District and Circle is Seamus Heaney’s twelfth collection since Death of a Naturalist (1966), published in April 2006 by Faber and Faber. There are 44 titles including 5 sequences of more than one poem; 68 poems in all. Many had already appeared in some form or other in a variety of publications on both sides of the Atlantic.The volume includes some ‘found prose’ and a number of translations.
Heaney’s work since 1966 has lost none of its accessibility, erudition and vitality.
The textual commentaries that follow seek to tease out what his poems are intimating in District and Circle. Of course, the poet’s ‘message’ will have started life as an essentially personal one, not intended primarily for his reader; accordingly, there are moments when some serious unravelling is required. 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.
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 commentaries and footnotes are largely personal. The approach is not calculated to promote any particular viewpoint.
Forty six years on.
It is revealing to compare the challenges and dilemmas facing the apprentice-poet preparing his first collection after 1960 with the way the world presents itself to a poet now over 65 years of age, Nobel Laureate along the way, publishing his twelfth collection.
In 1960, Heaney is 21 years of age; he is single and will marry five years later; in 2006 he is married to the same wife since 1965; they have three children;
His move to Belfast as an undergraduate in 1957 took him into a different world. He had been brought up in the rural Irishness of his 1940s and 50s farming background in deepest Ulster, first at Mossbawn then at The Wood north of Bellaghy to which the family moved after the loss of brother, Christopher in 1953; in 2010 his memories of both this and subsequent periods are acute, sustained and voiced still with huge emotional and lyrical charge.
He had made best use of a privileged, largely ‘classical’ Secondary education (at school he was particularly successful at Latin); both his schooldays and his awareness of languages and literature feature strongly in District and Circle.
In 1960 he possessed all the uncertainty of young men with bright futures seeking to make their way; he needed to earn a living and was interested in ‘teaching’; by 2006 the risk he took in resigning his university teaching post to devote himself to poetry has rewarded us with the evidence of a life’s journey of rare achievement.
If ever Heaney needed in those early days to confirm the legitimacy of his own language, status and voice, there is no doubt that he has achieved it in full measure, acclaimed as one of the very best of twentieth century poets writing in English.
From childhood Heaney possesses a deep sense of his Irishness, whilst belonging to the Northern Irish Catholic minority in predominantly Protestant Ulster; times would grow increasingly turbulent and dangerous for him during the so-called Troubles; by 2006, against all expectations, there have been 8 years of ‘peace’ following the major breakthrough of the Good Friday Agreement signed in 1998; As a result Heaney can claim to be an Irish poet in Northern Ireland and carry an Irish ‘green’ passport without looking over his shoulder; personal statements of this nature would have been unthinkable during those times of sectarian violence.
In the early 60s, Heaney was in need of friends and mentors, hopefully of all political and religious shades, who shared his interest in the creative arts and would help him along the way; by 2006 thanks to his poetic stature, his reputed good nature, optimism and generosity of spirit, Heaney can enjoy a long list of friends and people who matter, to whom he dedicates his poems.
Heaney in the five years since Electric Light.
Dennis O’Driscoll’s Chronology in Stepping Stones (xxviii-xxix) confirms that there was no let-up in the intense pressure of commitments that, over time, Heaney willingly accepted as part of his ‘territory’. Heaney confessed later to Robert McCrum how difficult he found it to say ‘no’ to invitations. He also confessed to some of the symptoms of the ageing process that are beginning to surface in this collection. He would suffer a mild stroke in the same year that this collection is published (2006) but make a rapid recovery;
Heaney is 5 years older. At 20 or 30 years of age such a gap seems insignificant; to a man of 65 years it represents a huge chunk of ‘time-left’. Referring to the final poem, The Blackbird of Glanmore, he describes it as a ‘different stage in life. You’re beginning to be aware of the underground journey a bit more’;
Finders Keepers: Selected Prose 1971 – 2001 was published in 2002 and Burial at Thebes his translation of Sophocles’ ‘Antigone’ premièred at the Abbey Theatre in 2004.
