Last Summer, I went to Ireland to talk to with Seamus Heaney at
his large, stone house, which looks across a busy commuter road to the
wide, empty Strand and Dublin Bay. Later, I went north, curious to see
what Heaney calls the "emblems of adversity" which have characterized
Northern Ireland since the renewal of the "troubles" in 1969.
(Heaney left Belfast in 1972, determined to embody in his poetry "befitting
emblems of adversity", but equally determined to keep his poetry
from becoming a "diagram of political attitudes.") I wanted,
as well, to see Mossbawn, Heaneys original home, in County Derry,
the pastoral counterpoint to the current "troubles," the place
where all his ladders start.
Within a day after crossing the heavily patrolled border into Northern
Ireland, I was fitted out with sufficiently adverse emblems: the woman
in Portadown who described her shell-shocked son; the bricks in Belfast
which wall in/out Protestant and Catholic communities; the bomb scare
which emptied my Belfast hotel; the British patrols (camouflage-colored
battle gear, rifles at the ready) moving ominously through Sunday morning
streets, along the Falls Road, amid Catholic parents taking their children
to early Mass; the Orange parade in Derry: stiff men in bowler hats
and sashes, marching behind King Billy banners, stepping out to the
furious booms of huge Lambeg drums, drums beaten by the mallets and
bloody knuckles of strapping young men.
In placid contrast, between Belfast and Donegal lie the Vermont-like
dairy lands of County Derry, as ample and serene as the hefty, bleary-eyed
cows who muse upon it. Myself bemused, though guided by a map composed
by Heaney, I missed his birthplace. (Heaney, in the midst of a social
gathering at his Strand Road Home--a setting of books, music, paintings,
wine and literary talk which might as easily have been set in Cambridge,
England, or Massachusetts, as in Dublin--had drawn this map with absorbed
satisfaction, retracing his route home again, copying that conception
of home embedded in his mind, calling up the place names he has made
mythic: Anhorish, Moyola, Toome, Brough.) Perhaps I had driven off Heaneys
map because to my American eyes there was, as Gurtrude Stein once said,
nothing there there.
Backtracking, however, I found it easily enough: a white-washed,
stone, single-story, tin-roofed house, next to a large barn, both set
back from the road, in a flat field bordered by the Mayola River and
a Hibernian hall. ("I come from County Derry, / born in earshot
of a Hibernian hall / where a brand of Ribbonmen played hymns to Mary.")
But, somehow, it was less, or other than I had imagined, for it looked
like hundreds of other modest houses along the roads in Ireland and
The fault, no doubt, was in my own failure of imagination, but
it is also true that the place Heaney memorializes in his verse is gone:
only an archeological dig of imagination--that is, only poetry--can
resurrect what had been, can imagine what it might mean. The
old Ireland--regional, rural, immobile, tribal, yet accommodating--has
yielded to a new Ireland--national, urban-suburban, mobile, vindictively
tribal. The thatched roofs have become tin. The "plantation"
noted on Heaneys map, land across the road from his childhood
home, has dissolved into a row of similar "cottages" from
which new residents come and go in automobiles, just as new residents
come and go from Heaneys childhood home, long since sold. Ireland
is another country now, its old distinctions blurred. In "The Birthplace"
Heaney reflects: "Everywhere being nowhere, / who can prove / one
place more than another?" In the end, Heaneys quest comes
to rest not in a particular place, but in language; to find his hidden
Ireland, he must, as he urged himself in "North," "Lie
down / in the wordhord."
Heaney has moved far from his origins, his center, the symbolic
pump behind his Mossbawn house: the pump which, he imagined, repeated
"omphalos, omphalos, omphalos," in "blunt and failing
music," the pump which drew the community together, a "living
fountain." Himself once one of the "big-voiced scullions,
herders, feelers round / haycocks and hindquarters," Heaney is
now an international figure, recently named to the Boylston Professorship
of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard. Recently, too, he imagined himself
diminished by exile, a shadowy figure "not about to set times wrong
to right, / stooping along, one of the venerators." These lines
come from the first of three sections of Station Island, Heaneys
latest volume of verse, and one which demonstrates his determination
to increase his inventiveness in order to offset his weakening contact
with his original source material. As he moves further away from Mossbawn,
as what he has been fades faster, Heaney created increasingly elaborate
poetic constructions--"images and symbols adequate to our predicament"--to
contain his vision of Ireland and recoup lost ground.
Concerned with issues of silence, exile, and cunning (Stephen Dedaluss
trinity), Station Island is Heaneys most Joycean work.
Joyce even appears as a presence, meeting the poet at the end of his
imaginary visit to the island of the title, a thousand-year-old site
of pilgrimage in Lough Derg, Donegal. While the overall movement of
this work seems inspired by Wordsworth, presenting the "growth
of a poets mind and the quest of the poets persona,
the structure of the volume seems inspired by Joyces assertion
(through Stephen Dedalus) that "art necessarily divides itself
into three forms progressing from one to the next": lyrical, epical,
and dramatic. Growing through these stages, the poet seeks a personal
and aesthetic state of wholeness, harmony, and radiance,
the qualities of universal beauty as defined by Aquinas and invoked
by Joyce-Stephan in A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man.
Such oneness, a state of being embodied in the brimming pump, Heaney
lost when he grew up, grew away; it is a state now recollected only
in tranquility, redrawn like a map home.
Part I of Station Island collects the personal lyrics, "the
form wherein the artist presents his image in immediate relation to
himself." It is filled with epiphanies of his family and still
moments of youthful promise--when "the deer of poetry stood / in
pools of lucent sound / ready to scare." These poems invoke the
daunting examples of other writers (Brian Moore at Malibu, Chekhov on
Sakhalin) while the poet mediates in his "cunning middle voice."
