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Seamus Heaney: A Farmer’s Boy

Published on January 1st, 2017 at 03:10 am

by Dylan Schonbuch

    Seamus Heaney (1939-2013) was a renowned Northern Irish poet, translator and playwright. He grew up on his family’s farm in rural Bellaghy, Northern Ireland, and was expected to carry on the family tradition of farming and cattle-dealing; however, much to the chagrin of his father, Heaney accepted an academic scholarship to St. Columb’s College and later studied English Language at Queen’s University Belfast. While attending St. Columb’s, Heaney’s younger brother, Christopher, was killed in a car accident. Heaney was devastated by this loss, as he had an extremely close relationship with his brother. Shortly after, Heaney was inspired by Ted Hughes’ Lupercal to write poetry to ease his sadness over his brother’s passing. In 1966, Heaney’s famed collection of poems Death of a Naturalist was published, immediately ushering his work into literary canon. In his poetry, Heaney often expressed feeling caught between two worlds: his father’s obstinate rural idealism from owning his family’s generations-old farm, and his mother’s modern industrial dogma, rooted in her family’s ownership of local linen mills, which helped propel Northern Ireland into the Industrial Revolution. In 1969, British troops were deployed in Northern Ireland, marking the start of “The Troubles”: violent conflicts between Nationalist (Irish and Roman Catholic) and Unionist (British and Protestant) paramilitary groups concerning Northern Ireland’s autonomy. Heaney often used his poetry as an outlet to comment on the destructive events of “The Troubles,” which had detrimental effects on the lives of all his countrymen. Through his poems, “Digging,” “Death of a Naturalist,” and “Mid-Term Break,” Heaney explores pastoral concepts, the loss of innocence, and death, under the overarching framework of his own personal experiences and upbringing.

    In Heaney’s poem “Digging,” part of his Death of a Naturalist Collection, he details his rejection of his father’s agricultural tradition and pursuit of life as a writer and poet. The title of the poem itself, “Digging,” symbolizes Northern Ireland’s transformation from a rural to a modern industrial nation. The poem’s structure mirrors its theme: its eight irregular stanzas and free verse style reflects a conflict between Heaney’s rural past and current education. Heaney opens the poem by stating:

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.
Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. (Heaney 1-5)
Heaney’s young adulthood consisted of resisting his patrilineal farming traditions. He indicates that this is a true personal experience with his repeated use of the first person pronoun “my.” The rhythm of the poem is maintained by Heaney’s use of alliterations: however, he alters the rhythm by using enjambment, which conveys the aura of rugged farm work. Heaney alludes to the violence of the aforementioned “Troubles” with the simile “snug as a gun” (2). When describing his father’s farming motions, Heaney illustrates, “Over his shoulder, going down and down / For Schonbuch 3 the good turf” (Heaney 23-24). Heaney contrasts his father’s repetitive and monotonous farm work with his new profession as a poet, where he is free to express his boundless creativity and experiment with varying writing styles. However, to pay homage to the profession, Heaney concludes the poem by examining the skill and dignity of his family’s farm work:
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it. (Heaney 27-31)
Heaney explores the double-meaning of the word “roots.” It can be interpreted as the physical roots of the plants that his father tends to, as well as familial roots in regards to the connection that Heaney has with his father and grandfather’s work, being that he used to help them out in the fields when he was growing up. In a critical interpretation of Heaney’s works, author Andrew Murphy effectively explains the intricacies of the final stanza:
Heaney asserts that while his father and grandfather before him dug the Irish land as farmers, he will ‘dig’ with intellectual and poetic exploration. A feeling conveyed is that the poetic sensibility has emerged from his rural ancestry and community, and is deeply rooted in it – there is not a conflict, but an allegiance between the two. (Murphy 17)
Lastly, to conclude the poem, Heaney employs an anaphora by using the same words as he began the poem to create an emphasis of closure; he aims to make it clear that despite resistance from his father, he intends to pursue a career in poetry. Although Heaney rejects the notion that he is destined to become a farmer, he compares his pen to a farmer’s spade. Essentially, both Heaney and his father have their “weapon” of choice.

    In Death of a Naturalist’s eponymously titled poem, Heaney explores the loss of one’s innocence as they transition into adulthood, and the change that occurs in a child’s perspective about the world. In fact, the entire Death of a Naturalist collection specifically deals with Heaney’s childhood, especially the tragic death of his younger brother. The title of the poem itself is ironic because it contrasts the word “Death” with the term “Naturalist,” which means the scientific knowledge of living things. Initially, the child in the poem is fascinated by frogs and nature:

