The Poetry Place
North is both a poem and the title of a collection. Fintan O’Toole describes the collection like this: “In North, his most direct response to the Troubles in his native Northern Ireland, the past is alive with an atavistic violence that thrusts itself into the present day. “ Heaney himself described the collection as a “Very oblique and intense book”. To the naïve reader, Heaney’s description seems the more apt. Those with greater knowledge of the poetry and of the political situation at the time might see a more direct response than we, or our students, do now.
The collection was largely inspired by a book by P V Glob ‘The Bog People’ whose subject is bodies from centuries ago found preserved in the bogs of Denmark. some of whom, it seemed, had been ritually executed. Heaney saw parallels between the bodies of the Bog people and the killings taking place in Northern Ireland. He was immediately gripped by it.
“…the minute I opened it and saw the photographs, and read the text, I knew there was going to be yield from it. I mean, even if there had been no Northern Troubles, no man-killing in the parishes, I would still have felt at home with that ‘peat-brown head’ – an utterly familiar countryman’s face. I didn’t really ‘go back’ to the book because it never left me. And still hasn’t.” (from Stepping Stones, interviews with Seamus Heaney by Dennis O’Driscoll)
Heaney’s response to the Troubles was criticised by some as being too indirect, not outspoken enough but he has never been a polemicist. Indeed, “I've never been actively involved in politics. Too much fervour and certitude and point-scoring, even in the right cause, wears me out.“
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The poem ‘North’ is one of the more oblique commentaries on the politics of Ireland. Here is a copy of the text with some annotations and questions. The annotations are to provoke thought. The questions are for discussion. North.
As is often the case, it can be helpful to view the poem in prose form, if only to be able to see more clearly the direction and meaning of a sentence or paragraph:
I returned to a long strand, the hammered shod of a bay, and found only the secular powers of the Atlantic thundering.
I faced the unmagical invitations of Iceland, the pathetic colonies of Greenland, and suddenly those fabulous raiders, those lying in Orkney and Dublin measured against their long swords rusting, those in the solid belly of stone ships, those hacked and glinting in the gravel of thawed streams were ocean-deafened voices warning me, lifted again in violence and epiphany.
The longship’s swimming tongue was buoyant with hindsight – it said Thor’s hammer swung to geography and trade, thick-witted couplings and revenges, the hatreds and behindbacks of the althing, lies and women, exhaustions nominated peace, memory incubating the spilled blood.
It said, ‘Lie down in the word-hoard, burrow the coil and gleam of your furrowed brain. Compose in darkness, expect aurora borealis in the long foray but no cascade of light. Keep your eye clear as the bleb of the icicle, trust the feel of what nubbed treasure your hands have known.’
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