Incertus, the pen name Heaney gave himself in the early Belfast days of poetry writing never really goes away. The poet has come to seek release from a build-up of inner tensions, be they generated by the depressing state of Northern Ireland or his nagging uncertainty about the way his poetry is presenting. To help him cope with troubling issues Heaney has felt the need for solitude in which to receive the benefit and reassurance of a counselling voice.
The speaker is standing on a sandy beach (strand) along the rugged Donegal coast (shod of a bay). The sheer power of what he is hearing brings to mind the god Thor who in Viking mythology hammered to create land, sea and heavens.
The first forceful voice he hears is of this earth and 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 of Viking and Icelandic saga (unmagical invitations of Iceland … pathetic colonies of Greenland).
Poetic charge comes suddenly in the shape of those fabulous raiders (both ‘remarkable’ and ‘the stuff of fable’) who explored not only those faraway coastlines but ventured south via the north Scottish islands (Orkney) to Ireland (where they founded Dublin).
Beyond their earthly span Viking warriors were laid in tombs alongside symbols of their fighting 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 were part-preserved where they fell in battle: hacked and glinting in the gravel of thawed streams.
Their ocean-deafened voices and the bloodthirsty culture they represented rise (lifted again/ in violence and epiphany) above the sounds of Thor’s thunder in warning.
The curled prow-headed Viking longship is both visually and metaphorically afloat in the poet’s mind (swimming tongue buoyant with hindsight) setting him back in time amidst a pre-Christian race (Thor’s hammer swung) – empire-builders and barterers (geography and trade) … lust-driven (thick-witted couplings ) … tied into a code of honour (revenge) … accepting of joint decision despite the hatreds and behind-backs in the althing (the Hall where debate took place and decisions were taken) … dishonest and dissolute … only making peace when they were too tired to fight … feuding from generation to generation as recorded in sagas that confirmed, celebrated and sharpened their appetite for revenge (memory incubating the spilled blood)
Across twelve hundred years the counselling voice talks to Heaney of literary enterprise, language, the poetic processes, the artistic temperament and personal integrity. It urges him be at one with his own rich linguistic resource (word-hoard) … to make full use of his prolific cognitive circuitry (coil and gleam of your furrowed brain) … to reconcile himself to moments of poetic blank (in darkness) and anticipate magnificent shimmers of composition, (aurora borealis) rather than ‘sunburst’: no cascade of light … to provide the stamina and perseverance for a long foray (like Viking exploration) and keep his mind lucid and on task (your eye clear as the bleb of the icicle).
Finally, it exhorts him, rely confidently on the ‘touch’ and ‘texture’ of things and events you have witnessed (trust the feel of what nubbed treasure/ your hands have known).
- strand: long sandy beach
- 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;
- 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;
- pathetic: both affecting the emotions, exciting the passions, moving, stirring, affecting and the more modern ‘pathos’ sense of arousing pity, pitiful;
- fabulous: rather “mythical, legendary,” from L. fabulosus “celebrated in fable; rich in myths,” than modern idea of ‘smashing’;
- belly: area of human stomach and bowels; rounded underside of a boat;
- stone ship: Viking burial custom; funeral space surrounded by stones in the shape of a ship;
- hack: cut with heavy blows;
- glint: a reflected light;
- thaw: melt from ice to water state;
- lifted: calling to him;
- epiphany: striking appearance, sudden manifestation based originally on Christ’s appearance to the gentiles (celebrated Jan. 6);
- longship: archetypal Viking warship;
- buoyant: floating;
- hindsight: understanding derived from something that has already happened;
- 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;
- thick-witted: doltish and stupid;
- coupling: mating;
- behindbacks: intentional comments when a person is not present, implied negative even denunciation;
- althing: single chamber of democratic discussion and policy making dating fromancient Iceland;
- incubate: fan the flames of a problem;
- 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;
- burrow: delve;
- coil: circuitry, thinking process;
- furrow: facial wrinkles associated with worry
- 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;
- foray: incursion, raid
- bleb: rounded blister, swelling, bubble;
- 10 quatrains; short lines of variable length (4 – 8 syllables: 6 sentence structure; no rhyme scheme;
- assonant effects are plotted below in the coloured-hearing; alliteration can be followed with the use of standard phonetic symbols;
Heaney offers us a hidden invitation to gauge the lengths to which he runs his hands and his mind over the tissue and texture of his subject-matter, to measure the extent to which he prods and probes in pursuit of poetic truth and to consider the place of history and scholarship in what he does.
- Heaney selected North as the title of the collection to reflect his current interest in Ireland’s Viking heritage;
- (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 ;
- 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).
- 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;