There were dragon-flies, spotted butterflies,
But best of all was the warm thick slobber
Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water
In the shade of the banks. (Heaney 7-10)
Heaney depicts an excited, curious, and inquisitive child who open-mindedly embraces frogs, “warts and all.” The child experiences joyfulness over nature and its raw beauty. However, the child’s perspective quickly starts to shift, “I ducked through the hedges / To a coarse croaking that I had not heard before” (Heaney 24-25). As innocence fades, the child casts a more critical eye on his surroundings, finding that his previous pleasures have soured. At first, the child enjoyed the croaking sound of the frogs, but now refers to the sound as a cacophony. As the child grows with each new experience, his innocence begins to pass. In the last stanza, the child becomes disgusted by nature and frogs:
Right down the dam gross-bellied frogs were cocked
On sods; their loose necks pulsed like snails. Some hopped:
The slap and plop were obscene threats. Some sat
Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting.
I sickened, turned, and ran. (Heaney 27-31)
The child is now repulsed at the mere sight of frogs, noticing for the first time their gross bellies, pulsing necks, and blunt heads. He surmises that the feeling is mutual, as the frogs, lined up in a military formation, would exact revenge upon him if he drew near. In a critical appreciation of Heaney’s Death of a Naturalist Collection, author Paul Williams interestingly remarks about the poem:
As the narrative of the maturing of the frogspawn indicates, one of the fears registered in the poem is a fear of maturity itself - especially sexual maturity. A strong thread of sexual imagery runs through the second section of the poem, as the frogs thicken the air with a 'brass chorus', sit 'cocked on sods', making 'obscene threats', 'their blunt heads farting'. The narrative of the poem resists maturity itself, and an emerging sexual sense of self. (Williams 25)
Despite the resisting of maturation, the child does in fact mature and in doing so, rejects his childhood love of frogs. Part of the child’s maturation is reaching sexual maturity, reflected in the poem’s dramatic change in language.

    In Heaney’s poem, “Mid-Term Break,” he recounts the tragic memory of when he found out his younger brother, Christopher, had died. Christopher’s death had a monumental impact on Heaney’s life, and he would write poetry to express his sorrows. Heaney’s mixture of confusion and grief begins with the first stanza, “I sat all morning in the college sick bay / Counting bells knelling classes to a close. / At two o’clock our neighbors drove me home” (Heaney 1-3). Throughout the poem, Heaney is understated and muted with his emotional response. The “knelling” sound is made by a bell rung slowly, which is reminiscent of a death or funeral. This establishes the elegiac tone that is prominent throughout the poem. The last line of the first stanza creates a punctuated pause, which adds emphasis to the tragic event as well as revealing the divide between school and home life. Heaney continues to convey a somber tone as he gazes upon his brother’s lifeless body:

Wearing a poppy bruise on his left temple,
He lay in the four-foot box as in his cot.
No gaudy scars, the bumper knocked him clear.
A four-foot box, a foot for every year. (Heaney 19-22)
The poem consists of equal, three-lined stanzas that embody a sense of order; however, the last line of the poem stands alone, which emphasizes the young age (4) at which Christopher died. The phrase “poppy bruise” could be an allusion to the poem “In Flanders Fields,” written during World War 1 by John McCrae. McCrae wrote about losing his best friend in the war and as a tribute to him, wrote this poem to be presented at his funeral, in which poppy flowers covered his body and grave. Heaney uses a simile to depict his brother’s body as if he is merely sleeping in a cot, rather than lying dead in a casket; this mirrors Heaney’s restrained emotions throughout the poem. The last line of the poem displays Heaney’s family’s shock at the loss of his brother, and reminds the reader of the fragility and preciousness of life.

    Hailed as one of the greatest poets of all time, Seamus Heaney champions a raw, unique voice that relates his life stories in a naturalistic perspective based on three main influences: growing up on his family’s farm, the loss of childhood innocence, and the death of his younger brother Christopher. Heaney was immensely proud of his Northern Irish heritage, and he often wrote poems commemorating historical events and political victories, which paved the way for the United Kingdom to grant parliamentary rights to Northern Ireland in 1998 as part of the Good Friday Agreement that ended “The Troubles.” He received the 1995 Nobel Prize in Literature, which was seen as the culmination of his great successes. Heaney passed away on August 30, 2013, at the age of 74. While he may be gone, his impact on poetry and on his home country of Northern Ireland will be everlasting.

Works Cited

"Death of a Naturalist by Seamus Heaney - Poetry Foundation." Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation, 1999. Web. 02 Dec. 2016.
. Frängsmyr, Tore. - Biographical. “Seamus Heaney - Biographical.” Ed. The Nobel Foundation, 1995. Web. 03 Dec. 2016.
. Kirsch, Adam. "Seamus Heaney, Digging with the Pen." Harvard Magazine. N.p., 11 Oct. 2013. Web. 02 Dec. 2016.
. Murphy, Andrew. "Seamus Heaney." British Council Literature. British Council Global, 01 Mar. 2010. Web. 03 Dec. 2016.
. Williams, Paul. "Critical Appreciation of the Works of Seamus Heaney." AuthorsDen. AuthorsDen, 1997. Web. 03 Dec. 2016.
. Woods, Michael. "Mid-term Break." Mid-term Break | Sheer Poetry. N.p., 2011. Web. 03 Dec. 2016.