Seamus Heaney 1939– Heaney is widely considered Ireland's most accomplished contemporary poet and has often been called the greatest Irish poet since William Butler Yeats. In his works, Heaney often focuses on the proper roles and responsibilities of a poet in society, exploring themes of self-discovery and spiritual growth as well as addressing political and cultural issues related to Irish history. His poetry is characterized by sensuous language, sexual metaphors, and nature imagery. But it is important to remember that all of these are themselves stories related through language. • When we consider conflict, especially in Ireland, it is all too easy to concentrate on the political forgetting the other major areas of conflict which include: • With ourselves and who we are or are to become. Generations (note his poems about his father.) • Gender/relationships, love/hate, hunter and hunted. ( see poem Twice Shy ) • Family • Class, work, town/country. • Much of Heaney's poetry addresses the history of social unrest in Northern Ireland and considers the relevance of poetry in the face of violence and political upheaval. In his next collection Wintering Out, for example, are a series of "bog poems" that were inspired by the archaeological excavation of Irish peat bogs containing preserved human bodies that had been ritually slaughtered during the Iron Age. Heaney depicts the victims of such ancient pagan rites as symbolic of the bloodshed caused by contemporary violence in Ireland. A violence that had a social cause** • ** We should note the in the past the social cause was to do with rituals concerning crops, fertility and in this sense the continuation of life, culture, civilisation as far as it was one, and the religion/ religious beliefs of the people of the time. There is more than enough information on-line without me repeating here. You can decide for yourself what the social cause of such violence was at the time of the troubles in the six counties but civil rights and fair treatment must come top. • North (1975) develops this historical theme further, using myth to widen its universality. In such poems as "Ocean's Love to Ireland" and "Act of Union," Heaney portrays the English colonization of Ireland as an act of violent sexual conquest. Field Work (1979) does not depart from Heaney's outrage at the violence in Northern Ireland but shifts to a more personal tone. The collection encompasses a wide range of subjects: love and marriage, mortality, and the regenerative powers of selfdetermination and the poetic imagination. • The Forge http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b5Ay0sjXrHw All I know is a door into the dark. Outside, old axles and iron hoops rusting; Inside, the hammered anvil's short-pitched ring, The unpredictable fantail of sparks Or hiss when a new shoe toughens in water. The anvil must be somewhere at the centre, Horned as a unicorn, at one end square, Set there immoveable: an altar Where he expends himself in shape and music. Sometimes, leather-aproned, hairs in his nose, He leans out on the jamb, recalls a clatter Of hoofs where traffic is flashing in rows; Then grunts and goes in, with a slam and a flick To beat real iron out, to work the bellows. • Translating Sweeney Astray (1984) from the Irish tale Buile Suibhne allowed Heaney to work with myth, for he brings to the English-speaking world the warrior-king Sweeney's adventures after a curse has transformed him into a bird. Station Island (1984) is also concerned with Irish history and myth. Patterned after Dante's Divine Comedy in its tripartite structure, the central section describes a three day pilgrimage taken by Catholics to the Irish Station Island seeking spiritual renewal. There the narrator encounters the souls of his dead ancestors and Irish literary figures who speak to him, stirring from him a meditation on his life and art. • The Haw Lantern (1987) contains both parables of Irish life and poems such as "From the Republic of Conscience" and "From the Canton of Expectation." This volume also includes a series of poems entitled "Clearances," which chronicles his relationship with his mother. In Seeing Things (1991) Heaney diverges from his previous emphasis on politics and civic responsibility, returning to the autobiographical themes of childhood experience and Irish community ritual. Feelings of loss and yearning are prominent motifs in the collection, as many poems evoke celebratory images of Heaney's deceased father, who appears frequently throughout the volume. • Critics of Heaney's early work were immediately impressed by his freshness of expression and command of detail. He has been praised for his political poems, especially those that depict the violence between Roman Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. In these poems, it has been noted that Heaney also addresses Ireland's cultural tensions and divisions through the linguistic duality of his poetry, which draws upon both Irish and English literary traditions. Critical commentary has traced the thematic development of Heaney's work, contending that as his later poems continue to address the unrest in Northern Ireland, they also incorporate a more personal tone as Heaney depicts the loss of friends and relatives to the violence. This is to see the personal within the impersonal, ie. English news programmes. • His most recent work diverges from his previous emphasis on politics and civic responsibility, Heaney returns to the autobiographical themes of childhood experience and Irish community ritual. Yet he manages to combine themes. (See A Constable Calls on following page) Many critics have praised these poems for their imaginative qualities and their focus on visionary transcendence experienced through ordinary life events. You need only look at some of the titles of his poems where there are titles. • His bicycle stood at the window-sill, The rubber cowl of a