An Experiment in Poetry: Seamus Heaney Echoes Ireland’s Gaelic Past

Photo by Jonathan Bowers on Unsplash

Photo by Jonathan Bowers on Unsplash

An Experiment in Poetry is a weekly series here at spotlighting poets whose work points to transcendent values and encourages us to contemplate questions at the heart of the human condition.

As an Irish poet, Seamus Heaney (1939-2013) inevitably drew early comparisons to W. B. Yeats, but quickly those comparisons fell away as Heaney distinguished himself through his distinct subject matter and style. Yeats was famously mythical, weaving Irish and other mythologies with a touch of the occult; Heaney, on the other hand, was earthy, using his poetry to explore the sights and sounds of the Northern Ireland of his roots. Textured, musical, corporeal: these are the adjectives that come to mind on reading or hearing a Heaney poem. His verse is rich with robust rhythms and rhymes, its lusty language echoing Ireland’s Gaelic past.

Seamus Heaney, image from  Poetry Foundation

Seamus Heaney, image from Poetry Foundation

An early poem, “Bogland,” exemplifies this quality of Heaney’s writing. The poem grows out of the Irish soil, taking as its subject the iconic peat bogs of the land itself. These bogs cover nearly a sixth of the entire country island and are a type of wetland composed of decaying vegetation; in the last few centuries they have been harvested for fuel, although the practice has been curtailed more recently for environmental reasons. For Heaney’s purposes, however, the archaeological possibilities of the bogs yield the greatest poetic fodder. As John Welford notes in his analysis, the bogland “both conceals and reveals the past.” In Heaney’s lines the ground, responding to the work of excavators,  surrenders a crate of butter that it’s been retaining for over a century, and the land itself appears as a kind of butter, “Melting and opening underfoot, / Missing its last definition / by millions of years.”

Like many of Heaney’s poems, the concrete imagery of “Bogland” accrues metaphorical significance as it builds. As in the work of American poet Robert Frost, it’s hard to pin down where the poem’s materiality ends and the figurative begins. I suppose they’re both there from the beginning, but awareness of the poem’s depths comes gradually for the reader, dawning as the poem wears on. Eventually, we realize that the “pioneers [who] keep striking / Inwards and downwards” are searching for something always just out of reach. The bog, like the past, is a process, not a stable monolith: “Through it the past becomes continuous with the present, re-presented in it.”[1]

The same spirit animates his beloved poem, “Blackberry Picking.” The imagery is so concrete that even the textual berries are tantalizing; the luscious, inviting words that Heaney paints make the mouth water and nearly fool the reader to think them ripe for actual tasting and touching:

You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer's blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots. 

Yes, this poem is about blackberries, but (to borrow from a friend’s story) it’s also about “love and sex and greed and desire and memory and taste.” Heaney often chose such simple images and invested them with profound depths; for that reason, he is beloved by both critics and general readers alike, a rare accomplishment.

It was Heaney’s stint at Queen’s University in Belfast that he credits with helping him embrace the Irish farmland of his youth as worthy material for poetry: “I learned that my local County Derry experience, which I had considered archaic and irrelevant to ‘the modern world’ was to be trusted. [Those poets] taught me that trust and helped me to articulate it.” In honoring him with the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995, the committee emphasized his “works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past.” He effects this skillful blending, beautifully and memorably imagining his vocation in letters as an extension of the work of his ancestors, in the lines of his poem “Digging”:

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them. 

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

Understandable that readers resonate with and have come to trust Heaney’s poetic vision; at his death in 2013, nearly two-thirds of the poetry sold in the United Kingdom was Heaney’s verse. As Jack Kroll of Newsweek clarifies, in this way Heaney was—and saw himself as—parochial, not provincial: “[P]rovincialism hints at the minor or mediocre, but all parishes, rural or urban, are equal as communities of the human spirit.”[2] Brad Leithauser cashes out Heaney’s appeal this way: “[H]is is the gift of saying something extraordinary while, line by line, conveying a sense that this is something an ordinary person might actually say.” This poetic gift shines in “Scaffolding,” a poem that taps into construction imagery to explore the durability of true love, as it outlasts change:

Masons, when they start upon a building.
Are careful to test out the scaffolding;

Make sure that planks won’t slip at busy points,
Secure all ladders, tighten bolted joints. 

And yet all this comes down when the job’s done
Showing off walls of sure and solid stone.

So if, my dear, there sometimes seem to be
Old bridges breaking between you and me

Never fear. We may let the scaffolds fall
Confident that we have built our wall.

As this poem exemplifies, rather than write sweeping epics or recount grand narratives, Heaney opted for the local and intimate. But by focusing in so narrowly, he nonetheless tapped into the universal. And although Heaney’s later life was marked by stretches at Harvard and Oxford, his particular focus was always Ireland. Little of his work was overtly political, as Yeats’ own so often was, but growing up Catholic in a heavily Protestant region shaped him profoundly. He lost friends to the so-called “Troubles,” and eventually left his native Ulster when authorities instituted martial law to quell civil unrest.[3]

Even still Heaney wrestled with how best to explore the experience through his writing, at times even resenting the expectation that poets must be public spokesmen at the vanguard of a movement; instead, he found this role another vestige of Yeats’ influence that he had to shed. “If poetry and the arts do anything,” Heaney opines, “they can fortify your inner life, your inwardness.” Poetry of course could be enlisted effectively for popular movements, to instill national pride or a political will to resist oppression. But Heaney’s penetrates more deeply and probes more intimate depth, all by beautiful and enticing design.

Melvyn Bragg joins Heaney to look back over Heaney's career.

Links for This Week’s Featured Poems

“Blackberry Picking” by Seamus Heaney

“Death of a Naturalist” by Seamus Heaney

"Digging" by Seamus Heaney

"Bogland" by Seamus Heaney

"Scaffolding" by Seamus Heaney

[1] James Livingston and Sarah Hilbert, “Seamus Heaney,” Critical Survey of Poetry, 2nd revised edition.

[2] Qtd. in “Seamus Heaney,” Poetry

[3] Livingston and Hilbert.