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Paul Williams

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Critical appreciation of the works of Seamus Heaney
By Paul Williams
Last edited: Wednesday, April 19, 2006
Posted: Wednesday, April 19, 2006

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I wrote this essay a number of years ago on the early works of one of my favourite living poets, Seamus Heaney, when I was coveted in the realms of academia...oh! happy day's lol. For those of you who are not familiar with his work, I hope this helps to enlighten you. I would also highly recomend Seamus Heaney's more recent re-working of Beowulf. It's simply brilliant!

It is often said that Seamus Heaney is one of our 'greatest living poets' Over the last thirty years or so, Seamus Heaney has written a substantial amount of poetry and prose, in this essay I concentrate, specifically on his first four collections of poetry which marked him as a unique and valuable talent. I will also look at how the political situation of his country has affected his poetry, and how the poet and his poetry have evolved against a background of violence to earn him the reputation he holds today. The references to the works used in this

essay have been abbreviated thus: Death of a Naturalist (DN) Door into the Dark (DD)

Wintering Out (WO) and North (N).  


Considered to be one of the greatest living poets, Seamus Heaney is an Irish poet, whose work is notable for evocation of events in Irish history and its allusions to Irish myth. A Catholic, Seamus Justin Heaney (b. 13th April 1939, Mossbawn, County Londonderry, Northern Ireland) was the eldest of nine children, he grew up in a rural landscape, his father was a farmer whose skill Heaney admired greatly, a point attested to in 'Digging' (DN). Much of his early poetry derives from his experience of the farm and country life as a child. He attended primary school in Anahorish, where he won a scholarship to St Columb's in Londonderry, 1951-57. He later attended Queen's University Belfast and gained a first class honours degree in English Language and Literature. It was while he was at university that he was encouraged to write poetry by Philip Hobsbaum. After leaving university he followed a successful teaching career that would eventually lead to a lecturing post at Queen's University Belfast. It was whilst in this post that he had his first collection of poetry Death of a Naturalist, published in 1966. He was just twenty-seven years old and already, being hailed as an outstanding poet.


Heaney's poetry is concerned, primarily, with native, political, historical, and cultural themes of Ireland. Death of a Naturalist deals with the loss of childhood innocence and the transition into adulthood. In this collection of poems, we are given an insight into why Seamus Heaney became a writer and of his admiration for his ancestors and his own distorted view of nature. The poetry of Death of a Naturalist examines the theme of death in the literal and metaphorical sense. He writes about the death of his younger brother but also about the death of his childhood innocence. While death creates a great sadness it also creates a new found freedom. Freedom, however, also introduces fear and loss of stability. The two best known poems from this collection are 'Death of a Naturalist' and 'Mid-term Break'. The two poems are vital to the spirit of Death of a Naturalist and help the reader identify with the poet's own inner struggle as a young man. The poem that opens Death of a Naturalist is 'Digging'. It not only appears on the opening page of this volume; but also takes its place as the first poem in Heaney's Selected Poems (1980), New Selected Poems (1990) and Opened Ground (1998). Heaney indicates the significance of the poem in his book Preoccupations (1980) " 'Digging', in fact, was the name of the first poem I wrote where I thought my feelings had to go into words, or to put it ,more accurately, where I thought my feel into words.” Heaney indicates that 'Digging' marked some point of departure for his career as a poet. Not in the formal sense of putting feeling into words but in the sense that 'Digging' registers many themes and concerns that would dominate his early poetry and also give a glimpse of other issues that would occur in his later writing. The language of 'Digging' introduces what will become Heaney's dominant register. He employs verbal effects to forge evocative images of his subjects, as can be seen in the following stanza:


The cold smell of potato mould,

the squelch and slap of soggy peat,

the curt cuts of edge

Through living roots awaken in my head.


Here the verbal effects are alliteration in 'the squelch and slap / of soggy peat' and 'curt cuts'; the assonance of 'cold', 'potato', 'mould'; and the onomatopoeia in 'squelch' and 'slap', which echo the sounds they describe. This sense of the sight and sound of the world would become a strong feature of Heaney's poetry, it also points to the influences of other poets such as his English contemporary, Ted Hughes and the Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. He was also drawn to the literature of the English Renaissance, his meter and imagery at times, are reminiscent of Dante.

