Door into the Dark published by Faber and Faber in 1969 is Seamus Heaney’s second collection. Heaney was thirty.
The totality of his collections over more than half a century confirmed Heaney’s place at the top of the premier league of poets writing in English. Heaney was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995. He died suddenly in August 2013.
The textual commentaries that follow seek to tease out what Heaney’s poems are intimating in Door into the Dark.
Of course, the poet’s ‘message’ will have started life as an essentially personal one not intended primarily for his reader. There are moment, too, when some serious unravelling is required – thanks to the depth of Heaney’s knowledge, scholarship and personal feelings, his poetry is rich in content – teasing out the personal circumstances and 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.
The following introductory notes, textual surveys and footnotes are largely personal. The approach is not calculated to promote any particular viewpoint.
Seamus Heaney ‘Door into the Dark’, Faber and Faber 1969
Michael Parker ‘Seamus Heaney The Making of a Poet’, Macmillan 1993 (MP)
Neil Corcoran The Poetry of Seamus Heaney, Faber 1998 (NC)
Helen Vendler: ‘Seamus Heaney’ published by Harvard University Press 1998 (HV)
Dennis O’Driscoll ‘Stepping Stones’, Faber 2008 (DOD)
Door into the Dark – Overview
Seamus Heaney was a highly intelligent, sensitive Northern Irish Catholic… of a modest, sociable, self-doubting nature … living a unique set of personal circumstances and writing poetry at a specific moment in history … he was a magician with words and the subtle shades of meaning they enclosed.
Door into the Dark represented the second stage in Heaney’s poetic ‘apprenticeship’. He was thirty with a prizewinning initial collection already under his belt, a wife and two young sons to provide for. He was living in rented accommodation in Belfast, with a modest post in the English Faculty at Queen’s University that paid the bills.
Compiling Door into the Dark tested his ability to move beyond the confines of his childhood family homes around Castledawson in mid-Ulster and ring the changes of poetic theme and format. Heaney himself did not see that much progression – it was more, he said, a matter of trying out and spreading out, trying out a sequence like ‘A Lough Neagh Sequence’, spreading out from Toner’s Bog in Bellaghy parish to ‘Bogland’ in general. He was composing poems that drew on the wider energies of the Irish landscapes and was prepared to venture into pastures new.
Door into the Dark introduces the collection’s leitmotif that acts largely as a positive metaphor for discovering the treasure trove that lay within an inquisitive individual’s reach – Heaney took the title from The Forge, the actual blacksmith’s workshop on Castledawson’s Hillhead Road whose dark doorway admitted Heaney into an echo chamber of sound and sensation. It also acknowledged the need for him to bolster the confidence his nature sometimes lacked. Heaney makes no secret of the insecurity that affected him – Night Piece paints the picture of the youngster and the farm horse behind his bedroom wall coping sleeplessly with scary darkness … Dream opens a trapdoor into the Heaney’s subconscious to reveal the dynamics of nightmare whilst Vision and Bogland both point at family finger-wagging warnings that inadvertently exacerbated his subconscious fears.
The journey to self-revelation, the poet suggests could be mapped from any starting point within ‘the dark wood’ and impenetrable shade of The Plantation.
Introducing elements of Irish geographical, architectural and spiritual history In Gallarus Oratory allegorizes the miracle of faith felt by its monks as they emerged from ‘the dark night of the soul’ into light.
In more entertaining mode The Outlaw describes Kelly’s bull hidden from public gaze and only tempted out of his pitch-black shed by the prospect of a cow to be serviced!
Following the courting poems of Death of a Naturalist Heaney is now married to Marie Devlin and more than familiar with the area and the communities she came from. A Lough Neagh Sequence hides what unfolds beneath its watery surface from the observer’s eye whilst adding insights into the lives and manners of the local eel fishermen. The seven poem piece is complemented by further County Tyrone poems which explore the energies of the Irish landscape, notably At Ardboe Point and Relic of Memory.
