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Heaney, by his own definition, was always a ‘bookish creature’. Born near Castledawson, in County Derry, as the eldest son of eight children born in a Catholic Nationalist family, he made the usual transition to the Catholic education system. At an early age, he began to discard the history of farming with which his family had been associated for generations, to become Ireland’s greatest living poet. He started school at St Columb’s college in Derry as a boarder and then moved on to Queen’s University Belfast.
In 1966, by the age of 27, had his first collection of poems published by Faber and Faber. By the present day, he has published 10 volumes of poetry, several collections of critical essays and was awarded numerous prizes, among them the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995.
Heaney grew into a country coined by enormous political conflicts and confessional tensions. The autonomous Irish Free State had only been turned into the Republic of Ireland in December 1937 under the presidency of Douglas Hyde and gouverned by Eamon de Valera.
Still, the United Kindom had kept the Protestant-dominated province in the North. As a Catholik, Heaney belonged from origin and education to that part of the Northern Irish population, that had been oppressed for centuries. Ulster’s privileged English settlers were strictly agains a separation from Great Britain.
These virulent conflicts up to the present day which had always been at the brink of turning into a civil war again, determine Heaney’s point of view of every day life.
Northern Ireland was and has ever been his major topic and is reflected throughout his poetry in various aspects.
How does a writer poetically address the problems of a country whose political and cultural fissures have resulted in an apparently endless cycle of distrust, oppression, and violence? Seamus Heaney had to answer this question for himself in the late 1960s, when the “Troubles” took a decidedly violent turn and forced the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland to a moment of crisis.
Heaney’s walks in the footsteps of Yeats and uses all aspects of Irish culture, history, folklore, song, myth, and religion to write poetry that not only describes the Irish experience to the reader, but also allows the reader to feel the experience and emotions of the Irish people.
The following analysis of the three poems The Other Side, Act of Union and The Ministry of Fear aims to work out Heaney’s contribution to the eternal question of (Northern-) Irish cultural identity. How does a Northern Irish writer takle the problem of the schizophrenia of the two Irelands, where does he see the roots of the neverending conflicts in Ulster, of the regular outbreaks of violence, the failures of peace processes? Does he take sides and who should be blamed? Does he offer his readers any solutions?
Heaney is ‘digging’ into the multilayered soil of Irish life and politics with his subtle, but powerful weapon: His pen. The structural and poetical means to pass his message shall be discussed in the following.
[The] poems in Wintering Out offer […] perspectives on the fraught political and historical situation in the north of Ireland. When Wintering Out appeared in 1972, that situation had reached a point of crisis. As a northern poet, Heaney felt a responsibility to respond to that crisis in some way in his writing.
In his poem The Other Side from the volume Wintering Out (1972) Heaney discusses the situation of every day’s life in the Nothern Ireland countryside where he grew up and still lived by then.
In a BBC talk (1972), Heaney says that the rural area where he grew up in county Derry may have been “the country of community”, but it was also “the realm of division”.
The poem is written in free verse and told by a lyrical I that closely resembles Heaney himself, due to his family history as Irish Catholics, who were dispossessed by the plantations. It is, of course, set in Northern Ireland, where today Protestants and Catholics are still living close together.
The Other Side is formally divided in 18 stancas of three lines each and one single line for the end, which are grouped in three sections of variable length: In retrospective, the first depicts how the land is distributed between two neighbours as well as the land’s quality. The second, shorter section deals mainly with the speaker’s memories of school and his thoughts on the neighbour. A central role plays the neighbour’s Protestant religion. Heaney, who got to know it at school uses its Old Testament imagery to build up the comparison between himself and the neighbour more clearly. The third section is conceptually subdivided. The first three stancas provide the reader with a picture of a typical evening at the family farm, when the neighbour comes round for a visit. The rest of section three makes a time shift into present tense leading the generalised evening scene from before into an actual meeting ‘now’ and leaving the outcome open and literally in question.
The multifold differences between the neighbours are represented on several layers in the poem. First and foremost, they are of different denomination. The speaker is Catholic and the neighbour is Protestant. The neighbour clearly inhabits a diffenent culture, with language charged with Biblical reference from the Old Testament, like his “biblical dismissal” “It’s as poor as Lazarus, that ground”. He even accuses the Catholics that their “side of the house [..] hardly rule by the book [i.e. the Bible] at all”.
