Bard means ancient Celtic poet or a poet in ancient Celtic culture, who composed and recited epic poems describing important events. In literary sense ‘bard’ is a poet, especially one of national importance. Thus bardic means features or qualities related to ancient Celtic culture or things important in Celtic context, or with reference to Seamus Heaney, in Irish context. We can assume that we are going to discuss things related to ancient times, referred to in the modern age to highlight the problems of nationalistic importance—the very job Seamus Heaney has done with a great skill.
Seamus Heaney is one of the most powerful and sensitive poets to emerge in modern times. His range of themes is extensive covering several kinds of experience, but what binds them all together is the poet’s profound concern and anxiety. His poetic vision, though endowed with extraordinary gift of a vigilant observer recording all details, is capable of penetrating the surface to discover the latent force of common experience of the community. One sees a tendency in him to attach himself to the local occurrences in which the contemporary Irish life abounds, and yet seeking to transcend them to present a larger tragic significance. Heaney’s Irish identity and his rootedness in the cultural soil, opens to him a vast and rich store-house of local legends, myths and historical experiences. He delights in his surroundings, derives immense joys and vitality from typically Irish scenery that help him explore himself and the mysteries of nature through his poems. One can see how significantly the local landscape informs his early poems in the first volume ‘Death of a Naturalist’. What Grasmere and the Lake District were for William Wordsworth, Mossbawn and his native town became for Seamus Heaney. In fact Heaney is often compared with Wordsworth and Blake for regarding nature as central to his development as a sensitive youth and poet.
However, while influence of nature lent a contemplative power to his poetry, the poet with time moved out of the naturalist’s indulgent mood to address other issues of social significance. Like other celebrated Irish writers such as W.B. Yeats, Sean O’Casey and William Synge, Heaney too became aware of the power of Irish rituals, the local myths, the political issues that arose out of the long-drawn-out religion conflicts between the Roman catholics and the Protestants; and the bitter and prolonged violent outbursts that riddled common people’s lives. No Irish writer, can ignore these things, and Seamus Heaney with his brilliant poetic genius transformed these daily experiences into splendid poetic themes. What is commonly termed as ‘Irish troubles’ consist of these troubling experiences, whatever he wrote, these tragic events remained there in the background shaping the tenor of his writings, feeding his thematic fabric and firing his imaginations. How deep seeped the mood can be measured by the topographical boundaries which evoked in him a sense of partition, a feeling of displacement such as the river running close to his house which seemed to him ‘dividing the townland into the diocese of Deny and Augh’. Perhaps it is normal for any contemporary Irishman or woman to interprete things in terms of cultural split and neatly marked political camps.
It is natural under the prevailing conditions for a child to be exposed to violence and death that become daily occurrences. Heaney records in several poems the impressions of death, corpses and gunshots created in childhood. Mid-Term Break and Funeral Rites are among such notable poems.
Particularly remarkable are the ‘bog poems’ which were influenced by P.V. Glob’s book ‘The Bog People’ which deals with the people sacrificed to the fertility goddess ‘Nerthus’ in the hope of better crops in the spring. His interest in the cultural tradition of Ireland and the political turmoil led him to evince deep interest in the bog people. Inevitably his poems establish a new and bold link between these sacrificial killings and violent deaths in the country at the altar of political conflict.
His well-known poem Tollund Man stands as an image of the political conflict. In fact his second volume of poems ‘Door into the Dark’ marks the poet’s interest in the political themes as his growing consciousness could not ignore the political-social atmosphere that bred so much misery and tragedy in people’s lives. A sense of loss and uprootedness marks Digging and Follower. He evocatively uses images of ‘darkness’ in The Forge, Personal Helicon and other poems to suggest his condition and emotional conflict. Wintering Out does not directly address the Irish problem but addresses to the context that gave rise to conflict. His inability to reconcile with English influence makes him search for new images to represent the turmoil that he experiences within him. The suffering, the killings, the internment camps, all are new to him, yet old to a world which has just recently seen two world wars. The collection bearing the title ‘Wintering Out’ is heavily charged with emotion arising from a contemplation of the country’s situation. His fourth book ‘North’ was published in 1975. It contains several poems that deal with the crisis in Northern Ireland, perhaps partly in response to the critics who appeared to have been disappointed with him for not paying any attention to it. However, Heaney being too talented a poet to allow himself to be confined by topical issues, seeks to use his new found experience to light up certain dim areas of cultural tradition. The poems display an interest in archaeology and the larger sociological topics, his genius seeking to synthesize Irish myths with present nightmare. The ancient Irish link with the Vikings is explored which helps him to understand his world much better.
It’s especially notable that Heaney transforms the present-day commonplace experiences into larger forms of emotion that touch upon the questions of existential dilemmas and human destinies. Something of the kind we see in his famous poem The Tollund Man in which he suggests that looking back into the pagan origins of the Irish past would yield permanent solutions to its problems of the troubled present.
The first verses he wrote when he was a young teacher in Belfast in the early 1960s and many of the best known poems in North, his important volume published in 1975, are linguistically tuned to the Anglo-Saxon note in English. His poetic line was much more resolutely stressed and packed during this period than it would be in the eighties and nineties when the “Mediterranean” elements in the literary and linguistic heritage of English became more pronounced.
Heaney acknowledges an attachment to the soil, with things buried. His ‘bog poems’ reveal this fascination, as with an almost morbid interest he describes the objects buried in the bog. P.V. Glob’s book, The Bog People, serves as an influential book, as soon after reading it, Heaney’s interest in these people leaped. He has written many poems, appearing in his third and fourth volumes of poetry, dealing with themes and descriptions of the bog people, and employing the bogland as a metaphor.
Heaney’s poetry in this third collection, Door into the Dark, resembles T.S. Eliot’s, in that it is as inaccessible to the common man. His readers now need to have a working knowledge of the people and situations that Heaney is referring to, in order for them to appreciate his references. Aside from this knowledge, the reader requires a high degree of imagination. These unconventional poems ignore time-frames, and are preoccupied with the endurance of myth, the romance of legend, the reinvention and repetition of history. In poems such as Tollund Man and The Last Mummer, the reader is led through a maze of past and present, structural skyscrapers and voluminous valleys. A sense of dream-like sequences, nightmarish creatures, surreal happenings and projections into the future characterize these poems.
Thus we see that Seamus Heaney like all great writers in the past finds in the local political issues an occasion to delve deep into the larger problems of human destiny. Something of the kind can be seen in another powerful modern Irish playwright Sean O’Casey whose themes centred on poverty-ridden lives of the slum-dwelling, good-natured simple folks whom society seems to have forgotten. Portrayal of such people occasions O’Casey plays a broader treatment of human nature under extreme economic crises. Heaney belongs to both the particular Irish ethos and the general human sensibility, that is why his poems are read and appreciated all over the world. No doubt, Heaney’s poetry has its roots in his nationalistic spirit. As an Irish poet, and better to say, like a Celtic poet, he has used the troubles of his motherland and issues of nationalistic importance as a context to many of his poems. In this sense he is a bard who is bound to compose poems of national importance.