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A Cold Eye Cast Inward: Seamus Heaney's Field Work

From: New Hibernia Review
Volume 6, Number 3, Fómhar/Autumn 2002
pp. 53-72 | 10.1353/nhr.2002.0041

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New Hibernia Review 6.3 (2002) 53-72

Biographically and poetically, Field Work (1979) represents Seamus Heaney's withdrawal from Northern Ireland. Biographically, the poems in this collection center around the poet's move from Belfast to County Wicklow in the Republic. Accompanying this change in location is a radical change in the nature poet's public life. Prior to the move, Heaney had been a teacher at Queen's University, Belfast, and an outspoken advocate against the British presence in Ireland; in Wicklow, distanced from the center of Irish political unrest, Heaney devoted himself entirely to poetry, and largely dropped out of the public political sphere. The personal upheaval which resulted in and from this moment of change is reflected poetically in the subject matter and structure of Field Work, especially when compared to North (1975), Heaney's previous volume. In 1977, two years after the publication of North, Heaney described his poetry as a "slow, obstinate papish burn."

In 1979, reflecting on the years he spent writing Field Work, Heaney offers a much less politically charged focus for his art: "Those years [. . .] were an important growth time when I was asking myself the proper function of poets and poetry and learning a new commitment to the art." Simply put, the poet's attitude seems to have shifted from "art for Ireland's sake" to "art for art's sake." Heaney's dissatisfaction with his previous attempts to positively engage the conflict in Northern Ireland with his poetry, accounts for much of the sense of retreat that propels Field Work. The openly, darkly political poetry in North reflects an active attempt by Heaney to use his poetry to explain and resolve the violence around him. Field Work begins by demonstrating the failure of this attempt and ends with the poet finding a new, apolitical paradigm for his poetry. In the title poem of the collection, a microcosm for the collection itself, this new paradigm emerges and Heaney's retreat ends. However—as the final images of "Field Work" demonstrate—the new ground on which Heaney rests himself and his poetry may be divorced from Northern Irish politics and history, but it is also divorced from the symbiotic relationships with love and nature that the poet left Northern Ireland to reestablish.

The structure of Field Work divides the collection into three thematic units, the first beginning with "Oysters," the first poem in the collection and continuing through "Elegy," the second beginning and ending with "The Glanmore Sonnets," which fall directly in the center of the collection, and the third beginning with "September Song" and continuing through to the end of the collection. Gale Schricker likens Field Work to a triptych painting, a metaphor which Heaney appears to encourage. Each of its units is fully comprehensible only in the context of the other two. This structure demonstrates Heaney's shift in focus away from politics and toward art as "the personal, historical circumstances [of the poet] are fitted into a traditional, artistic form." The thematic movement through the three sections captures the gradual progression of this shift, with each of the three parts corresponding to a different stage in Heaney's turn away from politics. The first part, in which the poems are primarily set in Northern Ireland, depicts Heaney's frustrated and failed attempt to create a poetry that arises from the Irish landscape but successfully explains the violence and conflict of the present. The second section, which directly deals with Heaney's move from North to South, is intensely pastoral and highly stylized, directly engaging nature and poetry while attempting to marginalize history and politics. The third section brings together the elements of the first two, creating a new poetic voice in which the poet himself, not his historical and political context, is the source of poetic imagination. This voice fully emerges in "Field Work," where the poet makes his stand against his old poetic paradigm and forges his new one.

To understand fully the voice created by Field Work, however, one must first understand the forces at work in its creation as illustrated by the first two sections of the collection. Field Work opens with "Oysters," a poetic...

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