Caught by the River

Seamus Heaney

13th September 2013

4038256278_c7569bc920_z-1Photo: Bobbie Hanvey Photographic Archives, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Seamus Heaney, 13 April 1939 – 30 August 2013

Respects paid by Gabriel Gbadamosi.

Land – the four green fields of Ireland – is where the symbolism, languages, history, cultures and experience of Irishness converge. The inherited boundaries of ownership, kinship and work culture meet in the land; it is the locus of identity, community, conflict and belonging, and lingers like a red mist in the rebel soul of the emigrant or exile; it is the mood music of the songs and poetry of the Irish peoples. Seamus Heaney was a farmer’s boy, and his break-through poetry collection, Death of a Naturalist (1966), was a dissection of the myths, those old un-dislodged stories and ways of feeling about the nature of belonging to the land that always did amount to trouble. Rather than a poetry of repose in belonging among shady banks, his imagery in the title-poem shook with ‘the warm thick slobber / Of frogspawn’, a quality of un-belonging – of inhuman life invading the sphere of the human. Not for Heaney to mouth platitudes about wild geese as exiled Irish heroes taking flight, or harp on about the return of Erin’s high kings to be crowned again at Tara in strains plucked out of Ossian or, God help us, some high Victorian hymnal to late romanticism; few people will fail to recognise in Heaney’s startling day of the frogs (the ostensible subject of his poem) an ordinary, everyday scene in the north of Ireland come the marching season: ‘The great slime kings / Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew /That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.’ His achievement was to bring a more markedly different consciousness and sense of place to life than even the great modernist Patrick Kavanagh had managed in depictions of Ireland’s social poverty and spiritual hunger. Alert to any invasion of his human rights, in a recognisably Irish landscape, marked by the hedge-school myths and the newly-engendered belligerence of past conflicts reigniting into ‘obscene threats’, Heaney ‘sickened, turned, and ran.’

Heaney’s move to the south of Ireland in 1972, during the height of the Troubles, has been variously interpreted: who wouldn’t want a quiet life, given the eruption of yet another intractable tribal territorial conflict marked by terror? But I think of it instead as a conscience taking up residence in the unconscious. What that might mean in practice is related to what I take to be the tenor and provocation of his poetry in relation to so inescapably symbolic a move: from one part of Ireland to another. A poet from the north like Heaney, would always be at what he termed ‘the frontier of writing’ where the harmless ‘flowing and receding’ of ‘tree shadows into the polished windscreen’ of a car is always potentially ghosted by the shadows of soldiers at checkpoints, a kind of conscious waking nightmare (From the Frontier of Writing, 1987). Not so for those oblivious to the Troubles in the north, who from the south see only the untroubled surface waters of the Irish Republic, the deeper swirling conflicts unresolved. Whereas in the south people generally paid lip service to the aim of reunification in article 15.2 of the Constitution – and put the Troubles as far as possible to the back of their minds – for the people of the north the conflict was a daily reality at the forefront of check-points, peace walls, bombs and Bloody Sunday. No one could quite remind Irish people across the board of their sleep-walk through this waking violent nightmare of history like ‘famous seamus’: ‘flowing and receding / like tree shadows into the polished windscreen.’

Perhaps the best analogy, in very different circumstances, for this eruption of a certain consciousness would be the east-west division of Germany into two countries in the same 20th century as the division of Ireland into north and south. The Berlin Wall did come down, but what went up almost immediately for Berliners was graffiti proclaiming – with some truth for those unable to find their way around their own city – The Wall is in your Head [Die Mauer ist in dein Kopf]. In a poem set in Wicklow in the south of Ireland, Exposure (1975), Heaney borrowed the German concept of ‘inner emigration’ from those writers who had retreated from the Nazi terror into an enclosed private life, describing himself as ‘neither internee nor informer; / An inner émigré, grown long-haired / And thoughtful’. He is not out of trouble at this point, he is very much in it! That is, he is in Ireland and so are the Troubles; but he has separated himself in order to look back at them, or in at them, as in to his own reflection, in a well of thought (wells are holy places in Ireland): ‘I rhyme / To see myself, to set the darkness echoing’ (Personal Helicon, 1965). Bridging, as he did, some very troubled waters in Ireland, I tend to think now that the position he took up as a poet was, in rather more than words, the central poem he gave to the peoples of Ireland.

Gabriel Gbadamosi is the author of Vauxhall, published by Telegram Books