- “Things Remembered”:Objects of Memory in the Poetry of Seamus Heaney
Generally speaking, my poems come from things remembered, quite often from away back, or things I see that remind me of something else. Sometimes the thing has an aura and an invitation and some kind of blocked significance hanging around it.(qtd. in O’Driscoll 445)
“Things remembered” have a powerful appeal and significance in the poetry of Seamus Heaney, from his first collection, Death of a Naturalist (1966), to his final one, Human Chain (2010). These objects of memory invite the imagination primarily at the sensuous level of touch and sight and sound, but they also function emblematically and symbolically as traces of a former life, as remainders and reminders of human endeavor. Often they reveal the processes of poetic inspiration and composition, in that a teasing equation is established between the object of memory and the poem itself. The water pump in the farmyard is a work object that Heaney cherishes for its sustaining role in family life, for its distinctive shape and color, and for its symbolic appeal as a place of inspiration. The pitchfork is similarly valued as a tool with strong attachments to local rural life, as an aesthetic object with a pleasing weight and feel, and as an emblem of the aims and aspirations of poetry. Increasingly, Heaney’s preoccupation with remembered things takes on an elegiac cast as objects poignantly recall lost friends and loved ones. Giving this preoccupation a special distinctiveness, however, is the extent to which the poems risk suggesting that a metaphysical or spiritual quality adheres to objects of memory. Although Heaney is cautious in using the term “relic,” and therefore any overt indication of Catholic worship, the poems nevertheless yearn for some transcendental significance. Out of this tension between the palpable physicality of the object and its potential spirituality emerge many of Heaney’s most memorable poems. [End Page 320]
The pen has a primary role among Heaney’s remembered things. It continues to be the archetypal image of poetic composition—the transmission of words to paper—while the typewriter and the word processor possess only a subsidiary position.1 It fits the fingers closely and comfortably in ways that no writing machine can equal. The squat pen that rests between the finger and the thumb in “Digging”—first resembling a gun and then serving as a spade—is recalled many years later in “The Conway Stewart” with a finely poised elegiac meditation that both celebrates parental love and movingly sets the scene for subsequent losses. The later poem vividly realizes the memory of an actual pen with its “14-carat nib”—given to Heaney when he left home for college—and looks wryly back at that image in his own early work (Human Chain 8). The pen has an acute and poignant relevance as an object of memory, signifying the young writer’s uncertain vocation, but also clearly testifying to his ultimate success. It prompts a rueful reflection on how the gift of fluency soon comes to serve the painful articulation of loss and separation.
As Heaney himself notes, many of his remembered things have an aura that nearly always broadcasts their aesthetic appeal or poetic potential rather than any obvious religious or spiritual significance. The Catholic propensity to elevate objects to relics is subtly deflated, although the bog poems in Wintering Out (1972) and North (1975) scandalously risk an attitude of veneration toward the Tollund Man and the other bodies of Iron Age victims recovered from the earth. The bog bodies are specially conceived objects of memory, being both fossils and museum pieces, but also (in the poet’s first encounter) black-and-white photographs. Most often, though, Heaney’s remembered things are domestic, typically tools of work that justify their aura through a close and down-to-earth association with childhood and home. A taxonomy of such objects might involve a subtle distinction between outdoor and indoor work that also reflects gender differences: the pitchfork, the turnip snedder and the harrow pin, but also the baking board, the smoothing iron, and the clothes horse. Also noted might be those remembered objects...