17th century England, 18th century England, absence, adventure, author, belief, character, choices, civilization, consequence, controversial, corruption, daniel defoe, desertion, desire, development, downfall of society, English culture, experience, exploration, exposure, gender, humanity, individual, integrity, isolation, literature, man, morals, motives, power, reality, religion, repressed, research paper, rights, robinson crusoe, social class mobility, society, solace, survival
Allison Ryder ENL 365
The Battle between Humanity and Man
Daniel Defoe fiercely and openly challenges the idea of individual versus society within England during the 17th and 18th century, in the novel Robinson Crusoe. The author addresses the challenge of placing Crusoe in the 17th century, yet he writes for an 18th century audience. Nevertheless the argument stands because the story resides in English culture; portraying both 17th and 18th century England and the power of society over the individual versus the fight of the individual against society. Defoe strikes back at the faces of society with the character Crusoe, who goes against what his family (the authority figures in his life), tells him to do and creates a new world on a deserted island. The individual development and growth in this novel, is fueled by the absence of society and the reliance on nature, rather than capital. Through this novel, one not only sees the contrasting relationship between humanity and man, but the insertion of the morals and actions of society into the individual realm.
The contrast between man and society, as well as the relationship where it blends, is portrayed in the character growth of Crusoe, Crusoe’s disregard for his parent’s warnings, and what Crusoe does on the island when he is shipwrecked. All of the situations that unfold portray the contrasting relationship. Defoe immediately dives into personal desires versus family expectation, as Crusoe’s father expects him to take part in the family business, while Crusoe has the persistent desire to go to sea and travel around the world. His father states that their placement within society is one of great comfort and remaining in it would make Crusoe: “most suited for happiness, not exposed to the miseries of hardships, the labour and sufferings of the
mechanic part of mankind, and not embarrass’d with pride, luxury, ambition, and envy of the upper part of mankind” (Defoe 6). This quote portrays the comfort level of people within society and their obedience towards their class. People within society were expected to follow the paths laid out for them; “In England, as long as everyone recognized and accepted the hierarchy itself and behaved according to the prescribed forms and standards at each level, then the structure itself was stable” (Heyck 51). The character of Crusoe does not follow the path laid out before him but rather the adventurer deeply rooted within. This desire becomes a direct opposition of the norms within society. Here, the rigid walls of society are torn down and the individual is developed. Defoe sheds light on: “the individual road to self-improvement functioned as a sign of inner virtue, in contrast to the shadowy insubstantiality of the unlearned aristocrat” (Gregg 43). The character of Robinson Crusoe produces an important aspect of independence and living by one’s own accord, as well as taking hold of one’s own rights and not allowing society to dictate the rights one’s given.
Defoe was particular with his character of Crusoe when it came to gender: “[Defoe] was drawn to [the] failings of masculinity” (Gregg 175). Through a man’s individual endeavors, confrontations with conflict, and various situations, one learns what it is to be a man and then becomes one. Crusoe faced hardships and obstacles but they are what created him; rather than falling in place within society and allowing the politics and economy to dictate who he was. This paints the image of the individual holding the rights of the repressed. Focusing on the individual character, Seidel states: “Individual character cannot define itself by the strict imposition of another’s will. No model of action that demands absolute obedience to anyone is tenable unless that desire replicates one’s own” (87). Seidel’s statement supports the idea that individual
temptation is greater than the comforts and expectations derived from society. The primary responsibility in this novel is to Crusoe’s own conscience and humanity, and every choice he makes portrays this. Speaking of England and Robinson Crusoe, Moss and Wilson create an important portrayal of Defoe and Crusoe, as well as society:
“Like Defoe himself, middle-class men risked what little they had to outfit expeditions and trading voyages overseas. Exchanging a simple but secure life for adventure and possible wealth or bankruptcy, Defoe and many of his contemporaries invested in overseas enterprises. Both Defoe and his fictional character, Robinson Crusoe, suffered the consequences of such risks… In the novel, Crusoe is captured by pirates. In real life, Defoe’s cargoes were seized by French sailors in 1692… As one of his contemporaries observed, ‘it is possible to base a study of English society in the early eighteenth century almost entirely on the writings of Daniel Defoe’ (Shinagel, p.17)” (Moss, Wilson 338).
Though there are consequences to their desires; they gain knowledge about themselves and about society from an outside view. Like Crusoe, Defoe also goes against his parent’s rule, and Defoe was born into the middle class and was expected to live accordingly to that standard. Another similarity between the author and his character, was Defoe’s loyalty to his desires and principles regardless of his family or of society’s outlook on them. Defoe was a man who was willing to sacrifice himself while holding the courage to go after what he desired in life and what he believed was right. Though society did not embrace Defoe’s tactics; Defoe was able to expose the deceit in politics, the importance of trade, and the revelations he had made about the economy and the advancement of society. Robinson Crusoe being one of the novels he had written later on, in his life, held many similarities between author and main character.
