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Poet Beyond Borders

Seamus Heaney

by Helen Vendler
Harvard University Press, 188 pp., $22.95

In the first five poems in Opened Ground, Seamus Heaney’s comprehensive new selection from the first thirty years of his career, the reader is arrested by the words “gun,” “grenades,” “armoury,” “blood,” and “bombs.” Since Heaney comes from Northern Ireland, a place that is only now emerging from decades of violent conflict, this hardly seems remarkable. These poems, however, were first published in 1966, three years before guns and bombs began to dominate the politics of Northern Ireland. They are, moreover, poems whose ostensible subject is a rustic childhood and whose universe is the enclosed domain of the Heaney family’s house and farm in County Derry in Northern Ireland, where he was born in 1939 into a Catholic household. The gun, in fact, is a simile for the poet’s pen. The grenades are frogs. The armory contains only some familiar farmyard implements. The blood is the juice of a blackberry. Crocks full of cream about to be churned into homemade butter, a nostalgic image, one might think, of old-fashioned abundance, are “large pottery bombs.”

The evocation of violence in these phrases is not untypical of the early Heaney. Time and again, fear, murder, and sexual disturbance insinuate themselves into what seem, at first glance, to be innocent idylls. The poppy, which we might expect to be a poetic emblem of sun and summer, is, in “Mid-Term Break,” the “poppy bruise” on the temple of the poet’s four-year-old brother, lying in his coffin after being struck by a motorcar. Children who have been picking blackberries have “palms sticky as Bluebeard’s,” linking them to a legendary mass murderer. “The Barn” begins with a pleasant vision of heaps of threshed corn but ends with the child lying face-down on the floor, terrified of the dark spaces and the unseen movements of bats, birds, and rats.

In “Death of a Naturalist,” the transformation of frogs from “nimble-swimming tadpoles” to “great slime kings/…gathered there for vengeance” represents the passage from childhood to the obscene, feverish sexuality of adolescence. In “Churning Day,” the making of butter acquires a surreal sexuality as “the four crocks, spilled their heavy lip/of cream, their white insides, into the sterile churn.” It is, indeed, these dark undercurrents that gave Heaney’s voice its power. Without sex and violence, his memories of a rustic childhood would be clichéd and sentimental. If there had not been a personal sense of disturbance in his early work, it is unlikely that he would have been able to connect so powerfully with the political violence that engulfed Northern Ireland after 1968.

From whence, then, do those early unsettling intimations come? In part, the force and physicality of Heaney’s poems is a memory of hard labor. Their world is archaic, even in Irish terms. They commemorate and celebrate activities and trades that were, in the 1940s, already on the way out: farmers plowing with horses, thatchers making roofs from rushes, diviners finding hidden sources of water, black-smiths working in their forges. Helen Vendler, in her splendidly lucid account of Heaney’s life and work, rightly describes “The Wife’s Tale” as “Brueghelesque in its portrayal of the threshers taking their midday meal in the fields.” Indeed, in a later poem, “The Seed Cutters,” the analogy with the great Flemish painter’s images of preindustrial peasant life is made explicit by Heaney himself:

They seem hundreds of years away. Brueghel,
You’ll know them if I can get them true.

It would have been all too easy for such evocations of an obsolete world to be merely picturesque and phony. What rescues them is the tang of sweat and the ache of toil. In “Churning Day,” the women making butter “set up rhythms/ that slugged and thumped for hours. Arms ached./Hands blistered….” In “Follower,” his father plowing with horses has his shoulders “globed like a full sail” with the strain of the work. The horses sweat. Even when Heaney is imagining the ancient world that underlies the present, he cannot forget the sheer drudgery of rural life for the ordinary toilers from whom he springs. In “Anahorish,” when he evokes his distant ancestors, they come burdened with work and discomfort:

With pails and barrows
those mound-dwellers
go waist-deep in mist
to break the light ice
at wells and dunghills.

For Heaney, the soil is not a grand metaphor for immemorial belonging, but a physical element that touches and is touched by human presence. In “Bann Clay,” it stains the boots and dungarees of the laborers. In “Wheels within Wheels,” the poet as a child rides his bicycle through “the muddy, dungy ooze” of a field and the turning wheel “showered me in my own regenerate clays.” In “Bogland,” the soil becomes, in the imagination, domestic and edible: the “ground itself is kind, black butter.” In his poems inspired by the Bog People, ancient bodies preserved in the peatlands of Denmark, the wet soil and the human remains seep into each other, so that it is impossible to say where one ends and the other begins. There is “the peat-brown head” of the Tollund Man, and the Bog Queen whose hair is “a slimy birth-cord/of bog.” The Grauballe Man

As if he had been poured
in tar, he lies
on a pillow of turf
and seems to weep

the black river of himself.

