The poet Keats wrote that “the only means of strengthening one’s intellect is to make up one’s own mind about nothing – to let the mind be a thoroughfare for all thought, not a select body”. That this may be an admirable aim for a poet, and especially so for one writing against a background of ethnic violence, is not in doubt. It is, however, extremely difficult to remain neutral when one identifies oneself with an ethnic party involved in conflict. It is my intention, then, in this essay, to document how Seamus Heaney’s reaction to violence in his homeland has affected his writings, with particular reference to the volume of poetry entitled “North”. This volume first appeared in 1975, a year after the collapse of the so-called Sunningdale Agreement, a power-sharing executive which came into being at the start of 1974 and had brought for many and certainly for Catholic nationalists a certain hope. However, shortly after its introduction, the IRA declared that “the war goes on” and a 15 day strike by loyalist workers brought the Faulkner-led government to disbandment. Thus, 1974 and 1975 saw some of the darkest days of the northern “troubles”. Heaney then is forced to react to the maelstrom in which he finds himself, much like Yeats after the 1916 rising, and like Yeats, he finds himself unsure of his position. Unlike Yeats, however, he is not a well-established, mature poet and upon being presented with an era which will shape the future of Ireland, he is often found wanting.
Edna Longley describes the latter half of “North” as ““a cobbled up second section of ‘topical’ material” and yet upon its publication it caused a massive storm of controversy, not least amongst other Northern Irish poets. James Simmons accuses Heaney of having “timid moral postures” and I believe that if we study some of the poems we can see that he is correct to do so. Pervasive throughout “North” is the idea of placing contemporary situations against ancient happenings. In “Punishment” we are presented with a woman’s
body in the bog,
the weighing stone,
the floating rods and boughs.
Heaney goes on to call this ancient, punished bog-body a “Little adultress” which implies the poet’s comprehension both of the need for punishment and of those who did the punishing. The body is then compared to th...
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...f our ways.
Heaney has often been referred to by critics and the press as the greatest living poet since Yeats. This is an assertion which is probably largely based on his being the only Irish poet since Yeats to win the Nobel Prize (excluding Beckett, who was of course mostly a dramatist), and is one I would take issue with as it rather glibly ignores MacNeice and Kavanagh, two poets of equal and arguably greater talent than Heaney. MacNeice lived through the Second World War, and his poems from and about that time are quite forthright in their statements of belief. Of course, it is not comparing like with like to set WWII against the Northern “troubles” but one cannot help but wish that Heaney had set out his own views on the subject in a somewhat more forthright manner.
ANDREWS, Elmer: The Poetry of Seamus Heaney
(Columbia University Press, 2000)
HEANEY, Seamus: Opened Ground, (Faber and Faber Ltd, London, 1998)
SIMMONS, James: “The Trouble with Seamus”, Seamus Heaney ed. Elmer Andrews (Macmillan Press Ltd. London, 1992)
MAGNUSSON, Magnus and PALSSON, Hermann (Translators): Njals Saga,
(Harmondsworth: Penguin, London 1960)
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