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Poetry and Terror

North

by Seamus Heaney
Oxford University Press, 73 pp., $5.95

Visitors to Ireland have often remarked that we seem to live in the past. They note our strong attachment to beliefs which were held in the Dark Ages and our inability to end a conflict which goes back to the religious wars of the seventeenth century. Our moist green landscape charms them, where it remains unpolluted by modern industry. They see fields full of cattle, which have been a source of wealth since the mythical wars of Cuchulain and Maeve. The oceanic island atmosphere takes away their sense of time, and gives them instead an illusion that the past is retrievable, perhaps even happening today. Clergy strengthen this illusion by teaching in churches and schools that the dead will be resurrected. Our earth itself, with those vast wet bogs in the center of the island, seems to absorb the present and preserve the past. Here funerals draw much larger crowds than weddings. Ruins and buried remains are so plentiful that archaeologists have an endless future digging back through time. In this climate poetry flourishes, and the poet who has shown the finest art in presenting a coherent vision of Ireland, past and present, is Seamus Heaney.

He was born on a farm in a townland called Mossbawn, near Lough Neagh between Belfast and Derry, thirty-seven years ago, the eldest of nine children in a Catholic family. After six years at St. Columb’s College, run by the Diocesan priests, in Londonderry, he studied English language and literature at Queen’s University in Belfast, where he began to write poetry under the spell of Gerard Manley Hopkins. His first volume, Death of a Naturalist, was published ten years ago in 1966. “Words as bearers of history and mystery began to invite me,” he has said about this period in his life. By birth and upbringing he belonged to the ancient world of the Irish countryside and traditional culture, with roots in a pre-Christian legendary past: but his education brought him into the modern world, where he discovered English poetry. The tension you can feel in Ireland between the two cultures, you also feel in his poetry.

He is the antipode of Yeats, who extended English poetry out beyond the demesne walls into the Irish countryside to appropriate its legends. Heaney brings the Irish countryside through his own voice into English poetry.

Those hobnailed boots from be- yond the mountain
Were walking, by God, all over the fine
Lawns of elocution.

The result is a new and exciting sound. Granted he has Irish antecedents—Patrick Kavanagh, for example—and granted he has learned the craft of being true to his own Irish voice from a number of English and American poets, such as Edward Thomas, Robert Frost, and Ted Hughes. His original power, which even the sternest critics bow to with respect, is that he can give you the feeling as you read his poems that you are actually doing what they describe. His words not only mean what they say, they sound like their meaning. Often in his early poems he celebrates hard physical work, such as digging, bulling cows, ditching, ploughing, catching eels: all kinds of activities associated with ancient rural crafts and fertility which he witnessed as a child, a dead life which his poetry resurrects in a living body of words. His work has the potent charm of bringing back an old kind of beauty and a numinous fear, which cruder industrial terrors have all but blotted out: and it celebrates the newly discovered force of the poetic craft itself.

His primary statement about this craft, in the opening lines of his first book, connects poetry with terror.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests, snug as a gun.

Bullfrogs are compared to “mud grenades,” and butter crocks on a pantry shelf to “large pottery bombs.” Even allowing for the fashion in the Sixties for overemphasizing the toughness and cruelty of nature, you feel that these images are true. Grenades and bombs were kept on some remote Irish farms during his childhood. So aptly in “The Barn,”

The musty dark hoarded an ar- moury
Of farmyard implements, harness, plough-stocks.

Heaney’s second volume, Door into Dark, appeared in 1969, the year when violence in Northern Ireland became world news. For three years he remained in Belfast, living with his wife and two sons in a “Protestant” street near the university where he taught. On the corner of this road a pub and its owner were blown up. Poetry that can digest this kind of horror is rare, though horror of this kind had produced much ill-digested poetry.

In 1972 he published his third collection, Wintering Out, which confirmed his gradual inward emigration into a new world of language.

The tawny guttural water
spells itself: Moyola
is its own score and consort,

bedding the locale
in the utterance,
reed music, an old chanter

breathing its mists
through vowels and history.

Four years ago he moved south across the border with his family to live in a cottage on the edge of the Wicklow Mountains; choosing to become “an inner émigré,” like the Russian poets Mandelstam, Akhmatova, and Pasternak. Heaney defines this role at the end of North, in “Exposure”:

I am neither internee nor inform- er;
An inner émigré, grown long- haired
And thoughtful; a wood-kerne

Escaped from the massacre,
Taking protective colouring
From bole and bark, feeling
Every wind that blows;

The fear that goes with the writing of verse,” says Nadezhda Mandelstam in Hope Against Hope, “has nothing in common with the fear one experiences in the presence of the secret police. Our mysterious awe in the face of existence itself is always overridden by the more primitive fear of violence and destruction. M[andelstam] often spoke of how the first kind of fear had disappeared with the Revolution that had shed so much blood before our eyes.”

