Printer Friendly

Seamus Heaney's anxiety of trust in Field Work.

Most poetic careers advance like waves disturbed by a central event, each new pulse collapsing only after the tensions impelling it have been exhausted. Heaney's career is no exception. His image of the family's drinking water shaken by the train in "Glanmore Sonnets IV" (the "small ripples . . . vanished into where they seemed to start") brilliantly captures this contrapuntal progress. Following Blake's assertion that "Without Contraries is no progression," Heaney has made sure that his surges are always matched by equally powerful counter-surges. His early pastoralism in Death of a Naturalist, for example, relied on an opposing 'anti-pastoralism' for credibility and contemporaneity. Without the recognition of rural hardship, his enchantment with agrarian ways would have seemed foolishly nostalgic. Similarly, his meditational via negativas in Door into the Dark, while aimed at recollecting sacred lights (the altar-like anvil wreathed with sparks in the forge, the grass flaming outside the Gallarus Oratory), gained intensity from the 'dark night' they struggled to illuminate. In Wintering Out scholarly disquisitions on place names in Northern Ireland drew mythic and political force from the Protestant and Catholic conflicts raging beneath their linguistic surfaces. And in North the apocalyptic desire to raise the dead for judgment and to invoke history as a guide to a saner future achieved pathos from the 'counter-revelation' of Irish history as a dark, tragic mire of bloody feuds and mindless sacrifices.

In this series of oscillating movements, Field Work marked a new departure and is crucial to the understanding of the books that come after. Seismic Ireland is still the central event resonating through the poems, but here Heaney writes from the south rather than the north. The move from Belfast to Wicklow in 1972 (and to Dublin four years later), whose political ramifications were declaimed by the press, initiated a stylistic shift as well. The narrow, constricted poems like "Punishment," in which Heaney excoriated his failure to become more actively engaged in the political events of Northern Ireland, modulate here into a more relaxed, melodic verse. In his interview with Frank Kinahan, when asked whether substance determined style, Heaney remarked: "the line and the life are intimately related, and that narrow line, the tight line |in North~ came out of a time when I was very tight myself." When he began lengthening his lines in Field Work, "the constriction went, the tension went." Addressing the severed heads and strangled victims of Iron Age fertility rites and their modern-day equivalents in Northern Ireland, Heaney took on a grim Anglo-Saxon abruptness and ornamental complexity. He believed that the musical grace of the English iambic line was "some kind of affront, that it needed to be wrecked." In Wicklow, in the pastoral landscape of Glanmore surrounded by a Catholic majority rather than a Protestant hegemony, he felt that he had reached a "kind of appeasement."(1) As he wrote Brian Friel, he now wanted to open "a door into the light" rather than "a door into the dark."(2)

In one of the most perceptive reviews of Field Work, Christopher Ricks pointed out that "the word which matters most is 'trust'. . . . Heaney's poems matter because their uncomplacent wisdom of trust is felt upon the pulses, his and ours, and they effect this because they themselves constitute a living relationship of trust between him and us." In an "Ireland torn by reasonable and unreasonable distrust and mistrust" the "resilient strength of these poems is in the equanimity even of their surprise at some blessed moment of everyday trust."(3) At first glance, it would seem that Heaney's new trust arose from his new sense of a 'trusting' audience, of the assumed covenant between himself and his new community of predominantly Catholic and Republican citizens in the South. But while his new trust was more artistic than political (it depended more on private impulses than public compulsions), and while he wanted "to bring elements of . . . |his~ social self, elements of . . . |his~ usual nature"(4) towards center stage in Field Work, there are few signs that he trusted his audience any more than he did in the past, and little to prove he trusted his new-found door into the convivial light any more than his door into the primal, uncivilized dark. Although the diction and rhythms of Field Work resemble the kind of relaxed, accessible style Robert Lowell popularized in Life Studies and later volumes, and although he strives for the colloquial luminosity of Dante's verse, like his two precursors Heaney gives equal time to the unenlightened darknesses he finds in himself and everywhere around him.

Just as "the light of Tuscany" wavers through the clear pool in "The Otter," Heaney wavers in Field Work between trusting and distrusting 'transparent' communication with his new, receptive community. His anxiety over trust is nothing new. Early on, Heaney admits, he "had absolutely no confidence as a writer qua writer";(5) he affixed the pen-name, Incertus, to his first poems to acknowledge his uncertainty. From Hughes and Kavanagh he learned the "thrill . . . of trusting . . . |his~ own background," which was the dark hinterland of bogs, beasts, and rural laborers in Northern Ireland; he claims, "Philip Hobsbaum . . . gave me the trust in what I was doing."(6) But even while writing North, his most successful book up to that time, his confidence swayed. If he trusted his predilections, he distrusted those of his audience: "I was expecting North to be hammered, actually. I thought it was a very unapproachable book. But I was ready for the reaction, because I trusted those poems."(7) The "wisdom of trust" in Field Work is similarly counterpointed. To Frank Kinahan he confessed:

I suppose, then, that the shift from North to Field Work is a shift in trust: a learning to trust melody, to trust art as reality, to trust artfulness as an affirmation and not to go into the self-punishment so much. I distrust that attitude too, of course.(8)

Antaeus, proponent of dark, instinctual beliefs, and Hercules, skeptical light-bringer and demolisher of irrational credences, continue to wrestle in Heaney's mind, just as they did in North.

Moving to the Republic for Heaney was both a flight to freedom -- away from the burdensome "position of . . . a representative of the Catholic community"(9) in the north -- and a return to old responsibilities and anxieties. If he no longer had to agonize over "the political colouring" of his utterances, as he told Robert Druce, now his dreams of political freedom were rebuked by the atrocious situation he couldn't leave behind. His sensuous feast in "Oysters," for example, turns out to be a disturbing meditation on old acts of imperialist aggression and privilege. He recalls Rome but is thinking of England too (as it gluts itself on Ireland):

Over the Alps, packed deep in snow, the Romans hauled their oysters south to Rome: I saw damp panniers disgorge the frond-lipped, brine stung Glut of privilege . . .

