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Seamus Heaney and His Attitude to Politics

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This paper deals with Seamus Heaney’s attitude to politics in his poetry, focusing on ‘North’ collection (1975). It aims at showing how Heaney developed from a nature poet to a political poet and how the surrounding events affected his poetry and his attitude. Besides, he is not really considered as a political poet but he had to respond to the events around him in his homeland, Ireland. North is considered a reflection to the conflict inside the poet who is seeking art for art and the person who is living in a colonized land and cannot escape writing about the events.

Seamus Heaney (13 April 1939 – 30 August 2013) was born in County Derry in Northern Ireland. He worked at Queen’s University in Belfast and, at Carysfort College in Dublin, at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and at Oxford University.

Heaney spent a rural childhood and was watching the battles of the American soldiers in the local fields and these battles were centered near his home. This image was taken in Heaney’s mind and much of his poetry grounded there in Mossbawn.

He is considered ‘the most important Irish poet since Yeats’ as Robert Lowell described him. He wrote poetry and playwrights and translated works from Irish to English and vice versa. Heaney won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995 for writing art for art’s sake and universalizing the suffering of the Catholic people as he is a Catholic suffering among a Protestant majority. There is a tension appears in his poetry between his belonging to Ireland, his mother land and the imperial Britain. He described the reason for this tension in his Nobel Prize speech by drawing an image for the child’s life in the colonized Ireland: “The child in the bedroom, listening simultaneously to the domestic idiom of his Irish home and the official idioms of the British broadcaster while picking up from behind both the signals of some other distress, that child was already being schooled for the complexities of his adult predicament, a future where he would have to adjudicate among promptings variously ethical, aesthetical, moral, political, metrical, skeptical, cultural, topical, typical, post-colonial and, taken all together, simply impossible”.

He suffered from the tension inside him between his belonging to Ireland and England which has led him to the feeling of guilt and was articulated in his response to the crisis of his own country, Ireland. He writes: “At school I studied the Gaelic literature of Ireland as well as the literature of England, and since then I have maintained a notion of myself as Irish in a province that insists that it is British” (Preoccupations 35). Alan Shapiro described this tension saying that: “If Irish culture is his wife English is his mistress, and to satisfy one is necessarily to betray the other” (13).

Heaney tried to merge the troubles of his Homeland with a historical frame to include the human situation in his book ‘North’ (1975). Reviewers criticized Heaney for playing the role of apologist and mythologizer but Morrison suggested that Heaney would never thought himself as a political spokesman. Heaney “has written poems directly about the troubles as well as elegies for friends and acquaintances who have died in them; he has tried to discover a historical framework in which to interpret the current unrest; and he has taken on the mantle of public spokesman, someone looked to for comment and guidance”, noted Morrison. “Yet he has also shown of signs of deeply resenting this role, defending the right of poets to be private and political, and questioning the extent to which poetry, however ‘committed,’ can influence the course of history”. (‘Seamus Heaney’)

Heaney believed in the influence of art in the face of technologies and economic crisis and said that people during these times realize their need for life and art over economics: “If poetry and the arts do anything”, – he said, “they can fortify your inner life, your inwardness” (‘The poetry, and wisdom, of Seamus Heaney’).

He refused to be a political poet but he can do nothing but respond to the troubles of his country and write about what is going on around him in addition to his need to express his feeling of isolation as a Catholic in a protestant province.

Seamus Heaney’s most prominent political collection is ‘North’ (1975) and it is his fourth collection, where Heaney reached his poetic process climax. ‘North’ is a post-colonial text. It was published three years after Wintering out and those three years have been marked by attempts to find solutions for the crisis in Ulster. The attempts included an agreement between the British government the Protestant establishment and the SDLP to have a new assembly with power sharing and a joint Protestant/Catholic administration. The agreement failed and the assembly was down by the Ulster workers’ strike on May 1972. In response, Northern Ireland administrated directly from Westminster and British troops in the Province.

In the summer of 1972, Heaney left Northern Ireland after becoming a well-known poet in the North and a kind of spokesman people looking forward to his words and opinions concerning the status quo. Thus he was aware of the consequences of this move as he told James Randall: “Undoubtedly I was aware of a political dimension to the move south of the border, and it was viewed, I think, with regret by some, and with a sense of almost betrayal by others. That was because a situation like that in the North of Ireland generates a great energy and group loyalty, and it generates defensiveness about its own verities. Some people felt rejected by my leaving” (8). Heaney’s move to Glenmore is considered an assertion of his Irishness and a protest against being called a ‘British’ poet.