Heaney sprinkles the collection with love poems – Girls Bathing celebrates Irish womanhood at a popular seaside location and spotlights his Marie as the pick of the bunch – Night Drive takes him on a journey southwards across the scents and scenes of France towards the fulfilment he knows Marie will deliver at the end of his odyssey … Rite of Spring is alive with sexual innuendo. Cana Revisited draws a parallel between a Biblical miracle and the miracle of his own wife’s pregnancy.
Heaney dares to imagine what it is like to live within a woman’s experience: Undine relates the legend of the elemental water creature who can only achieve a soul by producing a child fathered by an earthling and who chances upon an Irish ditcher working in his rural setting … The Wife’s Tale recounts the moment when a farmer’s wife brings male activity to a halt by providing for empty stomachs … Mother describes the drudgery, perhaps his own mother’s, that makes no concessions to her pregnancy even in the most inclement conditions.
Heaney treats us to a series of meditative landscapes: The Peninsula, one of a number of poems that find the poet behind the steering wheel of his car, conjures up County Antrim’s close relationship with the sea whilst Shoreline portrays the wider Irish coastline where sea and land meet sparking a multitude of associations and historical legacies that help define what it means to be Irish.
Heaney makes space for other things that makes Ireland magically special and unique – Thatcher spotlights an ordinary untutored Irishman whose skills to those who watch him work verge on the miraculous … Whinlands salutes a colourful characteristic frieze of Irish landscape whilst Bann Clay explores the presence of geological deposits once dug out locally like peat when the business was profitable. The collection’s final poem Bogland extends from Heaney’s reverence for the peat diggers of Death of a Naturalist to the boggy Irish expanses where peat formed over aeons … the poem serves as a prequel for a score of bog poems across the poet’s work.
Heaney leaves room for elegy, a genre that he will exploit very movingly … Gone laments an equine absentee whose tack still hangs on the farm’s wall … The Forge sheds a tear for the Castledawson farrier whose horses have been replaced by cars.
Evoking a keen sense of sadness Still-born Child, written for a couple who were married at the same time as the Heaneys focuses the poet’s compassion on the woman who bore the foetus, provided her husband with antenatal instruction and fruitlessly prepared the ground for the child’s arrival.
Heaney weaves in lighter moments – Victorian Guitar celebrates musician and firm friend David Hammond’s upbeat handling of an instrument that once bore witness to the drab existence of a dutiful Victorian woman married to a dull, controlling husband. Up the Shore includes the bar banter of legally employed eel fishermen while Bait follows the antics of three poachers in search of worms with which to catch eels illegally. Finally The Outlaw depicts the sharp wittedness of Irish farmers finding their own way round cumbersome unwarranted laws.
Two poems stand out for me.
The collection’s most powerful piece Requiem for the Croppies commemorates the indomitability of Irish spirit in its re-enactment of the slaughter at Vinegar Hill of the poorly armed Wexford Brigade of United Irishmen by superior numbers of well-armed British occupying troops during the Irish Rebellion of 1798. Written from the vantage point of a Northern Irish Catholic Heaney plants his first flag in favour of the Irish Nationalist cause, relegating any accusations that he is adopting a partisan political stance beneath his writerly duty to speak out … the seeds the Irishmen carried in their pockets and in their bellies grew from their graves … Heaney can already foresee the so-called Troubles, the eternal cycle of murder and revenge triggered by irreconcilable positions on both sides of the sectarian conflict.
My personal favourite is The Given Note Heaney’s beautiful poem inspired by a haunting Irish lament composed long before, so the story went, by a lone fiddler on a Blasket island off the west coast of Ireland. It was the only one of Heaney’s poems to be read at his funeral service in 2013, chosen perhaps because it represented in memoriam all that was dear both to the poet and his wife – their deep-seated Irishness … their love for the Irish-speaking populations of Ireland’s Gaeltacht … the magical Celtic underlay … things that render Irish music special and unique … the poem reflects exactly Heaney’s own ability to pluck beautiful lyrics from ‘nowhere’ … musician and poet are both creative spirits faced with the identical challenge of turning ‘electric’ charges into pieces of art. Its title introduces both the musical motif (note) and the notion of involuntary charges (given) bestowed as a gift from God on chosen creative minds.