Verbally the influence of these poets can be seen in his early work, but thematically Heaney acknowledges the influence of fellow Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh. Kavanagh took his subject matter from his local native world of rural Monaghan, Heaney, from the life and landscape of the farming community where he grew up. Thus 'Digging' memorializes the cycles of manual labour on his family's farm. The narrative of the poem serves to establish a sense of historical continuity even though the poet feels he cannot take his place with the traditional labouring generations of his forefathers. He can though, honour his family and community by preserving them in verse.

         Between my finger and thumb

        The squat pen rests.

I'll dig with it.


There is a disturbing element to this last stanza in that the Catholic child grew up between the offers of two instruments: the spade and the gun. ‘Choose’ said two opposing voices from his culture: ‘Inherit the farm,’ said the agricultural tradition; ‘Take up arms,’ said Republican militarism. Indeed the poet's first thought had been to measure, so to speak, the pen against the sword. It is significant that Heaney rejects the concept of writing as aggression; later in his career he would come to see poetry as a means of reconciliation. A great many poems in Death of a Naturalist concern themselves with moments of transition from childhood to maturity, and, more particularly, with the cost incurred in acquiring the knowledge that puts an end to childhood innocence. 'Death of a Naturalist', 'The Barn', 'An Advancement of learning', 'Blackberry Picking', and 'Dawn Shoot' are just some of the poems that take up this theme. In 'The Barn' something menacing lies in the dark of the farm building, something the speaker cannot face. ‘I lay face-down to shun the fear above. / The two-lugged sacks moved in like great blind rats'. In the following poem 'An Advancement of Fear' the speaker confronts his fear, once again symbolised by a rat. This confrontation marks a victory for the speaker, which is as Heaney observes in the closing line of the poem, indicative of a 'rite of passage': ' Then I walked on and crossed the bridge'. The poem 'Death of a Naturalist' by contrast, presents a much more troubled picture The poet recognises the inherent dangers in nature and uses childlike language to express the innocence of childhood experience. The first half of the poem produces an idyllic sense of an early springtime childhood, enjoyed within a beneficent natural order. In the second section, the frogspawn that was collected in the first has matured; the natural world the speaker has enjoyed is overrun by adult frogs, which repulse him: 'I sickened, turned, and ran'. As the narrative of the maturing of the frogspawn indicates, one of the fears registered in the poem is a fear of maturity itself - especially sexual maturity. A strong thread of sexual imagery runs through the second section of the poem, as the frogs thicken the air with a 'brass chorus', sit 'cocked on sods', making 'obscene threats', 'their blunt heads farting'. The narrative of the poem resists maturity itself, and an emerging sexual sense of self.


In Heaney's second and third collections, Door into the Dark and Wintering Out, we find several poems in which he focuses upon the minute detail of the local, in order to expose within them, traces of a greater world. 'The Forge' from Door into the Dark, opens with the line ‘All I Know is a door into the Dark' which, in addition to giving the collection its title, also resonates with the very last line of Death of a Naturalist, where, in 'Personal Helicon', Heaney proclaims that he writes poetry in order 'to set the darkness echoing'. The connection between the two poems is significant, as Heaney often ends one collection of his work with a piece which, in effect, will serve as a sort of 'manifesto' for the collection to follow. By contrast with 'The Barn', where the speaker in the poem is unwilling to enter into the darkness, afraid of what he might find there, the speaker in the 'The Forge' seeks to go into the darkness, to see what lies beyond, or within, the outside world. What he finds is the 'Blacksmith' working on a new horseshoe and juxtaposes past with present recalling 'a clatter / of hoofs where traffic is flashing in rows'. The poem that follows 'The Forge' in Door in the Dark, ‘Thatcher,’ also deals with a dying trade threatened with extinction. Like the Blacksmith, the Thatcher is a figure for the creative intelligence, who although considered outmoded is nevertheless capable of producing from the ordinary ('straw...rods...a white-pronged staple...sods') something extraordinary. Heaney at this time was still concentrating on the rural imagery of Northern Ireland, but the growing tension in the Northern State was fast coming to a climax. His feelings at this time are recorded in 'Requiem for the Croppies’ (the story of the rebellion against the English in 1798).

