District and Circle, Seamus Heaney’s twelfth collection since Death of a Naturalist (1966), was published in April 2006 by Faber and Faber. There are 44 titles including 5 sequences – 68 poems in all. Many pieces 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 diversity, erudition and vitality.
In composing poetry Heaney set out to fulfil his writerly needs. The ‘messages’ that emerged were essentially personal ones, not expressed with his readers in mind – 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.
The textual commentaries that follow seek to tease out what the District and Circle poems are intimating.
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 mind’s eye painting a picture to be ‘seen’ and felt and the poem’s appeal to the ear, intended as a music to be heard and enjoyed Brad Leithauser summed up this aspect in his NY Times Book Review of July 16, 2006: ‘it’s through ( ) 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’.
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.
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.
More than forty years have elapsed and Heaney remains faithful to those aspirations. It is hard to imagine greater creative integrity than that!
- Seamus Heaney District and Circle; Faber and Faber, 2006
- Dennis O’Driscoll Stepping Stones ; Faber, 2008 (DOD).
Heaney’s world in the 1960s and his world now
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 and assembling his twelfth collection.
Heaney had made optimum use of a privileged, largely ‘classical’ Secondary education as a weekly boarder at St Columb’s College in Derry (at school he was a high-achieving student and particularly successful at Latin); in the 2006 collection both his schooldays and his awareness of languages and literature feature strongly .
His move to Belfast as an undergraduate in 1957 took him into a totally different world. He had been brought up in the rural Irishness of a 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 Heaney’s brother Christopher in 1953; in 2006 his memories of both this and subsequent periods are acute, sustained and voiced still with huge emotional and lyrical charge.
Heaney graduated from Queen’s University Belfast with a 1st class Honours degree in English Language and Literature in 1961. He was 21 years of age, single and would get married four years later; in 2006 he has been married to the same wife Marie (née Devlin) since 1965 and remains a dutiful and loving father and grandfather. Amidst the collection’s surrounding drama Heaney makes room for his enduring love of Marie, both in Belfast and at Glanmore cottage in the Irish Republic – a deeply intellectual and sensual relationship echoed in poems that describe the ‘erotic’ pleasure Heaney derived from fiddlehead ferns or crab-apple jelly.
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 rewarded him and his readers with the beginnings of a life’s journey of rare global achievement and prestigious teaching posts on both sides of the Atlantic.
If ever in those early days Heaney needed to confirm the legitimacy of his 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 Irish poets writing in English.
Born into and brought up in a Northern Irish family within the Catholic minority of a predominantly Protestant Ulster Heaney developed a deep sense of his Irishness; times grew increasingly turbulent and dangerous for him during the so-called ‘Troubles’; by 2006, against all expectations, there had been 8 years of ‘peace’ following the major breakthrough of the Good Friday Agreement signed in 1998; as a result Heaney could claim to be an Irish poet on the streets of Northern Ireland and carry a ‘green’ Irish passport without having to watch his back; this would have been unthinkable during the long period of sectarian violence.
In the early 60s, Heaney was in need of friends and mentors 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 him and to whom he dedicates his poems.
The collection pays tribute to a long list of fellow-poets, almost all of them deceased, who shared similarities of interest with Heaney or struggled against hostile régimes, who wrote poetry that married the political and the lyrical, or were Nobel laureates in their own right. Heaney is the one who has survived to memorialize them.
Moreover, thanks to his ‘muse’ Heaney shows no appetite to slow down. At 20 or 30 years of age, 5 years can seem insignificant; to a man of 65 they represent a huge chunk of ‘time-left’. Dennis O’Driscoll’s (DOD) Chronology in Stepping Stones (xxviii-xxix) confirms that there was no let-up in the intense pressure of Heaney’s self-imposed timetable. He willingly accepted poetry readings and lectures, book launches and festivals, honorary degrees and exhibition openings as part of his ‘territory’. Heaney confessed later to Robert McCrum how difficult he found it to say ‘no’ to invitations.
But he readily admits to some of the symptoms of the ageing process that begin to surface in this collection. Commenting later on the final poem, The Blackbird of Glanmore, he described the moment as a ‘different stage in life. You’re beginning to be aware of the underground journey a bit more’.
‘When I ask him about ageing’, reported Tobias Hill in The Observer of Sunday 2 April 2006, ‘ 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’.
Perhaps he should have taken a little more care of himself – Heaney suffered a mild stroke four months after District and Circle was published but, thankfully, made a rapid recovery.
During the composition period of District and Circle Finders Keepers: Selected Prose 1971 – 2001 was published in 2002; Burial at Thebes, his translation of Sophocles’ ‘Antigone’, was premièred at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre in 2004.
A whole range of events and personalities find a place in District and Circle: an initial collaboration with Irish musician Liam O’Flynn took them both on a tour of Iceland and produced a joint CD; Heaney participated in celebrations for Chilean poet Pablo Neruda in Madrid and attended the funeral of his much revered fellow poet Czeslaw Milosz [Tess-waff Mee-losh] in Poland; he visited the Silkeborg Museum in Denmark, home to the remains of Tollund man retrieved from a Jutland bog in the 1950s; he met the Emperor and Empress of Japan in Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage at Grasmere in England’s Lake District.
