VOICES FROM THE MARCHES – boundaries and transmutations in the poetry of Seamus Heaney

image source www.public-domain-image.comBy Ratnagarbha.

Seamus Heaney’s most recent collection Electric Light opens with a short poem in which he brings to mind a place called Toomebridge, where the waters of Lough Neagh pour over a weir and become the river Bann.

As one would expect from Heaney both the lie of the land and what happens there, the geographical and social contours of that particular place, become emblematic of many other concerns. Personal concerns, philosophical and linguistic probings, not to mention the wider issues facing the society in which the place stands, all of these are addressed in this ten line verse.

Furthermore, as with so many of his shorter pieces, the themes touched on do not seem to have been implanted on the place by some poetic sleight of hand. The effect is that what the poet finds there does indeed arise quite naturally out of the place and its particular qualities.

So the question arises, how is it that Heaney is able to find so much in one tiny snapshot of a scene? Indeed how is it that in poem after poem, throughout a writing career that now spans almost forty years, Heaney has almost always been able to find similar degrees of rich allusion and reflection in memories of simple scenes and domestic objects from his childhood?

No doubt there are many ways of addressing this question, of trying to uncover some of Heaney’s essential ‘tricks’, the inner workings of his poetic skill. Here, however, I want to focus on one particular approach and look at a particular class of images which I believe are at the heart of much of his best work. This is the theme of boundaries.

Boundaries in their broadest sense are regions where one kind of experienced terrain, whether inner or outer, geographical, social, or on any other level of experience, gives way to another. Included within this are the particular tensions that arise at boundaries, the special stresses and fault lines that must be negotiated when we cross them. Also relevant are the pressures felt when one is conscious of not being at a boundary, but nevertheless knowing that it is there, feeling that some kind of energy – a ‘voice’, metaphorically speaking – calls from that boundary, attracting or repelling depending on one’s mood or disposition.

Of course, in dealing with Heaney’s as with any other modern Irish poet’s work, the question of political and social boundaries looms large. Much has been made of this, both by Heaney himself in his eloquent writings on his poetic vocation and by commentators upon him.

My intention here, however, is to look at the whole question as broadly as possible, to discover the ways in which Heaney’s sense of what might be called the ‘uncanniness’ of boundary zones encompasses far more than the immediate concerns of his homeland.

Let us return, then, to that boundary where the waters of a large lough (the derivation is the same as that for the Scottish loch) pour over a weir to form the totemic river of Heaney’s childhood, to which he refers again and again throughout his career – the Bann.

The first stanza both sets the scene and evokes a broad symbolic backdrop for it:


Where the flat water

Came pouring over the weir out of Lough Neagh

As if it had reached the edge of the flat earth

And fallen shining to the continuous

Present of the Bann.


Immediately the reader finds himself placed in a strange, somewhat ungraspable zone, where one kind of landscape shifts into another; a place in which a transmutation of some kind takes place. Here the waters that have laid themselves out in a flat tableau, stretching for some ten miles or so and ringed by distant hills, suddenly plunge away from the lake into the river below.

We are not told whether the scene is a spectacular one, whether the weir is large, or whether the waters roar and churn, but this is not the poet’s concern. Quite probably, taking the cue from so much of Heaney’s other work, the scene is in fact not particularly dramatic or startling. What interests him is not some romantic sensation, an intimation of ‘the sublime’, or suchlike, but the simple facts before him. What was flat and contained suddenly falls – catching the light; ‘shining’ – into the valley below.

These apparently simple sensations then lead us immediately into two fairly complex images.

The flat surface of the lake reminds Heaney of the old image for the edge of the world, where the waters of the encircling world ocean met the greater encircling void, the unknown regions beyond the earth.

No doubt many a child from the ‘unenlightened’ centuries before the modern age has asked: ‘Where do all the waters go?’ and ‘Why doesn’t the ocean run dry?’. Heaney’s deft allusion to the flat earth at this point evokes just such a childlike unknowingness mixed with wonder and curiosity. For it is here, where one terrestrial reality or ‘world’ shifts to another, that the ‘primitive’ state of mind – whether of childhood or of earlier cultures – where what is imagined is as real as what is seen, may make its way into our adult consciousness.

