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Query: Seamus Heaney's Traditions
Posted by: Veronika (192.168.128.---)
Date: January 16, 2006 09:41AM

I'd be interested to know what emulers think of this poem (pasted below). Any comments welcome.



Traditions -- Seamus Heaney

For Tom Flanagan


Our guttural muse

was bulled long ago
by the alliterative tradition,
her uvula grows

vestigial, forgotten
like the coccyx
or a Brigid's Cross
yellowing in some outhouse

while custom, that "most
sovereign mistress",
beds us down into
the British isles.


We are to be proud
of our Elizabethan English:
"varsity", for example,
is grass-roots stuff with us;

we "deem" or we "allow"
when we suppose
and some cherished archaisms
are correct Shakespearean.

Not to speak of the furled
consonants of lowlanders
shuttling obstinately
between bawn and mossland.


MacMorris, gallivanting
around the Globe, whinged
to courtier and groundling
who had heard tell of us

as going very bare
of learning, as wild hares,
as anatomies of death:
"What ish my nation?"

And sensibly, though so much
later, the wandering Bloom
replied, "Ireland," said Bloom,
"I was born here. Ireland."

Re: Query: Seamus Heaney's Traditions
Posted by: marian2 (192.168.128.---)
Date: January 16, 2006 10:50AM

I am not a Heaney fan and this poem illustrates why. It may be that I am simply not on his wavelength, but to me it is from the visceral school of poetry, is arhythmic and unappealing. It's clever, with quite a lot of allusions to classical and historical matters so suitably educated readers can feel superior about understanding them. To me that makes it rather elitist. I'd prefer something with wider appeal and some rhythm. I have very similar views about many of Ted Hughes' poems.

Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 01/16/2006 10:51AM by marian2.

Re: Query: Seamus Heaney's Traditions
Posted by: Hugh Clary (192.168.128.---)
Date: January 16, 2006 12:14PM

Doesn't do much for me personally - too much like chopped-up prose, I mean. I don't know who Tom Flanagan is/was, but that may not matter.

One infers famous Seamus, like all Irish poets, is going on about Ireland again, its language this time. Their gutteral poetry was 'bulled', which sounds like it was forced out by English's frequent use of alliteration. Why one cannot have gutteral alliteration is less clear.

The uvula is at the back of the throad, again a guttural speech reference. The coccyx is the (now missing) tailbone; St Brigid's Cross ( is yellowed from being discarded I guess. After having been used to wipe one's backside? Could be, yep. Lots of references to things having outlived their usefulness, right. Now Ireland is bedded down with England, no longer master of its own fate.

And their language is now English. No great loss there, what with Irish showing even stranger spelling and pronunciation than English has. Kidding, sorry! The 'varsity' reference loses me - the root apparently being 'university', but dunno why that matters. The Irish presently use such words as deem or allow instead of suppose, and have absorbed (British) archaic terms into their language.

Macmorris is an Irish gent from Shakespeare's Hank Cinq:

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The what 'ish' my nation note is apparently from that same play:

FLUELLEN: Captain Macmorris, I think, look you, under your
correction, there is not many of your nation--

The pronunciation of 'ish' must be relevant, but again I dunno how.

The last stanza's reference to Bloom is likely not Chesil's buddy Harold, but more the wandering Leopold Bloom in James Joyce's Ulysses.

So, Seamus is lamenting the loss of the Irish tongue and its absorption into present-day English? Likely a correct assessment of the facts, and possibly worth lamenting. Is it well-said, though? Your call - doesn't seem all that clever to me. And its prosey taste puts me off as well:

"Our guttural muse was bulled long ago by the alliterative tradition, her uvula grows vestigial, forgotten like the coccyx or a Brigid's Cross yellowing in some outhouse ..."

Re: Query: Seamus Heaney's Traditions
Posted by: Desi (Moderator)
Date: January 16, 2006 03:21PM

I must say I quite like it. I admit, sometimes the many references are annoying, but I do like to search for them.

Re: Query: Seamus Heaney's Traditions
Posted by: IanB (192.168.128.---)
Date: January 16, 2006 07:33PM

Some good comments made already.

