From the very beginning of his poetic career Noble laureate Irish poet Seamus Heaney (1939-2013) had attempted to leave a mark of his own stature whether in case of his biographical verse narratives or his mythical insurgency through poems. In his attempt to showcase the role of women Heaney has quite prominently versified the women he was surrounded by and the women she had read about. In the making of a poet Heaney, from a person Heaney, the role of women had played an unparalleled part unlike any other poet of his contemporary times.
Apart from the role of women as mother, Heaney also produced verses where women had been framed in different personas.
In this paper, I will try to discuss motherly role of women that has initially brought the inspiration for Heaney to be a poet.Among his biographical verse narratives, quite a few instances has been accounted on his mother where he talked about sometimes implicitly and sometimes explicitly about Margaret Kathleen Heaney.
For a poet like Seamus Heaney, whose verse narratives are majorly occupied with biographical records or accounts, the concept of family, even before society and nation from a larger perspective, acts as an elixir to trigger the integrated values of Irish culture and tradition. The role of woman as a mother, as an aunt, as wife, as daughter and most of all as his motherland has thoroughly been celebrated in his versifications precisely. In emerging as a future poet of Ireland, Heaney’s mother infused in him since childhood her potential positive sources that have been materialized into his poetic energy. The affection and care which he received from his mother and aunt have found there exquisite expression in his poems.Her support for her son will never be neglected as it has produced a new era of poetry unlike any other Irish authors or poets. The lesson and knowledge from her mother has repeatedly sent him back to the question of nationalism, compelling him to occupy an uncomfortable place which could neither be accepted nor rejected properly.
Unlike other exiled poets and authors, Heaney has struggled everyday to make his stand in his country, even before the attack of literary critics and delegates. Critics have heartlessly accused him of being a poet of violence as he had portrayed in him poems the past narratives of rape victims. To be able to write on such a subject which is a part of Irish history and nationalism was never easy for him- one cannot proclaim him as a romantic poet nor a modern poet because he chose both to write his poem about.Being the elder child of a farmer family, Heaney had always been surrounded by his siblings, parents and aunt, where his mother was the first person to introduce the essence of poetry upon Heaney in his boyhood. Acknowledging the fact of her mother’s influence upon him, Heaney expressed in his interview Stepping Stone by Danis O’Driscoll:it was she who first taught us There was a naughty boy/ And a naughty boy was he[The Naughty Boy by John Keats]’ (O’Driscoll)
The first poem The Wishing Tree apparently tells the account of tree being uprooted, but allegorically accounts for his mother’s death. (from 1987 collection The Haw Lantern) Considering his mother as the wishing tree that he used to identify, Heaney reminiscences both his mother and the tree and how they shared a symbiotic relation with each other. Specifically the relation he projected between his mother and the tree and how much it meant to him? Like the previous poem here also we located a relation of correspondence between the tree and his mother- where one qualifies the other.Then all of a sudden, a couple of years ago, I began to think of the space where the tree had been or would have been. In my mind’s eye I saw it as a kind of luminous emptiness, a warp and waver of light, and once again in a way that I find hard to define, I began to identify with that space just as years before I had identified with the young tree.
Except that this time it was not so much a matter of attaching oneself to a living symbol of being uprooted in the native ground; it was more a matter of preparing to be uprooted, to be spirited away into some transparent yet indigenous afterlife. (Heaney)By resembling the chest-nut tree with his mother, Heaney named the poem as The Wishing Tree, from the title itself one could conceive the fact that he has deliberately granted the wishing to the tree so as to stress on its disposition of fulfilling the wishes, just as mother did to all of her children out of motherly affection. The first line of the poem unmistakably brings into attention the likeness between the tree and his mother: I thought of her as the wishing tree that died (Heaney)So the first initial prospect that compels the poet to express the similarity/ resemblance/ similitude is nothing but death- both have died for a certain cause. What makes Heaney to remember his mother while unearthing the tree is its last moment in the celestial world? He witnessed both of them to breathe their last moment. He remembered perfectly the event of transplanting with wishing tree from its rightful place:And saw it lifted, root and branch, to heaven,Trailing a shower of all that had been driven,(Heaney)This act of up-lifting is further enhanced with the phrase lifted to heaven, in a way confirming/ reaffirming the death of the tree.
