Station Island, published by Faber and Faber in 1984, is Seamus Heaney’s seventh collection. Heaney is in his mid-forties. The totality of his collections over more than half a century since Death of a Naturalist (1966) have confirmed his place at the very top of the premier league of poets writing in English.
The textual commentaries that follow seek to tease out what Heaney’s poems are intimating in Station Island. Of course, the poet’s ‘message’ will have started life as an essentially personal one not intended primarily for his reader; there are moments when some serious unravelling is required.
Thanks to the depth of Heaney’s knowledge, scholarship and the sincerity of his personal feelings, his poetry is rich in content. Digging into background-materials is both essential and edifying. In the case of a poet as accomplished, complex and focused as Heaney, the rewards for persevering are at once enriching, fortifying and hugely pleasurable. In a very real sense Heaney both entertains and educates.
There are issues, too, beyond ‘the text, the whole text and nothing but the text’: there is the question of ‘style’, that is, the combination of language and poetic devices deliberately selected by the poet to carry his narrative forward. Then there is the matter of Heaney’s appeal to the ear, the poem intended as a song to be heard and enjoyed or, to the mind’s eye, a picture to be ‘seen’ and felt. These issues are explored in individual commentaries and summarised at the end.
The introductory notes are enriched from the sources (below); textual surveys and footnotes are largely personal. The approach is not calculated to promote any particular viewpoint.
Michael Parker’s ‘Seamus Heaney The Making of a Poet’ published by Macmillan 1993 (MP)
Neil Corcoran’s ‘The Poetry of Seamus Heaney’ published by Faber 1998 (NC)
Dennis O’Driscoll, ‘Stepping Stones, Interviews with Seamus Heaney’ published by Faber 2008 (DOD)
Key events from Seamus Heaney’s Biography between 1975 (‘North’ ) and 1984 (‘Station Island’).
1976: Heaney is granted leave of absence from his post at Dublin’s Carysfoot College to return to Berkeley University, California; he is presented with the Duff Cooper Memorial award;
1979: Field Work is published; he is visiting lecturer at Harvard University accompanied by his family; his friendship with Helen Vendler is cemented; he meets Bernard and Jane McCabe;
1980: Selected Poems 1965 -75and Preoccupations; Selected Prose 1968-78are published; he co-judges the first Arvon Foundation Poetry Competition (35,000 entries) alongside Ted Hughes, Philip Larkin and Charles Causley;
1981: a year notorious for ‘hunger strike’ crises in Ulster. Heaney becomes a director of Field Day Theatre Company founded by Brian Friel and Stephen Rea in 1980; their joint endeavours aim to raise the level of debate over critical issues of culture and identity, politics and art throughout Ireland; his family holiday spent in France and Spain coincides with the culmination of IRA hunger strikes in Long Kesh;
1982: Heaney negotiates with Harvard University as regards a three-year spring-semester contract; he receives honorary degrees from Queens’ Belfast and New York’s Fordham University); co-edits the Rattle Bag anthology with Ted Hughes; this is published to critical acclaim;
1983: An Open Letterthat takes a good-natured, satirical .. sideswipe’ at Penguin Books and breaks old inclinations ‘not to speak’ ispublished in response to Heaney’s inclusion as a ‘British’ poet in The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry. Sweeney Astray is published; first meeting in California with Czeslaw Milosz at a dinner with Robert Pinker and Bob Hass;
1984: Station Island is published; death of his mother, Margaret Heaney (v.the sonnet sequence at the heart of Haw Lantern). Heaney is elected Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard University located in Cambridge Massachusetts..
The Structure of ‘Station Island’
Station Islandis dedicated to fellow, Irish playwright and short-story writer, Brian Friel who enjoyed close associations with the poet.
Part One comprises 41 poems under 25 main titles; these individual lyrics are largely drawn from ordinary life. A lyric is a poem that expresses the feelings and thoughts of a single speaker in a personal and subjective way. Their overall tone hints that changes are afoot
Part Two, referred to as ‘Station Island – the poem’, is a sequence of twelve visionary encounters with the dead. A pilgrimage to Lough Derg brings a poet (in his forties) and his much younger self (of the late 1950s) face to face.
Part Three: Sweeney Redevivus provides twenty pieces in a concluding sequence ‘voiced for Sweeney, the seventh-century Ulster king who was transformed into a bird-man and exiled to the trees by the curse of St.Ronan’ (see Heaney’s Notes on p123 of the Faber edition). The coincidental rhyme Sweeney/Heaney makes for ‘twin’ contributions.
The collection and its moment
Put on the spot, Heaney resisted any suggestion that his seventh collection was that of a middle-aged poet, in ‘mid-life and ‘mid-Troubles’ (reference to the continuing turbulence in Northern Ireland)DOD (p238).
He concedes however that has reached a crossroad, referring in the final poem of Station Island, ‘On the Road’ (l.70) to his ‘book of changes’(recalling the Chinese I Chang) and offering an insight into his own view of the significance of the collection: poems born from ‘a swirl of personal thoughts, feelings and anxieties’, effectively those of a man in his mid-life looking with a fresh and critical eye at things with an enduring influence on him and concluding that the collection just ‘had to be written’ :
I needed to butt my way through a blockage, a pile of hampering stuff, everything that had gathered up inside me because of the way I was both in and out of the Northern Ireland situation … in order to have it out with myself, to clear the head, if not the decksDOD (p235);
… the poet in me just had to work through the material that was piled up in the middle of the road’DOD(p240).
By implication some necessary ‘retuning’ has been in progress and a different way ahead is forecast.
Just how successful the collection will be is assessed by Heaney himself it is a question of it surviving ( ), cohabiting (with its historical moment). Reader reaction will be paramount. Heaney’s expressed hope is that his reader will Open the book, walk into a world ( ) behind and beyond the book ( ) with the feeling of being clearer ( ) than ( ) in real life. I wanted the journey to be as matter of fact as a train journey, but to produce … a sense that the whole thing is a dream taking place behind glassDOD (p237):;
‘ Heaney is revising his earlier attitudes and assumptions in this book, feeling for new directions and perhaps unexpectedly achieving the transition’ (unattributed comment);
The ‘material piled up in the middle of the road’ that Heaney is referring to falls under a number of distinct yet overlapping headings in a conspiracy of events and circumstances:
- the Catholic legacy from childhood onwards;
- constant collisions with turbulent political and sectarian developments during the years preceding publication;
- a residue of personal misgivings following the family’s move from Ulster to the Irish Republic and the judgments of his peers that followed;
- career moves taking him in and out of Ulster;
- other issues to do with the Irish identity.
