Transformations Beyond ‘Nature’: Seamus Heaney’s Medieval Poetics

Jill Wharton
April 2021

Throughout his career, Seamus Heaney invoked medieval literary allusion, adaptation, and translation to punctuate his iterations of Irish history.[1] And not, as one might expect, to catalyze a nostalgic sense of lost authenticity, but extensively and strategically, to transformative structural ends. To elucidate a ‘transformation’ is to speak of the coeval nature of latency, of potentiality, alongside those qualities that outlast an ending. As Heaney’s translation of Sweeney Astray opens: “the why and wherefore of [one’s] fits and trips, and also what happened afterwards.” To transform is supremely a matter of artifice: to incarnate a subject’s alterity requires exposing narrative architecture, a willingness to display ‘character’ as an instance of technê, through which modes of art fluctuate or combine. The result for Heaney is often an episodic, associative, rhetorical structure designed to privilege perception over physicality, thus dilating the historical present. 

Part lunatic, part prophet, mad Sweeney-the-bird-man is both physically and spiritually translated from historical figure to mythic archetype and in his metamorphosis he becomes the suffering vatic poet. “The world goes on but I return / to haunt myself. I freeze and burn. / I am the bare figure of pain” (61). As a medieval source-text, Sweeney suggests to Heaney a tradition that enables ecological thought, what the poet describes as “poetry piercingly exposed to the beauties and severities of the natural world…extend[ing] our sense of location to include ‘anywheres.’” [2]

Heaney’s translations and poems foreground correlations between Irish linguistic germination and a located sense of trans-historic dwelling. His identity-constituting pilgrimage narratives subtend contemporary Irish politics, permeating sectarian exigencies with vignettes of pre-12th-century Northern Europe. As Declan Kiberd has noted, after Sweeney Astray, Heaney’s poems became “less bound by hard-and-fast titles… now they tended to take off into the sky or across the waters on a voyage into the unknown. That unknown was a dimension in which man could at last become an almost non-human witness of himself.”[3] This observation is central to the title poem in 1991’s Seeing Things which conflates the image of nervous passengers on pilgrimage to Lough Derg, by way of Inishbofin (Inis Bó Finne or ‘Island of the White Cows’), with an extraterrestrial sky-ship borrowed from The Book of Clonmacnoise.

Lough Derg, Station Island (including the 1984 volume by that title), and St. Patrick’s Purgatory feature across Heaney’s oeuvre as experiential sites for both reimagining the significance of sacred symbols, and for reflecting on the Irish past from the vantage point of imagined utopias. In “Seeing Things”, Heaney’s speaker recalls: 

Inishbofin on a Sunday morning.
Sunlight, turfsmoke, seagulls, boatslip, diesel.
One by one we were being handed down
Into a boat that dipped and shilly-shallied
Scaresomely every time. […]

All the time
As we went sailing evenly across 
The deep, still, seeable-down-into water,
It was as if I looked from another boat
Sailing through air, far up, and could see
How riskily we fared into the morning,
And loved in vain our bare, bowed, numbered heads.

This double-vision, it is important to note, does not leave the speaker with a dichotomous sense of Christian submission to an external providence, but rather with a benedictory vision of ethical humility. In the poem, there is no spiritual father to appeal to in the ferry to Inishbofin to calm the poet’s incipient panic. The mundane world, refracted through nature’s powers of semblance, henceforth seems strange: nature catalyzes the visionary.