Seamus Heaney brings both kinds of fear together—the creative awe and the destructive horror—connecting the brutal real atrocities we have been shown on television for the past seven years with rituals of human sacrifice in remote antiquity. His poetry traces modern terrorism back to its roots in the early Iron Age, and mysterious awe back to the “bonehouse” of language itself. He looks closely in North at our funeral rites and our worship of the past. The whole of northern civilization from Denmark to Donegal is his “locale.” We hear of Thor and Gunnar as well as Hercules; the Vikings as well as Sir Walter Raleigh. The central image of this work, a symbol which unifies time, person, and place, is bogland: it contains, preserves, and yields up terror as well as awe.

The nature of peat is to preserve certain things that are buried in it: primeval forests, elks, butter, suicides, strangled victims. In a lecture called “Feeling into Words,” addressed to the Royal Society of Literature in London on October 17, 1974, Heaney said: “I began to get an idea of bog as the memory of the landscape, or as 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.’ ” He went on to say that he “had been reading about the frontier and the west as an important myth in the American consciousness, so I set up—or rather, laid down—the bog as an answering Irish myth.” This is the conclusion of his poem “Bogland,” at the end of Door into Dark:

Our pioneers keep striking
Inwards and downwards,

Every layer they strip
Seems camped on before.
The bogholes might be Atlantic seepage.
The wet centre is bottomless.

Heaney’s original idea of bogland as a symbol of memory was objectively confirmed and extended by both political event and archaeological discovery. In 1969 the civil-rights marches in the city of Derry, and the counter-marches by the Royal Ulster Constabulary with batons drawn, focused world attention on the Catholics who lived in a low-lying slum called the Bogside. In a short while the word became synonymous for minority resistance to police oppression, and subsequently Irish Catholic resistance to British misrule. Bog itself is one of the few words of Irish origin to have been assimilated into English. Literally it means “soft.” In English it acquired, perhaps because of its Irish origin as well as its color, connotations of shame, as in the slang of “bog” meaning “lavatory.” Heaney carries the word up the ladder from the foul rag and boneshop to give it a nobler meaning. He was helped by publication in 1969 of The Bog People by the Danish archaeologist P.V. Glob.

What this fascinating book meant to him is best described in Heaney’s own words.

It was chiefly concerned with preserved bodies of men and women found in the bogs of Jutland, naked, strangled or with their throats cut, disposed under the peat since early Iron Age times…. P.V. Glob argues convincingly that a number of these, and in particular, the Tollund Man, whose head is now preserved near Aarhus in the museum at Silkeborg, were ritual sacrifices to the Mother Goddess, the goddess of the ground who needed new bridegrooms each winter to bed with her in her sacred place, in the bog, to ensure the renewal and fertility of the territory in the spring. Taken in relation to the tradition of Irish political martyrdom for the cause whose icon is Kathleen Ni Houlihan, this is more than an archaic barbarous rite: it is an archetypal pattern. 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 and religious struggles.

Heaney first made a connection between these Danish murders of two thousand years ago and modern Irish politics in a powerful poem called “The Tollund Man” in Wintering Out. Now in North he has created a cycle of six or more bog-sacrifice poems, compressing the archaeological information given by Glob into personal imagery. You could call them love poems that resurrect the dead in poetry. The language, like seed, is compact with life, sexual, even necrophiliac.

I reach past
The riverbed’s washed
Dream of gold to the bullion
Of her Venus bone.

You can feel the joy as well as the terror of ancient rites, a victim “hung in the scales / with beauty and atrocity,” whose spine is “an eel arrested / under a glisten of mud.” Sometimes the poet assumes a victim’s identity, as in “Bog Queen,” who speaks of her burial and resurrection in the first person: “My skull hibernated / in the wet nest of my hair.” The short lines, the seminal images, and the vast connections in time or space between fragile details build up in “Kinship” (a six-page poem in six movements), which begins with a figure of circles: neck, nest, and a dog’s motion before lying down.

Kinned by hieroglyphic
peat on a spreadfield
to the strangled victim,
the love-nest in the bracken,

I step through origins
like a dog turning
its memories of wilderness
on the kitchen mat:

Many dead words are revived. From Old English and Norse he digs up bonehouse from banhus meaning body; scop meaning poet; and holmgang, a duel to the death. Irish words are slipped in, like foreign coins in a meter: crannog, an ancient lake dwelling; aisling, a vision; bawn, a ringed mound or fort; slobland, a marsh. He brings out refined shades of meaning in verbal sounds. “Dublin” is “spined and plosive.” Remembering the laid-out corpses of the dead in his childhood, he recalls “their dough-white hands / shackled in rosary beads.” The dead subject, the dead past, is described in language that’s vividly alive: a grim statement in a joyful style. The “swimming tongue” of a Viking longship is “buoyant with hindsight”; and the final message of this tongue to Ireland in the future is:

Keep your eye clear
as the bleb of the icicle,
trust the feel of what nubbed treasure
your hands have known.