The neighbour’s, i.e. the Protestant religion and religious practice, that was also taught to Catholics at Ulster primary schools, is said to be rolling “magnificently” under the open sky, whereas the catholic “rosary was dragging mournfully on in the kitchen”. Even their languagage differs according to their religion.
The Puritan aversion to ornament and ritual, the simplicity, sturdiness and orderliness of the man’s life, the way in which his every thought is determined by the precepts of his religion, are emphasized in the hard consonantal music and strong accentual rhymes: his brain was a whitewashed kitchen/hung with texts, swept tidy/as the body o’kirk.
The protestant farmer speaks the “tongue of chosen people perception of himself and his world”. that is inappropriate to the poet’s ‘Kitchen’, here, builds up the comparison between the neighbours again: one’s kitchen is, in all likelihood, really white with no extra decoration of any kind. The same applies to his mind and brain. On the other side, the Catholic kitchen presumably is a crowded place, hung with pictures of Saints, where the whole family gathers for their evening prayers.
“Land’ is a central topic in Heaney’s early poetry” and in Irish literture in general. In The Other Side Heaney focusses on land as the creator of identity and, at the same time, difference.
As neighbours the two farmers are almost physically stuck together, one property borders on the other. The land also determines their occupation and, apart from religion and their different background, coins their daily routine and habits: The protestant farmer uses traditional features of Irish farmes as for example his blackthorn. In short, land makes them outwardly equal.
Still, the land is of unequal quality. The protestant farmer owns the better part of it and it is highly likely, that his part was once taken from the Irish locals, whose descendants now live under rather poor conditions next to them and still remember the old days: “The Irish Catholics, from the first organised plantations of Ulster in the 1600s, have lost none of their resentment [from their dispossession] because they regard it all as theirs in the first place.”
And even though the Protestant owns the better part and can even see the results of this, namely thigh-deep plants on it, he complains about it’s poor quality. The neighbour’s harsh judgement about his own ground must sound double offensive to the Catholic, whose “scraggy acres” are “nested on moss and rushes”.
Heaney brings in a two-dimensional notion of the two pieces of land. One being geographically located “above” the other, the protestant “lea sloped to meet our fallow”, makes the contrast very obvious. Not only are the characteristics of the two fields taken from contrastive semantic fields, but also from different register. ‘Lea’ is tradionally a very poetic vocabulary, whereas ‘fallow’ belongs to plain English style. In addition, the neighbour’s fields are called “promised furrows”. In the religious context of the poem one might not only think of ‘promised’ in the sense of ‘promising’, but also of ‘Promised Land’, a ‘Holy land for chosen people’, which is in a way true, for the land was really promised to the Protestant settlers by the English crown, taken from the Irish and given to them when they immigrated.
As a result, the description of the land metonymically superimposes the Protestant on the Catholic.
The ‘other side’ in this poem is, first of all, the Protestant neighbour. It implies a negative feeling of excludedness, but also states the fact that the speaker has a group identity of his own as an Irish Catholic. Alterity, the ‘being different’, easily creates the image of enmities and despise.
The neighbour is described as being ‘on the other side’, distancing himself from Heaney, the Catholic other’, in terms of physical boundaries and also in terms of the house’ – the Christian church, of which Catholic and Protestant are, particularly in Heaney’s Ireland, opposing sides.
Nevertheless, in Irish history ‘the other side’ has always been a term used by both, Protestants and Catholics, to refer to one another. A term for two parts of one whole, an identical address for opposing groups. Platonian, as well as Hegelian philosophy discuss this principle of dialectics. It postulates, that one part cannot exist without the other. Only together by means of dialoge they can form a synthesis.
The synthesis here is Northern Ireland, which is no longer the ‘real Irish’ place with only Catholics living in it, neither the English colony where Protestant settlers cruelly rule over the Irish natives. Both folks share to some extent the same identity and live under similar conditions, what also includes that both are on ‘one side’.