Diary commitments during the period that find an echo in District and Circle are: initial collaboration with Irish piper Liam O’Flynn (2001); ‘Poet and Piper’ in Iceland (2004); celebrations for Chilean poet Pablo Neruda in Madrid (2003), funeral of Czeslaw Milosz in Krakow (2004); strengthened contacts with Silkeborg Museum in Denmark and the Wordsworth’s Trust Centre in Grasmere (2005).
Changes in the World Order.
‘Events and issues, some of them extreme, others ominous, others matter-of-fact have changed the landscape.’ Collection’s dust-jacket;
Significant world events: 2001, September 11th: terrorist attack on World Trade Centre in New York and subsequent identification of Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda as parties behind the attack; Taliban subjected to sustained bombing campaign in Afghanistan within days;
March 2002: joint US/ /Afghan military operation launched; Nov 2002: UN Security Council calls on Iraq to ‘disarm’; March 2003: USA and Britain launch war against Iraq capturing Saddam Hussein in Dec; March 2004: Spain rocked by terrorist attacks involving nationals; April 2004: humiliation of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison; June 2005: hard line conservatives elected in Iran with nuclear ambitions; July 2005: London Transport hit by terrorist bombers including radicalised nationals.
Much simplified speculations as regards global-warming after 1965 (1st Heaney collection published): 1967 calculations suggest that that doubling CO2 would raise world temperatures ‘a couple of degrees’;1968 Studies suggest a possibility of collapse of Antarctic ice sheets, that would raise sea levels catastrophically; 1970 Aerosols from human activity are shown to be increasing swiftly containing gases that would deplete the ozone layer; 1972Droughts in Africa, Ukraine, India cause world food crisis;1975: warnings about environmental effects of airplanes leads to investigations of trace gases in the stratosphere and discovery of further danger to ozone layer; 1976: deforestation and other ecosystem changes are recognized as major factors affecting the future of the climate; 1982: strong global warming since mid-1970s is reported; 1986:speculation that a reorganization of North Atlantic Ocean circulation can bring swift and radical climate change; 1992: Conference in Rio de Janeiro produces UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, but US blocks calls for serious action; 1997: Kyoto Protocol seeks to set targets for industrialized nations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (rejected by US Senate in advance); 2001: warming observed in ocean basins gives a clear signature of greenhouse effect warming;2004: first major books, films and art work featuring global warming appear; 2005: Kyoto treaty goes into effect, signed by major industrial nations except US; work to retard emissions accelerates around the globe.
Note: this is not polemic; those sceptical of the notion of global warming use their own data.
In articles and interviews published around the time of publication, Heaney acknowledges the ‘recreative charge’ derived from ‘revisiting earlier themes and settings’. George Seferis, to whom one of the poems is dedicated had, himself, talked about ‘rediscovering the first seed so that the ancient drama can begin again’.
- the ‘lost domain’ of childhood: poems which, as part of physical and emotional development, recall events and situations: Primary and Secondary school days; local boys; sites and situations emanating from WW2 (1939-45);
- the legacy of his Catholic upbringing and spiritual development is under constant scrutiny: its emotional legacy; life as an earth-bound ‘time-being’ rather than a spiritual preparation;
- his Irish background and ‘territory’: poems describing much-loved and familiar spots from his Ulster background; the resurrection of dead figures and the breathing of new life into things;
- Irish politics: Heaney has often alluded to the dilemma facing him as a public voice in troubled political times. Times have changes and tensions diminished: IRA cessation of hostilities, so-called ‘decommissioning’ of weaponry and albeit stuttering attempts at Power-Sharing offer pause if not closure;
- Tollund Man reappears in a new guise: in an article, Heaney refers to his iron-age hero as ‘a figure who had given me poetic strength 30 years earlier … A kind of guardian other’ discovered in a new setting “keeping step with me’’ , less of a persona, ‘more like a transfusion’.