The author did not create similarities within the individual, without also creating similarities between societies. Defoe transcended his society’s principles into the book and
recreated the journey he had gone through, through alternate misfortunes. When it came to England; “he constantly revisited the relations between wealth and commerce, effeminacy, morality, political constitution and national character. Unavoidably, then, Defoe needed to draw upon the dominant models of social change to explain these relations: civic humanism and commercial ideology” (Gregg 27). These subjects found themselves within the novel, expressing the ways in which they combined into the independence of the individual, and how these concepts altered that independence.
Crusoe’s desertion and isolation on the island contributes to his growth as an individual as he finds solace in the absence of civilization, however, one can see how Defoe inserts society onto the abandoned island. In associating the character with the island, Gregg defines Crusoe: “[I]t is in the landscape of Crusoe’s island that we see the emblem of his manliness” (63). Understanding Defoe’s representation of ‘manliness,’ in this novel is a crucial part of understanding the individual. It is not simply about gender being a specific quality of the character; it is about the conflicts he endures and the hard work he engages in, upon this island, that makes him a man. In Defoe’s eyes, a man is not someone who simply takes orders from his parents and follows humanity down a never ending tunnel of corruption and deceit but someone who follows their own impulses, desires and dreams.
“The question in Robinson Crusoe, as in almost all of Defoe’s works, is not so much what happens when one resists authority as what happens when traditionally formed class values are juxtaposed against the drives, impulses, inclinations, and desires of particular individuals. It is in this very area that the novel, past and present, finds its most fascinating subject matter” (87-88).
Crusoe is not making his choices to intentionally fight against society but because his decisions oppose the traditional class values of what a man during this time period in England, should be taking part in, the character becomes a part of a greater philosophical concept.
The notions of survival, slavery, money, existence of other people and creatures, and religion are taken from the world and slowly injected onto the island. The concept of money is deeply inserted into Crusoe’s journey’s and various interactions; where he always ends up trading one thing for something else:
“he offer’d me also 60 Pieces of Eight more for my boy Xury, which I was loath to take, not that I was not willing to let the Captain have him, but I was very loath to sell the poor boy’s liberty who had assisted me so faithfully in procuring my own… Xury saying he was willing to go to him, I let the Captain have him” (Defoe 29).
This creates a controversial political statement causing readers to contemplate and question the moral code and values of not only Crusoe but society during this time period. Crusoe takes part in various acts of slavery; inadvertently reflecting society’s power over someone else, to the point where they own someone.
The controversial portrayal of politics and power were not the only blatant attacks on society, but Defoe included religion into his novel as well. Defoe’s father desired his son to dive into the ministry but Daniel had different motives and outlooks on religion. The author has Crusoe find religion not within public discourse but in his private realm on the island. Dr. Morillo states: “[F]inding God should and must be an independent act… [I]t was his very
rebellion against his father and the “Middle Station” that put him in a position to find God on his own.” (2) Though Crusoe is equipped with a Bible; the insertion of God and the contemplations of his journey, not being found through the Church but his own individual sickness, opposed society’s declaration of religion. Furthermore; “This introduction of another human being to the
system, and his discourse with Crusoe on religious matters, is where the public realm of religion emerges… Friday’s own innate goodness [makes] Crusoe question his own God” (Morillo 2).
Sharing his religious revelations with Friday, Crusoe began to question his own beliefs and this portrays the impact of civilization on an individual’s beliefs. Through these subtle insertions, Defoe is blending the contrasting relationship between man and humanity, and exposing the truth about society during this time.
Since Crusoe had been on the island and was left to fend for himself, readers can see the growth of his character in certain aspects:
“I was removed from all the wickedness of the world here: I had neither the lust of flesh, the lust of eye, or the pride of life.36 I had nothing to covet; for I had all that I was now capable of enjoying” (Defoe 102).
Though Crusoe’s desire for adventuring and exploring led him to various obstacles, it led him away from the materialistic evils of the world, as he had no choice but to become dependent on the natural world. Here, Crusoe only had what he needed for comfort and survival; creating the idea that happiness and satisfaction would be found more in a life one created for one’s self, than a life bound and limited by the laws of England.
The removal of society made the questionable values of civilization fade, as Crusoe created his own form of society where he was fit for each occupation; such as constructing a home, becoming a hunter, and relying on nature which he needed desperately. The island became a place where neither money nor class status held any power. Heyck declares: “Each person and family assumed the style, the duties, and the privileges of their new position as they moved up the rungs. Social mobility thus provided a safety valve for the economic dynamism of the country” (51). There were no concerns of social mobility or class on the island; there was just the
importance of one man and his survival. The nonexistent exposed England’s downfalls: “Defoe may be uncovering an unpalatable truth in a pragmatic way, but his lament is directed at ‘the times’ and their seeming obsession with appearances and status emulation” (Gregg 20). Defoe takes readers away from their time, placing them on a deserted island, in the mind of a man who has nothing but himself; to ponder the realities of England’s ‘prosperous’ actions, as well as the consequences.
Through the insertion of humanity such as the cannibals and Friday, Defoe paints a new kind of society:
“Defoe illustrates the idea of tolerance when he shows that African, British, and Spanish men can peacefully coexist on one island. Crusoe’s island is the site of cooperation and tolerance among men of different religions and nationalities. Defoe holds up the island as a model upon which his own country, the island nation of England, can rebuild itself” (Moss, Wilson 338).