Heaney’s next two collections ‘Wintering Out’ of 1972 and ‘North’ of 1975 will demonstrate that Heaney has completed his probationary period and firmed his unique poetic voice sufficiently to move into a world in which he can devote the whole of his time to his vocation.
Seamus Heaney time-line
- 1966 Death of a Naturalist published; it receives the Eric Gregory Award and is presented with The Somerset Maugham Award;
- Since 1963 Heaney has been working at St Joseph’s College of Higher Education; part of his role was to observe and assess students in placements around Belfast;
The spring and early summer of I966 had a strange freedom about them. Marie was pregnant and off school, so she came with me sometimes on long journeys through the country, when I was visiting students on teaching practice – away down on the shores of Lough Erne, for example, in County Fermanagh, or up in the Sperrins, in Glenelly DOD 89
- birth of first child, Michael in July;
SH talked about the shock of parenthood: I’II never forget the first night Marie came home from hospital with Michael. We hardly slept at all. Listening for his breathing. Wondering what to do about any crying – whether to feed him or not, whether he needed to be changed. All kinds of protections seemed to have been peeled away, competence had deserted you.
But you gradually got used to it. We both tended to be awake for those feeds, waiting for water to heat in the bottle warmer, wondering if it was overheating, sterilizing the bottle, changing the nappie, dumping the dirties. I didn’t actually write in those small hours, no; the waking-up did of course make us both a bit bleary-eyed, but we were young and fit for it. If poetry can be written in the trenches , dammit, it can surely be managed between the day job and the night feed. DOD97
Heaney responded to a question about the life/ work/ family balance at the time he was working on Door into the Dark
DOD: With a child of your own, as well as college work, essay-marking, travelling and earning a living generally, there was a lot more than poetry going on in your life in the late sixties. How did you contend with the different demands? Did you pine for a more bohemian existence?
SH I was never quite sure what I’d end up doing; so when the poetry suddenly arrived, just as I was starting out as a teacher, it was a redemptive grace but by no means an alternative way of life. At that stage, I never even considered the possibility that I could give up the day job. We were young marrieds, young teachers, starting
out with lots of other young marrieds and young teachers … And then came the mortgage!! DOD 96
- 1966 Philip Hobsbaum (on the staff of QUB and creator of the poetry ‘Group’ of Belfast poets upon whom Heaney tested his early poems) moves on; Heaney will take on the Chairmanship but meetings become more sporadic before eventually Heaney leaves for Berkeley, California in 1970; Heaney admitted he did not have the same organisational drive as Hobsbaum;
- 1966 Heaney appointed to a lectureship at Queen’s University Belfast starting in October; the post will bring him contact with some of the next generation of undergraduate Northern Irish poets;
- 1967 developments include first contact with Patrick Kavanagh and Ted Hughes and increasing contributions to BBC programmes focussing on arts and education;
- 1967 SH attended Patrick Kavanagh’s funeral with Derek Mahon and Michael Longley;
- 1967 witnessed the first of a series of reviews and articles for ‘The Listener’ entitled ‘Irish Eyes’;
- 1967 Death of a Naturalist received The Cholmondeley Award;
- 1968 second child Christopher born; the child is named after Heaney’s little brother killed in a road accident adjacent to Mossbawn in 1953;
- In May 1968 SH sets off on an Arts Council tour with Michael Longley and entertainer-musician David Hammond taking poems and songs to both Catholic and Protestant communities;
- With Marie SH visited Thomas Hardy sites in Dorset and TS Eliot’s burial place in East Coker, Somerset;
- there is a marked deterioration in political and sectarian relations; Heaney takes part in early protest marches following repressive responses to the Civil Rights Movement; fuller detail, some of it appropriate to Heaney’s locality, is available in the section which follows
- 1969 Door into the Dark published;
- Heaney makes his first US trip to Richmond in Virginia; he and his family fulfil the terms of the Somerset Maugham Award spending time in the Basque region of south west France and later in Madrid with Marie Heaney’s sister
The deterioration of political and sectarian relations
Notes below are borrowed without prejudice from Darragh MacIntyre’s BBC documentary focussing on the Northern Irish ‘Troubles’. During the period covered Terence O’Neill was Prime Minister of Northern Ireland and Harold Wilson Prime Minister in Westminster. Both reportage and any ‘slant’ are MacIntyre’s.
