The Works Of Seamus Heaney: Ireland And Irish Landscape
Ireland’s history is usually seen in comparison with British history. Though it was a part of the British empire, its political, as well as cultural development, has been very different from the other parts of England. In one sense, Ireland can be seen as a postcolonial state. The biggest proof of this is Irish literature which stayed in limbo for a long period of time, only to be revived by W.B. Yeats in the twentieth century. Even so, Yeats was always seen as more of a chief world poet than an Irish poet. When it comes to true Irish poetry, with the humblest representations of Ireland, Seamus Heaney’s name remains undisputedly the most reliable one. (Pratt 1996; Brien 2016)
Seamus Heaney was a key figure in modern Irish literature. He is considered the most successful Irish poet of contemporary times, especially in the latter half of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first century. He was born and raised in County Derry in the Northern part of Ireland. He was a Catholic in this Northern part of Ireland which was mostly Protestant. He spent his adulthood in Dublin. He studied English at Queen’s University and was greatly moved by poets like Ted Hughes who showcased their nativity in their works. He has written over twenty volumes of poetry and literary criticism all heavily influenced by his nativity. He has also translated many works and edited several anthologies. He won the Novel Prize for Literature in 1995 “for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past” (www.nobelprize.org). Heaney taught at Harvard University from 1985 to 2006. He was also named the Oxford Professor of Poetry for a short while from 1989 to 1994. Heaney died in Dublin in 2013 at the age of seventy-four. (www.poetryfoundation.org)
Looking at Heaney’s nativity and other details of his life is not only important for biographical purposes; it serves crucial meaning to his works. Since his background and nationality have evidently had a great influence on his poems, he is often called a ‘regional poet’. Though many writers and poets show the influence of their upbringing in their works, Heaney’s regionality is quite unique, it is politically and culturally significant. And unlike others, his works can make their readers not only read about but see, smell, touch, and taste the Irish land.
In his own words, Heaney has “emerged from a hidden, a buried life and entered the realm of education”. At one point in time, Heaney could not draw a parallel between where he was from and what he was doing in life. In no time, however, he realized that whatever he was doing (basically academics) was not different from his motherland. He embraced his nativity in a unique way which finally turned him into a regional poet. As he says, “I learned that my local County Derry experience, which I had considered archaic and irrelevant to ‘the modern world’ was to be trusted” (www.poetryfoundation.org). This personal conflict and its resolution are undoubtedly visible in Heaney’s poem “Digging”. The poem not only reflects Heaney’s life and its choices, naturally, and quite skillfully, it also shows its readers the roots of Heaney, i.e., Ireland. Heaney was thus serving his motherland as well as the academic circle.
As it happens, “Digging” is just one example of Heaney’s regionality in his works. His early poetry collections such as Death of a Naturalist (1966), Door into the Dark (1969) have exact descriptions of the Irish rural labours. Just like how “Digging” literally talks about Earth and soil, these collections are full of similar symbols. Naturally, Heaney is known as a ‘bog’ poet. But the ‘Irish landscape’ is not the only concern of Heaney. He also subtly takes up political matters in his poems. His “Funeral Rites” showcases a fine weaving of Irish political past and present. The ‘Irish Trouble’ is a big subject matter of Heaney’s fictional as well as non-fictional works. One may need to divide his works not by the popular genre division, as fiction and non-fiction. In fact, Heaney’s works, be it fiction or non-fiction, are basically written from two binary points of view, one which is political and the other which is apolitical. On one hand, he has defended a poet’s “private and apolitical” stance in poems like “Digging” and collections like Death of a Naturalist and Door into the Dark. These are dedicated to not ‘Ireland’ but ‘Irish Landscape’. On the other hand, he has taken himself as the spokesman of Ireland and produced books like Wintering Out (1973) and North (1975). Thus, Heaney has an ambivalent stand. This makes his poetry stronger as postcolonial Ireland, which has seen the death and revival of its culture and literature, definitely needs someone who showcases Ireland from all aspects. Consequently, one can come down to two poems of Heaney to understand his works in the shortest time: “Digging” shows the domination of the Irish landscape, and “Funeral Rites” shows the dominations of Ireland. (www.poetryfoundation.org)
