Sounds in print, worlds below: Seamus Heaney’s deepening words

Noel Rowe


Seamus Heaney’s poetry seems, at first sight, safely suited to an interest in the relationships between the global and the local. Even a reader who knows it is no longer permissible to speak of “universal human truths” can take comfort in the “global” appeal of a poetry celebrated for its precisely sensuous descriptions of place, its quest for origins and continuities, its ritualising, reconciling response to violence. What happens, though, when such a reader starts to learn what other readers think? Some critics claim that Heaney’s is a poetry in which sound substitutes for sense. Others assert his quest for origins and continuities is an escape from immediate actualities. Still others argue among themselves about whether Heaney’s is a poetry too much or too little engaged in the politics of Northern Ireland. Is it possible to make sense(s) of Heaney’s “global” appeal in the context of a complex of different readings (keeping in mind that “global” may signal a complex rather than a simple effect, a compact of difference rather than a single, uniform agreement)? This essay seeks to address that question by exploring some different readings of Heaney’s work and by standing (not choosing) between the differences. It takes a clue, a cue, from Heaney’s originary symbol of place: Mossbawn the family farm, is “the realm of division”, combining a Norse word for bog (“moss”) with an English or Scottish word for foot (“bawn”) and geographically situated between Toome Bridge and Castledawson. In Heaney’s words, this place is “a symbolic placing for a Northern Catholic, to be in-between the marks of nationalist local sentiment on the one hand, and the marks of colonial and British presence on the other.”

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