“The poem that most literally, and perhaps most richly, ‘politicises the terrain’ is ‘The Other Side’, in which Heaney intertwines land, religion, and language to characterise, and tentatively close, the distance between Catholic and Protestant neighbours in Ulster.”
Times are gone, when Protestant farmers could and, presumably, wanted to oppress the Catholic natives around them. Even though Elmer Andrews identifies the neighbour’s remark on Heaney’s religion as “blunt, unfeeling rejection that increases awareness of the man’s sense of superiority”, the Protestant neighbour in this poem is no enemy. His ‘he’ not ‘they’ is opposed to the Heaney family’s ‘we’. He ‘would’ politely wait until after the Catholic family’s religious practice and then knock and hope for an invitation.
But regardless of the neighbour’s “guarded and embarrassed gestures of friendship”, the divide between them is so deep and unsolvable that even under extremely intimate conditions in the dark yard, in the moan of prayers” they cannot get together. Even though Heaney poses the final lines as a question, there is no hope for resolution. “Even if they strike up a conversation, what degree of intimacy can they hope to achieve? What the poem offers is a picture of two worlds which can never fully meet.”
In fact, Heaney postulates a tolerant separatism’, alluding to Robert Frost’s Mending Wall, the concluding line of which is “Good fences make good neighbours”. In Heaney’s context that means, that they live peacefully next to each other and don’t go on hurting each other. All the same, the wounds are too deep and the differences too emminent. “Heaney’s world remains a strictly divided one.”
Heaney’s collection North (1975) opens a more intense engagement with the Northern conflict. “Its occasional moments of mythically imagined optimism notwithstanding, the volume, taken as a whole, is brooding, distraught, and deeply conflicted.
At the end of the first half of North, Heaney offers a gendered image of the situation in Ulster in the poem Act of Union.
The poem Act of Union is structured in 2 stancas of 14 verses. Each stanca resembles an English sonnet with 3 quartets of alternating rhyme. In the first stanca there is mostly full else half rhyme and in the second stanca dominate assonant and consonat rhymes. Each stanca ends with a rhymed couplet. But apart from the English sonnet tradition Heaney makes use of an irregular tetrameter instead of jambic pentameter.
The speaker is “the tall kingdom over your shoulder”, “imperially male” distanced from the addressee “across the water”. The addressee is characterised as a female with “gradual hills” for breasts or a “ferny bed” for a vagina, lying passively with it’s back to the speaker.
The time structure in the poem starts off with the present of “to-night” and spans furtheron from flashbacks to the past “where our past has grown” to finally “forsee” the future. Apart from that, the title ‘Act of Union’ recalls the actual date of the historical Act of Union between Britain and Ireland in 1801, when Ireland was formally made part of Britain. The present tense in the poem relates to that day.
The “poem with the finely ironic title, ‘Act of Union” develops on the surface a tale of a violent sexual act and it’s outcome: the woman is pregnant. In fact, the two people are personifications of Ireland and England, the conqueror.
The title opens the ambiguity: The Act of Union of 1801 factually meant the political act of England’s anexation of Ireland . On the other hand, an act of union is the technical term for sexual intercourse between man and woman.
The first five lines of the first stanca introduce the preparations for the actual act. “A first movement, a pulse” creates electric atmosphere and arouses the feeling of tension. As a result, “bog”, central in Heaney’s poetry as a metaphora for Ireland, “rain” and the verbs “slip” and “flood” and finally “burst” and “gash” suggest that she becomes moist. The scene culminates in “a gash breaking open the ferny bed”, her sexual organ is vying open, and the act takes place. The next quartet depicts her and with her pregnant womb, the “heaving province” like a manifestation of the union between England and Ireland. Their past and future will be united forever and the proof is Ulster, his “legacy”.
In the second stanca the focus shifts on the sexual act again and then on the offspring. The “fifth column”, meaning Ulster, also becomes personified as the unborn baby and dominates the action. It struggles and fights in the womb and thus turns the peaceful image of a baby to its opposite. The poem ends gloomyly, the aggressive fruit of their union already bears the seeds of hatred. Birth is at hand, only to leave the mother “raw, like open ground”.