Heaney wants to celebrate uncluttered sensuality and the transcendental light beyond politics, but history's undertow will not let him go. His anger is kindled by the fact that his "trust could not repose/ In the clear light, like poetry or freedom/ Leaning in from the sea." Part of the reason, he explains, lies in the "Irish Catholic . . . distrust of the world" and "distrust of happiness" stamped on his childhood psyche. Among the Irish, as among the Spanish and Russians, he claims, "There's a more elegiac and tragic view of life; they're less humanist; they're less trusting in perfectibility."(10) This mistrust of humanist ideals stimulates Heaney's preoccupation in Field Work with bestiality. As in Ted Hughes's poetry, Heaney offers a zoological array of otters, skunks, oysters, dogs, pismires, badgers, cuckoos, corncrakes, and other species. Ascents to humane, civilized orders are everywhere undercut by "saurian relapses." If Heaney consecrated his idea of poetic and political freedom by leaving Belfast, he nevertheless returned obsessively in his poems to witness its bestial ways, and to explain how his former environment was the breeding ground of his distrust.

In his essay "Responsibilities of the Poet," Robert Pinsky (who had reviewed Field Work in 1979) could be thinking of Heaney when he links 'responsibility' to 'sponsor' and 'spouse,' and explains the poet's contradictory need "to feel utterly free, yet answerable"(11) to the community around him. Pinsky declares that the poet doesn't need an audience so much as the compulsion within himself to 'respond' to one. He is responsible to the living, to spouse and readerly sponsors, but this bond is always taxed by his responsibility to the dead and unborn: "one of our responsibilities is to mediate between the dead and the unborn: we must feel ready to answer, as if asked by the dead if we have handed on what they gave us or asked by the unborn what we have for them."(12) The poet is responsible for his culture, for witnessing its exemplary and unexemplary acts, and for reinvigorating its language. But this plunges the poet into quandaries. Pinsky explains:

The poet's first social responsibility, to continue the art, can be filled only through the second, opposed responsibility to change the terms of the art as given -- and it is given socially, which is to say politically.(13)

These contrary forces form the fundamental tension in Field Work, where marriage poems speak of tearing responsibilities toward spouse and art, and political poems speak of similar tearing responsibilities toward poetic freedom and tribal demands. In poems like "Casualty" Heaney honors the dead by elegizing members of his Catholic community, but also rebukes its terms and ethics by celebrating a man who renounced 'tribal' expectations, and died as a result. His commemorative poems to artistic 'sponsors,' whether to Lowell or Ledgwidge, maintain their freedom from the august dead in order to mock them as well as praise them. His "Ugolino" and other Dantesque poems again demonstrate his responsible willingness to be the beneficiary of a 'trust,' to accept the riches of tradition and pass them on, but also his freedom from tradition, his legitimate insistence on altering the past to fit his needs and beliefs.

Neil Corcoran has argued that "the major poetic presence in Field Work . . . is not Lowell . . . but Dante," and cites Heaney's serial encounters with the dead and his "awareness of the intimate relationship between the personal and the political or historical"(14) as the two most obtrusive resemblances. Heaney himself has written in "Dante and the Modern Poet" that it was the way the exiled and embittered Florentine poet "could place himself in an historical world yet submit that world to scrutiny from a perspective beyond history, the way he could accommodate the political and transcendent"(15) that stimulated his attempts to emulate him. Dante's exploration of political and psychological divisions makes him seem Heaney's contemporary ally rather than his archaic master. "The main tension" felt by poets in Ireland, and felt by Dante in a Florence ripped apart by Guelph and Ghibelline, Heaney claims, "is between two often contradictory commands: to be faithful to the collective historical experience and to be true to the recognition of the emerging self."(16) In this case, however, Heaney is referring to Dante's influence on "Station Island" and not Field Work. Although Dante certainly reinforced Heaney's thematic concerns in the earlier volume, the texture of diction and imagery is always closer to the poetry of Robert Lowell.

The echoes of Lowell are so unmistakable that several critics have accused Heaney of playing magpie to the American poet's magisterial song. Lowell's powerful, burnished rhetoric and his penchant for long chains of adjectives, reverberate through Field Work. Lowell's example was liberating as well as constraining. His furiously candid self-scrutiny, his guilty dramas of the poet's conflicting responsibilities to marriage, society, and art, and his sad confessions of failure to spouses and sponsors, encouraged Heaney to mine a rich new vein.

Heaney's relation to Lowell is perhaps best characterized not by Harold Bloom's 'anxiety of influence,' but by his own perplexed 'anxiety of trust.' When asked about his friendship with Lowell, Heaney remarked, "There was a certain trust and intimacy. He had a great gift for making you feel close, and he had tremendous grace and insight."(17) In his review of Day by Day, Heaney praised Lowell as one of the exemplary masters, "obstinate and conservative in his belief in the creative spirit, yet contrary and disruptive in his fidelity to his personal intuitions and experiences."(18) And in the memorial address delivered after Lowell's death, he specifies what he trusts most in Lowell's art, and what, in turn, he feels obligated to entrust to others.

He was and will remain a pattern for poets in his amphibious ability to plunge into the downward reptilian welter of the self and yet raise himself with whatever knowledge he gained there out on to the hard ledges of the historical present, which he then apprehended with refreshed insight and intensity, as in his majestic poem 'For the Union Dead,' and many others, especially in the collection Near the Ocean.(19)

It is interesting to note that Heaney originally distrusted the majesty of "For the Union Dead." In a review published in 1966, he tells of "reading and wondering about the little poem," of wanting "to feel that it is an achievement as solemn and overwhelming as it seems to be." In the end he concludes, "although I find it at once public and personal, dignified and indignant, I miss the impregnable quality that comes when a poem is perfectly achieved. The transitions, if not arbitrary, are not inevitable and the rhythm in the middle stanzas does not body forth the ominous tone."(20) Heaney's personal and literary bonds with Lowell obviously grew closer over the years, yet uncertainty and doubt remained. "Heaney's trust in other poets is itself part of his art,"(21) Christopher Ricks claims. It may be more correct to say that his art is a force field in which trust and distrust exist in tense proximity.