- Heaney’s scholarship re-surfaces: his intimate knowledge of classical languages and antiquity; Irish language and history; English as far back as Anglo-Saxon
Some elements are ‘new’ to the collection:
- The Millennium 2000 and celebrations associated with it;
- Summarised above: shifts in global political focus: the emergence of terrorist extremism and military responses that Heaney regarded as ‘retaliatory attacks’. In an article he refers to the post-9/11 world as one of ‘polarisation, crackdown and reprisal’; however the memory ‘springboard’ is ‘infused with a piercing sense of threat’;
- The so-called ‘carbon-footprint’, the Earth itself under threat. Man has set in train a cycle of global warming events that threaten with extinction countless endangered species and, ultimately, Man himself;
- The collection pays tribute to a long list of fellow-poets who share with Heaney similarities of interest, poetry that marries the political and the lyrical, Nobel laureates and so on. Heaney is the one who has survived to memorialize them. Moreover, thanks to his ‘muse’ he shows no appetite to slow down.
The choice of District and Circle followed long consideration by Heaney. In an interview he explained his choice: ‘It had the virtue of unexpectedness … signalled an inclination to favour a chosen region and keep coming back to it’. He considered and resisted alternatives resulting in a ‘deeper dwelling with the motif and a more sustained attempt to recreate the specifics of the underground journey, dreamy and different as it always feels’. The two Underground lines Heaney was particularly familiar with at a certain period in his life are the District and Circle lines. The colours of the book’s original cover, green and yellow, are those of the two underground lines as marked on the standard Tube map; both of them serve Central London.
Both words have other connotations which are woven into the texts: they can refer to familiar areas or the natural everyday cycles of things or people. Heaney may recall a literal Tube journey but equally, in this collection, he is ‘circling’ his own ‘district’!
With tongue in cheek, perhaps, Heaney suggested that ‘Alder’ was one of the options he contemplated as title for the collection. He offered slightly different explanations as to why he discarded it in two interviews he gave around the time of publication. The first, considered: ‘because there was just too much comfort in the phrase’; the second, droll: fellow Northern Irish poet, Paul Muldoon, referred to him as ‘alder’ statesman which wiped it out, basically.
The poetic process.
- Heaney suggests in In a Loaning that he has emerged from a dark tunnel of ‘writer’s-block’ and rediscovered his lyric voice;
- In March and April 2006 interviews, Heaney indicated that ‘inspiration is not automatic’ and talked about his ‘calling’. His poetry was not based upon the ‘armour of ego’ nor ‘the costume of the stage poet’; it was ‘a hand-to-hand engagement with myself’; this adds a new dimension to his mission statement in Digging: Between my finger and my thumb/ The squat pen rests / I’ll dig with it.
- In the collection Heaney hints at the moment at which some poems take root. Rilke’s Apple Orchard refers to that ‘something’ that has to be dug from the inner recesses of the poetic self and the poet’s distance from run-of-the-mill reality;
- Some critics unfairly regarded Heaney’s accessibility, the enjoyment he generated and his popularity as weaknesses, as if being ‘opaque’ in the Eliot or Pound sense were a fundamental recommendation. In conversation on the subject Heaney is unpretentious,
talking about the ‘donnée’ which the poet is given, ‘the moment of first connection, when an image or memory comes suddenly to mind and you feel the lure of the poem-life in it’. He adds that ‘By the time you start to compose more than half the work has been done’.
The test of time.
Digging, the very first poem of the very first collection, Death of a Naturalist, written at The Wood in 1964, sets out a kind of mission-statement :
Between my finger and my thumb/ The squat pen rests./ I’ll dig with it.
The final couplet of the last poem in the same collection declares a deeper quest:
I rhyme/ To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.
Over forty years have elapsed and Heaney remains faithful to those aspirations. It is hard to imagine greater creative integrity than that!