mud-splasher Skirting the front mudguard, Its fat black handlegrips Heating in sunlight, the "spud" Of the dynamo gleaming and cocked back, The pedal treads hanging relieved Of the boot of the law. • His cap was upside down On the floor, next his chair. The line of its pressure ran like a bevel In his slightly sweating hair. • He had unstrapped The heavy ledger, and my father Was making tillage returns In acres, roods, and perches. Arithmetic and fear. I sat staring at the polished holster With its buttoned flap, the braid cord Looped into the revolver butt. "Any other root crops? Mangolds? Marrowstems? Anything like that?" "No." But was there not a line Of turnips where the seed ran out • In the potato field? I assumed Small guilts and sat Imagining the black hole in the barracks. He stood up, shifted the baton-case Further round on his belt, Closed the domesday book, Fitted his cap back with two hands, And looked at me as he said goodbye. A shadow bobbed in the window. He was snapping the carrier spring Over the ledger. His boot pushed off And the bicycle ticked, ticked, ticked. • : "I learned that my local County Derry [childhood] experience, which I had considered archaic and irrelevant to 'the modern world' was to be trusted. They taught me that trust and helped me to articulate it.“ Heaney is here referring to the shared experiences of us all at the level of the parish. See Kavanagh’s poem ‘Epic’, and consider Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ set as it is in Dublin on 16th June 1906. • Heaney’s work has always been most concerned with the past, even his earliest poems of the 1960s • A general spirit of regard toward the past (that is being able to live with the past and not just ‘in’)helped Heaney resolve some of his awkwardness about being a writer: he could serve his own community by preserving in literature its customs and crafts, yet simultaneously gain access to a larger community of letters. Indeed, Heaney's earliest poetry collections— Death of a Naturalist (1966) and Door into the Dark (1969)—evoke a hard, mainly rural life with rare exactness, Using descriptions of rural labourers and their tasks and contemplations of natural phenomena—filtered through childhood and adulthood—Heaney makes you see, hear, smell, taste this life, which in his words is not provincial, but parochial; provincialism hints at the minor or the mediocre, but all parishes, rural or urban, are equal as communities of the human spirit. • As a poet from Northern Ireland, Heaney used his work to reflect upon the "Troubles," the often-violent political struggles that plagued the country during Heaney’s young adulthood. The poet sought to weave the on going Irish troubles into a broader historical frame embracing the general human situation in the books Wintering Out (1973) and North (1975). • some reviewers criticized Heaney for being an apologist and mythologizer, however the role of political spokesman has never particularly suited Heaney. • "has written poems directly about the Troubles as well as elegies for friends and acquaintances who have died in them; he has tried to discover a historical framework in which to interpret the current unrest; and he has taken on the mantle of public spokesman, someone looked to for comment and guidance. But he has also shown signs of deeply resenting this role, defending the right of poets to be private and apolitical, and questioning the extent to which poetry, however 'committed,' can influence the course of history. • We should note really carefully that even Heaney's most overtly political poems contain depths that subtly alter their meanings. Those who see Seamus Heaney as a symbol of hope in a troubled land are not, of course, wrong to do so, there is much to commend though they may be missing much of the undercutting complexities of his poetry, the backwash of ironies which make him as dark as he is bright, it is all too easy to look at the surface and find only what you want. There is much here in common with the work of Swift see especially ‘Gulliver's Travels’ the last two stories, ‘The Tale of a Tub’ and such poems as ‘On a Beautiful Young Nymph going to Bed’. • Heaney’s first work of translation is the Irish lyric poem Buile Suibhne. The work concerns an ancient king who, cursed by the church, is transformed into a mad bird-man and forced to wander in the harsh and inhospitable countryside. Heaney's translation of this epic was published as Sweeney Astray: A Version from the Irish (1984). New York Times Book Review contributor Brendan Kennelly deemed the poem "a balanced statement about a tragically unbalanced mind. This bond is extended into Heaney's 1984 volume Station Island, where a series of poems titled "Sweeney Redivivus" take up Sweeney's voice once more. The poems reflect one of the book’s larger themes, the connections between personal choices, dramas and losses and larger, more universal forces such as history , not just Irish History but our shared European one, as it is related or told to us and language. ** Remember that we share a common heritage and culture irrespective of our differences something that is as true of the 6 Counties as elsewhere. • In The Haw Lantern (1987) Heaney extends many of these preoccupations and Heaney's focus:— childhood, farm life, politics and culture in Northern Ireland, other poets past and present— Heaney works and ‘forges’ time and again at the taproot of language, examining its genetic structures, trying to discover how it has served, in all its changes, as a culture bearer, a world to contain and explore imaginations, at once a rhetorical weapon and yet something to feed the spirit or soul, the wonderful aesthetic value. He writes of these matters with rare discrimination and resourcefulness, and a winning impatience with received wisdom, ironically including his own OR how he is seen and spoken about by others: some trying to claim him as their own.