North published by Faber and Faber in 1975 is Seamus Heaney’s fourth collection. Heaney was in his mid-thirties. The totality of his collections over more than half a century have confirmed Heaney’s place at the top of the premier league of poets writing in English.
The textual commentaries that follow seek to tease out what Heaney’s poems are intimating in North. Of course, the poet’s ‘message’ will have started life as an essentially personal one not intended primarily for his reader; there are moments when some serious unravelling is required. Thanks to the depth of Heaney’s knowledge, scholarship and personal feelings, his poetry is rich in content; digging into background-materials is both essential and edifying. In the case of a poet as accomplished, complex and focused as Heaney, the rewards for persevering are at once enriching, fortifying and hugely pleasurable. In a very real sense Heaney both entertains and educates.
There are issues, too, beyond ‘the text, the whole text and nothing but the text’: there is the question of ‘style’, that is, the combination of language and poetic devices deliberately selected by the poet to carry his narrative forward; then there is the matter of Heaney’s appeal to the ear, the poem intended as a song to be heard and enjoyed or, to the mind’s eye, a picture to be ‘seen’ and felt. These issues are explored in individual commentaries and summarised at the end.
The following introductory notes, textual surveys and footnotes are largely personal. The approach is not calculated to promote any particular viewpoint.
Comments in italics are drawn largely from:
Michael Parker’s Seamus Heaney The Making of a Poet Macmillan 1993 (MP)
Neil Corcoran’s The Poetry of Seamus Heaney, Faber 1998 (NC)
Dennis O’Driscoll’s Stepping Stones, Faber 2008 (DOD); page references are included where appropriate; www.etymonline.com has been helpful.
Biographical ‘events’ between 1968-1975
2nd son Christopher born;
Heaney attends Thomas Hardy Festival in Dorchester; visits the T. S. Eliot burial place;
Claddagh records issue a joint reading with John Montague;
he takes part in protests following RUC charge on the Civil Rights march of October 5 in Derry;
he receives the Somerset Maugham Award (SMA) for Death of a Naturalist;
outbreaks of sectarian conflict caused British troops to be deployed to protect Catholics;
takes the family abroad over Summer to meet conditions of SMA: the Bas Pyrenées then Madrid (including the Prado palace)/ Avila/ he attends a bullfight;
spends a year with his family in USA;
Returns home in same week that Internment without trial is introduced in NI (Aug 1971);
Heaney wrote in the Belfast Telegraph in November 1971 that his return to Northern Ireland from the lecturing post at Berkeley University, California was ‘like putting on a dirty old glove again’ …‘a kind of disease preventing personality from flowering gracefully’ … ‘a graceless community, a very scared and stunted community’;
Wintering Out published;
Bloody Sunday and Bloody Friday events; 1972: On ‘Bloody Sunday’ (January 30th) British troops shot 13 unarmed protesters in Londonderry; on ‘Bloody Friday’, IRA bombs in Belfast killed 9 civilians; direct rule from Westminster was imposed.
shortly after Bloody Sunday of January 1972 Heaney demonstrated under the Civil Rights banner in Newry, effectively breaking the law;
he resigns from his lecturing post Queen’s University Belfast to pursue his writing career;
the family moves to Glanmore, Wicklow (August);
MP offers’ reason’s for the move (pp119-120): Heaney’s feeling that a change of air matched his quest to ‘go it alone’ (his profession on school registration documents now reads file (poet) rather than ‘lecturer’); his tax bill would be lower at a moment when he had forfeited a regular salary; they felt that Glanmore was a ‘suitable’ place to bring up their children (2 sons, wife pregnant with daughter); he would be freeing himself from the ‘group’ ethos of both university Common Room and Northern Irish community in Belfast; his presence would no longer be taken as approval of a state whose legitimacy he denied;
Practical family consequences: the Heaneys’ need to raise income from whatever quarter for taxation, rents and family bills (more regular appearances by Heaney ‘on the podium’); the need to readjust to a much more modest existence; impending maternity leave and loss of potential earnings on his wife’s side;
Other consequences: his growing success seems to have led to some negative repercussions e.g. the judgements of North emanating from his native Ulster, not all of which were approving; Heaney was conscious both of the worsening situation in NI* and potential loss of image and reputation if deemed to have abandoned ship (his legitimate fears of being marginalized for ‘running away’ seem to have been unfounded); in the event it was not possible for him to effect this change with minimum fuss; local and media attention effectively ‘politicized’ the event;
the psychological and emotional repercussions of the move crop up in the collection.
