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Dichotomy In Seamus Heaney’s Poetry Essay

3910 words - 16 pages

Dichotomy in Seamus Heaney’s Poetry

How much does an artist’s life affect the art they produce? One’s art certainly can be an expression of one’s surroundings and in this manner the surroundings are woven like a thread into their body of work. Seamus Heaney, born and raised in Northern Ireland, has grown up with many strong influences in his life that are visible in his poetry. As Robert Buttel claims in his article on Seamus Heaney “the imprint of this poet’s origins is indelibly fixed in his work” (180). Living in the “bogland” as Heaney has described Northern Ireland left an imprint on his poems, as he often depicts the lush green countryside and pastoral scenes of his youth. However, he also acknowledges his modern society. His poems strike a balance between showing the land as it naturally is and acknowledging the influence of society pressing inwards. This certain “splitness” is a theme that carries throughout his life, and so is shown in his art. Living in Ulster, he was raised in a culture with a deep religious cleft in it. His poetry shows how keenly aware he is of the delicate intricacies formed between Catholic and Protestant Irish peoples. Similarly his language reflects “splitness.” His diction can be colloquial and open, full of throaty and blunt words and simple imagery, or it can become lofty, as he utilizes his command of the rich and complex English language. In his works he makes references both to old Irish stories and songs as well as quoting from classic works of literature. His poems alternate between an understated bitterness and anger, to celebration and praise of his friends, family and life. He moves easily from a foreboding, dark tone to words of courage and affirmation. Heaney has been criticized for shying away from making political statements and keeping his poetry more focused on feelings, memory and human relationships. All of these dualities in his poetry, his art, can be linked to his biography. The tense social and political atmosphere he was raised in, the local verses and scholarly education he received, the emotional fluctuations caused by IRA bombings and peace protests all contribute to the “splitness” in his poetry.

This poignant dichotomy is seen explicitly in two poems in Seamus Heaney’s Field Work. One poem, “The Strand at Lough Beg” is written for “Heaney’s cousin Colum McCartney (ambushed and shot in a sectarian killing)” and is rich with pastoral scenery, dark tones, and religious imagery (Vendler 60). Another poem, “A Postcard from North Antrim” is about “his friend the social worker Sean Armstrong (shot by a ‘pointblank teatime bullet’)” (Vendler 60). These two elegies, both with a strong presence of Heaney’s personal voice, are imbued with a sort of ambiguity as Heaney struggles with the death of two people who were both very close to him. In both poems, Heaney “tries to converse with and question the dead” in an attempt to rationalize, or at least display his...

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