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The field of postcolonial theory is of increasing primacy within critical theory and literary theory. Postcolonial studies emphasise the re-emergence of cultural strengths and identities, personal, racial, national and the like. However, the term itself, and the existence of a field of critical theory and studies related to it, is still contested and debated. Situating a discussion or literary analysis within such a field could, therefore, be inherently problematic, although this author will attempt to justify why Heaney can be viewed as a post-colonial poet by dint of his work, not just the happenstance of his temporal and national placement.
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This essay will attempt to discuss and analyse the thematic and stylistic characteristics of Seamus Heaney’s work, focusing on his North collection. The particular themes and dimensions of these poems are significant in relation to postcolonial theory because they so strongly related to aspects of his cultural and racial identity and heritage, as well as to his personal history and experience. Reference will be made within the essay to different critical views upon his work, and to the underlying and associated political dimensions of the context within which the works were produced.
Ashcroft et al (1989: 2) state that the term post-colonial can be used “to cover all the culture affected by the imperial process from the moment of colonization to the present day.” It is a literature which emerges following the decline of the Empire (Cudden, 145).
“What each of these literatures have in common beyond their special and distinctive regional characteristics is that they emerged in their present form out of the experience of colonization and asserted themselves by foregrounding the tension with the imperial power, and by emphasizing their differences from the assumptions of the imperial centre.” (Ashcroft et al, 2).
Green and Lebihan (37) suggest that post colonial writing may be engaged in rewriting a particular version of history, or in challenging a forceful commonplace view of politics. Loomba (103) however, suggests that the issue is complicated because the use of the prefix ‘post’ leads to the implication of a discrete era or discipline which is associated with an aftermath, one that is “temporal, as in coming after, an ideological, as in supplanting.” In the case of Heaney, one could view his writing as being a product of colonial heritage, because his style is so strongly related to traditional poetic forms, particularly lyric poetry, and because the evidence of that colonial heritage, in a post-colonial backlash, is all around him.
The ‘North’ collection was first published 1975, almost a year after the break down of the Sunningdale Agreement, which was followed by an IRA backlash? and a 15 day strike by loyalist workers which ended up in the disbanding of the Faulkner-led government. The years 1974 and 1975 have been described as some of the worst moments of the “troubles”, and it is no surprise, therefore, that Heaney’s work should refer not only these occurrences, but to his ambiguous position in relation to them.
The theme of violence is evident in the North poems in a variety of guises.
“those hacked and glinting/in the gravel of thawed streams /were ocean-deafened voices
warning me, lifted again/in violence and epiphany.” (from ‘North’ in North, 1975)
The consequences of violence – death, decay and associated conditions, are also prevalent within these works.
I can see her drowned
body in the bog,
the weighting stone,
the floating rods and boughs.
(from ‘Punishment’ in North, 1975)
This corpse is viewed by Heaney as a reflection of the Catholic women who, during the troubles in Northern Ireland, were publicly punished (tarred and chained to their houses) for dating and associating with British soliders. Violence as a cultural representation, violence as a theme, and the products and representations of violence, seem to dominate many of Heaney’s works (Lunday, 111). The land and the violence associated with the people of the land seem to be inextricably linked. In terms of style, this extract shows while Heaney embraces simple, poetic beauty of language, it is this very beauty which starkly contrasts with his subject. The way in which Heany sets out to depict adultery and the tribal consequences of this shows a connection to both present and past. Yet this is no romanticised past, no idealised heritage to generate a strong sense of nationalism.
“I almost love you / but would have cast, I know, / the stones of silence. I am the artful voyeur / your brain’s exposed and darkened combs…” (from ‘Punishment’ in North, 1975)
Johnson (2005) suggests that this poem serves to articulate and present the tragedy of a people in a place, the Catholics of Northern Ireland. The responses of the speaker to the adultery are very much linked with the context, and with an awareness that, within this context, no act that could be construed as impacting upon or connecting with the politics of the time is without consequences. Therefore, Heaney’s postcolonial nature is traversing his roots in Northern Irish rural life, which allow him to make use of myth and certain unique aspects of the Irish experience, whilst also commenting on the contemporary context and the political conflict that forms the backdrop to the publication of these works. .
