Wrestling with questions about his current status and mindset Heaney has felt the need for solitude; he would benefit in his uncertainty from the reassurance of a counselling voice.
The speaker revisits a stretch of the Donegal coast, a shod of a bay. The sounds he is hearing recall the god Thor who in Viking mythology hammered to create land, sea and heavens.
Conscious of his own sensitivities and temperament the poet has come to seek release from the build-up of inner tensions emanating from uncertainty about the way his poetry is presenting. The first forceful voice he hears is of this earth, not yet the counselling voice he seeks: only the secular powers of the Atlantic thundering.
His gaze is carried northwards towards less enticing distant landfalls: the unmagical/ invitations of Iceland and the pathetic colonies of Greenland.
The poetic charge comes suddenly conjuring up pictures of those fabulous raiders (both ‘remarkable’ and ‘the stuff of fable’) who explored not only those very coastlines but ventured south via the north Scottish islands to Ireland (where they founded Dublin).
They lived and died, and were laid in tombs alongside their symbols of prowess: measured against their long swords rusting. Some were laid to rest within the solid belly of stone ships, ship shaped stone memorials in what is now northern Germany and southern Scandinavia; others lay where they fell in battle: Hacked and glinting in the gravel of thawed streams.
Their ocean-deafened voices and the culture they represent rise above the sounds of Thor’s thunder lifted again/ in violence and epiphany. They are the voices of warning.
The Viking longship recognisable from its curled prow-head is both visually and linguistically afloat in the poet’s mind: a swimming tongue buoyant with hindsight carrying him back in time and setting out what it was to be Viking: pagan; empire-building; entrepreneurial, driven, thick-witted by lust and the ethic of revenge; superficially ‘democratic’ but given to hatreds and behind-backs in the althing (the Hall where debate took place and ‘democratic’ decisions were taken). The Vikings were dishonest, dissolute, only made peace when they were too tired to fight; from generation to generation they passed down sagas that confirmed, celebrated and sharpened their appetite for revenge: memory incubating the spilled blood.
His counselling voice speaks to him across twelve hundred years in time, about literary enterprise, language, the poetic processes, the artistic temperament and personal integrity: be at one with your own rich linguistic resource: word-hoard; delve deeply and concentrate within the coil and gleam of your furrowed brain; reconcile yourself to composing in darkness; anticipate the discrete shimmer of composition, an aurora borealis rather than ‘sunburst’: no cascade of light; accept that what you undertake will require stamina and commitment as for a long foray (like Viking exploration); keep your mind lucid and on task: your eye clear as the bleb of the icicle.
Finally, from within your poet’s sense-memory, have particular confidence in the ‘touch’ and ‘texture’ of known things and events you have witnessed: trust the feel of what nubbed treasure/ your hands have known.
shod: elusive description perhaps reminiscent of rough-shod with its implication of ruggedness;
secular: embodies both the idea of “living in the world, not belonging to a religious order,” or “belonging to the state,” or “worldly” “of an age, occurring once in an age,” from saeculum “age, span of time;
pathetic: much more the sense of “affecting the emotions, exciting the passions,”, “moving, stirring, affecting” than the more modern “arousing pity, pitiful”;
fabulous: rather “mythical, legendary,” from L. fabulosus “celebrated in fable; rich in myths,” than modern idea of ‘smashing’;
epiphany: originally “festival of the manifestation of Christ to the gentiles” (celebrated Jan. 6; used here to indicate sudden “manifestation, striking appearance”;
bleb: c.1600, “blister or swelling,” imitative. Also used for “bubble” (1640s);
aurora borealis: Northern Lights caused by a collision of particles within electromagnetic fields that gather near the Poles; named after Aurora, goddess of the dawn and Boreas god of the wind; visible only at night and at certain times of year;
Iceland and Greenland are distant, northern land masses colonized as were parts of Ireland by Viking settlers around the 10c as they blazed trails and sought trade; Orkney was a Viking site and Dublin was founded by Norwegian Vikings in the 10c;
Thor: pagan Norse God of thunder; the hammer with which he protected the world struck whatever it was aimed at and returned to Thor; a hammer-shaped pendant was treasured by Viking warriors;
word-hoard refers to the hidden treasures (vocabulary, shade of meaning etc) stored in the writer’s mind; Heaney’s own profound knowledge of languages and mythologies, both ancient and modern, provides him with a unique resource he can use in his poetry;
10 quatrains; short lines of variable length (4 – 8 syllables: 6 sentence structure; no rhyme scheme;
assonant effects are plotted below with a key of phonetic symbols;
coloured sound –reveals how assonances are woven into the narrative:
1. Ireturned to a long strand,
The hammered shod of a bay,
And found only the secular
Powers of the Atlanticthundering.
2. Ifaced the unmagical
Invitations of Iceland,
The pathetic colonies
Of Greenland, and suddenly
3. Those fabulous raiders,
Thoselying inOrkney and Dublin
4. Those in the solid
Belly of stone ships,
Those hacked and glinting
In the gravel of thawed streams
5. Were ocean-deafened voices
Warning me, lifted again
Inviolence and epiphany.
The longship‘s swimming tongue
6. Was buoyant with hindsight—
It said Thor’s hammer swung
To geography and trade,
Thick-witted couplings and revenges,
7. The hatreds and behindbacks
Of the althing, lies and women,
Exhaustions nominated peace,
Memory incubating the spilled blood.
8.Itsaid, ‘Lie down
Inthe word-hoard, burrow
The coil and gleam
Ofyour furrowed brain.
9. Compose in darkness.
In the long foray
But no cascade of light.
10. Keep your eye clear
As thebleb of the icicle,
Trust the feel of what nubbed treasure
Your hands have known.‘
Heaney selects North to bear the title of the collection; the ‘counsel’ SH received from his Viking ‘ancestry’ has ultimately resulted in the collection we are now reading;
Heaney invites us: to see how successfully he has listened to the advice; to gauge the lengths to which he has run his hands and his mind over the tissue and texture of his subject-matter; to measure the extent to which he has prodded and probed in pursuit of poetry; to consider what history and linguistics have combined to produces in poetry;
(NC58) asserts that the first person voice reveals the radicalisation and revision of the ancient poetic trope of prosopopoeia; the image behind ‘trope of prosopopoiea’ creates a personification, a persona, a face, a mask, a mythology. The ancient and modern faces of Ireland and its history are particularly appropriate to this metaphor;
NC views the Viking longship as one of the earliest and strangest exemplary voices which counsel Heaney in his own poetry (ibid);
The same ‘voice’ that advises on the poetic processes also alerts us to the ruthlessness of Viking culture and power; for example, in a Viking-like way, the poet makes a ‘ruthless’ raid in pursuit of his poetry;
the ‘prevailing moral blackness’ of Northern Ireland only intensifies the task facing Heaney as it did ‘the Norse scops and Celtic bards before him’ (MP p133).