Copyright 2019 by Michael W. Rickard II
Editor's Note: Here's part one of a paper I wrote on Seamus Heaney's poetry, focusing on his use of intersecting both spaces and time.
Critics such as Michael Parker have explored how “Heaney’s poetry has been highly self-reflexive and self-referential” (327), something seen throughout his work as he travels through the past, present, and future. As I will show, Heaney addresses himself, society, and his critics in these works. Self-reflection and memory play a constant role in Heaney’s poetry as the past, present, and the future intersect to explore the individual and society. These temporal spaces often allude to the present and the future in terms of political struggles (such as “The Troubles”) and personal struggles (such as the aging process). There is also a religious element to Heaney’s poetry with critics noting how Heaney’s Catholic education affected his work. Critical opinions vary on Heaney’s exploration of political issues and the exact role of Catholicism in his works, but I will show that Heaney typically uses a subdued approach to all his poetry, indirectly examining political and personal themes using temporal spaces, geographic spaces, and sometimes, Catholic motifs. I will focus on Heaney’s later work in District and Circle and Human Chain and address how these later works are influenced by the trope of the aging process.
John Wilson Foster explores how Heaney revisits past poetry, noting “a good deal of Heaney’s recent poetry has been a revisitation of what he has already versified. But the revisitation is also a revision, made necessary, it would appear, through a recent accession of love or affection and what can even seem like late middle-aged nostalgia” (207). Michael Parker notes this as well, examining “The Blackbird of Glanmore” where he recalls the past death of his brother while mourning his father’s death (379). While many of Heaney’s poems involve traveling through temporal and/or geographic spaces, I will demonstrate how his later poems infused more of Heaney’s growing sense of mortality, subtly arguing for the importance of fighting for social justice.
Heaney and Social Justice
Seamus Heaney’s poetry does not ignore social justice matters but critics are divided on the exact nature of his political poems with some noting direct commentary and others indirect commentary. Furthermore, critics differ on what portion of Heaney’s career was devoted to political and social activism. Brian Conniff criticizes Heaney’s later work, describing it as “...a disappointing retreat from the historically grounded examinations of moral conscience that, from the later 1970’s through the early 1980’s, informed his greatest work” (119). Conniff criticizes what he calls ambivalence on Heaney’s part, noting this ambivalence makes it, “…easy to criticize him from just about any perspective, and in the world of Irish literary politics, easy criticism is inevitable criticism” (121). On the other hand, Foster claims that “if Heaney is a political poet, it is only in the way in which his larger poetic enterprise has assimilated politics” (208). Taken collectively, Heaney’s work shows a continued discussion of social justice issues, but I argue this commentary is typically indirect. I will show how Heaney compares the past and present (and in some cases the future) to discuss social justice issues.
Heaney has discussed the poet’s role in social commentary in interviews and his poetry. Critics such as Coniff have pointed to Heaney’s poem “Station Island” as evidence that Heaney eschewed direct political commentary. In “Station Island” the speaker grapples with whether or not they should be politically active and if so, how much. As Coniff argues, the speaker is ultimately advised “The main thing is to write / for the joy of it. Cultivate a work-lust / that imagines its haven…” (Heaney, District and Circle XII: 21-23). Coniff argues “The poem’s later sections do not lead to any attempt to align poetry with more direct action. Nor do they lead toward a less circumspect, more engaged kind of poetry. Instead, they advocate an exaggerated abandonment of worldly obligation” (117-118). Despite Coniff’s argument, I argue the speaker is shown the choices they can make and ultimately left to choose for themselves. In a sense, the speaker faces a conundrum where they are damned whatever path they choose. This mirrors Heaney’s personal life where he was criticized from all sides for his poetry, with some arguing he did not do enough or others criticizing the work itself.
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