Copyright 2019 by Michael W. Rickard II
Editor's Note: Here's part three of a paper I wrote on Seamus Heaney's poetry, focusing on his use of intersecting both spaces and time.
Heaney’s later work explores not only the future, but the afterlife. Foster posits “…his sense of the civic now extends to a pronounced interest in the populated afterlife” (209 ). This makes sense as Heaney faced his last years. Foster argues that the afterlife is an undeniable presence in Heaney’s work “If poetry is a medium between the real world and ourselves (double-fastening the reality through right descriptions from memory or observation) it is also a medium between the real world and the other-world” (Foster 213).
Just as he subtly comments on social issues, Heaney also subtly examines the afterlife. Temporal spaces intersect in The Lagans Road as the speaker links their memory of the first day of school with their knowledge of Native American afterlife beliefs:
“Years later. When I read an account of how the Indians of the Pacific Northwest foresaw their arrival in the land of the dead—coming along a forest path where other travellers’ cast-offs lay scattered on the bushes, hearing voices laughing and calling, knowing there was a life in the clearing up ahead that would be familiar, but feeling at the same time lost and homesick—it struck me as I had already experienced that kind of arrival” (Heaney District and Circle 37)
Superficially, the speaker is discussing his first experience at school but the speaker’s comparison of a first day of school experience with those experiencing the afterlife provides a bookend for youth and death. This mix of experiences captures both wonder and regret. It is a powerful combination involving the memory of youth and a reflection on what is to come.
The Catholic Lens
Critics note Heaney’s Catholic upbringing and religious elements in his early work. Catholic elements also appear in later works, suggesting the tropes of mortality and immortality help explore themes found in his poems. While these Catholic elements are present at times, scholarly opinion differs on their use and nature, with some pointing to a humanistic appreciation for Catholicism and others, a spiritually-based admiration. Liu discusses, “Popular as he is, Heaney is either hailed as the spokesman of Northern Catholics or denigrated as the leading ‘popish propagandist’” (282). These claims seem stronger in his later work as he addresses mortality more. Comparing the work of Heaney and Hopkins, Liu argues Heaney’s “…sustained, sometimes failed, attempt to establish a certain kind of relationship with a transcendent presence.” (268) and “…he reaches out in his poems for a realm ‘beyond,’ seeking in contemporary events a meaningful register of concourse between the poetic ‘I’ and a Higher Being that can guarantee the integrity of his art” (268). Liu’s opinion of Heaney’s “…early Catholic education later developed doubt” (288) is different than Conniff’s argument that Heaney’s earlier work epitomized his Catholic beliefs, “’Station Island,’ the poem, is also his most determined effort to draw upon Catholic traditions” (130). Coniff seems to feel Heaney’s later work reflected a desire to “… absorb the language and imagery of Christianity, more passively from the surrounding atmosphere. It is an approach that leads him to a sense of Christianity that is likeable, in its way, free of moral urgency, free of participation in any of community of faith—free, for that matter, of any living presence” (142). Whether or not Catholic imagery was based on Heaney’s humanistic appreciation for Catholic ideals or whether it was based on spiritual convictions is difficult to confirm, but Catholic imagery appears in Heaney’s early and later works.
Life’s Purpose and Social Justice
As discussed earlier, Heaney’s work contains a common thread of exploring life’s finiteness and the importance of day-to-day activities as well as the accumulation of a person’s life. I argue that Human Chain links the mortality motif with an implicit call for social justice. “Written in the aftermath of a stroke in August 2006, Human Chain is a book very much concerned with translations, personal and literary. Many of its poems deal with the ties of love and loyalty that bind or ought to bind humankind, and with the concept of human dependency and interdependency” (Parker 330). Heaney is a poet who acknowledges and praises everyday experiences, recognizing the decency of rural living. Foster links Virgil and Heaney’s education, “…Neither their education nor their literary success altered the way they spoke or their attitudes to rural living” (335). He is a poet who as his life is winding down seems to recognize this even more and like his body of work is a subdued statement about social justice (particularly “The Troubles”), Heaney’s later work suggests an implied acknowledgement that life is short and must involve social justice causes. As Heiny notes about Heaney, “…he will have nothing to do with a poetry that sugarcoats reality” but that is not to say Heaney is bitter, as “He will acknowledge hard reality but not allow this reality to obscure the possibilities of a better life” (315). Liu supports this, noting Heaney’s trepidation that “The ‘sweet talk’ of poetry runs the risk of varnishing death and injustice with ‘morning dew’” (272). An analysis of Heaney’s poetry shows he does not fall into this sickly sweet trap—He does not become bitter but his work shows a combination of idealism and realism. Life’s possibilities and struggles are captured.
While critics disagree on the level of Heaney’s contributions to addressing social justice issues through his poetry (particularly the violent events of “The Troubles”), an examination of his work suggests an understated but effective call for people to strive for social justice in their daily lives. Although there are different opinions on the impact of Catholicism in Heaney’s poems (particularly in the area of whether Heaney adopts Catholic motifs out of religious conviction or admiration of certain Catholic values), Catholic elements are present and add an impetus to these poems’ subtle exploration of social justice issues. The motif of mortality is increasingly used later works such as District and Circle and Human Chain where there is a sense of an increased urgency to improve one’s life and that of society.
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