Seamus Heaney grew up in Northern Ireland, surrounded by the conflict of Catholic and Protestant, a conflict that deeply affects the imagination of his poetry. In many of his poems, he writes specifically about the violence and pain of the Irish conflict.
Even when he does not write directly about violence, however, it shows up in the language and tone of the poems. I would like to look at four poems: Death of a Naturalist, Blackberry Picking, England’s Difficulty, and A Constable Calls, four poems based on childhood memories, and probably inspired by Heaney’s own life. Two of the poems are specifically about the violence of Northern Ireland; the other two are not. All of them use a child’s perspective to look at some aspect of the pervasive violence of Northern Ireland. The poems illuminate how the Irish conflict pervades people’s lives and perceptions, and how, on the level of language, it becomes part of their system of signification. The children in the poems, surrounded by violence and fear, but not mature enough to understand its source or the issues behind it, transfer that fear onto objects or other aspects of their experience. In this way the violence becomes a part of what they see; it becomes the signified. The child may look at a frog or a bicycle, and what comes to mind is fear and violence. By writing from a child’s perspective, Heaney is able to show how this process works.
In England’s Difficulty Heaney remembers growing up during World War II as a Catholic child. The title is a euphemism for the Irish Civil conflict. The language sounds mature, and puts distance between the speaker and the events described. However, he accurately remembers what it was like to be extremely young during the war, probably not more than four or five years old. The child is surrounded by ideas and emotions that he cannot comprehend intellectually. In the beginning of the poem, the speaker says:
I moved like a double agent among the big concepts. The word enemy had the toothed efficiency of a mowing machine. It was a mechanical and distant noise beyond that opaque security, that autonomous ignorance.
Big concepts in the abstract ideas of right and wrong, the meaning of history, war, or the word enemy — are beyond him. His ignorance, however, gives him freedom. His parents and the neighbours all have to take sides in the conflict, but he does not. Therefore the description is autonomous ignorance. The child does not have to worry about who the enemy is. In fact, he has an almost semiotic response to the word enemy. Since he cannot think abstractly, he imagines it as something physical, a mowing machine, or a mechanical and distant noise. Describing the enemy as something mechanical and artificial also draws attention to how abstract and artificial the idea of an enemy actually is.
The poem continues to confuse the concept of an enemy with the snatches of conversation and radio broadcast that Heaney includes. One person says: When the Germans bombed Belfast it was the bitterest Orange parts that were the hardest hit (paragraph 3). The Germans were supposed to be the enemies of the western world during World War II, but some of the Catholic Irish people were more interested in taking advantage of Britain’s weakness to advance their own issues. The speaker also comments that he lodged with the enemies of Ulster, (paragraph 7) i.e. the Irish who live in the country, outside the walls of the city, the Catholic enemies of the Protestants of Ulster. In this society the concept of an enemy is very confused/confusing. The Catholics also talk about Haw Haw a British traitor who defected to the Germans and broadcasted pro-German propaganda over the radio: He is an artist, this Haw Haw. He can fairly leave it into them (paragraph 6). The adults rather admire Haw Haw for his radio eloquence.
The reference to the traitor Haw Haw as an artist partly reflects Heaney’s conception of himself as an artist: he refuses to be loyal to any one side. I crossed the lines with carefully enunciated passwords, manned every speech with checkpoints, and reported back to nobody (paragraph 7). By this point in the poem, Heaney is clearly speaking as a grown-up, aware of the complex meanings and dangers of language. However, in a way he is not so different from the child who moved like a double agent between the big concepts. He is still separate from the warring, segregated factions around him. By using the perspective of a child in the first part of the poem, Heaney shows the development of his opinions as a natural progression, from one kind of outsider/double agent to another.
