This is part of an essay I originally wrote back in 2011 in my first year of University. I decided to post it today because of his fairly untimely demise. I found Heaney’s work in North slightly drab to have to analyse in an academic manner, but his fluency with words was undeniable.
I am going to attempt to do some work excavating the meaning and essence of the collected poems in ‘North’ by Seamus Heaney, first published in 1975. The poems in North explore a number of intriguing and mysterious themes such as the national and cultural past of his homeland, life, death, sex, gender, and land and blood myths, bringing about a unique vision of Ireland’s rich and bloody history. Bearing in mind the socio-political context at the time of writing, North has shown to have had a profound impact on how the troubles and violence in Ireland are observed. One way he does this is to highlight the complex relationship between the past and present, directly and indirectly. In light of his art, Heaney has been described by Malcolm Bradbury as “the poet of poets” and makes up two thirds of the sales of living poets in the UK whilst being awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1995.
In order to read the poems in their proper context, one must firstly get an overview of the history of Ireland up to 1975 to clarify and understand the complex relationship between past and present, knowledge of Heaney’s own background also being crucial as to appreciate the engagement between identity of the self and the political landscape of the time, growing up as a young boy. The earliest historical references found in North concern the Iron Age where Heaney adopts an almost Anglo-Saxon prose to describe the brutality of Viking invasion, predominantly featured in Part I in poems such as ‘The Grauballe Man’ and ‘Bog Queen’. After a long period of unrest and political turbulence concerning control of the land, the Act of Union was signed in 1800 to legally bind Britain to Ireland. The first real instances of national Republicanism followed the Great Hunger of 1845-49 leading to the creation of Sinn Fein in 1905, who ‘campaigned for an independent, united Ireland’ (BBC; 2001).
After the original IRA was formed in 1919, the era we widely denote as ‘The Troubles’ began, characterised by violence against civil rights protesters and culminating in ‘Bloody Sunday’ in 1972. Heaney engages in a clear manner with the contemporary struggle for independence, marred by barbarism and religious fanaticism (giving the impression he is almost bemused by it) to create an analogy with the Ancient world of sacrifice and religion .
Born into a Catholic family on a farm in Northern Ireland just before WWII, Heaney’s geographical and archaeological approach to poetry is somewhat unsurprising. His father a farmer and his mother having links to the industrial revolution, rural and religious tension manifests itself in the earthy subject matter which he approaches. This is featured particularly in his early work like ‘Digging’ where he draws a comparison between his father’s farming work and his own literary achievements. Poems such as ‘Punishment’ and ‘Bog Queen’ were almost undoubtedly inspired by the discoveries of Scandinavian and Irish bog bodies in the early 1950’s; – ‘on the gravel bottom, my brain darkening, a jar of spawn, fermenting underground’. This sentence to me depicts a unique sense of a bizarre organic restless soul who is trapped under the ground, the brooding body of the past, a vision which is encouraged by the spooky brutality of Heaney’s words.
In North, my view is that Heaney is making a stand by immortalising his words to be read not so much as a moral guideline but as an observational document to highlight the need for examination and pushing through the boundaries of history to understand our selves, writing that “the bog is a dark casket where we have found many of the clues to our past and to our cultural identity”. It is a coherent explanation of Heaney’s use of contrast between past and present. Other poems with historical references contained in subject matter are featured throughout North, half-known just from looking at the titles: ‘Act of Union’ – which compares the signing away of the Country with the violation of a female; this humanistic approach is also found in ‘Strange Fruit’, which immediately recalls the 1939 poem with the same title regarding the lynching’s of black people in the US. The violent theme of death is again featured in both poems, even with a similar turn of phrase again from Heaney: ‘Here is the girl’s head like an exhumed gourd.’ and ‘Here is your fruit, for the crows to pluck’ . Both poems seem to deal broadly with civil rights and the Callous and imprudent disposal of human lives, the corrosive effect his has on society.
Heaney addresses his own personal relationship with the past predominantly in part II of North. In a stark change of tone, Heaney brings the text into a more modern era with a direct use of the English language to approach more personal and contemporary topics. As a wider reference to the Troubles in Ireland, we can point to ‘Orange Drums, Tyrone, 1966’, which is perhaps a reflection of an Orange Order parade, the largest old protestant organisation (BBC; 2001) in Northern Ireland. The drums in the poem resonate as ancient Nationalist carnival, yet pervading undertones of darkness and violence; ‘It is the drums preside, like giant tumours… the goatskin’s sometimes plastered with his blood. The air is pounding like a stethoscope’ – showing an internal religious conflict, a constant problem. Heaney is also citing Irish poet W.B. Keats with his references to the ‘Orangemen’ recalling Yeats’ own memories of that period, whose work is shadowed to some extent by Heaney’s. Continuing on the theme of the passing of time in ‘Fosterage: For Michael Mclaverty’, Heaney writes his formative years by referencing his former teacher and perhaps how he feels fostered by this Father figure, who Heaney could relate to unlike his farmer father. He is acknowledging the effect his own past has had on shaping the person he has become, perhaps best described in the line ‘he discerned the lineaments of patience everywhere and fostered me and sent me out, with words imposing on my tongue like obels’.
The final poem in North, ‘Exposure’ leaves Heaney and the reading pondering the possibilities of the future; ‘Escaped from the massacre, taking protective covering, from bole and bark, feeling every wind that blows’, mans vulnerability is exposed and explored in the book and we know it is closing time. It is clear we need to learn from our past, no matter how bloody or unpleasant it appears. Truth and learning is key. Perhaps Heaney is unsympathetic to the idea of mythologizing violence of the past simply because he see’s parallels of it with the modern day and vehemently rejects the idea of the contemporary troubles being distorted, mythologised or trivialised in the future, a message heavily implied and reiterated throughout the relationships between past and present explored by Heaney in North. Give this book to young poets as a piece of archaeology itself, one which set the framework for a large amount of modern day Irish political writing.