In ‘North’, Heaney brought the Northern conflict into his poetry. He has chosen two ways as the book consists of two parts: the first based on metaphor and analogy dealing with historical matters of Northern Ireland and the other almost documentary deals with contemporary Northern Ireland. We can notice through the book’s two-part the transformation of Heaney from being a nature poet to a political one.

Part one of the book is framed by two poems: ‘Antaeus’ and ‘Antaeus and Hercules’.

Antaeus is the son of Gaia (Earth) and got his power from a close contact with Earth. He is a figure from Greek/ North African mythology. The first poem Antaeus is a monologue by Antaeus exposing his magical power:

When I lie on the ground

I rise flushed as a rose in the morning.

In fights I arrange a fall on the ring

To rub myself with sand

That is operative

As an elixir.

And as Antaeus is the son of the Earth, he can survive only by contacting his mother:

Down here in my cave

Girdered with root and rock

I am cradled in the dark that wombed me.

At the end of the poem, Antaeus introduced Hercules who knew about Antaeus’ weakness point so he will disconnect him from his source of power; the Earth. Hercules has to defeat Antaeus to pass to the world of fame and power:

Let each new hero come

Seeking the golden apples and Atlas:

He must wrestle with me before he pass

Into that realm of fame

Finally, we do not know if Antaeus defeated by Herclues or not and do not know if it’s the end of Antaeus or a rebirth for him:

He may well throw me and renew my birth

But let him not plan, lifting me off the earth,

My elevation, my fall.

Here we wonder whom does Anateus symbolize? Is he Heaney who is attached to his roots? Is he Heaney, who does not want to use his poetry in politics? Is he the poet who is afraid from elevation into the world of political poetry that may lead to his fall down? We find the answers at the beginning of Antaeus and Hercules’ poem as Heaney described the labours of Hercules then tell us that Anateus has been beaten:

a fall was a renewal

but now he is raised up,

he is taken

out of his element

into a dream of loss.

Antaeus at the end will die, just like those other ancient heroes: Balor, Byrthnoth and Sitting Bull. These four heroes share a common status: they are defeated by an imperialist enemy – Hercules, Lugh, the Vikings, the white Americans.

Morrison suggests his political interpretation of the Antaeus-myth, saying that “politically, these are poems about colonization, suggesting that dispossession is the inevitable lot of small, backward nations” (59). Morrison suggests that Heaney sympathizes with the minority in the character of Antaeus. And as Morrison suggests two that the two Antaeus-poems framed part 1 of the book ‘North’ with its content that shows the successive invasion and colonization. I see it may be a true point of view. Also, it may refer to the status of the poet himself. His struggle with his poetry and himself from neglecting the events and producing the kind of poetry that is metaphorical and full of analogies like Antaeus to the moment he is defeated by Hercules that represents rationality. Finally, he resorts to the direct, explicit, political poetry in part two of the book leaving the myths behind.

The first part contains poems about the history of Northern Ireland and explores many aspects of suppressing Ireland by different invaders. It includes the poem ‘North’, which the collection itself is on its name. In ‘North’, Heaney is asking for an answer to one of his fundamental concerns – the poet’s mission. North is one of the three or four poems of this part that handle that problem or question concerning writing poetry metaphorically or explicitly? In the first stanza, the poet returns to the seaside:

I returned to a long strand,

the hammered curve of a bay,

and found only the secular

powers of the Atlantic thundering.

He stares at the Atlantic towards Iceland and Greenland and the magic of these colonized islands:

I faced the unmagical

invitations of Iceland,

the pathetic colonies

of Greenland, and suddenly

His thoughts go suddenly to the Viking invaders and their places in the Orkneys and in Dublin, their raids, their long swords and long ships:

those fabulous raiders,

those lying in Orkney and Dublin

measured against

their long swords rusting,

And then appears Heaney’s awareness of the danger of using his poetry in violence or in politics. The warning voices inside him appear in his lines:

were ocean-deafened voices

warning me, lifted again

in violence and epiphany.

The longship’s swimming tongue

Heaney has never been a propagandist or opportunist that thrives on the troubles. So he is confused between using the violence in his North or resort to the metaphor, as usual, to express his suffer and to refer to the crisis.

The cycle in Ulster never ends; the cycle of revenge and counter-revenge, blood shedding and the cruel customs of the Vikings still alive there. The memory of violence regenerates violence.

as buoyant with hindsight—

it said Thor’s hammer swung

to geography and trade,

thick-witted couplings and revenges,

the hatreds and behind-backs

of the althing, lies and women,

exhaustions nominated peace,

memory incubating the spilled blood.

