See below for key points and quotes; and below that again for a sample question and answer.
Seamus Heaney Key Points and Quotations
(1) Effective use of everyday language –
Reflects the simple lives of the people: ‘She dusts the board with a goose’s wing.’ (Sunlight)
‘He leans out on the jamb.’ (The Forge.)
Accessible yet powerful: ‘I will feel lost, Unhappy and at home.’ (The Tollund Man)
‘…the spud/ of the dynamo gleaming and cocked back.’ (ACC)
Evocative: ‘The heavy ledger.’
(2) Variety of poetic techniques used –
Assonance:’ water honeyed in the slung bucket’ (Sunlight.)
Alliteration: ‘his slightly sweating hair.’ (A Constable Calls)
Personification: ‘She tightened her torc on him’ (The Tollund Man)
(3) Variation in tone and mood:
Fearful : ‘Imagining the black hole in the barracks.’
‘A shadow bobbed…’ (ACC)
Comfort and safety: ‘broad-lapped with whitened nails.’
‘And here is love….’ (Sun)
Respect and admiration: ‘he expends himself in shape and music.’ (TF)
(4) Vivid detailed imagery
Precise: ‘…the polished holster/ With its buttoned flap, the braid cord/ Looped into the revolver butt.’ (ACC)
Richly sensuous : ‘…her hands scuffled/over the bakeboard’ (Sun)
Graphic/disturbing: ‘Tell-tale skin and teeth/ flecking the sleepers.’ (TTM)
COMPARATIVE – Similes:
Striking ‘Horned as a unicorn.’ (TF)
Unusual/clever ‘…the sun stood like a griddle cooling against the wall/ of each long afternoon.’
Innovative/complex: ‘here is love/ like a tinsmith’s scoop/ sunk past its gleam/ in the meal-bin.’
Metaphors: original ‘water honeyed.’ ‘plague of heat’ (Sun)
Powerful ‘an altar’
Rich ‘his peat-brown head’ (TTM)
(5) Density of poetry –
‘The Forge’ – superficially describes blacksmith but also craft of poet. ‘The unpredictable fantail of sparks’
‘The Tollund Man’ – connects 2,400 year old Danish bog body with sectarian atrocities in Northern Ireland
(6) Universality of themes
Memory and childhood – fears and anxieties (ACC) ‘I assumed/ Small guilts.’
security and love (Sun) ‘here is a space/ again’ ‘And here is love’
reverence and admiration (TF)
‘Where he expends himself in shape and music.’
Craft – ‘to beat real iron out.’ (TF)
‘her hands scuffled/ over the bake board.’ (Sun)
Changing World – ‘traffic is flashing in rows’ (TF)
Societal divisions and conflict – ‘the boot of the law. (ACC)
’The scattered, ambushed/ Flesh of labourers’ (TTM)
‘Seamus Heaney’s poetry is rooted in his own life and shows him to be a craftsman of the highest calibre.’
Discuss the poetry of Seamus Heaney in the light of the above statement, supporting your answer with suitable reference and quotation.
(NOTE: Key points of each paragraph are underlined and key words from question are in bold.)
Seamus Heaney. A man so famous in this country that he – to quote Mr. Yeats completely out of context – ‘stilled your childish play.’ An Irishman and a gentleman, and above all a poet who was undoubtedly a craftsman of the highest calibre. What made him extraordinary – and world famous – was his ability to write poetry rooted in his own life but at the same time somehow completely universal. Poems like ‘A Constable Calls’, ‘The Forge’, ‘Sunlight’, and my own favourite ‘The Tollund Man’ are typical of the calibre of this great man.
For me, the most telling aspect that connects his poetry with his own life is the everyday language that features so heavily in his work. I was amazed at the power that seemed to be present behind lines like ‘I will feel lost, unhappy and at home’ in ‘The Tollund man’. It is the simplest of language, yet is perfectly crafted to have maximum impact. Again in his gorgeous poem ‘Sunlight’ he describes his aunt as ‘she dusts the board with a goose’s wing’. It is an image that is very much rooted in his own life and memories yet at the same time I felt that I really got a clear sense of what a wonderful sanctuary this place was for him; it instantly made me mindful of those childhood moments when I felt completely at peace with the world. There is a similarly simple yet equally powerful image in ‘A Constable Calls’, when the description of the policeman’s ‘heavy ledger’ this time captures a very different feeling – more immediate danger than comforting sanctuary. I really feel that these kind of simple lines from simple moments in Seamus’ own life are incredibly evocative. They are the work of a man who is superbly skilled in his craft.
