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Seamus Heaney's Poetry: Excavating His Irish Roots

By Adam K. Goodheart

Seamus Heaney

Selected Poems, 1966-1987

Farrar, Straus and Giroux


I have often passed Seamus Heaney making his way up the incline of Plympton St. towards the Yard and wondered what he was doing in Cambridge. The broadbacked poet looks as though he should be among the gnarled stiles of an Irish hillside, not the parking meters of a street in Harvard Square.

Heaney's poetry, though, has never really left Ireland, despite the fact that its author has been Boylston professor of rhetoric here for the past six years. Unlike William Butler Yeats, whose far-roving mind soon strayed from the lake isle of Innisfree, Heaney is a stationary poet, taking few side-trips to Cambridge or California, let alone Byzantium. His verses are circumscribed by the ancient parameters of the Celtic-Norse world, borders that almost everyone else has forgotten.

But to call Heaney's poems circumscribed is not to say that they are in any way of merely parochial or national interest. His newest book, a selection of poems written over the first two decades of his career, proves concisely and convincingly that Heaney deserves to be ranked with Yeats not just as an Irish poet, but as a voice of persistent and international relevance.

In fact, it is precisely because of the limits he places on his poetic demesne that Heaney gains an almost unlimited expressive control. For instead of moving outwards, he burrows "inwards and downwards," sifting the Irish soil and Irish soul for meaning and metaphor, retraversing locales and themes until the subtlest shifts and shadings take on great meaning. He delves, too, into his own and his country's past and finds them richly veined with continuities.

Fundamental to Heaney's success is his ability to recreate his native landscape on the page. The smoothness of the hills and the scuff of gravel under thick-soled shoes make themselves felt not just in the words' literal meaning but in the assonance and consonance of their sound. It is a world whose outer forms are rounded, full with what lies beneath. This external landscape then becomes a thing to be explored, dug into, its inner forms revealed.

This task is laid out in the first poem in the book, "Digging" (1966), which is one of Heaney's most famous works. It is also one of many that directly address the writing process itself:

Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests.

I'll dig with it.

And Heaney does literally dig in many of his poems, stripping away the soil layer by layer and showing us the peat, potatoes, bones, down to the "wet centre" of "Atlantic seepage."

Through this sort of excavation, Heaney argues that the outer contours of the present landscape are simply the surface form of an inner, accumulated past. It is an appropriate theme for a poet whose homeland continues to suffer from deep-rooted and ancient political conflict.

And the archaeologist's tools are of use not just on the national and political level, but in discussing the inner life of the poet himself. In several poems Heaney describes an incident from his youth or a Yeatsian encounter with a stranger, and then shows how this core event has continued to shape his consciousness.

In many of his earlier works, particularly, Heaney shows a fascination with the metaphor of archaeology. In poems selected from his books Wintering Out (1972) and North (1975), he deals at length with the "bog people," prehistoric humans whose bodies scientists have recovered, almost perfectly preserved, from peat bogs in Denmark. These long-buried victims of "tribal, intimate revenge" become symbols of the collective subconscious of their modern descendants.

Here and in many others of Heaney's poems, body and land are one: the undersoil is richly strewn with bits of bone from people who have lived and died in the past. "Bone Dreams" (1975) recalls the Song of Solomon, as the bodies of the poet and his lover merge into the landscape:

...I am screes

on her escarpments,

a chalk giant

carved upon her downs.

And like Greek gods who were the very rivers and streams they represented in myth, language itself is an inextricable, physical feature of Heaney's pagan world. This takes on a literal dimension in "Alphabets" (1987), where the letter A is "two rafters and a cross-tie" and the number 2 "a swan's neck and a swan's back."

In a more general sense, too, Heaney's language is like his landscape. His sentences are earthy and declarative; they have the tones of a farmer talking to his neighbor across the stone fence. The vocabulary is stoutly native, rich with Anglo-Saxon nouns whose vowels are strong and round as the hillsides. And, once again the archaeologist, Heaney mines the forgotten caves of English to exhume fine words in their last stage of decay, words like bleb and rath and coign, words shaped in the mouths of Beowulf and Cuchulain.

There is much in this book that is profound, but little that trumpets itself as such. There is little precarious and showy piling of image on image, few abstruse allusions and fancy metaphysical dance-steps. Rather, there is every-where the easy, sure-footed gait of a writer at home in his native tongue and native place.

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