Seamus Heaney, in his body of work “North” uses his art to explore both the Irish Troubles and the human experience. Heaney makes a connection between the mythical and the logical and the past and the present to describe his thoughts and emotions concerning the Irish Troubles and the human experience. It is through the use of this myriad of imagery and the use of structural techniques that Heaney depicts his feelings toward the Irish Trouble and the various aspects and problems of the human experience. The poems “Funeral Rites” and “Punishment” use mythological figures and metaphors to represent the problems of the past in order to explore the present issues and contemporary conflicts. In them, the reader gains an insight to the Irish Troubles and the various aspects and problems of the human experience via the connection between the past and present.
The poem ‘Funeral Rites’ is separated into three sections, which represents the movement from past to present. It makes the connection between memory and mythology and the present day, and this connection serves to relate the problems of the past to the Irish Troubles and the problems of the human experience.
In the first section of the poem, the reader discovers that the victim is a Catholic, as this is represented by the “rosary beads” and “crucifixes”. However, despite the fact that Heaney is an Irish Catholic, the faith is not glorified by this poem, as Catholic symbols are accompanied by images of imprisonment and service, such as “shackled” and “the wrists / obediently sloped.” Accompanying the images of imprisonment and service are icy images such as “the black glacier” and “their igloo brows” all of which represent the restrictive practices of religion. Such practices have been a cause of the Irish Troubles in the past and present. In this section the past is represented by the “funerals” being “pushed away”, a religious practice of the ancient times.
When the persona states that he “Shouldered a kind of manhood” it symbolizes a loss of innocence, and the mechanical nature of religious duties and those of war, the persona now begins a new phase in his life, by which he leaves his past behind, and lives in the present reality of civil war in Ireland.
The run on lines which occur in many Stanza‘s create a conversational tone, however in the lines “dough white hands / Shackled in rosary beads” and “the1 wrists / obediently sloped” Heaney creates contrasting imagery between the present and the dead. The tone of the first section of the poem is somber and meditative, as the reader reflects the past, represented by the allusions to a cold, disconnected and quite funeral parlor, where “They had been laid out / in tainted rooms”. The first section of the poem uses the mythos of Catholic beliefs to symbolize the restrictiveness of religious practices, obviously seen as a problem of the human experience by the poet.
In section two of the poem the imagery centers on the past, referring to the ancient Norse and Irish mythology, and the arrival of St Patrick to the shores of Ire. The tone is very reflective, as the reader follows the procession to the victim’s burial. To enter the “megalithic doorway” is to go underground, working back into a prehistory.
Section two portrays an extremely long and wholly male procession that has its head at the tombs of North West of Dublin, and its tail at the “Gap of the North”. In the second section, males are represented by a “serpent”. On a psychological level this is a phallic symbol, and this phallocentric discourse imposes many ways of the past onto society. It represents the Catholic Church and Christianity in General, and confirms the importance of service in religion. Furthermore it imposes patriarchal practices on females, causing those women who stepped out of line to be publicly humiliated, which is also a way of the past. The serpent is also a symbol of destruction, like the Norse serpent Jormungand, who destroyed the realm of humans. This link to the past serves to illustrate the poet’s opinion of the military role in the Irish Troubles by using the mythological ‘Jormungand’ to symbolize the destructive nature of humans.
The run on lines now give a sense that the serpent is moving toward the present from the past. The serpent is also a symbol for the lines of memory and communication. The “muffled drumming” confirms that the victim was a soldier as these drums were used at military funerals. The fact that the nation “tunes” to the drumming means that they are making an effort and going out of their way to incorporate the violence into their lives. This is a part of the Irish troubles, as many people began to accept the violence occurring around them, and so decided to “tune” to it, meaning that no one would speak out against the social and political injustices happening all around them.
The third section provides closure on both the death of his “relative” and the Irish violence. The “cud of memory” has being “allayed”, meaning that the feelings of hatred and vengeance have being soothed, and the victim dies honorably, yet unavenged like Gunnar and Jesus. The reference to Jesus occurs in the first two lines of the third section “When they have put the stone / back in its mouth”.
