It is clear that Ireland possess' a violent and strained political/cultural history. I believe Seamus Heaney's collection North (1975) can be seen as a reflective account, of the acts of violence committed at the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. This introspective analysis of the bog bodies by Heaney is a specific attempt, to come to terms with the social divisions inherent in the cultural landscape of Ireland. It is important to view this as not only an attempt to highlight these concerns, but more specifically, Heaney seeks to rise above these social divisions. The primary method used by Heaney in this effort is seen in his use of myth. This (for Heaney) allows for a better understanding of the archetypal forces of violence that shape the cultural landscape of Ireland. He mediates his way through a religious identity which has fractured and divided a society. The premise of this essay is to discuss the extent to which the creation of myth within this collection, is seen as a positive force, which has the potential to regenerate ones society.
In the poem 'Kinship' we discover Heaney taking a, 'step through origins/ like a dog turning/ its memories of wilderness/ on the kitchen mat' (Heaney, 1996, l. 5-8). The symbolic use of a domesticated 'dog...on the kitchen mat' in my opinion alludes to its recollection of memories, specifically memories of the hunting instincts of its ancestor. Heaney himself follows along a similar path, meandering across the 'memories of the wilderness.' This mythological wilderness serves as a context for understanding contemporary political and social realities. I think it pertinent to understand that Heaney is, 'recognising his separation from origins' here whilst attempting to step through them. Heaney separates his experience, 'as purposeful and rationally pursued' down to a more fundamental, 'instinctual, pre-conscious level' (Andrews, 1988, p. 93). I believe it is evident that Heaney is aware that there is no rational or simple logic in trying to solve the problems of the Northern Irish 'Troubles'. However his attempts to tap into the, 'instinctual, pre-conscious' undercurrent of the Irish condition, allows for the much deeper issues to be framed and contextualised.
Heaney negotiates his intentions by employing a, 'symbolic mode which laid bare not only the savage tribal instincts of the perpetrators of the violence, but also the archetypal barbarity of the conflict itself' (Foley, 1998, p 74). Not only is there an attempt to delve deeper into the cultural ideologies of Northern Ireland here, but more specific attention is made towards the, 'centre that house the hieroglyphs of culture' (Tobin, 1999, p.127). These 'hieroglyphs' centre upon archetypal images, that are universal in the mythological landscape. Heaney not only explores these images but purposely studies the non-rational, animalistic instincts at a fundamental level. When we view this through a Jungian perspective on psychological thought, we can see some similarities between 'pre-conscious' animalistic behaviour and human behaviour. Jung categorises this part of the human psyche as a situation when, 'you are seized by an emotion or a spell, and you behave in a certain way you have not foreseen at all' (Walker, 1995, p.7). Heaney taps into the unpremeditated acts of violence perpetrated by humans and categorises these as being the suggestive effect, of archetypal images. If we take the 'kitchen' as an archetypal image of the homestead, it is representative of a primordial/primitive notion to consume food. Yet this is the point, the notion of the primitive implied here (categorised by the kitchen) in 'Kinship' is that these instincts, like those of the dog on the hearth, are not easily tamed. Yet they are fostered by a pre-conscious instinctual nature, Heaney aligns the pre-conscious instinctual acts with the unpremeditated acts of violence in the contemporary landscape of Northern Ireland.
We can see in, 'Viking Dublin: Trial Pieces' that Heaney as a poet archaeologist is the 'smeller of rot' (Heaney, 1996, l.64), as a result of Heaney's endeavours he uncovers the rotten aspects of his cultures inherited ideologies. The connotations of the word 'rot', those of decay and rottenness infer a meaning for the potential regenerative effect to take place, purposely socially but also poetically. We see here a literal decomposing, a transmutation into the peat bog of inherited cultural ideologies. This is also seen in the poem 'Kinship' specifically with the, "Mutation of weathers/ and seasons/ a windfall composing/the floor it rots into". The 'Windfall' represents a stripping down in the physical sense, this act of decomposition is juxtaposed with the act of 'composing'. I believe Heaney is alluding to the richness with which the landscape i.e. peat bogs offer him poetically. However there is also inferred meaning in that 'composing' could point more towards a reconstruction of cultural values, this in turn points towards a social regeneration on the Northern Irish landscape. This transformation can also be seen in 'The Tollund Man', where the 'dark juices' of the goddess' fen work on and transform her sacrificial victim into 'a saint's kept body' (Heaney, 1972, l. 15-16). The interesting thing to point out here is the symbolic representation of the Goddess, specifically the way she transmutes 'The Tollund Man' into a holy sacrificial body. Heaney contemplates praying to him but he 'could risk blasphemy', he could also risk blasphemy for speaking in direct terms about the conflict in Northern Ireland, this is one of the primary reasons for blanketing this collection in the realm of myth.
