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Seamus Heaney’s North cuts a curious figure in the Irish poetic landscape: part Richard Jefferies, part Patrick Kavanagh, Heaney’s attitudes toward the natural environments that inspired him are a combination of familiarity and fantasy, seeking the element of an ancient past in the body of contemporary Ireland. It’s a curiously melancholy vista that he establishes, full of hand-me-down gods, burials, bog bodies and rolling, roiling peatland, and for each sunny fieldscape there is a deep, seeping barrow where something arcane and ancient has been disinterred. These landscapes are as grim as they are liminal, but potent and powerful as he digs through meaning and topsoil alike to reveal an amber bead, a tarnished hilt, a human heart at the centre of the shifting topography of poetry, and interrogates their meaning in terms of what they mean in terms of history and home.
I was first given a copy of North by schoolfriend and poet Cam Ralphs, who after spending some time in a mouldy three-man house-share in the Staffordshire borderlands loaning me books that I’m in my sixth year of failing to return, went on to become poetry editor of the Times Literary Supplement. It has always felt appropriate to me that this particular collection came from an authoritative source as opposed to the usual ways I’d choose a poetry collection as a student (cover art, likeness to Remains of Elmet and above all, price), as the mushroom-grey Faber edition has rarely been far from my desk since. It’s not a cheerful read – North is a searing, visceral love song to all the bones and bundles pulled shudderingly from Heaney’s homeland peat, a man caught digging through a world of ancient tumuli to interrogate their lives and their journeys – but it is a masterwork of landscape writing, potent and laden with a wry, embattled symbolism in a way that only late modernism might get away with.
North is a collection bound in its sense of place, both its feet in rural Ireland where the graves of its ancestors mass in the ancient landscape. Yet, ever-contrary, Heaney’s masterwork begins in North Africa: one of the first poems in the collection recalls Antaeus, a Libyan giant from Berber and Greek mythology. Antaeus was the son of Poseidon, God of the Sea, and Gaia, a goddess of the earth. Said to be invincible due to his connection with his mother, the earth beneath him, Antaeus’ strength was renewed with each footfall he took, and even were he to be downed by an enemy, the touch of the earth upon his bare skin would renew his health and vigour.
Heaney’s Antaeus is the same, although transported from Libyan desert to the dark earth of an unnamed corner of rural Ireland:
I cannot be weaned
Off the earth’s long contour, her river-veins.
Down here in my cave,
Girded with root and rock,
I am cradled in the dark that wombed me
And nurtured in every artery
Like a small hillock.
It ends badly for the mythological Antaeus: on his way to the Garden of Hesperides, Heracles defeats the giant by lifting him aloft away from the earth as he crushes him. Unable to renew himself by the connection with the earth beneath, Antaeus dies in Heracles’ death-grip, severed from the force that both bore and sustained him. Heaney later revisits the scene in the later poem Hercules and Antaeus, concluding the giant’s life with the solemn line ‘the cradling dark / the river-veins, the secret gullies / of his strength, /the hatching grounds of cave and souterrain/ – he has bequeathed it all to elegists’.
Heaney’s Antaeus evoking the idea of a life-giving earth, an earth that might impede the finality of death is no throwaway reference: it sets the tone for how the earth functions within the rest of North. The body of the earth appears as a landscape connection that not only renders the living renewed but also implies that the dead within it are gathered tenderly – cradled in the dark that wombed me- and mothered, perhaps not quite as dead as they should be. It’s a theme that Heaney returns to again and again within North, the idea of the earth as a force that has life and death in its grasp, and like we see in Antaeus, there is the notion that if that connection were to be severed, the dreamy, melancholy narrator too would wilt and falter: the rural landscape isn’t only a dominant theme in these poems- as the poem intimates, it truly fuels and sustains them as did Antaeus’ mother Gaia- and they are of its own creation.
It’s also interesting to note that this eternal half-life is not always a loving or welcome thing for Heaney’s subjects: as the skeletal navvies of The Digging Skeleton (itself after Baudelaire’s Le Squelette Laboreur) describe as they are pulled from death to live and labour again, …some traitor breath / Revives our clay, sends us abroad, and only by constant labour might they earn themselves some chance of a return to the burial mound. It is, perhaps, a comment on the nature of belonging and how for Heaney some fates might be set into the bedrock of a homeland milieu- and perhaps to labour in the afterlife as one did in life is simply another part of the inescapability of a local landscape identity. Belonging is not always homely in these poems, and death, it seems, is the simple part – for the inhabitants of North’s dark earth, it’s what happens afterward that complicates the matter.
This may certainly be said for the lot of the Bog Queen. Resplendent at the centre of the collection, she holds court over the assorted spirits and skeletons that populate North and perhaps best exemplifies the strange ways in which the collection treats the notions of life, death and the earth that lies between them.
I lay waiting
between turf-fence and demesne wall
between heathery levels
and glass-toothed stone.
[…] Through my fabrics and skins
the seeps of winter
the illiterate roots
pondered and died
in the cavings
of stomach and socket.