A "Profile" in The Observer divulged some of the reasons for Heaney's wariness of Lowell. According to the anonymous author, Heaney "has found it hard to live down a reputation for obligingness," some of

which goes back to the trick that a mad Robert Lowell played, crankily testing him out, when Heaney visited him in hospital in 1976. (The previous night Lowell had broken out of hospital to award Heaney the Duff Cooper Memorial Prize.) 'Would you like some of this benedictine?' Lowell invited him. Heaney eyed the bottle suspiciously, was reassured that it did indeed contain Benedictine, and took a swig of what turned out to be after-shave.(22)

Heaney's elegy to Lowell in Field Work is certainly no gullible obeisance to the American poet. Rather it is a knowing testimonial which also testifies against Lowell for his notorious shenanigans. Although Heaney delivers a responsible avowal of indebtedness, flattering the 'sponsor' by imitating him, he also writes a declaration of independence which slyly mocks the great artist's great faults. While Lowell made Heaney drink after-shave, Heaney imagines Lowell drinking a bitter potion too:

You drank America like the heart's iron vodka,

promulgating art's deliberate, peremptory love and arrogance.

The metaphorical American 'spirits' Lowell drinks are the spirits of the dead (Jonathan Edwards, Cotton Mather, Captain Ahab), whose violent spiritual devotions reflect his own. Lowell, the literary 'master,' also wields some of the peremptory arrogance of a political taskmaster. His nickname, Cal, after all referred to Caligula, and in "Beyond the Alps" (a poem "Oysters" echoes) he identified with the latter imperialistic tyrant, Mussolini, stipulating that "the skirt-mad Mussolini unfurled/ the eagle of Caesar. He was one of us/ only, pure prose." For Heaney, whose poetry from the start has registered the most minute tremors of imperialistic aggrandizement (even in the very consonants and vowels of his words), the Latinate "deliberate" and "peremptory" suggest Lowell's de-liberating, emperor-like ways.

"Elegy," in fact, is as much an allegory of invasion and conquest as Heaney's etymological poems in Wintering Out and historical narratives in North. In earlier poems such as "Anahorish," "Toome," and "Broagh," which are all place-names in Northern Ireland, Heaney sketched out phonetic allegories in which vowels represented his native Gaelic (and by extension his Catholic and Republican sentiments), consonants represented his Anglo-Saxon heritage (and the Protestant and Unionist faction), and vocables represented their ideal harmony on Irish soul. A poem like "A New Song" advocated a deliberate repossession of the linguistic ground dominated for centuries by the English empire and its recalcitrant heirs. Heaney imagines the Irish uprising as a mellifluous Gaelic river (like Joyce's Anna Livia Plurabelle) flooding its banks and then assimilating the consonantal demesnes of foreign Protestant nobles. He declares:

But now our river tongues must rise From licking deep in native haunts To flood, with vowelling embrace, Demesnes staked out in consonants.

The linguistic geography is emphatically political here, as Heaney explains in his biographical reminiscence, "1972":

I was symbolically placed between the marks of English influence and the lure of the native experience, between the 'demesne' and 'the bog'. The demesne was Moyola Park, an estate now occupied by Lord Moyola . . . ex-Unionist Prime Minister of Northern Ireland. The bog was a wide apron of swamp on the west bank of the River Bann.(23)

At the end of "A New Song" Heaney promises to invite his traditional enemies to join him in the struggle toward Irish unity. He addresses numerous emblems of British dominance -- townlands, plantations, fortified "bawns" and "bleaching greens" used by planters in their flax and linen work -- but ultimately offers Irish emblems (the Gaelic hillfort and ritual basin stone in the last line) to signify incorporation:

And Castledawson we'll enlist And Upperlands, each planted bawn -- Like bleaching-greens resumed by grass -- A vocable, as rath and bullaun.

Heaney will enlist the opposition to form an ecumenical phalanx, just as he will merge Gaelic vowels with Anglo-Saxon consonants to make "poems |that~ will be vocables to my whole experience."(24)

In his "Elegy," he similarly plans to enlist Lowell's patriarchal 'English' attitudes and then recast them according to his Irish point-of-view. Enthralled by Lowell, he identifies with other Irishmen 'enthralled' by imperial conquerors, and distrusts his reverence. In the allegory Lowell and his art appear as a figurative ship mastering the 'ungovernable' Irish sea (like Raleigh and Spenser in earlier poems), a sea which Heaney has historical reasons to fear:

As you swayed the talk and rode on the swaying tiller of yourself, ribbing me about my fear of water,

what was not within your empory?

The 'master' here is dictating how the conversation flows, but is also swaying with inebriated enthusiasm as his ego cuts ahead like the ship's prow. The 'empory,' the territory of the emperor, is that ground 'possessed' by Lowell that Heaney wants to repossess, just as he so often talks of reclaiming Catholic Ireland once possessed by Protestant England. Heaney settles his differences with Lowell by inscribing them into his tribute. Lowell, after all, was tracing the same route as past empire-builders, sailing from England with his aristocratic wife, Lady Caroline Blackwood, to property they owned in Ireland.

