The Poetic Road of Seamus Heaney

By Caitlin Dau '11

Irish Literature

For Caitlin Dau’s essay, the assignment was to write an analytical, research paper on one or more of the texts the class studied during the semester. Students were required to reference a minimum of three secondary sources in their analysis. I submitted Caitlin’s essay because of her impressive research into Seamus Heaney’s career; Caitlin was able to track the trajectory of that career by selecting and discussing particular poems that she interpreted as milestones. Her essay struck me as more indicative of graduate-level work rather than undergraduate. I found her commitment to her subject impressive.

-Michael Harris

Ireland, especially Northern Ireland, has seen centuries of bloody riots, uprisings, conflicts and terrorism. In a single day in January 1972, fourteen Irishmen were killed by British troops during a peaceful march on what is now known as “Bloody Sunday.” This is the world Seamus Heaney was born into in April 1939. Heaney was born a Catholic in Northern Ireland, to a father of rural background and a mother of the industrial revolution. The conflicting nature and circumstances of his birth have created in him an inner tension that comes out through his poetry. Dean Flower considers this tension in a positive way: “Seeing himself as the terminus of many conflicting voices has long been essential to Heaney’s integrity as a poet.” As is evident through his vast collections of poems, Heaney has spilled plenty of ink in the quest to come to terms with his background and culture, moving from personal poems to political themes, to an ultimate transcendence of politics. .

Dennis O’Driscoll published a hybrid book – part interview, part biography – about Heaney called Stepping Stones, which uses the metaphor of the title to describe Heaney’s life and poetic accomplishments. Heaney’s answers in the book are summed up brilliantly in this review of Stepping Stones, “What Heaney suggests in his poetry and also in his interviews with O’Driscoll is that his whole career has been a difficult crossing back and forth between fractious communities (Catholic and Protestant, Irish and English, southern Republican and northern Unionist, agrarian and urban)” (Hart). After moving from Northern Ireland to go to school, then ultimately moving to Dublin in the Republic of Ireland, Heaney has had to deal with his own personal writing, versus being asked to be a spokesperson for Catholicism in the Protestantdominated country. But it seems as though what Heaney wished most was to escape the violence of Northern Ireland, although he does admit to “the need to voice something that hadn’t got voiced.” His artistic career has spanned over five decades, all the time morphing and changing, yet always returning to Derry, Northern Ireland.

Heaney’s first volume of poems, Death of a Naturalist, begins with the poem entitled “Digging,” in which he incorporates images of his country boyhood. He delves into the rural history of his father and grandfather while acknowledging in the last stanza that “…I’ve no spade to follow men like them. / Between my finger and my thumb / The squat pen rests. / I’ll dig with it” (28-31). Critics have wrestled with his first stanza, “The squat pen rests; snug as a gun” as to whether this alludes to the history of violence in Northern Ireland, or if it’s more of a linguistic device playing on the sounds of snug and gun. Thomas Foster notes with interest the subtle violence of in this collection of poems, even though it comes three years before the beginnings of “the Troubles” – the violent conflicts between the “nationalists” and the “unionists,” which began in 1969. The title poem has more instances of violent wording in it than “Digging,” such as “the angry frogs” whose “slap and plop were obscene threats” and were “[p]oised like mud grenades,” which frightened the young man out of his mind.

Another poem from his first collection, “Mid-term Break,” is his account of coming home from school for the funeral of his little brother who was killed by a lorry at age four. Foster explains the poem’s emotional quality: “That poem presents a young Heaney on the verge of manhood at fourteen, confused by older men’s consoling handshakes… still young enough to have his mother silently hold his hand and to not view the corpse until the next morning” (3). This poem brings a different sense of the turbulence of Heaney’s young life. The poems of Death of a Naturalist strike close to home with rather personal subjects, and most contain a sense of comfort and community within their messages, but tainted with an edge of aggression. Heaney’s biography from the Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia correctly summarizes his early poetic identity as “[A] lyrical nature poet, writing with limpid simplicity about the disappearing world of unspoiled rural Ireland.” In his later works, however, “Heaney attempts to grapple with Ireland’s bloody past and troubled present,” which we see come out especially in his book North.

The year 1969 brought about the publication of Heaney’s second book of poetry, Dor into the Dark, of which Foster writes, “The book was tentatively received by reviewers, who sensed in it, rightly, something unsettled and transitional” (5). The subject matter of these poems indeed has a much different tone to them; the sense of nostalgia doesn’t come across as in his previous volume of poems. Even the title suggests a sense of the unknown, the restlessness of Heaney’s inner conflicts. His poem “Requiem for the Croppies,” articulates the violence and conflict that tainted his early world. The lines “We moved quick and sudden in our own country/… Terraced thousands died, shaking scythes at cannon” lays out the uncomfortable feeling of being forced to run or hide in one’s own homeland, as well as the injustice of the unprepared rural IRA forces combating the Ulster forces (lines 3, 11).

