30/30, 30/30 challenge, allison ryder, April, beating, breathing, cancer, cancer sucks, death, diagnosed with death, father, fatigue, fuck cancer, heartbreak, hope, identity, illness, insomnia, life, life is cheap, living, love, national poetry month, no life, no one fights alone, poet, poetry, poetry challenge, poetry month, sickness, symptoms, tired, voice, weakness
his heart is beating.
gratitude for that.
starvation pulls his skin thin,
bones carve their way out.
liquid nutrients go down
to come back up. choking.
gasping. eyes can close
but body can’t sleep.
life is here but life is cheap.
his heart is beating.
gratitude for that.
final moments, final words.
final strands of hope.
too tired, too weak
to walk the length of the coffee table.
the things he used to love,
he doesn’t love anymore.
raspy voice. throat sore.
the symptoms of a man
diagnosed with death.
his heart is beating.
gratitude for that.
“this isn’t living,”
he shakes his head,
as tears stream from my heart.
aching, allison ryder, allison ryder quotes, body yearning, breaths between, detached, distance, forbidden, heart calling, heartbeat, home, kiss, lips, lust, moments, night, painful, passion, poetry, quotes, secrets, secrets in the night, shivers, song, time, touch, voice, whisper, writer, writing
animals, cause, change, citizens, courage, equality, fight, government, guilty, innocent, law, law enforcement, life, listen, martin luther king jr, murder, neutral, people, perspective, poetry, reason, two sides, unjust, voice
this isn’t an opinion and it’s not going to go in the direction you think. this is a reaction, this is both perspectives, this is the reflection of two sides of a two sided story. this is even ground. this is the voice of reason.
rifles on the home front;
race against race, fist against fist.
conspiracy changes individuals to conformity.
conform to government
ways, around being blind to blood on their sleeves.
grenades blow the stop sign-
street lights directed by the national guard.
paid by the government, they spill blood.
controlled by the government, they burn bones-
history remakes itself. tainted
graves, no lessons learned.
the plot puts person against person.
betrayal fuels defensive mechanisms to kick in;
turn people into colors,
verdicts into racist acts,
government verses people.
derived from racism, comes reactions-
fatal chaos erupts in shattered glass and open fire.
now who’s wrong?
provoked and pushed-
the creation of a movement,
intentions righteous, execution wrong.
martin luther king jr?
violence strays you from him.
warrior of peace and equality,
insusceptible to accusations and hatred-
he did not create destruction and spill blood
as the cost of what he sought.
he moved with peaceful actions and words-
these victorious movements proved loyal
followers who fought.
citizens stampede the streets, claiming
executions are allowed, claiming the government
officials surround the streets – streets turned
into a battlefield, a graveyard- now who’s safe?
officials armed, citizens rage like wild animals.
officials claim their right to defend, to protect,
to shoot if threatened. wouldn’t you?
who to believe?
we overcome by making a peaceful movement,
by trying for change,
by uncovering an unjust system.
we succumb to the powerful
by acting as we see them act,
by becoming what we hate, the very thing we’re against,
by expecting wounds to heal by the shed of more blood,
by allowing the act of one man determine the character
of every other man in uniform.
of every other black or white.
evidence lies. people lie.
where does the truth lie?
the rift between the powerful and the silent,
the protectors and the makers, the guilty and the innocent,
the suited and the dirty, the controlled and the free-
did not start here,
but the sins of all are exposed here.
shock does not shake my bones
when killers are set free,
when the law becomes the power to act
as the grim reaper, to change the law unjustly-
not this time – all times.
when citizens are killed in cold blood,
when cops are killed in cold blood,
when a nation rises in that same violent outrage
with the blood of innocents in their eyes
and commit the same crimes.
you yield for those like you,
for those in suits, for those with a badge,
for those in power,
not for the innocence of the crime-
and who is wrong and who is right
is not where people stand now.
they rise against a broken system and seek change.
non-violent citizens who are not setting cars ablaze,
beating skin until it bleeds, stealing bottles of
raging adrenaline from broken glass-
non-violent citizens are standing for a cause
they’re not rioting, they’re rallying.
right or wrong, it’s NOT black or white.
there’s your message in a bottle-
the doorway for change was opened,
and now it will be known.
ALL lives matter.
martin luther king jr. was feared,
deemed the most dangerous man
because his peace was effective, he was heard and listened to,
his change was accepted and respected.
gray will rise; fill the sky with clouds and
the streets with smoke.
gray will rise and stand for people.
skeletons turn over in their graves-
united we stand?
then you better start listening.
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.
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