My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Thinking, for what should be obvious reasons, about previous Anglophone poets who won the Nobel Prize, I decided to read this, Seamus Heaney’s first collection, published in 1966. All the virtues we’ve heard about and know from the anthology pieces—the dense sonic texture of the poems, their thickness like that of the matter they describe, a verbal impasto thickened with slant-rhyme, alliteration, and assonance—are there in full in the poet’s debut. I analyze what I think it all means:
Two famous poems bookend the collection: “Digging,” in which the poet’s art is explained as a a sublimation of his father’s and grandfather’s rural farm labor, their traditionally masculine role that the speaker, like Hamlet and Telemachus before him, cannot adopt for himself (“But I’ve no spade to follow men like them”), as a substitute for which he supplies his pen in place of their excavator’s tool; and “Personal Helicon,” in which the poet’s art is explained as a sublimation of his own childhood play, when he would “pry into roots,” “finger slime,” and “stare, big-eyed Narcissus, into some spring”—now that these occupations are “beneath all adult dignity,” he makes rhymes instead, “to set the darkness echoing,” reprising juvenile narcissism as adult creation.
In these poems, Heaney seems to see poetry as a modest art: in naturalizing his art, Heaney eschews the visionary quality of Shelley or Yeats, the social mission theorized by Wordsworth or Eliot. But Heaney’s view of a poetry that grows organically out of the soil and slime, out of the roots and wells—and which is linked to sexual processes and development (his father’s spade and his own pen are phalluses, just his earlier “pry[ing] into roots” is masturbation)—reconceives the poet’s vocation as an adjunct to the growth of the nation from its native soil, the evolution of labor into art and narcissism into generation. In the guise of modesty, Heaney travels as postcolonial bard rhyming the suppressed nation into a new existence.
Several poems toward the end of the collection reinforce Heaney’s understanding of poetry as he canvasses and dismisses alternative approaches. “Saint Francis and the Birds” envisions poetry as a completely natural and also holy act—the saint’s demonstration of love by releasing the birds into the air: they “like images took flight”—a beautiful gesture, obviously unavailable in the middle twentieth century. “In Small Townlands,” evoking an itinerant painter, gives us the artist as visionary, forging the landscape in perceiving it—
His eyes, thick, greedy lenses, fire
This bare bald earth with white and red,
Incinerate it till it’s black
And brilliant as a funeral pyre:
A new world cools out of his head.
—precisely the Yeatsian idealism Heaney refuses for himself, because its perception is “greedy” and because it arrogantly kills the landscape to recreate it. And in “The Folk Singers,” Heaney shows himself not to be a simple-minded populist, as he scorns the arts of the volk as “narcotic strumming” that “strikes a pose / Like any rustic new to the bright town,” a pleasing minstrelsy implicitly far inferior to the modern poet’s conscious artistry, which enlivens rather than pacifying the audience and challenges their image of the patria rather than reifying it.
“Poem,” dedicated to Heaney’s wife, is generically titled because it reaffirms the logic underlying the others as the speaker tells us that his childhood construction of mud fortifications is fulfilled in adulthood by his marriage, “within our golden ring”—which, as readers of Shakespeare will remember, is synonymous with the vagina. Having attained via the pen the phallus, the poet now completes the circuit and generates both poetry and progeny.
With his poetic authority certified, Heaney can pronounce on political matters. There are public poems in the collection, some more successful than others. Two poems about the potato famine: “At a Potato Digging” captures the blight in the other nature poem’s grotesque imagery that suggests the national history explaining just why Heaney’s pastoral is in general so Gothic (“you still smell the running sore”); and “For the Commander of the Eliza,” about an English ship captain who wanted to aid the starving Irish but knew that he could not because he would be refused by his superiors in the name of laissez-faire, is an outraged satire on the rational calculating intellect to which the poetic mind, with its rhyming and ringing, is subliminally opposed:
Sir James, I understand, urged free relief
For famine victims in the Westport Sector
And earned tart reprimand from good Whitehall.
Let natives prosper by their own exertions;
Who could not swim might go ahead and sink.