“Digging” was published in 1966. It is mainly about the poet’s land, farming, and forefathers. The title has majorly three meanings. The first meaning is the literal one since the poem talks about the poet’s father digging with his spade in the ground, digging means digging in the soil for farming. Secondly, the poet who is in the present talks about how his father used to dig for potatoes in the past. Therefore, digging also means metaphorically digging into the past. And lastly, the poet concludes by saying that he has to dig with his ‘pen’. So here digging means digging into the knowledge. In this poem, as much as Heaney is admiring how his father and grandfather used to dig skillfully in their farms, he also accepts that though his tool is different than theirs (a pen instead of a spade), he is not an alien to his Irish nativity as he digs into knowledge with his pen. The poem gives a picture of Irish potato farming. It talks about soil, spade, the skill of digging, the smell and sound of farming, etc. The poem also alludes to the great Irish potato famine of 1845 which lasted for four years as the poet’s father used to dig for potatoes in the past, in the present he is digging for flowers. Heaney shows a very real picture of rural Ireland, and also makes a subtle comparison between past and present. This is a unique feature of almost all the works of Heaney, the present in his work is never devoid of its past, and that is his strength. (Shmoop Editorial Team 2008)
In comparison, “Funeral Rites” directly comes down to Irish Troubles. It is a melancholic poem with three sections about funerals of the soldiers who have sacrificed themselves in the duties of violent wars. The first section shows the funeral that is taking place, and how the poet, losing his innocence is taking responsibility for this funeral. The second section shows the ongoing troubles, the “neighboring murder” and how they are related to the past. Heaney alludes to ‘serpent’ which is a symbol of destruction, like the Norse serpent Jormungand who destroyed the realm of humans. Lastly, the third section shows Heaney’s hope for the betterment of the political condition of Ireland. He compares the dead soldiers to “Gunnar” and “Jesus” who lived even after death and were revived without any feeling of vengeance. Possibly, Heaney hopes for the end of the hatred cycle. (Quazi and University 2016)
In addition, poetry is not the only outlet of Heaney’s visions. His works on literary criticism are also not spared from his stance on Ireland. In his The Redress of Poetry (1995), Heaney talks about “quincunx”, a diamond shape with four points surrounding the fifth point in center. He equates each point with five different levels of Irish identity, with the center point being the native Irish tradition. (Brien 2016) So quite evidently, one can see how the subject of Ireland and the Irish landscape dominates Heaney’s works, not only the fiction works, but even the non-fictions, literary criticism works. Thus, it is not surprising that Seamus Heaney is one of the best-known regional poets and the most significant contemporary Irish figure.
- “Seamus Heaney.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/seamus-heaney.
- “The Nobel Prize in Literature 1995.” NobelPrize.org, www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/1995/summary/.
- Cahill, Eileen. “A Silent Voice: Seamus Heaney and Ulster Politics.” Wiley Online Library, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, 28 Sept. 2007, onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1467-8705.1987.tb00091.x.
- Morrison, Blake. Seamus Heaney. Methuen, 1982.
- O’Brien, Eugene. “Seamus Heaney’s Five Towers of Irish Identity.” The Irish Times, The Irish Times, 13 May 2016, www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/seamus-heaney-s-five-towers-of-irish-identity-1.2645611.
- Pratt, William. “The Great Irish Elk: Seamus Heaney’s Personal Helicon.” World Literature Today, vol. 70, no. 2, 1996, pp. 261–266. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40152041. Accessed 28 Jan. 2020.
- Quazi, Sharna, and University. “Critical Analysis of the Poem ‘Funeral Rites’ by Seamus Heaney.” Online Educare, 25 May 2016, onlineeducare.com/critical-analysis-of-the-poem-funeral-rites-by-seamus-heaney/.
- Russell, Richard Rankin. “Seamus Heaney’s Regionalism.” Twentieth Century Literature, vol. 54, no. 1, 2008, pp. 47–74. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20479837. Accessed 28 Jan. 2020.
- Shmoop Editorial Team. “Digging Summary.” Shmoop, Shmoop University, 11 Nov. 2008, www.shmoop.com/digging-heaney/summary.html.
- The New York Times, The New York Times, movies2.nytimes.com/books/98/12/20/specials/heaney-talk79.html.