I don't know whether and to what extent Irish gaelic is a declining language. There are many people devoted to preserving and using it. The loss of any language with a long literary tradition is serious and to be regretted, but not an easy subject for a poem.

The abstract title of this poem reflects its subject and style. Esoteric and concentrated. Like dried fruit. Nourishing no doubt, but tough to chew, and a bit flavourless, at least for popular taste.

SH's willingness to harness unusual words (e.g., 'bulled', 'furled', 'bawn', 'mossland', 'groundling') is always interesting. He exercises tight control over the language he uses. He seems less concerned to produce word music. Allowing for considerable flexibility in diction, most of the lines here can be read as two-beat, but overall the poem lacks the rhythm and rhyme suitable for recitation or reading aloud. It is academic musing, not angel song.

So worth reading, and re-reading, as food for thought, but not my favourite kind of poem.

The word 'ish' in the line "What ish my nation?" may be intended as a pun, ostensibly quoting Macmorris' inebriated pronunciation of 'is' in Henry V, but converting it to a contemporary question: is my nation Irish or English?


Edited 3 time(s). Last edit at 01/16/2006 10:36PM by IanB.

Re: Query: Seamus Heaney's Traditions
Posted by: Veronika (192.168.128.---)
Date: January 20, 2006 10:09PM

Thank you all, especially Hugh and Ian. I really enjoyed your commentary.

Gaelic is as of last year an official EU language. And there are a number of excellent Irish poets writing in Gaelic: Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill, Cathal O Searcaigh to name just two. Michael Hartnett also wrote in Gaelic.

Language (English and/or Irish) and poets relationship to it is a fairly common subject in Modern (post Yeats) Irish poetry. Montague has several poems on the subject. It seems to me that the loss (I guess one could call it like that to some extent) of the native language is a deep and not yet fully healed wound.

As for this poem - it is IMO a strange, almost obstinately unmelodic (or unmelodious) poem. But well made... Heaney's relationship to the English language is (as can be expected) a difficult one. Othello and Desdemona come to mind. A sort of love-hate, need/mistrust relationship. He is a master of the English language and still makes it sound as harsh as the rocks facing the Atlantic. As if he was deliberately trying to overthrow the music of the iambic pentameter.

I think Ian describes it perfectly (abstract, like dried fruit). The many references (there aren't that many) didn't irritate me. I had to look up "Brigid's Cross" (no such tradition here, also the saint is not well known in these parts), bawn (a new word for me) and a paraphrase of and a character from S. Also I am not really sure about the word "bulled" - could be as Hugh suggests, forced. There is also this definition in M-W: "thickened, strengthened - used especially of the neck". He is talking about "guttral" and "uvula". A possible double entendre.

I guess a translation would be a demanding, if not almost an impossible challenge. Hm...

I've added some info on Tom Flanagan, although I don't think it has much importance for the poem itself. (Google did however find another Tom Flanagan - with a very different kind of ideas. But that's another story...)

With best wishes,


THOMAS FLANAGAN (1923–2002), the grandson of Irish immigrants, grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut, where he ran the school newspaper with his friend Truman Capote. Flanagan attended Amherst College (with a two-year hiatus to serve in the Pacific Fleet) and earned his Ph.D. from Columbia University, where he studied under Lionel Trilling while also writing stories for Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. In 1959, he published an important scholarly work, The Irish Novelists, 1800 to 1850, and the next year he moved to Berkeley, where he was to teach English and Irish literature at the University of California for many years. In 1978 he took up a post at the State University of New York at Stonybrook, from which he retired in 1996. Flanagan and his wife Jean made annual trips to Ireland, where he struck up friendships with many writers, including Benedict Kiely and Seamus Heaney, whom he in turn helped bring to the United States. His intimate knowledge of Ireland’s history and literature also helped to inspire his trilogy of historical novels, starting with The Year of the French (1979, winner of the National Critics’ Circle award for fiction) and continuing with The Tenants of Time (1988) and The End of the Hunt (1994).

Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 01/20/2006 10:54PM by Veronika.

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