I lay waiting
on the gravel bottom,
my brain darkening,
a jar of spawn
Heaney analogises an event from the 1780s, where he gives voice to the first bog body discovered in Ireland, a Scandinavian woman discovered at the edge of the Moira estate in County Lisburn in the early 1780s. Less a ghost story and more a bodily history, the Bog Queen details her interment and the slow decay of her body as she rides the binary of life and death, buried in the peat that preserves her consciousness as she oscillates between seething and sorrow- ‘my brain darkening / a jar of spawn / fermenting underground’. Hers is a language of spanning divisions- not only adrift between the living and the dead, she lies ‘between turf-fence and demesne wall / between heathery levels / and glass-toothed stone’, between the common land of the peat-bog and the boundary wall of the Anglo-Scottish occupiers, the landowners who laid claim to vast swathes of County Lisburn in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Her curious heritage is interesting in terms of its relationship with the landscape: she feels herself decaying (the seeps of winter / digested me) yet the land sustains the spark of her consciousness, much less absolute than the ways in which the force of the earth resurrects and resurrects again the fallen Antaeus, but still a powerful way of evading a true, bodily death. The entirety of the language she uses to describe her situation is driven by the natural landscape, even as she further decays becoming invaded by it (the illiterate roots / pondered and died / in the cavings of my stomach) until they both rest together in the bog.
I was barbered
by a turfcutter’s spade
who veiled me again
and packed coomb softly
between the stone jambs
at my head and my feet.
Till a peer’s wife bribed him.
The plait of my hair,
a slimy birth-cord
of bog, had been cut
And I rose from the dark,
hacked bone, skull-ware
frayed stitches, tufts
small gleams on the bank.
As her history rolls on, she details how she is unearthed by a peat-cutter by accident and then hastily reinterred, until the landowner’s wife bribes him to fully disinter her body, and as he strips it for trinkets and tokens (The plait of my hair, a slimy birth-cord; Frayed stitches, tufts / small gleams on the bank) she dissipates from the narrative. She was a revenant, neither here nor gone, unwillingly caught between the layers of the peat yet her narrative appears to dissolve as she us unearthed from it, disrobed, dismantled and eventually lost to history. She is, perhaps, reborn as she rises from the peat- the umbilical connection of her hair severed from the earth, the landscape both mother and sexton- as she lives again, or maybe dies a final time- like Antaeus, preserved no longer by the connection of body to land.
The violence of her undeath is jarring, uncomfortably visceral. The final motions of the final stanza- where we are unable to discern if her ascension is welcome or unwelcome – are a strange and disquieting reading experience, as if in witnessing the crime of her exhumation the reader too is part of the unwelcome scrutiny that sees the Bog Queen shovelled from the peat. Like Antaeus, the earth is life-giving to her, but instead of it granting her an eternity living, it grants her an eternity neither living nor dead.
Like so many of Heaney’s body poems, ‘Bog Queen’ begins and ends with the notion that death, is rarely absolute. The base assumption that a deep connection with the natural landscape has the ability to negate death’s finality is potent and powerful within the collection, surfacing in many forms in poems such as ‘Belderg’, ‘The Grauballe Man’, ‘Punishment’ and ‘Kinship’, and although the idea that some spark or spirit remains after bodily death certainly not new, the inextricable linkage of what remains and where it remains in North is reminiscent more of a haunted land than a hallowed one. Just as Antaeus, transported from Libya to the dark soils and seeping cold of Heaney’s beloved peat country is sustained past all injury by his connection with the land, the Bog Queen lies revenant in her cyst or barrow, effectively trapped between demesne and bogland and living and death.
The implication of this connection of polarities are interesting when we look at Heaney’s world. Following in the footsteps of a number of twentieth century landscape poets who sought to reconcile and better understand modernity, mortality and their relationship with the natural (Dylan Thomas, W. H. Auden, and Edward Thomas to name but a few), North too attempts to remedy an invasive modernity with a retreat back into older mythologies, journeying into an old high past as a form of escapism, populating these paracosms with shades and phantoms that tether it to an older time as the new, modern world becomes more invasively present. The landscape, for Heaney, is a force more powerful than the binary of living and dying itself, a wild god with the power to complicate the life-course even in an age of modern reason and scientific truth. It’s affectionate, almost, reverent and ancient: something not quite of the world as we know it, chastising our move away from the green places of the world that were so vital to us long ago.
It has also been suggested by a number of scholars that Heaney’s undying earth is a metaphor for the country of Ireland itself and the hurts that it suffered at the hands of the British occupation, the bodies of any number of uprisings, epidemics, famines and displacements barely concealed under the shifting soils, unable to untether themselves from the landscape as the injustices of the last eight centuries bind them to the living landscape. It’s an old idea, that a spirit remains due to unfinished deeds or recompense to be taken, and North exemplifies the concept with gusto: whether in the acts visited upon them before their death or simply the act of disinterment or disconnection, these bodies have been somehow wronged.
North is a landscape of confused mortalities, sustaining earths and devouring ones; the states of undeath and unliving, and at its very core asks the age-old question: what happens when the heart stops? In giving his ghosts flesh and form, Heaney transcends the spiritual and comes back to the physicality of dying, interrogating the idea of bodily death that we are all but estranged from in a modern, western world. Antaeus forfeits his eternity by moving away from the earth; the Bog Queen spends her eternity in it, held back from true death, and although they respond in different ways to the idea of a life-giving earth, they prompt the same realisation that life and landscape are inextricable even at their culmination. Birth and death are two sides of the same coin in a landscape uncomplicated by encroaching modernity, and these two bodies- the giant and the bog-born queen – exist in a chilling limbo as we are invited to reflect on what it actually is that keeps us going- and what persists after we have gone.