Seamus Heaney - Station Island - Poetry Analysis

Navigating the ‘Station Island’ Collection

Seamus Heaney – Station Island Contents Foreword followed by: Main Sources; the Structure of Station Island; biographical ‘events’ between 1976-1984; the collection and its moment; Heaney’s ‘book of changes’; ‘hampering stuff’; Catholic beginnings; loss of faith; breaking loose; the political dimension; ‘Troubles’ timeline; poetry and politics: retaining a neutral voice; reconciling the clash between politics and poetry; the redemptive power of Art; Irishness; Part 1: the stirrings of change; The Underground La Toilette Sloe Gin Away from it All Chekhov on Sakhalin Sandstone Keepsake Shelf Life A Migration Last Look Remembering Malibu Making Strange The Birthplace Changes An Ulster Twilight A Bat on the Road A Hazel Stick for Catherine Ann A Kite for Michael and Christopher The Railway Children Sweetpea Widgeon Sheelagh na Gig The Loaning The Sandpit The King of the Ditchbacks Part 2: Station Island; Lough Derg; Part Two: Station Island – the Sequence Station Island – […read more….]

Station Island Foreword

Foreword 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, […read more….]

The Underground

The Underground Heaney dramatises an incident from his honeymoon, dissolving a panicky rush into a version of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. Underground and Underworld merge in a fusion of reality and nightmare. A London Underground tunnel is the unifying factor: first a memory played out (then),the intimate recollection of a mad rush to get to a Promenade concert at the Albert Hall; the second and third providing (now) imagined associations: first a character from German folklore lost in a dark forest then the scene of an Underworld trap into which a figure from classical mythology fell and lost his wife as a result. We follow two figures in a vaulted passageway leading to and from the Tube; the ‘she’ figure is a newly-wed in her going-away coat, unmistakeably Marie Heaney, and behind her the poet, her pursuer like a fleet God already in mythology mode, fearfulof the unpleasant […read more….]

La Toilette

La Toilette The early-morning embrace of a loved one recalls unwelcome memories of Heaney’s Catholic training. The die is cast, however: Marie’s is Heaney’s new sacred body. Initial sensual contact focuses on the nightwear and body of a woman engaged at her ‘toilette’. The speaker’s voice reveals the excitement generated by the way she presents herself: bathrobe/ ungirdled, first coldness of the underbreast . At this moment of physical pleasure he cannot prevent the accessories of Catholic worship from interrupting the intimacy he is enjoying, touch is like a ciborium in the palm. He shakes his head at the Catholic message that they no longer believe in (Remember?); it was coldly dismissive of the physical closeness, allure and sexuality he is now enjoying as one half of a loving couple. Their bodies are not God’s, they are their own. They are each other’s. He lends a mockingly seductive if irreverent […read more….]

Away from it All

Away from it All The poem should be read in the context of the ‘Troubles’ in Ulster at a time of internment without trial, of the H-Blocks at Long Kesh and of hunger strikers, summed up in‘it All‘. Heaney, a poet in the public eye, acknowledges that he has often been absent from Ulster as events unfolded; he has sympathy for ’causes’, but is unsure what stance he ought to adopt. The speaker and his anonymous friend are enjoying a convivial session in a seafood restaurant (let us suggest, to coincide with Heaney’s first meeting with Czeslaw Milosz, that the setting is somewhere on the Californian coast); others are almost certainly present. The poem explores the tensions writers share as regards their creativity, their historical moment, their take on political ‘engagement’ and their comments reported in the media. A lobster is prised with cold steel fork from the tank in […read more….]

Chekhov on Sakhalin

Chekhov on Sakhalin These instances from a political pilgrimage are dedicated to fellow Ulster man of Letters Derek Mahon (to whom Heaney’s Seeing Things collection is dedicated); amongst their numerous contacts Heaney and Mahon shared, in 1977, an Arts Council tour entitled In Their Element; The poem should be read in the context of the Troubles in Ulster at a time of internment without trial, of H-Blocks at Long Kesh and hunger strikers. Heaney, a poet in the public eye, deplores repressive policies and has sympathy for causes; here he explores the reactions of the Russian author and physician Anton Chekhov, a fellow author faced with similar political circumstances, one who demonstrated the courage of his convictions but who faltered at the final moment.   So … faced with the challenges he has set himself Chekhov has taken a decision to honour ‘his debt to medicine’.   The respite offered […read more….]

