Exposure: the personal and collective voice in Seamus Heaney’s poetry
Seamus Heaney made his name with his first collection Death of a Naturalist in 1966, his appearance as a poet coincided with the emerging civil rights movement in Northern Ireland in 1968. Heaney’s poetic voice in his early work was marked out by being both rural and autobiographical. As the 1970s darkened with political violence, however, considerable pressure mounted on him to become the voice of nationalist Northern Ireland. Heaney’s response can be seen as both an encounter with, and a turning away from, the contemporary politics of the north. By focusing on the poems ‘Punishment’ and ‘Exposure’ (from North, 1975) ‘The Toome Road’ (Field Work, 1979), and the title poem, ‘The Haw Lantern’ (1987), this article will explore how Heaney’s autobiographical voice is sometimes woven into the fabric of a more collective voice, and the often tensile relationship between the two in his poems.
The year 1972 began with the Bloody Sunday massacre, as violence intensified on the streets of Derry and Belfast. In the summer of that year, Heaney left the north and settled with his young family in County Wicklow in the Republic of Ireland. It was during this period that he wrote his landmark collection, North (1975) about Iron Age bog bodies found in Denmark, of which ‘Punishment’ is perhaps the most famous example. Much has been written about how Heaney found a metaphor for contemporary sectarian killings in past atrocities of human sacrifice (see The Music of What Happens). This geographical and historical distance arguably gave him the space to turn back to face the contemporary brutalities of the north. Nearing the end of the poem, the speaker addresses the exhumed body directly in a striking apostrophe (or direct address):
My poor scapegoat, I almost love you,
but would have cast, I know,
the stones of silence.
A likely biblical allusion to the woman taken in adultery. It would be hypocritical to feel pity for the young victim, the poet seems to say, as he has stood dumb when her ‘betraying sisters, cauled in tar, wept by the railings.’ This is a reference to young Catholic women, or ‘soldier dolls’, tarred and feathered for associating romantically with British soldiers. Heaney’s voice seems to be both intensely personal and simultaneously the voice of communal responsibility and guilt. Through the power of his figurative language, passive silence effectively becomes a violent act itself through the conditional phrase ‘…but would have cast.’ The image pinpoints the moment of public violence or denial, while the clause ‘I know’ is the quiet retrospective voice that most often occurs in the confessional silence of the heart. The poem is both a collective and intimate act of self-accusation. The poet is taking on the guilt of the community, and it is this that haunts the reader.
‘The Toome Road’
In his next collection, Field Work, Heaney shifts poetic voice in the poem ‘The Toome Road’. Again, Heaney looks north of the border, and once again finds a voice that is both communal and isolated. In the opening of the poem, the dominance of the occupying British forces is symbolised by the ‘broken alder branches’ – the speaker has a keen eye for the natural world. Heaney takes on a rural voice, perhaps recalling his upbringing:
How long were they approaching down my roads
As if they owned them? […]
I had rights of way, fields, cattle in my keeping.
Heaney’s father was a cattle dealer. Here he uses his gift for describing the physical landscape to create the image of a quiet village being invaded through the list of concrete nouns:
…Silos, chill-gates, wet slates, the greens and reds,/ Of outhouse roofs.
Then the voice changes with the second caesura (full stop) to a tone of uncertainty, even loneliness: ‘Whom should I run to tell…’ The speaker becomes an outsider in his community:
the bringer of bad news, that small-hours visitant
Who, by being expected, might be kept distant?
Despite the tone of anxiety and isolation in the middle of the poem, Heaney gathers his voice again towards the end. Again he employs another powerful apostrophe. Having referred to the shadowy figures of the soldiers in the third person, he now turns directly to address them:
O charioteers, above your dormant guns,
It stands here still, stands vibrant as you pass,
The invisible, untoppled omphalos.
Heaney uses sound patterning throughout the poem (armoured, camouflage, approaching), to create the feeling that although no other word directly rhymes with this enigmatic noun, it nonetheless seems to pulse with meaning: standing for that in the culture which cannot be subdued. In this poem, despite being an outsider, the poet is more defiant, speaking out on behalf of the people.
‘The Haw Lantern’
This is a quieter, introspective work, written in a more lyrical vein. Although also rooted in Heaney’s love of the natural world (‘the wintry haw’), the poem occupies an almost abstract, symbolic landscape. Heaney’s focus is on the dignity of ordinary people under the intense pressure of troubled contemporary Ulster:
…a small light for small people,
wanting no more from them but that they keep
the wick of self-respect from dying out,
not having to blind them with illumination.
The poem largely conforms to the structure of a sonnet, although the poet drops a line from the opening sestet (six lines) as the wick of self respect is depicted as guttering. The reader’s wish that our own integrity also hold up is tested in the second stanza when the poet introduces into the poem the figure of the Cynic philosopher, Diogenes (said to have walked Athens’ streets at night with his lantern), ‘seeking one just man.’
So you end up scrutinized from behind the haw
he holds up at eye-level on its twig.
