Heaney’s poems explore by varied poetic means the enduring significance of family and childhood in human life
Much of Heaney’s poetry, particularly from his early selections, explores childhood and family. Heaney perhaps uses these themes as a means of discovering his true self by travelling back to his roots. His childhood experiences have certainly had a deep impact and acted as inspiration for many of the poems from his first book, ‘Death of a Naturalist’, but there are also poems in later books that explore this theme.
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Aside from giving us an insight into Heaney’s early life, his exploration of childhood and family also reflects the rural Irish culture at the time and the political situation in Ireland.
The poet also explores the themes of childhood and family through the use of various poetic devices, including vivid imagery and structure. The first poem that I have decided to examine is ‘Digging’ from Heaney’s first collection, ‘Death of a Naturalist’. This poem focuses on the poet’s father and grandfather, and his admiration for their digging skills. It also shows the great contrast between father and son, in that Heaney has “no spade to follow men like them”; his talents lie in writing. Digging’ is the first poem in the selection, and certainly depicts Heaney’s insecurities about his writing career and his early struggle to define himself as a poet, and break the family tradition of rural labour. The poem is littered with various poetic devices, which help to bring the poem and the poet’s feelings alive to the reader. Firstly, Heaney uses the simile, “snug as a gun” to describe the way the pen feels when he holds it. This suggests that it fits his hand well and is very powerful.
It could also mean that, whereas his father and grandfather use the spade as their weapon, Heaney uses the pen. Some have also proposed that the image of the “gun” is a reflection of the violence in Northern Ireland. However, this cannot be so, because this poem was published in 1966, before the troubles started. He also chooses to use rather vivid language to describe his father’s actions while digging in the garden. For example, “a clean rasping sound” is almost onomatopoeia, as the word really sounds like the noise a spade makes when it sinks into hard ground.
Further examples of onomatopoeia are, “squelch”, “slap”, “sloppily” and “gravelly”. “Straining rump” is also a good choice of language, as the reader can instantly visualise how hard the man is working and feel his pain. A further poetic tool is the use of technical language, such as “lug” and “shaft”, which show their technique and skill in their trade, as they know exactly what they are doing and thoroughly understand every part of their tool.
Colloquial language is also used, such as “By God, the old man could handle a spade”. This is perhaps used as a way for Heaney to connect with the rural population of Ireland and associate himself with his roots. The structure of the poem is also a very important feature, as it helps to illustrate Heaney’s insecurities with his writing career. The stanzas are very irregular, suggesting that the poet’s thoughts are wandering aimlessly as he is trying to discover his true identity and accept his trade.
However, the structure could also be said to portray the idea of digging, in that the first four stanzas grow in length, almost like a spade travelling deeper into the ground. Heaney uses the theme of ‘Digging’ and roots as an extended metaphor, as through writing this poem, he is attempting to get back and identify with his own roots and dig into the past and his childhood, in order to discover his true self. He demonstrates the significance of family and childhood experiences and the impact they have on your actions in later life.
Heaney was clearly worried that he was disappointing his father by not continuing the family trade, and this poem seems to act as an apology for this. The last stanza of ‘Digging’ is very similar to the first stanza, but instead of the pen being “as snug as a gun”, Heaney resolves that he will “dig with it”. This implies that the pen is Heaney’s tool, just like the spade was his predecessors’ tool. The occupations may be vastly different, but they still require a great deal of expertise.
The second poem that I have chosen to explore is ‘Personal Helicon’, which is also from Heaney’s first collection, ‘Death of Naturalist’. This poem contains many double meanings. On the surface, it would appear as if Heaney is reflecting on his favourite pastime as a child, which was playing with water and wells. This, indeed, is true, but he is also using the theme to talk about writing poetry. The word “Helicon” in the title refers to a place in ancient Greece where there are springs that supposedly give inspiration to anyone that drinks there.
This suggests that, for Seamus Heaney, the memories of his childhood and his love for water and wells are his personal inspiration for his poetry. It is also an interesting choice of word because both sources of inspiration are associated with water. “So deep you saw no reflection in it” describes one particular well that Heaney encountered as a child. However, the image of the bottomless well also portrays what a poem is like, filled with different meanings. A further example of a double meaning can be found in the line, “A white face hovered over the bottom”.