As Heaney fills out his 'life study' of Lowell, the older poet emerges as linguistic imperialist "Englishing Russian," curmudgeonly artist "bullying out" sonnets to Harriet and Lizzie, and Roman gladiator (retiarius) throwing a net over his victim to hold him down (the sort of event Caligula would applaud with great glee, although Heaney is no doubt referring to Lowell's artistic "fishnet of tarred rope" in "Dolphin"). He is also that uproarious sailing carnival, the "night ferry," that crosses regularly between England and Ireland. In the end, the portrait of Lowell turns out to be an ambivalent response to a heroic artist's tragic flaws. Heaney's line, "Your eyes saw what your hand did," a borrowing of Lowell's confession in "Dolphin," reveals Lowell as the self-interrogatory, self-accusing and self-punishing poet that he was. If he is emperor he is also humbled slave, rendered timorous and pedestrian by his manic conscience. If he is the shielding and shielded patriarch of his early poems, he is also the shieldless victim of his later period. He is the majestic clipper ship and ordinary ferry, conquering seaman and conquered islander, ungovernable plunderer and governed native. Like the other artists memorialized in Field Work, he becomes Heaney's double, an ambiguous persona dramatizing his own confusions. Heaney, too, is "imperially male," as he confesses in "Act of Union," and like Lowell he explores a psyche and heritage divided by masterful and servile impulses. In examining Lowell, he strives for empathy, but at the same time submits the other poet's masterful images and authoritarian ways to a vigilant distrust, and attacks himself in the process.

Heaney's other elegies fasten on artists for similar reasons of identification, self-diagnosis, and judgment, and test the risks that trusting others involves. Trusting Lowell was made more difficult because of the different traditions the two poets represented. At the end of "Elegy" it is "the fish-dart" of Lowell's eyes "risking, 'I'll pray for you'," that reminds Heaney of the Anglo-Protestant (turned Catholic and then agnostic) dangerously risking intimacy with the Catholic Irishman (although lapsed), and the long history of sectarian distrust that such a gesture implies. In his elegy to Sean O'Riada, the famous Irish composer who died in 1971, Heaney borrows Lowell's style ("a black stiletto trembling in its mark" is vintage Lowell), but his bond with the other Catholic artist from Ulster is more intimate from the start. O'Riada resembles Heaney's actual father rather than his artistic 'father,' Lowell. He "herds" the orchestra with his baton, as Patrick Heaney once herded cattle in County Derry.

He conducted the Ulster Orchestra like a drover with an ashplant herding them south. I watched them from behind,

springy, formally suited, a black stiletto trembling in its mark, a quill flourishing itself, a quickened, whitened head.

The political and religious implications of this gesture are born out at the end: "he was jacobite,/ he was our young pretender." That is, he resembled the defeated Catholic James II and his son rather than William of Orange and his Protestant ascendancy. As in the Lowell elegy Heaney tends to obscure O'Riada with a plethora of metaphors. He, like Lowell, is a boat and fish, but also a drover, knife, quill, head, fisherman -- but "more falconer than fisherman" -- king, king's son, gannet, minnow, and wader. He invokes this multitudinous bestiary, however, for a definite purpose: to underscore the artist's necessary but problematic trust in feral instinct and his related bestial distrust of too much cerebration. "He had the sprezzatura," Heaney declares, the nonchalance and natural skill of an animal, "trusting the gift,/ risking gift's undertow." As Lowell certainly knew, the Muses are often Sirens, dragging the artist down into oceanic depths. But Heaney celebrates O'Riada's courage in courting the Muse through risky submission rather than controlled exertion (he works by lying down "like ballast in the bottom of the boat/ listening to the cuckoo"). Heaney, too, will take his chances. He will risk getting pulled under as he learns to trust the Lowellish melodies of Field Work.

Some of the political and religious tergiversation that appeared in the Lowell elegy reappears in the elegy to Francis Ledgwidge, which in some ways is a rewriting of Lowell's "For the Union Dead." Here, rather than the bronze statue of Colonel Shaw and his negro infantry, "The bronze soldier hitches a bronze cape/ That crumples stiffly in imagined wind." The historical monuments for both poets inspire meditations on the vestiges of old divisions in their personalities and nations. For Lowell the American Civil War still trembles through his TV set's news of racial strife in contemporary Boston. His mind is similarly split between despair and a violent, primitive desire to plunge into battle, like Colonel Shaw, and die in the struggle for moral reformation. Lowell suffers a further division because of his affiliation with Southern culture (the Fugitives like Tate and Ransom were his early mentors) and his native New England culture of transcendentalists and abolitionists. For Heaney, Ledgwidge is another Shaw, an emblem of loyalties split between North and South, but in the context of Irish battles between Protestant and Catholic, British unionist and Irish nationalist. As Heaney explains in a review of Alice Curtayne's biography, Ledgwidge was a Catholic from Southern Ireland and a Sinn Fein sympathizer who supported the Easter Rising of 1916. Paradoxically, he also accepted patronage from an Anglo-Irish lord and allowed his first book to be "introduced to the world by a Unionist peer,"(25) and finally joined the British army only to die fighting alongside his traditional foes in 1918. As Lowell traces the native haunt of Colonel Shaw on his retrospective walk around Boston, so Heaney walks with his Aunt Mary around Drogheda where Ledgwidge engaged in "genteel trysts with rich farmer's daughters."(26) The abrupt transitions between Heaney's personal memories, his speculations on his aunt's life during the Great War, quotations from Ledgwidge, and his vision of him in a Tommy's uniform in the Dardanelles at Ypres, lacks Lowell's uncanny ability to make disparate elements cohere. At the end, however, Heaney resurrects Ledgwidge as spokesman for his own Catholic and republican pieties, and through him delivers a moving address:

In you, our dead enigma, all the strains Criss-cross in useless equilibrium And as the wind tunes through this vigilant bronze I hear again the sure confusing drum

You followed from Boyne water to the Balkans But miss the twilit note your flute should sound. You were not keyed or pitched like these true-blue ones Though all of you consort now underground.

Having betrayed his community's trust by following the English army on a massive 'Orange Day' march into the First World War, Ledgwidge now consorts with dubious allies and obvious enemies -- uselessly, since, as a corpse, he can do nothing to redress the many divisions he was prey to.