One could visualize the moment where one deliberately produces force to displace the other against its will/ reluctance. Although an opposition is manifested through their movement, but it is confirmed/ inevitable that one day the tree will have to release its place. Being followed the shower, which could be considered as normal reflection of up rootedness, the entire process rests upon those that had been driven, showering those aspects, which had been inclined to be with the tree itself. And metaphorically these aspects are nothing but the memories that left behind.Heaney emphasized upon the matter of preparing to be uprooted, to be spirited away into some transparent yet indigenous after-life. Although he focused primarily upon the wising tree, images and expressions reflect implicitly his mother’s being adhered to it. Having witnessed it to be lifted to heaven, Heaney revisited the day of his mother’s death – the moment of being uprooted or spirited away, with all its roots and branch that surrounded a large circle, crowded both in air and soil. Thus, such enigmatic presence of the tree had been emptied after its death.While extirpating the tree, it created magnetic aura beneath its root, that continued to shower all those elements that remained with the root for long- coin, pin, nail. However, this did not bestow gifts but rather remnants of the past.
The more it is displaced from its exact place, thing emerge from within consequently.Need by need by need into its haleSap-wood and bark: coin and pin and nailCame streaming from it like a comet – tailNew minted and dissolved. (Heaney)Here, need is being driven by need itself- causing to uplift subsequently the sap-wood after the bark. What else is coming out the earth? – Coin, pin, nail and they come up like a comet tail. All these aspects have a common significance of communication, as these aspects/ elements bridges a gap between two oppositional objects- for a reason to perform. Coin is used as a communication to but things of sometimes to preserve/ collect history which is also one sorts of communication between past and present. Pin, whereas, helped to keep things together at a right place- two different things are attached together. It could also perform the role of weaver to establish a shape in the form of art. Then comes a nail- which is used to hold things properly.
In fact this showering of remnants could be considered as an attempt to make a comet-tail of any constellation but consequently dissolved with time. This can also refers to the futility of any life- immortality of any living being.So, one can explicitly recognize the way Heaney expressed this part of showering remnants with that of his mother’s leaving behind those memories, though they are not gifts but are the only signs of his mother’s with them, creating a kind of luminous emptiness. And finally the stanza contained with the poet’s vision- he gets the visual picture of the tree being heavenly in its presence. I had a visionOf an airy branch- head rising through damp cloud,Of turned-up faces where the tree had stood. (Heaney)Transferring from thought to vision, Heaney then visualized the tree thought to vision, Heaney then visualized the tree to be elevated towards the sky or heaven with its airy branch. Reference to dump-cloud in a way clarifies the grave ambience of that moment, neither provides a clear sky nor a rainy one. Through this heavenly vision, Heaney may have wanted his readers to perceive that it could offer an imaginary space that is capable of releasing the typical concept of creativity.
Remembering his mother, in Stepping Stones Heaney said that:She had a capacity for endurance and defiance, and when they got combined in her children with the Heaney gift for solemnity and disdain, it produced different results in different people My mother also had a strong devotional element in her makeup, and I have the impression that her father was both strict and ardent in the practice of his own and his family’s religion. (O’Driscoll)In Heaney’s treatment of women, there are a series of stages where he dealt with each subject quite indistinguishably. Here we will try to discuss his approach towards Greek character Gaia and her relation with her son Antaeus. Depending upon the mythical storyline of the Greek giant Antaeus, the Antaeus poem (taken from the 1975 collection North) not just simply goes on depicting the account of Antaeus through the poetry, but also utilized this story in allusion to contemplate upon his own identity, being both as an Irish citizen and a poet along with the contemporary Northern Ireland situation altogether.