- April 66 Death of a Naturalist published
- June 66: Catholic Peter Ward murdered by Unionist extreme Ulster Volunteer Force outside the Malvern Arms in Belfast’s Shankill Road; his murder was followed by spate of similar attacks;
- July 4: concrete block thrown onto Queen Elizabeth II ’s car as she pursued a ‘healing’ visit to Belfast; a man was later jailed for treason;
- To MacIntyre’s mind the Province was built on division and designed to favour the Unionist minority – Catholics saw themselves as second class citizens as regards housing (gerrymandering) and jobs – 14K catholic voters elected 8 City councillors; 9K unionist votes elected 12 members; the growth of the Catholic population stoked Unionist fears;
- Ian Paisley emerges as the ‘booming cleric’ opposing anything seen as a Catholic concession – his rallying cry trumpeted ‘Protestants on the march’; having spent a spell in jail for riotous assembly and initially underestimated, Paisley’s speeches and sermons were eventually being recorded (‘traitor O’Neill’ and ‘Lundy’) with a view to his prosecution;
- Paisley’s links with organisations including the banned Ulster Volunteer Force were barely hidden; serious allegations suggested that ‘Paisley money’ financed UVF attacks including Kilkleen reservoir;
- Derry becomes the epicentre of Civil Rights Movement; formalised in 1967 by Bernadette Devlin;
- launched to address inequality – non-sectarian and non-violent in principle the CRM was ripe for infiltration by people with more radical intent; an October Civil Rights march in Derry was banned; the Royal Ulster Constabulary drove the ‘few hundred’ marchers who had disobeyed the ban into the Catholic Bogside leading to scenes of brutality broadcast across the world; confrontation only acted as a catalyst – a later march attracted thousands;
- the views of Unionist MP Kilclooney who talked of ‘republican rabble-rousing’ were rejected by more liberal John Hume as a brutal attack on non-violence;
- IRA was emboldened by Civil Rights Movement activities; the rhetoric of Des Long –founder member of the Provisional IRA – who talked of ‘heads broken by peelers’ batons’ confirmed infiltration of the movement that suited ultimate IRA intentions to bring down Stormont and act as a stepping stone towards a united Ireland; events and rhetoric undoubtedly attracted recruits to the IRA;
- Martin Maguinness came onto the scene openly showing live weaponry to young and impressionable children in the streets of Catholic estates;
- By 1968/69 battle lines were being drawn under a variety of labels Unionist v Nationalist, Orange versus Green, ‘Popist v Prod.;
- 1969 Door into the Dark published
- Mar 69 saw the start of a mysterious bombing campaign targeting utilities almost certainly launched to turn opinion against any idea of concessions to the Catholics (Silent Valley reservoir and Annalong water pipeline);
- Paisley’s former bodyguard had warned of a targeted ‘Kilkeel’/ Kilmore pylon; an activist bearing UVF badging was electrocuted during the event;
- Roddy McCorley monument at Toomebridge was blown up on Jan1st 1969 prior to a civil rights march through the village; clear finger-pointer to Loyalist intrusion; the monument was close to the eel fishery installation on the Bann river out of Lough Neagh to which Heaney alludes in the collection;
- Apr 69 O’Neill’s resignation was viewed as a personal triumph by Paisleyites (‘the dying kicks of O’Neillism’).