This display of various humans being united breaks the chains of slavery and class. It creates the notion that all people, regardless of their backgrounds or religion are equal, and there was no forced religion or forced law upon them. They were free to be who they were and practice their individual beliefs. This creates a great distinction between Crusoe’s society and society within England.
The absence of the need for money, trade, and wealth creates the importance of labor and production with no control over the means. Crusoe was forced to face the repercussions of his choices and within his suffering, gains more knowledge than he would have had, had he obliged the authority figures in his life.
Though Crusoe never quite detaches himself from the warnings his father gave him before leaving, his journey enhances the individual and exposes the flaws in society:
“[H]is character may be better served in the long run by resisting his father’s advice than by giving in to it complacently. There are times when the secure and complacent life he recommends is worse than the necessary errantry of a free soul… Some of the best of recent work on Crusoe by young scholars, such as Richard Braverman and Christopher Flint, see the struggle of Crusoe as the struggle of the new order in English commercial or civic life, an order based not so much on family relations and custom as on proprietary contract and economic expansion. For Flint, the annulment of the family is a paramount experience in the whole of the Crusoe saga and made a necessity of island life. Island life, that is, becomes the symbol of what Crusoe seeks and needs all along: independence21” (Seidel 88).
Here, Seidel is exploring the desire for independence; Crusoe’s desire to break his ties from England and live his own life, without worrying about abiding by someone else’s laws. Crusoe’s desires made him stubborn to the warnings in front of him because he did not desire being cemented in a cell where his life was dictated by the most powerful.
Visconsi offers a different representation of the novel, as he says: “the novel wrestle[s] with the problems of civility and barbarism; the novel proposes trade as a remedy for New World
savagery on the model of England’s own unfinished word of civilizing itself through enterprise and trade” (187). England thrived on wealth and trade, and this provided the foundation for members within society to flourish. From slavery to savages, to religion and unnecessary money found on the wrecked ship; one can view the insertion of society into the individual realm the island provides Crusoe with. Even in his quest for independence, Defoe presents readers with the
societal values that have already been engraved in Crusoe’s mind: “[I]n another I found about thirty six pounds value in money, some European coins, some Brasil, some pieces of Eight, some gold, some silver… O dryg! said I aloud, what art thou good for?” (Defoe 47) Though Crusoe does not require any money, has no use for it, and even goes as far as saying one knife is
worth more than all those coins, gold, and silver; he takes the money with him regardless. While Defoe portrays the lack of necessity for money, he also shows the power money holds over a person during this time. As stripped from humanity as Crusoe is, and though he finds peace within nature, he still possesses qualities and holds values of those he left behind. This is the third place where the relationship between man and society blurs. The first place was Crusoe’s selling Xury and the second was Crusoe’s religious discourse with Friday.
Through the misadventures of Robinson Crusoe; one can view the struggle of maintaining independence in a corrupted society. Defoe’s portrayal of 17th century England and in retrospect, the advancements that would come within the next century, reflects the downfalls of civilization. The author shows the power of a class over one man, the doubt society can instill within a person’s beliefs, and the questionable integrity of a man should he abide by social class mobility, rather than stand strong beside his own personal beliefs. If there were a piece of knowledge that was nonexistent at the beginning of this novel, it would have to be Daniel Defoe’s ability to reveal the individual versus society on a deserted island, in deep comparison with the choices, actions, and morals of England; giving readers a better understanding of the development of civilization over time.
1. Defoe, Daniel. Robinson Crusoe. Ed. John Richetti. Penguin Classics, 2001.
2. Moss, Joyce and George Wilson. Vol. 1: Ancient Times to the American and French Revolutions (Pre-History-1790s). Detroit: Gale, 1997. 337-343
3. Gregg, Stephen. Defoe’s Writings and Manliness: Contrary Men. Farnharm, Surrey, GBR: Ashgate Publishing Group, 2009. 20-164
4. Visconsi, Elliott. Lines of Equity: Literature and the Origins of Law in Later Stuart England. Ithaca, NY, USA: Cornell University Press, 2008. 185-187
5. Seidel, Michael. Tawyne’s Masterwork Studies 64. Boston: Twayne, 1991. 87-88
6. Morillo. PHD. “Robinson Crusoe: An Evolution of Political Religion.” English 362: Eighteenth-Century Novel. 12 March 2012 .
7. Heyck, Thomas. The People of the British Isles. Lycem Books, 2002. 50-5
a sofa in the forties, act of union, actions, answers, barriers, betrayal, childbirth, children, choices, christopher miller, civilization, college, corruption, death, diogenes, disease, english, gender, gestation, great britain, guilty, high honors, historical, history, humanism, identity, individual, ireland, judgment, language, legacy, life, loyalty, male domination, murder, mythical, nature, nightmare, oppression, past, personal experience, philosophy, poetic expression, poetry, political, punishment, reflection, research, seamus heaney, sexual endeavors, silence, society's movements, struggle, symbolism, the haw lantern, values, victim, violence, voice, witness, women, writing
Thanks to my Lit Professor- Prof. Christopher Miller – helping me for many weeks – this would be the paper that granted me High Honors in English when I graduated from College. Just found out it. It’s very long,as it had to be but I wanted to share it regardless.