This intimacy with the land and with the labor required to make it fertile is one source of Heaney’s uncanny ability to transcend the clichés of rural nostalgia. The other lies deep in the political circumstances of his native Northern Ireland. Interviewed by the Dublin poet and critic Seamus Deane in 1977, Heaney revealed that the first poems he wrote were direct attempts to confront the sectarian problem in Northern Ireland but that this impulse “went underground” and, under the influence of the late Ted Hughes, he began to favor “the private County Derry childhood part of myself rather than the slightly aggravated young Catholic male part.” But, for a poet, underground impulses can be the most powerful, and it is clear that Heaney’s poetic memories of childhood are informed by the young man’s political aggravation.

Reading his early poems now, their violent imagery seems at once incongruous and inevitable. The ferocity may seem at odds with the setting, subverting as it does the coziness that usually comes with the territory of childhood, farm, and nature. Yet it foreshadows what was to come in the larger society beyond the farm. Both of these effects arise from a simple fact of life in County Derry—the way the very landscape is saturated with political meaning. The farm of Heaney’s poetic reminiscences, Mossbawn, is located between symbols of opposed cultures. To one side is the village of Toomebridge, celebrated by nationalist balladeers as the place where a famous rebel was executed in 1798:

For young Roddy McCorley goes to die
On the bridge of Toome today.

To the other is Moyola Park, the estate of the Chichester-Clarkes, one of the leading families of the old Protestant and Unionist establishment.1 Even though Heaney’s parents were not especially political, and even though relations between neighbors of different religions were generally good, politics could not be escaped. “If this was the country of community,” Heaney recalled in a BBC radio talk in 1978, “it was also the realm of division”:

Like the rabbit pads that loop across grazing, and tunnel the soft growths under ripening corn, the lines of sectarian antagonism and affiliation followed the boundaries of the land. In the names of its fields and townlands, in their mixture of Scots and Irish and English etymologies, this side of the country was redolent of the histories of its owners.

The force of this politically fraught geography is not, in Heaney’s work, merely biographical. It is also aesthetic. In such an intensely territorial society, where a piece of land is regarded as either Catholic or Protestant, either nationalist or Unionist, the natural world cannot be imagined as a space for pure contemplation or untrammeled communion with the spirit of creation. Romantic nature-worship is impossible. So, too, is the pastoral vision of rustic harmony between man and landscape.

Heaney’s achievement, in fact, begins with what he cannot do. If he could have written conventional country-boy odes to life on the farm, he might well have done so. His vision of the place he grew up in is decidedly homely and carefully screened. The reader would never know from his early poems that there was a major American air base beside Toomebridge during his childhood, that forces far larger than the local animosities of Protestant and Catholic loomed over these fields. Not until “In the Beech,” published in the collection Station Island in 1984, is there an explicit acknowledgment that the poet’s childhood was lived not only among cows and trees, but also among tanks and warplanes. But he was, nonetheless, saved from Arcadian conventions by the inescapable presence of history and politics.

Even when, in 1995, he visited the real Arcadia, the Greek Peloponnese, his rapture was held in check by a keen eye for the complexities of belonging. In a recent and as yet uncollected poem, “Into Arcadia,” Heaney is deeply stirred by the vestiges of classical antiquity he finds there. But he also notices that the farmer irrigating his fields in a manner “known in the country, probably, since Hesiod” had “worked in Melbourne once,” and finds the obligatory goatherd “with his goats in the forecourt of the filling station.” Heaney’s natural instinct is to celebrate the archaic survivals from Hesiod’s time and to ignore emigration and filling stations, but the acutely alert sense of place he inherited from his own background won’t let him. From the tension between that desire and that reluctance Heaney generates the energy that makes his poetry alive.

For a poet, of course, politics and history make their presence felt most powerfully through language. Heaney transmutes his awareness of the way the terrain of his childhood is shaped by division into a feeling that the land itself has an argumentative voice. In “Anahorish,” the place named in the title is a “soft gradient/of consonant, vowel-meadow.” In “Gifts of Rain,” the local river is full of “tawny guttural water.” In “Toome,” the town becomes a sound formed in the poet’s mouth, lying “under the dislodged/ slab of the tongue.” The soft ground becomes a page to be written on in another place-name poem, where the mark left by a heel in the soil is imagined as the “black O in Broagh.” In “A New Song,” to make the political derivation of this imagery more explicit, the River Moyola, flowing through the estate of Sir James Chichester-Clarke, prime minister of Northern Ireland when the poem was written, becomes a voice of Catholic protest:

But now our river tongues must rise
From licking deep in native haunts
To flood, with vowelling embrace,
Demesnes staked out in consonants.

  1. 1

    One of its members, Sir James Chichester-Clarke, became prime minister of Northern Ireland in 1969, at a time when Seamus Heaney was active in the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, demanding equality for Catholics against the resistance of that government.

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