Overarching it all is Heaney’s essential persona: the uncertainties and guilt feelings evident, say, in ‘Exposure’, the final poem of North have not gone away. They are part of his nature, the first things to niggle, the recurrent thoughts. Thus the rôle of the poet, his public voice and reputation create a constant insecurity ever lurking in the background and often discernible through the poems.
Station Island was ‘clearly a necessary poem for Heaney to have written, one that defines a painful realignment between himself and his own original culture’NC (p125).
Countless poems across Heaney’s oeuvre testify to the love, respect and pride he felt towards his parents, his wider family, towards Ireland and the landscapes of his upbringing. He was born into an Ulster Catholic family with its own routine of Catholic devotion and worship in a local community that included both Catholics and Protestants.
Heaney was exposed at first hand to the customs and practices of the organised Church from childhood and this aspect that comes under deep scrutiny in Station Island.
Both the Primary and Secondary schools that he attended were Catholic schools. Denominational distinctions were not marked at Primary level. Heaney attended Anahorish school where sectarian identity and political divisions were scarcely part of the youngsters’ consciousness. He explains that Anahorish school was under Catholic management but all were welcome; there were no ‘lines of division’ as such, just awareness of ‘the difference’(DOD (p245).
He adds other interesting snippets of information: the school map was of Ulster … the period pre-dated the ‘best friends’ notion (‘a kind of herd life existed in the playground’) just neighbours (irrespective of religious denomination)DOD (p246).
Reflecting much later on the concepts and terminology of Catholic worship Heaney indicates the impressions made by Catholic church on his young mind . For example words so often heard in his formative years remained deep rooted in his memory. transubstantiation for example, that is, the ‘conversion’ at Communion of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ: Like everybody else I bowed my head … lifted my eyes … I believed (whatever it means) that a change occurredDOD (p234).
He reveals his personal image of God at the time: ‘I had a stronger image of my guardian angel, a tall winged strider at my elbow, like something out of a Renaissance painting … God the Father, no, there was never a likeness in my mind’s eye… and his view of sacred items found on the altar: There was a definite mana (power) in the chill and sheen and ring of those holy vessels(DOD p233).
There is an indelible legacy the potency of those words remains for me, they retain an undying tremor and draw (DOD p234).
The Railway Children builds childhood experience around sacred metaphor -words, water, seeds, light – illustrating their belief that given God’s grace they can find a place in Heaven (MP p191);In IlloTempore isa consideration of the grammar and politics of the (Catholic) Mass(MP p208).
MP (p195)concludes that the young Heaney was an ‘impressionable, intensely religious boy’;referring as an example to Station Island part 2, canto III where a simple trinket becomes a ‘grotto’ in his imaginationdedicated to a beloved girl who died young : he felt her spirit had been transferred to him … the boy was taught about mortalityrecalling a grim intimation of mortality from his own past, the discovery of the decomposing body of the family dog.
Heaney has retained a sense of guilt from the period: he recounts his first rebellion against family mores, recalling his first disobedience in Old Pewter.
Lessons instilled are difficult to dislodge: in A Snowshoe one comes to understand how only gradually the pull of conscience eases.
NC (p132) even suggests that there is no real escape from its grip: ‘The Cleric’ seems to acknowledge that having once had faith any future sense of freedom from it will be defined by it.
As a boy Heaney was trained to accept his place in the wider scheme of things.
Loss of faith
If Heaney once accepted his spiritual position without challenge and is still marked by it, there has been a marked change.
Knowing his place’ (Station Island, part 2, canto IX) celebrated as a virtue often enough in Heaney’s earlier work in meek acceptance of servitude to the mores of a community and amounting to a renunciation of worldliness as an essential prelude to repentance is no longer present: No praying is done on the pilgrimage …kneeling is Habit’s afterlife(NC p120).
Heaney confessed his loss of faith. The pilgrim in Part Two implies that the process had already begun in his late teen; when I began to admit to myself that I was losing faith in it I was very sorry … the loss of faith occurred offstage, there was never a scene where I had it out with myself or with another … Nor can I make the act of faith. In Station Island I arranged for John of the Cross to help my unbelief by translating his ‘Song’(Part 2, canto XI) (DOD p234).
NC (p130) perceives in In IlloTempore … loss of religious faith seemingly in Heaney’s own voice, though by now clearly schooled into a Sweeney scepticism and mistrust.
NC (p118) sums up the stage Heaney has reached:The irony of Station Island … is that this pilgrimage leads to no confirmation in the religion and values of the Catholic community but to something very like a renunciation of them.
To succeed in breaking loose would bring new-found freedom of conscience and a different poetic line. NC (p119) suggests that Heaney uses the structural metaphor of its Irish Catholic pilgrimage to define some of the constrictions which that religion and culture have imposed and to suggest how, under alternative mentors, and through the agency of poetry itself a newly enabling freedom might be won.
Breaking loose would relieve any sexual, political or creative inhibitions resulting from Catholic influence. For NC (p119):(as evidenced in Station Island part, 2, canto I) clericalism thwarts the lives of those who represent it … Catholicism is heavily implicated in the poet’s adolescence of sexual dissatisfaction and guilt and in his unease and regret about his lack of any firmer political commitment.
As regards the wider legacy of breaking loose: Sweeney Astray echoes the conflicting elements at play in the Irish psyche … bringing together narratives, characters, rites, images and locations belonging to a shared and private past from ancient Ireland to the present unfree state … Heaney in Station Island attempts to slip free of the Church’s grip, to establish the legitimacy of his own line and lines … he feels some disquiet making the necessary move from his first affiliations, leaving the security of ‘cover’; Lough Derg becomes the means of allowing such feelings to surface and seeking individuation …. to a place of retreat and renewal (MP p181)
MPis particularly firm in his conviction that the orthodoxy of the Catholic Church has obstructed Heaney’s creativity and successful independence and he salutes the poet’s response: theStation Island sequence encapsulates Heaney’s most sustained attempt at achieving absolution and permission as a writer; the shades are consulted to resolve the competing claims of orthodoxy and individuality and to enquire into his own conduct … the process of individuation (MPp192).