Begins work on Buile Shuibhne (published 10 years later);
Weekly book review Imprint on RTE radio; later Explorations used imagery that would be included in North; ‘Words Working’; rich and secret treasure within words e.g. Anglo-Saxon; ‘opening the word-hoard’; (this involved a 5-year contract);
April birth of Catherine Ann;
October 1973: two visits to Denmark explore interest in so-called ‘bog bodies’: he meets anthropologist and archivist of their retrieval from the bog, P. V. Glob; he travels to Jutland viewing Tollund Man in Silkeborg and Grauballe Man in Aarhus; an exhibition in Dublin of Viking memorabilia and culture also enthuses him;
1st visit to Grasmere;
returns to teaching at a College of Education in Dublin;
*Between the publication of Death of a Naturalist in 1966 and 1975 any notion of a happy, well integrated state called Northern Ireland proved myth. The period leading up to the publication date had come to a head in the ‘Troubles’. Heaney witnessed increasingly violent confrontations between Nationalists and Republicans, Protestants and Catholics, outrages committed by the British Army then IRA.
Themes and issues in the poems of North:
Ireland under foreign sway; conquerors and conquered; what it feels like to be subjugated and dispossessed; positive feelings of kinship derived from Heaney’s strongly sensed interconnections with Norwegian and Danish Viking invaders engendering a common history and culture;
outcomes of oppression: Elizabethan England and military occupation viewed as part of the timeline leading to the contemporary ‘Troubles’ with its inexorable cycle of sectarian murder and revenge verging on civil war;
Irish backwardness that contributed to its low status, for example sky-born versus earth –bound;
Irish landscape: how Heaney’s beloved peat-bogs conceal historical evidence and provide him with a range of poetic possibilities;
‘discovery of a myth which allowed him to articulate a vision of Ireland. its people, history and landscape’ (the collection’s blurb); MP (after p 117) suggests that once in Glanmore Heaney ‘began anew the search for myths to make sense of ‘the swirl’ of his own ‘private feelings’;
the specific Troubles affecting the Irish people of ‘Ulster’ and the wider label of ‘Irish’, are sometimes difficult to separate;
sensitivity and conflict within the poet: the place and function of his art alongside his public rôle particularly his recent move to the Irish Republic;
personal reticence: poetry used to express ‘political’ issues troubling Heaney in contemporary circumstances;
Heaney’s feeling ‘down’ consequent to his move south: his tristia;
English as an imposed language; the place of the English lyric (ironically Heaney’s medium); the decline of Irish;
a lexis drawn from Irish, English and Latin and from different stages in their development; dialect words; ‘Irish’ vocabulary and poetic devices chosen deliberately to create a sense of time and nationhood: kennings, scop, aisling;
sexuality: used allegorically to denote possession; an ambiguous/ misunderstood/ mistaken sexuality attached to the ‘bog poems’; by implication Heaney’s own sexuality, seen by some as that of repressed Northern Irish, catholic young-manhood.;
social groupings: the inherent contradiction within groups of people deemed feeble by Heaney, isolated by the Troubles: their privately expressed feelings about the violence at odds with their deliberately non-partisan, ‘neutralist’ approach; criticised by Heaney;
Heaney’s own mindset, which he judges no less feeble than theirs; the poet who, not least because of his nature, shies away from direct action or involvement but feels bad about it.
The subject matter is enriched by a wide range of experiences and knowledge:
vignettes from SH’s upbringing include Mossbawn and St Columb’s College, Derry.