Heaney’s figurations of landscape are often remarkably consonant with the dinnseanchas tradition. Modern Irish translates the word dinnseanchas as ‘topography’—in old Irish, it connotes ‘stories, or lore of the old places,’ and the genre dates to the early Middle Ages, at least to the 11th century (the earliest date known for such poems as were compiled in the Book of Leinster.) Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, who has reimagined the genre in both her poetry and criticism, writes: “In dinnseanchas, the land of Ireland is translated into story: each place has history that is being continuously told… The landscape itself contains memory, and can point to the existence of a world beyond this one. [It] allows us glimpses into other moments in historical time.”[4]

Heaney’s eighth poem in “Squarings”, which Helen Vendler has called (for her this is a criticism), “the ‘theory poem’ in the volume”, demonstrates the textual strategies of both place-name poetry—by invoking the 6th century monastery at Clonmacnoise—and the diffusive passage between world-orders central to an saol eile (‘the other world’).[5] That is, it exemplifies the ontological orientation I’m arguing these traditions furnish to Heaney: the dialectical ballast of medieval literary and topographical tradition that opens the landscape of Ireland to more expansive “pre-national” ways of conceiving of dwelling, alongside the reflective, visionary ‘through-line’ lyric can provide for non-human concerns in the radically destabilized ‘natural’ world: 

The annals say: when the monks of Clonmacnoise
Were all at prayers inside the oratory
A ship appeared above them in the air.
The anchor dragged along behind so deep
It hooked itself into the altar rails
And then, as the big hull rocked to a standstill,
A crewman shinned and grappled down the rope
And struggled to release it. But in vain.
‘This man can’t bear our life here and will drown,’
The abbot said, ‘unless we help him.’ So
They did, the freed ship sailed, and the man climbed back
Out of the marvellous as he had known it.


[1] Heaney, aside from his distinguished translation of Buile Suibhne (as ‘Sweeney Astray: A Version form the Irish’, 1983), translated Beowulf (1999); published his lectures “The God in the Tree: Early Irish Nature Poetry” (given in 1978 for Raidió Teilifís Éireann); redacted “The Wanderer” in his prose-poem of that title in the 1975 volume Stations; translated “Deor” (“Tear”) from the Exeter Book; and authored the “Foreword” for The Word Exchange: Anglo-Saxon Poems in Translation(2011). 

Omitted from this brief essay is Heaney’s 1996 poem “St. Kevin and the Blackbird,” a work that illustrates the confluence of Heaney’s thinking on the relationality of the natural world and human habitation in Irish source texts. Specifically, he cribs the chronicle of St. Kevin retailed in Gerald of Wales’ The History and Topography of Ireland.

[2] Seamus Heaney, “The God in the Tree: Early Irish Nature Poetry” pp. 54-55.

[3] Declan Kiberd, Inventing Ireland: The Literature of the Modern Nation (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1995), p. 597.

[4] Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, Selected Essays ed. Oona Frawley (Dublin: New Island, 2005), p. 159-160.

[5] In Irish: ‘the Otherworld” is a repository of that-which-is-inherently-fantastic. In modern Irish, saol signifies, alternately, ‘life’, ‘time’, and ‘world’, and is distinct from the pedestrian noun for world “domhan” which can’t be combined with any term for “other” in idiomatic use. 

Helen Vendler, Seamus Heaney (Harvard, Mass: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 136. 

The Broighter boat (from the Broighter hoard, in the National Museum of Ireland)

Summary in Portuguese

Ao longo da sua carreira, Seamus Heaney recorreu a alusões, adaptações e traduções da literatura medieval como forma de pontuar as suas releituras da história da Irlanda. E não o fez, como se poderia esperar, para despertar um sentimento nostálgico de autenticidade perdida, mas, antes, de uma maneira ampla e estratégica, com objectivos estruturalmente transformadores. Esclarecer o que é uma “transformação” é falar da natureza coeva da latência, da potencialidade, que acompanha as qualidades que prevalecem após um final. Conforme a abertura da tradução de Heaney de Sweeney Astray: “o porquê e o para quê das [nossas] convulsões e escorregadelas, e também o que acontece depois.” Transformar é, supremamente, uma questão de artifício: encarnar a alteridade de um sujeito requer que se exponha uma arquitectura narrativa, uma disponibilidade para apresentar a ‘personagem’ como um exemplo de technê, por meio do qual os modos da arte oscilam ou se misturam. O resultado, para Heaney, é muitas vezes uma estrutura retórica episódica, associativa, concebida para privilegiar a percepção ao invés da fisicalidade e, assim, dilatar o presente histórico.

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