Violence is never far from the surface. Discuss with reference to three of Heaney’s poems

Last Updated: 20 Jun 2022
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To discuss the topic of violence in Heaney's poems, it is easiest to look at three of his poems that have an aggressive nature. Therefore, I am going to look at the poems: Punishment, A Constable Calls and Act of Union, all of which incorporate the theme of violence. It is useful to understand the underlying themes of the poems mentioned to understand them as violence is not always explicitly mentioned. A Constable Calls is about a police officer visiting a Northern Irish farm, checking up on the farms produce. A rather innocent task, however, in the mind of the young boy, this visit appears threatening and intruding.

Punishment is about the remains of a body (a young female in her day) found in a bog. She appears to be the victim of a ritual killing, punished for the fact that she was an adulteress. Act of Union, on the alternative hand, is a complex metaphor distinguishing England as a man, Ireland as woman and Northern Ireland as the offspring. England has effectively raped Ireland in the way it treats it creating the multi-cultured society that we call Northern Ireland.

All three poems have very dissimilar themes, portraying and exploring violence in very different ways. The poems look at mental and physical violence such as in A Constable Calls where the child is very fearful of the intimidating police officer - mental violence:

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"Arithmetic and fear"

The child does not show his fear of the police officer but constantly looks at the way the constable acts and perceives these actions to be menacing and intruding:

"On the floor, next his chair"

Here, noting how the constable acts as if the chair is his, although it is not, looking at him as if being very possessive.

Punishment, in contrast, explores the visual images and after effects of violence - the physical side. Violence in this case being the punishment of an adulteress:

"I can see her drowned

body in the bog"

Here we get a very visual image of the body retrieved from the bog explaining that she was sunk into the bog in a cage and, therefore, drowned.

Act of Union also looks at violence in a similar way to both A Constable Calls and Punishment. It looks at the physical and mental side to violence:

"And I am still imperially

Male, leaving you with the pain"

Discussing how England has effectively raped Ireland in the way it treats it, not having enough knowledge of Ireland to treat it with respect, hence only creating destruction.

Both A Constable Calls and Act of Union probe the idea of the threat of violence. For example, in Act of Union, England is:

"The tall kingdom over your shoulder"

"Your" referring to Ireland, the idea suggests how, England being larger and subsequently more powerful, has a large influence over Ireland's actions and will resort to violence if it strays off line in political and social aspects.

Similarly, in A Constable Calls, the constable represents the domineering force in Northern Ireland:

"The boot of the law"

Here, a common phrase, "The long arm of the law" has been changed to suit the actions of English authorities in Ireland, once again displaying how England is not apprehensive about using force against Ireland.

In conflict with the threat of violence, Punishment actually demonstrates violence as well as investigating why it was used:

"Her noose a ring

to store

the memories of love"

Here explaining that the young woman had taken her marriage for granted and betrayed it, hence being punished.

It is in the language of the poems that the theme of violence is cleverly demonstrated. In A Constable Calls many of the words have underlying connotations which contribute to the theme of violence in the poem:

"Its fat, black handle grips"

This quote, being very oppressive in nature, relates to the English administration in Northern Ireland and the force it uses to keep events in order.

"The domesday book"

Refers to the way in which England has invaded Northern Ireland as William the Conqueror invaded England back in 1066. The most important use of language in A Constable Calls, however, is the last line:

"And the bicycle ticked, ticked, ticked"

Implying that the constable's bike sounds similar to a bomb, and the child, with his vivid imagination, picks up on this immediately.

In the language of Punishment we can detect how Heaney describes the scene after an act of violence, or in this case a punishment, has taken place:

"I can feel the tug

of the halter at the nape

of her neck"

Here, describing the visible ring on her neck left from some form of rope in which the young women was possibly hung from before her execution in the bog. This portrays to us a very violent image in which the young woman was possibly tortured in several different ways before her eventual release into death. Heaney, in Punishment, also proceeds to inform us that, despite how civilised we may think we are in the modern age, the actions of England towards Ireland show how little we have developed throughout the centuries:

"Who would connive

in civilised outrage"

Act of Union clearly demonstrates this point:

"Mustering Force"

Suggesting how Ireland is putting together a force, possibly drawing parallels to the IRA (violent terrorist organisation fighting for the freedom of Northern Ireland), looking to oust the English from Northern Ireland. However, this force is partially looking to avenge Ireland after its supposed "rape", much like the community in Punishment looking to find revenge for what the young woman may have brought to various families.

Similarly to A Constable Calls;

"The polished holster ...

... The revolver butt"

Where the young boy is stupefied by the gun in the police officers possession with the control he has over other people with it, Act of Union has references to violent weapons, in this case, again, guns and other firearms:

"His heart beneath your heart is a wardrum"

The wardrum beating a rhythm calling the Irish and (anti-British) Northern Irish up to bare arms.

The poems of Seamus Heaney reflect a lot about the subject of violence between Ireland and England, resulting in the problems of Northern Ireland, depicted as the baby of the conflict in Act of Union. Heaney, having lived in Northern Ireland during his childhood, came to many of the conclusions on the matter in his poems during this time. His poems bitterly reflect on the conflict and seem to incriminate England widely for the current problem. Violence plays such a large role in these poems because all that the occupation of Northern Ireland by England has caused is aggression from both separate parties.

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Violence is never far from the surface. Discuss with reference to three of Heaney’s poems. (2017, Aug 09). Retrieved from

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