Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks: 1975 – North, by Seamus Heaney

In the poet’s most direct response to the Troubles in his native Northern Ireland, the past is alive with an atavistic violence that thrusts itself into the present day

Hugely admired: Seamus Heaney in the 1970s. Photograph: Jack McManus

Hugely admired: Seamus Heaney in the 1970s. Photograph: Jack McManus

 

When Seamus Heaney was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, in 1995, it was, according to the citation, “for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past”.

This was an eloquent summary of the poet’s career, but it was also, perhaps, a little misleading. The “living past” in Heaney’s work was not always beautiful or miraculous. In North, his most direct response to the Troubles in his native Northern Ireland, the past is alive with an atavistic violence that thrusts itself into the present day.

Heaney grew up in rural Co Derry, the eldest of what would grow to be a family of nine. That landscape and the domestic life of a small farm imprinted themselves on his memory with a clarity that he could indeed transform into images of miraculous expressiveness. But by the time he came to write the poems in North he had left Ulster behind (in 1972) and was living in Glanmore, Co Wicklow, with a young family of his own, and working in Dublin.

He was also already hugely admired. His first three collections, Death of a Naturalist (1966), Door into the Dark (1969) and Wintering Out (1972), had earned him an international reputation as a poet of outstanding power, one whose mastery of technique was matched – and beautifully concealed by – his ability to touch readers who might not otherwise pay attention to contemporary poetry.

Yet Heaney was also, as he put it in his Nobel lecture, “listening to the rain in the trees and to the news of bombings closer to home – not only those by the Provisional IRA in Belfast but equally atrocious assaults in Dublin by loyalist paramilitaries”.

In Exposure, one of the best-known poems from North, Heaney pictures himself as “neither internee nor informer; / An inner émigré, grown long-haired / And thoughtful; a wood-kerne / Escaped from the massacre”. Yet he also wonders whether, while his back is bent, “blowing up these sparks” of poetry for “their meagre heat”, he is not missing the moment of a great political change: “The once in a lifetime portent, / The comet’s pulsing rose.”

The volume does not seek to resolve that tension, but it is informed by what Heaney described (echoing WB Yeats’s “befitting emblems of adversity”) as the “search for images and symbols adequate to our predicament”.

Here some of those most potent symbols are archaeological. Heaney had been struck by PV Glob’s book on Danish bog bodies, The Bog People, and in North he uses them to both approach and distance himself from contemporary atrocities.

In The Grauballe Man, formally typical of the hard, Anglo-Saxon sparseness of the volume, Heaney evokes the body beautifully: “the ball of his heel / like a basalt egg”. Then he twists it shockingly into the present: “the actual weight / of each hooded victim, / slashed and dumped.”

Eerily, when the IRA and loyalist paramilitaries announced ceasefires in September 1994, Heaney was visiting Tollund, in Denmark, site of the Tollund Man, the first of the bog bodies he had written about in Wintering Out. It is a kind of postscript to the North poems. It imagines himself and his wife, Marie, as “ghosts who’d walked abroad / Unfazed by light, to make a new beginning / And make a go of it, alive and sinning, / Ourselves again, free-willed again, not bad.”

As Heaney has made images adequate to the dark times, he could also make, as so few writers could ever do without sentimentality, befitting emblems of hope.

You can read more about many of the artists in this series in the Royal Irish Academy’s Dictionary of Irish Biography; ria.ie

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