- Dennis O’Driscoll Stepping Stones ;
- Michael Parker, Seamus Heaney, The Making of a Poet;
- Neil Corcoran, The Poetry of Seamus Heaney;
Review Judgements from 2006
Heaney has usually stayed near to home and – even when travelling – remained closely involved with familiar things-in-themselves. The extraordinary is implicated in the ordinary – and vice versa. He confirms existing loyalties, remaps old terrains, and fills his work with tributes to other poets who address subjects he has already explored. (Auden, Cavafy, Hughes, Milosz, Rilke, Seferis, Dorothy and William Wordsworth are among those praised and prized). The book does not merely dig in, but digs deep.
District and Circle is a poem about faith, which never uses the word. Heaney’s long view … has a moral force. Digging deep Andrew Motion The Guardian, Saturday 1 April 2006
Conflict is everywhere in District and Circle, sometimes as the intimation of danger. Heaney is very good on violence, and not only on its horror, but on its lure, as in the withholdable swing of that sledge. Describing the reticence with which he had written of the conflict in Ireland, Heaney once described his instincts as ‘an early warning system telling me to get back inside my own head’.
Many of the poems – more than a dozen – are sonnets in spirit if not always in form, the psychological heart of the sonnet-form there in their use of the volta. He is an academic poet, and for some readers, his use of erudition remains a stumbling-block, an obstacle in the way of his poetry. His poetry is intricately woven, rich in meanings that resist intellectual reduction … the farmer’s son with traditional lyrics beating within his head. Now, in a mood that’s at times valedictory, he writes with a new freedom, and a new engagement.
The new book, he told me recently, contains a pressing sense of menace: ‘What we are all conscious of, from the American point of view, is the breaching of the walls and the total trauma of the security gone’. This new poetic vision is by no means entirely pessimistic. Heaney seems to relish the lyric boost he’s had from recent events. Ireland is no longer the country he knew as a young man, and he obviously derives a welcome stimulus to his continuing creativity from the transformation of the world.
When I ask him about ageing, he concedes: ‘The problem as you get older is that you become more self-aware. So you have to be alert to your own ploys. At the same time you have to surprise yourself, if possible. There’s no way of arranging the surprise, so it is tricky.’ He adds that he continues to find himself ‘either obsessed, or surprised. There’s no halfway house’.Arms around the world Tobias Hill in The Observer, Sunday 2 April 2006
In District and Circle, the literati rub shoulders with the locals, and the dead outnumber the living. Poems remember Czeslaw Milosz, Ted Hughes (remembering T S Eliot!) and George Seferis, the latter “in the Underworld”. Translations of Cavafy and Rilke reinforce a subterranean ambit while “A Stove Lid for W H Auden”, one of two poems focused on fire, sees the object of the title as a “hell-mouth stopper”. If the underground of the book’s title poem is another kind of hell, then there must be resurrections. The Iron Age corpse excavated from a peat bog was first considered by Heaney in the 1970s. Revived here, “The Tollund Man in Springtime” is given a voice: …Circling back is the other meaning of the collection’s title. It signals not only more poems of childhood and home ground but more bookishness. An atmosphere of the study seeps into the work, competing with rather than complementing the mimetic brilliance for which Heaney is justly famous. …Seamus Heaney has been a persuasive spokesman for poetry, and his generosity is evident …the ambassadorial manner can result in a lack of edge. His is an aesthetic of plenty, of consolation rather than the goad.Stephen Knight in the Independent Sunday, 9 April 2006
Heaney seems to feel that whatever else poetry could or should do, its first task is to make eloquent the five senses in the remembered world: his own verse makes the best case for that task. Stephen Burt reviews District and Circle as part of the Christopher Tower poetry competition 2006
the gravity of memorial is transformed into the grace of recollection. With more relish and conviction than ever, Seamus Heaney maintains his trust in the obduracy of workaday realities and the mystery of everyday renewals. booksni.com
‘A volume of incontestable weight and majesty (Heaney has) a global weather-eye leaving its trace elements across the snail-track of the poems. One reading of the title, then, might be the interplay of continuity and evolution. Irish Times