But what did the ancients believe about what lay beyond the confines of the world ocean? Setting aside simple stories of elephants or tortoises supporting the earth which many cultures seem to have entertained themselves with, the general sense, in Europe at least, was that a relatively bounded space in which the four elements had their proper dwelling places, the sub-lunar regions, was succeeded, beyond the moon, by a zone in which the terrestial rules of time and causation no longer applied. The heavenly bodies and their nine spheres existed in a pure realm, where they moved in their grand cycles but did not change from age to age – a kind of prefiguration of the complete and timeless perfection of Heaven, which lay ‘behind’ the ninth sphere of the fixed stars.

Some vague sense of this background, at least, is required to interpret the last two lines above. The waters of the world ocean, Lough Neagh in Heaney’s imagination, fall off the earth into the zones where time and space, if not entirely suspended, are not what they are on the earth. The river becomes the ‘continuous present’ of a place where things do not grow old and change as they do here below.

At first, perhaps, it seems rather odd that Heaney should see the opposite of earthbound mutability in a river. But think for a moment of the actual experience of staring into a swiftly flowing stream, something all of us have done at one time or another. There is a sense of continuous flow, inexorable, endless change, but no sense of objects graspable in the normal sense that are changing.

This is entirely unlike the mutation we notice when the face of a loved one, for example, grows stretched and haggard in the course of a serious illness. Here a known object shifts, and becomes something still recognisable but not the same. In the flowing of a river we are lost in a chimera of sounds and forms forever flowing away from us, none of them graspable except by the loose generalisations of ‘water’, or ‘flowing’.

So in this sense the idea of a ‘continuous present’ seems highly appropriate to that of a river at its source. It is the ‘present’ of experience continually renewed, but never susceptible to being pinned down as this object or that.

To this experience of continuous present the grammatical tense of the same name rather mysteriously bears some relation – the act of saying ‘water is flowing’ invokes, yet also takes us away from, the actual experience.

Nevertheless, it is surely also true that our experience of the present would be different if that construction was not available to us – imagine the English language with no ‘continous present’, no means to distinguish ‘I walk’, from ‘I am walking’.

But in the midst of these linguistic reflections, just lightly touched on by Heaney, we should not forget that they are not the principal focus of the poem. Rather, Heaney is most interested in the fact that one kind of perception, that of the flat bounded surface, is here being lost to another, so that one cannot tell which is the ‘real’ experience – the flatness, or the flow that it gives way to.

It is in the boundary between the two, the shifting of the one to the other, and the tensions that this implies, that the real energy of the poem lies. This is revealed more explicitly in the second stanza:


Where the checkpoint used to be.

Where the rebel boy was hanged in ’98.

Where negative ions in the open air

Are poetry to me. As once before

The slime and silver of the fattened eel.


Here, instead of simply saying that this place has a strange, uncanny atmosphere (as a lesser poet might have done), Heaney expresses his sense of the place with two highly contrasting images. It is as if, from the fault lines where these two worlds, that of still water and that of water flowing, come together – from the energy generated by their meeting (as energy and disturbance arises where the tectonic plates of the earth’s crust meet and move) – these two arresting, disturbing images arise.

Firstly we have the ‘rebel boy’ who ‘was hanged in ’98’: this refers to Roddy McCorley who was hanged by the Crown forces in 1798 on the bridge at Toome, during the United Irishmen rebellion where the rebels were mainly Presbyterian. Secondly, a natural image, the startling appearance of a live eel from the waters.

Before exploring these images in more depth it will be useful to glean some background information on Heaney’s response to political boundaries in general.

In his essay ‘Something to write home about’, first broadcast by the BBC in 1998, now published in the collection Finders Keepers, Heaney has much to say about this kind of political and social boundary:

Its hard to grow up in Northern Ireland and not be forced into second thoughts, sooner or later. With so much division around, people are forever encountering boundaries that bring them up short.

He goes on to talk about a particular division that ran right next to his own home: that between the diocese of Derry and the diocese of Armagh. This social and ecclesiastical boundary was invisible to the naked eye but deeply felt by the inhabitants of the two neigbouring parishes. They were aware of the very different character of the two regions, one running towards the mountains of Donegal and the western ocean, the other towards the border and the Irish heartlands of the Boyne.

Thus, for the young Heaney, to walk but a few hundred yards to collect some milk entailed crossing this border, which was marked by the culvert of the Sluggan stream, hidden under the road. To undertake this crossing, he says, made him aware of a “mysterious sense of distance and division.” His sense of  “living on two sides of a boundary” was emphasised every time he undertook that simple domestic task of collecting milk.