PV Glob’s anthropological study of the retrieval of bodies from peat-bogs in Northern Europe, particularly Denmark;
Characters from Scandinavian and Icelandic ‘legend’ and saga contributing to the myth: pagan goddess Nerthus (unnamed but alluded to), warrior Gunnar (named);
Ancient sites and place references. In Ireland: Newgrange, The Gap of the North. In England: Hadrian’s Wall, Maiden Castle, the Pennines, the priapic Cerne Abbas Giant in Dorset;
figures from classical legend who contribute to the overall myth of North: Antaeus, Hercules, Actaeon, the Trojan War;
Artists: Breughel, Goya. Sculpture: The Dying Gaul.
Authors writing in English (chosen for epigraph or as a reference): Aubrey, Shakespeare, Shelley, Synge, Wordsworth, Yeats; using other languages: Baudelaire, Lorca, Tacitus; Siculus;
‘political’ and religious figures: Pearse, the Pope; commentators: Cruise O’Brien;
English historical figures: Ralegh;
landmarks of Irish history: Act of Union 1801; King Billy.
Dedications(direct and indirect):
Michael McLaverty (fellow Irish poet and headteacher), Seamus Deane (distinguished friend and fellow pupil at St Columb’s College, Derry); SH’s aunt Mary (who lived with the family at Mossbawn); ), Osip Mandelstam, unnamed emblem of Irish resistance figures from the past (imprisoned for much of the repressive, post-WWII Stalin régime in Russia’
High quality lyrical description is interspersed with other patterns:
the vocabulary of repression: imprisonment without trial, prison camps, weaponry;
expressions and sound-bites germane to the Troubles, coined largely by the media: ‘backlash’, ‘crack-down’ etc; quoted reactions from identifiable social groups;
linguistics: philological and etymological references;
references to the poetic processes;
recurring motifs e.g. being sky-born (with a rosy future) as opposed to earth-bound (i.e. Irish);
Irish (and Scandinavian) archaeology, geography, landscape, history and origins that contribute to the myth;
NC (pp53-92) recommends that the reader seek out examples of the nubbed treasure that the exemplary voice counselled Heaney to trust;
in that context the sense of physical, mental and emotional ‘touch’ is important to the collection.
Comments contemporary to Publication
North gives us Seamus Heaney paring things down even more strenuously than in his 1972 volume, Wintering Out, where his current trend away from the earthy approachability of his first two books decisively started … his new zeal to compound the history, the landscape and the violent troubles of his Ireland with a wider northern European experience and render the whole thing in terse, weighted quatrains…. [The] latest Heaney verse [is] tough, intricate and riddling Alan Brownjohn, in New Statesman (© 1975 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), July 11, 1975.
In the earlier poems of North it seems that Heaney’s doom is to be “poetic”: he is often fatally incapable of direct statement. … Part Two is far better than Part One, and ‘Whatever You Say Say Nothing’ is very fine…. (p. 315)
Peter Washington, in The Spectator (© 1975 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), September 6, 1975.
I had the uncanny feeling, reading [the poems in North], of listening to the thing itself, the actual substance of historical agony and dissolution, the tragedy of a people in a place: the Catholics of Northern Ireland … Seamus Heaney takes his distances—archaeology, Berkeley, love-hate of the English language, Spain, County Wicklow (not the least distant)—but his Derry is always with him, the ash, somehow, now standing out even more on the forehead…
Seamus Heaney’s writing is modest, often conversational, apparently easy, low-pitched, companionably ironic, ominous, alert, accurate and surprising … Heaney’s relation to a deeper tragedy is fixed and pre-ordained; the poet is on intimate terms with doom, and speaks its language wryly and succinctly … [Kipling’s]’Cold Iron’… is a story in which bright and tender hopes are snuffed out by ineluctable destiny, the hand of Thor. And the way in which Thor makes his presence felt is always ‘a slow northeast wind’. (pp. 404-05)
Conor Cruise O’Brien, “A Slow North-East Wind,” in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1975; reprinted by permission of Conor Cruise O’Brien), September 25, 1975, pp. 404-05.