The final lines:
“which opened then, as he turned
with a joyful face
to look at the moon”
“which opened then, as he turned
with a joyful face
to look at the moon”
are a joint reference to Jesus and Gunnar, as they both rose from there tombs. This reference symbolizes hope for the future and the present, as represented in the past. The poet causes the reader to reflect upon the hope that the future holds.
“Funeral Rites” is a journey from the home to eternity, as symbolized by Gunnar. The juxtaposition of the logical present and the mythological past serves to represent the way that the Irish Troubles and the problems of the human experience can be reconciled by looking to the past, at figure like Gunnar and Jesus.
In “Punishment” the Winderby Girl, a bog body found in Denmark, is juxtaposed with women who were involved in the Irish Troubles in contemporary times. The girl is ancient, from the Iron Age, and represents the past. The Irish women symbolize the present. The girl is a Metaphor for Ireland on many levels. Firstly, she represents the girls who were punished for socialized with British soldiers during the 1960’s. These girls were “cauled in tar” and publicly humiliated. Secondly, she represents the political and social punishment of Irish Catholics in Northern Ireland. These people had their right to vote stripped from them, and lower preference for state housing and welfare. And finally the punishment of the Girl herself, the “little Adulteress”.
The poem opens by sexually describing the girl, from the “frail rigging / of her ribs” to the “amber beads” of her nipples. The persona, a silent onlooker, describes the Girl almost pornographically, scrutinizing her into parts. This racy and vivid imagery causes the reader to examine the place of women in society, and to prove that from past to present, sexual discrimination is still a problem of the human experience. The “frail rigging” creates an image of a ship, in an overwhelming cultural storm. This particular ship was drowned in that storm, and a supposedly innocent life was taken.
The girl is also a symbol of Ireland. Although both the Girl and Ireland were sacrificed at the hands of oppressors (the British) they have managed to preserve their culture. The Winderby Girl contains a myriad of information about the Iron Age, and this was preserved, despite the fact that she was killed. Irish culture has also been preserved throughout the ages, and has spread and flourished throughout the world. The metaphor positions the reader to examine the results of the past atrocities committed against Ireland and the Girl and how the oppressors have failed to halt their success in the present times (the Winderby Girl’s fame and Ireland’s cultural influence).
The “betraying sisters” is also a metaphor. From the past, they are the family and siblings of the sacrificial victim, and in present terms they are a reference to France and Spain, the powerful Catholic nations that refuse to help their oppressed little sister, Ireland. This metaphor serves to position the reader to examine the Irish Troubles from a Catholic point of view, by portraying the Catholic population as a little sister, in need of protection.
The poem juxtaposes archeology and the past with the present, with the persona watching the Winderby Girl dieing and Heaney watching Ireland and the social results of the occupation. This tension between memory and certainty causes the reader to scrutinize the role that the artist had in the Irish Troubles, by looking at Heaney’s role in the civil war. However he argues also that in the face of “tribal, intimate revenge” the individual finds it almost impossible to speak out against his own people.
“Punishment” is a poem that can be constructed on many levels. One level tells of the plight of contemporary Irish women, whilst another describes the brutal treatment of an Iron Age female. It discusses the treatment of Ireland by Britain and tells of various aspects of the human experience, from betrayal to death. Ultimately it uses the link between past and present to explore the various aspects and problems of the human experience as well as the Irish Troubles via the use of figures of the past as meteaphors for the present.
In conclusion, ‘Funeral Rites” discusses the contribution of males, the military and the Church to the Irish troubles, and “Punishment” discusses the plight of individual groups and minorities in Irish society and how they are affected by the Irish troubles. Both poems investigate the various aspects of the human experience via the use of the link between the past and present.
The poems “Punishment” and “Funeral Rites” draw upon a link between the past and the present, often through the use of mythological figures, such as Gunnar, to explore the various aspects and problems of the human experience.