Today, I have been requested to share my thoughts on Seamus Heaney’s poetry. While this teaching method may differ from what you are used to, I trust that all of you will gain something valuable from my insights. My aim is for each of you to depart with a profound appreciation for Heaney’s talent and an inclination to ponder the significance behind his written verses. Instead of analyzing each poem individually, which could potentially lead to uncertainty about their origins, I have opted to organize this discussion thematically. Therefore, I will compare four of my preferred Heaney poems categorized into three distinct topics.
In my selection of poems (‘A Constable Calls’, ‘The Forge’, ‘The Skunk’, and ‘A Call’), I have observed three recurring themes in Heaney’s work: Love, Time, and Isolation. During my study of Heaney’s poetry, I discovered that he portrays Love in various ways. The first manifestation of Love he explores is the type that is familiar to all, whether through personal experience or the everyday encounters we witness.
This passage discusses the love that Heaney has for his wife, as depicted in his poem ‘The Skunk’. The poem provides a detailed depiction of a skunk that Heaney encounters while he is away for work and how he compares the skunk to his wife. Despite the initial impression of comparing a loved one to a skunk, Heaney manages to see beyond the foul smell associated with skunks and portrays them as elegant and enchanting creatures. In the poem, Heaney describes the skunk as “the intent and glamorous, ordinary, mysterious skunk” and eagerly awaits its arrival each night as if it were a esteemed visitor. This poem completely omits any notion of the skunk being repugnant in any way.
The light in both “desk light softened” and “small oranges loomed” creates sensual images, representing a dim and relaxed atmosphere that symbolizes the loving and calm relationship between Heaney and his wife. This love and comparison are evident in the skunk’s ability to inspire Heaney to write love letters to his wife, even after eleven years together. The skunk’s tail parading around night after night prompts Heaney to think of experiences of an erotic nature, such as inhaling his wife off a cold pillow after a mouthful of wine. These memories likely stem from their time as young lovers. In contrast to the love between Heaney and his wife in “The Skunk,” the love depicted in “The Forge” is that of an artist for their work.
The significance of the poem lies primarily in Heaney’s emphasis on the protagonist’s everyday tools, which the protagonist himself would probably see as ordinary. The blacksmith’s vocation is depicted as something artistic or musical, with the sound of the “short pitched ring” and the “hiss” of the shoe toughening serving as audible imagery that allows us to hear as the blacksmith hears while working with the bellows. The word “bellow” used in this sentence has an ambiguous meaning, as it can be interpreted literally or used as a synonym for a shout or song. The love conveyed in this poem is more apparent to the reader or Heaney himself, while the blacksmith would likely take his love for his art for granted.
The final form of love seen in Heaney’s poetry is the tabooed love he has for his father, which recurs in several of his poems. This love is evident in both ‘A Constable Calls’ and ‘A Call’ where Heaney uses his father as the central figure, depicting a lack of openness or communication between them regarding their emotions. Many people can relate to being in a relationship where they find it unnecessary to verbalize their feelings for each other. Heaney’s poems are well-written in a way that connects with most individuals, evoking this type of love and emotion. Throughout his life, Heaney has cared for his father, from observing him dealing with a constable with “arithmetic and fear” to envisioning him working meticulously in the garden, “Touching, inspecting, separating one stalk from the other.”
The last line of ‘A Call’ by Seamus Heaney demonstrates evidence of love that is unspoken or simply present: “I nearly said I loved him.” Heaney consistently explores the love between himself and his father throughout his work, revealing how this relationship functioned. Another recurring theme in Heaney’s poetry is the stark contrast to love, which is being alone and isolated. The speaker in many poems is often left to his own devices, contemplating various aspects of his life.
The poet’s perception of isolation as positive, negative, or indifferent differs in his various poems. In “A Constable Calls,” he portrays a sense of isolation in his parents’ lives. Heaney views his father as a figure of authority, as is common for most children. However, when the Constable visits their home, he witnesses his father displaying a sense of fear for possibly the first time while being questioned by the “boot of the law.”
The poem explores the sense of isolation and fear caused by the bombings in the North during Heaney’s youth. This feeling continues until the end when the sound of a ticking bicycle serves as a reminder of the bombs and the general feeling of helplessness they brought. ‘A Call’ primarily focuses on Heaney’s thoughts while waiting for his father to answer the phone. He reflects on the significance of his father in his life. Through this experience of isolation, Heaney concludes that death could come to anyone, as shown by the line “This is how Death would summon Everyman”. This sense of isolation is portrayed as more positive compared to the fear-filled isolation in ‘A Constable Calls’. The difference in attitude may be attributed to the absence of tension in this situation and the opportunity for Heaney to think about someone he loves and something more positive.
