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Second Thoughts

Petrarch or Milton could hardly have imagined that this might be the octave of a sonnet. Yet the pretty “rhymes” echo tradition, as line stretches to linen (the clothesline and the sheets), and as them shrinks to hem (a folded sheet in itself). Frost, Heaney’s precursor here, would have recognized the unobtrusive sentence-sounds; the line “Made me think the damp must still be in them” could slip into “Birches” without a hitch. (The “dried-out undulating thwack,” though, is pure Heaney; Frost’s eye was more on Roman moral epigram than on sensual fact.)

The seven-line “sestet” of the sonnet closes with a muted reference to the writing of the poem (the poet is now inscribing his family romance on a different set of folded sheets), but this literary marker is almost invisible in Heaney’s intricately worked plainness:

So we’d stretch and fold and end up hand to hand
For a split second as if nothing had happened
For nothing had that had not always happened
Beforehand, day by day, just touch and go,
Coming close again by holding back
In moves where I was x and she was o
Inscribed in sheets she’d sewn from ripped-out flour sacks.

Taut lines and folded sheets connect mother and son, in art as in life.

Like “Clearances,” the other elegies in this volume combine the density of living with the bleakness of loss, preserving the young, tender Heaney in the present stricken witness. “The Stone Verdict” is an anticipatory elegy for Heaney’s father, who has since died; other poems commemorate his young niece Rachel, dead in an accident; his wife’s mother (“The Wishing Tree”); and his colleague at Harvard, Robert Fitzgerald. Heaney affirms that the space left in life by the absence of the dead takes on a shape so powerful that it becomes a presence in itself. In the elegy for his mother, Heaney’s emblem for the shocking absence is a felled chestnut tree that was his “coeval”—planted in a jam jar the year he was born. Cut down, it becomes “utterly a source,”

Its heft and hush become a bright nowhere,
A soul ramifying and forever
Silent, beyond silence listened for.

Heaney’s sharply etched “nowhere” is a correction not only of Christian promises of heaven, but also of Yeats’s exuberant purgatorial visions of esoteric afterlifes. It returns Irish elegy to truthfulness.

Heaney has said that because people of any culture share standards and beliefs, the artist’s “inner drama goes beyond the personal to become symptomatic and therefore political.”3 To ascribe immense and unforgettable value to the missing human piece, simply because it is missing, is to put the power to ascribe value squarely in the human rather than in the religious sphere. Since institutional ideology everywhere reserves to itself alone the privilege of conferring value, it is all the more important for writers to remind us that control of value lies in individual, as well as in collective, hands.

Heaney directly addresses the question of value in “The Riddle,” the poem placed last in this self-questioning book. His governing image here is the ancient one of the sieve that separates wheat from chaff. Such sieves are no longer in use, but the poet has seen one:

You never saw it used but still can hear
The sift and fall of stuff hopped on the mesh,
Clods and buds in a little dust-up,
The dribbled pile accruing under it.

Which would be better, what sticks or what falls through?
Or does the choice itself create the value?

This is the poem of a man who has discovered that much of what he has been told was wheat is chaff, and a good deal that was dismissed as chaff turns out to be what he might want to keep. Coleridge, remembering classical myths of torment, wrote, “Work without hope draws nectar in a sieve”; Heaney, rewriting Coleridge, thinks that the endless labors of rejection and choice might yet be a way to salvation. He asks himself, at the close of “The Riddle,” to

…work out what was happening in that story
Of the man who carried water in a riddle.

Was it culpable ignorance, or was it rather
A via negativa through drops and let-downs?

The great systems of dogma (patriotic, religious, ethical) must be abandoned, Heaney suggests, in favor of a ceaseless psychic sorting. Discarding treasured pieties and formed rules, the poet finds “drops and let-downs,” and he refuses to take much joy in the task of sifting, though a middle couplet shows it to be undertaken with good will:

Legs apart, deft-handed, start a mime
To sift the sense of things from what’s imagined.

In Heaney’s earlier work, this couplet would have been the end of the poem, breathing resolve and hope. Now he ends the poem asking whether his sifting should be condemned as “culpable ignorance” (the Roman Catholic phrase is taken from the penitentials) or allowed as a via negativa. The latter phrase, which is also drawn from Catholicism, is a theological term connected to mysticism, suggesting that we can know God only as he is not.