This refers to the literal reflection of Heaney that could be seen in the water, but could also mean that he is always evident in his poems; each poem connects in some way with the poet, no matter what the theme is. An important poetic device that the poet uses in ‘Personal Helicon’ is highly expressive and vivid language, which helps the reader to envision exactly what the wells were like. Good examples of this are “fungus”, “dank moss” and “finger slime”, which all conjure up wonderful, yet repulsive images of exactly what wells are like and the enjoyment that children find in wet, dirty places.
Heaney has also incorporated a clever metaphor into the poem, which is “the trapped sky”. The sky is obviously not trapped within the well in a physical sense, but it appears to be due to its reflection in the water at the bottom of the well. The last two lines of ‘Personal Helicon’ are extremely significant, as they represent the motivation behind Heaney’s poetry and illustrate exactly what he is like. “I rhyme to see myself, to set the darkness echoing. ”
This would imply that Seamus Heaney writes poetry in order to discover himself and approach subjects that cannot be approached in any other way. A critic once proposed that the “darkness” refers to the unknown, the things that remain hidden, concepts that have not been brought into the light and expressed in words. Whether it is personal fears or social and political injustices, poetry is a medium to bring these unspoken attitudes and opinions to the world, and to make them “echo” and resound with force.
The mention of the word, “darkness” also links in with Heaney’s next book, entitled “Door into the Dark”, suggesting that he was very insecure and apprehensive about his ‘debut’ collection of poems and how successful it would be. Overall, ‘Personal Helicon’ gives the reader an insight into Seamus Heaney’s childhood and the features of rural Ireland, and shows, similarly to the previous poem, what effects childhood experiences can have on a person’s later life.
The final poem that I have chosen to study is ‘The Other Side’ from Heaney’s third poetry collection, ‘Wintering Out’. This poem chronicles the poet’s childhood experiences of the vast divide between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, and tells the story of a Catholic family (Heaney’s family) and a Protestant neighbour living on the other side of the stream. Heaney uses a great deal of religious imagery within this poem, perhaps in order to reinforce the theme of religious divide. A good example of this is, “‘It’s poor as Lazarus, that ground'”.
Lazarus is the name of a poor man in the bible, so this is a clever simile that not only depicts the poor quality of Heaney’s farmland, but also underpins the overall theme of the poem. There are a number of other religious images within the poem also. “That tongue of chosen people” is a reference to Protestants and the fact that they are supposed to speak “properly” and in a superior manner to Catholics. “Chosen people” is a biblical image and “promised furrows” links in with the bible and the idea of the “promised land”. Tares” is another word used in the poem that suggests religious significance, as in the bible, these were weeds that the enemy deliberately planted to ruin others’ crops. Another interesting simile within this poem is, “as if party to lovemaking or a stranger’s weeping”. This is an excellent use of imagery, as it really portrays to the reader the extent of the neighbour’s embarrassment at having interrupted Heaney’s family’s prayers. Another poetic device used in the poem is onomatopoeia, shown through the expression “moan of prayers”.
The word “moan” really does sound like the chanting of prayers often heard in churches, as it is a rather extended, droning word, reflecting what the prayers were like. To conclude, ‘The Other Side’ depicts the significance of family and childhood experiences, as Heaney has undoubtedly gained much inspiration from his memories of the division between religions in Ireland when he was a child. Overall, it is evident that a number of Heaney’s poems explore the enduring significance of family and childhood in human life, as he openly acquires a good deal of inspiration from his early years.
Within these poems, he uses various poetic devices as a means of expressing memories, feelings and objects in a highly vivid and engaging way. His fascinating and intelligent use of language is certainly at the forefront of all of his poems, whether it is shown through imagery, onomatopoeia or realistic descriptions. Heaney once said that, ‘Words themselves are doors’, suggesting that they can open up new ways of understanding, expressing and interpreting situations and feelings.