“The Coast Guard with their zeal and activity
Are too lavish” were the words, I think.
Other public poems are less successful, particularly “Docker,” a condescending portrait of a violent Protestant laborer in a pub (“Mosaic imperatives bang home like rivets; / God is a foreman with certain definite views”).
One of the collection’s most famous poems, “Mid-Term Break,” about the death of the poet’s brother in childhood, is universally celebrated, but I have to say, at the risk of sounding heartless, I do not care for it. Just as certain forms of humility are self-aggrandizing, certain modes of artistic restraint indulge sentimentality by other means, and the poem’s celebrated last line, faux-laconically explaining the significance of the length of the child’s coffin, “A four foot box, a foot for every year,” makes me feel like Oscar Wilde reading about the death of Little Nell.
The collection is called Death of a Naturalist because the naturalist had to die for the poet to be born. The poet, though, is at his best in his poems of nature, whether seen in the wild or transfigured through rural labor. For the pastoral poet to be sovereign in the nation, the sovereignty of nature must be circumscribed by the poems. But for poetry to be great rather than merely good, the poet must testify to what he cannot master—the repressed has to return, otherwise we could just content ourselves with folk songs and church sermons and the language of state. Where does this happen in Death of a Naturalist?
Everywhere, and from the start. In “Digging,” the poet’s pen is not only his father’s spade, but the nationalist or revolutionary’s gun—poetry is sublimated labor and also sublimated violence, which is the hopeful reading of the simile describing the pen (“snug as gun”), but a less hopeful reading tells us that violence no less than art comes out of soil and tradition. A tour-de-force poem about trout systematically compare the fish themselves to guns, finding the supposed artifice of men’s violence far further down the evolutionary scale; and the extraordinary poem about drowning cats, “The Early Purges,” will prevent anyone from romanticizing rusticity even as its hard-headed pragmatism forbids the urban liberal from looking down his nose:
Still, living displaces false sentiments
And now, when shrill pups are prodded to drown
I just shrug, ‘Bloody pups’. It makes sense:
‘Prevention of cruelty’ talk cuts ice in town
Where they consider death unnatural
But on well-run farms pests have to be kept down.
Now we are prepared to understand the title poem, in which the speaker, the little boy-naturalist, finds his love of slimy nature defeated (and simultaneously assumed into poetry) when he encounters the real monarchs of the landscape:
Right down the dam gross bellied frogs were cocked
On sods; their loose necks pulsed like sails. Some hopped:
The slap and plop were obscene threats. Some sat
Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting.
I sickened, turned, and ran. The great slime kings
Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew
That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.
This is not the Romantic sublime, which, while lordly, is clean and purifying and kin to the poet’s imagination; for Heaney, the imagination itself is the product of a muck and a slime and a scum and a sex of which it will never be lord, and which forges rings and guns and poems as it spawns the formless frogs. Hooped in slant rhyme, alliteration, and assonance, the “great slime kings” are recreated in sound, a poetic act more like ancient rite of propitiation than the state-of-the-art gestures Heaney elsewhere adopts as Nobel-worthy poet of postcolonialism. The gun is in the landscape, the frog is in the poem, you fuck and you fight within the golden ring—the bard’s authority is much less absolute than it seems, and here Heaney attains a real modesty, not the fashionable, phony diffidence of the postmodern artist but the panic (from Pan, delirium-inducing god of nature and sex) of the boy eye-to-eye with the vast inhumanity that underlies all seeming sense and meaning.
I end with the collection’s penultimate poem, “The Play Way,” a reminiscence of Heaney’s days as a schoolteacher (he sportively toys with Eliot: “Mixing memory and desire with chalk dust”) when he would have his students do a free-writing exercise while listening to Beethoven. His student’s response, as the “big sound” “silenc[es] them,” is obviously the response Heaney hopes to elicit from his readers—not the pacifications of folk song or the obeisance due the visionary, but thoughtful, troubled reflection, as of the child’s face in the well, shattered by nature or by his own falling body:
A silence charged with sweetness
Breaks short on lost faces where I see
New looks. Then notes stretch taut as snares. They trip
To fall into themselves unknowingly.
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