Nearby, where the river Moyola ran through his home district, the sense of boundaries was more explicit, more overtly social, for on one side of the river was the village of his mother’s people, Castledawson – a “spick and span English mill village”, modern and orderly with its slated terraces – while on the other side stood the predominantly Catholic and nationalist village of Ballyscullion, where his father’s people lived in thatched cottages out in the fields, and heard the “cattle roaring”, rather than the mill horn summoning the workers.

Sadly, Heaney as yet has left us no poem about his younger self, out in the middle of the Moyola on that stone bridge, feeling in his bones that the river itself was a border zone, though he has written much else about the boundaries and divisions he felt around him – for example in ‘Terminus’, named after the Roman God of boundaries, where he says “I grew up in between”.

What emerges clearly however is that the felt sense of political and social boundaries worked on his imagination with a strange power that is not easy for him to describe. It is not simply (though it is partly) a tragic sense of living in a divided country, inhabited by different ‘tribes’ as it were, overrunning each other’s maps and claiming each other’s territory. In the essay cited above he tries to express this with the idea that facing such divisions awakened him to a sense that life constantly forces us to take into account opposing claims – ‘second thoughts’ – different versions of what is true and good:

Second thoughts are an acknowledgement that the truth is bounded by different tearmanns [the Irish for specially marked off ecclesiastic lands, from the Latin terminus]; that it has to take cognisance of opposing claims.

If one says ‘too many cooks spoil the broth’, another says ‘many hands make light work’… ‘Ulster is British,’ says one; ‘Ulster is Uladh, an ancient province of Ireland,’ says the other. On one side of the march drain you say ‘potato’. On the other side I say ‘pottato’. Such contradictions are part of being alive as a member of the human species. But in Northern Ireland they have attained a special local intensity.

In the poem ‘At Toomebrige’, however, Heaney takes a different and perhaps more powerful approach to evoking this sense of the special qualities of boundary zones. Suddenly, out of nowhere as it were, we are confronted with two images that appear to arise in his mind’s eye directly out of his sense of this place and its particular resonances.

Firstly we have the hanged boy. This hanging has been recounted in local folksong to the present day and would have been a terrible, grisly sight by the roadside. Immediately, resonances derived from many corners of our culture crowd into the mind – the Tarot card of the hanged man signifying death and rebirth; any number of tragic romantic tales; and all of this heightened by the fact that it is a boy, as if innocence itself has been brutally murdered.

Heaney is dealing with loaded material here and it is well, perhaps, that he does not attempt to describe the hanged boy. What we are left with is a sense that divisions and boundaries are not simply to do with a quiet, ‘poetic’ sense of distance and division. Boundaries tear people apart; tear families apart; tear cultures apart; tear, in the end, the mind itself apart, if they are not faced and dealt with.

But rather than leave us with this bleak image, Heaney summons up something else, something quite different, mysterious and at the same time highly typical of his poetic stance. This time it is a specific memory, one of the hundreds of intensely encountered, vividly felt objects that crowd his poetry. He offers us an eel with its “slime and silver”, presumably once held up before him, perhaps caught unexpectedly in the fishing line, and emblazoning itself on his mind with its writhing stangeness, plucked from the alien element of water (apparently, Toombridge has been associated with eel fishing for centuries.)

The eel does not arise out of nowhere. First Heaney states that, for him, even such terrible associations as the sectarian killing are part and parcel of what makes him a poet. Drawing on the scientific idea that swift running water strips oxygen atoms of an electron and creates negatively charged particles, ions, which have a somewhat exhilarating effect on the mind, he says that even such terrors as this are “poetry to me.” They are strange, startling, uncanny – from another realm, like the eel, arisen from the ‘continuous present’ of the water element, with its long, fat, silvery body so unlike even a fish, let alone a beast of the land.

And so we are left, in this poem at least, with a peculiar, rather unsettling sense of something dangerous and violent arising at the border, arising from the ‘march’ of one place against another, to use the word in the sense Heaney exploits in ‘Terminus’, a verb meaning “to be bordered by, to be matched up to yet marked off from”.

But what we have here is far from being simply those qualities in their sensational, horrifying, ‘newspaper headline’ sense. These three images – the waters dropping from the Lough, the hanged boy, the eel – each with their own particular voice, are juxtaposed bluntly, with little by way of explanation. They simply are what the place is to him – “poetry to me”. It is left to the reader to work out how their enjambment adds to our sense of Heaney as a poet.

While some might sense an evasion of some kind – not quite facing the true brutality of the act and its aftermath – I would wish to emphasise that here Heaney seems to be undertaking something courageous. He will not be battered down by brutality and horror, but will use the resources of his love for the land, his love for language, ultimately his poetic gift itself, to find strength in confronting those facts; the strength to walk on the marches and not flinch from what he finds.

