Heaney as a Modern Poet

Seamus Heaney as a poet of Modern Ireland Seamus Heaney epitomizes the dilemma of the modern poet. In his collection of essays ‘Preoccupations’ he embarks on a search for answers to some fundamental questions regarding a poet: How should a poet live and write? What is his relationship to his own voice, his own place, his literary heritage and his contemporary world? In ‘Preoccupations’ Heaney imagines ‘Digging’ itself as having been ‘dug up’, rather than written, observing that he has ‘come to realize that it was laid down in me years ago’.

In this sense, the poetic act is one of ‘retrieval’-of recovering something that already exists-rather than of creating something entirely new from whole cloth. Plagued by the moral dilemma of sympathising with the school of thought that wanted to destroy the Protestant supremacy, and being a poet, he could not condone violence. This dilemma tore him apart and gave way to a sense of fragmented identity and an inevitable nihilism. It is this sense of the repetition of cycles rooted deep in the past that attracted Heaney to Glob’s book on The Bog People.

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What Glob offers is an image of a pre-Christian, northern European tribal society in which ritual violence is a necessary part of the structure of life. Most of the Iron-Age bodies recovered from the Jutland Bogs and documented by Glob had been the victims of ritual killings, many of them having served as human sacrifices to the Earth Goddess Nerthus. Heaney detected a kinship between the Pagan civilizations of Jutland and Ireland’s own Celtic traditions.

Heaney in a conversation affirms “Irish Catholicism is continuous with something older than Christianity”. Heaney’s first extended attempt at conflating his understanding of Glob’s Jutland rituals with his own sense of mythic and modern history comes in the ‘ Tollund Man’. The Tollund Man is one of the recovered bodies by Glob in this book. He was a victim sacrificed to Nerthus, in the hope of securing a good crop from the land, and it is in this sense that he is, as Heaney describes him as ‘Bridegroom to the goddess’.

Heaney imagines the killing of the Tollund Man and his subsequent burial in the Bog as a kind of violent love making between victim and goddess, in which Nerthus , ‘opening her fen’ preserves the victim’s body by immersing it in her sexual ‘dark juices’. When the Tollund Man is dug up, many centuries later the turf cutters discover ‘His last gruel of winter seed/caked in his stomach’. Ever since Heaney placed as a child in a moss-hole, Heaney realized that the Bog represented for him a repository of memories of his childhood. He also recognised the Bog as being literally a storage place which held objects preserved for decades beneath it.

Just as Heaney believed that Ireland’s history lay beneath the Bog he also began to use the Bog to project her future. The fact that poetry is a kind of continuous and complex stream of thoughts, a composite of memories in which what we have experienced in the past is constantly merging with our experience of the moment best embodied by Eliot;s ‘Time present and time past/are both perhaps present in time future/and time future contained in time past’. Heaney’s poems are laced with a strong sense of alienation in the modern world and the need to negotiate the distance between origins and present circumstances.

In the poem ‘Digging’ learning and the privileges to which it provides access are what separates the speaker from his father. The speaker sits inside looking out at his father working beneath his window. If he cannot literally dig, he can ‘dig’ metaphorically unearthing the detail of the life of his family and community and honouring them by preserving them in his verse. As Hellen Vendler puts it, these early poems memorialize ‘a life which the poet does not want to follow, could not follow, but none the less recognises as forever a part of his inner landscape’.

The language evokes a strong sense of the sight and sound of the world being described which indicates the early influence on Heaney of this near contemporary English poet Ted Hughes. Language is thus deployed here with enormous precision in the impressionistic manner in order to evoke a detailed image of a very specific world with Heaney describing it as ‘the rustle of language itself’. In the true modernist vein Heaney takes a descent into his past which becomes analogous to his subconscious, ‘digging’ out memories. The land of Ireland itself is, the object of resentment for those who endured the terrible suffering of the Great Hunger.

In ‘At a Potato Digging’ the cultural collective of ‘a people hungering from birth’ takes on a political dimension as well as a purely descriptive one. The degradation of having to grub ‘like plants’ makes the people seem worth no more than weeds so it is unsurprising that they should feel that their land is the ‘bitch earth’. Heaney’s subject matter and imagery become stark and astringent filled with death and dying and rooted firmly in his world. However, the irony becomes evident when the essence of profligacy is contrasted with famine victim could afford to throw away tea dregs or crusts.

As the workers stretch out in their rest they are describes lying on ‘faithless ground’. This reminds us of the fact that nature can set its face against humanity and behave in an unpredictable manner. It can also be argued that although Heaney’s work is full of images of death and dying, it is at the same time deeply rooted in life endlessly metaphorical. It holds out an offer of endlessness of cynical history of eternity. Heaney’s poems are ultimately peace poems intensifying the sense of beauty in contrast to the horror of violence and the pathos of needless death.