Seamus Heaney’s Poetic Expression; Individual Identity and Oppression in Ireland
In his long and distinguished poetic career, Seamus Heaney developed the ability to intertwine his own personal experiences with larger political struggles in Ireland. Heaney exposes the violence of humans and the power of authority, as well as the silence and power of the individual. “Act of Union” and “Punishment” are both from Heaney’s collection North (1975), which examines human situations in relation to historical conflicts. These two poems in particular focus on the violent struggles through the lens of women’s experiences. “The Haw Lantern” in the collection The Haw Lantern (1987) and “A Sofa in the Forties” which is a piece in The Spirit Level (1996) are two poems which explore humanism and politics within Ireland; these poems observe an individual’s loyalty to their beliefs and values, when faced with strife in Ireland. These four poems address the political struggles Ireland faced during the latter half of the 20th century. Heaney transports readers through political, historical, mythical, and personal subjects by associating each with the individual in Ireland. Placing himself in the subject’s position, as well as a witness overlooking the conflicts expressed, Heaney is able to transcend both the perspective of the observer and the observed. This technique helps readers visualize the violence and power within Ireland, as he also illustrates the important effects the individual has within society.
In the poem “Act of Union,” the title has a double meaning. Heaney reflects his sexual relationship with his wife, however, he not only displays the sexual relationship but he places himself in his wife’s position throughout this act and the repercussions of it. In doing so, the poet
illustrates the relationship between Great Britain by portraying Ireland as the female. The political Act of Union passed in 1801, formed the United Kingdom by joining Ireland and Great Britain. Much of the Irish community initially found this act appealing because of the independence they would gain; however, this hope was never fulfilled. (Wikipedia “Great Famine (Ireland)”). Another downfall of this act was its aftermath: thousands of lives were lost and others emigrated to the Americas. The destruction of the potato crop led to the Great Famine where starvation and disease spread, all occurring while under British rule. Fingers pointed at Great Britain for purposely allowing tragedy to strike Ireland, while the British made few efforts to prevent it (Wikipedia “Great Famine (Ireland)”). The language of this poem is drenched with both sexual and historical meanings; this is reflected in a two sided structure, which consists of two sonnets. While the first sonnet introduces the circumstances Ireland and the woman find themselves in, the second sonnet reflects the effects of this union.
The poet begins by explaining the sexual intercourse between him and his wife, Marie. This notion inadvertently implies the different genders for Ireland and Great Britain:
A gash breaking open the ferny bed.
Your back is a firm line of eastern coast
And arms and legs are thrown
Beyond your gradual hills. I caress
The heaving province where our past has grown.
I am the tall kingdom over your shoulder
That you would neither cajole nor ignore. (4-10)
Heaney uses the “I” to refer to himself and the “You” to refer to Marie. This is the primary meaning, however, the subsidiary meaning refers Heaney to Great Britain and Marie to Ireland. In this sense, the beginning of this sonnet is referring to Ireland and ‘her’ geographic location in relation to Britain. Heaney uses the ‘gradual hills’ of Ireland to portray a woman’s breasts and in
comparison, speaks of himself caressing his wife’s body. Here, the poet is also providing readers with a visual of Ireland’s landscape. Heaney refers to Ireland in the eighth line, being the beginning of his relationship with his wife. In political terms, he is shining a light upon the relationship between Britain and Ireland. The domination of male over female, and Great Britain’s power over Ireland is reflected in the ending two lines. Through the sexual endeavors noted in this poem, the relationship between Heaney and Marie flourishes into the birth of a child. In contrast, the relationship between the two nations creates the complex birth of a new political entity.
The end of the first sonnet is a portrayal of Heaney’s climax and the conception that follows, as well as Britain’s satisfying pursuit over Ireland and the unfolding effects of this union: “Within whose borders now my legacy / Culminates inexorably.” (13-14) Here, Heaney creates the idea of a seed being left behind in both relationships. This seed represents the birth of Heaney and Britain’s legacy.
The second sonnet illustrates the outcome of the sexual relationship, as well as the political outcomes of such a union. The beginning of this sonnet further reflects the domination of the male over the female; however, this sexual relationship is not meant to be a violent one. It is merely reflecting the difference in strength between man and woman. As Ireland has fallen victim to Great Britain, it is natural Ireland would be personified as a woman. Here, Heaney is referring to Marie’s pain during gestation and childbirth: “And I am still imperially / Male, leaving you with pain.” (15-16) This also refers to the pains the society of Ireland face after their own ‘intercourse’ with Great Britain. Heaney continues by vividly showing how the act he engaged in with Marie created a child but it is a child she must carry alone. In terms of Ireland,
though the union was initially embraced, it was Ireland that had to carry the weight on “her” shoulders and received the tragic repercussions of this relationship.
