Seamus Heany

Sunday mornings and nothing to do but my thesis and my marking so inevitably thoughts to turn to the internet. Thank God for Young Lou's List. I have been going through my poetry books to pick out some things to read on my weekly visit to an old friend. I found some that I had long neglected. They are early poems by the Nobel Laureate, Seamus Heaney, and as they touch on Art and Politics they are worth a re-look I think. They brought to mind two poems of Yeats' which also deal with the confrontation between the artist and the revolutionary, or if you like the relationship between homo poeticus and homo politicus.

Here are the Heaney poems:-

Summer 1969

When the Constabulary covered the mob

Firing into the Falls, I was suffering

Only the bullying sun of Madrid.

Each afternoon, in the casserole heat

Of the flat, as I sweated my way through

The life of Joyce, stinks from the fishmarket

Rose like the reek off a flax-dam.

At night on the balcony, gules of wine,

A sense of children in their dark corners,

Old women in black shawls near open windows,

The air a canyon rivering in Spanish.

We talked our way home over starlight plains

Where patent leather of the Guardia Civil

Gleamed like fish-bellies in flax-poisoned waters.

"Go back", one said, try to touch the people."

Another conjured Lorca from his hill.

We sat through death counts and bullfight reports

On the television, celebrities

Arrived from where the real thing still happened.

 

I retreated to the cool of the Prado.

Goya's "Shootings of the Third of May"

Covered a wall- the thrown-up arms

And spasm of the rebel, the helmeted

And knapsacked military, the efficient

Rake of the fusillade. In the next room

His nightmares, grafted to the palace wall-

Dark cyclones, hosting breaking; Saturn

Jewelled in the blood of his own children,

Gigantic Chaos turning his brute hips

Over the world. Also, that holmgang

Where two berserks club each other to death

For honour's sake, greaved in a bog, sinking.

He painted with his fists and elbows, flourished

The stained cape of his heart as history charged.

 

Exposure

It is December in Wicklow:

Alders dripping, birches

Inheriting the last light,

The ash tree cold to look at.

 

A comet that was lost

Should be visible at sunset,

Those million tons of light

Like a glimmer of haws and rose-hips,

 

And I sometimes see a falling star.

If I could come on a meteorite!

Instead I walk through damp leaves,

Husks, the spent flukes of autumn,

 

Imagining a hero

On some muddy compound,

His gift like a slingstone

Whirled for the desperate.

 

How did I end up like this?

I often think of my friends'

Beautiful prismatic counselling

And the anvil brains of some who hate me

 

As I sit weighing and weighing

My responsible tristia,

For what? For the ear? For the people?

For what is said behind-backs?

 

Rain comes down through the alders,

Its low conducive voices

Mutter about let-downs and erosions

And yet each drop recalls

 

The diamond absolutes.

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, feeling

Every wind that blows;

 

Who, blowing up these sparks

For their meagre-heat, have missed

The once-in-a-lifetime portent,

The comet's pulsating rose.

I like these poems. They have all Heaney's strength of the concreteness of his imagery. He learned well from Ted Hughes, but Heaney is I think a better man than Hughes and to some extent that makes him a better or at least a more interesting poet. However I am probably prejudiced here. Heaney taught me English Literature long years ago, and he was a thoroughly charming and decent man. The theme of both poems is the responsibility of the artist in a time of social upheaval. The first one Summer 1969 I can identify with greatly. I was in the bush in Northern Nigeria trying to pick up the information of what was happening from the short wave radio set belonging to a Peace Corps friend of mine. Once, greatly excited by the events in Northern Ireland, on a drunken night we all practised throwing Molotov cocktails. Predictably enough mine were the poorest efforts.

I think it was then that I began to glimpse the importance of theory for the revolutionary struggle. There is of course no simple way for the artist/intellectual into the Northern Irish conflict. What was at work there was of course social class. The Northern Irish rebellion was based on the Catholic working class housing estates of Derry and Belfast and with the rural republicans of Armagh thrown in. If you were outside these heart lands then there was no role for the middle class artist/intellectual; except that of the outraged sensitive. There was indeed a volume of very bad poetry produced by the middle class poets saying how inconvenient all this rebellion was. I unfortunately no longer have that book, but it stands as a monument to the self-serving, self-pitying nature of the whining middle class. A parallel reaction here is that of Yeats' to the Irish Rebellion of 1916. Richard Ellman in his book on Yeats tells us how the poet was thrown into great agitation buy the news from Ireland. He had what I suspect was something of a nervous breakdown.

The reality of the physical bravery of the men of 1916, men whom he despised largely for class reasons, seems to have confronted him with his own lack of courage. Hence his great agitation. His solution to this personal cris was to write the poem Easter 1916 where the politics of the uprising are systematically distorted though the lens of Yeats' romanticism. Heaney's reaction is however a much more humble one than Yeats' braggadocio in Easter 1916 where he cannot stop himself from patronising his betters. How could Yeats write of one of the truly great men of the 20th century, James Connolly, that he was like a rebellious child who might have got it all wrong? Yeats actually said

Too long a sacrifice

Can make a stone of the heart.

O when may it suffice?

That is heaven's part, our part

To murmur name upon name,

As a mother names her child

When sleep at last has come

On limbs that had run wild.

What is it but nightfall?