Here he shows his support for the Civil Rights Movement of the time. The Story is narrated in the style of a folk tale, in keeping with the Irish oral tradition of recounting heroic deeds in song. The opening line suggests that the rebels carry with them the seeds of rebellion. 'The pockets of our great coats full of Barley,' but it is not until the final line when all the rebels are dead that the seeds of rebellion come to fruition 'And in August the barley grew up out of the grave.’ Here he recognises the cyclical nature of Irish history and used this to reflect the contemporary political situation. Two months after Door in the Dark was published, Northern Ireland fell into chaos. History had indeed repeated itself, as the conflict in the province intensified, it progressively became more and more bloody. At mid-career, Heaney found himself expected - and expecting himself - to address that crisis in his poetry. In Wintering Out (1972), North (1975), and Fieldwork (1979), Heaney returns again and again to the contemporary political situation, seeking ways in which to address it and confront it in his work. Like his Irish predecessor poet, W.B. Yeats, Heaney found himself thrust into the role of a public figure. His discomfort at his new high profile status is registered in 'Exposure', the last poem of North (1975).

How did I end up like this?

I often think of my mends'

Beautiful prismatic counselling and the

anvil brains of some who hate me


As I sit weighing and weighing

     My responsible trista*


* Sadness

In Wintering Out (1972) the local the language and history in the place-name poems 'Anahorish’, 'Toome,’ and 'Broagh’ are brought together. In these poems, Heaney unites a theory of poetry with a theory of language itself.  On the one hand, like Kavanagh, Heaney believes that poetry can find something greater than the particular in the local; on the other, from another Irish poetic source of dinnseanchas, the ancient native Irish poetic tradition. He derives a sense that the language of local naming bears within itself a kind of compressed narrative of local history. 'Anahorish’, the first of the place-name poems is an anglicized version of the native Irish anachjhior uisce. Heaney begins his poem with a translation of the Irish, as he writes ‘My place of clear water’ the phonetic elements of the word itself conjure up an image of the very landscape to which the name is attached, as consonant and vowel combine to reflect the rise and fall of the land.

Anahorish, soft gradient

of consonant, vowel-meadow,

after-image of lamps

swung through the yards on winter evenings.


The place-name itself triggers an image not of the inhabitants of the place but of the lights which they carry. In the closing lines of the poem the inhabitants themselves finally emerge into the light, but even now they are seen obscurely, through a mist. What Heaney is doing is giving us a glimpse of human history. We are given a vivid image of the original, ancient inhabitants of the place. He also takes us back to glimpse human history in the 'Bog poems' that appear in some of his early works, especially in North. Subtler than the excavations found in Death of a Naturalist and Door into the Dark - North digs deeper into the history and memory of the earth and of Ireland’s past. Ireland has a long and bloody history, a point, Heaney was very much aware of always seeking ways to address the contemporary political situation, pursuing images and symbols "adequate to our predicament" (Preoccupations p.56-7). Heaney was attracted to a book by P. V. Glob, 'The Bog People' that deals with preserved Iron Age bodies of men and women that had been ritually killed. Heaney had been drawn to this book because it both served to focus a number of his traditional interests, and also offered him a particular frame of reference and set of symbols he could employ to engage with the present conflict in Ireland and its history. 'Punishment' is perhaps the most unsettling poem in North and describes a photograph of an Iron Age 'bog body.' A young woman who had most likely been shorn, stripped then killed and thrown into the bog as some form of punishment for a transgression unknown. In the opening stanza the poet expresses a sense of identification and empathy with the victim but soon becomes a voyeur and takes pleasure in the woman's exposed and subjected body:


I can feel the tug of the

halter at the nape of her

neck,the wind on her

naked front.


It blows her nipples

to amber beads,

It shakes the trail rigging

of her ribs.


The conflict of emotion indicated here is given further expression in the poet's direct address to the dead woman 'My poor scapegoat', / 'I almost love you / but would have cast, I know the stones of silence'. Here Heaney indicates that even though he is attracted to the woman he would have been complicit in her death, by not raising his voice in support of her or in protest at her punishment. Heaney juxtaposes pagan ritual punishment with Christian retribution. Focusing the killings of the past with the contemporary conflict in Northern Ireland, and characterizes himself as


I who have Stood dumb

when your betraying sisters,

cauled in tar,

wept by the railings.


Although the 'bog poems' such as 'Tollund man' (WO), 'Punishment' (N), 'Bog Queen' (N) deal with varying themes of death and the process of decay, both in the past and present, the bog poems are above all about 'kinship', intimate tenderness, and the links to the land. 'Kinship' (N) itself, is the longest and most explicit of these, recounting a personal journey through the earth:


'Kinned by hieroglyphic

Peat on a spreadfield,

To the strangled victim,

The love-nest in the bracken.