The elegiac absences and riddles of The Haw Lantern are balanced by powerful presences, none more striking than the emblematic winter hawthorn in the title poem. This poem, by dwelling throughout on a single allegorical image, displays a relatively new manner in Heaney’s work. In the past, Heaney’s imagery has been almost indecently prolific; readers of North (1975) will remember, for instance, the Arcimboldo-like composite of the exhumed cadaver called Grauballe Man:

The grain of his wrists
is like bog oak,
the ball of his heel

like a basalt egg.
His instep has shrunk
cold as a swan’s foot
or a wet swamp root.

His hips are the ridge
and purse of a mussel,
his spine an eel arrested
under a glisten of mud.4

It is hard for a poet so fertile in sliding simile to stay put, to dwell on a single image until it becomes an emblem; it means going deeper rather than rippling on. “The Haw Lantern,” doing just this, fixes on the one burning spot in the blank landscape of winter—the red berry, or haw, on the naked hawthorn branch. At first the poet sees the berry as an almost apologetic flame, indirectly suggesting his own quelled hopes as a spokesman. He goes deeper into self-questioning by transforming the haw into the lantern carried by Diogenes, searching for the one just man. The stoic haw, meditation reminds the poet, is both pith and pit, at once fleshy and stony. The birds peck at it, but it continues ripening. In this upside-down almost-sonnet, the stern haw lantern scrutinizes the poet scrutinizing it:

The wintry haw is burning out of season,
crab of the thorn, a small light for small people,
wanting no more from them but that they keep
the wick of self-respect from dying out,
not having to blind them with illumination.

But sometimes when your breath plumes in the frost
it takes the roaming shape of Diogenes
with his lantern, seeking one just man;
so you end up scrutinized from behind the haw
he holds up at eye-level on its twig,
and you flinch before its bonded pith and stone,
its blood-prick that you wish would test and clear you,
its pecked-at ripeness that scans you, then moves on.

Like other poems in Heaney’s new volume, “The Haw Lantern” reflects a near despair of country and of self.

Heaney’s burning haw can bear comparison with Herbert’s emblematic rose, “whose hue, angry and brave, / Bids the rash gazer wipe his eye.” Forsaking topical reference, the artist writing in such genres as the emblem-poem (“The Haw Lantern”) and allegory (“The Mud Vision”) positions himself at a distance from daily events. Such analytic, generalized poetry hopes to gain in intelligence what it loses in immediacy of reference. (The greatest example of such an aesthetic choice is Milton’s decision to write the epic of Puritan war, regicide, reform, and defeat by retelling Genesis.)

Heaney has several times quoted Mandelstam’s “notion that poetry—and art in general—is addressed to…’The reader in posterity’ “:

It is not directed exploitatively towards its immediate audience—although of course it does not set out to disdain the immediate audience either. It is directed towards the new perception which it is its function to create.5

The social, historical, and religious perceptions of The Haw Lantern, if they should become general in Ireland, would indeed create a new psychic reality there. Such a prospect seems so unlikely now that it is only by believing in “the reader in posterity” that a writer can continue to address Irish issues at all.

I have saved the best of this collection for the last: two excellent poems about the life of writing. The first, “Alphabets,” written as the Phi Beta Kappa poem for Harvard, presents a series of joyous scenes that show the child becoming a writer. The alphabets of the title are those learned by the poet as he grew up: English, Latin, Irish, and Greek. They stand for the widening sense of place, time, and culture gained as the infant grows to be a youth, a teacher, and a poet. Against Words-worth’s myth of a childhood radiance lost, the poem sets a countermyth of imaginative power becoming fuller and freer with expanding linguistic and literary power.

With great charm, “Alphabets” shows us the child in school mastering his first alphabet:

First it is ‘copying out’, and then ‘English’
Marked correct with a little leaning hoe.
Smells of inkwells rise in the class- room hush.
A globe in the window tilts like a coloured O.