Seamus Heaney’s new, widely-praised collection [North] has an untypically intelligent blurb (did he write it himself?) which speaks of his discovery of a myth allowing him to cohere the history and landscape of Ireland into a single vision … unearthing history from geographical space, an archaeological rather than Romantic-humanist sense of historicity which excavates from the present hidden structures of a past stacked vertically, so to speak, beneath it … poem after poem focuses on the disinterring from Irish bogs of relics, bones and skeletons which are the remnants of foreign invasions. This is a fertile, deeply productive metaphor for Heaney[that] licenses, as the blurb suggests, a more totalising vision than he has been capable of before, drawing landscape and history into complex unity … sinking into the bog becomes symbolic of a meditative psychological return to the roots of personal identity. Heaney’s poetry has moved gradually away from the direct, sensuous encounters with Nature of the earlier work …[this perhaps] reflects the growing remoteness from immediate reality of the professional self-absorbed poet … Heaney has tried to [turn] his lexical and phonetic interests to good use—by allowing the sound and sense-value of certain significant words to open out into cultural and historical perspectives, so that the very act of verbal articulation can become a metaphor of objects, processes, events…. [He attempts] to find in the evolution of words a mode of access to the past, tunneling back through the mutations of speech to retrieve an alien culture. (pp. 77-8) [Where] North is perhaps most characteristically Irish is in the striking tension between the harshness of its material content and the refining discriminations of its verbal form … [a] conjuncture of material grimness and imaginative grace … the generally inferior pieces offered by the book’s second part about contemporary Irish politics. (p. 78)
Terry Eagleton, in Stand (copyright © by Stand), Vol. 17, No. 1, 1975–76.
These two more recent books [Wintering Out and North] concede the presence of a large, violent, and public landscape which is inhabited sometimes by Norsemen, sometimes by policemen, as well as by Mr. Heaney himself—now ready, it seems, to enter into a subtly nuanced dialogue with them on the subjects of politics, culture, and poetry. The ancient past and the contemporary present, myth and politics, are in fact analogues for one another … Mr. Heaney … has learned, more successfully than most, to conceive of his personal experience in terms of his country’s history … The poems express no politics … Instead they interrogate the quality of the relationship between the poet and his mixed political and literary traditions. The answer is always the same. Relationship is unavoidable … the demand to write has come from the public realm. He is called upon to assume responsibility. In doing so, he does not satisfy his critics, for whom his commitment is not of the sort they want; nor does he satisfy himself, for, in attempting to do “the whole job of culture,” he may forget to live …When we look again at the faces rising out of the Norse past or the violent present, we see that they are the most vivid renderings in Mr. Heaney’s poetry of a deep sense of estrangement …. Remnants are the core of Heaney’s treasure [in North]. What is scattered in the culture is collected in the poetry … In North particularly it is notable that many of the poems find voices in which the poet is addressed—for Mr. Heaney wants to hear the sand sift in the hourglass, time’s whisper in his Ireland, coming to him in the articulate speech of a poetry implicit in the very artifacts of his world … (pp. 202-05)
Seamus Deane, in Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1976 by The University of the South), Winter, 1976
Yeats is hardly a presence in his work…, but Heaney has heard a spirit music no less distinct than that of his great predecessor…. contact with the soil of Ireland is primary with Heaney[:] he has…. Heaney’s Irish landscape flickered and reeked from the start with sensibility and a sense of the past, with pathos, fantasy and fear… Formally simple and conversational, a little clumsy and thick-tongued, Heaney’s early poems were carefully guarded against the curse of lilt. None approached the summits of Irish poetry after Yeats, which I take to be Thomas Kinsella’s beautiful and bitter “Country Walk” (1962) and “Down Stream” (1964). But Heaney had a deeper affinity than Kinsella for their common progenitor in Irish writing, Joyce. His work was and would be incarnational, conceived in an objective and substantial world and embodied in forms respectful of it, no matter how various with learning and linguistic art the music of the spirit might become. For such a writer a good poem can be autotelic and autonomous only after a manner of speaking, for it owes its life above all to the life of men and only necessarily, if you like, to the life of poetry; it is utterance and artifact on equal terms. (p. 27) … Heaney’s best poems in their purity are certainly fresh esthetic objects; at the same time his manner is large and open, his intent a publicly conducted meditation among the living and the dead. (p. 28)
Robert Fitzgerald, “Seamus Heaney: An Appreciation,” in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1976 by The New Republic, Inc.), March 27, 1976, pp. 27-9.