The poem A Constable Calls from Singing School in the collection North is similar to England’s Difficulty in that it is obviously about the Irish conflict. The poem describes a visit to a Catholic farming household by a member of the (all Protestant) Royal Ulster Constabulary. The police used to visit every farm, ostensibly to get statistics about the crops but also to intimidate Catholics. The child does not understand intellectually why the policeman has come to the house or why he is scaring the family, but he does know he should be afraid. Like the child in England’s Difficulty, this one is also an outsider. His presence is ignored by all of the adults present in the poem, and he cannot do or say anything to add to the situation. However, he still senses that something dangerous is happening, and tries to assume responsibility. For example, after the father has assured the policeman that he has written down all of their crops, the child guiltily remembers a line / of turnips where the seed ran out / in the potato field. In reality, the policeman does not particularly care what kinds of crops the family has, but the child fears that the slightest lie could get them in jail. His tense observation of the policeman’s activities conveys his intense fear.
Arithmetic and fear.
I sat staring at the polished holster
With its buttoned flap, the braid cord
Looped into the revolver butt.
The sight of the policeman’s gun paralyzes the child. The fact that he does not entirely know what is going on makes it worse. He follows the policeman with his eyes throughout the whole poem, which adds to its tension. The tension reaches its climax ñ or its deferred climax ñ at the end of the poem, when the policeman leaves: His boot pushed off / and the bicycle ticked, ticked, ticked. The bicycle ticks because it is a 3-speed, but there is a parallel with the ticking of a bomb. Stopwatches were often used to trigger homemade bombs.
Throughout this poem, we get a sense of immense fear and danger that is beyond the child’s control. Objects such as the bicycle come to signify the danger of the conflict that is omnipresent in the child’s life. The language of the poem is ominous when the speaker is describing the bicycle:
Heating in sunlight, the ëspudí
of the dynamo gleaming and cocked back
the pedal treads hanging relieved
of the boot of the law.
The words cocked back bring to mind a gun, though the dynamo is only a mechanism that powers the bicycle light. The boot of the law suggests the oppressive nature of the policeman’s visit. Through this description of the bicycle, we come to understand that the child has come to associate the bicycle with the threatening visits of the policeman, and this probably is not the first such visit in memory. The speaker assigns his fear to physical objects because he does not completely understand its source. In England’s Difficulty the child does the same thing when he refers to the word enemy as a power mower. The child in A Constable Calls must be somewhat older and more aware, however, because he knows about the black hole in the barracks. He knows that the policeman can throw people in jail ñ that certain kinds of people and events cause other events. This shows a more mature understanding of the conflict than the fragmented observations of the child in England’s Difficulty.
Death of a Naturalist describes an experience of a child in rural Ireland. Unlike England’s Difficulty and A Constable Calls, the poem is not explicitly about the Irish conflict. The title of the poem suggests we will receive someone’s thoughts and observations on nature, since a naturalist is someone who studies nature. However, the language of the poem reveals a background of violence in the child’s life, one that influences the way he sees nature, though he may not even realize it. Flax dams were used in the making of poplin – the flax had to rot away slowly. In general it appears to be a smelly and disgusting thing; however, there is a shift in tone between the first stanza and the second. In the first stanza, however revolting the flax dam is, the child takes great pleasure in it. There is something deeply satisfying in the rich language in the language Heaney uses to describe the dam: bubbles gargled delicately, warm thick slobber of frogspawn, clotted water. It suggests the excitement a child takes in the natural world before he has learned mores about what is disgusting and what is not.
The flax-dam is also full of life. It has its own vitality ñ it festers, sweats, gargles ñ but also attracts butterflies and dragonflies, and best of all, the frogs. The child has the opportunity to witness the process of reproduction ñ perhaps the greatest drama of the natural world. Fascinated by the hatching of the tadpoles, he returns every year to watch them, and take them. Here, every spring / I would fill jam potfulls of the jellied / Specks to range on window-sills at home. The child is very safe in this part of the poem. The stanza is full of images of domestic life; the natural is brought inside of the domestic. The child brings the frog eggs into the safety of his home. His (female) teacher says: the daddy frog was called a bullfrog Ö and the mammy frog laid hundreds of eggs. The house and the school are both safe domestic spaces, where the child can learn about the world but is protected from its dangers. Bringing the natural into the domestic tames it and makes it safe.