Heaney is far more elegist than prophet – ‘In District and Circle, the literati rub shoulders with the locals, and the dead outnumber the living. Heaney is the one who has survived to memorialize them’, suggested Stephen Knight in the Independent of Sunday, 9 April 2006.
Former Poet Laureate Andrew Motion summed it up in The Guardian of Saturday 1 April, 2006: ‘Heaney 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).’
Heaney’s admiration and respect for achievement is, however, all-inclusive – he draws no distinction between a handful of internationally celebrated creative spirits and their humble Ulster counterparts … ‘Wordsworth’s Skates’ exhibited in the Wordsworth Trust Centre in Grasmere once launched an extraordinary poet into an orbit of celebrity … in contrast ’Quitting Time’ salutes a job well done by an unsung farmworker.
District and Circle – what is in a title?
The title poem recalls a Tube journey Heaney routinely followed during early work experience in London’s Passport Office but the collection circles a much broader ‘district’ … revisiting familiar haunts and adding new ones
The choice of District and Circle as the collection’s title 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.
Heaney suggested that ‘Alder’ was another option he contemplated. He discarded it, he explained at the time, ‘because there was just too much comfort in the phrase’. In a humorous aside he added that fellow Northern Irish poet, Paul Muldoon, referred to him as ‘alder’ statesman … which wiped it out, basically.
The title nouns ‘District’ and ‘Circle’ 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’!
An Irish Times’ article referred to the ‘incontestable weight and majesty’ of the volume and Heaney’s ‘global weather-eye leaving its trace elements across the snail-track of the poems’ concluding that ‘one reading of the title might be the interplay of continuity and evolution’.
Heaney revealed that the title piece ‘District and Circle’ was originally part of the Tollund Man poem until he realised its poetic potential and reworked five sonnets to create a Dante-like underground/ underworld journey, meeting kindred spirits and proceeding from life to whatever might await him on the other side
The ‘big’ issues
Peace in Ulster had brought Heaney a tentative sense of relief – he kept his fingers crossed that old wounds and political impasses could be overcome and that hard-line communities might soften their stances. Heaney often alluded to the dilemma facing him as a public voice in troubled political times so he welcomed each faltering step from IRA cessation of hostilities and so-called ‘decommissioning’ of weaponry to albeit stuttering attempts at Power-Sharing.
It was on the global stage that things were changing most swiftly and radically – the challenges and dilemmas facing the apprentice-poet in the 60s were a million miles distant from those faced by the post-2000 world.
Heaney trusted his instincts and the collection’s cover summarises what he was sensing: ‘Events and issues, some of them extreme, others ominous, others matter-of-fact have changed the landscape.’
After 2000 the escalating sense of menace at an international rather than parochial level turned into episodes of large scale violence – the four coordinated attacks by Islamic terrorists of 9/11 2001 that brought down the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York made a seismic impact on both the body and soul of the USA; synchronised terrorist bomb attacks on the London Transport system in 2006 included radicalised nationals. Both will be recalled in the collection.
The world order had deteriorated sharply over a relatively short period and yet the danger of armed men out of control was nothing new. Heaney spells it out: archaic farm machinery resembles a medieval war-machine, handling a sledge hammer causes a reverberation of trepidation; the impact of Viking invasions on Irish religious communities more than a thousand years earlier generated the same dread as that felt by the stricken donkey in live footage of a Middle eastern market place under attack that Heaney had watched on TV news the night before.
The all too familiar cycle of murder and revenge that Heaney witnessed in Ulster now extended to the global political scene – the emergence of terrorist extremism and predictable 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’. He cannot and does not, however, ignore the ‘piercing sense of threat’.
A second group of poems aligns Man’s destructiveness with the power of fire: a Boston fire-fighter’s helmet symbolises heroism and human solidarity in the face of evil; the premeditated torching of a man’s home alienates him from his environment; the stove lid of William Wordsworth’s sister is likened to the mouth of hell; the fiery pits of hell into which tyrants were thrown feature in the poem dedicated to George Seferis.
Tobias Hill in The Observer of Sunday 2 April 2006 offered his personal take: ‘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 sledgehammer’.
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’.
Heaney responds to the ominous shadow of global warming identified by scientists 30 years earlier: inter alia greenhouse gas emissions, the collapse of polar ice sheets and loss of ice fields, the threat of rising sea levels and environmental impact of aircraft and trace gases on the atmosphere.
He voices deep concern that Man’s so-called ‘carbon-footprint’ has set in train a cycle of global warming events that threaten with extinction countless endangered species and, ultimately, Man himself.
In The Tollund Man in Springtime Heaney pitches his iron-age hero – a body excavated from a Jutland peat bogs by Danish anthropologists, ‘a figure who had given me poetic strength 30 years earlier, a kind of guardian other… keeping step with me’ … less of a persona, ‘more like a transfusion’ – into a modern technological landscape exposing him to pollution and so-called ‘progress’ … Tollund Man finds nothing positive in Heaney’s current world, no quality of life – he cannot survive in its alien atmosphere and votes with his feet to return whence he came!