Genesis of Door into the Dark
- Heaney revealed that there were no poems carried over from Death of a Naturalist and that he was starting his second collection from scratch;
- Heaney needed to fulfil the writerly needs continually nagging away at him; he had published a first acclaimed collection based largely on ‘what he knew’ and was seeking to expand, enlarge and widen both content and style in line with new experience and preoccupations to match the impulses ever presenting themselves to his creative mind;
- his earliest poems had been published under the pseudonym Incertus (the uncertain one); this trait would never really cease to play a role in his work; Heaney was aware he was still cutting his teeth and sensitive to the range of responses he knew his growing reputation would inevitably throw up;
- DOD 98 Neil Corcoran’s critical book quotes a review in which Norman Nicholson suggests that the poet of Door into the Dark is ‘biding his time before the bigger gesture’. Was there a residual lncertus at work in the collection?
SH: There’s a residual Incertus at work in every poem I write. Probably he’s the one who keeps me going. But yes, there had to be a sense of biding time and taking stock during the writing of those Door into the Dark poems. I was blinking awake in a new situation.
- the need to ring the changes has entered his equation;
- his poetic aspirations are contributing a challenging personal diary: homeowner and father with bills to pay and a family to support; a challenging job with lectures to prepare (still largely based on the English literature of his schooling and undergraduate formation); an active cocktail of academic and social events to enjoy in the company of a vivacious wife and creative friends; a swirl, as yet inchoate, of hopes and aspirations; an open mind to opportunity;
From Death of a Naturalist to Door into the Dark
- NC 12 The title of Heaney’s second collection links the book to the final line of Death of a Naturalist, implying a renewed attempt, in poetry, ‘to see myself, to set the darkness echoing’ (Personal Helicon); and this kind of linkage between Heaney’s various books, where the final poem of one volume suggests something of what may be expected in the next, persists as a principle of organization … as many commentators have pointed out. This manifestly promotes a sense of anticipation, but it also suggests a Yeatsian conception of a developing and integrated oeuvre, a sure-footedness willing to programme selfdevelopment, reaching for, or daring what ‘The Errand’ in The Spirit Level will call ‘the next move in the game’.
- As regards Heaney’s development as a writer Michael Parker commented: Although there is clearly a continuity within Heaney’s first two volumes, re-reading Door into the Dark, one does register an enlarging of the poetic focus and scope. Published in Spring of 1969, amid this heightening political tension, it embraces Mossbawn, but also townlands beyond, often with an elegiac intensity … As he gathered the poems for Door into the Dark together, all was being changed utterly. In this collection, words themselves become doors into “the dark centre, the blurred and irrational storehouse of insight and instinct, the hidden core of the self.“(‘The King of the Dark’, Listener, Feb 1970). Crossing the threshold of the self, the poet descends into a subterranean world, like Aeneas or Dante, in order to explore the mysteries of creating and Creation, in order to retrieve moments of illumination.
- Heaney describes his own feelings as regards the successive collections and his progression as a poet? There’s no question of a preference. Death of a Naturalist is always going to have pride of place because a first book is a far more transformative event. You’ve been touched by the publication wand, you’re on the gradus ad Parnassum, (‘step ladder to Parnassus’), you’ve graduated, so the second book just can’t be as magical. You’re also that bit more selfaware, more alert to the facts of reception. I suppose some writers are on a steeper learning curve than others at that second-book stage. … I mean to say, I don’t see all that much ‘development’ in Door into the Dark; it’s more a matter of trying out and spreading out, trying out a sequence like ‘A Lough Neagh Sequence’, spreading out from Toner’s Bog in Bellaghy parish to ‘Bogland’ in general. When I came to do the selection for Opened Ground, I believe I had a clearer sense of what was happening in the second book;
Door into the Dark – what’s in a title?
DOD (p. 96) suggested that the emphasis on death and darkness in the respective titles of Heaney’s first two collections was open to interpretations that the poet might not have intended.
