an introduction to the poetry of Seamus Heaney
by Seamus Heaney
With the exception of ‘Perch’, all the work in my section of the GCSE Anthology (OUP 2004) appeared in 1966, in a volume entitled Death of a Naturalist. When that book appeared I was 27 years old and relatively close to the experiences that gave rise to many of the poems. I still lived in Northern Ireland, in Belfast, just 30 miles from where I had grown up. Not much had changed in the countryside in the intervening years. The flax dam where I encountered the ‘gross-bellied frogs’ described in ‘Death of a Naturalist’ was still there by the side of a narrow country road, overgrown but still with its bubbles gargling and a haze of bluebottles hovering over it in the summertime. The bus stop from which my young brother Christopher had run into the path of an oncoming car (with the fatal consequences described in ‘Mid-Term Break’) was still there also, as were the hedges where we picked blackberries and the fields where my father ploughed with a horse-plough.
The people and places had remained more or less unchanged, yet I myself had changed. I was living in a city, teaching in a university, and had just become a parent. To the people who lived on my street, to the students who came to my classes, to the baby who looked up at me from his cot I would have appeared as a grown-up man, one who no longer ‘thought as a child’ but who had a grip on the realities of the adult world. A man who marked exams, talked about politics and paid income tax.
But in spite of appearances, I was (like everyone else) a creature of memory as well as a creature of the present. Inside the householder and English lecturer that I’d become the bird-nester and the blackberry-picker lingered on. There was a child inside me that kept stumbling after my father, and the hand that wielded my poetry-writing pen could still feel the scabs of clay on the potatoes it had gathered twenty years before.
We are used to hearing the phrase, ‘pull yourself together’, and in a way that’s what my first poems were trying to do: trying to pull together the inner boy from Derry who didn’t want to forget or be forgotten and the young adult who needed to forge ahead and make his way in the world of work and art and wife and child. Basically, I was trying to do what the poem ‘Digging’ tries to do, which is to make pen hand and potato hand into one hand.
I was greatly helped in this effort by having read the work of other poets. Kavanagh. Hughes. Hopkins. etc