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Cutting A Better Man Out Of The Hedge: a discussion of the relation of land, landscapes and nature to Seamus Heaney's sense of Irishness as laid out in his poetry.

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Cutting A Better Man Out Of The Hedge: a discussion of the relation of land, landscapes and nature to Seamus Heaney’s sense of Irishness as laid out in his poetry.

Seamus Heaney has long been recognised as one to truly epitomise the sense of Ireland in his poetry, from the vantage point of the individual as well as from a more universal perspective. However, criticism up until now has mainly focused on the relationship between Irish identity and language. While the link between land and identity is not discredited as such, it is not given the critical attention of the relationship between language and identity, and it is thus not investigated nearly as much as it deserves. The identity:language:land: identity cycle is at best ignored by the critics – a dreadful prospect when one considers how inherently and inextricably Heaney considers language and land to be linked too.

Consequently this paper will explore this relationship using a variety of Heaney’s work, from his earliest collection to his later poems, including his most recent collection, District and Circle, released in 2006. I will also briefly examine links between Heaney’s poetry and some of that of his principal predecessor, W. B. Yeats, in order to reveal further where the link between land and identity originates and in order to contrast the poets’ different approaches.

Although it is acknowledged that at times Heaney likes to appropriate and sometimes entirely quote Yeats[1] (160), Yeats appears more concerned with martyrdom and the elevation of individuals in order to express Irishness (particularly in ‘Easter 1916’), Heaney prefers to project his concern in the direction of the ‘ordinary people’ – unsurprising given the significance of ‘ordinary people’, in the context of farming and landowning, to the nation’s economy. This is apparent from the start of his poetic career – in ‘Digging’, and in many other poems that come after it, he focuses his attention on the first ‘ordinary people’ he would have come across in the form of his family. More significantly, he frequently links this sign of his genetic identity to his family’s history as labourers on the land. The impression given is not just that the family worked on the land; they are the land.

There is also a hint in ‘Digging’ of a further subtext of universal history, alongside that of personal history, in the lines ‘Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds/Bends low, comes up twenty years away’, and the somewhat regret-laden line ‘I’ve no spade to follow men like them’. There is more to Heaney’s Irishness than ancestry in the land; there is a trace of a greater archaeology here that becomes further evident in later poems.

In Death of a Naturalist, though, the emphasis is on the personal history. One memorable example lies in ‘Follower’, in the final image of Heaney’s father and Heaney’s ancestry stumbling behind him and refusing to go away, tripping on the freshly-ploughed sods as he did as a child. This nostalgic feel, however, is very different to that felt in the Celtic Twilight poetry of Yeats. While Heaney’s poetry creates effects that linger, Yeats creates poetry that haunts. One particularly evocative example of this type, where we also have the link between the land and Irishness, is present in ‘The Two Trees’, where the voice speaking could be easily interpreted as the voice of Ireland as a female figure. This adds to a long line of figures representing Ireland as a woman (including Kathleen ni Houlihan, to name one of the most significant), and the tone of the poem is successfully captured in a musical arrangement by a folk music artist, Loreena McKennitt (refer to music CD attached). The effect recreated in the music is very different to what one would imagine a musical arrangement of any of Heaney’s poems would sound like. Heaney himself also points out a lack of immediacy in Yeats, going to writers like Kavanagh for a more intimate reaction[2] (1129). While Heaney and Yeats both take an elegiac stance in their poetry, Yeats stays at a distance, whereas Heaney prefers to get his hands dirty.

The cosiness of Heaney’s history, however, also has a more sinister subtext, which has been pinpointed by several critics in the past, including J Stallworthy and Helen Vendler. The former highlights the many references to armoury in ‘The Barn’ (‘an armoury/Of farmyard implements’), ‘Death of a Naturalist’ (‘Some [frogs] sat/Poised like mud grenades’) and ‘Churning Day’ (‘large pottery bombs’) (162) [3], whereas Vendler chooses to focus on the assonant ‘snug as a gun’ description of the pen in ‘Digging’:

“The Irish Catholic child grew up between the offers of two instruments: the spade and the gun. ‘Choose’, said the two opposing voices from his culture: ‘Inherit the farm,’ said agricultural tradition; ‘Take up arms,’ said Republican militarism.” (29)[4]

However, Heaney time and time again chooses the farm, from his lightning beginnings as a poet to his later career, as typified by ‘Poet’s Chair’ (appearing in The Spirit Level). He ‘sit[s] all-seeing’ as he casts his eye over the memory of his father ploughing; he is ‘all foreknowledge’ as he comes full circle from the start of his career. Once again, nature is so very much a part of who he is and who he has become. This is further exemplified in ‘The Ash Plant’ – a later Heaney poem[5] where he entrenches himself ever more deeply with the phrase: “I could have cut a better man out of the hedge”.

