The Unacknowledged Legislator’s Dream

In dialogue with DOD (p 181) Heaney had the following to say about his prose-poem: It’s a free-floating invention, that one. I remember writing it in a café in Bray as I waited for my Volkswagen Beetle to be serviced. It’s a corrective to the more tragic-elegiac scenario in ‘Exposure’… This particular unacknowledged legislator is fit as a fiddle, his spirit blithe, his audience in great fettle … but he happens to be a joke in the eyes of his captor and he’s aware that he has simply become a part of some new political spectator sport

Concerned about the relationship between his perceptions of injustice that deserve public comment and his inability to respond adequately, Heaney’s speaker comes to recognise that the individual’s attempt to change the ‘law’, ‘make a difference’ is a figment of his imagination.

Movers and shakers! Enter a trail-blazer from Antiquity in the fields of maths and science and a giant of popular culture from early 20th century cinema. Even two such cases, their impact is only reported: Archimedes thought he could move the world… Billy Hunter said Tarzan shook the world…

Heaney lets his imagination off the leash, adopting the Archimedes lever and Tarzan’s creeper in his search for ‘adequate’ stature. His mission is ‘political’; he has perceived a chink … under the masonry of state and statute. An Archimedes-like crowbar will enable him to prise up political shortcomings and Tarzan’s creeper of secrets will be ideal for helping him break into places of repression with the aim of freeing political prisoners.

The event descends into fantasy. Shock-horror! As his wronged people cheer from their cells, the liberator-poet is taken prisoner: guard-dogs … unmuzzled, the muzzle of a gun at the butt of my ear. He imagines himself as the heroic figure subjected to the barbaric medieval tortures of the Inquisition: blindfolded, as if swinging from a strappado.

Far from it! The commandant, a sincere, rational man, receives him solicitously, honoured to add a poet to our list of political prisoners. He dares even suggest that imprisonment will actually save the poet from himself and from the chaos outside! Incarceration will relieve him of the need to rush around, sound off and, by attempting to make a difference, place himself at risk: you’ll be safer here.

‘Banged up’ yet eager to escape, the poet tries both the Archimedes and Tarzan principles to gain freedom; they prove equally useless. Finally his Kafkaesque nightmare turns into ‘political spectator sport’: Were those your eyes..? Whose? Gaoler? Politician? Shelley? Auden? Kafka? Anyone?

  • Archimedes was a classical mathematician, physicist, engineer and astronomer born in Syracuse around 250 BC; he introduced the principle of leverage in Physics;

  • Tarzan is a fictional character created by Edgar Rice Burroughs in his novel, Tarzan of the Apes, around 1912 .Tarzan’s friendship with Jane made him a hero of popular culture, later immortalised in a number of films. Ape-like he swung around the trees using dangling branches and creepers;

  • strappado: the victim was suspended by the wrists; his arms were behind his back so the weight of his body gradually dislocated his shoulders and the rest of his body;

  • The Bastille prison in Paris, symbol of the oppression of the so-called Ancien Régime, was sacked in the French Revolution of 1789; in the event there were few if any political prisoners inside;

  • In his ‘Defence of Poetry’, Shelley described poets as ‘the unacknowledged legislators of the world’.

  • In ‘Writing’ WH Auden insisted that the phrase described ‘the secret police, not the poets’.

  • Corcoran describes this prose-poem as a parable (reflecting Auden’s view) of how poetry makes nothing happen (NC79); in Heaney’s fantasy the poet-as-liberator is simply imprisoned by the secret policeman with his mild-mannered solicitude(ibid);

  • This and the 2 following titles examine the relationship between poetry and public life providing an experiment with fantasy where the poet is liberator (ibid);

  • MP sees Heaney as wedged into a corner, expected to make some kind of statement, to take up some kind of political stance/ .. the poet trapped in some kind of Kafkaesque nightmare; a prisoner in a land of cages (p.144);