Heany plays with the traditional semantic structure of two stancas, where the reader would expect the biblical alegory of promise and fulfillment, just like Mary who gave birth to Jesus and brought the saviour to the world. In Act of Union, instead, we find rape and it’s dreadful consequences. Instead of hope and the innocent image of a newborn baby, the reader is left with nothing but negative expectations.
Furthermore, Heaney instrumentalises the sonnet tradtion of the English renaissance for his purposes. A Shakespearean sonnet bears elements of love and nature poetry and in Act of Union their semantic fields of “nature”, “body” and “conquest” are formally coherent. Still, they occur in very negative collocations, like “his heart beneath your heart is a wardrum” and together with the large amount of violent vocabulary, their formal meaning becomes perverted to the opposite. Stefanie Teschke goes even further postulating: “In Act of Union wirkt zudem der Gebrauch der fr die englische Renaissance typischen Sonettform zur Darstellung der permanenten “Vergewaltigung’ Irlands durch England […] als sarkastischer und anklagender Kommentar.”
A central role plays Heaney’s suggestive use of language. Not only can we understand the meaning, but we can even sensually hear and feel the sexual act taking place and the baby rebelling. He, the conqeror, is “imperially male” and exerting power over her, explicitly mentioned with his “ram”, the male phallus. His sexual movements in and out appear in mechanical repetition in the parallelism of “the”, which is even extended by a further enumerating “the”. The onomatopoetic alliterative b-sounds of “battering ram, the boom burst” refer to their sexual intercourse, but also the foetus and create the climate of war. They are, in fact, the “wardrum mustering force”. The b-alliteration is taken up again to emphasize the aggressive nature of the baby, whose “parasitical and ignorant little fists beat […] at your [Ireland’s] boarder” and threaten England at the same time.
Neil Corcoran sums up the poem’s ending: “The conclusion of the poem – revised from its original lengthier, more optimistic version (published in the Listener, 22 February 1973) – is hopless and exhausted, the rhyme of ‘pain’ and ‘again’ insisting on the apparent endlessness of political suffering in Irish history.”
Once again, Heaney aims to explain the deep roots of the conflicts in Northern Ireland, that were at a climax when the poem was written.
Surprisingly, Act of Union is not a general condemnation of England from an Irish poet over the English intrusion on/in/to the Irish island. It is rather a very personal abstract of the Anglo-Irish past from a fictive English perspective. With the shift of vocalisation, Heaney points out, that Britain is aware of the conflict and with a very sober, male attitude suffers from the hatred of the own ‘child’, too.
Heaney points out the incalculably deep aftermaths of this violent Act of Union. He arises the question, whether the physical and mental marks, especially on mother and child, but also on the rapist, are ever going to heal.
Many speculations were made upon the question, whom Heaney actually criticises in this emotional poem of rape and pain. He doesn’t mean to point solely at England (as a conservative Irish point of view might suggest) or at Ireland for its passivity and shortsightedness of some of ‘her’ historical actions, but at the entire political situation in Northern Ireland which Heaney is treating as the offspring of the Act of Union.” Or, summing up Heaney’s characteristical blaming all and none at the same time, Teschke puts it: “Offen bleibt, ob das ungeborene Kind stellvertretend fr die brutale Gewalt der IRA, fr ganz Nordirland oder fr die von Englands Polizeimacht untersttzten Unionisten steht.”
Elmer Andrews brings in a general gender aspect of Heaney’s poetry:
The pervasiveness of the masculine/feminine opposition in Heaney’s writing about himself and other poets originates in a deep-seated sense of his own divided feelings and experience. His poetry reflects the attempt to reconcile the tension. The poem, Heaney says, should be a ‘completely successful love act between the craft and the gift’.
So, if there was any solution to the situation in Ulster, the child would have to ask itself the question Yeats arises in Leda and the Swan: Isn’t there any profit out of that union?
Northern Ireland is no longer mere Irish. It is a hybrid and has, after all the years of occupation, become Celtic and English at the same time. None of the influences can be denied or surpressed. Only if both are accepted there is a chance of peace in Northern Ireland.
The Ministry of Fear is one of six poems constituing the sequence Singing School published in the volume North (1975). The title Singing School is taken from a line in W.B. Yeats’s poem, ‘Sailing to Byzantium’. It documents some of the attitudes and associations that have informed the poet’s creative development.