In Greek mythology, Antaeus appears as a king of Libya and son of Poseidon and mother earth Gaia, who is blessed with the power to force strangers to wrestle with him until they were exhausted and finally he killed them. Just as flowers absorb their enriching essence direct from contact with sun, likewise to cherish his survival Antaeus absorbs power from the mother earth, Gaia in the same manner as a child does.”When I lie on this groundI rise flushed as a rose in the morning. (Heaney)Heaney epitomizes this Greek personage as falling hero whose rise inevitably confirmed by his fall. As a strong wrestler, he planned, every time, a fall for himself to bring the fall of his opponent. Each and every single grain of mother earth blessed him with a new power. The relationship between Antaeus and Gaia, which has been brought into attention so cautiously, is unmistakably a hint towards the same relation of Heaney and his mother as is evident explicitly or implicitly from his few poems like- Clearances, The Wishing Tree including Antaeus.
This mother-son relation also discloses profoundly the incestuous bond shared by Antaeus and Gaia, like many other such instances in Greek mythology: “I cannot be weaned / Off the earth’s long contour, her river veins.” In fact one can declare without hesitation the event as surrender not only to success by winning but also as an event of surrender to the sexual pleasure by the act of falling upon Gaia. Antaeus strongly believed that nobody can detach him from Gaia, ensuring the sexual overtone of Gaia’s still feeding his matured son who enjoys this sexual act. In fights I arrange a fall on the ringTo rub myself with a sandThat is operativeAs an elixir.” (Heaney)Getting in touch with the earth Antaeus produces or rather restores his lack and re-establishes himself in his true individuality.
In fact, this process of nurturing from the mother earth is a perpetual process, except from the cases of being detached from earth. The “fall” he prearranged for himself would actually work as a restoration for his subjective entity. Here, earth is represented to him or works for him as an elixir. Soil, one of the four earthly elements, performs as an elixir- to bring life back to someone in need to the fullest. Down here in my cave,Girded with root and rock, I am cradled in the dark that wombed meAnd nurtured in every artery Like a small hillock. (Heaney)Such depiction of his residence is a condition resembling very much to that of a still-born child in the process of formation in mother’s womb. Here earth is evidently impregnated with Antaeus as it took the form of hillock similar to a womb. This nonstop process of conceiving and then nurturing Antaeus is occurring incessantly unless some alien force like Hercules approaches to reject skillfully this familiar prophecy with Antaeus.
From both these poems, dealing with the desertion of mother and son’s bond, one could identify the eventual death that could put an end to the long cherished relationship, whether it is allegorized through natural phenomenon or through mythical account. That long treasured kinship will always been threatened by the alien force, either in the form of Hercules or some human intervention. Yet, Heaney kept on recording the vivid details of those limited moments, both literally and metaphorically. The tree as a resource of life and Gaia as the spring of nourishment are two instances here articulating the inevitable admiration and attachment that can be shared between even knowing its impending conclusion. What matters eventually is there influence that remained without being forgotten, but more closely treasured for future living, if that could be the case.
- Cotterell, A. (2006). The Encyclopedia of Mythology. London: Hermes House, Anness Publishingh Ltd.
- Heaney, S. (1990). New Selected Poems, 1966-1987. Faber and Faber.
- Heaney, S. (2003). Place and Displacement: Recent Poetry from Northern Ireland. In Finders Keepers: Selected Prose 1971-2001 (p. 129). Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
- Monaghan, P. (2004). Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore. Facts on File, Inc.5. O’Driscoll, D. (2008). Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney. Farrar Straus Giroux.
Cite this essay
Heaney’s Women in Myth and Reality: An Approach. (2019, Aug 20). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/heaneys-women-in-myth-and-reality-an-approach-essay