'Do Not Be Afraid!' -- Seamus Heaney: An Appreciation

Seamus Heaney, considered by many to be the greatest Irish poet since William B. Yeats, texted his wife Marie a few hours before his death: “Do not be afraid!” How comforting these words were to her I do not know. They seem, however, appropriate words for a man who faced so many crises in his life, dealt with them with grace, dignity and humility and “kept going.”  His poetry gives mankind helpful guides in confronting the mysteries and difficulties of this world and urges us to do the same.

In her introduction to Seamus Heaney, Helen Vendler, a close friend, states that his poetry “reached a large public in Ireland and abroad and that public extends to all classes.” She explains that it is in his poetry by which the reader can recognize family situations, beautiful landscapes and social concerns. It is also autobiographical starting from his childhood, covering the states of growth and adulthood, and taking him into his 60s. In his poems, the reader sees images of him at home with his parents, siblings and relatives, “an adolescence with school fellows and friends, adulthood with marriage and children, a displacement from Northern Ireland, travels, sorrows and deaths . . .”  The global influence of Heaney’s words extends to classrooms throughout the world.

Tom Deignan, a high school teacher in Brooklyn, New York, and a columnist for the Irish Voice, states that Seamus Heaney’s poem, “Digging” has “played a central role in my teaching.” He teaches it the first week of classes and it has the same important message for his students that Heaney sent to his wife: “Do not be afraid!”

At first, the students are confused by the poem as it begins with agricultural imagery with which they are not familiar. But when the “I” narrator states that his pen fits his hand as snug as a gun, he has gotten their attention. Guns are familiar to these kids, and eventually they see the “power” of the pen contrasted with the “power” of the gun. The narrator describes his father Stooping in rhythm through potato drills/ Where he was digging… and he notices … the old man could handle a spade [this world also gets the kids’ attention]/ Just like his old man.  Deignan explains that the poem becomes a “multi-generational poem” and leads to discussions of the students’ parental relationships and the generations that came before them.

At the conclusion of the poem, the narrator states, I’ve no spade to follow men like them/ Between my finger and my thumb/ The squat pen rests/ I’ll dig with it. The students begin to see the relationship to their own lives and wonder what this “farm boy” knows about guns. Deignan then tells them a bit about Irish history and has them “dig” into their own histories.

Seamus Heaney was born on April 13, 1939, in Bellaghy, County Derry, at the family home, Mossbawn, the eldest of nine children. His first poems describe the experiences of childhood, “which could be the experiences of any child growing up on a farm and watching daily and seasonal rituals of churning, haymaking and turf cutting.” (Stepping Stones, Interviews with Seamus Heaney, by Dennis O’Driscoll).

These poems and recollections make up the core of his first two books, Death of a Naturalist (1966) and Door into the Dark (1969). Helen Vendler states that Heaney had an awareness of words and their importance, even to his own name and group names that he heard regularly: “Catholics,” “farmers,” “Seamus” and the “Heaneys:” … the child hides in the hollow tree/ he hears the family calling his first name…You can hear them/ draw the poles of stiles/As they approach/ calling you out (“Mossbawn”).  Ironically, Heaney himself told Dennis O’Driscoll there was no great significance to his parents’ choice of his name! He said his mother did not “lean toward the Gaelic side of things.”

There is a mystical quality to these poems in that the narrator begins to see himself more as a “tree spirit” than a human child:  … small mouth and ear/ in a woody cleft/ lobe and larynx/ of the mossy places (“Oracle”).  In another poem, “Alphabeles,” the child’s recognition that he is more than “Seamus,” that he is one of a circle of kin sharing his surname. He watches with delight as the man who is plastering his house writes his family name:  All agog at the plasterer on his ladder/Shimming our gable and writing our name there/ . . . letter by strange letter . . . .

These references to his name and family led Heaney to wonder about his identity as a poet. Should he write as a child and family member or as an adult with his own identity? Should he be a spokesman for Catholicism or a transmitter of an Irish literary tradition?  Eventually he became confident and comfortable, believing that he does not have to speak for any particular group or point of view. He can be himself and express his ideas as life unfolds before him. And let the world listen and respond!  Other poems in Death of a Naturalist describe a variety of emotions as the child grows: conquering a fear of death (“An Advancement of Leaving”), shrugging shoulders at the sight of drowning puppies (“Follower”) and the anxiety of a son succeeding his father (“Ancestral Photographs”).