As he says in ‘Terminus’:


I was the march drain and the march drain’s banks

Suffering the limits of each claim.


‘At Toombridge’, then, seems to be an excellent illustration of what Heaney has said of himself – that living in the knowlege of ‘both sides of the river’ affected him deeply from an early age.

Indeed, this poem seems to go much further than simply ‘taking cognisance of opposing claims’. Earlier in the same essay Heaney speaks of boundaries as possessing a double capacity, or rather that they remind human beings of their own double capacity – “the capacity to be attracted at one and the same time to what is intimately known and the challenges and entrancements of what is beyond us”.

So here – at Toomebrige, even more than in the poem ‘Terminus’ that Heaney himself discusses in this way (it may not even have been written when he wrote that essay; certainly it was published three years later) – we find that double stress, that ambivalence of attraction and repulsion. In Terminus, the idea of ‘growing up in-between’ is held up for reflection, illustrated with telling examples:


Two buckets were easier carried than one,

I grew up in between.

My left hand placed the standard iron weight.

My right tilted a last grain in the balance.

Baronies, parishes met where I was born

When I stood on the central stepping stone

I was the last earl on horseback in midstream

Still parleying in earshot of his peers.


Not least the old earl of Tyrone, the last native leader to resist the English Tudor armies, at parley with his enemies, released by the river below and the sky above him while held entirely trapped by the forces of history around him, the armies on each side of the bank.

In ‘at Toombrige’, however, the historical distance is removed and the poet himself seems to be undergoing these tensions at first hand. He places himself directly on the fault lines “where the flat water came pouring”, and must face directly the difficult forces that come into play there, the ‘negative ions’ of history. And, as we have seen, the tensions, if not resolved, are powerfully enacted by the two images that he brings into play.

Overall the sense is that in this later poem Heaney has allowed himself to be ‘wrung out’ by the tensions, to be stretched and changed by them. As he says in ‘Border Campaign’, later in the collection: “when I heard the word attack… it left me winded, left nothing between me and the sky…”

What ‘leaves us winded’, in the end, must be a sense that life does not always continue in a placid, predetermined course; may in fact cease altogether. And increasingly, in his last three collections, Heaney has been approaching that final border zone, where life marches against death, and from which, even if we are not facing it directly, disturbing calls and prefigurations arise.

One such prefiguration, of course, is the death of those we know, and Electric light in fact contains a considerable number of elegies for dead poets and dead friends – not least Ted Hughes, “pounded like a shore by the roller griefs”.

In the 1991 collection Seeing Things, however, the mood is less direct. Heaney seeks various mythological images to mediate between himself and the implacable.

The collection opens with a translation from the Aeneid, where Aeneas meets the sibyl of Cumae at the gateway to Hades. The sibyl warn Aeneas that:


Day and night black pluto’s door stands open.

But to retrace your steps and get back to upper air,

This is the real task and the real undertaking.


Then, at the close of the collection, there is that other well known entry to the underworld, that of Dante, in company with him who wrote the Aeneid, Virgil, crossing the river of death in the boat of Charon, whose “eyes are like hot coals fanned.”

Between these two, and especially in the dense, metaphysical collection of forty-eight twelve line lyrics entitled ‘Squarings’ we have numerous encounters with the unknown, where various presences from the border lands of birth appear to Heaney.

The poet is drawn by these sirens but retains his purchase in the upper air, as we would expect with Heaney, by a rich and varied use of domestic images, plus many anecdotes from his long, much travelled life.

I will focus here on just three of the ‘Squarings’ lyrics:


Shifting brilliancies. Then winter light

In a doorway, and on the stone doorstep

A beggar shivering in sillouette.

So the particular judgement might be set:

Bare wallstead and cold hearth rained into –

Bright puddle where the soul free cloud life roams.

And after the commanded journey, what?

Nothing magnificent, nothing unknown.

A gazing out from far away, alone.

And it is nothing particular at all,

Just old truth dawning: there is no next time round.

Unroofed scope. Knowledge-freshening wind.


Here, in the first of the Squarings sequence, the poet encounters an emissary from the strange, mutable zones that haunt the entire sequence. This messenger is nothing more than a beggar glimpsed in a doorway; perhaps a memory from his varied travels, or perhaps just a sight from a run down quarter of Dublin or Belfast.

The place is not important; what is vital is that this tiny glimpse – the outcast figure of a human being, shivering in a doorway – reminds him of what is implacable, the given truth about his life – all life – the ‘particular judgement’; what cannot be avoided; that which must be faced.