Heaney tries to redress his nation's wounds by simply addressing them, although as he witnesses exemplary figures of the past he also announces his own sectarian proclivities. He expresses solidarity with the dead, tracing his vacillations in terms of theirs and, like the dead in Revelation, he awaits a last judgment that will pitch him toward heaven or hell. His eschatological anxiety, as he once said of Lowell, "arises from one felt responsibility clashing against another." In his essay "Current Unstated Assumptions about Poetry," he speaks of Lowell's covenants with different factions, again in terms of trust and judgment. Life Studies "trusts that it has an audience"(27) which will empathize with the poet's divisive responsibilities to family, literature, society, and history and understand his inevitable failings. Heaney is speaking of his own ideals when he says of Lowell's:

we respond to Lowell's implicit trust in poetic art as a vocation. We register and are fortified by the commitment that has made possible the note of command . . . we feel that this writer is forging his covenant with the past and the future."(28)

When Heaney accepted the Bennet Award from The Hudson Review in 1982, he seized the occasion to remind himself and his audience "of the responsibilities of the creative life" and then spoke of his own sense of a trusting covenant: "I thank and congratulate the sponsors of this prize for ratifying in such an open-handed way that covenant we all hope for between artist and audience."(29) With so many commitments, it is no wonder the poet often found himself rattling the chains of his own making.

Domestic covenants between father and son, which were collapsing in "Elegy," are mended in "The Harvest Bow." Here Heaney's father is a shield for his son, an icon the poet yearns to trust and revere, but the son's image reflected in the shield is the "Lockjawed, mantrapped" one that Heaney delineated in "An Afterwards." For both father and son the shield represents the hard, silent, repressed mask that conceals but also reveals the violence of their instinctual energies beneath. Heaney's father is both overtly brutal and appealingly mellow. He laps "the spurs on a lifetime of gamecocks" and whacks "the tips off weeds and bushes," yet in "mellowed silence" he weaves the beautiful harvest bows. The poem owes some of its pastoral quiet to Keats's "Ode to a Grecian Urn" and "To Autumn" (Keats was Heaney's original poetic father), but Heaney is hardly as sanguine about art's ability to reconcile opposites as his early 'sponsor.' Truth and beauty, like the poet's contradictory need for both contemplative quiet and a voice to speak against political atrocities, are at violent odds. The poem is as much a confession as an esthetic treatise, as much a guilty, distrustful exploration of the tangled genealogical roots of Heaney's social quietism as an apology for them.

As Neil Corcoran has pointed out, "Harvest Bow" can "be considered a revision of 'Digging'."(30) In addition, it harks back to "Boy Driving his Father to Confession," an uncollected poem written at about the same time (1965), in which a tender filial relationship is disturbed by the son's growing sense of disillusionment. Heaney recounts: "Four times |I~ found chinks in the paternal mail/ To find you lost like me, quite vulnerable." The chinks, in this case, reveal little of the man beneath the armor. So Heaney wonders: "What confession/ Are you preparing? Do you tell sins as I would?/ Does the same hectic rage in our one blood?" By the time he wrote "The Harvest Bow," father and son had been reconciled, paradoxically, by their mutual feelings of 'otherness.' The bow twisted out of what Keats once called "the alien corn" is an emblem of their alien status, of their social unease and political disenchantment, which amounts to an indifference toward vocal protest against and active participation in current events. Both affirm the silent, peaceful art of making. If Heaney groped "awkwardly to know his father" as a young man in "Confession," now he offers "a knowable corona" which knots them together. To the question "Do you tell sins as I would?" he answers, "I tell and finger . . . |the bow~ like braille,/ Gleaning the unsaid off the palpable." His familiarity with his father's silences allows him to forge an understanding that approaches complete trust. His father no longer has to tell his son "what is going on/ Under that thick grey skull," as Heaney rather indecorously put it in the earlier poem. Identifying with his 'otherness,' Heaney can now 'read' his father's mind with all the assurance of a blindman reading braille.

Like Stephen Dedalus searching for real, artistic, and mythical fathers in Ulysses, what Heaney keeps finding at the end of his quests is himself. His father appears as his artistic shadow, not a cattle dealer worrying about the price of grain and farm equipment so much as an exemplary artistic 'father,' an O'Riada or Lowell, who trusts the "gift and worked with fine intent" until his masterful "fingers moved somnambulant." From the talismanic harvest bow Heaney conjures up an image that implies that the child is father to the man. If Heaney trusts his paternal 'sponsors' like himself, he also submits both self and other to wary scrutiny. The submerged quarrel with his father in "The Harvest Bow" is fundamentally a quarrel with himself. Like Yeats, Heaney knows that poetry is born from this inner battle, but he also yearns for a peaceful reconciliation. The poem's motto taken from Yeats, "the end of art is peace,"(31) is ironic, because both poets distrust peace as anything but a momentary pause in art's continuing, potentially tragic, yet ultimately fruitful dialectic. After the father's shaping "intent" is found culpably apolitical and his gift judged a seductive snare, Heaney implies that neither his spirit nor the corn's spirit have been put to peaceful rest. If peace was permanent, art would end permanently too. To rest in peace is a temptation that Heaney, like "the spirit of the corn," has slipped from at the end.

Poetic quarrels with real and artistic fathers have their obvious corollaries in Heaney's political and marital poems. They too recognize the ineluctable conflict that is at the root of creation. They hoist the white flag for peace and then, in a more sober mood, cannot swear allegiance to it. Heaney's marriage poems have been praised for their "unromanticizing exactitude," and yet they seem natural offshoots of what Geoffrey Hill (borrowing a line that Keith Sagar applied to Ted Hughes) has called the "major Romanticism of our time": the struggle to negotiate a productive alliance between the individual mind and everything that is beyond it. Or, as Sagar puts it, to find "a way for reconciling human vision with the energies, powers, presences, of the non-human cosmos."(32) The urge to distrust all peaceful reconciliations is also, as Hill points out, part of the inner dynamic of Romanticism: "Romantic art is thoroughly familiar with the reproaches of life. Accusation, self-accusation, are the very life-blood of its most assured rhetoric."(33) Heaney's marriage poems, which trace separations and reunions, domestic squabbles and partial mendings, fit neatly into this Romantic loop. What is startling and disturbing about them is their tendency to envision women as part of the "non-human cosmos," as animals, trees or, even more unflatteringly, as mud or water. Heaney, though, is not as insouciant as he first appears. Rather than relegate women to a demeaning niche on the phylogenetic scale, his purpose is to break down stuffy views of marriage and squeamish attitudes toward sexual and artistic creation. His vision is androgynous rather than misogynist. His metaphor of marriage on its most primal level involves a trusting at-one-ment between self and other, individual vision and actual fact, and he depicts this bond ecologically, in terms of human interaction with animals, vegetation, and minerals.