Heaney has said that “the bog bank is a memory bank.” How does it store and yield information? The symbol suggests that the past is continuously present under the ground we tread, permanently preserved, static and dead. It also suggests that no improving human change is possible, because all action is absorbed by the soft wet ground forever. Digging up the past, or writing poetry, appears to be the only way of redemption or renewal: a kind of resurrection. The symbol conveys a profound truth about Irish consciousness, and how we keep the past alive. But the bog has not “remembered everything that happened in and to it.” Most of what happened has been forgotten. A few sacred objects congenial to itself are preserved by its acids: and what the peat yields up when the poet digs down deep enough is a strangled victim or a severed head. The bog does not liberate us with new knowledge of accurate history: it horrifies us with timeless myths perpetuating acts of cruelty based upon errors of judgment.

The dreadful power of the symbol is generated by the poetry with fascination amounting to approval. The poems embody the myths. In other poems, such as “Ocean’s Love to Ireland,” the vision is more historical. In “Act of Union” Heaney imagines the relationship between England and Ireland in the past as the rape of a feminine land by a male imperial power. No attempt here to demythologize the past. As in the bog poems—significantly it begins with an image of the bog—it acts like the peat itself, converting history into myth.

Are these images of human sacrifice redemptive in the sense that tragedy can be? I think this poetry is seriously attempting to purge our land of a terrible blood-guilt, and inwardly acknowledging our enslavement to a sacrificial myth. I think it may go a long way toward freeing us from the myth by portraying it in its true archaic shape and color, not disguising its brutality. Naturally we wonder where Heaney himself stands in relation to the victims and the killers, what he has called “the tail end of a struggle in a province between territorial piety and imperial power.” He makes no pretense about his deep uncertainty. Incertus was once a pseudonym he used. Some of his poems are “trial pieces,” and they follow a thought “like a child’s tongue following the toils of his calligraphy.”

Heaney looks for companions in literature. He’s both resourceful and protean. His ear is always to the ground from which, like Antaeus, he draws his strength. He converses with historical or literary figures, Breughel or Hamlet. Does he approve of Diodorus Siculus in a poem called “Strange Fruit,” about a “girl’s head like an exhumed gourd”? This puzzled me until I found in my battered ninth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica that Diodorus Siculus “as a critic…seems to have been altogether ignorant of the ethical advantages of history, and shrinks from administering praise or blame to the persons whose history he writes.” So too Heaney’s detachment could be a necessary element in the purification of our guilt.

Although Heaney commits himself to no belief in the causes that might claim his allegiance, such as the unification of Ireland, he embodies in poetry some of the terrorist actions that he refuses to endorse; as in a frightening poem called “Punishment,” about the penalties inflicted in ancient Jutland and modern Belfast on girls who might have misbehaved. There is much sad truth in that evasive word “almost” in this passage:

My poor scapegoat,

I almost love you
but would have cast, I know,
the stones of silence.

At the end of “Kinship” he addresses Tacitus, who reported with urbane critical accuracy the custom of human sacrifice among the barbarous Germani, and tells him he has found “a desolate peace.” This involves self-lacerating recognition, almost rejection, of the goddess, whose victims are in other poems treated as “holy blissful martyrs,” their bodies preserved like those of the saints. The repulsion in these lines is far from Yeats’s vision of the terrible beauty born in the sacrifice of Easter 1916, and closer to Joyce’s:

Our mother ground
is sour with the blood
of her faithful,

they lie gargling
in her sacred heart
as the legions stare
from the ramparts.

Come back to this
“island of the ocean”
where nothing will suffice.
Read the inhumed faces

of casualty and victim;
report us fairly,
how we slaughter
for the common good

and shave the heads
of the notorious,
how the goddess swallows
our love and terror.

To bring together things, feelings, and ideas in words which have never before been connected is imagination of the highest kind; and in this rare quality Seamus Heaney’s North excels. I read it as a triumph of art over terror. It has the fear of death on almost every page, and brings the terror under artistic control. The book’s weakness is confined to a small section at the end, added like a print-room to a gallery of paintings. Here the poems are lower-keyed, more talkative. The verse is looser, the language and imagery are not so inspired.

Terror darkens this book, but the poem which has the last word appears as a frontispiece. Every word in it rings true to the culture, to my memory of Ireland in the past, to its sad beauty. The play of light and shadow in this poem, the spaces filled by sunlight, the woman baking bread, the tick of two clocks work like a revelation as in the art of Vermeer. I’m thinking of the Officer and Laughing Girl at the Frick, where a dark moment of time is suspended forever in a ray of light that pours through an open window, crosses a blank wall under a map of Holland, and is caught up by a girl’s ecstatic smile. Heaney’s poem is called “Mossbawn: Sunlight,” after his birthplace.

There was a sunlit absence.
The helmeted pump in the yard
heated its iron,
water honeyed

in the slung bucket
and the sun stood
like a griddle cooling
against the wall

of each long afternoon.
So, her hands scuffled
over the bakeboard,
the reddening stove

sent its plaque of heat
against her where she stood
in a floury apron
by the window.

Now she dusts the board
with a goose’s wing,
now sits, broad-lapped,
with whitened nails

and measling shins:
here is a space
again, the scone rising
to the tick of two clocks.

And here is love
like a tinsmith’s scoop
sunk past its gleam
in the meal-bin.

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