The serious effort even confrontation required to escape the pull of gravity is acknowledged: Station Island, Part 2, canto Ibegins with conflicting sounds in the air, with the power of the Church pitched against ‘the older recalcitrant Celtic temperament’ … the pagan energy of Simon Sweeney was a trail of thought and feeling Heaney had been taught to fear … the pull of conventional piety is still too strong (MP p193).
‘Religion might also be responsible for (Heaney’s) lack of a firmer political commitment’(unattributed).
MP (p196) picks out the Catholic element that is totally tied into the system: in Station Island, part 2, canto IV ‘blurred swimmings’ of poetic sight contrasting with the seemingly fixed certainty of the Catholic faith … his conviction that the Word, the Flesh and the Devil should not be renounced, but rather accepted, relished and confronted … amounts to a clash with orthodox Catholic ‘truths’ … young priests as a group responding to the call of parental piety or ambition ( ) had allowed themselves, body, mind and spirit, to be taken in by ‘dream words’.
Station Island, part 2, canto IV suggests that giventhe missionary’s extremely limited perception of those he had been sent to redeem the Church had failed. He second-guesses Heaney’s intention: Certainly within this poem he is striving to disentangle the soul from what he sees as the pernicious elements in his own and the collective past, in order to clear the ground for future growth (MP p197).
Even the final poem that confirms the poet’s transition, renewal and release points out the last-minute pull of orthodoxy: On The Road starts with sensual enjoyment of nature before a moral brake is applied … What constitutes an exemplary life … the role models are far more likely to be artists than religious… the rich young man, largely because of the gifts accruing from his Catholic home and education, makes the break with the faith of his fathers even harder …he can never be utterly free of the Word which caused and enabled his flight(MPp209).
For all that, Station Island remains Heaney’s ‘book of change’ (l.70).
The political dimension
Drawing together the poems that make up Station Island coincided with a period of extreme sectarian turbulence, initially confined to Northern Ireland but later spreading to the British mainland (the selective timeline that follows is accompanied by a more detailed calendar of events in Afterthoughts).
The never-ending cycle of revenge impacted heavily on the consciences of those prepared to balance justice and injustice not least, as was the case with Heaney, amongst those who possessed a significant public profile.
The Troubles: a timeline
- Prior to the publication of North (1975) the period between August 1971 and Dec 1975 had witnessed the mass arrest and internment without trial of 342 people suspected of association with Republican paramilitaries;
- 1979 witnessed the murder of Lord Mountbatten; IRA attacks at Warrenpoint killed 12 soldiers; the visit to Ireland of Pope John-Paul II excluded Ulster (his anti-violence plea is said to have dented IRA popularity);
- the hunger-strikes of 1980-81 restored Republican popularity. A brief history: ‘Special Category’ status and privileges for political prisoners had been removed by the British Government in March 1976; 8 H blocks were constructed at Long Kesh (The Maze) to accommodate a new influx of prisoners resulting from military crackdown; this was quickly followed by the so-called ‘blanket protest’;the IRA targetted prison officers for assassination leading to very strained relationships inside prisons; ‘dirty’ protests (including excrement daubed on cell walls) attracted and retained media coverage; no changes of policy resulted;
- the first Hunger strike involved 7 prisoners and lasted for 53 days. The concessions won were later withdrawn resulting in a second H block hunger strike; the subsequent battle of wills led to ten Republican prisoner deaths.
- on April 9th 1981 hunger striker Bobby Sands was elected MP to serve at Westminster; he died a month later. Later casualties include individuals known to the Heaney family. The strike ended on October 3 1981 and within 48 hours the original demands were granted.
- In 1982attacks took place on the British mainland: eleven British soldiers and seven military horses died in Provisional IRA bomb attacks during military ceremonies in Regent’s Park and Hyde Park, London. Many spectators were badly injured.
- 1983witnessed the emergence of ‘supergrasses’ prepared to testify in court against paramilitaries, the mass escape of 38 Republican prisoners from The Maze prison and a car-bomb attack oh Harrods department store in London.
- 1984 (possibly subsequent to the publication of Station Island) saw the audacious Provisional IRA bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton in which the Annual Conference of the Conservative Party was taking place; Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher narrowly escaped injury.
Commentators have reflected on the effect of this constant cycle of revenge on those who witnessed it.
MP (p191) suggests that the poet marked by constant exposure: The Loaningsuggests there are ‘no longer such certainties as grace or transcendence, only shadows … a number of binary oppositions – human silence/ stasis mortality versus natural ‘speech/ motion/ mutability … the poet’s apprehension of contemporary brutality has stained his perceptions of the natural world.
Further might be found in a previous Heaney work: ‘Sweeney Astray’ echoes the conflicting elements at play in the Irish psyche … bringing together narratives, characters, rites, images and locations belonging to a shared and private past from ancient Ireland to the present unfree state (MP (p181).
Allusions to the period abound, particularly the lexis of imprisonment and repression to be found in Chekhov on Sakhalin, Sandstone Keepsake, Granite Chip, Ulster Twilight, The Loaning ; Station Island, cantos II, IV, VI, VIII; First Flight, Old Icons.
Retaining a neutral voice
In acknowledgement of the anxieties and pressures to which Heaney was subjected during the ‘Troubles’ period DOD (p257) picks out the confrontation on a train with Republican Danny Morrison (as recorded in Heaney’s poem ‘Flight Path’); a calm but intrusive intervention that sought to make Heaney feel guilty for not taking sides had an opposite effect. Heaney’s response to Morrison confirmed that he did not feel threatened but was unwilling to become member of a chorus or a cheerleader. His reluctance to take sides was prompted more by his natural disposition and his unwillingness to paint himself into a corner: If I was quiet it was from inner unease rather than outward compulsion (DODp 258).
In contrast the ‘Open Letter’ written by Heaney when he was included in a Penguin anthology of ‘British’ poets demonstrated that he was not prepared to abandon his Catholic Irish identity.