‘Heaney’s perspective is reverential, otherworldly, and affirmative… the intimacy of Heaney’s vision, his insistence on openness, his effortless sensuality, give these poems the directness and impact of personal letters to the reader.’ Kathleen Morgan, The Herald (Scotland)
The poetry audience, like that more general readership into which Heaney (almost uniquely among modern poets) crosses over, believes that what oft was well expressed cannot be too often thought; and for someone of Heaney’s stature, this makes originality harder…All through the new volume, physical sensation becomes a mode of transcendence. This may not be exactly new for Heaney, but here it is newly conceived. A sledgehammer’s ‘gathered force’ is realised in a blow ‘so unanswerably landed / The staked earth quailed and shivered in the handle’ (‘A Shiver’) … One great achievement of District and Circle is its writing on childhood. This is powerful in a new way for Heaney, if only because now, in his sixties, he is able to see
his own childhood in the light of age. The book contains marvellous prose-poems on the peopled landscapes of his schooldays, along with sonnets – seemingly effortless in their sheer fluency, but memorably tough and intent. Peter McDonald in The Literary Review
Still in the title poem Heaney makes several references to keeping his balance, and in more ways than one this is poetry that never loses its footing. Heaney the consummate technician is on show throughout… Heaney is famously a poet of checks and balances, always at pains to see both points of view and reluctant to speak out of turn. This is mirrored in his almost obsessively balanced and symmetrical figures of speech…Heaney has made a lifelong virtue of reliability, even predictability, of going on and vindicating the blessings of a happy life.David Wheatley in The Contemporary Poetry Review
Despite his early reputation as a poet able to mirror nature or to evoke the sensuous and
physical qualities of objects, it has always been noticeable that Heaney’s collections have gathered their force through the adoption of a specific formal model… But the formal gravity of
District and Circle is firmly centred upon the sonnet, variously rhymed or unrhymed; a surprising way of abbreviating, managing, and establishing a vast range of personal and impersonal content.STEVEN MATTHEWS Poetry Society reviews Seamus Heaney
The sanity that Heaney’s poetry commends and embodies is derived in large part from his devotion to the world of the ordinary – to the objects, the places and people and the way of life in which he grew up in rural Co Derry, where, as he has pointed out, poetry is not viewed as an especially significant matter. Rituals of work, customs and courtesies are all of great importance for him. In imagination he has never strayed far from the original sites of his affections, though work and fame have carried him off and away into places and company apparently remote from the assurances of home. The home landscape, with its now-famous names, such as Toome and Anahorish, both revisited here, has been a permanent and portable resource, as real a presence on the drafted page as in the physical fact. Songs of a sane Romantic By Sean O’Brien Friday, 7 April 2006.
…it’s through just such tiny touches, such minimal modifications of sound, that a poet fabricates an individual, distinguishing music. His stanzas are dense echo chambers of contending nuances and ricocheting sounds. And his is the gift of saying something extraordinary while, line by line, conveying a sense that this is something an ordinary person might actually say … Heaney is far more elegist than prophet Brad Leithauser in the NY Times Book Review of July 16, 2006
Heaney’s 12th collection of poems, District and Circle, is a pot-pourri of richness and recollections, retaining the sensory appeal of his earliest work. The title itself alludes most obviously to the poet’s negotiation of the metropolitan landscape, alluding too to his fast-track success and the sense of one who is able to cope, perhaps even to thrive, in the anonymity of strange and crowded spaces… Wonderful poems resurrecting Ted Hughes, George Seferis and Czeslaw Milosz rattle like chains on mortality’s floor. Do the dead ever leave us? .. In District and Circle he rhymes to celebrate with affection, loves and friendships, the steadying rituals of work, and the gift of maturity with which he may stem the tide of time and loss with a sense of the moment becoming momentous – proof of which comes in the final poem: a blackbird sings, and time stands still. Tom Adair in living.scotsman.com of 09 April 2006
To Ann Saddlemyre, biographer, critic and academic who appears as Augusta in the Glanmore Eclogues; ‘Ann having been a feminine Augustus to me’ (Stepping Stones p 408); originally rented Glanmore Cottage to the Heaneys selling it to them in 1988.