Copyright 2019 by Michael W. Rickard II
Editor's Note: Here's part two of a paper I wrote on Seamus Heaney's poetry, focusing on his use of intersecting both spaces and time.
Human mortality is a trope found throughout Heaney’s work but particularly in collections such as District and Circle and Human Chain. The trope of the aging process is also seen in Heaney’s later work as he reevaluates past poems, looking at life through the lens of someone with perhaps more wisdom and certainly more awareness of his mortality. Heaney suffered a stroke in 2006 which likely affected his work with scholars such as Stephen Heiny commenting. “…in Human Chain age, illness, and loss are his preoccupations” (Heiny 305). Poems such as “Miracle” and others capture not only age’s effect on individuals but on those around them. “Miracle” is a testament to the caregivers, the people who have helped someone who is sick or otherwise infirm. The title “Miracle” is contrasted in the first verse, “Not the one who takes up his bed and walks/But the ones who have known him all along/And carry him in—” (1-3). This is a combination of praise for people and the spiritual nature which compels them to care for someone, despite the cost to them.
“Human Chain” depicts a past event of aid workers distributing food as the speaker’s recollection of the “human chain” of aid workers passing sacks alludes to life itself, “The eye to eye, one-two, one-two upswing” (Heaney, Human Chain 7) captures the rhythm of the worker hauling sacks of grain, but it also mimics the rhythm of a beating human heart. Alliteration of “…drag and drain / Of the next lift / Nothing surpassed” (8-9) conveys a sense of life’s constant struggles. This is the essence of life as the speaker notes the finality of things “A letting go which will not come again. / Or it will, once. And for all.” (11-12) This imagery of a human assembly line alludes to the repeated pattern of work and struggles in life, with the occasional pause. However, the end line “…once. And for all” (12) suggests there will be no permanent rest until death.
Traversing temporal spaces allows the exploration of different perspectives as a speaker recalls the past, sometimes with the wisdom of hindsight. In “Mid-Term Break” a boy’s recollection of a funeral mixes the mystery and fear of death with an older person’s contemplation of the experience. At times, temporal spaces and geographic spaces intersect, intensifying the effects of a particular poetic form. One such form is the pastoral. Heaney uses the pastoral mode beyond its traditional purpose “to imitate and celebrate the virtues of rural life” (Strand and Boland 207). Rural life provides a variety of geographic and historical settings for poetic use including historical allusions to contemporary issues and allusions to problems such as the aging process which impact individuals.
The past has been used in a number of Heaney works including his “bog land” poems such as “The Tollund Man in Springtime” and “The Grauballe Man.” These poems suggest comparisons between the violence of the past with contemporary violence such as the sectarian violence in Northern Ireland. Critics such as Coniff argue “Apparently Heaney seems to have thought that he could only address contemporary violence by discovering in the past a perspective outside of, and prior to, current Irish loyalties and intolerance” and that “This strategy usually required him to forsake historical particularity for mythic allegory” (122). Coniff’s criticism supports my argument that Heaney indirectly commented on issues rather than addressing them head-on. Nevertheless, mythic allegory is used in other ways than indirect comparisons.
Mythic allegory is also used to explore an individual’s past. In The Lagans Road portion of “Found Prose,” the speaker recalls their first day of school and the seemingly magical nature of this first experience. “…the first morning of school it was as if the queen of elfland was leading me way” (District and Circle 37). This allusion captures a child’s mix of fantasy and reality as well as the speaker’s nostalgic look back at things. The Lagans Road also alludes to a Native American myth about the afterlife that adds a second perspective to the speaker as they recall this moment when they are older, “Years later, when I read an account of how the Indians of the Pacific Northwest foresaw their arrival in the land of the dead…” (37). The mythic allegory conveys a sense of nostalgia and acquired wisdom (as the speaker combines their knowledge of Native American myth with their reflection on the first day of school), but also a look forward in time which deals with mortality (and which will be addressed later).
Imagery is found in the Tall Dames portion of “Found Prose” as the speaker recalls gypsies visiting the community. The concept of “The Other” is explored through the speaker’s recollection of their experiences interacting with gypsies. The speaker recalls the otherly nature of the gypsies but unlike traditional instances of the other where one’s differences are criticized, the speaker either neutrally acknowledges them or praises them. The speaker’s recollection evokes powerful imagery whether it is “Marvellous upfront women in unerotic wollen shawls,” or their “begging with the stamina of a cantor” (Heaney, District and Circle 38). This visual and auditory imagery captures the gypsies’ awe-inspiring nature. The speaker reminisces how “Every time they landed in the district, there was an extra-ness in the air, as if a gate had been left open in the usual life, as if something might get in or get out” (38). I argue this praise of the other is another indirect way to make social commentary, as a minority group is honored rather than vilified for their differences, suggesting this should be the norm. Thus, the past has an impact on the present.
Hindsight can allow a poet to look back on the past from the present, noting things they missed while younger. Heaney uses this technique to examine life and social ills.
As mentioned earlier, Heaney revisits the death of his younger brother, mixing it with the passing of Heaney’s father. In District and Circle’s “The Blackbird of Glanmore”, the speaker recalls his brothers passing in the poem “Mid Term Break”: “I think of one gone to him, / A little stillness dancer— / Haunter-son, lost brother—" (13-15). This poem not only crosses time but other works as Heaney seems to allude to one of the classical works he translated —"And lines I once translated / Come back. “I want away / To the house of death, to my father” (9-11). This recollection suggests the speaker’s acknowledgment of his mortality “I’ve a bird’s eye view of myself, / A shadow on raked gravel / In front of my house of my life” (28-30). In this case, the past, present, and future intersect to explore the mortality of the speaker’s brother, the speaker’s father, and the speaker himself.
As seen with “The Blackbird of Glanmore,” temporal journeys need not be limited to the past and present. In “Electric Light,” Ireland’s past, present, and future come together through an examination of technology’s spread in the country. As Allison Carruth notes, “Heaney’s twenty-first-century poem attempts to reclaim the people and places that have passed ‘away from’ the contemporary landscape of Northern Ireland. At the same time, “Electric Light’ gives voice to the irrevocable transformations of local places like County Derry wrought by the wires and tracks of a networked society” (Carruth 239). These temporal journeys invite a discussion of technology’s positive and negative effects including the end of human life due to global warming (Carruth 242).
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