Since I mentioned my University days on Tuesday, I thought a relic of that time, on Seamus Heaney, who would have turned 80 last week, worth airing. I couldn’t bear to let this go, however, with all the undergraduate prose intact, so I’ve improved the grammar and tone. The essay attempts to see how Heaney brings ‘modern Irish problems into relationship with images from the past’ in the poem Bog Oak, which I reproduce below:
Bog Oak A carter's trophy Split for rafters, a cobwebbed, black, long-seasoned rib under the first thatch. I might tarry with the moustached dead, the creel-fillers, or eavesdrop on their hopeless wisdom as a blow-down of smoke struggles over the half-door and mizzling rain blurs the far end of the cart track. The softening ruts lead back to no 'oak groves', no cutters of mistletoe in the green clearings. Perhaps I just make out Edmund Spenser, dreaming sunlight, encroached upon by geniuses who creep 'out of every corner of the woodes and glenne' towards watercress and carrion.
Seamus Heaney’s Bog Oak came into the world at a crucial point in Heaney’s career and in Irish history. An early poem from Wintering Out, Heaney’s first collection since the beginning of the Troubles, and also Heaney’s first since moving away from Ulster. It looks back to the past for images for a new poetry and also I think back to Ulster in an attempt, as Ronald Tamplin (1989) suggests, to glimpse a new reality of Irish identity, a reading supported by Heaney’s oft-quoted view of poetry as “divination…as restoration of culture to itself”(1974) .
The reference to Edmund Spenser appears to set the poem in sixteenth century Munster, but that the poem concerns Ulster 1969 is clear: the final word ‘carrion’ guides such a reading. The description of the oak in the first stanza then becomes somewhat loaded: for instance, ‘split’ takes on obvious connotations. ‘Carrion’ is excellent, evoking not just death but horror, waste and decay. Heaney gazes homeward in loss and separation, mourning and sorrow.
A subtle manipulation of time through precise language seems to occur. The oak, ‘toughened survivor from Ireland’s past‘ carries the longevity of trees; so as Heaney traces the oak, ‘long seasoned’, backwards through time and space, he turns to the past to try and discover poetry suitable – ‘adequate’ as he put it- to the present Troubles. The images he finds there are mostly inadequate- the wisdom of the dead seems ‘hopeless’ and these old fashioned representations of Ireland, rural carters and creel fillers, seem irrelevant.
In the third stanza Heaney is outdoors now (‘a blow down of smoke/ struggles over the half door’) and he looks back along the cart track, attempting to trace the oak all the way back to its roots. But, ‘mizzling rain’ obscures his view just as time itself obscures our view of the past. Time meaning a changing culture which always constructs the past. The final three stanzas are full of these romanticised images of the past:
lead back to no
‘oak groves’, no
cutters of mistletoe
in the green clearings.
To make the point Heaney specifies that these images are not there. It is precisely these kinds of representations that are false and perhaps dangerous, an argument redolent of Brian Friel’s Making History. Heaney does discern a classic Romantic image – the sensitive male poet, ‘dreaming sunlight’, the phrase accurately and concisely invoking the false image of the poet constructed in the popular imagination unwittingly by the likes of Spenser, Wordsworth, (perhaps) Oscar Wilde, and the mass media.
Interestingly, at this point Heaney’s time-travelling stops in suspension then reverses into a forward direction by way of ‘encroached’,’creep’ and ‘towards’ (lines 24,25 and 28); now Heaney is looking forward to the future of Ireland. But why Edmund Spenser? Well, the reality of Spenser is very different from the image Heaney presents. Spenser’s non-literary career was as an agent of the Crown in Ireland as Lord Deputy. He also wrote a ‘View of the Present State of Ireland’, which, according to Garry Waller
argues for a vigorous programme of final conquest and subjugation of Ireland and the Irish, [and attacks] the ‘Old’ English preference for a degree of accommodation with the Irish chieftans, [describes the Irish as] barabarians, licentious, and while there were certain admirable or charming aspects of ancient Irish life (Spenser’s interest in Irish poetry and song is often mentioned by defenders of the View in this context), nothing short of force and thorough rooting out of Irish identity would allow the rule of English law to be permanently established1994
The above seems pertinent. Spenser the poet’s interest in ancient Ireland and Spenser the public servant’s advocacy of genocide is just the kind of conflict which interests Heaney. So you see how the romantic image in the poem (‘dreaming sunlight – kissing carrion’) arrests the reader who knows Spenser’s position.
To return to the image of the bog oak, Irish identity has survived the threat posed by Spenser but not escaped unscathed or unaltered by history; the ‘rape’ of Ireland and conversion to Protestantism evoked in Heaney’s later ‘Act of Union’ are what has led to the divided situation in the Ulster counties and its horrific consequences. In the poem, Spenser is ‘encroached upon by geniuses’, the days of the English are numbered as the forces of nationalism rise. Nationalism however, because of the complexity and unpredictability of history will play its part in the creation of the Troubles, creeping ‘towards watercress and carrion’. Heaney is aware, like Dennis Potter, of the subtlety of the problem of evil, that ‘a good act can lead to evil consequences’.
In conclusion, this clever poem follows lyrical conventions and subverts them, The final line creates an emotionally charged transcendent moment but, perversely and aptly it is one of death, sadness, and loss. The mood at the end of the poem I judge to be pessimistic in seeing Irish identity set back. The bleak, terse ‘Watercress and carrion’ suggest language cannot yet cope with the situation. But the insertion of ‘watercress’ is hopeful, yet at the same time suggests fragility. As if these two constituents of Irish identity in the context of the Troubles exist side by side, the first constantly threatened by the second. A poem of national mourning then (Heaney from Munster showing grief for the events in another part of his country), how far has Heaney come in these twenty-eight lines in his search for poetry suitable for the times?
Despite its evocative and complex nature I don’t find the poem a total success; the identity of the ‘geniuses’ is as uncertain as the relevance of ‘watercress’ until analysed. This uncertainty is to some extent the whole point but but the poem seems to come to an awkward stop. Anyway, if Heaney has not yet found the right poetic images and words to represent the times, he has certainly in his rejection of Romanticism demonstrated intelligently what is not appropriate or propitiate. Spenser’s presence achieves this especially well, ensuring the poem goes beyond Ireland. We may argue Heaney cannot assume an audience who would be aware of Spenser’s advocacy of the art of persuasion, but Tamplin resolves this for us: ‘a poet creates and leads a readership…it is not unreasonable that [Heaney] should hope that an audience might acquaint themselves [with the history] either from wanting to be in touch, or because they want to extend the knowledge they themselves can bring to their reading. The knowledge is good in itself…some have it before they first read the poem and others catch up…some of the audience is assumed and some acquired’. In this case, the Spenser effect is simply and starkly to show that a particular popular image is false and misleading. At the same time he has powerfully evoked the mood of a troubled place and people. Given recent events in Ulster we look forward to Heaney’s future work with excitement. If Heaney can catch this wave, as the Beach Boys might put it, he’d be sitting on top of the world.