What about the pessimism, the determinism [in Heaney’s North]? The message is certainly there. Violence and death is the inheritance, in past, present and, seemingly, future … Yet the overall effect of North is not entirely depressing or deterministic … Partly, this owes itself to the texture of his language … Partly, too, it owes itself to his compassion for the victims; he loves the Bog Queen. Man can still feel, and the evidence of love, not only in the poem to Mary Heaney, must be put against the pessimism … thanks to his vision, his style and his compassion, the effect is tonic as well as pessimistic. … [his] solidarity even in anonymity, in the teeth of the elements and time, is life-enhancing. Vying with the message of pessimism, the stigmata of heredity, [the collection’s] message is of endurance and rebirth. Its vehicle is art of the highest order. (p. 83)
Simon Curtis, “Seamus Heaney’s ‘North’,” in Critical Quarterly, Spring, 1976, pp. 81-3.
Heaney, to my mind the best poet now writing in Ireland, seems the only one of his generation not in some way inhibited by the shadow of Yeats … [Unlike Yeats, Heaney] unearths his archaism not in Celtic legends but in the bodies of long-dead Vikings, buried and preserved in Irish and Scandinavian bogs….When the diviner has found out, as by instinct, a hoard in the nether darkness, he must then gather words with “a binding secret” between them to lift the treasure into view. The serpentine line of Norse art “like an eel swallowed/in a basket of eels” becomes for Heaney a metaphor for his own intertwining of national and personal truth … The autobiographical poems closing Heaney’s new collection [“North”] make explicit his meditations on the troubles of Ulster, where he was born, but seem, paradoxically, less deep in their reflections than the poems where meaning resists intellectual reduction. (p. 6)
Helen Vendler, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 18, 1976
Main source opinions
Michael Parker’s Seamus Heaney The Making of a Poet Macmillan 1993 (MP); Neil Corcoran’s The Poetry of Seamus Heaney, Faber 1998 (NC); Dennis O’Driscoll’s Stepping Stones, Faber 2008 (DOD); page references are included where appropriate;
North – the collection:
DoD(156) Heaney described North as ‘a very oblique and intense book/ fused at very high pressure’; the ‘pressure’ might be understood given potential scenarios: the shift from University lecturer to country dweller; the loss of salary with bills to pay and children to rear; the pregnancy of Mrs Heaney; the Troubles in the North; their stability was predicated upon his success as a poet;
(NC 54) The sequence of ‘bog poems’ / lies at the centre of the meaning, effect and achievement of ‘North’;
(DoD 162) in response to a question about a perceived change of direction after North because of criticism levelled at the collection, Heaney revealed that a ‘new direction was being followed already in North, in poems like Hercules and Antaeus and Exposure;
NC (pp53-92) ‘allusions to the plastic arts are accompanied … by a very high density of references to other writings: literary, historical, political’; given the nature of its primary subject – Northern Ireland in crisis after 1969 – North is an astonishingly literary book;
(MP) refers to ‘the warm and sensuous pleasuring in words and experience one associates with Heaney’;
the exuberant performance of the present moment of the poem…frequently protects it from the emotion common in poems which recollect childhood experience, nostalgia (NC p.7).
the observed and recollected facts of his early rural experience are conveyed in a language of great sensuous richness and directness (NC);
The poems contain ‘all the sensuousness of Heaney’s earlier works but refined and cut back to the bone … solid, beautifully wrought, expansively resonant’(blurb).