The tension that shudders through these poems again arises from the two charged poles of trust and distrust. As Christopher Ricks has said of Heaney's Lowellish "The Skunk," a poem about the separation from his wife when he taught in California, it is an "exquisitely comic love-poem, and you have to love your wife most trustingly, and trust in the reciprocity, before you would trust yourself to a comparison of her to a skunk."(34) It is the skunk and not the wife, however, that dominates the poem, although wife and skunk ultimately merge into a figure of otherness, of what Heaney has called in his discussion of another animal poem, "The Badgers," "the night-self, the night part in everybody, The scuttling secret parts of life."(35) The word, 'night,' in fact, is repeated five times in "The Skunk." It has some of the religious connotations of St. John of the Cross's 'dark night,' just as it does in Lowell's "Skunk Hour," although Lowell's 'otherworld' in which he searches for love, divine or profane, is hellishly unfulfilling. Heaney is more contented, and more enthusiastic about the religious alliance of sacred and profane, Christian and pagan, than Lowell. His totemic skunk is first compared to a celebrant wearing ecclesiastical vestments ("the chasuble") at a funeral mass, as if he were about to commune with God. The skunk is a kind of medium, whose purpose is to deliver the shamanistic poet into the spirit world. The word 'wife' has a similarly magic power. It transubstantiates what is absent (Heaney's real wife) so that the word's "slender vowel" takes on her bodily form and his wife's presence permeates "the night earth and air/ of California." In "The Skunk" the process by which the 'otherness' of Heaney's wife is sacramentalized in the California night is complex but lyrically provocative:

The beautiful, useless Tang of eucalyptus spelt your absence. The aftermath of a mouthful of wine Was like inhaling you off a cold pillow.

In his deft way, Heaney is turning his uxorious skunk and his letter-writing to his wife into a miniature fable of what David Jones (in a book Heaney had read by this time) described as man's "extra-utilist, or sacramentalist"(36) vision:

The Incarnation and the Eucharist cannot be separated; the one thing being analogous to the other. If one binds us to the animalic the other binds us to artefacture and both bind us to signa, for both are a showing forth of the invisible under visible signs.(37)

For Heaney in "The Skunk" sacred and profane love intermingle as ordinary objects become signs bodying forth the invisible presence of his wife.

The poem ends, however, with a more candid 'bodying forth.' If wife and skunk have been sacramentalized, "damasked like the chasuble" at mass, now the ornamental garment is stripped off, the "ordinary" body unveiled. Voyant and voyeur comically merge as Heaney watches his wife disrobe before bed. In her ultimate re-veiling, "The black plunge-line nightdress" she puts on recalls the black chasuble in the first stanza, although this ceremony is erotic rather than funereal.

Heaney's journeys into the fecund night often resemble prayers and Catholic meditations, although with a deliberately sexual slant. "Homecoming," in which "love is a nesting trust,"(38) as Ricks observes, also articulates a prayer for the self's deliverance. Here a male sandmartin "veering/ breast to breast with himself" is Heaney's symbol for the self-preoccupied artist. His flight is a meditative one, a transport from the diurnal ego toward the desired other. The meditation requires "A glottal stillness," an attentive tuning in to an autochthonous demiurge. His wife once again becomes the 'dark lady,' both earth mother and muse, sandmartin and sandy bank in which she nests. Heaney prays for the kind of self-occlusion that will lead to luminous revelation:

Mould my shoulders inward to you. Occlude me. Be damp clay pouting. Let me listen under your eaves.

Again the wife is rather unflatteringly anatomized, and again she becomes a projection of the poet's oracular 'night self,' his creative unconscious. Although Heaney promised to open a door into the light in Field Work, he keeps opting for a door into the dark.

The mythic equation between women, nature, and imagination implicit in Heaney's poetry from the start, receives a more candid, pared-down avowal in these later poems. Few early poems, for example, have the passionate brevity of "Polder," where the wife is cast as a stormy sea dyked and transformed by her husband into a fertile land ('polder' is the Dutch word for reclaimed land):

I have reclaimed my polder, all its salty grass and mud-slick banks;

under fathoms of air, like an old willow I stir a little on my creel of roots.

As usual, though, Heaney seems hesitant to explore the sexual politics and gender stereotypes that these poems suggest. In "The Otter," an amphibious Heaney (like Ted Hughes in "An Otter" and "The Thought-Fox") enters the animistic 'otherworld' to write his poem, and characteristically the otter is the other, his wife and muse. She delivers the poem like a gift after the poet's sexual plunge into what he partially fears (the symbolic waters). Risk and trust, for Heaney, is as important to love-making as to poetry-writing. After his wife 'swims' on her back, she 'gives birth,' "printing the stones" like Hughes's 'thought fox' printing the page after "It enters the dark hole of the head."

As for Stephen Dedalus, who quests for a father but, in the end, finds a mother, Heaney's ultimate symbol of the unified self he yearns for is a woman. Not to be outdone by Joyce, who mythicized his wife into an archetype of all wives, mothers, and daughters, whether Virgin Mary or pagan fertility goddess, Molly Bloom or Anna Livia Plurabelle, Heaney transforms his own Marie into an emblem of a universal elan vital, then launches forth to make her example his own. This is the gist of the title poem, "Field Work," where loosened meters and relaxed diction underscore the journey towards spontaneous fecundity and the trust in his wife which mirrors his trust in himself. The poem commences in separation but concludes, after national and personal boundaries have been crossed and old suppositions negated, with the poet at one with his anointed image. Although Heaney dramatizes his process of 'individuation' in terms of multiple crossings, he chooses bodily symbols rather than the Cross to carry his meaning. Still, Christ the wounded, healing God is behind them all.

