native hometown, and his farm Mossbawn, the place of his childhood experiences and his deep attachment to it. Poem after poem impressions of these experiences emerge to lend a special significance; even when his poetic attention turned to political and topical issues, he could not help bringing in his local village and natural scenes again and again.
This ‘naturalist’ of title is a child whom Wordsworth or Blake would have recognized. He is a naturalist in two senses, firstly, because he lives in close relationship with nature, and secondly, because he acts in accordance with his instincts rather than the rules of society. His instincts no doubt are richly fed by nature’s intricate magical influences.
With his second volume ‘Door in the Dark’ published in 1969, Irish conflicts, the sense of brooding political tangle and the resultant calamities that visit common man’s life, claim his attention. It is strange that public, and especially critics, want a reputed writer to give poetic expression to these things that have become an inseparable part of their daily experience. Heaney shows a deep awareness of the ‘split culture’ quite early. He was conscious of the visible hiatus due to Catholic and Protestant loyalties. But his curiosity about Irish cultural sources was even greater providing his poetic vision a special edge. P.V. Glob’s book “The Bog People’ was an influence; after reading it Heaney’s interest in the Bog People increased manifold. He investigates the objects buried in the bog and seeks to know the curious ancient rituals in which people were sacrificed and buried in the bogs. He has written many poems appearing in the third and fourth volumes of poetry, dealing with them. Bogland serves as a metaphor. Chief among such poems are the ones that appeared in the 1975 volume ‘North’. Heaney here attempts to move beyond merely writing of personal matters, and sets them in a larger historical context. He tries to synthesize Irish myth with present nightmare, giving birth to ambitious, epic poems of sorts, providing himself 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.
Most sensitively employed are his experiences of the Irish conflict giving him deep insight into the tragic loss of human life. It is this tragic sense that lends to his poetic vision of mysterious depth and his art a cutting edge.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.
he says about himself and his craft. Strangely enough critics have accused him of being too involved in the events in Ulster and remaining aloof from it. However, the truth is that he can neither fully ignore the current turmoil, nor can he make these his sole themes: as a poet his vision ranges over the mysteries of human life, he felt like Frost and Wordsworth to arrive at a full realization of truth about them. Irish conflicts provide an angle of vision, one of those elements that unlatch the door. So we read these beautiful lines.
I missed his funeral,
those quiet walkers
And sideways talkers
Shoaling out of his lane
To the respectable
Purring of the hearse….
They move in equal pace
With the habitual
Slow consolation
Of a dawdling engine,
The line lifted, hand
Over fist, cold sunshine
On the water, the land
Banked under fog: that morning
The screw purling, turning
Indolent fathoms white,
I tasted freedom with him.
The poem from which these lines are quoted is entitled Casualty, deals with the poet’s friend, fisherman, who left his home to get a drink in the local pub in defiance of curfew. He was shot by the IRA and given a joint funeral with other thirteen men killed that day. The poem is pervaded with a sense of loss that is experienced on personal level and wafts out to overwhelm readers, even those who do not have anything to do with the political issues. It is this essential core of tragic experience that, that makes its appeal wider. The poetic vision is one of human destiny, something that we find in Funeral Rites, another remarkable poem.
Now as news comes in
of each neighbourly murder.
We pine for ceremony,
customary rhythms:
the temperate footsteps
of a cortege, winding past
each blinded home…..
Heaney is essentially Irish and naturalist in that his larger poetic vision is nourished and enriched by the occurrences in these two domains.
Heaney is a fine observer of life and poetry. Nothing escapes his vigilant eyes and he records all that he sees through his mind’s eye. The rich, teeming life of nature and human world appear in bright, animated descriptions. Such as we see in A Constable Calls, The Tollund Man, At a Potato Digging, Death of a Naturalist, Punishment, Casting and Gathering, Toome Road, Personal Helicon and Churning Day, besides scores of other compositions. In Churning Day the atmosphere of the farmhouse comes alive in the evocative language that Heaney uses: He concentrates on vibrant imagery and rich detail. He shows great interest in the musical quality of language and explores its rhythmic as well as picturesque attributes. 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 the shafts into the earth, mirroring as nearly as possible for the reader the poet’s own experience of his deeper ‘digging’. Beyond Sargasso is seen as technically ambitious poem—a ‘shape-poem’ constructed in a masterful fashion. It has a rigid structure of six syllables to the line, and sound, rhythms and line length create a visual and aural impact that reflects the homeward journey of the eel through the Atlantic currents.

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