Digging deep into the regions of Seamus Heaney’s poetry

Richard Rankin Russell’s book explores the poet’s fidelity to his birthplace in Co Derry

One of the most persistent themes in the outpouring of remembrances about the late Seamus Heaney has been his fidelity to his birthplace, the family farm Mossbawn near Castledawson in south Co Derry.

All throughout his life in the Republic of Ireland, first for four years in Glanmore Cottage in Co Wicklow from 1972-1976, then from 1976 to 2013 in Sandymount, Dublin, with many visits to the United States, Heaney longed for home. That he was able to write about his native parish in such detail and with such evocative emotions marks him paradoxically as a universal writer.

An earlier Nobel Prize winner (1949), the Mississippi-born William Faulkner, wrote often of his "postage-stamp" of native soil in his fictional Yoknatawpha County. The 1995 Nobel Prize winner Heaney plumbed the depths of his home region in similar fashion.

Like Faulkner's native Mississippi, Heaney's home ground was steeped in history and conquest. And like Faulkner, Heaney repeatedly led us back to what Faulkner termed in his Nobel Prize speech "the old universal truths . . . love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice."

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Despite the many critical books on Seamus Heaney, I was led to begin researching and writing another one over seven years ago because I felt that the concept of the region was at the heart of his work. The “regions” of my title suggest a positive series of fluid spaces that Heaney repeatedly explored.

Thus the book examines a three-fold sense of the region: the actual region of Northern Ireland where he grew up and in which he charted its declining rural traditions and then the rise of the "Troubles" in Northern Ireland; the imagined future region of Northern Ireland where ecumenism and rapprochement between rival factions might emerge; and the spirit region to which he was increasingly drawn.

I also wanted to heighten our appreciation of Heaney’s considerable work in other genres such as the prose-poems gathered in the scarce volume Stations (1975) that appeared the same year as the famous lyric volume North and that deserves to be read alongside it.

The hybrid genre of the prose poem enabled Heaney, at the height of the Troubles, to revisit the sectarianism he experienced in his childhood in a way that lyric poetry could not. That genre also enabled him to occupy a liminal position between the lyric and prose and implicitly between the competing claims of contested ideologies in the North.

Heaney was also a gifted dramatist and the book spends an entire chapter recovering his radio drama he wrote for BBC Northern Ireland from the mid-1960s to the early 1970s.

The most influential poet-critic since T.S. Eliot, Heaney’s prose essays have been somewhat neglected in favor of the many critical forays into his poetry; or when it has been explored, it has generally been employed to cast light on the poetry.

I wanted to give his acute prose its due, from the passionate, angry essays about the "Troubles" that have not been reprinted; to the evocative autobiographical pieces; to the critically astute insights into poets ranging from Emily Dickinson to Czeslaw Milosz, from Yeats to Kavanagh, from Hardy to Eliot.

Finally, I wanted to portray the complex endeavors Heaney undertook in translations from literature written in different regions. He did a 1983 translation of the medieval Irish poem Buile Suibhne, Sweeney Astray; translated three cantos from Dante's Inferno in the mid-1980s, along with other individual translations from Dante such as Ugolino, collected in Field Work (1979); wrote a powerful 1990 "version" of Sophocles' Philoctetes, The Cure at Troy, whose lines have been repeated by everyone from Bill Clinton to Bono in the context of the peace process in Northern Ireland and the easing of hatreds in South Africa; undertook a translation of Brian Merriamn's 1780 poem, Cúirt an Mheán Oích; wrote a now-canonical 1999 translation of Beowulf; penned a 2004 version of Sophocles' Antigone, The Burial at Thebes; gave us a 2009 translation from the Scots of Robert Henryson, The Testament of Cresseid and Seven Fables; and finally, left us shortly before his 2013 translation of the Italian Giovanni Pascoli's poems, The Last Walk, which Peter Fallon's Gallery Press published, replete with gorgeous sketches and paintings by Martin Gale, in 2013. He also translated additional poems from the Irish, Polish, and Czech languages.

At the level of form too, I felt Heaney’s various experiments needed more illumination and I try to situate my analyses of the different works in their formal contexts as much as possible.

No mere adherer to form for form’s sake, Heaney proved himself capable throughout his career of ringing notes in a variety of forms from the sonnet to the villanelle and within these forms, employing a complex series of different stanza types, from his famous quatrains that featured in much of his 1970s poetry, to his variation of Dantean terza rima.

This flexible tercet features in his early poetry and becomes more prominent in much of Station Island (1984), in Seeing Things (1991), and in Human Chain (2010). The tercet, occupying a space between the terseness of the couplet and the potentially blocky quatrain, became Heaney’s final formal home. It hovers in the present, yet is capable of enabling gazes back into the past and toward the future. It enabled Heaney to consistently “raid the inarticulate,” not only his rich subconscious but also the spirit region beyond our ken.

Tercet poems animate one of his best volumes, Human Chain, such as The House Was Open but the Door Was Dark, which pays tribute to his deceased friend, the musician David Hammond, by slyly evoking a resonant line from The Forge, his sonnet from the 1960s about blacksmithing and creativity, along with A Kite for Aibhín, a poem that looks backward to his earlier A Kite for Michael and Christopher (Station Island), and forward to the life of one of his granddaughters and to his own departure from this earth.

Heaney’s considerable imagination took in regions of delight that we vicariously occupy with him as we read his poetry or as we listened to him sonorously chant it.

In the aftermath of his passing, I offer the book not only to try to convey how the manifold concept of the region is at the heart of his work in many genres, but also now as tribute to the man who gifted so many of us with his presence and gracious power and his unforgettable works.

His sonnet A Drink of Water recalls a cup with the faded legend, “Remember the Giver”. I hope Seamus Heaney’s Regions helps us all to do that.

Richard Rankin Russell's book, Seamus Heaney's Regions, is published by Notre Dame University Press, 2014.

* This article was edited on Dec 16th to correct Seamus Heaney's birthplace as Co Derry. The error occurred in the editing process