Gendered identity in Seamus Heaney’s ‘Act of Union’
In 1801, the political Act of Union created a legislative bond between Great Britain and Ireland, bringing Ireland under British control as part of the “United Kingdom”. Within the poem ‘Act of Union’ Heaney draws upon the double meaning of this titular phrase to compare the long lasting effect of this lawful union with an act of sexual domination.
Within the work, Heaney anthropomorphizes both countries. He compares the geological features of Ireland to the ‘tracked and stretchmarked body’ of a woman, whose most intimate identity - here symbolised by the ‘ferny bed’ and ‘bogland’ is invaded by the phallic ‘battering ram’ of an ‘imperially Male’ invader.
The imposition of the British aggressor is even made apparent through the structure of the work, the two sonnet form stanzas not only highlight the inadequacy of the loveless union, but with their Shakespearean rhyme scheme also imply the cultural dominance of English tradition. The use of half rhymes, such as ‘pulse’ and ‘burst’ or ‘pain’ and ‘within’ leaves the stanzas feeling harsh and disjointed, emphasising the artificial way that the sonnet structure has been imposed upon the work, as the British have been imposed upon the Irish.
Heaney implies British dominance through every aspect of the poem. By writing in the first-person from the British perspective, Ireland is robbed of a voice, described only from the outside, as a series body-parts and geographical characteristics: a ‘heaving province’ of ‘gradual hills’, ‘opened ground’, ‘arms’ and ‘legs’. Britain on the other hand is portrayed through internal dialogue, allowing him to consciously claim his identity when he states: ‘I am the tall kingdom over your shoulder’.
The symbolic performance of dominance that permeates the work leads the reader to a...