Trust and faith are obviously more pressing issues when wife and husband are on different sides of the world. In "Field Work," however, Heaney faithfully travels back across the Atlantic to wife and home and, unlike Ahab, persistently seeks an emblem of concord rather than adversity, of contraries crossed in a regenerative unity rather than crucified into oblivion. Ring symbols of moon and coin highlight this 'marriage-in-separation':

Our moon was small and far, was a coin long gazed at

brilliant on the Pequod's mast across Atlantic and Pacific waters.

As the poem progresses, it counters images of destruction, disease and death with those of burgeoning fertility. It traverses a via negativa from imaginary, nocturnal unions in California to actual, sexual unions in Ireland. Even though he proposes that his mythic image of woman, his mandala of a unified self, is "Not the mud slick . . . and pock-marked leaves," "Not the cow parsley in winter/ with its old whitened shins," "Not even the tart green shade of summer thick with . . . fungus," but the radiant "sunflower, dreaming umber," his intention is to subsume these negatives rather than pit them against each other.

The ritualistic finale reenacts a strange but touching scene of marital rapprochement. To Yeats's observation "love has pitched his mansion in/ The place of excrement," Heaney adds Lawrentian details: "Catspiss smell,/ the pink bloom open." He presses the flowering currant to his wife's skin for her "veins to be crossed/ criss-cross with leaf-veins," and "anoint|s~ the anointed/ leaf-shape" with his thumbprint. The new mark, like a stigmata of the cross, testifies to crucifying trials and exemplary faithfulness. The divisions in the poem between husband and wife, imagination and reality, 'perfect' animal existence and 'imperfect' human travail, vegetation goddess and actual woman, are fused in the final mark made by the leaf and mould. "You are stained, stained/ to perfection," Heaney declares at the end, thinking of the redemptive ordeals through which both wife and poem have passed.

Freedom and responsibility, trust and doubt, rend the political poems in Field Work as well as those dramatizing marital and literary relations. As he bears witness to sectarian killings, Heaney invokes the dead to corroborate his dilemmas. Almost without exception his victims are innocent bystanders (like himself), who for one reason or another refuse to get embroiled in political battles but also refuse to get out of their way. Those who repudiate the Troubles, going about their business as if nothing unusual is happening, usually end up dead. "Too near the ancient troughs of blood/ Innocence is no earthly weapon," Heaney might say with Geoffrey Hill (in "Ovid in the Third Reich"). Like Hill he feels obvious empathy for the unearthly innocents, yet he distrusts their freedom from worldy exigencies as well. In his elegy for Sean Armstrong, for example, he tells how his Queen's University friend who "dropped-out" to pursue the pot-smoking, communal lifestyle of the sixties, only to return to work at childrens' playgrounds in Belfast, was "changed utterly" by an assassin's bullet:

Drop-out on a come-back Prince of no-man's land With your head in clouds or sand, You were the clown Social worker of the town Until your candid forehead stopped A pointblank teatime bullet.

In this Lowellish 'life-study,' when Heaney observes "Yet something in your voice/ Stayed nearly shut/ . . . It was independent, rattling, nontranscendent/ Ulster," he is also observing his own reluctance to speak out. His portrait of iconoclastic independence, in the end, is a confessional self-portrait which delineates his distrust of political absentmindedness, especially when it leads to martyrdom.

Louis O'Neil, Heaney's drinking friend who was blown up by the IRA in his father-in-law's pub (the bombing was a reprisal for the Bloody Sunday murders by British paratroopers), is another authorial double -- the illiterate, nearly silent, slyly independent self Heaney would like to trust but ultimately distrusts. The poem describes a series of 'turnings,' in which his friend, having turned his paradoxically "observant back" on straightforward engagements with the Troubles, is partly to blame for their continuing cycle. When Heaney asks, "How culpable was he/ That last night when he broke/ Our tribe's complicity?" he turns the question on himself, since he too seeks to break free from tribal complicity. The futile turning away from sins of commission, however, only perpetrates sins of omission. Like the figures bound to Yeats's gyres and Eliot's stairways, Heaney seems entrapped in purgatorial anxiety. If Heaney's purpose in "Casualty" is to bury the dead, he fails. O'Neil's ghost is "revenant" at the end, haunting him with accusations of guilt.

Heaney's attitude toward the IRA is deeply ambivalent and perhaps the fundamental wound behind his many festering political anxieties. In "Triptych" he elegizes Christopher Ewart-Briggs, murdered by the IRA in 1976, and again plunges into the familiar dialectic, yearning for freedom and fertility -- "a stone house by a pier./ Elbow room. Broad window light," with a down-to-earth vegetation goddess "Carrying a basket full of new potatoes,/ Three tight green cabbages, and carrots" -- while painfully aware that his quest for poetic freedom and creativity only makes his sectarian affiliations more agonizing. His psyche is as riven as Ireland itself. His nation's "saurian relapses" and negative sea changes (its "comfortless noises" allude to those in The Tempest), in fact, are his own. He hopes "forgiveness finds its nerve and voice," but when he examines his native ground, he finds only a "flayed or calloused" corpse whose voice has been strangled in blood. In the third section his emblems of religious transcendence, like Lowell's statue of the Lady of Walsingham in "The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket," whose face, "expressionless, expresses God," again rebukes his dream of trust, freedom and deliverance. "On Boa the god-eyed, sex-mouthed stone" is "two-faced, trepanned,"a mirror image of Heaney's own ambiguous stance, which echoes the poet's "silence with silence."

As he examines the Christian ruins on the islands in Lough Beg, and the ruins Christian factions have littered across Ireland for centuries, he finally acknowledges his own vestigial Catholicism, since it provides a way to confess to collusion and work toward therapeutic redemption:

Everything in me Wanted to bow down, to offer up, To go barefoot, foetal and penitential,

and pray at the water's edge.