Heaney agreed: Death and darkness are there, I have to admit, in the titles, but I still want to object when you suggest I chose to emphasize them as negative factor … And why’s that? Probably because I thought of ‘the dark’ in the second title as a conventionally positive element, related to what Eliot called ‘the dark embryo’ in which poetry originates. The phrase ‘door into the dark’ comes from the first line of a poem about a blacksmith, a shape maker, standing in the door of a forge; and, as a title, it picks up on the last line of Death of a Naturalist, where the neophyte sees a continuity between the effect he wants to achieve in his writing and the noise he made when he used to shout down a well shaft ‘to set the darkness echoing’ …There’s also the usual old archetype of the dark as something you need to traverse in order to arrive at some kind of reliable light or sight of reality. The dark night of the soul (v. In Gallarus Oratory). The dark wood (v. The Plantation).
Questions of form, style and format – what is new in Door into the Dark?
Neil Corcoran draws attention to two recurrent features: firstly (p. 22) the ‘self-inwoven simile’ (or the ‘reflexive image’) traced back by commentators to the poetry of Andrew Marvell’s use of the poetic figure. It is known also as the ‘short-circuited comparison’ in which things are frequently compared to themselves and somehow described in ‘their own likeness’. NC provides a single instance of it in Death of a Naturalist ‘The burn drowns steadily in its own downpour’ in ‘Waterfall‘). The key to something’s ‘own resemblance’ often seems revealed by the adjective ‘own’. NC offers further examples: ‘a wick that is / its own taper and light’, of an eel, in ‘The Return’; ‘under the black weight of their own breathing’ in ‘In Gallarus Oratory’; ‘The leggy birds stilted on their own legs, / Islands riding themselves out into the fog’ and ‘things founded clean on their own shapes’ in ‘The Peninsula’; ‘The breakers pour / Themselves into themselves in ‘Girls Bathing, Galway I965′; the mosquitoes ‘dying through / Their own live empyrean'(empyrean: visible heavens, sky highest point of heaven ‘of pure fire)in ‘At Ardboe Point’.
A second recurrent feature of Door into the Dark identified by NC is In the characterization of the poet-as-driver … the potential solipsism of the reflexive (the view or theory that the self is all that can be known to exist) is given an accompanying poetic persona, as the perceiver is cut off from the object of perception by a car windscreen. In ‘The Peninsula’, the recommendation to ‘drive / For a day all round the peninsula’ is specifically dependent on your having ‘nothing more to say’, on being locked into your own silence; and the poem tellingly recreates the exhilaration of meditative solitary driving. ‘Elegy for a Still-Born Child’ discovers in a similar situation not exhilaration but the pain of loss, as the driver’s consciousness is saturated by an awareness of the dead infant;
The poems ‘Night Drive’ and ‘At Ardboe Point’ complicate the ‘characterization by being also love poems. In ‘Night Drive’, the solitude of the journey through France is tense with anticipation of the company which will end it, and the strong(more overt) sexual feeling is, with reticent artfulness, diverted into evocations of the drive itself – the signposts which ‘promised, promised’; the places ‘granting … fulfilment’: the thought of Italy laying ‘its loin to France on the darkened sphere’. ‘At Ardboe Point’ modifies the figure: not now a solitary driver, but a pair of lovers together in the car, although curiously isolated nevertheless, at the centre of ‘A smoke of flies’ – ‘they open and close on us / As the air opens and closes’. Even ‘Shoreline’, for all its recovery of a history of invasion from the Irish coastline, and for all that it eventually swells to embrace the whoIe island of Ireland opens with a car ‘Turning a corner, taking a hill/In County Down’. NC 23
Who then is Seamus Heaney at this stage – how are we to assess the point he has reached, the maturity he is striving for, indeed his very identity?
