First published in 1975 in the midst of the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland, Seamus Heaney’s violent and uneasy collection, North, is a tense journey through the mind of a conflicted poet, and the history of a conflicted country.
Perhaps underlining this tension, the collection is structured into two distinct parts; the first relies heavily on mythology and history, the second on autobiographical experience. Both sections deal with violence, and responses to that violence, focussing particularly on the responsibilities of the poet.
The collection is prefaced by two dedicatory poems. The apparent homeliness and pastorality of these opening poems, would seem to be at odds with the rest of the collection. Yet both “Mossbawn” poems contain undertones of the violence that will come to define the rest of the collection, from the ‘reddening stove’ with its ‘plaque of heat’ in ‘Sunlight‘ to the ‘sharp knife’ in ‘The Seed Cutters’. These easily overlooked images present the difficult idea that Ireland is a nation cut through with violence: ‘at the centre, a dark watermark’, which is ever on the brink of spilling over.
North has in fact been criticised for condoning the violence in Northern Ireland in its transhistoricising and nationalising of violent acts. The connections drawn between the bog bodies; victims of ritual sacrifice and war, and the injured and dead of contemporary Ireland, bring a sense of the inevitable to the contemporary atrocities. The question thus emerges: is his aestheticising and sexualising of these images of violence, contemporary and historical, somehow condoning its use?
The poems of the first part to Heaney’s collection draw on the history of the nation, specifically on the early trade-links between Ireland and Scandinavia, and the invading forces of Vikings that landed on Irish shores. Poems like ‘Viking Dublin: Trial Pieces’ and the title poem ‘North’ play up this connection to bring the violence of the past into Ireland’s contemporary situation. History is presented not as a linear process but as a series of parallel lines to be read across from each other. Heaney expresses this most explicitly in the poem ‘Belderg,’ where he writes of the ‘accrued growth rings/ Of iron, flint and bronze’; collapsing three pre-historic ages one on top of the another. This collapsing occurs again in ‘Viking Dublin: Trial pieces,’ where the Biblical Flood is conflated with the Viking invasion.
The Bog Never Forgets
The purpose of Heaney’s bog poems is to metaphorically dig up the past, and bring to light what has been buried. Preserved in the bog, the bodies and artefacts and the stories they can tell are waiting just below the surface, eager to be found. In ‘Kinship‘ Heaney describes the bog as a source of, and metaphor for, poetry and the process of poetry:
This is the vowel of earth
dreaming its root
in flowers and snow,
mutation of weathers
a windfall composing
the floor it rots into.
Like the bog, rotting into itself, poetry is a self-involved process, a process drawn up from earthly matter and built on the stored history of the land. For Heaney, then, the bog is both a living, creating force and a storehouse and graveyard from which poetic material can be drawn:
of votive goods
and sabred fugitives.
floe of history.
The idea that something is hidden beneath the surface waiting to be told is the theme of the poem ‘Bog Queen’. A noble lady lies waiting to escape from ‘the illiterate roots’ to tell her story through the ‘braille’ of her body. The implication of this poem is that history will speak for itself, and will bring the truth to bear no matter how grizzly or diminished the conduit may appear.
The plait of my hair,
a slimy birth-cord
of bog, had been cut
and I rose from the dark,
hacked bone, skull-ware,
frayed stitches, tufts,
small gleams on the bank.
The small gleams of the exhumed body describe the truth that can now be communicated. Unearthed, the bog queen may speak, if only through Heaney’s poem.
This sense of the “truth” of individual history being buried, waiting to be heard, plays into Heaney’s evident preoccupations with how the ongoing atrocities will be viewed historically; which voices will be buried, and which make it into the history books. In ‘Kinship,’ Heaney urges Tacitus, returned to Ireland, to ‘report us fairly, how we slaughter for the common good and shave the heads of the notorious.’ The irony of these lines displays Heaney’s unease in the knowledge that history is a story told by dominant voices, and that there is more than one way to frame and discuss a history, particularly where conflict is involved.
The Objectified Dead: Heaney’s Bog Women
In the poems ‘Punishment’, ‘Strange Fruit‘ and ‘Bog Queen‘, Heaney examines the bodies of women unearthed from the bogs of Northern Europe. The tone in all three is voyeuristic and sexualised, yet they pale in comparison to the suggestively entitled ‘Come to the Bower’, a poem describing the uncovering of another female bog body. ‘the dark-bowered queen, Whom I unpin, Is waiting…’
I reach past
The riverbed’s washed
Dream of gold to the bullion
Of her Venus bone.