I believe myth to be a positive force in pushing for social renewal, Foley proposes that through 'The Tollund Man' Heaney, 'seeks to consecrate the land, transforming the cauldron bog of hatred and violence into our holy ground, and praying to him... to make the victims of the ongoing conflict germinate into something new and positive' (Foley, 1998, p.65). Heaney by intentionally framing 'The Tollund Man' in a mythical context of the troubles, is drawing out themes of reconciliation and social transformation, thus allowing it to 'germinate into something new and positive'. In the 'Bog Queen' Heaney alludes to darkened thoughts that are like 'a jar of spawn/ fermenting underground' (Heaney, 1996, l.19-20). Tobin accounts for the darkened thoughts of the 'Bog Queen' as the, 'archetypal pattern that spawns the atrocities of Northern Ireland' (Tobin, 1999, p.126). It is Heaney's thoughts that are perceptive to the things that ferment underground, he is consciously focusing upon the psychical act of contemplation on the, 'ruminant ground' (Heaney, Kinship, l.29). Heaney takes a meditative approach towards, 'the cooped secrets...[poetry was] process and ritual' (Heaney, Kinship, l.15-16). The process and ritual he attaches to poetic thought here is important, contemplation through artistic means offers a path in which social divisions can be bridged. What I am suggesting is that language, specifically poetical language from this collection North is connected in some way to the landscape. The 'living roots' (Heaney, Digging, l.27) of the landscape awaken in the mind of the poet, the violent acts committed in the past and present, perhaps it could be said that these are the first steps in reconciling a divided society.
We can see how Heaney in the creation of these myth's shows that, 'primitive man is not much interested in objective explanations of the obvious' for I believe his, 'unconscious psyche has an irresistible urge to assimilate all outer sense experiences to inner, psychic events' (Jung, 1959, p.6). Essentially Heaney in constructing a mythic reality for the 'Troubles', that 'embraces both outer and inner worlds in a creative spirit' (Hughes, 1980, p.192). This is echoed in the acceptance speech given in receipt of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995, for him poetry should be, 'true to the impact of external reality...[whilst] sensitive to the inner laws of the poets being' (Heaney, 1995, Internet source). The main premise of Heaney's argument is that he views poetry as a restoration of the culture to itself, this coupled with Hughes ideas of myth's being, 'the highest order of inspiration and truth' (Hughes, 1980, p.192) suggests that the use of myth as a creative art form has the capability to regenerate ones society.
Claude Levi-Strauss in his study into the 'Structural Study of Myth' argues that myth has the possibility to articulate and link events (in our context violent atrocities) across time and space. We see clearly that, 'what gives the myth an operative value is that the specific pattern described is everlasting; it explains the present and the past as well as the future' (Levi-Strauss, 1955, p.430). I believe Heaney eloquently achieves this purpose, a good example can be found in 'Kinship' towards the end of the poem, both past and present societies, 'slaughter for/ the common good' (Heaney, 1996, l.139-140). Heaney's oxymoronic undertone here is key, he draws upon symbols of death and sacrifice in the name of 'good'. Heaney articulates and links contemporary atrocities by focusing upon the archetypal images of death and sacrifice. He draws upon these within a mythical framework to allow past and present to be linked for the benefit of social regeneration. Heaney views myth in a cyclical form, this allows him an objective space in which to explore conscious and pre-conscious tensions throughout time and space. It is crucial for Heaney to draw the link between what happened then and compare this to the contemporary atrocities of Northern Ireland, the mythical framework for his poetry best suits this attempt. The Iron-age atrocities could be viewed as the 'inner' symbols that reconcile with the 'outer' objective reality in the contemporary Irish landscape (Hughes, 1980, p.193). The importance of myth according to Foley is for, 'a deeper understanding of our situation and ourselves as individual human beings' (Foley, 1998, p.72), this I believe to be true, deep understanding is needed in order for society to be progressive and a force for positive change.
Specifically how does this mythical framework and the poet's voice operate as a progressive force for change? Heaney's poem 'Punishment' has been criticised for the, 'mythologizing mystification of historical realities' (Purdy, 2002, p98), Purdy here is arguing that Heaney fails to condemn violence outright. It is viewed that the speakers voice is immobilised within this poem, to speak out he may risk a similar fate, he can only offer her, 'the stones of silence' (Heaney, 1996, l.31). The sympathy for Heaney's victim appears to dissolve in an almost explicit affirmation of the practice known as tarring and feathering. This I believe to be an oversimplification of the poem, for essentially Heaney, 'understand[s] the exact/ and tribal, intimate revenge' (Heaney, 1996, l.41-42). Heaney empathises here with both the perpetrators and the victims of this 'Punishment', he both sees and understands. Corcoran argues that the very act of, 'understanding is also a condoning' (Corcoran, 1986, p.116), however I find this argument redundant, for the speaker 'connive[s] in civilised outrage' (Heaney, 1996, l.39-40). I believe there is only partial condoning of the acts of violence here, more importantly Heaney is suggestively implicating not only the victim and the victimisers but also himself. The multiple liabilities laid out here is crucial to the idea of progression in societal terms. The poet's role, 'is to stand on all sides and to accept the mire and complexities of the blood of the whole people' (King, 1986, p.94). The important thing to recognise is that by Heaney standing on all sides, he is giving a clear example that deep understanding is critical to overcoming 'Troubles' in the face of violent acts of atrocity, reconciliation can only be made if everyone is held accountable. Operating in the realm of myth allows Heaney to identify the archetypal images, those that speak to us universally and allow the strain of social conflict to be eased to a certain degree. I believe that poetry as an art form operates in its own realm of existence, one that is separate from politics, this being more concerned with practical solutions. In essence poetry points towards a positive force within the cultural landscape of Northern Ireland.