The developing fetus is symbolized as an innocent but devastating intruder:
And ignorant little fists already
Beat at your borders and I know they’re cocked
At me across the water. No treaty
I foresee will salve completely your tracked
And stretchmarked body, the big pain
That leaves you raw, like opened ground, again. (22-28)
The effect of the sexual relationship between Heaney and Marie was the unborn child in her womb. In this sense, “the water” is relating to the woman’s water being on the verge of breaking. When it comes to Great Britain and Ireland, Heaney creates various perspectives as to what this growing child could truly mean. This reflects the viral power of Britain’s rule; as if it were a one sided disease, growing stronger rapidly, and oppressing Irish society. This also reflects the intimacy between Irish women and British soldiers, which later became problematic. The last three lines refer to the woman’s body after childbirth as it is “stretch-marked” and “raw.” While the baby is beating at his wife’s bodily “borders,” the barriers between the British and the Irish were torn down and Ireland was targeting Britain from “across the waters.” The reason for this anger were events such as The Great Famine, where starvation and disease took control and Britain watched the tragedies unfold. In this relationship, “stretch-marked body” refers to the land being stretched into a new world and Ireland being left “raw” to the rule of the British.
Returning to the beginning of the poem, one can see how the poet introduced the idea of nature and followed up with this visual throughout this poem. Heaney makes references to specific natural aspects of Ireland’s landscape to portray the female body. The land being
depicted as a woman creates the notion of Mother Nature and where a woman’s strength resides. There is a vivid connection between nature, Ireland, and a woman’s body; however, there is also a connection between nature and civilization.
Heaney makes a reference to the individual’s reliance on nature, as well as the connection of society and the land:
Tonight, a first movement, a pulse,
As if the rain in bogland gathered head
To slip and flood: a bog-burst. (1-3)
Here, Heaney is fusing together nature and the unborn child. The poet’s subtle insertion of bogs creates the idea of the human bodies that inhabit the land, as well as those buried beneath it. Now that the sexual relationship described in sonnet one and the pregnancy shown in sonnet two, has been discovered, one can see how Heaney begins with the birth of their child, and the two nations’ political co-existence. Readers can now see this idea presented in the very first line. Beginning with the birth, Heaney then thoroughly explains what brought this about. This immediate connection between land and body provides a sense of history, linking the past with the present, and how the relationships between Great Britain and Ireland have developed over time.
This poem serves as the beginning in the political complexities taking place in Ireland. Here, Heaney places himself in Marie’s perspective and ties womanhood and childbirth, with Ireland. The purpose of this is to portray the domination over and suffering of women, as well as to portray the historical and political realities women endured in Ireland. Heaney takes this concept and beautiful reflection of Ireland’s landscape, as well as the subtle mention of bogs, and
ties it with the conflicts between Great Britain and Ireland. “Punishment” vividly follows this format, however, this poem shows the more violent sufferings women have endured.
This poem travels even deeper into Irish society by looking at the individual and reciting the wrongs done within a community and revealing the individuals who simply turned a blind eye to the barbaric punishments placed on innocent victims. Heaney uncovers the tragic deaths of those known as bog bodies; they are well preserved bodies of mostly victims of violent humiliation, inhumane cruelty, and unjust murders. These bogs date back to the Iron Age and this poem represents the violent history within Ireland. Heaney focuses on a young teenage girl who was killed for adultery: “His subject is a fourteen-year-old girl of the first century A.D., an adulteress drowned in Windeby bog for her folly” (Collins 95-96). This provides the factual aspect behind Heaney’s poem, reflecting the young woman’s youth and murder. Heaney is using the historical murder of this young woman to expose the horrifying torture of women within present society: “As Henry Hart notes, Catholic girls in Northern Ireland have recently been ‘cauled in tar’ for defying the taboos of the Provisional I.R.A.76 Chief among these is the dating of British soldiers, particularly officers” (Collins 96). Within the poem, a link is created between past and present. Heaney places himself into both experiences of each woman, to reveal the continuous cycle of political horrors.
In “Act of Union,” Heaney metaphorically becomes Marie to sympathize with her and understand her strength and pain during childbirth. Here, the poet is sympathizing with this young female victim who also carries the burden and pain of punishment, alone:
I can feel the tug
Of the halter at the nape
Of her neck, the wind
On her naked front.
It blows her nipples
To amber beads,
It shakes the frail rigging
Of her ribs.
I can see her drowned
Body in the bog,
The weighing stone,
The floating rods and boughs. (1-12)
In these few opening lines, the reader is invited to imagine the victim’s suffering. This description of the young woman reflects the cold, starved body that endured torture at the violent hands of persecution. There is a disturbing sexual tone in these few lines, reflecting the humiliation of sex and gender. The poet starts off by embracing the woman’s emotions to show the violence against women in society. She was punished for an act she did not commit alone, yet she alone was killed.
As the poem progresses, Heaney becomes an individual within this society, watching this crime take place:
I almost love you
but would have cast, I know,
the stones of silence.
I am the artful voyeur
of your brain’s exposed
and darkened combs.” (29-34)
Here, the poet is not only reflecting the silence of society but of his own silence, if he were present when this act was being committed. He views the individuals within society as being turned on by the evil punishment this young woman endured. He moves from the victim’s perspective to the perspective of a historic spectator.