 A terrible tragedy for Heaney and his family was the death of his younger brother Christopher, aged four, who was struck by a car near their home. Seamus was 14 and away at school in Derry. He deals with this in “Mid-Term Break.”  The first person narrator has been called home from school for the wake and burial. A neighbor (“Big Jim Evans”) is named but not the speaker or the dead child. It seems the speaker’s tone is one of anger, shock and irritation; all of it is overwhelming:  I was embarrassed/ By old men standing up to shake my hand/ And tell me they were “sorry for my trouble”/ Whispers informed strangers I was the eldest/ Away at school… Next morning I went up into the room… I saw him/ For the first time in six weeks. Paler now…Wearing a poppy bruise on his left temple/ He lay in his four foot box as in his cot.

The words of the strangers he seems to interpret as a reproach, insinuating if he were at home, this might not have happened. When he sees the corpse, the images of snowdrops and candles suggest a sense of peace may come to him, but then the poppy bruise brings back the horror of the accident and the sight of his brother in the coffin heightens his emotions.

Much of Seamus Heaney’s poetry deals with the conflict in Northern Ireland.  In 1969 the British sent troops into Belfast and Derry, and in 1972 paratroopers killed 13 unarmed civil rights marchers and wounded 12. This incident is known as “Bloody Sunday.”  

Seamus was involved in protests in Newry, and it is in this year he moves his family to County Wicklow in the Republic. He still went back and forth to his family in Derry, and one can see in his collection of poems North how the violence of this period affected him and the people living through it.

Right: photo by WGT member  Loretta Murphy. Mural shows Father Edward Daly waving a blood-stained white handkerchief while trying to escort the mortally wounded Jackie Duddy to safety on "Bloody Sunday."

In Part I of “Funeral Rights,” the “I” narrator provides images of the victims of the violence, both individual and families, showing how lives were changed forever: I shouldered a kind of manhood. Stepping in to lift coffins… I knelt courteously/ admiring it all/ to the women hovering behind me/ And always in a corner/ the coffin lid/ its nail-heads dressed/ with little gleaming crosses. The narrator’s anger is expressed ironically with words and phrases, such as admiring and gleaming crosses.

In Part II, the theme of the poem is raised to county, country and universal levels: Now as news comes in/ of each neighborly murder/ … a cortege winding past/ each blinded home/ … the great chambers of Boyne/ prepare a sepulchre/ the whole country tunes to the muffled drumming.

In the poems “Ocean’s Love to Ireland” and “Act of Union,” Heaney portrays the English colonization of Ireland as an act of “violent sexual conquest” (The Poetry of Seamus Heaney, A Critical Guide, edited by Harold Bloom).       Raleigh has backed the maid to a tree/ And drives inland/ Till all her strands are breathless/ The ruined maid complains in Irish/ … (“Ocean’s Love of Ireland”).

In “Act of Union,” Heaney uses the sonnet form, which we usually associate with love poetry to construct a sexual union that is violent with possible rape connotations. He employs a sexual vocabulary to enhance the imagery: … a bog burst/ a gash breaking open/ the ferny bed….  The persona in the poem is a personification of both England and Ireland, and it is through this persona “that Heaney complicates the nationalist view of colonization as a rape” (Seamus Heaney, A Critical Guide, Oliver Gray).  Your back is a firm line of eastern coast/ And arms and legs are thrown beyond gradual hills…. This is Ireland’s geographical location in relation to Britain, with Ireland’s back facing Britain as if she were trying to escape her grasp.

Wintering Oak is a series of “bog” poems that were inspired by the archeological excavations of peat bogs containing preserved human bodies that had been treated like slaves during the Iron Age.  Heaney depicts these victims as symbolic of the bloodshed caused by the contemporary violence of Northern Ireland. “As Heaney wrote the ‘bog’ poems, the archeological and contemporary converged more and more. It is the humanity and the contemporaneity of the bog corpse in ‘Punishment’ that has made this the most controversial of Heaney’s archeologies” (Vendler).  Heaney makes the archaic, murdered young woman, disinterred in Northern Germany, one of his own ethnic group. She is a sister to the Catholic women whose heads were shaved, and who themselves were tarred for fraternizing with British soldiers. The movement from the past to the present reminds us of the ongoing cruelty of human nature. The frail rigging of her ribs contrasts sharply with her violent death that leaves her also with a shaved head.

In Field Work (1979), Heaney remains outraged at the violence in the North, but he shifts to a more personal tone encompassing a wide range of subjects: love and marriage, mortality and the regenerative powers of “self determination” and the “poetic imagination.”  In a 1981 interview, Heaney said that Field Work “was an attempt to try to do something deliberately; to change the note and to lengthen the line and to bring elements of my social self, elements of my usual nature, which is more convivial than most of the poems before that might suggest” (O’Driscoll).  Seamus and his family had moved to Glanmore, County Wicklow; their daughter Catherine would be born there. The poet has now changed countries in a political sense, if not a geographical one and comes upon the new scenery and people of the Republic as a “fieldworker” in an alternative culture. Helen Vendler goes on to explain that he is again (after living two years in Belfast) once again living among fields in a rural setting. The work before him is to register the new surroundings and the new feelings and observations it brings, while still keeping that connection to his Northern past.