Heaney’s struggle to come to terms with his Northern Irish background becomes even more evident in the poems of his third and fifth collections, Wintering Out, and North. When I read through selected poems from Wintering Out, I didn’t feel that the political theme was blatant, but Deborah McLoughlin suggests that “he offers a variety of emblems which do… function as expressions of the suffering of his country,” and that Heaney uses these emblems in his search to properly identify the Irish situation. These later collections seem to dig deeper and draw more complexities in reaction to the Troubles of Ireland. In the poem “Broagh” from Wintering Out, in which Heaney plays linguistically with the difference between English and Irish-derived words, David Kennedy argues that if “the strangers” in the poem are considered to represent the English, then this poem becomes much more political. The last stanza of “Broagh” goes:

[E]nded almost Suddenly, like that last Gh the strangers found Difficult to manage.

Linguistically, it seems to be a common thought that no one outside of that certain region could pronounce the words or the “gh” correctly, therefore identifying the foreigners instantly. Kennedy suggests that for the metaphor to work in a political sense it goes like this: that the English mismanaging the linguistical “gh” of the Irish language represents the English having difficulty managing the political affairs of the Irish.

Poetically and personally, Heaney has long been intrigued by the bogs of Ireland, because of their unique way of preserving the country’s history. In 1967 Heaney encountered the book The Bog People by P.V. Glob, which helped him focus his preoccupations with the bog as a “memory bank” and lead his poetry in a more politically charged direction. Heaney says about The Bog People: “[T]his is more than an archaic barbaric rite…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.” North is essentially the volume of poems that launched Heaney’s name into the spotlight, especially as a “war poet,” a term he later wanted to rid himself of. The poems in this collection not only identify more explicitly the cause and effect of the conflict, but also dig into his preferred symbol of the bog as a site of cultural preservation.

In North, Heaney becomes more political. The poem “Whatever You Say Say Nothing” especially strikes at the heart of the conflict occurring during the Troubles. The title clues the reader in that the matter at stake is serious; anything one says could give him away to the wrong people, or label him an informer. He begins part one of the poem with a sense of chaos, the “[N]ewspapermen / Who’ve scribbled down the long campaign from gas / And protest to gelignite and Sten” (North 10-12). In contrast, part three gives the point of view of the Irishmen, of whom Heaney writes, “Smoke-signals are loud-mouthed compared with us,” that Northern Ireland is a “[L]and of password, handgrip, wink and nod, / Of open minds as open as a trap.” The Northern Irish keep to themselves, because anything they say could cause them to be discriminated against. The fourth and final section paints a bleak picture of a country torn by discord and hostility:

Machine-gun posts defined a real stockade.

There was that white mist you get on a low ground

And it was déjà-vu, some film made

Of Stalag 17, a bad dream with no sound.

Is there a life before death? That’s chalked up In Ballymurphy. Competence with pain,

Coherent miseries, a bite and sup:

We hug our little destiny again. (North) The images of the machine gun posts, the white mist like déjà-vu, are scary. “Is there life before death?” is a desperate search for meaning in this kind of life. Another poem, “Funeral Rites,” gives a glimpse into another sorrowful aspect of the Troubles: burying family and friends. The first line, “I shouldered a kind of manhood” powerfully affirms the suddenness in which maturity and tragedy are thrust upon the young people of the nation due to the sustained conflict in the country. The poem goes on as a kind of eulogy for those killed during the Troubles.


Taylor Schuelke, “Early morning in Paris,” Acrylic on paper, 22” x 30”

In 1972 Heaney made the move from Belfast to Wicklow, and then to Dublin four years after that. Field Work, published in 1979, reflects how the change of location gave Heaney a different perspective. This book is pastoral, and Heaney seems to be more self-critical for not having been more outspoken about the conflict of his country; something that he struggled with internally as to whether he had the duty to speak out about. In one of my favorite poems, “Casualty,” Heaney addresses so many important themes of Northern Ireland. The poem starts with the image of a man engaging in the Irish pastime, drinking, who is later killed by his own people for being out during curfew hours. Heaney seems to be expressing the reality that people want to live their lives, not be stuck inside, haunted by fear and scared to leave. This character is portrayed almost as brave, the speaker asking, “How culpable was he / That last night when he broke / Our tribe’s complicity?” which suggests that rules such as the curfew, and those who enforce them, are primitive. Heaney’s persona skips the funeral to avoid the gossipers, those “sideways talkers” who don’t do anything to combat the injustice of the situation. He ends by rhetorically imploring the ghost of the man, “Question me again,” suggesting that in hindsight, he might have acted differently. This commentary on Heaney’s own guilt over not acting or speaking out more reflects the ultimate desire to transcend politics.