The critic Thomas Foster observes: “If the ‘civilized’ man recognizes the wrongness of tar-and-feathering, or murder, of the various forms of violence, the poet’s being is also broad enough and wise enough to acknowledge the impulse of the community to protect itself. There seems to me no attempt here to justify the atrocities, but only to ‘understand’ (again a distant sympathy), to comprehend their source.” (55) Heaney is neither accepting nor giving his approval to the past punishments, he is trying to understand them as he sees the connection between past and present forms of persecution. The people in the community have a fear of facing the same fate, so instead of fighting together against the evil forces within society, they remain silent.
The silence of the individual is significant in this poem. Though the entire community may not be taking part in this horror, by remaining silent, the individual is just as much at fault as the murderer is. The poet is exposing the downfalls of society, as the critic is using “it” to refer to the poem in relation with Heaney’s own identity: “In “Punishment,” Heaney accepts responsibility for the more reprehensible aspects of his culture… it acknowledges Heaney’s sense of guilt, or at least complicity, about certain aspects of the present cycle of violence in Ulster” (Collins 96-97). In this way, Heaney intends to not simply put the blame on society as a whole but to place the brunt of the blame on the individuals who make up society. It reflects a fault in the religious and cultural beliefs that allow this act to take place despite the unjust foundation for it. Heaney is reflecting the concept of the individuals turning their back on their morals, as these victims are receiving self-inflicted punishments.
Heaney represents the link between past violence and present persecution by associating this anonymous young woman with the Irish women who are targeted because of their intimacy with British soldiers:
I who have stood dumb
When your betraying sisters,
Cauled in tar,
Wept by the railings,
Who would connive
In civilized outrage
Yet understand the exact
And tribal, intimate revenge. (37-44)
This refers to the Irish women who were being tarred, feathered, and strapped to lampposts for their actions. Their relationships were viewed as a betrayal (just as this young woman’s affair was), and as a result, the women were brutally killed by the IRA. The term ‘betraying sisters’ could refer to the various portrayals of women; there is the connection between the anonymous woman who is being punished and the women in Ireland, both for acts of intimacy. This could also reflect the individual females who are taking part in these wrongful persecutions. Though it could refer to either of these concepts, the overall notion is that these women are betraying one another. Here, Heaney acknowledges the individual guilt and the assistance of the individual by one being silent and ignorant to the uncivilized persons who believed they had the right to decide who lived and who died. The humiliation that was infiltrated only increased the fear and chaos throughout the community. This poem creates a bridge between the individual and the uncivilized, and maintaining Irish culture and barbaric ways of life. The poet mocks the idea of people becoming civilized from the time of this young teenager’s demise to the Irish women in his present day.
The young adulteress’s murder is symbolic “of the bloodshed caused by contemporary violence in Ireland” (“Seamus Heaney 1939-”). This poem is a significant part in understanding the violence and power of the individual. Alan Tomlinson and John Horne explain Heaney’s motives with this poem: “Heaney found a symbolic approach to what he calls Ireland’s ‘neighbourly murders’ in the image of tribal sacrifices that occurred in Jutland during the few centuries before Christ. They were considered appropriate tribal sacrifices, which amounted to ritual hanging or beheading, of thieves, adulterers, or traitors, to the gods of harvest. After the killing, or as a way of drowning the victims were disposed of in bogs, such that, in many cases, their bodies have been preserved for over 2,000 years by the chemical properties of the peats… Heaney uses these figures as examples of victims of ritual murders resembling those in Northern Ireland” (185). The downfall of humanity lies within the actions of the individual. The ritual murder of the adulteress can be compared to the murders of Irish women because in both series of events, those who were doing the punishing believed they were doing the right thing by ridding the world of actions perceived as threats to the whole community. Heaney captures these women when they are at the mercy of another human being, another human being who is betraying humanity by punishing the innocent.
As Heaney observes the guilt of the individual in this poem, he enters the mythical realm with his poem “The Haw Lantern,” to further explore the importance of individual character and the impact of the collective. This poem refers to the Greek philosopher Diogenes, who searched for one honest man within society but did not find one. Diogenes symbolizes the judge who will test each individual he comes across. Harold Bloom compared the story of Diogenes to the characters appearance in this poem: “Diogenes believed that we must reject the pleasures of
society and live a highly disciplined life” (93). Heaney places himself in the mythical philosopher’s journey to search for an ounce of hope and righteousness in a corrupted society. The importance of self-respect, honesty, and dignity falls on individual identity, which is a crucial component in this poem. In this poem, like the others, the poet places himself in the place of the observer and the observed. He is not only placing the judgments on mankind in his search for honesty but he is also placing that same judgment on himself.
Heaney uses the flame within the lantern to symbolize the hope he has on this search. Even though the flame is dim, it still burns slightly:
The wintry haw is burning out of season,
crab of the thorn, a small light for small people,
wanting no more from them but that they keep
the wick of self-respect from dying out,
not having to blind them with illumination. (1-5)
This creates the notion that there are hardly any noble qualities present within the collective but all it takes is a small light of self-respect within one individual to create a great hope for the whole. Here, Heaney also suggests self-respect being one of the most crucial parts of life. The poet explains the choices one could make and still respect themselves are the only choices one should make. The character of the individual is what is important; it is about doing the right thing despite society’s force of fear upon the people. Heaney uses “illumination” to represent various characteristics that are forced upon a person by the higher powers of society, such as the fears that keep one silent, the misguiding knowledge, and the barbaric actions of humanity. Heaney is attempting to create a vast difference between the individual and the demoralization of society, and to keep one person from turning a blind eye to something they know is wrong. Though he is observing this difference, he is also shining a light on society as a whole.
