Only the very stupid or the very deprived can any longer help knowing that the documents of civilization have been written in blood and tears, blood and tears no less real for being very remote. And when this intellectual predisposition co-exists with the actualities of Ulster and Israel and Bosnia and Rwanda and a host of other wounded spots on the face of the earth, the inclination is not only not to credit human nature with much constructive potential but not to credit anything too positive in the work of art.
(extract from Heaney’s Nobel Lecture, 1995)
Read the full text of Heaney’s lecture here.
Seamus Heaney, a native of Northern Ireland, came to be one of the central poetic voices of the 20th century in a career which began with reminiscences of a rural Irish childhood. He received some criticism for failing, as his critics saw it, to tackle the political situation in Northern Ireland, but his poetry became more political, though never polemical. He remained, though, constantly thoughtful poet of the natural world, of time passing, of love and relationships.
Read the overview of Heaney and his work on the Internet Poetry Archive here.
North was Heaney’s fourth book and was published in 1975, a turbulent time in Ireland’s history. It was his first collection to comment explicitly on the politics of Ireland. It remains a polarising book, with The Guardian newspaper listing it at no. 11 in the 100 greatest non-fiction books of all time, but some critics, like Ciaran Carson, Edna Longley and Desmond Fennell, taking issue with the way Heaney deals with the politics by blending ancient history with contemporary events.
The first section of Heaney’s collection is inspired by the preserved remains of Iron Age bodies found buried in peat bogs in northern Europe. He equates the tribal violence enacted upon them in ancient times with a deep-rooted urge for revenge and violence which still emerges in the Troubles of Northern Ireland.
My emotions, my feelings, whatever those instinctive energies are that have to be engaged for a poem, those energies quickened more when contemplating a victim, strangely, from 2000 years ago that they did from contemplating a man at the end of our road being swept into a plastic bag – I mean the barman at the end of our road tried to carry out a bomb and it blew up. Now there is of course something terrible about that, but somehow language, words didn’t live in the way I think they have to live in a poem when they were hovering over that kind of horror and pity.
(Seamus Heaney quoted in Neil Corcoran’s A Student’s Guide to Seamus Heaney, London 1986 p.96)
Heaney first saw the bog bodies, and particularly the one known as the Grauballe Man, as photographs in P.V. Glob’s book The Bog People. Glob, a Danish archaeologist, published the book as a record of his investigations of bodies found in Denmark. The Grauballe Man is now on permanent exhibition at the Moesgaard Museum in Højbjerg, Denmark. Visit the Grauballe Man page on its website.
I first saw his twisted face
in a photograph,
a head and shoulder
out of the peat,
bruised like a forceps baby
from ‘The Grauballe Man’
Further reading about bog bodies on The National Geographic site and the BBC, which will develop your understanding of the archaeological context. For the historical context of Ireland, visit the BBC’s history site.