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The theme of death and bodies relates to his heritage and history in real ways. It could be argued that one of the central motifs in this collection is the bog, wild lands which carry the history of millions of years. This setting allows for the exploration of the past, and is how Heaney connects his political and ideological present with his past. Thus it is important linguistically and emblematically. .
The themes of Heaney’s North collection of poems can be viewed in relation to his heritage as an Irishman, and as the son of a farming family, and as someone who has a strongly emotive connection with the land of his birth (Johnson, 2005). These poems are specifically connected to the landscapes and the history of his life and heritage.
Spirituality and religion is smaller, less obvious theme of these poems, and there are significant connections between the religious conflicts with which he has been surrounded, and the language of the poems, particularly in the choice to differentiate between the sacred and the secular. “and found only the secular/powers of the Atlantic thundering” (from ‘North’ in North, 1975). Heaney also associates religion with violence (see earlier theme) “in violence and epiphany” (from ‘North’ in North, 1975). This is unsurprising, given the issue of the ‘troubles’ and the context within which this writing has emerged. However, this is not a comfortable or easy asociation, for the reader in particular, because the connection between the images of violence used and what the writer (and reader) must know and understand about Ireland’s history (such as the civil war) and its contemporary political stuggles, can perhaps be said to manifest within this writing in Heaney’s trademark lyrical yet uncompromising style. Historical violence may be a mirror for current violence, as in, for example “The Tollund Man”, where the man is not more than the obvious, a sacrifical offering to this rapacious earth mother (Johnson, 25): “She tighened her torc on him/And opened her fen”. He is also, as with ‘Punishment’, a symbol of more recent victims of violence, which surround him as concepts, and as images, perhaps images too disturbing for poetic expression. While “The stockinged corpses/laid out in the farmyards” are a reference to Catholics murdered by protestants during the civil war (Johnson, 2005), Heany used the “Tollund Man” as a symbol and representation of the history of these bodies. He is all of those, from past to present, murdered for an ideology, as are the other bog bodies Heaney addresses, in a number of his collections. Parker describes this mythologising of the present through the past as Heaney “casting around, like his fellow Northern Irish poets, in searh of appropriate strategies for addressing the political crisis.” (131).
“I first saw his twisted face
In a photograph,
A head and shoulder
Out of the peat
Bruised like a forceps babe
But now he lies
Perfected in my memory.” (Heaney 1969 ‘The Graubelle Man’).
Here, we see the stylistic nature of the work as beig paramount. The poet’s love of, or reverence for, language, is evident here, as he pursues what Johnson (27) describes as ‘evocative similes’, which serve a number of purposes. The past perfection alluded to here is poignant because of the imperfections of the present, as if past violence becomes less appalling and more symbolic than present violence. He is using language of the present to capture and describe something that is past and ancient, much as he does in his translation of Beowulf (McGuire, 80). This very much makes Heaney’s work a product of his physical heritage (Parker, 19; Tuan 684), and he connects his feelings, history and the history of the politics and wars of past and present with the land upon which they have taken place (Evans, 54; Mitchell and Ryan, 8).
The works of Seamus Heaney can be strongly argued to be post-colonial, because they are a clear product of a heritage which is profoundly marked and shaped by imperialism and colonialism. The history of his nation, and of his work, is to be found within the land, and within the words that he uses to evoke both. The stylistic features of Heaney’s poems, especially the North collection, adhere to conventions of lyric poetrym and is ‘amenable to traditional expectations about poetic form and launguage (Johnson 28). It is not surprising that thematically, and emblematically, violence, retribution, and religiosity, all find their way into these works.
However, this author would also argue that these themes may be as much a product of the reader’s interpretation, based on a knowledge of the poet and his context and history, and this raises the question of whether the work of a poet can ever be divorced from what the reader knows about how and where the poetry is produced. The power of Heaney’s words lie in his skill ful manipulation of language that adheres to familiar poetic forms but addresses powerful images and emblems. Overall, these works mimic the questions and concepts raised by the Irish ‘troubles’ and show such issues played out linguistically, stylistically, and symbolically through petry that is at once stark and gentle, uncompromising and moderate.
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