For some reason – and this is highly typical of Heaney – this sense of the unavoidable, the given, roused by the sight of another rather wretched human being, immediately leads him across the threshold, so to speak, to the inside, and behind the figure in the doorway to an encounter with certain domestic icons from his copious store of personal touchstones.

And so we have the ‘bare wallstead’ in some humble room, and a cold, empty hearth where the humble chimney is so simply built that the rain falls down it; and even the light from above is reflected in a ‘bright puddle’ on the bare hearthstone.

Clearly a very simple, rustic hut or cottage is envisaged here; perhaps a memory from Heaney’s own childhood, or perhaps simply imagined. Either way, this simple place is seen as being behind the shift and glitter of the daylight world. The figure has has become an image of reminding: leading, summoning almost to some other life, some other place that lies within.

For Heaney at that moment, the beggar has become the figure of the threshold, where life as known gives way to something unknown, as the sibyl is to Aeneas in the passage from the Aeneid already encountered.

Though he does not speak, he has entered the poets deeper mind and becomes a voice, an emissary from the Marches of the daylight world, uttering his ‘particular judgement’ and leading on to those somewhat mysterious images of aloneness, simplicity, the bare facts of a room which is the opposite of comfortable, cosy and domestic. A room so open and remote that the sky itself reaches down to its bare floor.

We cannot perhaps pin them down further than this sense of something lonely and stripped, all comfort renounced, but the later stanzas widen the scope to reveal more of what is within their mysterious charge. A journey is now alluded to; not a tourist trip but a ‘commanded journey’, something dignified and weighty – again the sense of the implacable, the unavoidable. Apparently this also refers back to the first poem of the whole collection, where Larkin’s shade quotes Dante:


I alone was girding myself to face

The ordeal of my journey and my duty


In that lyric the commanded journey turns out to a paradoxical encounter with the quotidian: Larkin’s shade is encountered on a bus in the midst of a Christmas rush-hour in the city! The poet feels he is a ‘wise king’ on a journey to the ‘heartland of the ordinary’ – Larkin, poet of the ‘frigid winds’ 1 of suburbia, becoming the muse or guide on such a journey, in place of the exhalted Virgil.

In the ‘Squarings’ lyric, too, the journey leads to ‘nothing magnificent, nothing unknown’, but to a sense of being reminded of what was already known – ‘old truth dawning’. Is this Heaney’s tangential approach to some idea of Platonic remembrance? The ‘clouds of glory’ 2 we bring with us from some other place, already known before the womb?

Perhaps there is something of this hinted at, but Heaney is quick to deflate any possibility of getting lost in any such metaphysical construction. What is brought into remembrance cannot be pinned down to any philosophical theory, it is simply the knowledge of being with himself, alone, detached, knowing – ‘a gazing out from far away alone’.

Normally, of course, one talks of gazing towards what is far away. This rhetorical figure, then, reversing what is usually implied, suggests a possession of what is known. The ‘far away’ is not viewed from some distant vantage; rather the poet is already with the distant vista, has assimilated it, and looks out on the world from its perspective of solitary knowing.

What is known, so far as Heaney can tell us of his ‘far away’, is simply that this here, what is given in the immediate known of the present, is all there is, all there needs to be: ‘there is no next time round’, no future existence, no heaven, no hell, no imagined life that is not now.

What is glimpsed in that moment, on the threshold of perception – in this case the single figure of the beggar shivering on the threshold, with behind him, metaphorically, a bare room and a vision of the ‘soul free’ sky – is enough; is freedom; is in fact unlimited – ‘unroofed scope’.

Such moments of vision, the poets suggest, are not the exceptional, possibly delusive moments when the world is transformed, but simply when we are reminded of how things are at any moment, did we but choose to notice it.

Here knowledge is not revealed, not given in a vision, but what we already knew is ‘freshened’ by the wind – the wind of poetry itself perhaps.

The natural question this leads on to is to consider what presences are encountered in the rest of those forty-eight lyrics, and what kinds of knowledge are ‘freshened’ by those encounters. To what extent does the poet, following in Aeneus’ footsteps, succeed in recovering the golden fleece, and where does he venture once its protective powers are vouchsafed to him?

Sadly, lack of space prevents more than a glancing look at the rest of this very dense, richly symbolic sequence. One place to start, however, would be to remark on those lyrics which take up explicitly the Classical reference inaugurated by the opening translation from the Aeneid.

