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When analyzing the writings of Seamus Heaney, it is often important to take into account the situation of the poet himself to enable the reader to put his poetry into context. Heaney's poetry is particularly influenced by the history and politics of his home country Ireland and a strong theme of politics runs through the majority of his works. The extent to which this theme is exploited varies from the implicit 'Digging' to the explicitly political poems such as 'The Ministry Of Fear.'
Heaney was raised within a family and culture that very much relied on the land, the significance of which is represented in 'At A Potato Digging' and 'Requiem For The Croppies.' In 'Digging', Heaney expresses the admiration he feels for both his father and grandfather; "By God, the old man could handle a spade! / Just like his old man." "But I've no spade to follow men like them." Confesses Heaney, almost with a sense of guilt. Instead Heaney proposes to 'dig' through his poetry, the 'squat pen' being a metaphor for the spade whilst digging represents change and revolution to what Heaney suggests is a politically unsound country. Through digging, Heaney hopes to regain the stability of both the soil and the politics of Northern Ireland.
Whilst the poem is principally a nature poem, illustrating Heaney’s belief that the earth is merely an extension of the human self, Heaney also subtly introduces the importance of poetry as a medium for expressing a poet’s conscience and beliefs. Significantly, 'Digging' established the influence of Irish history and politics from a very early point in Heaney's poetry even though the poem is only implicitly political.
'A New Song' further exploits the issues surrounding Irish politics concentrating particularly the loss of the culture and traditions of Ireland which has occurred since the English take-over of Northern Ireland. On meeting 'a girl from Derrygarve' the narrator recalls an idyllic, attractive scene evoked 'like a lost potent musk' by the town's name. A rural picture is created that, on a political level, is untainted by British influence. However the potent Derrygarve is now 'vanished music' as the Gaelic origins of the village have been lost and a new English place name instilled. The title 'A New Song' represents the change that the poet hopes can be achieved when 'our river tongues' will revolt and 'flood, with vowelling embrace' the suffocating presence of the English.
Again Heaney is using an extended metaphor in the form of an allegory, the river being a symbol of the Irish people whilst ‘tongues’ represents the Gaelic language itself. In this poem, like many others, Heaney addresses his status as a 'dual citizen' as he must illustrate the strong opinions he has of Gaelic heritage using the language of the oppressor. This enables the poet to have significant impact on an audience unfamiliar with the Irish language and Heaney’s upset at this is shown as he mourns the demise of the Gaelic language with the effective use of both imagery and metaphor.
However, Heaney is not always capable of using the metaphor so successfully. 'Act of Union' refers to a point in Irish history when Ireland was brought under English control. The treaty created is represented by another 'act of union', that of marriage. The extended metaphor involves England, the dominant male, addressing Ireland, female and pregnant with a bastard child, an 'obstinate fifth column.' The suppression of Irish culture is seen by the poet as rape. As in other poems, Ireland is perceived as being female, passive and ineffectual. She is uncommitted and her mutuality is said by the male speaker to have justified her implied rape. The child is a representation of the growing political forces in Ireland that 'beat at your borders' correlating with the sectarian violence of Northern Ireland.
Heaney uses many different literary techniques in his poetry and 'Act of Union' is no exception. Whilst the Gaelic language is seen as a feminine tongue consisting mostly of vowels, the guttural consonants of English are used effectively in the poem, coinciding with the masculine personification of England. Alliteration and onomatopoeia exaggerate this harsh masculinity whilst also contributing to the rhythm of the poetry which reflects the ‘battering ram, the boom burst from within’ of violence.
Yet despite the well developed symbolism or ‘Act of Union’ Heaney almost over develops and exhausts the particular metaphors present in the poem. The ideas used are explicit and lack subtlety, almost patronizing the reader.
Perhaps one of Heaney’s most successful drawing of parallels occurred in a collection of poems from ‘North’ in which Heaney found a powerful metaphor for current violence in the archaeological discoveries made in peat bogs in Ireland and northern Europe. In Heaney’s sequence of poems about ‘The Bog People’, the exhumed remains of sacrificial victims provide suitable metaphors to present the predicament of modern-day Northern Ireland. Once again, Heaney uses poetry as a stark contrast to the sectarian politics and extreme levels of violence that exist in Northern Ireland. The torture and brutal execution of the bog people parallels with the many atrocities that took place in Northern Ireland, particularly during the 1970s. ‘Punishment’ is taken from this series of poems. Here Heaney brands one of the sacrificial victims as an adulteress. A melancholy tone is evoked as Heaney remarks with sympathy ‘I almost love you.’
A comparison is then drawn between the preserved body of this executed woman, and her ‘betraying sisters’, presumably the Irish women of recent years who have been ‘cauled in tar’ to punish them for consorting with the enemy. Again, England is the oppressive force within the poem which, in this case, has led to the unnecessary deaths of young Irish women. Most haunting though is the poet’s inability to distinguish between right and wrong as he finds himself caught between 'civilized outrage’ and the comprehension and endorsement of ‘the exact / and tribal, intimate revenge’ to which the Iron Age adulteress has been subjected. The poem is almost rhetorical in that is questions the reader’s conscience as to whether standing ‘dumb’ makes one as guilty as being the executor of such a crime.
However the factor that contributes most to the poem’s effectiveness is the successful use of the metaphor that enables Heaney to avoid putting either sectarian or national names to the perpetrators of the atrocities of Northern Ireland instead creating a subtly political poem that calls for deeper reflection on the reader’s behalf.
Another successful implicitly poem is ‘Broagh’, the politics of which are almost entirely unnoticeable upon first reading. The poem was first published in 1972 in Heaney’s collection of poems entitled ‘Stand’, during a time of great political conflict. Although the poem is written in English, Heaney manages to successfully incorporate the Gaelic language, most noticeably in the title of the poem itself which is almost a stand against the English inability to pronounce the ‘gh’ sound of the word. Heaney uses Scottish vocabulary such as ‘riggs’ to incorporate ideas of Burns’ radical Presbyterian poetry as Heaney explores the differences between the poetic and everyday tongue. Read at face value, the poem simply illustrates Heaney’s views that a place name reflects the geography and ‘personality’ of a place. However, on an underlying level, Heaney again uses the language of the oppressive England in order to criticize the political hold she has over Northern Ireland.
The English oppressor is almost mocked as Heaney uses words such as ‘docken’ to represent the Anglo-Saxon influence on Irish culture today and Scottish language that reminds the reader of the Scottish invasion of Ireland whilst also incorporating language to illustrate Heaney’s Gaelic heritage. ‘Broagh’ shows Heaney’s politics at their simplest and most subtle and this combined role of the poem as a whole adds to its appeal. It not only entertains the reader but, more significantly, begs the reader to question himself.
Heaney’s philosophies are apparent throughout all his poetry and politics is a subject that bears great significance to the writer. One must therefore take into consideration the fact that his political views will be present in his writings and it is important to be aware of the biased political viewpoint of Heaney in order to read his poetry subjectively. However, the metaphors used by Heaney are not always explicit and the subject of the poetry is not always overtly political so, as with all poetry, it is important to remember that it is possible to view the work of Heaney on more than one level.