Exposure is deliberately placed as the collection’s coda for reasons of emphasis, impact and confessional self-revelation. Heaney takes stock of changes to his personal circumstances, his role and function as poet and public voice, the immediate world around him and current events. The poem is all about whether he has stepped up to the mark or fallen short.
In conversation with Henri Cole in Harvard University’s Paris review no 75. Heaney explained the emotional build-up expressed in his closing poem: … leaving the north didn’t break my heart. The solitude was salubrious. Anxiety, after all, can coexist with determination. The anxiety in a poem like “Exposure” is about whether the work that comes out of this move is going to be in any way adequate. The poem is asking itself, Is there enough here to hold the line against the atrocious thing that is happening up there (The Troubles inundating Northern Ireland)? And the poet is saying, What am I doing but striking a few little sparks when what the occasion demands is a comet?’ … I suppose the corollary of being battened down is being a bit tensed up. At the time when I was writing the poems, I was putting the pressure on myself and feeling, well, exposed as in “Exposure.”
In later discussion with Dennis O’Driscoll (DOD p.160) Heaney talked about the modest reception ‘North’ received in his native province; he put this down to his move into the Irish Republic and the ‘cordon sanitaire’ he sensed between himself and members of the community he had felt the need to distance himself from – feelings went both ways – you get my side of that in the last poem of the book.
So here Heaney stands – a mid- Ulsterman in his thirties, walking alone through the Glanmore December landscape at dusk – all is pathetic fallacy – shivering dampness (alders dripping), incoming darkness (birches inheriting the last light), detached chill (ash tree cold) – nature and poet in a harmony of despondency.
He is there in the expectation of something both uplifting and earth-shattering (comet that was lost) predicted to appear from amidst the immensity of space (should be visible at sunset), a macro celestial mass (million tons of light) that he can link to micro reddish tints around him (glimmer of haws and rose-hips) … he yearns for its poetic charge but is yet to see it.
He has observed lesser phenomena – particles burning out in the Earth’s atmosphere (sometimes … a falling star) – but longs for the poetic charge of something that made it all the way ( If I could come on meteorite).
Tonight Heaney is Irish earth-bound Antaeus, walking through what lends him strength (damp leaves, husks, the spent flukes of autumn) dreaming up a fighting symbol of ancient Ireland (hero on some muddy compound) standing up (his gift like a slingstone) against the forces that recurringly blight the fortunes of the island and its downtrodden people (whirled for the desperate).
Heaney reaches his moment of self-exposure (How did I end up like this?).
He can identify two camps: those on his side offering a comforting range of advice (beautiful prismatic counselling) and a set of unbending minds ranged against him (anvil brains).
He finds himself caught in between, constantly questioning (weighing and weighing) his self-generated griefs (my responsible tristia).
Where have the choices he has made left him (For what?) … writerly needs … the voice of conscience (For the ear?) … minority Catholic loyalty (the people?) … oversensitivity to others (behind-backs?).
At this very instant Nature’s precipitation (rain … through the alders) is presenting an audible background chorus (low conducive voices) feeding his Incertus fear of falling short (mutter about let-downs and erosions).
Viewed from another angle each drop that falls has a transparent purity that confirms beyond argument that he is in an honourable position (diamond absolutes) – neither imprisonable for direct political action (internee) nor betrayer of those who fight for just causes (informer).
Residence in the Irish Republic has created a physical distance from ‘home’ but a retained awareness of what was happening up north (inner émigré). If the first net effect of what he has become is amusing – his need of a haircut (grown long haired) – the second has set his poetic wheels in motion (thoughtful).
He likens himself to an Irish rebel figure from the past (wood kerne) playing a distant waiting game (escaped from the massacre), hiding camouflaged (protective colouring) in the woods of Glanmore (bole and bark), his senses alert to every vibe (feeling every wind that blows).
Heaney has reached the very nub of his problem with himself, namely that by putting all his creative efforts into generating energy at ground level (blowing up these sparks) with such little benefit to his country’s fortunes (their meagre heat) he has failed to recognize the pink-hued potential (once-in-a-lifetime portent) of a mighty celestial phenomenon he might have harnessed (the comet’s pulsing rose).
