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.

10 thoughts on “All Around Us, the Ministry of Fear”

  1. I stumbled across your page when searching for a copy of the poem “the ministry of fear” which I was telling a friend about. While I think most of your own comments here are to the point and helpful, there are two instances where I have some disagreement.

    The first is a subtle point. The author does have to suffer going to boarding school and he is a Catholic in a Protestant sectarian state. But it is not in boarding school where he is viewed as inferior. In boarding school he inherits an internalised sense of inferiority from the schizoid Catholic Christian Brothers who run the regime. It is not clear where the comment that “‘Catholics, in general, don’t speak
    As well as students from the Protestant schools.'” comes from. It could have come from someone he and Deane meet in one of the other ‘important places’ they go to later in life, more likely it came from one of the Brothers keen to drum the rural (&therefore “common”) south Derry parlance(and all its richness) out of the young Heaney, (as well as the urban and equally “common” Bogside dialect out of Deane) replacing them with the more genteel sort of accent which would fit in well with the neatly cut lawns of the middle classes.
    This brings me to the second point, the hobnailed boots, while of course being evocative of authoritarian regimes (& the references to the police state later in the poem) primarily refer to the to his rural background and clumsy destructiveness he now attaches to his country dialect with which he recites his poetry. The image of hobnailed boots chewing up the “fine lawns of elocution” couldn’t be clearer. He has at least partially internalised the prejudice against himself, and that is testimony to the omnipresent fear which the poem is about.

    Thank you for having this page I have enjoyed my visit very much.

  2. I’m glad the gentleman above addressed the not so obvious ‘Nazi Germany’ hobnailed boot reference. I would like to advise against projecting interpretations where no other references are to be found for the simple fact that some poor GCSE student could stumble upon this and take your word as gospel. A little disclaimer would be appropriate, after all an opinion is an opinion and should not be protrayed in any other way.
    I commend you on making his work accessible.
    All the best.

  3. While it may or may not be true that the Catholic Christian Brothers were schizoid, as noted above, it is irrelevant: St Columb’s College which Heaney (and moi) attended was not run by Christian Brothers but by priests.

  4. Re: Frank S.

    You are quite right about St Columbs not being run by Christian Brothers, but by priests.

  5. heaney in this poem and a number of his other works shows a clear and undeniably one-sided ad bigoted approach to the situation in Ulster and Londondery. He is notng more than a caholic, fenian, ira propagandist and not even a good poet. ‘God save the Queen!’

  6. Jim – it’s ‘nothing’ not ‘notng’ and ‘catholic’ not ‘caholic’.
    Now do you really think you should be reading poetry – with your literacy skills? I don’t think so. Perhaps some colouring books would be more suited to your limited intellect.

  7. What Shane O’Curry brings up about Catholic schools in the North in the ’50s rings true to my memories of my experience with the Dominican nuns in Belfast. I should qualify by saying that a number of the nuns, as some did act in a Christlike manner, exhibited a sense that educating children from “the Falls Road” was a burden and, indeed, our rough accents were a daily assault on their delicate sensibilities.

  8. Loren, your reference to the symbolism of wells, and Heaney’s images of reflections therein, reminded me of Frost’s “For Once, Then, Something,” another use of the well to evoke the “other,” even the numinous.

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