The tone here is simultaneously open, incredulous and conceding, and this tone is mirrored in ‘Bogland’ when Heaney speaks of ‘our unfenced country’, as if he likes to believe that it is utterly free and yet knows that it is ultimately constrained by some higher power, but by what? The British Empire? The unchangeable Irish DNA? There is also in ‘Bogland’ the repeated trope of the Cyclopean eye, suggesting that Heaney is being watched, whether this be by his ancestry, the British or even by the land itself. Eventually, though, Heaney implicitly suggests by the end of ‘Bogland’ that Irishness is yet to be discovered or created – that the Irishness he is looking for is preserved in the past and can be resurrected (‘the wet centre is bottomless’).

Vendler also suggests that the past is easily, sometimes eerily easily, replicated:

“As Heaney wrote the bog poems, the archaeological and the contemporary merged more and more…With ‘Punishment’, Heaney’s archaeology of persons becomes an anthropology of the present: dig however deep, the person who rises to the surface is someone you recognise from your own life. The situations of the past are replicated at the railings of Belfast.”[6] (48-9)

And yet there is a timelessness as well as a remarkably contemporary element to Heaney’s sense of Irishness: in ‘The Singer’s House’ Heaney talks about the ‘salt of the earth’ and laments that ‘so much comes and is gone/that should be crystal and kept’. This notion of fossilising Ireland and Irishness as it is and preserving it for future generations is something that surely rings as true now as it did a hundred years ago and as true as it will a hundred years from now. Equally, intentionally or otherwise, something of Yeats’ work still survives in Heaney’s work, as Hart points out in his criticism:

“Heaney may not like wearing Yeats’ mantle. Nevertheless, his poetry vacillates between antinomies as persistently as his precursor’s. Like the Irish history that saturates it from beginning to end, his poetry is a battleground of competing affiliations.”[7] (2)

However, Hart’s links between Heaney, identity, land and politics are not always so solidly founded. Making a comparison between Sweet Williams (in the poem of the same name) and William of Orange (who fought at the Battle of the Boyne) seems a dubious and tenuous link at best. A tighter comparison lies in the links Heaney makes between land and identity (albeit via language) in ‘Anahorish’, ‘Traditions’, and ‘Broagh’. In the former, the word ‘Anahorish’ is described as a ‘vowel-meadow’, which he takes ownership of by calling it ‘my place of clear water’, as if to take ownership of Ireland itself, in the most personal rather than despotic of senses. In ‘Traditions’ Heaney neatly condenses land, language and identity into a single stanza, speaking of the ‘furled/consonants of lowlanders/shuttling obstinately/between bawn and mossland’. The sound of ‘Broagh’ is described as ‘a low tattoo/among the windy boortrees/and rhubarb blades’ and in claiming the language as his own (‘that last/gh the strangers found/difficult to manage’), as the lowlanders in ‘Traditions’ claim their version of the language through dialect, he claims Ireland.

For a long time Heaney turns to language as a metaphor for identity, including an almost obsessive preoccupation with Latin, and leaves the land to one side. He makes it clear, however, that he has not forgotten it – it is twinned again gloriously with identity and language, particularly in ‘Kinship’ and ‘Bone Dreams’. In both, it is the first lines that are key. In the former, Heaney opens the poem with ‘Kinned by hieroglyphic/peat on a spreadfield’. In the latter, the image of the bone immediately signifies a relic of identity within something natural before adding a sardonic proposition of lobbing the bone over the sea towards England. This fusion of themes, although very different to the pure love for Ireland that Heaney expresses in ‘Postscript’, makes it clear that Heaney’s loyalties, and much of who he is, lies in the land. Hart phrases Heaney’s comeback thus:

“After Death of a Naturalist, Heaney’s naturalism made a surprising comeback. As the innocent pastoralist retreated, the Darwinian naturalist sanctioned by Ted Hughes and D. H. Lawrence advanced…Maturing, Heaney reverses the historical process, allowing the naturalism of the pagan to triumph and the supernaturalism of the church to deteriorate.”[8] (113)