Heaney begins the collection with six elegies that show his deep feelings about the Northern conflict. One is for his cousin Colum McCartney, who was shot in a sectarian killing.  Another for his friend Sean Armstrong, shot by a point blank teatime bullet.  The third for the composer Sean O’Riada and the poet Robert Lowell.  Next, a friend, Louis O’Neill, a victim of a bomb explosion, and the Catholic poet Francis Ledwidge, killed while fighting for England during the First World War. Work in the field, in this sense, arises from an obligation of survivors to celebrate those who died.  In each poem, the individual is characterized and valued (Vendler).

Heaney’s words in the poem “The Strand at Lough Beg” are lurid and shocking. Of his cousin’s death he says:

I turn because the sweeping of your feet/ Has stopped behind me/ To find you on your knees/ With blood and roadside muck in your hair and eyes. One can see Heaney’s ambiguity, between the desire for peace contrasted with the reality of continuing violence. Earlier in the poem, he describes his cousin’s family enjoying their bucolic peace.

His domestic life with his wife, family and social occasions make up the second half of his work. Though there have been earlier poems about his wife and their marriage, his extended treatment of their relationship is found in Field Work. Ten of these poems are called the “Glanmore Sonnets.”  Of these the most creative and controversial is “The Skunk.”  The poem is a tribute to his wife.  He had been teaching in California and greatly missed Marie. The nocturnal visits of a skunk remind him of her. Heaney came in for much criticism (he has been criticized for the lack of more women figures in his poetry) for such a comparison; some saw it as insulting.  It is a bit unusual, but readers of the poem will see why it is a magnificent piece of writing.

There are two settings for the poem. The first five stanzas are based on memories of California nights and the last stanza is a recent memory of waiting in bed for his wife to undress.  It is a celebration of the energy and freshness of his marriage: … after twelve years I was composing love letters again….  It is also an expression of the pain of separation from her: … the beautiful, useless tang of Eucalyptus spelt your presence….   In the last stanza he reveals how the skunk helped him connect to his wife.  There is a sexual connection between his wife in her nightdress and the skunk’s erect tail. In a bedroom scene back in Ireland, Marie bends over naked to pick up her nightdress. Her posture in the darkened room reminds Heaney of the skunk in California. The words glamorous, mysterious and intent suggest a sexual longing and a sexy nightdress.  The nightdress is black like the skunk and he uses the word voyeur, which he is, in a sense! He watches his wife prepare for bed, feels a sense of mystery and is stirred by the scene before him.

When I took on this project, I knew very little about Seamus Heaney, having read only a few of his poems. Poetry is not my first choice of literary genre. But I am delighted I did study the work of Seamus Heaney.  In reading his poetry, I understand why he has been compared to Yeats and is called by some the greatest poet of the 20th century.  I hope I have whetted your appetite to read a volume of his poetry.  You will be impressed and proud that we share our Irish heritage with the genius of Seamus Heaney.

At the conclusion of his article, Tom Deignan said it best: “The first day of school in New York City is September 9. We will continue digging! We will not be afraid!” 

(Written for the September-October 2014 issue of The Hedgemaster, the newsletter of the Irish Cultural Society) 

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Tags: Arts, Literature, Poetry

Comment by Anne Casey on September 4, 2016 at 7:49am
Wonderful article.

Founding Member
Comment by John M. Walsh on September 4, 2016 at 11:47am

Jim's appreciation of Seamus Heaney helps us non-academics to understand why Heaney is so respected for his gifts and why he belongs among the great poets of a land of great poets.  Thank you, Jim.

Comment by Colm Herron on September 13, 2016 at 8:57am

Jim, I absolutely loved your appreciation of Seamus. I knew him, taught with him awhile and was in occasional contact with him so your piece means all the more to me. I couldn't get to his last public appearance which was here in Derry but have found this special link. http://www.culturenorthernireland.org/features/literature/home-grou...

Comment by John Anthony Brennan on September 27, 2016 at 4:24pm

A wonderful, comprehensive telling of the story of one man who inspired a generation and generations to come. Seamus Heaney knew the power of words and as you quote,  "Between my finger and my thumb/ The squat pen rests/ I’ll dig with it."

Someone once said, "the best gift the British gave Ireland was the English language." When that occurred, we then had a worldwide audience. Great informative article.


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