The simplicity and economy of the poem, shows a culmination of Heaney's earlier attempts to make his language carry full weight of meaning. They give a sense of a living culture with its roots embedded in the past, and the profound sense of what it is to live both within and in part, as an outsider to that culture. Critics have suggested that these poems represent a major achievement in 20th Century poetry. Just as Yeats had struggled to come to terms with the crisis in Ireland in poems like; 'September 1913', 'Easter 1916', 'The Rose Tree', and 'Mediations in a Time of Civil War'. So Heaney struggled to find an adequate way of addressing the conflicts of his particular historical moment in the poems he wrote and published from the early 1970s to the mid-1980s. Heaney tried to reconcile his feelings with the conflict in the early 1980s this is attested to, in Station Island (1984). The collection deals with a man on a pilgrimage to an ancient island; but he is also on a pilgrimage of the self to help him come to terms with the problems of the present. In The Haw Lantern (1987) he explores the theme of loss, particularly the death of his mother. Other poems in the collection are meditations on the conscience of the author and reflect some of Heaney's misgivings about the troubles. Heaney also worried over the question of the nature of the poet's responsibility to the political situation. The concern was the relationship between the essentially passive life of the poet and the active life of those involved in affairs of the world. By the time Heaney published The Government of the Tongue in 1988, he had made his peace with many of the issues.


Throughout his writing career, Heaney has received numerous British Literary awards and in 1995 won the Nobel Prize for literature. His commercial and critical success has also been accompanied by academic success; and in 1988 Heaney was elected to the professorship of poetry at Oxford University. His British success has not always sat well with him leading to ambivalence in his attitude toward England and its culture. Heaney has become arguably the greatest poet Ireland has produced. Having spent his formative years amid the murderous divisiveness of Ulster, he writes poetry that is distinguished by its bringing together of opposites. The familiarity with country life goes along with stylistic accomplishment and sophisticated allusiveness. Present and past coalesce in Heaney's verses: Iron Age sacrificial victims exhumed from peat bogs resemble 'tarred-and-feathered' victims of the atrocities in contemporary Belfast; elegies for friends and relatives slaughtered during the outrages of the 1970s and 1980s are embedded in verses whose imagery and metrical forms derive from Dante. Surveying carnage, vengeance, bigotry, and the gentler disjunction's such as that between the unschooled and the cultivated. He evokes images both beautiful and disturbing delivered with a simplicity that carries the full weight of meaning. It has been said that Seamus Heaney made himself the master of 'a poetry of reconciliation’. Something that in itself speaks volumes about the nature and power of poetry.


Paul Williams©1997&2006







Reader Reviews for "Critical appreciation of the works of Seamus Heaney"

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Reviewed by Shoma Mittra 5/8/2010
Had read and admired Seamus Heaney, but this marvellous essay told me a few things not previously known. Enjoyed reading..thanks Paul.
Reviewed by Andre Bendavi ben-YEHU 5/21/2006

In this "Critical appreciation of the works of Seamus Heaney" readers can also see the colors of the author's soul.

I enjoyed this work of Yours, Poet, and am grateful for getting an inside vision of this Poet works through the lenses of Your heedful eyes. You have accomplished Your mission on Poet Seamus Heaney.

In gratitude and admiration.

Andre Emmanuel Bendavi ben-YEHU
Reviewed by Candy T (Reader) 4/23/2006
No stone left unturned in this thorough study of Heaney, Paul. That said, I must admit, albeit reluctantly, that the analysis of poetry makes me uneasy -- not unlike the way I felt about dissection in biology. Even with the flesh sliced open and guts on display, we never could explain precisely what made the thing tick (the origin of the spark). Not to detract from your fine essay on the Irish master, of course. Thank you for sharing it. Oh, and btw, Casualty is my favourite :)
Reviewed by SilverCeltic Moon 4/22/2006
Well done! I adore Seamus Heaney and own several of his books. I was glad you pointed me to this piece. Wonderful!!! ;) Silver
Reviewed by Aberjhani 4/22/2006
This exemplary examination of of Heaney's literary universe is a marvel in itself. Your appreciation of the man's poetic vision is both illuminating and entertaining. Makes it easy to see why the Nobel committee looked so admiringly in his direction.
Reviewed by Tinka Boukes 4/19/2006
A fine piece you have written here Chuckie!!

Great work!!

Love Tinka
Reviewed by Peter Paton 4/19/2006
I have always felt it is so important to translate your feelings accurately as possible in poetry and prose...
A fine biography on Heaney !
Reviewed by Jerry Bolton (Reader) 4/19/2006
Fantastic stuff on the man. Of course you kjow that, now, I shall have to do a search, etc. Of course you do. Thanks.
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