Heaney yearns for passage through loanings (uncultivated fields)
of consciousness to the time of his "first place," where big-voiced
women sat in twilit kitchens smoking pipes and saying "Aye,"
a bucolic echo of Molly Blooms "Yes." But the exiled
poet must strive instead against a series of obstructions. Part II carries
him through Station Islands penitent grounds, where he encounters
visions of the dead, figures who include assassinated friends and Joyce
himself. This section is "epical," the "form wherein
he [the poet] presents his image in mediate relation to himself and
others," as Joyce-Stephen put it. Heaney meets one Simon Sweeney,
for example, "an old Sabbath-breaker," who urges him to "stay
clear of all processions!" but Heaney is swept along by "a
crowd of shawled women" onto "a drugged path / I was set upon."
"Set" is the reverberatory word here, for the poet is determined
to go back, to get to the center of his heritage, the place in which
he, like an egg, was "set." Heaney also meets William Carleton,
who traveled the same roads to Station Island in the last century and
wrote angrily about Catholic pilgrims. Heaney, characteristically, apologizes
to Carleton (though Carleton betrayed his Catholic tribe): " I
have no mettle for the angry role." Then Carleton softens, encouraging
All this is like a trout kept in a spring
or maggots sown in wounds—
another life that cleans our element.
Like Aneas or Odysseus in the underworld, Heaney also meets fallen
warriors. Most dramatically, he again encounters his assassinated cousin,
already memorializes in the pastoral elegy, "The Strand at Lough
Beg" (published in Field Work). Here Colum, the cousin,
the voice of accusation in Heaneys own mind, accuses Heaney of
having "saccarined my death with morning dew". The poet repents,
dreams up the image of an old brass trumpet (poetry?), and concludes
I hate how quick I was to know my place.
I hate where I was born, hate everything
That made me biddable and
Heaney, angered by his own hesitancy of word and deed, turns it around
once again turns it back on his psychic pilgrimage for the remission
of sins. Again and again Heaney pulls back from political purposes;
despite its emblems of savagery, Station Island lends no rhetorical
comfort to Republicanism. Politic about politics, "Station Island"
is less about a united Ireland than about a poet seeking religious and
aesthetic unity. As Heaney puts it in his translation of John of the
I am repining for this living fountain.
Within this bread of life I see it plain
although it is the
This mystical impulse—embedded in the sanctified symbols of ordinary
life, water and bread—is modified by the poets final encounter,
with Joyce, his "voice eddying with the vowels of all rivers."
(Note Heaneys intricate motif patterns: eddies, streams, rivers
course between and unite the separate poems.) Joyce tells Heaney that
his religious and political concerns are
a waste of time for somebody your age.
that subject people stuff is a cods game,
infantile, like your peasant pilgrimage.
Joyce urges the poet to "swim / out on your own," to "let
go, let fly, forget." How does the poet reconcile these contrary
urgings, these psychic contentions: to immerse oneself in the living fountain
or, like Stephen Dedalus, "to fly by those nets"?
Part III of Station Islandis a series of monologues and meditations
on the voice of Sweeney, the legendary Ulster King who was cursed, turned
into a bird, and exiled. Sweeney—also the hero of Heaneys
last book, Sweeney Astray—is Heaneys Yeatsean mask,
the guise in which he can re-enter his lost terretories. These poems,
then, are "dramatic," in the Joyce-Stephen construct: the
artist is detached, his nature dramatized in a persona. Heaney goes
north to become a bird upon a beach branch, watching tanks advance up
the roads of his former reign. At first Sweeney blames those he left
who invited such invasion, the "pious and exacting and demeaned,"
in language that Heaney would not use in his own more measured poetic
voice. But in "Sweeney Returns," Sweeney alters his tone when
he encounters absence; the bird returns home, seeking his mate, but
finds an empty bed: I floundered / in my wild reflections in the mirror."
The old landscape is not only violated by tanks, but also abandoned
my old loves. What had been is no longer there. Political polemic
yields to elegy.
In "Changes," the poet returns with a friend from the
wider world to Mossbawn, to the pump, which he finds has been rooted
out of the earth and cast aside in long grass. They find, however, a
bird nesting under its cover, wincing from the sudden light. The poet
briefly recovers the bird, then relifts the cover to find the bird gone,
an egg left behind. This poem suggests that life still pulses at the
dark center of home, though poets (like freed birds) have soared away
into the light. As the poet and bird have fled, so too has the central
symbol of his "first place" (the pump) been uprooted, cast
aside; yet the poet can map his way home again to the covered core of
the self, the word-hord.
In "On the Road." which concludes Station Island,
"all roads are one." Sweeney heeds Jesuss "follow
me" and flies to a cave whose deepest chamber reveals a drinking
deer cut into the rock, a shadow of that "deer of poetry"
first glimpsed by the young Heaney at Mossbawn. The voices of Sweenet-Heaney
merge, as the religious and aesthetic quests join in the volume of final
For my book of changes
I would meditate
that stone-faced vigil
until the long dumbsounded
spirit broke cover
to raise a dust
in the front of exhaustion.
The quest is complete, circular, beginning and ending in the "word-hord."
Heaney imagines epiphanic lyrics to hold moments, then an epical quest
to the land of the dead to recover loss and remit sins; finally Heaney
imagines a flight over barriers of time and space, a return home, to
his own center.
Shaun OConnell teaches English at the University of Massachusetts,
Boston, and is writing a book on recent Irish writers.