The voices of the long ships advices the poetry of the following:

It said, ‘Lie down

in the word-hoard, burrow

the coil and gleam

of your furrowed brain.

As we mentioned that Heaney’s art is for the sake of Art so the voices in his poem are in favor of art and against propaganda. Here we find the inner voice of Heaney ordering him to keep doing what he has been always doing. The voice orders him to write only for art and to put his art a priority. Only talk about the crisis if this art has something to say or to do with this crisis but never put politics before art. The voice tells him to keep digging the darkness and explore what is not explored.

Compose in darkness.

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Expect aurora borealis

in the long foray

but no cascade of light.

Keep your eye clear

as the bleb of the icicle,

trust the feel of what nubbed treasure

your hands have known.

‘North’ depicts the conflict inside Heaney concerning writing poetry and his political attitude in his writings. Whether to be an explicit political poet or stick to his metaphors and analogies in his poetry? To refer to the crisis with clear words or use his images and express in an artistic way?

In part two, Heaney started to articulate the crisis and reflecting upon the surroundings. The poems of this part are less metaphorical and more rational and direct to politics. Particularly in poem ‘When You Say, Say Nothing’, Heaney is reflecting upon current events happened to him or in Ireland. The title stands for what Heaney has called ‘strategies for evasion and compliance’ (Celtic Fringe, Viking Fringe, 254) remembering his mother telling him’ “Whatever you say, say nothing”. This is an indication to the status in Ulster as everyone has to pay attention of he/she is speaking of as saying wrong things lead to dangerous consequences.

The beginning of the poem was written after an encounter between Heaney and an English journalist asking him about his opinion in the Northern Irish Crisis.

I’m writing just after an encounter

With an English journalist in search of ‘views

On the Irish thing’. I’m back in winter

Quarters where bad news is no longer news,

The poet is very annoyed; the reports are chasing locals to ask about how the Irish people feel about their situation. They are chasing the people with their microphones and records to ask them about their feelings as Irish:

Where media-men and stringers sniff and point,

Where zoom lenses, recorders and coiled leads

Litter the hotels.

Heaney is feeling negative and cannot help, he can only realize as Hamlet that:

The times are of joint.

The reports and journalists care about nothing but material for their articles and newspapers. They not even help in the resolution of the conflict and the poet prefers ‘rosary beads’ prayer:

But I incline as much to rosary beads

The poet describing for us the clichés of the journalists and their repeated words everywhere those are meaningless and away from reality. They care about events not related to the conflict:

As to the jottings and analyses

Of politicians and newspapermen

Who’ve scribbled down the long campaign from gas

And protest to gelignite and Sten,

Who proved upon their pulses ‘escalate’,

Backlash’ and ‘crack down’, ‘the provisional wing’,

‘Polarization’ and ‘long-standing hate’.

Then the poet is part of this world and has no way but to engage in the talking and respond to the events:

Yet I live here, I live here too, I sing,

Expertly civil-tongued with civil neighbours

The poet keeps describing events in the following parts of the poem, events in Ulster and the status of people, the authority and the resistance in the city. In the final part, he is describing what he has seen and starts to ask questions about pain and misery and if there is a life before death!

The conflict comes to its climax in the final and finest poem of ‘North’, ‘Exposure’, where the poet is searching for an image out of the problem. It is about the poet’s calling and responsibilities. The poem itself is, to an extent, an analysis for Heaney himself, as he poses a series of questions as a public figure, yet simply another individual. Heaney asks: who is he writing for, who is he needing to represent – the entire Irish community or just the minorities, and ultimately, what is his place in society?

As I sit weighing and weighing

My responsible tristia.

For what? For the ear? For the people?

For what is said behind-backs?

The poem is set in December in Micklow and the poet is in doubt about his role and feels ‘cold’ in the ‘last light’.

It is December in Wicklow:

Alders dripping, birches

Inheriting the last light,

The ash tree cold to look at.

He is searching for the light but all that he sees is a ‘falling star’. Heaney is disappointed because he missed a great opportunity and has to be satisfied with the little he has gained.

a hero

On some muddy compound,

His gift like a slingstone

Whirled for the desperate.

In these lines appears a sense of failure as if the poet has wasted his talent so he is asking:

How did I end up like this?

The drops of raining through the tress evoke in him the conflict between his poetic sense and his responsibility. Heaney is back again to the basic dilemma- aestheticism or commitment, poetry or politics, responsibility to his art or to his community. He does not want to let his people down neither loses the aesthetics of poetry:

Rain comes down through the alders,

Its low conductive voices

Mutter about let-downs and erosions

And yet each drop recalls

The diamond absolutes.