A time and a place – Heaney and political ‘engagement’
In conversation with Henri Cole in The Paris Review No 75 Heaney declared his own view of his work: I don’t think I’m a political poet with political themes and a specifically political understanding of the world;
(DOD 182) Heaney adds: What I felt at the beginning of the Troubles was what any poet would have felt in the circumstances, a certain undefined accountability… without any real appetite for the political role;
Iin the Listener of September 1975 Conor Cruise O’Brien commented that Heaney’s ‘upbringing and experience’ gave him ‘cogent reasons to feel that one side is worse than the other … his poems have to reflect this’;
NC (p58) felt that the poetic and the political are frequently coterminous in the book;
a poet not politically engagé but somehow feeling accountable is echoed in NC‘s view (p53) that Heaney set out confront the crisis in Northern Ireland in a more rigorous way involving a scrutiny of his own responses and position and despite his anxieties about confronting the subject;
One result (NC 55): the collection’s separation of the symbolic from the explicit is essentially the product of Heaney’s sense of the varied even contradictory ways in which matters of deep public perturbation might be articulated in poetry’.
Search for a myth
(NC 64) a ‘pattern of analogy’ the violence of the Vikings and the violence of contemporary NI;
(MPp126) deeply affected by events, Heaney avoids the temptation of the instant response to the latest atrocity. Instead by drawing upon two and a half thousand years of European myth and history he presents in P1 a universalised image of the suffering that attended/ that attends the struggle for territory, while in P2 he maps out the contours of a personal mythology… formative moments from his Catholic past;
(NC 59) the transference from one culture into another/ is the historical conceit of these (Viking) poems;
MP notes also the elegies on ancestors and neighbours (p.37);
MP comments on Heaney’s sense of affinity and continuity with his cultural forebears (p.61);
For MP Heaney engages as ever in acts of reclamation as purposefully he dug ‘inwards and downwards’ …. able to achieve a poetic resolution to inner tensions as he confronts the familial, parochial and national past (p.62);
‘SH has found a myth which allowed him to articulate a vision of Ireland, its people, history and landscape’ (blurb);
MP (p121) refers to ‘a retrieval of ancestry, an attempt to shore up more than fragments against the ruin’;
NC (pp53-92) reports the suggestion that Glob’s work facilitated ‘images and symbols adequate to our predicament’.
Myth – the northern European dimension
‘the Irish experience is refracted through images drawn from different parts of Northern European experience’ (blurb)
Using the idea of ‘North’, the poet contemplates ‘the violence on his home ground in relation to memories of the Scandinavian and English invasions which have marked Irish history so indelibly’ (blurb)
NC (pp53-92) Ireland/Jutland relationship provides a basis for ‘such a myth of Northern Ireland’
NC Bog poem sequence ‘lies at the centre of the meaning, effect and achievement of North’ (54);
NC (63) refers to ‘the myth of P1 and ‘death inflected identifications’ then asserts: ‘Heaney constructs his ‘parables’ for the Irish present by contemplating objects, skulls and bodies retrieved from the ground and the grave’;
NC refers to an ‘ethic of revenge’ (65) common to NI society now and figures from Viking saga; the latter’s Gunnar represents the only spark of hope capable of breaking the cycle.
Poetry as much as history
(NC 57) ‘North’ is a book almost as much about poetry itself as it is about Northern Ireland;
(NC 58) the poetic and the political are frequently coterminous in the book(however in view of Heaney’s comment to Henri Cole ‘political in inveretd commas’ might fit the bill better);
MP (p122) signals ‘Heaney’s … attempts to wrest beauty from extremity and to use his art as an expression of his resistance to the security forces and fat-necked speculators who would like to control the world’;
(NC 63) Given the British repeated rôle in Irish history not least in the current Troubles Heaney who writes in English explains that he felt moments when ‘the melodious grace of the English iambic line was some kind of affront that needed to be wrecked’
NC (pp53-92) Quoting Heaney from an interview with Harriet Cooke in 1973: Heaney’s anger at the one-sidedness of the current situation in NI ‘I would see the necessity since I’m involved in the tradition of the English lyric to take the English lyric and make it eat stuff that it has never eaten before … like all the messy and, it would seem, incomprehensible obsessions in the North, and make it still an English lyric;
NC (pp53-92) ‘the poems are not aggressive towards the reader/ but neither are they accommodating/ they disrupt the smoothness of English lyric in a way appropriate to the violence of their material, and with a certain political implication’; in P1 note the 1st person, also ‘the way the poetry discusses or exposes its own processes of composition’.