The idea that Heaney allows the place of the (by this time) very politically implicated church to deteriorate in his poetry is a significant one, as Hart goes on to explain. While Heaney and Yeats both see things doubled in world and personal history, Heaney in no way insists that this double vision is implemented politically (Hart, 75). This is particularly true of ‘Keeping Going’, in that while it is addressed to Heaney’s own brother in quite a personal way, it also addresses all Irish labourers, praising them all for keeping going in the face of adversity while he himself (it may have seemed) managed to escape, or at the very least put himself at a safe distance from, the Troubles.

Heaney’s relationship to the communal past, as well as to his subjective past[9] (327), can prove a bit of a minefield as he attempts to reconcile himself with the two. Consequently, it can be difficult to highlight a strong conclusion in this area. However, despite his deviations into closely linking language and identity, Heaney always returns to the land (and this is still true throughout his newest collection, albeit more subtly than in ‘Death of a Naturalist’ and despite the more elevated register that the new collection takes). In taking poetry in a new direction, away from Yeats’ Celtic Twilight era, he cuts a new type of poetry ‘out of the hedge’ by exploring the nitty-gritty of a greater archaeology and combining it uniquely with his own personal ancestry, but presenting it in a way that is accessible to all. This paper has aimed to explore what it meant to Heaney to choose the Irishness of the land over involvement in fighting on behalf of Irish politics; and not just how he wears Yeats’ mantle in some ways, but most of all, how the relationship he forges between land and identity ultimately allows him to break away from it.

Word count: 1916

Works consulted:

Corcoran, N., The Poetry of Seamus Heaney: A Critical Study, Faber and Faber, 1998

Heaney, S., Death of a Naturalist, Faber and Faber (London and Boston), 1966

Ingelbien, R., Mapping the Misreadings: Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney and Nationhood, in Contemporary Literature, vol. 4, no. 40 (1999): 627-658.

Larrissy, E., Things, Description and Metaphor in Contemporary British and Irish Poetry, in The Yearbook of English Studies, vol. 17, Special Edition (British Poetry Since 1945): (1987), 218-33

Moloney, K. M., Heaney’s Love to Ireland, in Twentieth Century Literature, vol. 37, no. 3 (1991), 273-88

Parker, M., Seamus Heaney: The Making of the Poet, Macmillan 1993

Works cited:

Heaney, S., Wintering Out, Faber and Faber, 1972

Heaney, S., The Spirit Level, Faber and Faber, 1996

Heaney, S., Opened Ground: Poems 1966-1996, Faber and Faber, 1998

Heaney, S., District and Circle, Faber and Faber, 2006

Hart, H., Seamus Heaney: Poet of Contrary Progressions, Syracuse University Press, 1992

Hirsch, E., “The Imaginary Irish Peasant”, PMLA, vol. 106, no. 5 (1991), 1116-1133

Lloyd, D., “Pap for the Dispossessed’: Seamus Heaney and the Politics of Identity’, boundary 2, vol 13, no. 2/3 (1995), 319-42

Stallworthy, J., “The Poet as Archaeologist: W. B. Yeats and Seamus Heaney”, The Review of English Studies, vol. 33, no. 130 (1982), 158-74

Vendler, H., Seamus Heaney, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, Massachusetts), 1998


[1]Stallworthy, J., “The Poet as Archaeologist: W. B. Yeats and Seamus Heaney”, The Review of English Studies, vol. 33, no. 130, pp. 158-74, 1982

[2]Hirsch, E., “The Imaginary Irish Peasant”, in PMLA, vol. 106, no. 5, pp. 1116-1133, 1991

[3]Stallworthy, ibid.

[4]Vendler, H., Seamus Heaney, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, Massachusetts), 1998

[5]found inHeaney, S., Seeing Things, 1991; retrieved 13/11/2006 from http://archiver.rootsweb.com/th/read/IrelandGenWeb/2006-02/1140754286

[6] Vendler, ibid.

[7]Hart, H., Seamus Heaney: Poet of Contrary Progressions, Syracuse University Press, 1992

[8]Hart, ibid.

[9]Lloyd, D., “’Pap for the Dispossessed’: Seamus Heaney and the Poetics of Identity”, in boundary 2, vol. 13, no. 2/3, pp.319-42, 1985

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