Who is he? And what is his real role?

I am neither internee nor informer;

An inner migr, grown long-haired

And thoughtful; a wood-kerne

He is neither an internee nor an informer; he is just an inner migr. He admits that he moved as a Catholic from North to survive and escape in hope to return back when the situation allows for it.

Escaped from the massacre,

Heaney does not feel ease in his exile and wants to retire and withdraw from the conflict to become a private, neutral, political poet. In the same time, he knows that it is impossible as it is demanded from him to say something about the troubles:

Taking protective colouring

From bole and bark, feeling

Every wind that blows;

In Heaney’s art, protective colouring is the metaphor, analogy, and myth. Heaney uses his background, nature, history, the past, language as protective colouring to speak out. Protective colouring is also an image for his political poetry with its metaphorical aspects.

Yet Heaney is afraid of failure; to miss the comet which stands for Ireland crisis:

For their meagre heat, have missed

The once-in-a-lifetime portent,

The comet’s pulsing rose.

In ‘Exposure’, we find the poet’s conflict between withdrawing and commitment but he decides that the only way is to write his poetry by ‘taking protective colouring’. He settled the issue by his decision to write committed poetry but indirectly through metaphor and analogy.


It can be concluded that Heaney’s journey through poetry is full of confusion and inner conflict. He is tortured between his commitment towards his land and his people and his commitment towards his art. Heaney is sometimes staning for his art and prefers to be away from politics and other times he cannot flee his land’s crisis.

In ‘North’, the poet’s conflict is clear through his poems. The book is considered a good reflection of the poet’s history in writing. In ‘North’, we see Heaney moves between different stages. He is sometimes on the stage of the political man and other on the stage of the poet. And between this and that, he is asking himself about his real role and the role of his poetry.

The ‘North’ book is divided into parts. The first part is considered an extension to the previous works of Heaney. On the other hand, the second part is a direct, explicit, political poetry. The first part is framed by two poems, ‘Antaeus’ and ‘Antaeus and Hercules’, show Heaney’s switching from metaphorical poetry to direct, political poetry. Throughout the first part, Heaney asks himself about the poet’s role. Here we find the inner voice of Heaney ordering him to keep doing what he has been always doing. The voice orders him to write only for art and to put his art a priority. Only talk about the crisis if this art has something to say or to do with this crisis but never put politics before art. The voice tells him to keep digging the darkness and explore what is not explored. Then the citizen inside the poet is awake and beaten in the last poem of part one. Heaney as a poet is depicted in the character of Antaeus in the poem ‘Antaeus and Hercules’ as Antaeus is defeated by Hercules. The poet is defeated and cannot escape the surroundings so that he will write the crisis explicitly in part two of ‘North’.

In part two, Heaney writes explicitly in many poems about Ulster and the events there. In ‘Whatever You Say Say Nothing’, the poem that is into four parts, Heaney writes about a thing happened to him personally and how journalists harsh and chase Irish people everywhere to ask them their feelings as Irish. Heaney speaks the Northern Ireland dilemma directly and using no metaphor in part two and along the rest poems of the part expresses the events explicitly. At the end of the part, Heaney is back to questioning his role in ‘Exposure’ and decides to write metaphorically. He decides to be committed but not away from the aesthetics of poetry and art.

Heaney’s attitude to politics along his life is reflected in his collection ‘North’ and the conflict inside him too.

Works Cited

  1. Morrison, Blake. ‘Seamus Heaney’. London: Methuen, 1982.
  2. Sinner, Alain. ‘Protective Colouring’ – The Political Commitment In the Poetry of Seamus Heaney. Ph.D. thesis. University of Hull,1988.
  3. Parker, Michael. Seamus Heaney: The Making of the Poet. London: The Macmillan Press Ltd, 1993.
  4. Heaney, Seamus. North. London: Faber and Faber Lit, 1975.
  5. ……. Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968-1978. London: Faber and Faber Ltd, 1980.
  6. Qadeer, Haris. ‘ Neither Internee nor Informer: Seamus Heaney – the Poet, the Public Spokesman and the Anthropologist in North’. Explorations. 21 (2010): 1-16
  7. 20-12-2018
  8. Radall, James. ‘An Interview with Seamus Heaney’. Ploughshares, 5/3 (1979), pp.7-22.
  9. Seamus Heaney – Nobel Lecture. Nobel Media AB 2019. Wed. 2 Jan 2019.

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