In this brilliant visual image, the use of the second person address could represent either an intimate address to the reader, the speaker’s distanced address to himself, or indeed both. The personal and the collective voice seem to merge seamlessly. In the line,
You flinch before its bonded pith and stone,
its blood-prick that you wish would test and clear you,
the verbs suggest a sensitivity, even timidity, under the intense glare of this moral testing. Crucially, no answer is provided, nor is it specified what is being tested. The final phrase, ‘…that scans you and moves on,’ could suggest either passing this unnamed test, or indeed, a failure or falling short of some kind. Perhaps it is this ambiguity that allows Heaney’s voice to be more integrated and therefore seem more at
ease in this poem.
In the final poem in North, Heaney addresses directly the theme of political writing, and the pressures on him as a poet and public figure to write about, or for, the Catholic or nationalist community. He both resists the role of public, political writer, and also somehow desires this role on some level:
…Imagining a hero
On some muddy compound,
His gift like a slingstone
Whirled for the desperate.
The poem presents a figurative image (again, like ‘Punishment’, drawing on the elemental image of stones), and again compounding contemporary politics with biblical allusion. Here, David and Goliath, signalling the theme of injustice. However, it’s clear that this is a fantasy he is only imagining. He
questions the role of poetry:
For what? For the ear? For the people?
These simple interrogatives strike a defiant tone, something like ‘The Toome Road’. Yet, something else is happening here. Interestingly, Heaney refers to his own well-known physical appearance at this time:
… An inner émigré, grown long-haired
and thoughtful; a wood-kerne
Escaped from the massacre.
– another reference to leaving The Troubles behind (in his life, if not in his poetry). At just the moment when he refers directly to himself (‘long-haired and thoughtful’), Heaney also gains some distance by weaving in the historical image of an Irish foot-soldier escaped from the bloodshed of battle into the trauma of its aftermath. He is both directly presenting himself, and simultaneously:
taking protective colouring
in bole and bark
Again, like ‘The Toome Road’, nature is providing camouflage (though this time for the poet himself, not the soldiers; after all he is blending in with, not destroying, the natural world). The poet worries that in
blowing up these sparks
For their meagre heat
he has missed
The once in a lifetime portent,
The comet’s pulsing rose.
The vision seen beyond the self; poetry beyond the narrow constraints of political causes only into the wider demands of humanity. The collective voice has been subsumed into the personal as Heaney asserts the independence and moral weight of his voice, as ‘the greatest poet of our age’ (The Guardian).
Bibliography and References:
Seamus Heaney, Opened Ground: Poems 1966—96 (London: Faber, 1998)
Seamus Heaney and the Music of What Happens (RTE; BBC iPlayer), 30 November 2019: https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m000bxwv/seamusheaney-and-the-music-of-what-happens
Seamus Heaney: Out of the Marvellous (Produced by Charlie McCarthy); available on YouTube (An Icebox
Films Production for RTE, Ireland, 2009), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YJekPyV2rJM
Further Reading Seamus Heaney, 100 Poems (Faber, 2018)
An earlier version of this article first appeared in emagazine 89 September 2020. I am grateful to the editors for permission to reproduce it here.
Blog content: © Benedict Gilbert 2022
‘Brakes upon my desires’: Mobility in The Great Gatsby
In The Great Gatsby Tom and Nick Carraway move from the prosperous Midwest to Long Island. Gatsby does the same, albeit from the poorer state of North Dakota. Only the minor, working-class characters, the Wilsons, are actually from Long Island. Here, I want to turn specifically to the use of boats, horses and cars to consider physical movement as a dynamic emblem for social mobility.
Motorboats & hydroplanes: When Nick first moves to Long Island, he visits his cousin Daisy and her husband, Tom Buchanan. Immediately after Tom is introduced, Nick describes the palatial Buchanan home including ‘a snub-nosed motor-boat that bumped the tide offshore’ (p. 13). The boat singles Tom out as a member of a class defined by power and leisure. Careful readers may have observed that Gatsby also owns at least one motorboat himself. Chapter 3 opens with an introduction to his parties:
‘At high-tide I watched […] while his two boats slit the waters of the Sound’The Great Gatsby (p. 41)
Gatsby wishes to establish himself as a member of the leisured class, like his rival Tom. Later, on seeing a sailing boat when Gatsby shows Tom his own place across the bay, Tom comments,
”There’s sport for you […] I’d like to be out there with him for about an hour’(p. 113)
Leisure reinforces Tom’s moneyed status, yet Gatsby owns two motorboats and a seaplane himself. He clearly aspires to the lifestyle of the super-rich, but tellingly, when he wishes to show Daisy his ‘hydroplane’ in Chapter 5, Fitzgerald ensures that he is prevented by the rain (p. 90), prefiguring his tragic failure to come.