In the second stanza (Then one hot day), the tone and the language of the poem change suddenly. There is no explanation for the change; we do not know what exactly happened on the one hot day, or the day before it, but the child sees the flax dam and the frogs completely differently. The frogs are now angry, violent, and dominating, and interestingly, the child sees them as male (great slime kings) whether or not they actually are. The second stanza is full of military words: the frogs invade; they are cocked on sods; they sit poised like mud grenades, and when they hop, their slap and plop [are] obscene threats. They gather for vengeance and perhaps against the child who stole their eggs. The child’s use of the word invaded suggests a new awareness of territorial boundaries. The frogs have invaded the flax dam and taken control of it, and the child knows that if he goes near it he well be challenging them. He has moved from a domestic world, where everything is passive, to a military one, based on action. I knew / that if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it, he says. The spawn, once passive and fertile, is now active and dangerous. No longer intrigued by nature, the child flees from it, terrified. He will never be a naturalist again.
The violent language of the second stanza suggests a connection with the violence the child lives with in Northern Ireland, and the child’s feelings of invasion and territoriality also reflect the segregated Irish society. Heaney’s use of the word mammy also identifies the speaker as a Catholic, reinforcing the political dimension of the poem. By showing the dramatic shift in the child’s perception of nature, Heaney shows how the violence and fear of the Irish conflict can become ingrained in people’s perceptions of the world. Again, the child fixes his fear and anxiety on something tangible ñ the frogs ñ in the same way the children do in England’s Difficulty and A Constable Calls. The fear and danger become the child’s reality ñ in his system of signification, they become the signified.
Blackberry Picking is another poem where the speaker’s attitude toward nature may say something about his social world. This is another poem focussing on rural Ireland, from the same collection as Death of a Naturalist. Heaney describes the ritual of blackberry picking as carried out by the children in late August. There are no obvious shifts in tone in this poem and the language is not so obviously violent, but it is so lustful it is almost threatening. Heaney describes the berries:
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
The berries are very sensual and excite greed. The children want more and more, but they hoard them instead of eating them. The language becomes more threatening when Heaney describes the berries in the pail: big dark blobs burned/ like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppared / With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s. While blackberry picking sounds like an innocuous activity, the associations with Bluebeard and cannibalism make it sound like the children are doing something quite unwholesome. This is later confirmed, when instead of the children feasting on the hoarded berries, the rat-grey fungus gluts on them, turning them sour and stinking. It is as if the greed they indulged has taken on a life of its own.
The poem makes it obvious that the berry ritual is something the children repeat every year. I always felt like crying. It wasnít fair. / That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot. / Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not. One can accept the child’s denial of the situation ñ it seems plausible. However, Heaney draws attention to the children’s compulsive behaviour by putting these lines at the end of the poem, the place where they have the most impact. The children do the same thing over and over again, hoping for different results, for sweet berries, thought the results are always the same and the berries sour. Heaney may be making an indirect comment on the attitudes of the battling factions in Northern Ireland. In Orange Drums in the collection North, Heaney describes people listening to the drums of the Orangemen in marching season: “It is the drums preside, like giant tumours. / To every cocked ear, expert in its greed / His battered signature subscribes ‘No Pope.’ There are interesting parallels between this poem and “Blackberry Picking” – like the fungus feeds on the fruit, the “tumour” that is the drums feeds on the greedy ears that listen to them. The marching rituals of Northern Ireland could also be considered compulsive behaviour, since they are carried out year after year, despite the frequently disastrous consequences.
Of all the four poems, “Blackberry-Picking” is the subtlest; outwardly, it seems to have nothing to do with conflict or politics at all. However, when looked at in connection with the other three poems, and other Heaney poems, similar patterns emerge. After hearing the word enemy repeatedly, the child in England’s Difficulty imagines the enemy as a mowing machine. The children’s need to attach the fear and violence surrounding them to something in their everyday world is repeated in the other poems as well. It becomes part of everything they see, part of how they interpret their experiences. The children, who do not yet understand adult society and concerns, only partly understand, or not at all, how that society affects them. In Blackberry-Picking, the child appears to be completely in his own world; there are no clear references to adult society. And yet, in a way, the child’s actions parallel those of the adults around him. By using a child’s perspective in to look at the Irish conflict, Heaney shows how fear and violence can permeate every aspect of people’s lives.