The formal structure of The Ministry of Fear are three main stancas of variable length. The first and by far longest (43 verses) is subdivided in four parts. The second is already extensively shorter (17 lines) and the last one with its mere three verses gives the poem a very poignant ending.
The action is presented in retrospective by the lyrical I, here namely Seamus Heaney himself, who leads the reader in free verse through different stages of his biography: St. Columb’s College, University of Belfast, Berkeley.
On the foreground, The Ministry of Fear tells the story of Seamus Heaney’s school years at St. Columb’s College in Derry and his friendship with the fellow poet Seamus Deane to whom the poem is dedicated. But again, the essence of this poem is the difficult situation between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. Heaney approches the conflict on a very subtle basis, incorporating literary allusions and insider’s details to tackle the subject.
Already with the introductory sentence “Well, as Kavanagh said, we have lived in important places” Heaney brings in the main topic of ‘place’. The present perfect tense indicates, that they have been doing so untill now and there are several places that count. The places coin their identity and the influence of the surrounding on the individual cannot be denied.
With this message in mind Heaney switches the focus on “the lonely scarp of St Columb’s College, where I billeted for six years”. “Heaney has himself described his years from nine to nineteen as the unhappiest of his life” and starting with the depreciatory word ‘billeted’ he opens a extensively negative description of it: The “Bogside” he’s overlooking means nothing but the part of town, where the underprivileged of both religions, Catholic and Protestant, live. Over the river Brandywell he could see the other, the Protestant side, where the regularly held dograces and the “throttle of the hare” hint at a relationship of hunter and victim. He feels his stay like an “exile” from his parents, like being stuck inbetween Protestants. The concluding sentence of the first stanca refers to the boat-stealing episode in the first book of Wordsworth’s Prelude “It was an act of stealth”. Even though Heaney wouldn’t have needed to get rid of his biscuits secretly, he took to this ‘act’ like a conscious rebellion, without having the strength to do it openly, yet.
The next stanca opens with places again, with changes in young Heaney’s life: “Belfast, and then Berkley”. The following literary allusion “is to the passage in the third act of King Lear when Shakespeare’s tragic king points out to Edgar, disguised as a madman, that ‘here’s three on’s are sophisticated’ – that is, while Lear, the Fool, and Kent are altered by artifice (clothing)”. “Here’s two on’s” sophistication is therefore presented twofoldedly, twice with a slightly ironical distortion. The Shakespearean allusion is reserved for the most well-read of readers. It plays with the second meaning of the word ‘sophisticated’, which is ‘fake’ or ‘atrificial’ and adds a certain feeling of their being literally ‘out of place’, being inadequate at the important places of Belfast and Berkley. In Heaney’s own context the irony of ‘sophisticated’ becomes more obvious, as he and Seamus Deane are further described as “dabbling in verses”. The amiable depiction of the two young poets’ struggle for words and the experiments with their language, when Heaney even finds out that his accent produces unusual rhymes, culminates in the metaphore of their “hobnailed boots from beyond the mountain …) walking ….) all over the fine lawns of elocution”. As a schoolboy, Heaney discovers “the possibilities of play among […] pronunciation differences between dialect groups. These differences highlight cultural, religious, and political distinctions with which the Northern Irish must contend”. They are part of Heaney’s life.
With this shift, the problem of identity intrudes the idyll of the young poet’s life again. The nave joy of using his mothertongue is questioned with stereotypical accusations from all sides: “Catholics, in general, don’t speak as well as students from the Protestant schools.”, Heaney quotes, and underlines the injust treatment of their origin with the most intimate example: his own name. When asked by one of his Catholic teachers, his pronunciation of his surname was not ‘Irish’ enough.
But regardless of all the oppressions up to corporal punishment, Heaney “still wrote home that a boarder’s life was not so bad”.
The sceme of a might be happy life marred by the omnipresent conflicts in Northern Ireland is repeated in the next stanca. Again, he creates a positive atmosphere, by drawing the sweet picture of his first kissing with a girl on summer vacation. Again, there is an aprupt change of tone, when he is stopped by a police control on his way back to school. Again his name, this time his first name ‘Seamus’, identifies him and he is ridiculed by the Protestant police officers for being Irish-Catholic.