Indifference to the environment and the effects of modern lifestyles have brought scary evidence of glacier melt of ‘Höfn’ and the ‘rising waters’ of ‘In Iowa’; the reckless acts of developers have disfigured Heaney’s beloved river the ‘Moyulla’.
Where else did Heaney turn in search of subject matter that fitted his purpose?
The Greek poet George Seferis to whom a poem is dedicated had persuaded Heaney that revisiting earlier themes and settings is to re-discover the first seed so that the ancient drama can begin again’.
In articles and interviews published around the time of publication, Heaney acknowledges the ‘recreative charge’ derived from ‘revisiting earlier themes and settings’.
In an article of 7th April, 2006 Sean O’Brian comments on Heaney’s starting-point: ‘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’.
Heaney’s first seeds include the ‘lost domain’ of childhood: he revisits moments of formative physical and emotional days in both Primary and Secondary education : contact with a naughty local boy; bumping into former classmates and their memories; sites and situations associated with World War 2; his Irish territory’ and the familiar spots he ranged as a youngster – poems describing much-loved and familiar spots from his Ulster background; the resurrection of dead figures and the breathing of new life into things.
Peter McDonald writing in The Literary Review saw this as a great strength: ‘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’.
Echoes of WW2 drip with menace: 1944 D-Day preparations take place in front of the local abattoir; railway sleepers in a refurbished garden hold memories of extermination camps; the tales told by a demobbed soldier friend indicate how he was changed by war; ‘Aerodrome’ becomes a parable of temptation resisted and a child’s sense of insecurity allayed; the ’Nod’ acknowledges the scary suspicions prevalent in the sectarian communities of his Ulster neighbourhood.
Heaney’s local territory and its shadows from the past turn up: local blacksmith Barney Devlin wags the finger of authority at the village children ; the same man strikes 12 hammer blows on his anvil to celebrate the millennium, its sounds relayed by cell-phone to a nephew in Canada ; he records affectionate memories of the local barber’s shop and pays elegiac tributes to two aunts, the first an invalid carried around the Heaney home by the poet and his brothers, the second laid to rest in her community.
Alongside sonnets – seemingly effortless in their sheer fluency, but memorably tough and intent – the book contains marvellous prose-poems that conjure up the peopled landscapes of his schooldays, the highways and by-ways of his district: the road to Primary school … the elegance of the tinker women Heaney encountered as a youngster… his sense of displacement on the weekly bus journey to boarding school.
Early schoolboy reminiscences recall the day he and a classmate had their legs whipped for misbehaviour and how, in a second piece, the mouth-burning sensation of underage tobacco-chewing acted as aversion therapy. ‘Brancardier’ recalls how, as a dutiful if irreverent sixth-former, Heaney undertook a catholic pilgrimage to Lourdes as part of his spiritual upbringing; a former class mate in the pub ‘One Christmas Morning’ suddenly gives off a whiff of sectarian tribalism that stops Heaney’s bar-gabble in its tracks..
Andrew Motion in The Guardian of Saturday 1st April 2006 seems to sense that Heaney’s Catholic upbringing and spiritual development have undergone lapse and change such that the poet sees life as a one-off earth-bound rather than a spiritual preparation: ‘ District and Circle is a poem about faith, which never uses the word. Heaney’s long view … has a moral force’.
In ‘Nonce Words’ the jubilation of Heaney’s toast to the pleasure and privilege of being alive amidst the beauty of his familiar and much cherished Irish surroundings is tempered by the prospect of his inevitable demise and need to appreciate the circumstances while he still may.
The collection’s final poem, ’The Blackbird of Glanmore, offers an intensely moving epilogue; an ageing poet revisits the beloved site where much of his work was composed; he interacts with a kindred spirit -creature and its endearing characteristics; he sees the shadow of a younger brother killed in a road accident outside the family home in 1953 and reflects on rites of passage – arrivals … departures … superstition … premonition … making the best of what is left.
Heaney’s scholarship re-surfaces at regular intervals: his intimate knowledge of classical languages and antiquity; Irish language and history; English as far back as Anglo-Saxon and spoken French.
Poet and 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 had 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.
The collection offers hints as to 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’.
Tobias Hill in The Observer Sunday 2 April 2006 commented: ‘Many of the poems – more than a dozen – are sonnets in spirit if not always in form, the psychological heart of the sonnet-form present 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’.
In his review of District and Circle in Poetry Society Steven Matthews suggested: ‘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’.
Review judgments from 2006
‘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
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 iuts footing. Heaney the consummate technician is on show throughout … Heaney is famously a poet of checks and balances, always at pains to see boith points of view and reluctrant to speak out of turn. This is mirrored in his almost obsessively balanced and symmetrical figures of speech … Heaney has made a lifelong virtue, even predictability, of going on and vindicating the blessings of a happy life. David Wheatley in The Contemporary Poetry Review
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.