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Seamus Heaney Essay, Research Paper

Heaney’s first poetry collection was the prizewinning Death of a Naturalist (1966). In this book and Door into the Dark (1969), he wrote in a traditional style about a passing way of life–that of domestic rural life in Northern Ireland. In Wintering Out (1972) and North (1975), he began to encompass such subjects as the violence in Northern Ireland and contemporary Irish experience, though he continued to view his subjects through a mythic and mystical filter. Among the later volumes that reflect Heaney’s honed and deceptively simple style are Field Work (1979), Station Island (1984), The Haw Lantern (1987), and Seeing Things (1991). His Selected Poems, 1966-1987 also was published in 1991. The Spirit Level (1996) concerns the notion of centredness and balance in both the natural and the spiritual senses.

Heaney also wrote essays on poetry and poets, including such figures as William Wordsworth, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Robert Lowell. Some of these essays appeared in Preoccupations: Selected Prose, 1968-1978 (1980). A collection of his lectures at Oxford was published as The Redress of Poetry (1995). The Cure at Troy (1991) is Heaney’s version of Sophocles’ Philoctetes, and a later volume, The Midnight Verdict (1993), contains translations of selections from Ovid’s Metamorphoses and from C*irt an mheadhon oidhche (The Midnight Court), a work by the 18th-century Irish writer Brian Merriman.

Seamus Heaney (b. 1939) may be no less moved by nationalist fervour than Montague, but the movement seems to be in sensibilities more finely gifted. Heaney s bleak volume North (1975) is informed with the idea of poetry as almost a mode of power, certaqinly a mode of resistance against colonization. But a poem like Punishment , about IRA disciplining of collaborators, torn as it is between complicity with civilized outrage and barbaric justice the exact/and tribal, intimate revenge and appearing in the end to confess a primitive stance, does so in such a way as to brand his tribe as no better than the bog people. Heaney is valued on almost all sides for his facing up to such ambivalences with sensitive honesty. Taught by Philip Hobsbaum how to imitate such models as Ted Hughes, Heaney was precociously advanced, both in Britain and United States; but he has since developed steadily in skill and maturity, and now amply justifies the early praise.

Heaney s poetry characteristically concerns itself with history s involvement in the primitive:

Earth-pantry, bone-vault,

sun-bank, embalmer

of votive goods

and sabred fugitives

(North)

As he chews the cud of memory ( Funeral Rites ), or in his piety towards objects turns over the finds of his poetic fieldwork, there rises the fume or stink of a pagan mysticism of antiquity in mud: the Tolland man is a saint s kept body . It is as if Heaney, wishing to hold to the best in ancient religion, were always pressing back to find the feud placated in some bog faith that mwy existed, before Christianity and history divided his people.

For his investigation of his past, Heaney s special equipment includes unusual awareness of the body of sensuous experience. That applies even to words (and not least place-names), which he savours to an extent almost unknown among recent English poets except for Bunting, and sometimes Hill. Words area means of communication for Heaney in more ways than one:

Sensings, mountings from the hiding places,

Words entering almost the sense of touch

Ferreting themselves out of their dark hutch

These things are not secrets but mysteries

( Glanmore Sonnets , ii)

Here the tentative vagueness of mountings , in the non-sexual part of its meaning, seems outraged by the other part which forces a similar division of entering , and multiplies rabbit senses that yet keep ferreting themselves . In such ways the poetic process discovers division in language itself: Heaney s own language is neither Celtic nor a specially colonial English- not even in the promisingly earthy word hutch . Compared with Hill s, Heaney s intellect is relatively sluggish. He is content with a few ideas, such as the tragic inevitability of a small people s assimilation. But these few are worked out so fully, with such thorough realization, in so many sly obliquities, that memoriable poems result.

There is no doubt of the stubborn authenticity of Heaney s honesty. Et the same time, his poems have some of the weaknesses of their sovial context. Pursuing total authenticity, they perhaps inevitably rendenr feelings that without sufficient chastening emerge as evasive. In correcting and illuminating emotions, art is a strong ally. But how much art can Heaney allow himself? Where poetry is taken seriously where fellow countrymen on several sidesmay hang on the implications of his slightest word the pressure towards non-literary involvement can be overwhelming. Understandably, Heaney longs to escaoe the political trammelsof the past,

…angry that my trust could not repose

in the clear light, like poetry or freedom

leaning in from sea. I ate the day

deliberately, that its tang

might quicken me all into verb, pure verb.

( Oysters , 1979)

Significantly, his longing still takes the form of a wish to escape compromised things (nouns): recrudescent henkering after the primitive true belief that is itself one of the curses of our time.


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