Sandstone Keepsake

Sandstone Keepsake The poem should be read in the context of the Troubles in Ulster at a time of internment without trial, of H-Blocks at Long Kesh and hunger strikers. Heaney is holding a stone that he once picked up on the border separating Ulster from the Irish Republic. It comes to symbolise the speaker’s inner conflict in face of the whole swirl of events, feelings and insecurities to which both he and his native land are subjected, not least his sense of political restrictions imposed upon the north by the Brirish. He has kept the stone for a host of reasons: its reddish colouring (russet);its texture and fruit shape (solidified gourd);its geology of natural, local materials eroded by water: chalky …sedimentary. His ‘frontier’ stone has real substance (so reliably dense),has the quality of basic, hard-wearing building materials: bricky. For all these associations he regularly handles the stone: I often […read more….]

Shelf Life

Shelf Life   Memories are awakened by items that sit on ‘surfaces’ within Heaney’s private space; contrary tothe modern term ‘shelf-life’ that sets out the time it takes for perishables to become unfit for consumption, Heaney’s items remain timeless, have no ‘sell-by-date’. Heaney maps out his private space (in) six terse lyrics (MP p187). 1. Granite Chip The speaker once hammered a piece of Houndstooth stone ( ) off Joyce’s Martello/ Tower (near Dublin) recalling hard, Scottish granite associations (Aberdeen of my mind). He injured himself in the process: his human tissue was more vulnerable than the stone he gripped. Attractive though the surface and colourings of the granite chip were (this flecked insoluble brilliant) the stone has little in common with the sandstone of the previous poem: the granite is hard and sharp despite associations with unpleasant stone-age rituals (circumcision knife) and uncompromising Protestants (a Calvin edge). In direct […read more….]

A Migration

A Migration The title introduces an all-female family group that has moved communities for reasons of necessity. Their new accommodation, close to where the speaker lives, is down-at-heel: leaking roof ../ cracked dormer windows. The identities of those involved are clarified. Standing out in his memory is the adolescent Brigid and the life-style imposed upon her: the sharing of a crowded bed; the scary sounds from outside: branch-whipped slates; the onset of puberty, her starts of womanhood. The move has left traumatic marks: a dream troubled her head. Memories of a sea-crossing are both visual (a lounge/where empty bottles rolled/ at every slow plunge and lift) and emotional: from persistently weeping child to strange/ flowing black taxi and, as if from a wartime scene, a bombed station. Brigid’s experiences might explain her sleep-pattern: roused by the smell/ of baby clothes, feeling the security of numbers (children/ who snuggled tight) she […read more….]

Last Look

Last Look The poet recounts the speaker’s last sighting of an old man taking his last look at the environment in which he has spent his life. Heaney’s in memoriam is addressed to the memory E.G. and though we later learn the man’s family name, no further identity is provided.   A couple out for a spin above the sea-shore come across an old man stilled and oblivious, standing in limbo, mentally distant from the world around him;his gaze is focussed on the blossoming potatoes. This man-of-the-land has been walking the fields as evidenced by his trouser bottoms wet/ and flecked with grass seed.   Roadside sounds that might have awakened him from his reverie (Crowned blunt-headed weeds…/ flailed against our car)spark no reaction in a man lost in his long watchfulness/ by the clifftop fuchsias.   His silent physical presence is a timeless emblem of old Ireland akin to […read more….]

Remembering Malibu

Remembering Malibu Dedicated to Brian Moore, Belfast novelist and friend, remembered by Heaney for his ‘kindness’ and his invitation to the Heaney family to visit him and his wife at their home in Malibu around 1970. New experiences challenge old attachments, transition is in the making.   The first of two ‘American’ poems and first of a series of poems of transit and transitions (MP). A tale of two oceans and two cultures. The speaker recalls his introduction to the Pacific ocean at Brian Moore’s door. It was wilder and colder than he had led himself to believe. Surprised, perhaps, but above all relieved I would have rotted/ beside the luke-warm ocean I imagined.   A cold ocean perhaps but less harsh than the ocean washing the western shore of Ireland: no way … ascetic/ as our monk-fished, snowed-into Atlantic.   In California Moore was not living the beehive hut […read more….]

Making Strange

Making Strange A further symptom of the poet in transition: when the New world meets the Old things collide. When professional development brings change the voice of poetry must move on.   The speaker is at the interface of old and new as if separating irreconcilables: I stood between them.   The living symbol of Heaney’s new world possesses a sophisticated travelled intelligence, combining tawny leather-accessorised prosperity and self-assured containment. He is articulate and precise: his speech like the twang of a bowstring.   The emblem of the old Irish world is not ‘the’ other, but another, one of many, perhaps, self-neglecting and a touch backward: unshorn and bewildered. This one stands in rubber boots that sag with age: the tubs of his wellingtons. The man is friendly but tongue-tied: smiling at me for help/ faced with this stranger I’d brought him.   How then should Heaney reconcile these opposites? […read more….]