Choosing a platform to comment on the Northern Ireland sectarian problem without openly proclaiming himself a Northern Irish Catholic writing in English proved tricky for Heaney who remained determined to avoid painting himself into corners. Neil Corcoran (p 24) cites an interview in which the poet sought to explain his dilemma: He explained that Docker from Death of a Naturalist, an early attempt ‘to speak, to make verse, faced the Northern sectarian problem. Then this went underground and I became very influenced by Hughes and one part of my temperament took over: the private County Derry childhood part of myself rather than the slightly aggravated young Catholic male’
NC13 When he discusses his title in ‘Feeling into Words’, Heaney says that he intended it to ‘gesture towards’ the idea of poetry as ‘a point of entry into the buried life of the feelings or as a point of exit for it. Words themselves are doors; Janus is to a certain extent their deity, looking back to a ramification of roots and associations and forward to a clarification of sense and meaning.’ This has its consonance with T. S. Eliot’s concept of the ‘dark embryo’ within the poet ‘which gradually takes on the form and speech of a poem’
Helen Vendler focuses on how Heaney deals with the Incertus present in the twin books
The highly respected American scholar and the poet’s friend Helen Vendler (Heaney judged her ‘the best close reader’ of poetry known to him) chose a different route to assess the Seamus Heaney she perceived through his first two collections and followed into his later oeuvre. She prefaced this with comments describing the challenges faced by all creative spirits seeking to settle their identity.
- Heaney is an adult from a particular place at a particular time. Those who grow up with an awareness of words very soon tabulate the anonymous group-names under which others denominate them … group = Northern Irish, Catholic, farmer etc; child name = ‘Seamus’; family name = ‘the Heaneys’; school name = Heaney … He faces the challenges thrown up by his vocation: the question arises as to how he should write : as someone who is culturally Irish, attached to a historical and anthropological identity that predates, in its beginnings, the Christianization of the country? Or as ‘a ‘Catholic’, a spokesperson for an ‘ ethnic group sharing a certain culture of which one strand is the childhood practice of Catholicism that may well be abandoned, in adult life? As an English speaker, reader and writer? Or as a transmitter of an Irish literary tradition? Perhaps as a European, or even (like Yeats in his latter years as a world poet) HV14
- In his Foreword to the 1980 Preoccupations, his first collection of essays – Heaney posed central questions: ‘How should a poet properly live and write? What is his relationship to be to his own voice, his own place, his literary heritage and his contemporary world?’ … If, then, Heaney is to write about any of the several groups to which he belongs (or to which he is assigned by others), he vows not to be intimidated by what those groups think of him and his work – what the priests might want to find; what the relatives may say; what Ulster Protestants would approve; what fellow-poets hope to hear; what predecessors advise. This vow is one all poets must take, and one which is always very difficult to keep; but it becomes particularly hard when the claims of affection and solidarity attempt to establish confines around what can be said and written.
- As regards Heaney’s progression, a quotation drawn from The Seed Cutters a rural vignette from his early upbringing (that appeared in the later collection North) seems to confirm the label HV has settled on
Under the broom … Yellowing over them, compose the frieze
With all of us there, our anonymities.
- HV (p.13) expands on her chosen tag: Through his childhood recollections, Heaney attains an almost anonymous manner, and these recollections form the central group of his first two books, Death of a Naturalist (1966) and Door into the Dark (1969). Yet anonymity is not usually the first choice of a young poet, and to comprehend this initial choice of writerly identity we might enquire what Heaney’s other choices of identity as a speaker might have been.
- Vendler’s first variant emerged from Heaney’s commemorative lyrics on the longstanding farmpractices of his family, his neighbours and his ancestors (hand scything; digging potatoes; dealing at cattle fairs; retting flax in a flax dam; thatching; churning; carrying water from a pump shared by several families), testaments to his preservational instincts. He makes himself into an anthropologist of his own culture, and testifies, in each poem, to his profound attachment to the practice described while not immediately disclosing that his undergraduate life had taken away from rural beginnings HV 13
- HV (p.23) provides the second variant: Perhaps the most usual way poets devise to be anonymous is to turn to myth and legend (whether classical, Christian or folk-derived), and Heaney takes this path as well. In a rather self-conscious early poem in Door into the Dark called ‘Undine’ he writes in the voice of the water-nymph as she recollects her liberation from the earth by the man who ‘slashed the briars, shovelled up grey silt / To give me right of way in my own drains’ Though the sexual analogy becomes strained (He dug a spade deep in my flank / And took me to him. I swallowed his trench’) the poem announces Heaney’s interest in assuming … a special type of anonymity … what it might mean to imagine oneself inside a woman’s experience
- HV’s third ‘anonymity’ is evident when the poet becomes wholly a perceptual observer – one with no history, no ethnicity, no religion, no family. This is the form of anonymity that Heaney has, in the long run, found most rewarding. It shows up early in Door into the Dark’s ‘The Peninsula’. More than a sonnet, less than a narrative, this important poem (written in four irregular quatrains with embraced rhymes) is chiefly a meditation on the purifying power, for human beings, of the primary senses and of memory founded in the senses.