Heaney was always careful not to ‘paint himself into a political corner’. Beyond the paradox that he wrote and published and therefore earned his money in English and that he was disinclined by his nature to adopt an ‘engaged’ rôle he was shrewd enough to recognise that the hunger strikes, whatever his personal sympathies and however prominent they were, retained a huge propaganda potential: his comments and stances would be seized by the media and reused to feed whatever angle they were pursuing.
Heaney confesses that his conscience played him up: the self-accusation of those days is everywhere in the sequence … I was highly aware of the propaganda aspect of the hunger-strikes and cautious about being enlisted (DOD p259).The strikes were something like a sacred drama that he watched away from it all: at the height of the crisis in Ulster and the general stalemate that he perceived Heaney was living in Dublin, holidaying in Spain and commuting to the USA.
Similarities are perceived between hunger-striker and displaced poet: each possesses an ‘unquiet soul’ … shaped by and trapped by the ancient bog, allured by the ‘maimed music’ of tribal loyalties, caught between the sickening tide of hatred reactivated by the hunger strikes and the near irresistible pressure to conform demanded by Catholic and Republican ideologies rescued only by the redemptive power of Art ( ) the candle that illuminates the way ahead ( ) the trumpet that promises harmony (MP p202).
Heaney clarifies his position to DOD (p260):sympathy for strikers, yes but wary of ennobling their sacrifice beyond its specific historic and political context. MP suggests a ‘common ground’ shared by the paramilitary and the poetic activist .
Reconciling the clash between politics and poetry
Heaney acknowledges the impact of political events and their repercussions on the consciousness and consciences of creative spirits such as himself BUT he does not consider himself a writer of political poetry.
Not all his contemporaries might have grasped fine distinctions: in Station Island, Part 2, canto VIII Heaney is rebuked by the shade of his cousin Colum McCartney. Accusations that he had sometimes softened cruelty and sentimentalised brutal events were not new (MP p201).
For NC (p114) the political reality (of Northern Ireland is) ever present; in ‘Sandstone Keepsake’ Heaney paints a wry self-portrait of the artist as political outsider which is characteristic in its shrug of uneasy self-deprecation. Heaney’s incapacity for the political role is rebuked; the pun as regards the ‘free state’ acts as a phrase for the disengagement of poetry. The poem echoes the guilt and anxiety of ‘Exposure’ ensuring the poet’s peripheral status.
Station Island, Part 2, cantos VII, VIII, and IX might be deemed ‘political’: Four dead men leave Heaney at his most exposed … each of them forces him to live their final moments, to scrutinise his conduct in the face of their deaths. The sequence’s movement from lame excusethrough accusation , self-accusation to self-disgust might be said to bring together political conscience and a critical requirement of the pilgrimage which is to ‘chastise one’s own soul’ (MP p198).
Station Island, Part 2, canto VIII demonstrates the poet’s inadequacy in the face of death; other examples (e.g. IX) show his fortitude and respect for the dead despite hostile sectarian conditions (MP p200).
Station Island will be about risking the backward look, enduring exposure … in Chekhov on Sakhalin and Sandstone Keepsakethe old anxieties about doing the decent thing resurface; the poet is forced to scrutinise his conduct as an artist … whether he should engage with the major questions about the relationship between art and action (should poetry engage in politics? Is poetry active participation in history? Does/ will it make any difference to Ireland?)
( ) the poet treads water (MP p185).
The redemptive power of Art.
Station Island, Part 2, canto IX completes the vigil and self-inquisition , moving from self-disgust to restorative images ( ) he is sidelined, observing the ceremony from a distance with its ‘white-faced groom’ perishing for the sake of the same insatiable bride (Bog Queen? Nerthus) ( ) Ambivalence characterises the presentation of the hunger striker … tracker and tracked, ambusher and ambushed ’emptied and deadly’,aggressor and victim (MP p201).
Irishness in the face of religion and politics
The relationship between the Church and Irish Nationhood: First Kingdom plunges immediately into mock heroic … the unheroic, inglorious history of this ‘backward’ people … Praise for their endurance is outweighed by scorn and sorrow …. submissiveness to State and Church and circumstance …First Flight tells of mastery and defiance … of climbing out of the mire of ‘attachment’ (be it social, religious or political) (MP p206)
Appropriated by and dishonoured by the contemporary warriors for Irish freedom The Old Icons provides a continuing narrative of aspirations and treacheries … these formative images
( ) clearly retain a grip on Heaney (MPp207).
Reference Part 2: the history of the pilgrimage over the last three hundred years suggests a definite correlation between its popularity and the state of politics in Ireland … how physical pain and difficulty can help purify the soul … the pilgrims consciously connect themselves and their suffering with those of earlier generations of Irish Christians .. the Lough Derg experience seems to enshrine quintessential features of Irish Catholicism (MP p182).
- ‘The poems continue to reflect political reality in Northern Ireland; however the depth of Heaney ‘s political ‘engagement’ (whatever his unwritten sympathies or anger) was questioned by those who coveted the ‘freedom of Northern Ireland;
- Part 2 in particular explores the tension between self and nationhood, faith’ to the collective historical experience and truth to the recognition of the emerging voice;
Part One and stirrings of change
As he composes his collection Heaney is pondering a change of direction; by end of Station Island he will have confirmed a new way ahead.
His desire to change is a feeling in the bones. The long and winding road of his life and career has come to a crossroad where a choice seems imperative. One route is familiar, the known road, more of the same. The alternative route branches off in an unfamiliar direction, requires a decisive move and demands courage.
Birthplace III, in urging the poet to ‘resist/ the words of coming to rest” acknowledges that nothing is forever and pushes for change. In fact change is in the air almost from the outset of the collection as Heaney indirectly acknowledges the symptoms of his malaise.
In La Toilette Heaney has overcome the sexual hang-ups generated by Catholic teaching, feeling free to relish and write about the pleasure moments of his marriage. Marie Heaney is the catalyst; she becomes his new ‘teacher’.
Sloe Gin illustrates a different form of change deriving from the same source: the combination of fruit and alcohol produces a pleasurable drink; Marie Heaney is once more the inspiration.