Heaney transfers the point of view in this poem from the people to “you,” which turns the tables and has the observer become the observed:
But sometimes when your breath plumes in the frost
it takes the roaming shape of Diogenes
with his lantern, seeking one just man;
so you end up scrutinized from behind the haw. (6-9)
The character and tale of Diogenes is brought into the poem in these few lines. Diogenes stems from “your breath” signifying the exploration of one’s own consciousness. The focus is no longer on the corrupt society but rather on one’s self. This judgment is a tactic used to reveal the truth amongst deception. Man is now being scrutinized and judged for his actions, choices, and silence during the harsh political struggles in Ireland. The being is now detached from his own surroundings and his reflection is within the lantern. This poem explores one’s self.
The reality of this poem and outcome of the individual journey lies within the ending:
and you flinch before its bonded pith and stone
its blood-prick that you wish would test and clear you,
its pecked-at ripeness that scans you, then moves on.” (11-13)
The actions committed and the choices made during these political challenges mask the truth. The reality is that the test has been failed and “you” are no better than the deception surrounding “you.” The moving on at the end of this poem symbolizes the failing of the test and in turn failing one’s self, by not being the honest man that is being searched for. When looking at the lantern, the victim “flinch[es] before its” core, representing the fear and lack of confidence in one’s personal moral character.
Like Heaney’s poem “Punishment,” there is a vivid display of deceit and silence within this poem. Going back to this poem, one notices Heaney makes room for the reader to be placed
into the poem: “your betraying sisters.” (38) Even in “Act of Union,” Heaney is constantly saying “your,” referring to Ireland as he is speaking from Great Britain’s point of view. In each of these poems, Heaney is placing the reader into an individual situation during a time of great political struggle. He is using a symbolic representation of the individual versus civilization within Ireland, to realistically represent the life society is molding, the repercussions of a person’s and of peoples political choices, and how one’s self-respect and personal expectations of themselves can assist or demolish the destruction of mankind throughout history.
Almost a decade after “The Haw Lantern” was published; Heaney published “A Sofa in the Forties.” Unlike the three previous poems, the poet is addressing his own childhood experiences in relation with the power of Great Britain and its impact within the home. Though domination is present here, it is less violent than it was in “Act of Union” and “Punishment.” However, in comparison to the previous three poems, Heaney moves himself between two different perspectives to portray the conflicts between Britain and Ireland. Here, the poet moves between his childhood and adulthood, looking at the world with a sense of innocence, as well as a sense of maturity and knowledge.
Heaney begins by taking readers into his childhood as the imagery of imaginary games is immediately introduced:
All of us on the sofa in a line, kneeling
Behind each other, eldest down to youngest,
Elbows going like pistons, for this was a train. (1-3)
This specific choice of beginning not only reflects youth and the power of imagination but it suggests the imagery of order and the importance of hard work. The sense of rank and order can easily be derived from society within Heaney’s conflicting times.
Continuing to describe playing on the imaginary train, which was really the sofa, the poet’s language transforms: “Ghost-train? Death-gondola?” (13) This presents the realistic notion of a nightmare that is recreated within the imaginations of the children. The train becomes a reflection of transportation; linking transportation with these two phrases creates the notion of society’s movements towards man’s end. Heaney uses this train to symbolize an escape from the outside world. As the critic John Banville notes, with quotations from the poet’s personal descriptions of his home life as a child: “it passed ‘a kind of den-life which was more or less emotionally and intellectually proofed against the outside world.’ That outside world, as we know, had entered upon one of its most murderous and cataclysmic phases, though ‘none of the news of these world-spasms entered me as terror … and if there was something culpable about such political ignorance in that time and place, there was something positive about the security I inhabited as a result of it’” ( “Playing the Common World’s Melody”). In his childhood home, Heaney found a sense of comfort and security against the outside world. Looking back at this situation from an adult perspective, the angles alter and Heaney understands the complexities that surrounded him and the uneasiness that transmitted through the radio. Being a child at the time, he was blanketed by innocence, youth, and unawareness of the tragic realities in Ireland. At that time, the poet was not terrified by the news streaming through the walls of his home; instead he found solace in the individual aspects of his life and the detachment his youth provided him with, from the corruption outside his door.
The sofa is a key representation of consistency within this poem:
We occupied our seats with all our might,
Fit for the uncomfortableness.
Constancy was its own reward already. (37-39)
Here, the poet takes readers away from the playful imagination of a child and seats one on the sofa to reveal the family’s familiarity with disagreeable situations. This also reveals their lack of freedom in obliging. The condition that places them on this sofa was a regular notion for them and a part of their daily lives. The voices streaming through the radio became familiar background music for Heaney, as a child.
