Myth in Poetry: Heaney

Seamus Heaney’s first four works progressively evolve a myth of his own (Johnston, 1997, p. 140), a myth of violence and of national and human identity. To understand Heaney’s mythical goddess, we shall first look into ‘The Tollund Man’ poem from his Wintering Out (1972) sequence. In this poem, the narrator, who ‘will stand a long time’, calls himself a ‘bridegroom to the goddess’. She is described as ‘having tightened her torc’ an ‘opened her fen’ upon the Tollund Man figure, ‘Those dark juices working / Him to a saint’s kept body.’

The torc, a ring necklace, quickly associates her with old Celtic culture, while fens, a terrain similar to bogs, associate her with the natural landscape that preserved the body. She is a dark figure, a natural force of death, she denies life (Johnston, 1997, p. 143); and yet the bog is referred to as ‘our holy ground.’ The Tollund Man, as its avatar, is capable of bringing new life to those who died, capable of making germinate the ‘Stockinged corpses/ Laid out in the farmyards.’ The bog symbol – first applied to its fullness in the ‘Bogland’ poem of his Door into the Dark (1969) as a response to the American myth of the frontier (Mcguinn, 1986,p.  37) and as an image adequate for the predicament of Northern Ireland (Collin, 2003, p. 55) – is important because through it Heaney tries to reach into the subconscious of folk memory and explore the relationship of the land with its people (McGuinn, 1986, p. 38). It is no surprise then that the Goddess becomes intrinsically associated with it as she comes to personify not only nature (Mcguinn, 1986, p.  90) but Ireland itself in ‘Bog Queen’ from the North (1975) sequence. Here, as the narrator Mother Ireland figure, she is shown to have been waiting for the people that came to populate her; people that, while robbing her, also cause her to rise. She is very important then for what Heaney calls the nationalist myth (Tobin, 1999: 103), but she is also a dark and damaged figure as can be seen in ‘Punishment’, where the poet addressing her says,

 I am the artful voyeur/ Of your brain’s exposed/ And darkened combs, / Your muscles webbing / And all your numbered bones

Mentioning the  ‘betraying sisters’ and ‘tribal, intimate revenge’ adds a political edge to the poem by referring to the situation between Ireland and England and the whole Northern Ireland conundrum.

The goddess, however, is hardly the only mythical figures that Heaney employs. In his controversial North sequence we also have the use of heroic figures of old and other cultures conjured in order to analyse the current situation of Northern Ireland. They are also used to represent man’s nature as he explores the psychological (Johnston, 1997: 140). While attempting to extend his myth (p.145), North has received mixed reviews as many critics object to the historical parallels arguing that both the sheer brutality and the political overtones make the use of myth seem decorative (Tobin, 1999, pp. 104-5). However, that could hardly be the case as myth is essential for the understanding of the piece. The work, being of a self-consciously literary nature, makes use of epic and myth (p. 105) in such a way that its very success as poetry hinges on its use of such material (p. 106). The summoning forth of warrior figures is done in order to break away from their romanticized conceptions (Bloom, 2003, p. 27). The ‘fabulous raiders’ of ‘North’ have rusty swords, ‘The longship’s swimming tongue’ warns the violence inherent ‘in the word-hoard…’ ‘It said Thor’s hammer swung’ for conquering and profit, the poem makes sure to mention all the decidedly unromantic nature of the past, ‘the hatreds and behindbacks’, ‘thick-witted couplings and revenges’, ‘exhaustions nominated peace’, and warns the poet to ‘Compose in darkness.’ It urges the poet to ‘Keep your eye clear / as the bleb of the icicle,’ so as to not idealize this mythical figures and through them introspect our nature as humans (McGuinn, 1986, p. 92). By bringing forth the Viking origins of Dublin in ‘Viking Dublin: Trial Pieces’ Heaney links them historically with the land and describes them as,

Neighbourly, scoretaking / Killers, haggers /  and hagglers, gombeen-men, /  hoarders of grudges and gain.

Once again it has the effect of demystification by bringing their mundane and vile aspects to the foreground, taking them closer to the reader, as it were, for inspection. The violent language and overall brutality of the work creates a mythic resonance between the Vikings and the killings in Northern Ireland (Malloy and Carey, 1996, p.  91), creating a northern myth of violence and suggesting that the killings are rooted in the past and in human nature (Johnston, 1997,  p. 148). In North ,as the violence of both history and myth combine (Tobin, 1999, p. 104), such violence becomes enlarged and begins to, in the words of ‘Strange Fruit’, ‘to feel like reverence’ so as to represent the inescapable sinister side of man (Johnston, 1999: 145) and nature.

A final example of mythology in Heaney’s poetry comes in the form of ‘Hercules and Antaeus’, the half-giant son of mother earth Gaia and sea god Poseidon, who is defeated by ‘sky-born and royal’ Hercules, son of the Zeus, the thunder god ruler of Olympus, with a mortal. Hercules is associated with light, while Antaeus is associated with darkness in an earlier poem in the sequence eponymously named ‘Antaeus’. Hercules portrayal, however, is not entirely positive as he is described as remorseless. His light is excluding instead of healing and it is due to his victory that, ‘… Balor will die/ and Byrthnoth and Sitting Bull.’  Hercules’ is the force of colonization and dominant cultures which lifts Antaeus ‘out of his element’ (Tobin, 1999, p. 109) and subdues him, while dark Antaeus is given the image of nourishment as ‘pap for the dispossessed.’ His defeat is to be mourned by elegists ‘… a dream of loss / and origins…’ The half-giant is a symbol of nature, of the suppressed. His darkness is the darkness of the unconscious mind kept in check by Hercules’ reason or ‘intelligence.’ Their dichotomised nature and the understanding that Hercules himself dies due to an act of passion by his wife Deianira bring forth the idea of one overcoming another (Tobin 1999, p. 110) in an eternal cycle a yin-yang of light and dark. The poem ends with them still locked in combat reinforcing the idea of a never ending struggle.

By exploring the violence in myth and history, Heaney brings forth the concept of the eternal struggle and tries, much like Hughes, to explore and explain the nature of myth and humanity. Through this understanding he attempts to terms with both the nature of humankind and the situation in the Northern Irish society of the time, so that it can begin to heal its traumas (Hart, 1992, p. 98). His poetry is one that can make one feel ‘lost’  ‘Unhappy’ but also somehow ‘at home’ (‘The Tollund Man’).  Myth in Heaney then is a tool and a means to reach the present situation by approaching it through socially historical established symbols that work at the level of cultural subconscious, the analysis of the creation of myth and its nature is as important to the work as its own historical context, the metaphoric content taking the poems beyond their immediate historical context and giving them a larger depth of meaning creating a mythos of its own and developing a sense of identity both political and human through it.


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