This is something Heaney has done increasingly in his later collections so that the temples, glades and amphitheatres of the ancient world come to feel as much a part of his poetic territory as the Bann valley of his youth.

Here we have two significant encounters: firstly with the crowds in a Roman amphitheatre (lyric v of the sequence) who beneath ‘the ocean of itself’ could hear another, stronger groundswell coming through.

This groundswell is likened to the sound of the sea heard in a sea shell held to the ear, by the shore. It appears to be also to do with the immemorial tides of humanity who have sat in that place, experienced the same swells and ebbs of emotion, breathed as it were the same air: ‘ …wave upon wave / Of classical mouthfuls amplified and faded.’

The lyric finishes by drawing attention to the way in which the crowds were carried away from their normal concerns, close to the heavens in a way, but earthed by the powerful communal currents they were sharing: ‘How airy and how earthed it felt up there, / Bare to the world, light headed, volatile.’

This theme of being taken up, away from the usual to some borderland of heaven and earth, continues with a lyric that is set on the Roman Capitol, the hill of the Emperors, but in the present day.

In lyric xxxviii Heaney and some friends climb the Capitoline hill by moonlight and feel ‘the transports of temptation on the heights’. Heaney then utters, rather to his friends’ astonishment, one imagines, a prophecy of sorts which runs: ‘Down with form triumphant, long live form mendicant and convalescent. We attend the comeback of pure water and the prayer wheel.’

This extrordinary utterance is then deflated by his friends, who remind him that others are waiting for them in the Forum cafe below, in the modern city. However, the mystery of the utterance remains, earthed somewhat but not cancelled by his friends’ bafflement.

What is he getting at? Is this, in some way, the battle cry or the motto at least of the whole collection?

Certainly he has concerned himself throughout with taking squarings at what is, what can be known, from many different angles, using the idea of ‘squaring up’ to a shot at marbles (lyric iii) as the initiating image. Throughout there is a tension between the need to ‘batten down’, to ‘secure the bastion of sensation’ (lyric ii), and a desire to move into the unknown while retaining the sense of being earthed: ‘ …hoping towards /  Blind certainties’ as he puts it in lyric iii, describing the player trying to guess the unguessable and set up the perfect shot of his marble.

By lyric xxii the questioning becomes more urgent and explicit: ‘where does the spirit live’ he demands of the ghost of W.B Yeats, ‘inside or outside things remembered,  where does it ‘roost at last’, ‘On dungy sticks in a Jackdaw’s nest or the ‘perfected form’ of a ‘marble bust’. What is the use of sustained, perfected form – the ‘held note or the held line, / That cannot be assailed for reassurance?’

Yeats of course, famously asked to be taken away from the ‘dying generations’ of mortal life and be turned into a golden bird in the courts of Byzantium – ‘out of nature’. 2 By lyric xxxviii we are in a section significantly entitled ‘crossings’, and Heaney seems to have his answer to Yeats in that strange prophecy. Form is important, yes, but it must attend to the world of change, not try to set itself apart from the flow.

But the flow must go somewhere, do something, and to express this Heaney uses the interesting image of a Buddhist prayer wheel, the last thing one would expect to come to his mind on the Roman Capitol. This is a simple device that uses the flow of water to turn a wheel with mantras of sacred prayer syllables inscribed on it. Thus, without human agency, the device is felt by the faithful to be continually uttering or offering prayers and praises to the Buddhas above.

The subsequent lyrics, the richest and most metaphysical of the whole collection, amplify this sense of form attained by reaching some inner or outer boundary, but always form in process, form harnessed to a desired end.

We have, for example, the liquid music of a fiddle played in an isolated farmhouse, with the mountains behind and the summer fields before – the music ‘like a flat stone skimmed at sunset,’ where ‘the extravagant passed once under full sail into the longed for’.

Then finally, in the last two lyrics, what is perhaps the ultimate terrestial boundary, that between sea and earth, becomes the emblem for the ultimate journey of the soul from this life to whatever may be beyond.

Here, Heaney contemplates the outer limits of the shoreline waters, empty and inviting as seen from the shore. When you turned away, he says, you felt something was there – ‘your back all eyes’ – and on looking again, something is missing, as if a ‘lambent troop’ had just vacated that mysterious vacancy.

In the next lyric he sees this odd sense of just missing something in the far waters as a prefiguration of a full knowledge of something beyond life. ‘Seventh Heaven may be / The whole truth of a sixth sense come to pass.’ And he remembers another prefiguration, back (where else?) in his beloved Bann valley, on the road beyond Coleraine where light suddenly broke over him, and ‘silver lame shivered on the Bann, / Out in mid channel between the painted poles.’

