Since I mentioned my University days on Tuesday, I thought of a fragment of that time, on Seamus Heaney, who would have turned 80 last week, might be worth airing . Attempting to discuss the way he brings ‘modern Irish problems into relationship with images from the past’, or something, this is the first part of what I came up with. I couldn’t bear to let this go, however, with all the undergraduate prose intact, so I’ve improved the grammar a bit. You’ll have to look up the references yourself, but you can find the Wikipedia page on the book in question.
Seamus Heaney’s Bog Oak1 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 south, to the Republic, 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 suggests2, 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”3.
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 reading4. 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: 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’5; carries the longevity of trees, great symbols; 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 as 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 History6. 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
Beyond that I don’t recall much about it other than people seemed to like it.