Heaney recognises that the obstacles to change reside within himself: his disposition and his self-confessed lack of backbone. This is present in some of the pieces: Chekhov‘s courage falters on Sakhalin; the figure who tosses a stone from hand to hand in Sandstone Keepsake has been reduced to posturing rather than direct action; Last Look confirms a traditional Irish resistance to change, at odds with modernity yet unwilling to compromise; Stone from Delphi acknowledges that there are more desirable places than turbulent Ireland whilst setting out the potential pitfalls for a self-respecting poet; Kite sets out the depressing fate of Ireland that has not changed from one generation to the next.
Away from itAll illustrates how difficult it is to follow examples set by poets Heaney admires: ‘I still cannot clear my head’; the uncompromising Granite Chip tells Heaney in no uncertain terms that change is in his own hands and Old Smoothing Iron provides an example of reluctant orthodoxy.
Heaney’s American adventures have underlined the imminent need for a fresh approach: Remembering Malibu is the first of 2 ‘American’ poems; the poet’s professional direction and new cultures make comparisons inevitable; Making Strange indicates the vulnerability of one caught between American and Irish cultures; the middle way of compromise he chooses cannot avoid some shift away from the old.
There is no guarantee that new way is better way; everything has the potential to disappoint. Changes culminates with a father’s warning that things do not automatically deliver what they promise. As Heaney seeks the courage to ‘clear the decks’ Old Pewter recounts his first rebellion as a youngster, a vein of strength hidden somewhere in his fibre.
Brigid inMigrationpoints the way; she is a true exemplar of what it requires to clear her and her family’s decks; paradoxically what she has done and what that represents runs the risk of scaring the daylights out of Heaney’s timorous deer of poetry.
In Bat on the Road echoes of James Joyce recall the young man Stephen who (in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man) chooses the earthly life of the senses in preference to the cold spiritual orthodoxy of his previous existence. The message that emerges is that depicting the bat in free flight, adopting the life-style it pleases contains nothing to be ashamed of; change is on the cards.
The Aislingbrings a warning about environmental abuse. Threats to what Heaney loves are reasons for reappraisal. Predictably, perhaps, the ‘startling deer on the site of catastrophe’ is nervous at the prospect of change.
Loaning III reminds Heaney that in view of current political injustices softly-softly responses are untenable; change is a must.
The real impetus is generated inKing of the Ditchbacks, the final poem of Part 1. Here King Sweeney (Heaney’s co-partner in Part 3) begins to beat out his message, a dark morse that comes to reverberate incessantly through Heaney’s systems. The morse is so compelling that having undertaken a ritual preparation to meet the birdman-exile Heaney declines the offer of some future return to the old ways; he determines to burn bridges and move on. Change is on the way.
Part I of Station Island collects the personal lyrics, “the form wherein the artist presents his image in immediate relation to himself.” It is filled with epiphanies of his family and still moments of youthful promise–when “the deer of poetry stood / in pools of lucent sound / ready to scare.” These poems invoke the daunting examples of other writers (Brian Moore at Malibu, Chekhov on Sakhalin) while the poet mediates in his “cunning middle voice.”
Heaney yearns for passage through loanings (uncultivated fields) of consciousness to the time of his “first place,” where big-voiced women sat in twilit kitchens smoking pipes and saying “Aye,” a bucolic echo of Molly Bloom’s “Yes.” But the exiled poet must strive instead against a series of obstructions.Shaun O Connell in the Boston Review
The individual lyrics of Part One introduce a new acerbity and astringency … many of them offer rueful self-scrutiny as objects and occasions from the ordinary world … insist on their ethical claims .. literally sermons in stones … and similar, if less explicit, sermons … instructive moralities make P1 severe and self-admonitory and the tone is predominantly chastened, restrained and even wearied … self-chastening is accompanied now by a sense of diminishment, transience and the perilous fragmentariness of memory (NC p112).
Part Two – Station Island – the poem ; Lough Derg
In this middle section Heaney traces a ‘pilgrim’s progress’. He composes a sequence of 12 poems under a topological heading. At least twenty five years separate his original experiences on Station Island from the moment when he chooses Lough Derg as the site upon which to play out this series of dramas. Much water has passed beneath Heaney’s emotional, ethical, aesthetic and spiritual bridges in the interim.
Together, the older poet and his younger self face a series of apparitions whose opinions provide a response to Heaney’s inner conflicts an anxieties, most of which have remained obstinately present in his mind despite the passage of time.
The pilgrimage site featured in this section is to be found on a small rocky isle in the middle of Lough Derg in County Donegal that is dominated by a basilica dedicated to St Patrick. The three day pilgrimage traditionally involves a punitive schedule of praying, fasting and barefoot walking. Pilgrims were accommodated in a modest hostel. The penitential ‘beds’ on Station Island derive from the Celtic monastic period: they were the reconstructed remains of monastic cells or oratories where monks spent time alone in prayer. They comprise rings of boulders and rough stones embedded up-endedly in the soil, some on a steep incline; in the centre of each stands a crucifix. The beds are dedicated to seven saints, each having some association with the area. A Franciscan Friar, Michael O’Cleary recounted that the pilgrimage was being performed as early as 1600; his is the earliest systematic account to survive.
Heaney offers insights in his conversation with Dennis O’Driscoll (DOD)
Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’ might be a pilgrimage but was in no way a model (p238);
the Station Island, Part Two sequence was more an examination of conscience than a confession … I had the shape of it in my head when I came back from Harvard in 1979 (p234);
Heaney conceived the sequence as a poem cycle with a central protagonist on his fixed route through the pilgrimage. The three-part Dantean journey scaled down into the three-day station (p235);
Heaney responded to questions about gender, namely the ‘maleness’ of pilgrimage: the female principle is strongly at work in those three sonnets of Section VI that trace the pilgrim’s progress in the shedding of guilt… there’s more politics than erotics in the sequence as a whole. The predominant hauntings, the things that stirred … got it going were generally to do with Northern Ireland politics (p247):
the ‘shade’ of canto XI was based on a Carmelite who gave a retreat during my last year at St Columb’s (the Catholic boarding-school in Londonderry where Heaney’s Secondary Education took place) seemed to shine with inner light (p249);
Joyce is there to help my unbelief (not Yeats, who was a Protestant) ( ) the pilgrimage was for Papists … Joyce is our chief consultant … entering and exploring and exceeding the language (p249);
DOD (p250): James Joyce was regarded as an essential aid to self-awareness.
