Loss of Childhood Innocence
Heaney’s first collection, ‘Death of a Naturalist’, concentrated primarily on his need to write about his childhood, and the loss of his childhood innocence as he steps into manhood. As in the poem Death of a Naturalist, he talks about the change of the child’s perspective, his world and its inhabitants. He no longer perceives the frogs from the point of view of a boy fascinated with nature, but as a child who is reviled at the sight of the “ugly”, “slime kings”. Similar to Wordsworth’s poem Nutting, he destroys the balance of nature, (by stealing the spawn), and fails to appreciate fully its beauty.
Need to Understand the World Around Him
Heaney uses his poetry as a tool to understand and qualify his experiences, whether they are of nature, of his childhood, or of the events unfolding around him in
. He uses analogies with buried objects, not in an attempt to appear erudite, but in order to better understand the events of the Troubles. In a time when reason and logic fail, when people are killed arbitrarily, simply because they belong to a different religion than the ‘right’ one, a man of letters attempts to make sense of the world around him; and he chooses poetry as his medium. Ireland
Theme of History
Seamus Heaney has written about historical events in several of his poems. Some, like At A Potato Digging and Requiem for the Croppies had an overtly historical theme, describing a specific event in Irish history. Others like Funeral Rites, The Tollund Man, and Viking Dublin: Trial Pieces include some references to
’s past. Ireland
At A Potato Digging refers to the terrible famine in
between 1945-8, when several thousand people died as a result of the failure of the potato crop, Ireland ’s staple food. In this poem he brings out the suffering of the people of Ireland , and effectively analogises the present experience of the farmers with that of the 1800s. On one hand the poem is a memorial to those who died in the famine, on the other it reminds the reader of the hardships the present-day farmers have to go through, and creates an image of them paying homage to the earth in an effort to appease her. Ireland
Requiem for the Croppies is a poem commemorating the Battle of Vinegar Hill 1978 and the rebels who died. He not only takes the reader through the emotions and thoughts of the narrator, one of the rebels, he also foretells the seeds in the pockets of the dead rebels as the germ of further revolutions in future years.
Heaney writes history for the ordinary people of his country, so he uses language and imagery that they can identify with. He uses a ballad technique, which suit the themes and images that he is working with, images of the countryside. Heaney uses his poetry as a medium for bringing out the struggle and difficulties of farmers and peasants on a daily basis, and also pays tribute to their achievements. He is able to turn ordinary occurrences into events of extraordinary significance, using the magic of his words.
As a poet, Heaney puts great reliance on the importance of past history on understanding present events. In order to fully comprehend, and find a solution for, the troubles ailing Ireland, Heaney resorts to the wisdom of the past, relying on objects unearthed from the bog to provide him with answers.
In The Tollund Man for instance, he links the death of certain youth to the sacrificial killings in
Jutland. In North, he looks to the Viking past of to resolve the conflict within himself, and reconcile himself to the ‘troubles’. Ireland
In Funeral Rites, he suggests that looking back into the pagan origins of the Irish past would yield permanent solutions to its the problems of its troubled present.
Use of Symbolic Figures
Heaney uses symbolic figures with the zeal of an archaeologist, elated as he uncovers each new explanation or theory, just as an archaeologist discovers objects to help him find new definitions for the past.
The poet uses his figures, not to give a solution to the Irish conflict, but rather expression to the conflict within him. The figures of the past seem to empathise with him, giving words and feeling to what he cannot or does not express.
Writing and Heaney
Many of Heaney’s poems discuss the art of writing. In his first volume, ‘Death of a Naturalist’, he discusses the theme extensively in poems like Digging and Personal
In Digging, Heaney attempts to reconcile his farming background with his desire to write, and describes his choice of tool as powerful a weapon as any, “as snug as a gun”. He determines to use this tool to search for ideas and explore his roots. Digging is often compared in theme and approach to Ted Hughes’ poem Thought-Fox, which explores the craft of writing, from a blank page to the finished piece. Personal Helicon makes the reader aware that the poet is only just ready to leap into the experience of writing and exploring, and that he has a long way to go.
The poet’s lack of confidence in himself and in his writing surface in his fourth volume ‘North’. Written during the worst parts of the troubles, he naturally wishes to achieve a lot for his people through his poetry. In Exposure however, he begins to question his motives for writing poetry, and especially as an Irish poet. His one sense of comfort is the sense of unity and identity he spreads to his fellow Catholics through the medium of his poetry, and possibly one of his greater contributions as a poet as well.
Names and Labels
Names of places that were important to Heaney as a child find their way into his poetry too. He describes the place of his primary school, Anahorish, lovingly, reiterating the warmth and comfort of his memories. The name in its original, anach fhior uisce, means the ‘place of clear water’, an apt name for a place where he found “life, literature and his love of writing”. Similarly the name ‘Broagh’ translates into ‘riverbank’, an eminently suitable word for someone, like Heaney, who wishes to dig deep.
When the police asked Heaney his first name, he was always at a disadvantage, as Seamus, his typically Catholic name, was recognised.
He would often be arbitrarily stopped and questioned for this reason. He writes about this in Ministry of Fear (quote something]. Then again, labels were common, with people’s identities hinging on a single word—’Catholic’ or ‘Protestant’. Individualities melted into a label, destinies were forged on names. Such a time is bound to leave a mark on a writer, and Seamus Heaney was no exception.