This poem represents the tragedies and realities within the world around the poet and how this deliverance of news was inserted into his childhood memories:
HERE IS THE NEWS,
Said the absolute speaker. Between him and us
A great gulf was fixed where pronunciation
Reigned tyrannically. (27-30)
Heaney refers to the gulf of Britain and Ireland, as well as the difference between standard British speech and Irish accents and dialects. The contrast between the voices creates the notion of power as the voices of Britain invade the poet’s home, representing the oppressive severity of British rule. These few lines also reflect the barriers between British and Irish culture in past and present; as this poem was published in the 1990’s, long after the union between the two took place. However, despite the union that was formed, there was still just as much of a separation between Great Britain and Ireland.
Heaney continues to enforce the power of the individual in the following line: “We entered history and ignorance.” (25, 36) The repetitiveness of this line enhances the meaning and reflects the individual’s journey into a new life. The society of Great Britain was creating a new
history where Ireland was under the rule of the British government and where the two cultures were blended together. Irish citizens were taking drastic measures and assisting the IRA in horrific and dehumanizing “punishments,” in an attempt to repel the British occupation. The individuals who made up the societies of both, were creating a domination of ignorance. The ignorant actions and silence of the people created a tragic history for Ireland, where their culture was being abused and their people murdered, due to unjust beliefs.
As the poem comes to its close, Heaney refers back to the symbolic train which was also a metaphor for the movement within Ireland:
A tunnel coming up where we’d pour through
Like unlit carriages through fields at night,
Our only job to sit, eyes straight ahead
And be transported and make engine noise. (44-48)
While the poet was observing what was taking place around him, he puts readers into the perspective of the children on the couch. Heaney triggers the auditory and visual senses, transcending the disarray inflicted rom the sounds emitting from the radio. The British still have the same power to create fear within the Irish and make certain they know who is in charge. Heaney creates a sense of obedience in the last few lines and this can be seen as a subtle yet metaphoric question; will the Irish allow Britain to strip them of their humanity or will they steer away from the dominance of the IRA and the British? The individuals within Ireland have been culturally dominated and the “unlit carriages” flash back to the search of hope and honesty within the violent nation that is being created. There is a lack of resistance reflected in these last few lines, as well as an assistance of ignorance. The ignorance of the individual only aids to the
destruction of humanity; the people of Ireland were expected to move forward while working and living under the hegemony of Britain. The “tunnel” refers to the absence of Irish culture and the insistence of British culture.
The moments described here are taken from the poet’s childhood and reintroduced with adult knowledge. The sounds of British speech filling his childhood home were simply sounds which caused his family to attentively listen to on their sofa. Recollecting these moments as an adult, Heaney can see how the British made Irish citizens feel inferior and uncomfortable. He recognized his own “ignorance” to be a manifestation of his youth. Heaney used the train as an anecdote to portray the individual within Ireland, living by the politics of Britain. By placing this poem within the home, readers are shown how the political conflicts and struggles were injected in the personal realm of existence.
Pointing fingers at society would have been easy but the truth is that when the individual looked at their hands, they’re dirty; this is what Heaney suggested in all four of these poems. Though these four pieces describe the perspective of the observer and the observed, Heaney was truly writing witness poems, reflecting a bigger picture. The poet is revealing how the actions and silence of the individual contribute to the continuous cycle of horror, cruelty, and violence from past to present. Readers are placed in the shoes of both the victim and the witness, the observer and the observed, to break down the barrier of corruption and create an understanding of the impact of the individual in Ireland. In “A Sofa in the Forties,” which was written later in Heaney’s poetic career and when the worst of the violent struggles in Ireland were over; Heaney does not use a specific villain to reflect the dominance of Britain over Ireland. In this poem, unlike the others, Heaney portrays dominance through an inanimate object, the radio. The poet
compares and contrasts personal experiences such as sexual relationships and childhood memories with political acts and unjust religious and tribal customs, to reflect the history of Ireland and the growth and destruction over time. Heaney also creates a vivid connection between the human being and nature, and the hand of humanity in tearing down Irish culture and land. Ireland’s movements and growth are transcended through one’s own self-awareness and conscience. It is the movement of one man, one man who is willing to create his own identity, disregarding the oppressive times and concentrating on his own self-respect, who will begin the change and growth of the nation. These four poems brilliantly represent the impact of the individual during harsh political times, throughout the 1970s to the 1990s. In combining the political, economic, and religious realities of the world, personal experiences, and being a victim and witness to the cruelty of society, Seamus Heaney is exposing the downfall of society which falls on the silence and moral identity of the individual.
Banville, John. “Playing the Common World’s Melody” The Guardian. 16 March 2008. DA: 24 March 2012.
Bloom, Harold. Seamus Heaney. Chelsea House Publishers 2003.
Collins, Floyd. Seamus Heaney: The Crisis of Identity. Rosemont Publishing & Printing Co. 2003.
Foster, Thomas. Twayne’s English Authors Series 468. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1989.
Poetry Criticism. “Seamus Heaney 1930-.” . Ed. Carol T. Gaffke. Gale Cenage, 1997. 13 March 2012.
Tomlinson, Alan. John Horne. Twentieth Century in Poetry. Florence, KY, USA: Routledge, 1999.
Wikipedia. “Great Famine (Ireland)” . 24 March 2012.