Heaney approach's the complexities of his social environment by being inside and yet outside, attached yet detached from the concerns that he is discussing. In the poem 'Exposure' Heaney accepts guilt and dignity by stating, 'I am neither internee nor informer' (Heaney, 1996, l.28) this line coupled with the ending of 'The Tollund Man' where the speaker is, 'lost,/ unhappy and at home' (Heaney, 1972, l.43-44), being faced with such a moral complexity is both uncomfortable and harrowing. It is questionable to think what the reader may take from these harrowing depictions of 'internee's', betrayal and exploitation are initial assertions when thinking about this discussion. I deny both these inferred responses, the depiction is neither, further I believe it facilitates greater understanding and empathy within society. It is important that Heaney sees things from multiple angles and doesn't settle on simple assertions; the same can also be said for the reader.
Through his poetry Heaney writes not only within the very centre of his culture, yet at the same time from outside of that very culture as well. The specific intent on Heaney's part is an act of trying to destabilise the centre and subsequently disrupt the cultures cemented beliefs and predominant views. The specific effect this has is crucial, Heaney decentralises the marginalised 'North' from dominant other groups e.g. English, Celtic. Heaney is successful in his attempts, he develops myth in order to decentralise his marginalised cultural tradition, he draws upon Greek and Norse mythology to do it this. These represent a diverse set of cultural traditions, by tapping into other cultural traditions it undermines the idea of Heaney writing within and for his own cultural tradition.
In drawing on a complicated mix of languages and traditions within his poetry allows Heaney a wider frame of reference, it specifically allows him to connect the different cultures of Northern Europe together. By opening up to mythological traditions and cultures, Heaney is able to generate more inclusivity/diversity within Irish writing and this is seen as a positive force for the social regeneration of the cultural landscape. The idea of myths being universal in nature is seen with shared ancestral beliefs, namely the archetypal images of a Goddess being worshipped by Norse and Celtic communities. There is a common link here within the different cultural traditions of Northern Europe, Heaney uses his Celtic ancestral mythology to tap into a 'collective unconscious' (Jung, 1959. P7). This is important as this allows Heaney freedom in creating a mythology that is not confined by a strict centralised set of beliefs and traditions. He works on the fringes of violence in Northern Ireland, in order to work through them. We can see how Heaney occupies an in-between position as speaker, this is shown in 'Punishment' as I have highlighted previously. What is noticeable is Heaney's attempts to graft local dialects into poetry primarily presented in English, we see this with the, 'inner emigre' and 'wood-kerne' of 'Exposure' (Heaney, 1996, l.31-32). Heaney also address' the negative aspects of his Celtic past, this is seen in, 'the old man-killing parishes' of The Tollund Man (Heaney, 1972, l.42) and in 'Kinship' also where, 'we slaughter/ for the common good' (Heaney, 1996, l. 139-140). In drawing on these negative aspects of Northern Ireland's culture, Heaney is inferring that poetry should be there to generate a sense of multiplied culpability, where no-one is innocent and where everyone should, 'feel each wind that blows' (Heaney, 1996, l.36).
Throughout this essay I have discussed the varying uses of myth within Seamus Heaney's collection North. Working within and through the realm of myth, allowed Heaney the opportunity re-dream the fractured worlds and communities of the Irish landscape. Occupying this in-between space allows Heaney a chance to reconcile differences and by suggesting multiple culpability for the acts of violence committed, goes a long way in healing a divided society. Poetry in this context enables reconciliation to occur by challenging essentialist truths. Poetry and myth together can potentially change the perspectives of society as a whole by promoting multiple viewpoints of the effects that the 'Troubles' had on the landscape. One must however see the limitations of poetry and myth. They are not practical solutions to political differences and cannot physically act in order to produce change, but poetry blended with myth does have the capability to be 'the highest order of inspiration and truth' (Hughes, 1980, p.192). It is the inspiration that it suggests that is the endearing quality, it offers an avenue which allows the individual to be inspired to make real practical change on a 'conscious' and 'preconscious' level. I believe that coupled together it has the potential to be of a higher art form, as it occupies the realm of the imagination.
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