Learning Irish, with its prosody so different from those of English and Latin, awakens the boy’s Muse:

Here in her snooded garment and bare feet,
All ringleted in assonance and woodnotes,
The poet’s dream stole over him like sunlight
And passed into the tenebrous thickets.

The boy becomes a teacher, and the verse makes gentle fun of his self-conscious and forgivable vanity:

The globe has spun. He stands in a wooden O.
He alludes to Shakespeare. He alludes to Graves.

Alphabets” closes with a hope for global vision, based on two exemplary human images. The first is that of a Renaissance humanist necromancer who hung from his ceiling “a figure of the world with colours in it,” so that he could always carry it in his mind—

So that the figure of the universe
And ‘not just single things’ would meet his sight

When he walked abroad.

The second figure is that of the scientist-astronaut, who also tries to comprehend the whole globe:

   …from his small window
The astronaut sees all he has sprung from,
The risen, aqueous, singular, lucent O
Like a magnified and buoyant ovum.

Heaney implies that whatever infant alphabet we may start from, we will go on to others, by which we hope to encompass the world. Ours is the first generation to have a perceptual (rather than conceptual) grasp of the world as a single orbiting sphere—“the risen, aqueous, singular, lucent O”; and the almost inexpressible joy of sensuous possession lies in that line, a joy Heaney sees in the cultural and intellectual possession of the world, whether by humanist or scientist. “Alphabets” combines a humorous tenderness of self-mockery with an undiminished memory of the vigilant vows of youth, proving that middle age need not mark a discontinuity in life or writing.

The other brilliant poem here, “From the Frontier of Writing,” offers a vie de poète altogether different from that of “Alphabets.” Written in an adapted Dantesque terza rima, “The Frontier” retells a narrow escape from a modern hell. It takes as its emblem the paralyzing experience—familiar even to tourists—of being stopped and questioned at a military roadblock in Ireland. The writer, however, has not only to pass through real roadblocks but to confront as well the invisible roadblocks of consciousness and conscience. In either case, you can lose your nerve: in life, you can be cowed; in writing, you can be tempted to dishonesty or evasion. I quote this report from the frontier in full.

The tightness and the nilness round that space
when the car stops in the road, the troops inspect
its make and number and, as one bends his face

towards your window, you catch sight of more
on a hill beyond, eyeing with intent
down cradled guns that hold you under cover

and everything is pure interrogation
until a rifle motions and you move
with guarded unconcerned accelera- tion—

a little emptier, a little spent
as always by that quiver in the self,
subjugated, yes, and obedient.

So you drive on to the frontier of writing
where it happens again. The guns on tripods;
the sergeant with his on-off mike repeating

data about you, waiting for the squawk
of clearance; the marksman training down
out of the sun upon you like a hawk.

And suddenly you’re through, ar- raigned yet freed,
as if you’d passed from behind a waterfall
on the black current of a tarmac road

past armour-plated vehicles, out between
the posted soldiers flowing and receding
like tree shadows into the polished windscreen.

This poem is so expressive of the present armed tension in Ireland that it is political simply by being. It produces in us an Irish weather—menacing, overcast, electric—so intense that for a while we live in it. It has the allegorical solidity of the déjà vu, and the formal solidity of its two twelve-line roadblocks.

But formal solidity is not the only manner in which Heaney composes good poems. He has always had a talent and an appetite for the organic (growing and decaying at once), for which he invented the “weeping” stanzas of the bog poems. The elusive short couplets in “Wolfe Tone” and “The Riddle” suggest a third temper in Heaney, one represented neither by commanding masonry nor by seeping earth but rather by rustling dust, leaves, and feathers. The epigraph to The Haw Lantern epitomizes this third manner as the poet waits for a sound beyond silence listened for:

The riverbed, dried-up, half-full of leaves.
Us, listening to a river in the trees.

In deprivation, the poet trusts the premonitory whisper from the stock of unfallen leaves. The Haw Lantern suggests the trust is not misplaced.

  1. 3

    Seamus Heaney, comments during a symposium on art and politics at Northeastern University, 1986, printed in Working Papers in Irish Studies, issued by Northeastern University, 1986, p. 33.

  2. 4

    Poems: 1965–1975, p. 190.

  3. 5

    Working Papers, p. 36.

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