Such moments, illuminated yet also deeply earthed, rooted in his well-loved land, arising from ‘out in the mid channel’ away from the banks on each side, he declares to be his promise of what is to come, almost as emphatically (dare one say it) as Yeats declared the Tower and Winding Stair to be his emblems.

For if such moments exist in time, why should they not be the promise of what is missed but sensed when the back is turned, so that ‘when the light breaks’, and the end of life arrives, ‘that day I’ll be in step with what escaped me’?

To sum up, then: what has been covered in this short journey ‘along the marches’ of Heaney’s imagination?

We saw that the poet himself has always been intensely aware of living ‘on the fault lines’ of history, needing to take into account opposing claims and viewpoints. He has written eloquently of this in his essays, and appears to be thoroughly self-conscious of this aspect of his work.

However, I argued that certain of his poems take us beyond explaining and exploring this felt sense of tension, and attempt to enact directly the strains and stresses of border zones.

I looked at the poem ‘at Toombridge’ in particular from this point of view, and discovered two contrasting images: the eel plucked from the water and the hanged boy, which act as the twin mouthpieces of the uncanny borderland where the flat waters of the Lough plunge into the river below.

I suggested that here Heaney had allowed himself to be ‘wrung out’ by the tensions of the place, and that those two images were a direct response to this – a means of facing up to, or negotiating with, something very difficult and dangerous.

I then moved on to explore some of Heaney’s more allusive, metaphysical verses from the ‘Seeing Things’ collection. Here the tensions between “what is intimately known and challenges and entrancements of what is beyond us” arise on the journey towards death itself. I discovered that the tension is here expressed as an argument between the veneration of perfected form – that which transcends mutability – and the human demand for reassurance, the need to “secure the bastion of sensation”; or as Heaney figures it, to be earthed and airy at the same time, as he believes the ancient crowds at the Roman theatres would have been, secured in their time-hallowed communal rituals.

At the begining of the sequence this central tension is announced, as it were, by the figure of a beggar glimpsed on the border – literally ‘on the threshold’ – between a street (representing, perhaps, the shared life of day-to-day business) and a hidden world within the dwelling, of domestic privation and renunciation, leading to some kind of inner freedom – “unroofed scope”.

By the end of the collection, as we have seen, the border has become quite explicitly that between life and death, figured in the shifting boundaries of sea and shore, but equally the sense of moving “Beyond the range you thought you’d settled for” (‘Squarings’ xxxix) in the here and now remains just as important.

For Heaney himself, it is worth remarking, all of this is summed up in the image of the Roman god of boundaries, Terminus, who sat in a temple on the Capitol, and whose roof was open to the sky so that he was “earth bound and present in the here and now, yet open to what Basho calls the everlasting self, the boundlessness of inner as well as outer space.”

It is interesting that he thinks of Basho here, the celebrated medieval Japanese Buddhist poet of untamed nature, in the same place where he uttered his strange prophecy about prayer wheels and water.

For some, of course, such abstruse ramblings will be proof only of Heaney’s increasing decadence. And there is, perhaps, something just a little disturbing about his failure to write of a straightforward human response of horror and pity to such images as a shivering beggar or a hanged boy.  Does he realise that these things are real, that the suffering of poverty and sectarian violence goes on undiminished, all over the world?

The anwer to this, it seems to me, is to point out that in other poems Heaney does deal with pain and tragedy. There are several such poems in each of his collections, from Wintering Out onwards, where the ‘Tollund Man’ of the bogs speaks not only for his own prehistoric times but also for the “scattered ambushed flesh of labourers” killed in the recent Troubles.

Typically in these works Heaney employs a distancing device, as in ‘Two Lorries’ (The Spirit Level)  where the hellish lorry filled with explosive is placed side by side with anther memory of an innocent coalman’s lorry. But can we blame him for using such devices? How else does anyone survive inhuman horror but by distancing himself?

Nor is this distancing and displacing of horror and hatred simply a diffusing device; Heaney’s response, as is well known, to the implacable hatreds surrounding him on all sides is to call on certain inner resources of containment and quiet knowledge – the knowlege of the “inner emigre, grown long haired and thoughtful” that he brings to his defence in one of the poems where he faces his critics directly (‘Exposure’, North).

Nowhere is this more clear than in one poem where he does face directly the tensions and dangers of living in a divided land. In ‘From the Frontier of Writing’ he encounters the most brutal, implacable political border of all in his homeland: that between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland.

