Flourishing the Stained Cape of His Heart

The fourth poem “ Summer 1969” continues Seamus Heaney’s exploration of the effects of violence in “Singing School.” It’s a quite remarkable statement of the guilt that a young person might well feel while watching riots in his home country while he is studying abroad:

from Singing School

Summer 1969

While the Constabulary covered the mob
Firing into the Falls, I was suffering
Only the bullying sun of Madrid.
Each afternoon, in the casserole heat
Of the flat, as I sweated my way through
The life of Joyce, stinks from the fishmarket
Rose like the reek off a flax-dam.
At night on the balcony, gules of wine,
A sense of children in their dark corners,
Old women in black shawls near open windows,
The air a canyon rivering in Spanish.
We talked our way home over starlit plains
Where patent leather of the Guardia Civil
Gleamed like fish-bellies in flax-poisoned waters.

‘Go back,’ one said, ‘try to touch the people.’
Another conjured Lorca from his hill.
We sat through death counts and bullfight reports
On the television, celebrities
Arrived from where the real thing still happened.

I retreated to the cool of the Prado.
Goya’s ‘Shootings of the Third of May’
Covered a wall-the thrown-up arms
And spasm of the rebel, the helmeted
And knapsacked military, the efficient
Rake of the fusillade. In the next room
His nightmares, grafted to the palace wall-
Dark cyclones, hosting, breaking; Saturn

Jewelled in the blood of his own children,
Gigantic Chaos turning his brute hips
Over the world. Also, that holmgang
Where two berserks club each other to death
For honour’s sake, greaved in a bog, and sinking.

He painted with his fists and elbows, flourished
The stained cape of his heart as history charged.

While parts of this poem seem quite clear, other parts are greatly enhanced by the remarkable instant access of the internet. The irony of “I was suffering/ Only the bullying sun of Madrid” while others are dying at homes seems straightforward but effective. And, yet, despite his absence from the violence, his feelings about the violence somehow seem reinforced by his own evironment where women and children hide in the shadows far from the “Guardia Civil.” Death counts from the riots are intermingled with “bullfight reports,” as human deaths mix with the ceremonial death of the bulls demanded by a “civilized” country.

Even in the relative shelter of the Spanish Museum the narrator is reminded of violence and death, man’s inhumanity to his own. Goya’s “Shootings of the Third of May” may well be a more direct reminder of the riots in Ireland, but the image of Saturn eating his own child is a more vivid insight into the savage nature of mankind, all reminiscent of even earlier violence when primitive men in Denmark killed each other in ceremonial combat.

Perhaps even more poignant than “Summer 1969” is Heaney’s “Punishment” describing a maiden apparently sacrificed or punished in an earlier time.


I can feel the tug
of the halter at the nape
of her neck, the wind
on her naked front.

It blows her nipples
to amber beads,
it shakes the frail rigging
of her ribs.

I can see her drowned
body in the bog,
the weighing stone,
the floating rods and boughs.

Under which at first
she was a barked sapling
that is dug up
oak-bone, brain-firkin:

her shaved head
like a stubble of black corn,
her blindfold a soiled bandage,
her noose a ring

to store
the memories of love.
Little adulteress,
before they punished you

you were flaxen-haired,
undernourished, and your
tar-black face was beautiful.
My poor scapegoat,

I almost love you
but would have cast, I know,
the stones of silence.
I am the artful voyeur

of your brain’s exposed
and darkened combs,
your muscles’ webbing
and all your numbered bones:

I who have stood dumb
when your betraying sisters,
cauled in tar,
wept by the railings,

who would connive
in civilized outrage
yet understand the exact
and tribal, intimate revenge.

Now, if the truth be known, I’m not sure I would have had anywhere near the same feeling from seeing this exhibit that Heaney describes in this poem. When I see mummies, it’s difficult for me even to imagine them as ever having been alive, much less imagine the moment of their death.

However, this poem effectively puts us into the imaginative position of watching someone being executed for having committed adultery, a sin any of us might be tempted into committing. (Coincidentally this reminds me of Mike Golby’s recent entry on a woman in Africa being condemned to being stoned to death for committing adultery.) Heaney forces us to ask what kind of people could strip a beautiful flaxen-haired girl, shave half her head, blindfold her, put a noose around her neck and drown her by tying rocks to her and throwing her into a bog for committing adultery?

Perhaps the most sobering aspect of the poem, though, is the narrator’s admission that he “would have cast, I know,/ the stones of silence,” a quiet admission that, although perhaps he would never have done these things himself, he probably would not have voiced his disagreement if he had been there, for he, like all artists, is merely an “artful voyeur,” and, as such, would have been a fellow conspirator in her death. For he admits to understanding the “tribal, intimate revenge” because it is part of us, part of our DNA, apparently, at least if we are to believe the poet.

Remarkably, in this volume of poems Heanus takes us from an young boy’s un-ease with violence and discrimination to a societal dis-ease of scapegoating certain individuals who do not fit the majority’s standards. Starting with the violence inflicted on a young student by a boarding school and a racist society, Heaney moves on the analyze the very nature of such violence, and, like William Golding in Lord of the Flies, finds the cause of such violence lies at the very heart of darkness, the human heart.

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