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Seamus Heaney, in his poetry, calls upon elements of past and present in which he explores certain continuity in different ways and to different effects, or at least, in most poems studied up to now. His work’s main frame, confessional poetry, is one in which he makes allusions to his own personal experience, past or present, but he also evokes historical events and experiences, both of which are evidently subject to time. Yet, how does Heaney explore such an abstract, intangible theme, to what effect, and what does he get out of it?
It can be argued that his main motivation in doing this is to satisfy his quest of understanding the present through a projection back into the past, back into himself, back into his nation, Ireland, the land, the bog, the turf, that is the very essence of origins and explanations.
Ireland, for Seamus Heaney, only represents the mud, the turf, the water, literally, but not the people.
This can be seen in some of his poem such as “Bog Queen”, where the turf is a predominant aspect in this poem.
Indeed, this “bog” is the very origin of the poem, through its formidable capacity of preservation, enabling it to conserve human bodies for centuries, allowing for its “hibernation”. On the other hand, it is true that some fermenting does occur but the essential is preserved, as the “Bog queen”, for example has kept her consciousness, “I lay waiting”, even though time inexorably passed, “dawn suns groped over my head / and cooled at my feet”.
Moreover, her extraction from her natural “coffin”, if it can be called so, can be symbolised as a rebirth, therefore reinforcing the common sense of continual existence.
This continuity between past death and present life is yet, in the poem, marked by some other events: for Seamus Heaney, if there is always continuity between past and present, there is a discontinuity in historical events. Indeed, he illustrates in “Bog Queen” the past history of Ireland with which there is a clear historical connection as the body found is supposed to be a Danish Viking. Moreover, Heaney, through the verse “gemstones dropped”, might be suggesting Ireland losing its autonomy and pride.
Through this, Heaney’s exploration of the continuity between past and present might be seen as the search of an answer to the today’s Irish situation back into the past. Hence, the human condition, and more specifically its barbaric aspects, is a strong link between past and present in Ireland. He explores these ancient and yet contemporary tribal violence, such as murders, sacrifices etc… , in poems such as “The Tollund Man”. In effect, in order to understand the present and lasting conflict in Ireland between the Protestants and the Catholics, Heaney returns to the likely origins of its people.
In this poem, he dares to “risk blasphemy” in his will that the Irish may go beyond religious beliefs and divisions. What he expresses is his wish that the Irish be unified by the common land, and that the violence of the present may generate a type of pagan renewal in the future. Further in the poem, Heaney evokes the fate of “four young brothers, trailed / for miles along the line” which puts forward that nothing has really changed since the bestial Viking era.
Heaney, in his exploration of the continuity between past and present to understand the situation of his country today, seems to comprehend and partially accept these brutal primitive, yet human deeds in “The Grauballe Man” which inspire him the ambiguous combination of feelings of disgust and fascination, now lying “perfected in my memory”. Logically, in relation with this theme, Heaney also creates a bond between past and present by varying the form of his poems for political purposes, mostly between Ireland and England.
This is seen in “Requiem for the Croppies” where he criticises the English hostility during the rebellions of the United Irishmen in Wexford in 1798 and of the Easter Rising in 1916. He expresses his support to the rising through the unbalance brought by the sestet of five verses which gives the entire poem a rebellious aspect. Consequently, Heaney ensures a political point of view, one where he criticises the interference of England in Irish affairs, but also the continuation of a 400-year-old form of poetry, the sonnet.
Such a continuity in Heaney’s poems is not only seen in poems making allusions to history and Ireland, but also on more personally based ones, where the poet as an individual marks the relationship between past and present. In “Digging” for instance, Heaney recalls his father digging “just like his old man” and goes even back to remembering his grand-father who used to “cut more turf in a day / than any other man on Toner’s bog” thus insisting on the continuity of a tradition of farming that has been passed from generations to generations.
He decides to preserve this continuity but by following his on way, that is by digging with his pen, not into turf, but into his mind, himself and the past. It is true that there is a strong parallel between digging and writing which enables the sustainability of the continuity between past and present in this poem: digging and writing are both constructive and whilst the farmer digs for potatoes and nourishment, the writer digs into himself, as I already said before, but for the nourishment of the mind. There is in “Digging” another interesting connection with past and present.
Here, Heaney is talking about himself, as a young man, making a decision about his future life. He considers the pen in his hand and decides that he will become an expert with it, thus crafting on this particular moment the rest of his life. It is important also to consider that a pen can be used to write things that can inspire people to riot or violence, or to draft an appeal to peace. Heaney is hinting at the power that a writer can have over events. These two elements put in evidence yet again the continuity between past and present and the discontinuity in historical events.
Overall, Heaney wrote many poems based on his personal experience to explore the continuity between past and present. In “Death of Naturalist” and “An Advancement of Learning” to give two other examples, Heaney, in the first poem, evokes a journey from innocence to a sense of fear and uses the event described as a powerful example of the way things in our childhood lose their magic as we grow up and learn more about the darker side of the world, thus that once you grow, you see things with a more negative aspect. In the second poem, the image of continuity between past and present is perhaps the most visible among the poems already studied.
Indeed, this poem really is all about past and present, and the connection between the two. There are two parts in this poem, the first half, in which Heaney expresses his dreaded fear of rats, and the second one, where he starts to get in touch with the reality of what a rat really is. It is interesting to note that the turning point in this poem, the boy not turning away but accepting the challenge “I turned to stare” is exactly in the central stanza and that everything after is overturned, his fear disappearing marked by a change in the rhyme scheme.
The bridge that Heaney passes at the end of the poem, “Then I turned on and crossed the bridge” is the symbol of something you have achieved, the poet’s passage of childhood to adulthood, of past to present, with an insistence on the continuity between the two, conveyed by the concrete image of the bridge. In conclusion, there are several various ways with which Seamus Heaney evokes the continuity between past and present in his poetry. Depending on what he wants to demonstrate, he considers different examples to explore such continuity: from his own personal experience to a more general Irish history, Heaney analyses a wide range of details.
In his consideration of continuity between past and present, he works on different levels, diverging from ideas such as metaphors or other images, to crafts and workings such as the use of a particular form, or term. His enterprise of studying time is probably not coincidental, as time is by definition something ever existing, eternal, upon which everyone is subjected. Through it, Heaney makes an attempt to place Ireland and all Irishmen in a wider context.
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