DOD (p249): Heaney anticipated the effect of the pilgrim to be liberating.
To commentators Station Island, Part 2 is a melting-pot for internal debate.
this contemporary self undergoes a penitential and confessional exercise on a mythologized pilgrimage (NC p111);
Station Island is the name for a nexus of Irish Catholic religious, historical and cultural affiliations … some suggestion that earlier literary accounts of the Island turned (Heaney) to Dante’s meetings with ghosts in the Purgatorio as a model for his own poem (NC p115);
Station Island is a reminder to Heaney to ‘know his place’ (canto IX) … ‘celebrated as a virtue often enough in Heaney’s earlier work – as meekly accepting a servitude to the mores of a community …. the renunciation of worldliness which is the essential prelude to repentance … No praying is done on the pilgrimage …kneeling is Habit’s afterlife (NC p120):
For the final stage of the pilgrimage three different routes towards renewal …. private memory to achieve a lyric epiphany … the act and impact of translation … he keeps faith with parochial genii (MP p202);
Part Three – Sweeney from the wings to centre-stage
By 1984 the figure of Sweeney has been an almost constant companion in Heaney’s mind for more than a decade, principally thanks to the poet’s on-going intention to publish a version of Buile Suibhne (the history in Irish of the exiled 7th century king based on a known figure (‘an historically situated character’). This work was ultimately published as Sweeney Astray in the year preceding Station Island.
The two works are free-standing and independent. However Sweeney ‘stirs’ in Parts 1 and 2, before playing a principal rôle in the poems of Part 3. Heaney reveals in his Notes that these latter poems are ‘voiced for Sweeney’. The character makes a major contribution to Heaney’s ‘book of changes’ (borrowed directly from the final poem, ‘On the Road’). In Sweeney Redevivus, Heaney brings back to life the man whose fate was determined by a bishop’s curse and who will fly alongside a poet seeking to free himself from the weight of former constraints and influences.
Their symbiosis is confirmed by the sonic echo of their joint names and the correspondences between the two.Sweeney is the name for a personality, a different self, a congruence of impulses, a mask antithetical to much that the name ‘Seamus Heaney’ has meant in his previous books (and coincidentally rhymes with the twin) – the artist strains to attain the mask of his opposite … he does his proper work and leaves us with the art itself, which is a kind of trace element of the inner struggle of opposites, a graph of the effort of transcendence (NCp128).
The book has a formal unity, signalled by the presence, in all three parts, of the Sweeny figure ( ) Sweeney’s ‘dark morse’ is tapped throughout the volume; and it spells out a rigorous scrutiny by this poet of his own commitments, attachments and responsibilities (NC p110).
MP (p118) picks out the dissimilarities and correspondences between the two works: Sweeney Astray echoes the conflicting elements at play in the Irish psyche … bringing together narratives, characters, rites, images and locations belonging to a shared and private past from ancient Ireland to the present unfree state … Heaney in Station Island attempts to slip free of the Church’s grip, to establish the legitimacy of his own line and lines … he feels some disquiet making the necessary move from his first affiliations leaving the security of ‘cover’ (hence, perhaps, his choice of remote Lough Derg) to allow his feelings to surface and seek a new independence: individuation (in) a place of retreat and renewal.
In conversation with DODHeaney reveals that in hisdesire to tell the Sweeney story freely and thoroughly eventually ended up in a cycle he got to himself (p235).
Heaney describes the Sweeney Redevivus poems (finished in 1983) as a clean pair of heels
( ) dramatic monologues and added the liberating effect they had on him: I felt relieved of myself when I was writing them (p260).
Heaney commented that once launched he wrote with great gusto (his flying pun is deliberate) and entered into his character: up and away… at full tilt … entirely Sweenified, as capable of muck-raking as self-mockery … the poetry was in the personaDOD (p262).
To MP (p205) Sweeney is more than just a character: in Part 3 Heaney attempts to transcend the present by flying back into the past to ‘re-collect’ and ‘re-member’ a world once whole ; Sweeney is the vehicle through which to explore his own sense of displacement.
In Sweeney Redevivus the newly steadied self is released into the freedom of a kind of anti-self or parallel-self … Heaney’s voice is twinned with (Sweeney’s)(NC p111).
NCsees ‘Widgeon’ as more than just the preparation for Heaney’s subtle voicings: it is, he suggests, an allegory of the book’s deflective procedures … ‘badly shot’ applies to other ‘shades’ in Station Island; the voice blown into the bird’s soundbox parallels the voices lent to the shades; Heaney’s ‘own voice sounds through the ‘voice box’ of Sweeney, the bird-man’ … this dartingly implicit allegory of the way the individual poetic voice speaks through the real and imaginary dead (p111).
NCconfirms Heaney’s hopethat the pairing with Sweeney might release … a genuine self- illumination or self-definition (p112).
Heaney’s engagement with the figure of Sweeney lasted over 10 years. The narrative of Sweeney Astray (is) often interrupted by Sweeney’s poignant lyrical expressions of his own misery and by his equally sharp and tender celebrations of the Irish landscape, particularly its trees … Poet Robert Graves referred to the Irish original as ‘the most ruthless and bitter description in all European literature of an obsessed poet’s predicament’ (NC p125).
NC focuses on the move from a pagan to a Christian culture in Ireland … (Heaney) is interested in it for political and topographical reasons too … Sweeney is also a figure of the artist, displaced, guilty, assuaging himself by his utterance; it is possible to read the work as an aspect of the quarrel between Irish creative imagination and the constraints of religious, political and domestic obligation (p126).
NC feels that the final lines of Part1 bind together poet, Sweeney and the rich young manCiting Heaney from a Chat with Seamus Deane recorded in The Crane Bag, vol.1, no. 1 of 1977, NCintroduces the notion of ‘translation’ whereby the poet benefits from entering the character of Sweeney: Sweeney (is) a presence, a fable which could lead to the discovery of feelings in myself which I could not otherwise find word for and which could cast dream of possibility or myth across the swirl of private feelings: an objective correlative (a literary term using the symbolic, legendary Sweeney to provide explicit access to Heaney’s inner feelings, introducing
bird-like instincts and new perspectives (p127).