- HV 27 defines Heaney’s fourth ‘anonymity’ in the context of examples of ecstatic moments that come, go and are irretrievable as in Postscript (from his later collection Spirit Level) Perhaps the one thing that all human beings have in common is sense-perception … There is no way of knowing whether the author of this poem is male or female, old or young, Catholic or Protestant, Northern or Southern Irish, a citydweller or a country-dweller. This form of anonymity – in which elusive states of feeling are caught in a descriptive gestalt which powerfully renders them available to others;
- HV 29 identifies her final anonymity: In his early work even the personal Heaney is often almost anonymous. Heaney revealed that his first poems were published under the pseudonym ‘Incertus’ – as though he were as yet uncertain what his signature would be – and the youthful books contain a generic child as much as an individual one. This child is terrified of the rats in the The Barn and on the river-bank of the title poem of Death of a Naturalist; he looks at his image in wells, and watches the cow in calf and the trout in the stream; he gathers blackberries and is disturbed when they rot; he is fascinated by the waterdiviner in Death of a Naturalist; then in Door into the Dark he misses a horse that has died, is fascinated with his local blacksmith, and by the servicing of the cow by the bull. To this extent, a broad and generalized pastoral directive governs the early self-portraits. Yet in several poems the idiosyncratic rises through the general, and these are, justly, the poems that have been much anthologized. They include ‘Digging’, ‘Death of a Naturalist’, ‘Mid-Term Break’, ‘Personal Helicon’ from Death of a Naturalist , ‘Relic of Memory’ from Door into the Dark and, from later volumes, ‘Anahorish’, ‘Oracle’ and ‘The Other Side’. Heaney included all of these in his Selected Poems….
- HV 29 goes some way to defining what made Heaney great: But it is not only in the child as future poet (as in ‘Oracle’, ‘Digging’ and ‘Personal Helicon’) that we find something non-generic about the boy of Heaney’s childhood poems. Like Wordsworth’s boy of Winander, this is a child who thinks more than the usual pastoral child does. It is the intellectual shock of the revision of his initial knowledge of sex that sets the child of ‘Death of a Naturalist’ – the title poem of Heaney’s first book- as warm with inchoate feelings of curiosity, terror and disgust.
- Finally HV (p.33) comments on Heaney’s further progression: If the anonymous nature of farm labour and the generic perception of the anonymous rural child animate Heaney’s relatively idyllic first two books, his third book, Wintering Out (1972), takes up anonymity with a different and new sharpness, exposing the raw underside of rural ‘decency’, and investigating the plight of women in a sexually repressive culture (p.31) … Wintering Out also found a different sort of anonymity that was to prove immeasurably productive for Heaney: this was the archaeological anonymity of the buried bodies (introduced to the poet in a book by Danish anthropologist PV Glob).
- HV comments on the elegy genre (p. 60) Work in the field, in this sense, rises from the obligation of survivors to celebrate those who have died: with each person, the poet has had a separate relation; in each poem, an individual must be characterized and valued. The Heaney style, earlier so apt in conveying the immemorial and the immobile- is now called on to sketch the living as they were before their annihilation, and to do justice to the moment of extinction …The problem of elegy is always to revisit death while not forgetting life, and the structure of any given elegy suggests the relation the poet postulates between those two central terms