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Essay on Seamus Heaney as a Political Poet in Act of Union

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Heaney is not typically a political poet, with nonpartisan themes prominent in his poetry. However, he breaks this image in Act of Union, along with Whatever You Say, Say Nothing, branching into more political themes. The cause of this was largely due to the Troubles in Ireland from the early 1960s, which largely affected Heaney due to his role as a Northern Irish poet. He was also pressured by many journalists on his view, which is described in Whatever You Say, Say Nothing. Although Act of Union is unmistakably one of Heaney’s most political poems, it subtly delivers the message of Heaney’s outlook on the Troubles through the dramatic monologue of England, introducing an ambiguous persona.

Through the personification of England as masculine, dominant and overbearing, Heaney demonstrates his negative opinion of England the political unrest in Ireland, particularly Northern Ireland. However, he (as England) defends himself, suggesting she (Ireland) did not stand up for herself and ‘had it coming’. On the other hand, through the personification and visual imagery of Ireland as feminine, Heaney is adhering to gender stereotypes and portraying Ireland as the passive victim. The personification of both countries acts as an extended metaphor of a familial or sexual relationship, delicately delivering Heaney’s opinion of the Troubles.

Act of Union begins with a tranquil, tender tone, with ‘To-night’ creating romantic connotations. ‘A first movement, a pulse’ suggests a child in the womb stirring, with ‘pulse’ indicating the heartbeat, yet also highlighting the sexual nuances. The caesuras slow the pace of the first line, highlighting its apparently romantic quality, however could also indicate suspense, foreshadowing the ‘Troubl...


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...uture, as destruction is highlighted with ‘blasted street and home’. The quadripartite structure of Whatever You Say, Say Nothing expresses the various aspects of the Troubles, from the ignorance of the British media, to the abusive reality of the Troubles, to the militant future in store.

Although Seamus Heaney is not a political poet, partisan themes specifically concerning the Troubles emerge occasionally, especially in Part Two of North. However, Heaney remains subtle (with the exception of Whatever You Say, Say Nothing), maintaining his reputation as a lowly political poet.



Works Cited

Andrews, Elmer : Icon Critical Guides : The Poetry of Seamus Heaney, 2000
Lloyd, David : The Two Voices of Seamus Heaney’s North, 1979
O’Driscoll, Dennis : Stepping Stones : Interviews with Seamus Heaney, 2008
Parker, Michael : The Making of the Poet : Seamus Heaney, 1993


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