Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Analysis Of Seamus Heaney's North


So here we see Heaney, as voice of the poem, alone it seems, retuned to a lonely “ long strand” of Atlantic shoreline, hammered into a specific geographic shape in, I think, a blacksmithing image—“hammered shod.” He stands before the immensity of what he beholds, the alone quality and the immensity captured by “…found only the secular/Powers of the Atlantic thundering.” There seems a combination of blunt awareness—“found only”—and some complex intellectuality—“secular/Powers”—and the poetic registering of what he beholds in imagery—“long strand,” hammered shod” and “Atlantic thundering.” The central contrast that I read in the first quatrain is between the sole figure of “I’ and the vast, ageless power of what he finds, the mighty Atlantic working its natural will, so to speak, on the land.

There is some continuity in his state of mind into the second quatrain suggested by “unmagical” as what he “found only” in the first quatrain is implicit in what he now confronts—“I faced”.  I’m sorely lacking in what I know of Irish history so no doubt I’m missing a lot but Heaney is unmoved and uninspired by whatever Iceland beckons and even more so by the “…pathetic colonies/of Greenland…” But the last word of the second quatrain, “suddenly,” signifies the explosion in mind. Now, moving to the third and fourth quatrains, his imagination is fired by the contrasting images, the “fabulous” laid low, it seems to me, by the ignominy and ultimate futility of their fates: “These fabulous raiders/those lying in Orkney and Dublin”, Measured against/their long swords rusting,” (and I wonder if there’s a suggestion of poetic measure in “Measured against”). Their doomed fates get specific prominence in the fourth quatrain.

The seeming ignition of “magical” marked by “suddenly” and fabulous, the fifth tercet suggests, are voices of historical/poetic imagining initially drowned out by the ageless and unthinking thundering of the Atlantic, as the evolving poetic imagination works off what “I” beholds: “…ocean-deafened voices/Warning me…” The warning voices have returned to him, the “I” of the poem,  “lifted again,” just as “I returned” to the long stretch of wild shoreline. His historical/poetic casting back, consciousness drawing and imposing meaning on what is beheld, is filled with “epiphany and violence”, the phrase linked to “suddenly” and the following images culminating in “those hacked and glinting”.

The sixth and seventh quatrains, I think, following the pattern of subsequent images laying the “fabulous raiders” low, start with promise. The first two lines of the sixth quatrain seem to turn on a hopeful, meaningful, note of optimistic possibility. There seemed promise in “The longship’s swimming tongue,” was in “I’s” mind “buoyant with hindsight—“ (I don’t fully understand the meaning of “buoyant with hindsight.” But “buoyant” suggests an uplifting exuberance that fits nicely with the image of the ship moving through the Ocean waters, as if in looking back at the Norse ships heading out there is optimism in the outset of poetic/historic recollection.)

The memory of that buoyancy as imaged by the tongue of the longship speaks to “I.” the buoyancy of hindsight informs the content of what is imagined said. So Thor, a hammer wielding God associated with lightning and storms and thunder and like explosions of nature, is the original “secular Powers” of the Atlantic, raw and “unmagical”, now imagined as myth, the secularism of the  bay as “hammered shod”, now ,in myth, “…Thor’s hammer swung/To geography and trade,” still “buoyant with hindsight”, but giving way to dumb coupling and revenge, and then progressing worse to “The hatreds and behindbacks/of the althing…,” recalling “the unmagical/ Invitations of Iceland”. So now what was originally one step after the blunt registering of what’s originally seen, the mind beginning to do its apprehending and reconstructing work, has come back round to the more fully imagined deceitful corruption of “althing”.

I question the meaning of the phrase “Exhaustions nominated peace,” which I can’t confidently answer. Does it suggest that “Exhaustions” as a personified subject have nominated peace; does it suggest that “Exhaustions nominated” is an adjectival phrase modifying “peace; or does it suggest both at once? I like the latter suggestion. But, in any event, we have moved far within a few poetic lines from the buoyant hindsight to a peace born of bloodletting exhaustion, “nominated” suggesting a temporary contingent choice while historical memory as a national proposition, in contrast with “I’s” singular poetic/historical imaginings, hatches and keeps alive, “incubating”, “the spilled blood”, that image linking back to the imagery of carnage laying low “Those fabulous raiders”.

The “longship’s swimming tongue” continues to speak—“It said”—beginning the third last quatrain, what it says going to the thrust of your comments.  Interesting that now for the first time the spoken words take quotations marks, suggesting a virtual person to person talking to “I”, a clear direct communication. I’m not so sure about, as you say, the limits of words, or at least I think that that good idea needs some refinement.

I sense that the advice/instruction to “’Lie down’” picks p thematically the “Exhaustions” of the “nominated peace”, suggesting that the in the poem’s terms “the political is the personal.” “Rest from the depredations you have imagined in recollection,” the ocean voices seem to be saying to “I”. “Go, poet, inside your head to the store of language you have saved--‘word-hoard’--and strain to dig deep there as you hunker down and in,--burrow’”. “Concentrate, draw your mind in concentration, so what shines can be let out“…coil and gleam/Of your furrowed brain.”

That furrowed intensity finds verbal repose in “Compose” that starts the second last quatrain. What is to be expected isn’t a pervasive sheen of light, an illuminated overall answer, but rather flashes of insight lighting up in instants the darkness, in what will be a “long foray”, which is an odd phrase since “long”, which complements the fullness of “compose”,  is tense adjacent to the notion of “foray” as a sharp, brief, military-like advance. So, it seems, the theory of poetic composition may be conceived as a series of energetic lightning-like thrusts,  “aurora borealis”, into and against the pervading darkness, itself the culmination of historical/poetic recollection arising from the poetic mind, alone, facing and envisioning “the Atlantic thundering.”

Finally, in the last quatrain, the swimming tongue’s advice, against the largeness of horrible imaginings thrusting “I” into consuming darkness, becomes home spun and to hand and immediately physical. “I’s” eye is to be kept clear, as clear as an icicle’s blister, and is to trust, against the recollected litany of horrible, the remembered feel of the most prosaic things, “nubbed treasure/Your hands have known.”

Here is a theory of how poetry builds out the most immediate, the most elementally physical , into an aesthetic and human answer to the raw and awesome continent-shaping power of great natural forces and to the what the terrible things men do to each other from  the venal to the tragically mortal. These humble constituents of this answer gets captured in language, as poetry builds out of “bleb” and icicle” and “nubbed” and “hands” and as “I” transmutes the voices his mind brings to sound over the thundering Atlantic into the project of I's poetry.

Admittedly this went on longer than I meant it to. But I kinda got into it. I don’t know how much of it anyone will have the patience to read or agree with. But it will be well served if it stimulates some good talk about this beautiful poem and plays some part in contributing to an understanding and appreciation of it.

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