- Wicklow: county of the Irish Republic south of Dublin; Glanmore cottage was situated there; Heaney’s move south into the Irish Republic left him with a niggling conscience at somehow, betraying his beloved North at a time of crisis;
- inherit: receive as an heir;
- comet: chunk of rock, dust and ice with a tail pointing away from the sun following an eccentric orbit through space and visible from Earth at certain moments; pieces shed become meteor showers
- haw: dark red fruit of the hawthorn;
- rose-hip: reddish fruit of the wild rose;
- falling star: shooting star, meteor;
- meteorite: individual chunk of rock falling from outer space;
- husk: empty outer covering of fruit or cereal;
- fluke: small flatfish shaped parasitic worm living above ground
- compound: enclosed dwelling;
- slingstone: hand held device for projecting missiles, stones etc;
- prismatic: cognate of ‘prism’ a solid transparent figure that, owing to its geometric shape separates white light into the spectrum of colours;
- anvil: solid iron block on which metal can be hammered and shaped;
- responsible: self-generated (from obsolete Fr. ‘responsible’)
- tristia: personal griefs; ‘ things sad’, drawn from an Ovid title in Classical literature. This sense of despondency will pervade the poem:
- behind–backs: things said out of the earshot of the target;
- conduce verb: literally ‘to lead/bring together’ (Latin con + ducere);
- absolute: generally used adjectively; late 14c sense of ‘unrestricted’ ‘complete’, ‘perfect’; also “not relative to something else” (mid-15c.); v. also Latin absolvere “to set free, make separate” (see absolve); sense evolution led to ‘detached’, ‘disengaged’ thus ‘perfect’, ‘pure’;
- diamond: reputed amongst other things for its optical transparency;
- internee: one incarcerated; the internment without trial of political (IRA) prisoners in Northern Ireland was regarded by many as an outrage;
- informer: one denouncing others to the authorities;
- émigré: originally someone who fled abroad to escape the French revolution (1789); extended to refer to ‘political’ exiles in general;
- ‘wood-kerne‘: one of those rebels who, during the earlier course of Irish history, took to the woods when defeated, to prepare for further resistance (NC82);
- bole: tree trunk;
- Though not named here the shadow of Osip Mandelstam was just one example of poets and novelists condemned to ‘exile’ within their own country by a totalitarian regimes;
- portent: 16th ‘sign’ omen’;
- pulse: give off a perceptible rhythmical throb of heartbeat or energy
- rose: pink tinge associated figuratively with optimal state;
Thoughts from the source:
- Heaney emerges as the ‘inner émigré’ having moved physically, from Northern Ireland to the south and, psychologically, from certainty to doubt in his internal psychological status … an emigrant from certainty and self-assurance to a transitional zone of anxiety and insecurity (NC81).
- Glimpses of comets and meteorites open up possibilities of definition, illumination, renewal (MP p 150)
- Heaney’s ‘hero’ is a composite portrait, the ‘sling’ suggesting David or Cuchulain, the ‘compound’ an Irish political prisoner or perhaps the Russian poet, Osip Mandelstam, who paid for his gift and his words of defiance in exile, pain and death. (MP p150)
- a classic modern poem on a poet’s anxiety about the place and function of his own art in relation to an ideal of civic responsibility (NC79)
- At this conclusion Heaney illustrates a scrupulous unease about the ways in which poetry may properly engage the obdurate facts of political violence and death(id);
- equally he demonstrates a humility and a gravity genuinely responsive to the urgency and intractability of the moment (NC61);
- 10 quatrains of free verse; lines almost exclusively between 6 and 8 syllables;
- an 8-sentence structure plus 4 short internal questions;
- many lyrical natural descriptions; vocabulary of a cosmic or scientific nature: comet/ meteorite/prismatic;
- classical usage: tristia;
- simile that links the properties of a cosmic phenomenon with humble earthly nature: Like a glimmer of haws and rose-hips;
- contrasts in attitude: prismatic counselling/ anvil brains;
- personification of natural things: rain’s voice mutters;
- pathetic fallacy: poet and nature in emotional harmony;
- key alliterations in the first 3 stanzas derive from alveolar plosive [t] and velar [k]; after line 4 bilabial nasal [m] is dominant between comet and compound; stanza 4 offers velar [g[: gift/ slingstone amidst the sibilant [s]; the questions of stanza 6 bring [w] variants; alveolar [l] alongside [t] of Mutter about let-downs; (9) witnesses clusters on nasal sounds; bilabial plosives [p] [b] appear in (9) and (10) in tandem with nasals [m] and [n];
- the moment and eternity: December in Wicklow/ The once-in-a-lifetime portent;
- Heaney is a meticulous craftsman using combinations of vowel and consonant to form a poem that is something to be listened to.
- the music of the poem: fifteen assonant strands are woven into the text; Heaney places them grouped within specific areas to create internal rhymes , or reprises them at intervals or threads them through the text;
- syllables without highlight are largely the unstressed sound as in common, little [ə]
- alliterative effects allow pulses or beats, soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies; this is sonic engineering of the first order;
- a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;