In conversation with Henri Cole as published in The Paris review no 75, Heaney spoke about his move to Wicklow in 1972: ‘… leaving the north didn’t break my heart. The solitude was salubrious. Anxiety, after all, can coexist with determination. The anxiety in a poem like “Exposure” is about whether the work that comes out of this move is going to be in any way adequate. The poem is asking itself, Is there enough here to hold the line against the atrocious thing that is happening up there? And the poet is saying, What am I doing but striking a few little sparks when what the occasion demands is a comet?’
… I suppose the corollary of being battened down is being a bit tensed up. At the time when I was writing the poems, I was putting the pressure on myself and feeling, well, exposed as in “Exposure.”
In this the final poem of sequence and collection Heaney takes stock. Changes to his personal circumstances particularly the family’s move south have led him to this point of anxiety, about his rôle and function, about society outside and about current events. The poem seeks answers to fundamental questions about adequacy.
Here he stands, an Ulsterman in his thirties, walking alone through the December landscape of the Irish Republic in Wicklow at dusk,. He paints the beauty around him, its trees, its dampness, its fading light. We discern nature and poet in emotional harmony, a poet’s glum uncertainty reflected by the alders dripping … birches/ Inheriting the last light and ash tree cold.
Something special should be appearing in the immensity of Space: A comet that was lost/ Should be visible at sunset,/ Those million tons of light/ Like a glimmer of haws and rose-hips. It hasn’t happened yet; the speaker needs it to appear but hasn’t seen it. What he thinks he has seen is small beer: sometimes … a falling star burning itself out in the Earth’s atmosphere. But solid evidence of even this would be a start: If I could come on meteorite!
Heaney is Irish, as earth-bound tonight as Antaeus, walking through damp leaves,/ Husks, the spent flukes of autumn; the individual that stands up to the forces that are blighting/ have blighted Irish fortunes has not yet appeared, is no more than a Mandelstam-like shadow, a figment of history: a hero/ On some muddy compound, His gift like a slingstone/ Whirled for the desperate.
The poet asks himself searching questions about the point he has reached: How did I end up like this?
He identifies two camps: the rational, Beautiful prismatic counselling of friends and the anvil brains of enemies; his own limbo; glum and uncertain, no answer emerges: I sit weighing and weighing My responsible tristia. Crucial questions follow. Where have the decisions he has made taken him – For what? Is what he does a means to be heard – For the ear? Does he have a civic responsibility to the people? Is he oversensitive to what is said behind-backs?
At this instant he is hearing rain … through the alders, nature’s low conducive voices in concert that Mutter about let-downs and erosions, telling him that he has fallen short, that he has pulled punches (shying as usual, as he put it in The Ministry of Fear).
His prayer is to be in an honourable position, based on non-negotiable principles, the diamond absolutes of what he stands for. He is a ‘freedman’, neither internee (labelled for extreme political stances) nor informer (a betrayer of those who fight for a cause with which he empathises).
Residence in the Irish Republic may have marginalised him creating a self-confessed, Mandlestam-like inner émigré of him.
Grown long haired/ And thoughtful he sees a way ahead: a waiting game away from the Troubles, living like a rebel figure of old, a wood-kerne/ Escaped from the massacre, hiding camouflaged in the woods of Glanmore, keeping his ear close to the ground (feeling/ Every wind that blows).
There is a problem for Heaney: namely that, as a man of conscience eager to reverse what in his mind of minds he sees as a paltry contribution to earth-bound Ireland’s faltering history and its unfulfilled aspirations … by gazing ground-wards (blowing up these sparks/ For their meagre heat) he will miss his one golden opportunity: The once-in-a-lifetime portent,/ The comet’s pulsing rose.
conduce verb: literally ‘to lead/bring together’ (Latin con + ducere);
absolute: generally used adjectively; late 14c sense of ‘unrestricted’ ‘complete’, ‘perfect’; also “not relative to something else” (mid-15c.); v. also Latin absolvere “to set free, make separate” (see absolve); sense evolution led to ‘detached’, ‘disengaged’ thus ‘perfect’, ‘pure’;
émigré: originally someone who fled abroad to escape the French revolution (1789); extended in 1920s, via the Russian Revolution to political exiles in general;
tristia: personal griefs; ‘ things sad’, drawn from an Ovid title in Classical literature. This sense of depression will pervade the poem.