Rowboats & Yachts: Later in the novel, Nick chooses a moment when Gatsby has rekindled his affair with Daisy to reveal the backstory of Gatsby’s true identity. Interestingly, Gatsby’s rise is narrated in terms of travel and movement. Gatsby’s social mobility can be seen in Chapter 6, not only through his transformative change of name, but also in exchanging the ‘borrowed’ rowboat for the yacht he boards, carrying connotations of privilege and leisure. Nick tells us:
‘It was James Gatz who had been loafing along the beach that afternoon […] but it was already Jay Gatsby who borrowed a rowboat […] and informed Cody that a wind might break him up in half an hour’(pp. 94-5)
Cody’s yacht allows Gatsby freedom from the traditional American class structure, a space where he can complete his self-reinvention. If the rowing boat shows Gatsby’s sheer determination, the yacht signifies his social aspirations.
Horses & Ponies: Gatsby is able to imitate the upper classes, yet there are tell-tale signs that he does not belong. In chapter 1, Nick narrates that Tom is wealthy enough to transport ‘a string of polo ponies from Lake Forest [Chicago]’; ‘It was hard to realize that a man in my own generation was wealthy enough to do that’ (p. 11). Later, in Chapter 6, he relates an incident in which Tom Buchanan and two friends arrive unannounced at Gatsby’s on horseback. In an echo of Tom’s polo ponies, the equestrian imagery shows that Gatsby is an outsider in upper-class society. After misreading an invitation to dinner, Gatsby says:
‘I haven’t got a horse […] I used to ride in the army, but I’ve never bought a horse. I’ll have to follow you in my car. Excuse me for just a moment’(p. 99)
A reminder to the reader of his new money. Later, before the confrontation at the Plaza hotel, Tom tells Gatsby arrogantly, ‘I’m the first man who ever made a stable out of a garage’ (p. 113), again reminding Gatsby of his old money status. Tom associates his stables with privilege, just as he associates Gatsby’s drug stores with corruption.
Motorcars: Gatsby wants to emulate the upper-class Buchanans in part to win Daisy back, to repeat his past with her. Gatsby’s rise to the newly-rich is shown through the emblem of his ‘gorgeous car’ (p. 63). It is no coincidence that the car is introduced in detail when he takes Nick out for a ride in order to tell him his dubious backstory. Vehicles map Gatsby’s rise and fall in the novel. In Chapter 7, his car will be transformed tragically from ‘gorgeous’ to a ‘circus wagon’ and finally to the ‘death car’ – echoing the tabloid journalese of the 1920s. Fitzgerald uses the two motorcars to show Gatsby’s loss of power, as Daisy is the driver of the ‘death car’. The tragic velocity of the climax then comes in the form of movement. Myrtle, who has been immobile (imprisoned by her husband Wilson), escapes and runs into the road to be struck fatally by Gatsby’s car. If boats provide Gatsby with social mobility, it is the motorcar that undoes him in the fatal collision. In her excellent study of the novel, Careless People, Sarah Churchwell points out that socially aspirational characters are cut down by the privileged, stating that only the Buchanans as a couple survive, whereas Gatsby
is put in Tom’s place, taking the fall for both Buchanans’ crimes, Daisy’s careless driving and Tom’s affair with Myrtle(Churchwell, 2015: 264; 280-81)
Fitzgerald uses Gatsby’s ‘gorgeous’ car and his motorboats to show his aspirations to join the upper classes. It is the use of horses and ponies though (a pre-modern symbol of upper-class privilege) that indicates Gatsby does not have membership of this most exclusive social club in 1920s America. Tom’s greatest put-down is that Gatsby is no better than a delivery boy. Nevertheless, Gatsby and Myrtle Wilson are both defined by their tremendous energy and movement. Gatsby is constantly restless:
He was never quite still; there was always a tapping foot somewhere or the impatient opening and closing of a hand.(p. 62-3)
As Gatsby drives him through the Valley of Ashes, Nick glimpses Myrtle ‘panting at the gas pump with straining vitality’ (p.66). By contrast, her husband Wilson is immobile, stuck in the Valley of Ashes. He even seeks his revenge on foot signifying his low status, whereas both Gatsby and Myrtle show the emerging energy of the upwardly mobile that will come to define post-World War Two America. Even in death neither character is quite still, as if to protest the injustice of American class snobbery:
the mouth was wide open […] as though she had choked a little in giving up the tremendous vitality she had stored so long.(p. 131)
Gatsby, too, is described in death in terms of movement, drifting on his pneumatic mattress, a parody of the leisured class he has tried so desperately to join. Ultimately, it is Gatsby’s car that finally unmakes him.
References in the article:
F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1990; 2000, The Great Gatsby, with an introduction and notes by Tony Tanner, London: Penguin. (The novel was first published by Scribners, New York, in 1925)
Sarah Churchwell, 2013; 2015, Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of the Great Gatsby (New York & London: Penguin)
An earlier version of this article first appeared in emagazine 76, April 2017. I’m grateful to the editors for permission to reproduce it here.
Blog content: © Benedict Gilbert 2020