The Sweeney Redevivus section is little more than a medieval anchorite colouring in some poems … Old Icons on Republican politics; In IlloTempore loss of religious faith seemingly in Heaney’s own voice, though by now clearly schooled into a Sweeney scepticism and mistrust … the Sweeney mask allows Heaney to take a tangental, dubious, sideways-on inspection… Heaney reviews his life and reputation in a newly suspicious perspective (NC p130).
Sweeney’ under whatever name … is a salutory protection …asperities of tone are softened by a certain regretfulness…. ‘The Cleric’ seems to acknowledge that having once had faith any future sense of freedom from it will be defined by it (NCp132). .
Station Island: ‘crise de conscience’ and emerging self
Heaney is constantly troubled by the need to do the right thing; the challenge of conscience particularly as regards his artistic role and presence amidst social turbulence in Ulster is under constant scrutiny. In this respect for MPChekhov was ‘another exemplary figure for Heaney, his life and works embodying right words and right actions, artistic and moral integrity … the artist was not only fulfilling a social role; he was also serving himself, performing ‘stations’ … to exorcise the past (p186).
The effectiveness of the rôle of poetry (the ‘lyrical riposte’ to violence) was a concern for Heaney: for MP p187the final lines of Sandstone Keepsake reflect the poet’s uncertainty as to whether his verses can indeed set wrongs right
Symptom: Heaney’s remoteness from Ulster.The anguish and anger of his fellow Catholics in the North must have had no little influence on Heaney’s decision in Station Island to embark on a rigorous reappraisal of his conduct and role as an artist … his move to Dublin and absence at Harvard sharpened an already acute moral consciousness …clash between continuing burden of political and religious obligation … and the claims of his community (to pay his debt, pull his weight take the strain)(MP p 180).
Symptom: the Catholic carryover. ForNC (p119) Part 2, canto IV sets out an irony: clericalism can actually thwart the lives of those who represent it … Catholicism is heavily implicated in the poet’s adolescence of sexual dissatisfaction and guilt and in his unease and regret about his lack of any firmer political commitment.
Symptom: standing up to the social pecking-order:‘knowing his place’, celebrated as a virtue often enough in Heaney’s earlier work – as meekly accepting a servitude to the mores of a community …. the renunciation of worldliness which is the essential prelude to repentance finds a response on Station Island: No praying is done on the pilgrimage …kneeling is Habit’s afterlife(NC p120).
Symptom: the artist in an uncomfortable political situation:NC describes the poet’s lotwithin the political reality of Northern Ireland; ‘in Sandstone Keepsake’ Heaney paints a wry self-portrait of the artist as political outsider which is characteristic in its shrug of uneasy self-deprecation ( ) The incapacity for the political role is rebuked ( ) a phrase for the disengagement of poetry … the guilt and anxiety of ‘Exposure’ … the poet’s peripheral status. (p114).
facing the music: NC acknowledges Heaney’s poetry’s ‘dissatisfied revision of earlier attitudes and assumptions and in its exploratory inventiveness as it feels out in new directions ; he definesthe most difficult phase of a poet’s career: the transition from the modes and manners which have created the reputation to the genuinely new and unexpected thing; he suggests that the outcome ‘In Station Island’ this makes for a poetry bristling with the risks of self-transformation and at its high points triumphantly self-vindicating too‘ (p112).
the way ahead involves a kindred spirit:Sweeney is also a figure of the artist, displaced, guilty, assuaging himself by his utterance; it is possible to read the work as an aspect of the quarrel between Irish creative imagination and the constraints of religious, political and domestic obligation(NC p125).
In Part 3 Heaney attempts to transcend the present by flying back into the past to ‘re-collect’ and ‘re-member’ a world once whole ; Sweeney is the vehicle through which to explore his own sense of displacement (MP p205).
the way ahead: the use of ghosts. Heaney makes use of ”subversive’ shades challenging the claims of orthodoxy, the poet’s old allegiances (MP p183). In order to achieve verification in his poetic vocation ( ) Heaney determined to engage the spirit voices of his past and through them explore the strains of a riven consciousness (p184).
The way ahead: filling the gaps.loss of faith leaves ‘not presence but absence … space … By filling his ‘blank space’ with freedom after his dialogue with Joyce in canto XII Heaney becomes implicitly the repository of a new kind of personal and cultural health; Carleton and Joyc are highly politicized artists offering, on the mainland, their alternatives to the orthodoxies of the island … culturally and materially deprived Ireland(NC p121).
the emerging self: growing confidence.some later pieces imply a more unapologetic confidence in his own work: sensitivity to the feelings of his previous côterie of poets in Ulster after his move to Glanmore in the Irish Republic is superseded: The Scribes represents an almost contemptuous jousting with ( ) critics or peers. Heaney’s choice of ‘not inconsiderable’ reflects an hauteur … something of … insolence (NC p131).
interim lessons:MP (p190) notes that Heaney’s flight back to sources and roots and roosts – literal, spiritual, sensual, emotional ( in Birth Place)- must not result in a permanent grounding; Hazel Stick represents a baton being passed on; in Kite ( ) the kite undergoes a startling metamorphosis, (is) an emblem of the soul struggling to fly, (allegorises) the political and poetical strains his sons have inherited.
seeking an arrival point:On the Roadmay be read as a kind of summary of Heaney’s career to date and the statement of an intention for the future as it inherits and brings to fulfilment the volume’s imagery of journeying, pilgrimage, quest and migration ( ) space suddenly filled by a rich young man’s question about salvation(NC p132).
emerging self: Sweeney’s role:Heaney’s earlier source is now dried up ( ) Sweeney’s has become the name for a restless dissatisfaction with the work already done ( ) for what Helen Vendler has called ‘the breaking of style’ (Harvard University Press 1995)( ) a Sweeney ‘morse’ that will never be quite absent from future work(NC p134).
effect: checkpoints and comparisons: ‘The Master’ witnesses Heaney’s measuring of himself against this magisterial authority which has sounded the Sweeney note of enterprising, wily self-assertion is also … combined with an envious humility ( ) a bold but wary inspection ( ) allegory is typical of the sequence ( ) ornithological correspondences ( ) the move from Belfast to Glanmore (seen) as a bird’s migration ( ) different human (or poetic) qualities to birds ( ) poetic composition as an attempt to catch a bird by throwing salt on its tail (NC p129)..