Here, stopped at the border by British troops, he sees them lined up on the hills around him, “eyeing with intent down cradled guns”. Moments later he is waved on, and notices his exact response:


a little emptier, a little spent

as always by that quiver in the self,

subjugated yes, and obedient.


But instead of continuing with a platform speech about the injustices of a divided land, or collapsing inwards and berating himself for his weakness, Heaney makes a highly typical sideways move onto more subjective, yet more tractable territory.

Sitting down to write, he observes, calls up some of the same feelings: “it happens again” he says. There are the same “guns on tripods”; the same “marksmen training down, / out of the sun upon you like a hawk.” But once you make it through the barrier all changes:


And suddenly you’re through, arraigned yet freed

as if you’d passed from behind a waterfall

on the black current of the tarmac road.


Arraigned – called to account, put on trial even, but in the same act accused, scrutinised and freed. This is his experience of the act of writing: to cross some vital boundary in his innermost self; to be wrung out, as we have already seen, by the forces around him, but to emerge with greater autonomy, with a vital inner freedom that no external force can take away.

For this sense of freedom his chosen image is the strange, often considered magical, passage that is sometimes found behind a waterfall, where the water makes a thundering curtain of sound and movement to one side of you, and nothing but damp rock lies on the other.

The allusion to his often expressed desire to be both earthed and airy is clear and precise. But also the linking of this idea with the “black current” of the tarmac reminds us of his early sense of the culvert beneath the road, dividing the parishes on which his home rested. Here is both a magical borderland and, at one and the same time, a mundane political boundary.

So here, perhaps more than in any of his other poems, the metaphysical concerns expressed in the ‘Squarings’ sequence are brought face to face with the brute facts of Heaney’s divided land. His response is not to engage directly with the struggle to bring about political peace, but a strategy whereby he uses what is most implacable, most unhelpful and diminishing in his circumstances – the “subjugation” of armed force and the fear it evokes – to remind him of what is most vital and pressing about his own task as a poet.

Here, at last, he is not only dealing with voices and images calling from the borderlands but actually crossing over, like Dante on the boat of Charon, or Aeneus entering then returning from the underworld with the words of his dead father alive in his ears.

Here we have a sense that Heaney has ventured out, right into the middle of the “black current” of life, to experience directly what he remembers of his childhood experience of crossing a river on stepping stones: “You were giddy and rooted to the spot at one and the same time.”


RatnagarbhaRatnagarbha (Ambrose Gilson) is the editor of Urthona Buddhist arts magazine. He is a poet and freelance writer in the area of art and the evolution of consciousness. He loves Bach, Vaughn Williams, Gothic architecture and the wild places of England. He lives in Cambridge, UK.
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13 thoughts on “VOICES FROM THE MARCHES – boundaries and transmutations in the poetry of Seamus Heaney

  1. naturally like your website but you have to check the spelling on quite a few of your posts.
    Many of them are rife with spelling issues and I to find it very bothersome
    to inform the reality on the other hand I will definitely come again again.

    • Ah spelling, never was my strong point, well thanks for the feedback will try to do better in future, more material coming soon…

  2. But surely…..the “rebel boy hanged in ’98” was Roddy McCorley, who was famously executed in Toomebridge in 1798 for his part in the United Irishmen’s uprising?

    • Very late in the day, I have corrected this after two other kind folk reminded me, apologies, this is very much a spare time project.

  3. AT TOOMEBRIDGE
    “Where the rebel boy was hanged in ’98” refers to Roddy McCorley who was hanged by the Crown forces in 1798 on the bridge at Toome, not to a boy hanged by any militia in 1998 as you assumed. This was the United Irishmen rebellion where the rebels were mainly Presbyterian. The hanging has been recounted in local folksong to the present day.The “checkpoint” in the preceeding line was a British Army checkpoint in the more recent conflict. Toomebridge has been associated will fishing for eels for centuries.

  4. Fascinating piece, very insightful. I suspect, however, that the rebel boy of ’98 is more likely to be a reference to someone hanged there during the 1798 United Irishmen Rising.

    • Yes, yourself and a Mr O Conner have corrected me on this, for which I am grateful and the text has been updated.

  5. Brilliant (in the original sense), thought-provoking and engaging piece. Are you aware of the Heaney conference in Oxford this month?

    If you have ever been through an Army checkpoint in NI, as a Catholic, you do, indeed, experience a wild, almost bacchic feeling of elation afterwards.

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