When I stop to think about what made this Nobel laureate such an admired and cherished craftsman my mind is immediately drawn also to his incredible gift with imagery. The variety of vivid detailed pictures that seemed to jump from his work is quite striking; and it is the ones that are most rooted in his own life that happen to be most memorable. Again in ‘A constable Calls’, I could feel the razor-sharp tension as he describes the policeman and his ‘polished holster with its buttoned flap, the braid cord looped into the revolver butt’. The precise detail of the image reminded me of another Heaney poem that I’ll never forget; ‘Mid-term Break’ (back in those carefree days Junior Cert days!) Here I had the same experience, imagining that I was right by Seamus’ side – feeling and experiencing what he was feeling and experiencing, immersed in the anxiety of the policeman’s presence. His comparative imagery is also worthy of his reputation. The beautiful simile where ‘the sun stood like a griddle cooling against the wall’ brought forth for me a longing for the calm serenity of a warm and lazy summer’s day, feeling happy and contented (coming soon I hope!). In ‘The Forge’ too I thought he perfectly captured the magic and mystery surrounding his fellow craftsmen with the metaphor of the ‘altar’ and the ‘unicorn’. Here again these beautifully simple, but ultimately powerful images are very much rooted in his own life, yet his gift is to be able to draw us into that world alongside him.
One of the most significant aspects of Seamus Heaney’s own life was his identity as a citizen of Northern Ireland in a time of extreme conflict. In ‘The Tollund Man’ I was intrigued by the unexpected connection he made between the violent death of the bog man, this ‘bridegroom to the goddess’ and the ‘scattered, ambushed flesh of labourers’ brutally slaughtered in the North so many centuries later. The peaceful way the Tollund man is put to rest, eventually reposing at Aarhus contrasted sharply with the sadistic savagery that leaves the ‘four young brothers’ with ‘tell-tale skin and teeth flecking the sleepers……..for miles along the lines .‘What I will remember most about this poem is the final line, where Heaney feels that if he goes to Jutland to these ‘man-killing parishes’, he will ‘feel lost, unhappy and at home’. I was left with the sense that there is a disturbing familiarity and timelessness about violence – and indeed the needless murder of young men. When Heaney says that he feels ‘at home’, it is a bleak recognition of the problems still all too common in society today, where religious division and ritual murder continue to haunt communities all across the globe. The ability to knit these two diverse but equally disturbing stories together could only be achieved by a poet who is a craftsman of great skill.
Another theme of Heaney’s very much rooted in his own life is that of change, brilliantly depicted in his poem ‘The Forge’. Here he describes with a sense of awe the now lost art of the blacksmith. He evocatively captures both the ritual and magic of his fellow craftsman’s work, as an ‘unpredictable fantail of sparks’ lights the ‘dark’. I think the description of the way ‘he expends himself in shape and music’ really captures Heaney’s powerful admiration for this man and his art. Still, despite developing from this poem a genuine appreciation for a craft of real skill, I was struck by the reality that I will probably never see a blacksmith ply his trade again, any more than I will see a Cooper or a tanner at work. There is something very sad about the image of him recalling ‘a clatter of hoofs where traffic is flashing in rows.’ There is a sense that the world is changing in front of his eyes, and he is sadly becoming obsolete. I felt that maybe Heaney is worried that the work of another skilled craftsman – the poet – is also becoming obsolete; and in today’s world of technology, with its instant everything, I was left with the feeling that this poem is more relevant than ever.
It would be easy from the outside to criticise Heaney’s poetry as to local, too parochial – too rooted in his own life. What proves that criticism to be unjustified is the international acclaim that his poetry has deservedly received. Yes, it may be a very Irish poetry. inhabited by characters that are particularly recognisable to the people of this island. However Heaney’s extraordinary skill lay in his ability to craft very beautiful and very evocative poetry that connects with and is appreciated by people all over the world. The tragedy of the loss of Seamus Heaney as a poet is that we will probably never see a craftsman of his extraordinary calibre again.