emerging self: asthe collection moves to its close Heaney strives to lay down a base and a basis ( ) Cézanne seems to encapsulate Many of the qualities he aspires to – fortitude, energy an unrelenting uncompromising dedication to Art (MP p 207).
emerging self:On the Road starts with sensual enjoyment of nature before a moral brake is applied ( ) What constitutes an exemplary life ( the role models are far more likely to be artists than religious ( ) the rich young man, largely because of the gifts accruing from his Catholic home and education, makes the break with the faith of his fathers even harder ( ) he can never be utterly free of the Word which caused and enabled his flight ( ) The very images he employs emphasize his cultural and linguistic indebtedness ( ) figures drawn from medieval monasticism (‘black letter latin’) ( ) the panicked shadow/ crossing the deerpath of poetry. From fixed past – fifteen years of violence, alienation and growth learning how to stand his ground ‘determinedly in the local plight’ ( ) a roosting place abroad ( ) delicate fluent picture of a deer drinking ( ) another image of his old self ( ) the promise of a fresh identity(MP p209).
emerging self:Station Island is a book of changes bringing to completion the first stage of Heaney’s poetic development ( ) far from aridity, the final images are generative(MP p210).
endpoint:Station Island ends as it started … a descent below ground, a journey whose goal is wholeness, music(MP p208).
Heaney’s use of voices and voicings.
‘Widgeon is an allegory of the book’s deflective procedures ( ) ‘badly shot’ applies to other ‘shades’ in Station Island ( ) the voice blown into the bird’s soundbox parallels the voices lent to the shades ( ) Heaney’s ‘own voice sounds through the ‘voice box’ of Sweeney, the bird-man’
( ) this dartingly implicit allegory of the way the individual poetic voice speaks through the real and imaginary dead ( )The preoccupation may then release … a genuine self- illumination or self-definition(NC p111).
MP notes Heaney’s use of subversive shades challenging the claims of orthodoxy, the poet’s old allegiances(p183).
In order to achieve verification in his poetic vocation ( ) Heaney determined to engage the spirit voices of his past and through them explore the strains of a riven consciousness(MP p184)
Carleton represents righteous anger ( ) redemptive necessity for the Irish writer of a memory and sensibility schooled by politics as well as the natural world (Carleton ‘hard’ Joyce ‘straight) … as he counsels the more pliable poet in a course opposed to communal and local fidelities (NC p122).
Reference Part 2, canto XII: Joyce is Heaney’s most important guide ( ) bears the emblem of paternal authority, an ashplant. Joyce offersthe clearest, straightest of directions. Joyce urges Heaney to abandon the earnest, penitential mode … promotes an antithetical individualistic view of the poet’s role and responsibilites, stressing self-assertion and the dream of lyric fulfilment when faced with orthodox Catholic ‘virtues’ of self-abasement, collective solidarity, self denial ( ) Restored from torpor and exhaustion ...Heaney feels ratified. Joyce instructs Heaney: Instead of trying to swim with the tribe and act as a mouthpiece for others, strike out alone ( ) for Heaney it was a journey that had to be undertaken(MP p203-4).
The Sweeney Redevivus poems of Part 3 are fascinating in terms of voicing. In his notes Heaney indicates that they are ‘voiced for Sweeney’ but this does not and cannot exclude the poet’s contribution. Each poem resembles a piece of music with a background accompaniment and two voices that pick up the melody in turn or together; the mood of each piece varies as does its ensemble effect on the listener’s ear and the reader’ssensibility.
Models and precursors
NC (p116) quotes Seamus Heaney:the way ‘(Dante) could accommodate the political and the transcendent … encouraged my attempt at a sequence of poems which would explore the typical strains which the consciousness labours under in this country … between two often contradictory commands: to be faithful to the collective historical experience and to be true to the recognitions of the emerging self … perhaps voice the claims of orthodoxy and the necessity to recognize those claims. They could probe the validity of one’s commitment.from ‘Envies and Identifications: Dante and the Modern Poet’, Irish University Review (Spring 1985)
James Joyce is an important mentor in the Station Island sequence; in his A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man the central character, Stephen Dedalus, is engaged upon a journey that will ultimately lead to his choice of life and pleasure in preference to the yolk of faith; though not a model for this collection, put simplistically, there are parallels with the ‘journey’ that Heaney has undertaken. However traumatic, ‘realignment’ remains a matter for Heaney and his own conscience, debated within himself and expressed here in his poetry.
Translations, transits and transitions: by whatever name personal change and progression is accompanied by allegorical echoes:
NC (p118) considers that in Station Island, Part 2, canto X the mug stands for the unexpected translations which the known, ordinary and domestic may undergo.
MP (p189):Remembering Malibu first of ‘a series of poems of transit and transitions … the anonymity of exile … In Making Strangethe different languages and worlds in which (the speaker, his American visitor and the Irishman) have their being … the task of modulating between to tongues reminds Heaney as to where his poetic roots and future lie, in preserving native speech, private and parochial experience yet in being prepared to extend his range and pitch … able to recover his country, rediscover its familiar features and figures … the sudden flick of the chaffinch (like the flick of an on/off switch).
Shaun O’Connell perceives other literary influences at work: ‘Concerned with issues of silence, exile, and cunning (Stephen Dedalus’s trinity), Station Island is Heaney’s most Joycean work. Joyce even appears as a presence, meeting the poet at the end of his imaginary visit to the island of the title, a thousand-year-old site of pilgrimage in Lough Derg, Donegal. While the overall movement of this work seems inspired by Wordsworth, presenting the “growth of a poet’s mind’ and the quest of the poet’s persona, the structure of the volume seems inspired by Joyce’s assertion (through Stephen Dedalus) that “art necessarily divides itself into three forms progressing from one to the next”: lyrical, epical, and dramatic. Growing through these stages, the poet seeks a personal and aesthetic state of wholeness, harmony, and radiance, the qualities of universal beauty as defined by Aquinas and invoked by Joyce.’ article first published in the Boston Review.
Malaise and self-scrutiny find models. MP(p186) comments on the inclusion of Chekhov: another exemplary figure for Heaney, his life and works embodying right words and right.