Yet he feels impelled "to bow down" partly because "The helicopter shadowing" the march at Newry forces him to, and partly because of his urge for a womb-like withdrawal from all political activities. As Stephen Dedalus was shocked by the word foetus carved in the desk at his father's old school (since it suggests his failure to be artistically born), Heaney is shocked by his similar failure to be politically born and to establish a credo he can trust and act on. He wants to return home, as in "The Toome Road," to that "untoppled omphalos" of Mossbawn where political and religious turmoil was eclipsed by pastoral calm and where beliefs were more certain, more stable. He distrusts that nostalgia too, just as he distrusts the peaceful 'snare' of the harvest bow. As "Triptych" attests, he engages in the protest march, but still can't be convinced that he has done enough.

In Field Work Heaney often appears to be walking through a mine field of his own design. He knows where the mines are, locates them, defuses them, but as he keeps versing and reversing over the field he continues, almost against his will, to plant new ones. The things he is most devoted to -- his Irish heritage, poetic craft, marriage -- exercise his rigorous sense of responsibility to the breaking point. He wants to 'respond' to 'sponsors' and 'spouses,' actual and imaginary, literary and familial, but their diverse claims fill him with moral anguish. Freedom from those claims is a transcendence hoped for but renounced. If Field Work indicates a partial relaxation of the constrictions Heaney felt in Belfast and scored into the tight stanzas of North in Wicklow, it also agonizes over that relaxation. To slip through the harvest bows that promise deceptive peace and to escape the paramilitary groups assuring prolonged violence requires persistent vigilance. Those who relax in Field Work often get shot or blown up.

Heaney insists that his art, like his marriage and politics, depends on trust. Nevertheless, as he freely avails himself to that constellation of otherness -- audience, wife, spirit, animal, vegetation, the earth itself -- he recoils in uncertainty and distrust, as if always fearing bedevilment by the forces that originally succored him. The 'others,' as the poems show, comprise a 'compound ghost,' which is really Heaney's multi-faceted mask or shadow. Although many of the poems in Field Work resemble 'trial-pieces' (similar to but not as accomplished as the "Trial-Pieces" in North), they are courageous in their willingness to explore new territory, to trust hunches and take risks. While some careers would wilt under the intense self-scrutiny Heaney applies to himself and his art, his career seems to gain force and immediacy because of it. As Heaney said of Lowell, whose influence is noticeable in almost every poem in Field Work, he "dared to perceive himself historically, as a representative figure."(39) Heaney also dares to test his poetic accomplishments with unprecedented self-questionings and self-accusations. Although he is aware of the dangers of plunging forward encumbered with responsibilities, his dedication has paid off. As Lowell was once lauded as the representative poet of America, so Heaney is now deemed the exemplary poet of Ireland by a swelling audience of critics and ordinary readers alike.


1 Seamus Heaney, "Artists on Art," interview with Frank Kinahan, Critical Inquiry, Vol. 8, No. 3 (Spring, 1982), pp. 411-12.

2 Heaney, "An Interview," with James Randall, Ploughshares, Vol. 5, No. 3 (1979), p. 20.

3 Christopher Ricks, "The Mouth, the Meal and the Book," The London Review of Books (8 November 1979), p. 4.

4 Heaney, "Artists on Art," Kinahan, p. 411.

5 Ibid., p. 407.

6 Heaney, with Randall, p. 14.

7 Heaney, with Kinahan, p. 412.

8 Ibid., p. 412.

9 Heaney, "A Raindrop on a Thorn," interview with Robert Druce, Dutch Quarterly, Vol. 60, No. 1 (1979), p. 28.

10 "Artists on Art," Kinahan, pp. 408-409.

11 Robert Pinsky, "Responsibilities of the Poet," Critical Inquiry, Vol. 13, No. 3 (Spring 1987), p, 423.

12 Ibid., p. 424.

13 Ibid., p. 426.

14 Neil Corcoran, Seamus Heaney (London: Faber, 1986), p. 129-30.

15 Heaney, "Envies and Identifications: Dante and the Modern Poet," Irish University Review, Vol. 15, No. 1 (Spring 1985), p. 18.

16 Ibid., p. 19.

17 Heaney, with Randall, p. 22.

18 Heaney, Preoccupations (London: Faber, 1980), p. 221.

19 Heaney, "On Robert Lowell," New York Review of Books (February 9, 1978), p. 37.

20 Heaney, "Prospero in Agony," Outposts, Vol. 68 (Spring, 1966), p. 23.

21 Ricks, "The Mouth, the Meal and the Book," p. 5.

22 Anonymous, "Poet wearing the mantle of Yeats," The Observer (21 June 1987), p. 7.

23 Heaney, Preoccupations, p. 35.

24 Ibid., p. 408.

25 Heaney, "The Labourer and the Lord," The Listener (28 September 1972), p. 408.

26 Ibid., p. 408.

27 Heaney, "Current Unstated Assumptions About Poetry," Critical Inquiry (Summer 1981), p. 648.

28 Ibid., p. 649.

29 Heaney, "Bennet Award Acceptance Speech, 1982," Hudson Review (Winter 1982-83), p. 519.

30 Corcoran, Heaney, p. 151.

31 This appears in the passage from Yeats's "Sambain: 1905," in Explorations, which Heaney places on the first page of Preoccupations.

32 Geoffrey Hill, The Lords of Limit (London: Andre Deutsch, 1984), p. 15.

33 Ibid., p. 3.

34 Ricks, "The Mouth, the Meal and the Book," p. 4.

35 Heaney, with Randall, p. 21.

36 David Jones, The Dying Gaul (London: Faber, 1978), p. 178.

37 Ibid., p. 171.

38 Ricks, "The Mouth, the Meal and the Book," p. 5.

39 Heaney, "Current Unstated Assumptions," p. 648.
COPYRIGHT 1988 University of Chicago
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1988 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Hart, Henry
Publication:Chicago Review
Date:Jun 22, 1988
Previous Article:Cicadas.
Next Article:Another Kind of Travel.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2016 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters