Seamus Heaney is an Irishman Reflecting on Mankind’s Strivings

Robert Lowell once hailed Seamus Heaney, the newest Nobel laureate in literature, as “the greatest Irish poet since Yeats,” a tribute that in retrospect seems to do both men an injustice. Yes, Mr. Heaney’s work remains rooted in his native Ireland, in the unforgiving landscape of its fields and bogs and rocky shores, and yes, his work grapples with the violent legacy of the Irish troubles. And yet his work is no more merely “Irish” than the work of Joyce — or of Yeats himself. As Yeats once observed: “If we understand our own minds, and the things that are striving to utter themselves through our minds, we move others, not because we have understood or thought about those others, but because all life has that same root.”

If one can find affinities in Mr. Heaney’s verse with such Irish contemporaries as Thomas Kinsella and Patrick Kavanagh, one can just as easily find correspondences with a wide assortment of English and American poets. In Mr. Heaney’s paeans to the physical world are echoes of Hardy and Frost; in the wonderfully supple, musical phrasing of his poems can be heard the ghosts of Hopkins and Stevens.In “Lovers on Aran,” he writes:
The timeless waves, bright sifting, broken glass,
Came dazzling around, into the rocks,
Came glinting, sifting from the
To possess Aran. Or did Aran rush
To throw wide arms of rock around a tide
That yielded with an ebb, with a soft crash?
In many of Mr. Heaney’s early nature poems — collected in “Death of a Naturalist” (1966) and “Door Into the Dark” (1969) — an awareness of mortality and danger already intrudes upon the pastoral lyrics. In “Death of a Naturalist,” he writes of “gross-bellied frogs” sitting “poised like mud grenades.” And in “Blackberry-Picking,” he ominously describes “a rat-grey fungus” creeping over a fresh cache of fruit, portending rot and decay.
In another poem, he writes:
But a turkey cowers in death.
Pull his neck, pluck him, and look–
He is just another poor forked thing,
A skin bag plumped with inky putty.
In these early poems, Mr. Heaney not only celebrates the farm world he grew up in, conjuring up its daily rhythms and the larger rhythms of seasonal life and death in sensuous, tactile prose, but he also draws connections between himself and his family, trying to tie his vocation as a poet to a more ancient tradition of work. In one of his best-known poems, “Digging,” he compares his father’s work with a spade to his own work with a pen, exhuming long-lost memories and secrets, the “living roots” that “awaken in my head.”
The theme of buried history resurfaces in the “bog” poems that appear in the collections “Wintering Out” (1972) and “North” (1975), poems that use the image of the Nordic peat bog (in which have been preserved the relics of ancient civilizations) as a metaphor for the ineluctable pull of the past and the obdurate, eternal fact of death. In these poems, Mr. Heaney memorializes the saintly bodies of men and women felled by strife and murder and ritual sacrifice, and preserved in the alluvial mud: “Tollund Man” who was found “Naked except for/The cap, noose and girdle” in a forgotten bog and “Grauballe Man,” who looks “as if he had been poured/in tar.” These long-dead souls become for Mr. Heaney representative figures of sorts, symbols of northern Europe’s bloody history, be they victims of Viking plunder or the Irish troubles.
In “The Tollund Man,” he writes:
Something of his sad freedom
As he rode the tumbril
Should come to me, driving,
Saying the names
Tollund, Grauballe, Nebelgard,
Watching the pointing hands
Of country people,
Not knowing their tongue.
Out there in
In the old man-killing parishes
I will feel lost,
Unhappy and at home.
With his next volume of poems “Field Work” (1979), Mr. Heaney begins to deal more explicitly with the violence that has racked Northern Ireland, exchanging his pastoral imagery for images of “armoured cars” and “a pointblank teatime bullet.” In “Casualty,” he writes:
I see him as he turned
In that bombed offending place,
Remorse fused with terror
In his still knowable face,
His cornered outfaced stare
Blinding in the flash.
In “Station Island” (1984) — a dazzling reworking of Dante that he sets on an Irish island known for centuries as a place of religious pilgrimage — we are introduced to a series of ghosts: ghosts from Ireland’s past, literary ghosts, ghosts from the poet’s own past; pilgrims and poets, a young priest “glossy as a blackbird” and a shopkeeping cousin shot in the head, who “trembled like a heatwave and faded.”
In this remarkable poem, all the themes and motifs of Mr. Heaney’s work come together to take the reader on a surreal journey through purgatory and back, as the personal and public, historical and mythic are examined, melded and transfigured.
In the poem’s final section, the ghost of James Joyce appears as a spiritual guide, exhorting the poet “to write/for the joy of it” and going on to say:
. . . Keep at a tangent.
When they make the circle wide, it’s time to swim
out on your own and fill the element
with signatures on your own frequency,
echo-soundings, searches, probes, allurements,
elver-gleams in the dark of the whole sea.

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