No, no, not night but death;

Was it needless death after all?

For England may keep faith

For all that is done and said.

We know their dream; enough

To know they dreamed and are dead;

And what if excess of love

Bewildered them till they died?

I write it out in a verse -

MacDonagh and MacBride

And Connolly and Pearse

Now and in time to be,

Wherevever green is worn,

Are changed, changed utterly;

A terrible beauty is born.

 

Always with Yeats there was the fantasy of being the warrior poet. His poems that were inspired by the Samurai sword that he was given by Sato reveal that. However he seems to have been at heart a very timid man. Something that Harold Bloom brings out in his great reading of the late Yeats' poem about Cuchullain in the afterworld,

Cuchulain Comforted.

A man that had six mortal wounds, a man

Violent and famous, strode among the dead;

Eyes stared out of the branches and were gone.

Then certain Shrouds that muttered head to head

Came and were gone. He leant upon a tree

As though to meditate on wounds and blood.

A Shroud that seemed to have authority

Among those bird-like things came, and let fall

A bundle of linen. Shrouds by two and three

Came creeping up because the man was still.

And thereupon that linen-carrier said:

"Your life can grow much sweeter if you will

Obey our ancient rule and make a shroud;

Mainly because of what we only know

The rattle of those arms makes us afraid.

 

"We thread the needles's eyes, and all we do

All must together do." That done, the man

Took up the nearest and began to sew.

 

"Now must we sing and sing the best we can,

But first you must be told our character;

Convicted cowards all, by kindred slain

Ort driven from home and left to die in fear."

They sand, but h ad not human tunes nor words,

Though all was done in common as before;

They had changed their throats and had the throats of birds.

 

Here we have once again the encounter between art and politics, between homo poeticus and homo politicus. But this time the poet is much less confident, much less inclined to feel superior to the politician. There is the admission of cowardice, but there is also the assertion of the necessity and the permanence of art. The shrouds may be cowards but they hold the key to art and thus to eternity. Theirs will be the last word. But what of Heaney? His reaction to the events of 1969 is to turn to Goya. In other words his response is to avoid politics and flee to the world of art. There he gives us the universalistic humanistic response. The terror and the pity. There is of course no class analysis and no sense of the specificity of the struggle which can be traced to the Northern Irish State that British Imperialism built. There is nothing specific or local about the 1969 poem despite all the local flavour of the imagery of the flax-dam and the fish.

The poem shows the artist/intellectual clinging desperately to the vocation of the inspired one; the one who sees into the heart of things and truly understands the evil in the heart of man. He even contemplates going back to "touch the people." Instead he remains in Spain reading about another exile - James Joyce. In the context of Northern Irish politics of the time all the poet would have had to do in fact would have been to throw a few stones or even write a few letters to the press. But this would have been too menial a task. Better to think of Goya and to fantasise about wielding a poetical cape that will make everyone listen. The second poem is a favourite of mine. I was back home in Ireland at this time; 1973 or 4. I too was about to emigrate, in my case to Australia. My hopes of playing a role in Irish politics had for various reasons come to nothing. The poem is redolent with guilt because Heaney, faced with the realities of rebellion and vicious counter-revolution, has retreated to Southern Ireland and into himself. Compared with Yeats' wilfully Nietzschean interpretation of the Irish Rebellion where politics is drowned in the aesthetic, Heaney's feeling of guilt seems to me a much more appropriate emotion for an artist faced with his own insignificance in the face of revolution. Do I feel that guilt too? Perhaps, but when I came here I made up my mind to turn my back on all that and I threw myself into Australian politics. And as they say the rest is history, chiefly disastrous history of course. What of the last stanza in Exposure? The poet meditates on the comet and thinks he has missed out on the excitement of revolution, the dawn of things. Not for him the comet's pulsing rose.

There is a poem by Li Po which tells of an old man who smashed his own arm to avoid military service. His arm hurts terribly now in his old age, especially when the nights are cold. But he reflects that this is small pain compared with the fact that he avoided certain death. I often think of that poem when I contemplate the realities of the death squads of Northern Ireland. Beside I do not really believe in moments of glory though they do happen of course. What is and what will be at stake is the choice we will all have to make in a quiet or perhaps even in a public way of whether we say nay to the ever pressing imperatives of capitalism in crisis. There will be another chance. There may be no comet but we will all have our time. Now in my late middle age I have grown to recognise the truth of the dictum that the emancipation of the working class is the task of the working class. Poets, artists, intellectuals can dream of themselves either as failed or successful emancipators of the class, but theirs is only a subsidiary part. I feel that although it offends the vanity of the middle class, theirs is not the character of the 'Agent of History'. That part will be played by the down trodden and the oppressed themselves. Accordingly the guilt and the angst that the middle class intellectuals/artists inflict on themselves is largely misplaced springing as it does from their foolish class pride and over-weaning sense of self importance. This might seem an ungenerous response to what are in Heaney's case good poems by a good man. Nevertheless the basic point is an important one. The dominated and the subjugated will achieve their own freedom. It will not be bestowed upon them, but rather they will forge it in the flames of the class struggle. What of homo poeticus? There will of course be a role for the poets, but it will be a secondary one and it will have to be mediated through a whole hearted commitment to the cause of the oppressed.

--Gary McLennan