All Around Us, the Ministry of Fear

At times I suspect my love of Yeats’ poetry makes it difficult for me to fully appreciate other Irish poets because too often I end up trying to compare their poetry to that of Yeats’ poetry.

In Selected Poems 1966-1987 Seamus Heaney, like Yeats, often refers to classic Irish literature. For instance, one section of the selected poems is entitled “Sweeney Astray” and is Heaney’s version of the medieval Irish Buile Shuibhne, a major text in the Irish literary canon. It is the tale of Sweeney, who having crossed St Rónán is cursed by him. I suppose one day I am going to have to force myself to read this, but the truth is that, having read more mythology than I cared to, I have little desire to read the romanticized history of Ireland. The truth is that for many Americans these poems will seem unapproachable and irrelevant. And, yes, this seems to be the same Sweeney that appears in T.S. Eliot’s poems, certainly another reason to resist it.

In reality, though, Heaney reminds me more of Thomas Hardy or James Wright than he does W.B. Yeats, though he is a much more “classical” poet than either Hardy or Wright, often preferring to develop his ideas through the use of classical allusions rather than simple, straightforward imagery.

For instance, the poem “Personal Helicon” is much easier to understand if you realize that “helicon” refers to “A mountain in B[oe]otia, in Greece, supposed by the Greeks to be the residence of Apollo and the Muses.” It doesn’t help that when I first looked up the word that Encarta, as well as others, defined it as “a large bass tuba that encircles the player’s body, used in marching bands.” Needless to say, this definition is likely to lead to further confusion, not enlightenment.

Personal Helicon

For Michael Longley

As a child, they could not keep me from wells
And old pumps with buckets and windlasses.
I loved the dark drop, the trapped sky, the smells
Of waterweed, fungus and dank moss.

One, in a brickyard, with a rotted board top.
I savoured the rich crash when a bucket
Plummeted down at the end of a rope.
So deep you saw no reflection in it.

A shallow one under a dry stone ditch
Fructified like any aquarium.
When you dragged out long roots from the soft mule
A white face hovered over the bottom.

Others had echoes, gave back your own call
With a clean new music in it. And one
Was scaresome, for there, out of ferns and tall
Foxgloves, a rat slapped across my reflection.

Now, to pry into roots, to finger slime,
To stare, big-eyed Narcissus, into some spring
Is beneath all adult dignity. I rhyme
To see myself, to set the darkness echoing

It also probably helps if you’re aware that “In Christian symbolism the well falls within the group of ideas associated with the concept of life as a pilgrimage, and signifies salvation” and “the act of drawing water from a well is – like fishing -symbolic of drawing out and upwards the numinous contents of the deeps” according to A Dictionary of Symbols. Somewhat reminiscent of Theodore Roethke’s early poems, Heaney, too, sees “fungus” and “a rat slapped across my reflection.” So, even in childhood the poet sought to probe the depths of the dark side of his nature. Since it’s not “dignified” to peer self-consciously into wells as an adult, the poet now uses his “rhyme,” his poetry, to explore himself as reflected in the darkness of human nature.

“The Ministry of Fear” gives the reader further insight into Heaney’s empathy with those who have suffered in life:

from Singing School

1. The Ministry of Fear

For Seamus Deane

Well, as Kavanagh said, we have lived
In important places. The lonely scarp
Of St Columb’s College, where I billeted
For six years, overlooked your Bogside.
I gazed into new worlds: the inflamed throat
Of Brandywell, its floodlit dogtrack,
The throttle of the hare. In the first week
I was so homesick I couldn’t even eat
The biscuits left to sweeten my exile.
I threw them over the fence one night
In September 1951
When the lights of houses in the Lecky Road
Were amber in the fog. It was an act
Of stealth.

Then Belfast, and then Berkeley.
Here’s two on’s are sophisticated,
Dabbling in verses till they have become
A life: from bulky envelopes arriving
In vacation time to slim volumes
Despatched ‘with the author’s compliments’.
Those poems in longhand, ripped from the wire spine
Of your exercise book, bewildered me-
Vowels and ideas bandied free
As the seed-pods blowing off our sycamores.
I tried to write about the sycamores
And innovated a South Derry rhyme
With hushed and lulled full chimes for pushed and pulled.
Those hobnailed boots from beyond the mountain
Were walking, by God, all over the fine
Lawns of elocution.
Have our accents
Changed? ‘Catholics, in general, don’t speak
As well as students from the Protestant schools.’
Remember that stuff? Inferiority
Complexes, stuff that dreams were made on.
‘What’s your name, Heaney?’
‘Heaney, Father.’

On my first day, the leather strap
Went epileptic in the Big Study,
Its echoes plashing over our bowed heads,
But I still wrote home that a boarder’s life
Was not so bad, shying as usual.

On long vacations, then, I came to life
In the kissing seat of an Austin 16
Parked at a gable, the engine running,
My fingers tight as ivy on her shoulders,
A light left burning for her in the kitchen.
And heading back for home, the summer’s
Freedom dwindling night by night, the air
All moonlight and a scent of hay, policemen
Swung their crimson flashlamps, crowding round
The car like black cattle, snuffing and pointing
The muzzle of a Sten gun in my eye:
‘What’s your name, driver?’
‘Seamus . .
They once read my letters at a roadblock
And shone their torches on your hieroglyphics,
‘Svelte dictions’ in a very florid hand.
Ulster was British, but with no rights on
The English lyric: all around us, though
We hadn’t named it, the ministry of fear.

Though personally I cannot imagine anything much worse than being sent off to a boarding school as a child, how much worse it must have been to be sent off to a school where you are viewed as inferior and to suffer further persecution because of your religion when you’re sent home for the summer. There’s certainly irony in using the quote form Patrick Kavanagh, the Monaghan poet, that “we have lived/ In important places.” Usually it’s soldiers that are “billeted,” not young boys. And what parent could ever imagine that “biscuits” could ever compensate for a sense of being “exiled.”

It seems that the narrator’s only true friend was equally alienated and even then they were cut off from each other, forced to communicate through their poetry sent back and forth to each other. His friend was bold and outspoken, bewildering the narrator, who wrote romantic descriptions of nature, only to have them stomped upon by “those hobnailed boots,” an obvious reference to Nazi Germany.

Forced into exile by his parents, the narrator even seems forced to deny his own feelings, writing home that “a boarder’s life/ Was not so bad” even while “the leather strap/ Went epileptic.”

Returning home for a romantic interlude with a young lass, the narrator is confronted by Protestant policeman who crowd “round/ The car like black cattle, snuffing and pointing/ The muzzle of a Sten gun” stuck in his eye.

No wonder the boys call this place the “ministry of fear,” and no wonder Heaney exhibits such sympathy with the downtrodden in his book of poems.

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