The final, decisive humiliation from the authorities is the policemen’s inspection of Heaney’s private letters of poetry-correspondence with Seamus Deane. Via the bridge of poetry, the poem culminates in the famous last stanca:
Ulster was British, but with no rights on
The English lyric: all around us, though
We hadn’t named it, the ministry of fear.
After all that happened, these last lines appear like a defiant, but convinced assertion. The caesurae in each verse give each line a double emphasis and exaggerate the enjambement. As a result, the focus is mainly on the beginning and ending phrase “Ulster was British” “the ministry of fear”. Still, the central key to understanding The Ministry of Fear is not getting to know the existance of it, but the enthusiastic postulation “with no rights on the English lyric”.
The iterated references to the “inferiority complexes” superimposed on the boy are like a guiding line through the poem. Young Heaney is not yet sure, whether he should revolt or give in. The literary allusions to Wordsworth’s Prelude anticipate his inner conflict: “It was an act of stealth and troubled pleasure.’ Teschke classifies The Ministry of Fear as a poem of initiation and explains:
Das Kind geniet den Ausflug, bis die imaginre Wahrnehmung eines bedrohlichen Gipfels von ungeheuren Ausmaen es erschreckt und unbelebte Gegenstnde in der Vorstellung des Kindes ein Eigenleben gewinnen […] Heaney arbeitet in seinen Initiationsgedichten ebenfalls mit unbewussten ngsten.
He shows pride and does not complain to his parents, but the injustice of his situation becomes more and more obvious to him, as well as to the reader.
The climactic structure of The Ministry of Fear makes the poem more dense and complex with every stanca. The repeated sceme of intimidation and humiliation followed by secrecy and subdueing is eventually resolved in the liberating insight, that no power can control language and lay claimes on lyric.
Heaney, once made fun of because of his name, recognises the true power of this hybridity, the chance on something new and old together, where the poet can pick the bits that are part of what he feels his identity.
Although Heaney writes from a uniquely Irish tradition, he still manages to avoid writing propaganda. Heaney straddles the line between political activist and poet with extreme subtlety. He avoids blank criticism of either side, and instead writes in an ambiguous way that holds meaning for all readers and all sides of the Irish struggle.
As the three poems from his first third as a publishing poet have shown, he repeatedly brings up the assertation, that the deep wounds of six centuries of conflict would not heal easily and a certain sensitiveness of both sides of the (Northern-) Irish population stays present. The unstable peace process of the 1990s until now has proven him right.
Still, instead of writing a poem about a specific group of people who were wronged by one side or the other, Heaney would just describe the scene without party affiliation or with equal blame spread to all practitioners of violence. Heaney only stands for the side of peace in his poetry. Heaney explains his reason for not taking a strong political stance or supporting one party in his Nobel lecture:
While the Christian moralist in oneself was impelled to deplore the atrocious nature of the IRA’s campaign of bombings and killings, and the “mere Irish” in oneself was appalled by the ruthlessness of the British Army on occasions like Bloody Sunday in Derry in 1972, the minority citizen in oneself, the one who had grown up conscious that his group was distrusted and discriminated against in all kinds of official and unofficial ways, this citizen’s perception was also at one with the truth in recognizing that the very brutality of the means by which the IRA were pursuing change was destructive of the trust upon which new possibilities would have to be based.
About Wintering Out he said that “unjust Ulster ‘hurt’ him into poetry” and in general, he really writes “a poetry everywhere bruised by Northern politics”. But Heaney had always believed in the literary potential of his own background and by putting the pain into words, he became a powerful voice of all who seek peace in Northern Ireland and one of the most influential and widly appreciated poets of our times.
The form of the poem, in other words, is crucial to poetry’s power to do the same thing which always is and always will be to poetry’s credit: the power to persuade that vulnerable part of our consciousness of its rightness in spite of the evidence of wrongness all around it, the power to remind us that we are hunters and gatherers of values, that our very solitudes and distresses are creditable, in so far as they, too, are an earnest of our veritable human being.
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