(MP 151) suggests that North represents a culmination of a poetic process begun with ‘Death of a Naturalist’. At the same time it anticipates his later development [ ] which will lead him towards those exemplary, obdurate, ironic north- and mid- European voices of Mandelstam, Herbert, Milosz, Holub and Brodsky. Like them he will endeavour to create an art which is both particular and universal, immediate and oblique;
(DoD 170) questioned about sexual allegory in the collection, Heaney came back strongly: There has been a change/ a change in the world that produced me and change that has been effected in me by what I have lived through in the Republic and America; and poetry is bound to manifest the reality of change/ quod scripsi, scripsi;
MP (after p 117) signals poems that embody a legitimate anger … images rich in energy which might serve as a ‘binding force’ for his community ( ) impose order on the tensions and paradoxes that beset his imagination;
NC (pp53-92) reminds of ‘images of barbarism’ within the frame of North.
A tale of two parts
(NC 79) Part I of North includes exceptionally original and striking poems: a fact confirmed by the way in which they have over the years attracted a great deal of critical attention, which even when it is negative, is also testimony to their power;
(DOD 179) Dennis O’Driscoll questioned the ‘conspicuous’ contrast in style between Part 1 and II; Heaney drew attention to the ‘topicality’ of the subject matter, ‘Like an afterword’; he referred to the pace with which the book ‘crystallized’, concluding that the poems ‘are integral to the book and help to underwrite its title’;
MP (p126): ‘… he presents in Part 1 a universalised image of the suffering that attended/ attends the struggle for territory, while in Part 2 he maps out the contours of a personal mythology, identifying formal moments from his Catholic past’;
NC (pp53-92) P2 poetry ‘an attempt at some kind of declarative voice’ John Haffenden Poets in Conversation (F/F 1981);
NC (60):in Part 2 he describes in realistic terms and under the aegis of autobiographical epigraphs from W/W and Yeats the immediate social circumstances and literary education that he “grew out of”’;
NC (pp53-92) P1 includes ‘exceptionally original and striking poems’ which have ‘over the years attracted a great deal of critical attention, which even when it is negative is also testimony to their power.
NC (pp53-92) P1 contains the myth; P2 ‘poems directly responsive to the Northern Ireland present’’
Working with John Montague
On occasions after 1968 Heaney seems to have worked closely with John Montague whose poem ‘Hearth Song is’ dedicated to Heaney;
MP (121) (the influence of Montague) may well have encouraged Heaney in his use of the wide-angle lens;
MP (after p117) ‘Rough Field’ may have helped Heaney plot the future shape of North; he makes reference to their joint search for metaphor and material…retrieval of ancestry;
NC (pp53-92) Montague introduced a broader ‘cultural and historical context … interest in archaeology and etymology’;
(DOD 166) alongside Montague Heaney shared the camaraderie and correspondence between us, a sense of the importance of the historical moment and a sense of answerability to it.
The ‘Bog Poems’ sequence
NC terrain to be explored in P1: Norse history, etymology, culture and agriculture and linguistic content (129) also includes ‘bogland’;
For NC (p134) the sequence signals: real subjects; republican tradition; cruelties inflicted upon Mother Ireland that have brutalised her sons, engendering a love of territory and ancestry that can carry them to appalling extremes; analogies between ‘ancient cults and contemporary cultures’ explaining ‘persistence in NI of this fiercely defensive and. at times, pitilessly ruthless ideology’
NC (pp53-92) In the bog poems ‘we are made aware of a male poet gazing on, and responding to, female victims. Marked by the unease of their own reactions, these poems nevertheless involve themselves in dangerous emotions’;
As regards what might be read as vicarious sexual feelings, it is fair to say that responses to the sequence were very negative in some quarters; the issues are summarised in Afterthoughts.
