Poetry Foundation: Seamus Heaneys celebrated elegy
Joshua Weiner, Poetry Media Service
Seamus Heaney is likely the best-selling English-language poet alive. Famous, at this point, for being famous (he received the Nobel Prize in 1995), Heaney began earning acclaim with his first book, Death of a Naturalist (1966). Critical interest and popular response came together in praise of Heaneys work, which captured a County Derry childhood in what he called the sucking clabber of a rich, guttural, elemental and vivid music.
After the political poems of his third book, North (1975), Heaney grew wary of that role, finding it too confining. He had already left Belfast to spend four years writing in Glanmore, County Kerry. From that experience grew the Glanmore Sonnets, the heart of his fourth book, Field Work (1979). Casualty, one of the most powerful elegies in the book, exemplifies Heaneys evolving identity as an Irish poet from the north who is torn between public commitments and personal freedom, and who shares his language and literary antecedents with the English and Irish alike.
The poem is set in the northern province of Ulster in 1972, the infamous year of Bloody Sunday, when the British army killed 13 civil rights protesters in the Bogside area of Londonderry. The elegy takes the form of a kind of triptych memorializing a regular patron of the pubs, a fisherman known to Heaney who becomes a casualty of the sectarian urban warfare in the north.
Casualty bears some formal resemblance to Yeatss Easter, 1916, which memorializes the Easter Rising of 700 Volunteers, rebels who seized areas of Dublin and held out against British forces for six days.
The man whom Heaney memorializes in his poem is of a different stature than John MacBride in Yeatss poem. Unlike MacBride, an executed leader of the Easter Rebellion who resigned his part / In the casual comedy of life to assume his tragic role in the uprising, Heaneys pub-loving fisherman refuses to abide by a curfew to indulge in his nightly pint, and is killed without having assumed any significant part in the struggle. The rebels may have hearts with one purpose alone in Yeatss poem, but the fisherman in Heaneys would drink by himself
And raise a weathered thumb
Towards the high shelf,
Calling another rum
And blackcurrant, without
Having to raise his voice
Neither does Heaney raise his own voice to reach the rhetorical elevation of Yeats. That he takes so much from Yeats in plying his allusive craft while maintaining a more modest level of address is one element of genius at play.
Heaney opens his elegy with deliberate portraiture: the fishermans raised weathered thumb, his low voice, discretion and quick eye / And turned observant back. Heaneys eye, as quick as his subjects, sees how even though the fisherman has his back turned, he is animated by a sensory alertness to what he cannot see. There is a pun buried in this descriptionthe fisherman has apparently turned his back on the political struggle of the militant nationalists. Has Heaney also turned his proverbial back?
Turning is the dominant verb in Casualty. It captures the fisherman as he turned / In that bombed offending place, / Remorse fused with terror / In his still knowable face. And it signals Heaneys turning to the art of elegy, with its shifts between public utterance of private feeling, to commemorate the fisherman, a fixture of the pub scene, blown to bits / Out drinking in a curfew / Others obeyed. The fisherman who drank like a fish ultimately becomes a fish, swimming out of cliché and towards the lure / Of warm lit-up places.
The final turning in part three is even more remarkable for its suave displacements. Though Heaney admits missing the fishermans funeral, he envisions the mourners shoaling out of his lane / . . . / With the habitual / Slow consolation / Of a dawdling engine, the sound of which seamlessly joins the funeral occasion to that morning / I was taken in his boat, / The screw purling, turning / Indolent fathoms white. The indolent fathoms of poetry are indeed slow to develop, but its on such waters that, in the fishermans company, the poet tasted freedom.
To get out early, haul
Steadily off the bottom,
Dispraise the catch, and smile
As you find a rhythm
Working you, slow mile by mile,
Into your proper haunt
Somewhere, well out, beyond…
The fishermans proper haunt was on the water, well out, beyond, as the poets place is in the poem, where you find a rhythm working you, and where, through elegy, the fisherman continues to haunt the poet.
Joshua Weiner is the author of The Worlds Room and From the Book of Giants, and the editor of At the Barriers: On the Poetry of Thom Gunn. This article first appeared on www.poetryfoundation.org. Distributed by the Poetry Foundation. Read more about Seamus Heaney, and his poetry, at www.poetryfoundation.org.
from the April 15-21, 2009, issue
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