Heaney, shortly after his appointment of professorship to Oxford, said,

“I never think of the Unionist community in Northern Ireland, nor the Nationalist community. My head doesn’t operate in those terms. The writers of my generation, from the Protestant and Catholic side, all thought of ourselves as transcending those things. The desire was to get through the thicket, not to represent it.” (Heany quoted in Quinlan)

Kieren Quinlan, in his piece called “Tracing Seamus Heaney,” writes that Heaney “had maintained a kind of Yeatsian ambivalence about the political dilemma,” yet also had attacked Yeat’s “meanness” towards Catholics (par. 6). According to Quinlan, he also has justified Yeats’s aestheticism with the argument that “one of the first functions of a poem . . . is to satisfy a need in the poet” (par. 11). We see the shift from political writing to more esthetic writing starting in Field Work, and continuing on to his one of his last collections, The Spirit Level.

As I skim through the selected poems from The Spirit Level, I notice they are longer, and I distinctly feel more calmness in the messages of these poems compared to Door into the Dark. The poem “Keeping Going” is able to contain memories of the violent past while not diminishing the happiness of the present. The last stanza examines a friend, to whom the narrator insightfully states: “My dear brother, you have good stamina/…But you cannot make the dead walk or right wrong.” This acknowledgement that no one can re-do the past, only learn from it and move on, signals Heaney’s ability to put himself above the tension and conflict of his past to produce poetry for an aesthetic sense. The last lines of the stanza reaffirm this ability to move forward:

But wondering, is this all?

As it was in the beginning, is now and shall be?

Then rubbing your eyes and seeing our old brush

Up on the byre door, and keeping going. (The Spirit Level)

Spanning five decades of writing, Seamus Heaney has proved his importance in the world of literature with each book and essay published. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, he credits a line that he had recently put down on paper, “walk on air against your better judgment,” as his ultimate success as a writer. By daring to take chances, he found himself able not to forget the violence that his country has seen, but to transcend it. As a poet, Heaney has nearly always possessed the marks of a great writer even in his early poems, but he has refined and matured into an artist who found his place among the greatest writers of his country, and the English language. Whether writing of things close to home, or of his divided country, or of his final power to overcome such things, Seamus Heaney has proven himself a most worthy bard.


Passport, reward upon return, compensation increased if you bring the girl to whom it belongs.

Earnest Hemingway is famous for many things, one of which is a very short story. In a series of six words “For Sale: Baby Shoes, Never Worn” he told his audience everything that they needed to know. It is rumored that Hemingway wrote this as a bet between himself and some of his friends, but no matter what inspired him to write this story, he proved a point. Sometimes it isn’t the words that tell you what has happened, it’s the lack thereof.

While my story is more than six words – sixteen to be exact – like Hemingway’s story, the action of selling something or, in my case, losing something, tells more about my story and personality than the object.

Works Cited

Corcoran, Brendan. “Seamus Heaney.” Nobel Prize Laureates in Literature, Part 2. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 330. Detroit:

Gale, 2007. Literature Resource Center. Web. 4 May, 2010.

Flower, Dean. “Famous Seamus.” Hudson Review. 62.4 (2010): 671-682. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 6 May, 2010.

Foster, Thomas C. Seamus Heaney. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1989. Print.

Hart, Henry. “Seamus Heaney As Told by Himself.” Sewanee Review 117.4 (2009): 504.Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 2 May 2010.

Heaney, Seamus. Opened Ground Selected Poems 1966-1996. New York: Ferrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998. Print.

Les Prix Nobel. The Nobel Prizes 1995, Editor Tore Frangsmyr, [Nobel Foundation], Stockhom, 1996. Web. 2 May, 2010.

Logan, William. “Heaney’s Ghosts.” New Criterion 27.8 (2009): 61-64. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 4 May, 2010.

McLoughlin, Deborah. “Heaney’s Wintering Out.” Explicator 47.1. (1988): 52. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 4 May, 2010.

Quinlan, Kieran. “Tracing Seamus Heaney.” World Literature Today 69.1 (1995): 63. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 4 May 2010.