In ‘The Skunk’, Heaney reflects on his isolation in California and how it affects his thoughts about his wife. Despite feeling a negative sense of loneliness, symbolized by the scent of eucalyptus, the skunk ultimately leads him to write her a love letter after years of separation. This gradual isolation is depicted through images of a silent refrigerator and Heaney feeling tense like a voyeur. In contrast, ‘The Forge’ presents a different perspective on isolation, as the blacksmith carries out his duties indifferently.
The speaker admits to having little knowledge of the blacksmith and the forge. He has only seen them from the outside, never having been inside or experienced them firsthand. Being from a more educated background, he is unlikely to work as a tradesperson and is puzzled by the sight of old tools left outside. Though these tools may appear neglected, they are still useful and much more durable than the tools of the speaker’s trade. To illustrate this point, the speaker mentions how a laptop or pen and paper left outside would quickly become unusable. The speaker also reveals his lack of familiarity with the forge by stating that he believes the anvil must be somewhere in the center, but cannot be certain since he is not actively present in the forge. In contrast, the blacksmith leads a secluded life away from education and may not realize that his work is considered an art form. He is able to express himself through his actions more powerfully than many educated individuals can with their extensive vocabularies.
Heaney expresses that he puts a great deal of effort and creativity into his work, and with skillful technique, he can create something as extraordinary as a unicorn. Additionally, Heaney explores the theme of time and its passage, and how he uses it in his poems to represent change. Continuing from my previous point, in ‘The Forge’, time is used to illustrate the artistic process and the progress made by the blacksmith. The iron hoops, which have been used for many years, show signs of wear from being handled by the blacksmith. Heaney mentions that the blacksmith is occasionally seen wearing a leather apron, indicating his long-standing experience in this profession.
Heaney uses time as a theme in both ‘The Skunk’ and ‘A Constable Calls’. In ‘The Skunk’, he reveals how time has affected his marriage by mentioning how long it has been since he wrote love letters to his wife. This suggests that over time, he has started to assume that their marriage is filled with enough love and he no longer feels the need to express his emotions to her. The skunk’s visits teach him that he should still view his wife with the same love as when they were younger. This raises the question of whether we all become like this over time and whether neglected love can become passive. In ‘A Constable Calls’, time creates tension in the atmosphere. Heaney’s father is being questioned about his land, and during this time, there is a growing fear of the “black hole in the barracks”. As a child, Heaney doesn’t fully grasp the reality of the situation and the era he is growing up in, making time a significant theme in the poem.
The concept of the bicycle departing and its “tick” three times evokes a sense of anticipation. Heaney creates ambiguity regarding whether this refers to the movement of the bike’s spokes, the ticking of an inevitable bomb of horror, or the passage of time since his youth. The poem that best aligns with the theme of time is “A Call,” in which Heaney experiences a lengthy waiting period for his mother to retrieve his father from the garden. Throughout the time he spent with his father, Heaney became familiar with the rituals of weeding, as evidenced by his description of his father “down on his hands and knees beside the leek rig.” These images, accumulated over years of observation, serve as inspiration for the poem. Time plays a crucial role in the third stanza as well, where Heaney finds himself “listening to the amplified grave ticking of hall clocks” after a brief daydream. This highlights the continuous passage of time; although Heaney can mentally return to watch his father working and see how he used to be, he cannot remain in that present moment. Time will persist without regard for people’s opinions and desires.
Despite the lack of action during Heaney’s experience, time continues to pass and the “sunstruck pendulums” never cease. Thank you all for taking the time to listen to me today. My hope is that each of you can recognize the brilliance of Seamus Heaney and leave here with a desire to delve deeper into his poems. It should be noted that these themes discussed are not the only noteworthy ones in Heaney’s poetry. For instance, themes of death can be found in Mid-term Break or The Early Purges, and the theme of darkness is prevalent in The Underground.
Seamus Heaney, an extraordinary poet who defies all limits in his writing, is someone I find to be truly remarkable. I aspire that today I have successfully conveyed my admiration for him, but there is no question that if he had crafted this speech on my behalf, he would undeniably have astonished you. Thank you.