From The Paris review No 75, talking to Henri Cole: I see the Bog Poems in Pinsky’s terms as an answer. They were a kind of holding action. They were indeed a bit like the line drawn in the sand. Not quite an equivalent for what was happening, more an attempt to rhyme the contemporary with the archaic. “The Tollund Man,” for example, is the first of the Bog Poems I wrote. Essentially, it is a prayer that the bodies of people killed in various actions and atrocities in modern Ireland, in the teens and twenties of the century as well as in the more recent past, a prayer that something would come of them, some kind of new peace or resolution. In the understanding of his Iron Age contemporaries, the sacrificed body of Tollund Man germinated into spring, so the poem wants a similar flowering to come from the violence in the present. Of course it recognizes that this probably won’t happen, but the middle section of the poem is still a prayer that it should. The Bog Poems were defenses against the encroachment of the times, I suppose. But there was always a real personal involvement—in a poem like “Punishment,” for example.
Heaney’s 1972 move to Glanmore
In conversation with Henri Cole in The Paris Review No 75 (more fully reported below) Heaney discussed the issue:the move to Wicklow was not some sudden transition. We came back from California in 1971 with a half plan to leave Belfast and live freelance out in the country in Northern Ireland. But even so, leaving the north didn’t break my heart. The solitude was salubrious. Anxiety, after all, can coexist with determination;
(MP 124) Although some people might have interpreted his move as ‘an abdication from Ulster, a ‘running-away’ and he himself feared that it would marginalize him, such suspicions proved to be unfounded;
Heaney in conversation with (DOD 178) Once I found myself in the full-time-writer situation – once I was more seriously at risk, more called upon to give an account of myself … The paradox is that at the moment when I pulled back from the academy and went to the cottage, I began to do more work on the podium;
MP : the unexpected opportunity of a cottage in Co Wicklow led to the Heaneys’ move; however convincing the real motives reasons MP suggests that by this stage the move was ‘Now seen by him as a conscious political act’. (subsequent to the Wicklow move);
From The Paris Review No 75: I suppose the corollary of being battened down is being a bit tensed up. At the time when I was writing the poems, I was putting the pressure on myself and feeling, well, exposed as in “Exposure.” I associate the poems of North with a particular place, the upstairs room of that cottage, me chain-smoking and working against a deadline, looking out into the sunlight, hunched over the table, anxious;
Heaney’s own insights offered toThe Paris Review No 75
I don’t think that there is one true bearer of Irishness. There are different versions, different narratives… The problem is that some people loathe being included within the category of Irishness in the first place. Northern Protestant loyalists, people from a Unionist background—they are simply repelled by the notion of being nominated Irish, never mind the prospect of being co-opted, forcibly or constitutionally, into an integrated Irish state. So you want to respect their refusal since it is based on definite historical and ethnic grounds; for fifty years the other side of that refusal has been their bullying attitude to the nationalist minority, saying in effect, “Because we‘re not going to be Irish, you can’t be Irish either. We refuse you that identity. In our six-county state, you’re British, willy-nilly, so you can take it or leave it.” So while I believe that the Protestants must be granted every cultural and personal and human right to define themselves, they must not be given a veto on the political future; in the early 1970s I did surely identify with the Catholic minority. A poem like “The Ministry of Fear” is a very deliberate treatment of the subject of minoritydom. An attempt to encompass that element of civic reality. It’s written in blank verse; there’s not much sport between the words of it.
- I tried very deliberately in Field Work to turn from a broody, phonetically self-relishing kind of writing to something closer to my own speaking voice. And I think that from Field Work onwards I have been following that direction. It’s a very different kind of linguistic ambition now from what I was after in Death of a Naturalist or Wintering Out or North. Those books wanted to be texture, to be all consonants, vowels and voicings, they wanted the sheer materiality of words;
- “What kind of poetry do you write?” I do tend to say, “Well, it’s more or less autobiographical, based on memory.” But I would also want to maintain that the autobiographical content per se is not the point of the writing. What matters is the shape-making impulse, the emergence and convergence of an excitement into a wholeness. I don’t think I’m a political poet with political themes and a specifically political understanding of the world;
The structure of North
2 Dedicatory Poems
Part 1: 39 individual poems under 18 titles.
The 6 poems between ‘Come to the Bower’ and ‘Kinship’ are referred to as bog poems, exploring the relationship between (Northern) Ireland and Jutland.
Part 2: 4 main titles, 6 sub-titles; 12 items in all.