The sexual, intimate framing of these poems jars against the violent death of the young girl described in ‘Punishment’:
her shaved head
like a stubble of black corn,
her blindfold a soiled bandage,
her noose a ring
the memories of love.
Through Heaney’s juxtaposition of artistic voyeurism and pastoral imagery with the brutal violence of the execution, the death of the girl becomes strangely idealised. It is poetic, beautiful, and uncomfortable to read. Her punishment is linked to the abuses suffered by the women of contemporary Ireland who were found to have been intimate with the enemy. Through association with the earlier adulteress, their fate is shrouded in a similar sense of discomfort. A discomfort that finds its place in Heaney’s own inner conflict as a poet.
I who have stood dumb
when your betraying sisters,
cauled in tar,
wept by the railings,
who would connive
in civilized outrage
yet understand the exact
and tribal, intimate revenge.
Heaney is caught between an understanding of the instinct for revenge, and an ineffectual ‘civilized outrage’ that stands by as these women are punished. As a poet, Heaney feels the weight of responsibility in casting ‘the stones of silence,’ but pulls back from speaking out in more concrete terms as against oversimplifying the issue. It is not that Heaney does not condemn this form of punishment in the severest terms, but that he draws on a philosophical and historical understanding of conflict and revenge that provides some context for these horrific acts of violence.
To say that these poems are irredeemably voyeuristic examples of the male gaze would be unfair. The girl in Heaney’s final bog poem ‘Strange Fruit’ will not be made an exhibition of:
Murdered, forgotten, nameless, terrible
Beheaded girl, outstaring axe
And beatification, outstaring
What had begun to feel like reverence.
The ‘outstaring’ eyes of this nameless girl challenge the gaze of the poet and of the reader. They remain defiant in the face of execution, and challenge the glorifying of violence seen in the earlier poems.
The remaining works in Part I of Heaney’s collection move into allagorisations of the country itself, with poems like ‘Oceans love to Ireland‘ and ‘Act of Union‘ describing the relationship between England and Ireland through sexualised geographies.
The second part of Heaney’s collection is much more direct and autobiographical. The mythology and history of the first part is replaced by realism and contemporaneity. The concern here is not with digging up the past and allowing it to speak, but whether speaking itself is the right thing to do. Part II begins to question the role of the poet and the ethics of speech and silence in relation to the violence of Northern Ireland at this time.
In ‘Whatever You Say Say Nothing’ Heaney criticises the cacophony of voices springing up around the Northern Ireland situation, particularly those of the journalists:
Who proved upon their pulses ‘escalate’,
‘Backlash’ and ‘crack down’, ‘the provisional wing’,
‘Polarization’ and ‘long-standing hate’.
Yet I live here, I live here too, I sing
In the final line of that stanza, the speaker pushes back against the media jargon representing his country to assert the presence of moderate voices. The problem being that these voices are getting drowned out, ‘The ‘voice of sanity’ is getting hoarse.’ In a situation crowded with too many voices and too much division, is it better to say nothing?
In the final poem of the collection, ‘Exposure’ it seems that this is the conclusion that is reached. The speaker divests himself of the role of the hero-poet, reverting to a pastoral role, absenting himself from the conflict.
I am neither internee nor informer;
An inner emigre, grown long-haired
And thoughtful; a wood-kerne
Escaped from the massacre,
Taking protective colouring
From bole and bark…
We can read in these lines no small degree of lamentation. It is with uneasiness, sadness, and a sense of regret that the speaker here turns away from the plight of his country. Though if we take the speaker to be a proxy for Heaney himself, then we may conclude from his later works that this is not a permanent retreat.
North is a collection of two halves. As a reader, I felt there was a lot more to enjoy about the first half. The Vikings, the bog bodies, the sexy geography; it’s all there. The second section is a lot less enticing. While the poems are still enjoyable, (I particularly liked ‘A Constable Calls’ which I found reminiscent of his earlier collections) they lack the spirit of the first half. But then if you begin with Vikings and end with a long-haired old poet that can’t be bothered any more, then that’s probably to be expected.