Wicklow: Heaney’s move south into the Irish Republic left him with a conscience: that of abandoning and therefore, somehow, betraying his beloved North at a time of crisis
Heaney describes himself as a ‘wood-kerne‘ one of those rebels who, during the earlier course of Irish history, took to the woods when defeated, to prepare for further resistance (NC82);
Though not named here Osip Mandelstam was a symbol of the poet condemned to ‘exile’ withinin his own country by an extreme political regime; his shadow is evident;
portent: 16th c. ‘sign’ omen’;
rose: pink tinge associated figuratively with ‘optimism’;
prism: a solid transparent figure that, thanks to its geometric shape separates white light into a spectrum of colours;
10 quatrains of free verse; lines almost exclusively between 6 and 8 syllables;
an 8-sentence structure plus 4 short internal questions;
many lyrical natural descriptions; vocabulary of a cosmic or scientific nature: comet/ meteorite/prismatic;
classical usage: tristia;
simile that links the properties of a cosmic phenomenon with humble earthly nature: Like a glimmer of haws and rose-hips;
contrasts in attitude: prismatic counselling/ anvil brains;
personification of natural things: rain’s voice mutters; pathetic fallacy: poet and naure in emotional harmony;
the moment and eternity: December in Wicklow/ The once-in-a-lifetime portent;
the poem’s ‘music’ is based around 14 assonant features, paired, recurrent or echoing:
[ɪ] [ai] [ɔː] [əʊ] [ʌ] [ɒ] [i:] [u:] [ei] [e] [a:] [ɜː] [au]
It is December in Wicklow:
Alders dripping, birches
Inheriting the last light,
The ash treecold to look at
A comet that was lost
Should bevisible at sunset,
Thosemilliontons of light
Like a glimmer of haws and rose–hips,
And I sometimes see a falling star.
If I could come on meteorite!
Instead I walk through damp leaves,
Husks, the spentflukes 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 émigré, 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 thesesparks
For their meagre heat, have missed
The once-in-a-lifetime portent,
The comet’s pulsing rose.
key vowels in the first 3 stanzas are alveolar plosive [t] and velar [k]; after line 4 bilabial nasal [m] is dominant between comet and compound; stanza 4 offers velar [g[: gift/ slingstone amidst the sibilant [s]; the questions of stanza 6 bring [w] variants; alveolar [l] of (7) alongside [t] of Mutter about let-downs; (9) witnesses clusters on nasal sounds; bilabial plosives [p] [b] appear in (9) and (10) in tandem with nasals [m] and [n];
Heaney emerges as the ‘inner émigré’ having moved physically, from NI to the south and, psychologically, from certainty to doubt in his internal psychological status … an emigrant from certainty and self-assurance to a transitional zone of anxiety and insecurity (NC81).
The whole poem is an act of self-exposure (MP p 149)
Glimpses of comets and meteorites open up possibilities of definition, illumination, renewal (MP p 150)
Heaney’s ‘hero’ is a composite portrait, the ‘sling’ suggesting David or Cuchulain, the ‘compound’ an Irish political prisoner or perhaps the Russian poet, Osip Mandelstam, who paid for his gift and his words of defiance in exile, pain and death. (MP p150)
a classic modern poem on a poet’s anxiety about the place and function of his own art in relation to an ideal of civic responsibility (NC79)
SH meditating his own motivation and moving towards a moment of declaration (NC80);
Heaney explores the distress of people in exile (id);
there are elements of confessional self-revelation within the dilemma of balancing poetic excellence and public accountability (id 82);
poem judged entirely appropriate as a conclusion given that Heaney’s art of composition has been the focus of so much attention(id);
At this conclusion Heaney illustrates a scrupulous unease about the ways in which poetry may properly engage the obdurate facts of political violence and death(id);
equally he demonstrates a humility and a gravity genuinely responsive to the urgency and intractability of the moment (NC61);
At the end of North Heaney remains in an honourable position (NC82)
DoD (p 160); in discussion with O’Driscoll Heaney talked about the reception ‘North’ received in his native province; he put it it down to his move south and the ‘cordon sanitaire’ he sensed between himself and members of the community he had felt the need to distance himself from; feelings went both ways: You get my side of that in the last poem of the book.