Classical Allusions in Seamus Heaney's The Haw Lantern

John Dillon

Trinity College

Some years ago I ventured some remarks on Seamus Heaney's use of classical themes in his poetry(1) - only one facet of his unobtrusive 'learnedness' (Heaney is a doctus poeta, in the manner of Catullus or Horace, not of Callimachus, Propertius, nor yet of Ezra Pound). Now, in the wake of the publication of his latest collection, The Haw Lantern,(2) I would like to examine what seems to me to be an increased concentration of classical allusion in that work.

This is, I hope, not just an exercise in mole-like pedantry. It is designed not only to enhance our understanding of certain of the poems of this many-faceted artist, but to make a point. If one goes back just a few generations, let us say to the era before the First World War (or even to the 1920s, if one thinks of Pound or Eliot, Rilke or Mandelstam), one finds a certain unity of culture, based on a knowledge, shared between writer and reader, both of the Old and New Testaments and of the classic literature of Greece and Rome. In more recent times, for better or for worse, this common heritage has been shattered, with the result that poets have had to create personal mythologies as backdrops for their ideas, or resort to recherché images from various periods and cultures, with the constant danger of impenetrable obscurity. One of Heaney's many virtues is that, while not confining himself in any slavish way, he continues to make use of time-honoured sources of imagery, always, it seems to me, to the enhancement of his poetry.

I propose to take the relevant poems in The Haw Lantern in order, and consider as fully as I can what contribution is made to their overall meaning by the classical allusions which occur in them. I do not want to embark on a general critique of the poems concerned, which I am in any case hardly competent to do, but in many cases the classical imagery does, as we shall see, pervade the entire poem, so that I will in fact be involved on occasion in considering one or another poem as a whole.

We can, in the case of this collection, begin at the beginning, with the opening poem, Alphabets. In this connection, I am conditioned to expect opening and closing poems of collections to be in some degree programmatic. If one were to apply that principle here, one would have to find some dominant theme being laid down in Alphabets and restated, perhaps in a different key, in the concluding poem, The Riddle. If I were to venture a view on that, it would be that we are concerned here with one of Heaney's recurring preoccupations, the extracting of meaningful signs from the blooming, buzzing multiplicity of experience, which is the poet's work. In the first poem, at any rate, we see a child learning to recognise the alphabet, or rather three kindred alphabets, the Latin, the Irish and the Greek, and seeing them then reflected in a variety of natural and man-made phenomena; while in The Riddle the poet is sifting in his riddle the confused stuff of experience, and the riddle (in the other sense of the word) is to decide what it is that is of real value: that which remains in the riddle, or that which is sifted through:

You never saw it used but still can hear
The sift and fall of stuff hopped on the mesh

Clods and buds in a little dust-up,
The dribbled pile accruing under it.

Which would be better, what sticks or what falls through?
Or does the choice itself create the value?

Legs apart, deft-handed, start a mime
To sift the sense of things from what's imagined

And work out what was happening in that story
Of the man who carried water in a riddle.

Was it culpable ignorance, or was it rather
A via negativa through drops and let-downs?

What is the story of the man carrying water in a riddle? I must confess I am not sure. There was a Greek proverb to that effect, presenting carrying water in a sieve as a paradigm of futility, but otherwise I can only think of the daughters of Danaus, condemned to perform this task for ever in Hades because of their murder of their husbands. This is not apposite, however, to Heaney's point. And I wish I could decide what he means by 'a via negativa through drops and let-downs'. What this conveys to me is the interesting idea that the 'sieving-out' from one's mind of objects belonging to the physical world and facts about them is the proper way to approach, by this via negativa, true reality. But that is no doubt just my philosophical prejudices coming through.

However, let us return to the beginning. We are given glimpses in Alphabets of old-style Latin teaching in St. Columb's College in Derry:

Declensions sang on air like a hosanna
As, column after stratified column,
Book One of Elementa Latina
Marbled and minatory, rose up in him.

Further on in the poem, the shapes of lambda, delta and omega are gracefully worked into the rural landscape:

Balers drop bales like print-outs where stooked sheaves
Made lambdas on the stubble once at harvest
And the delta face of each potato pit
Was patted straight and moulded against frost.
All gone, with the omega that kept
Watch above each door, the good luck horse shoe.

Here, I should say, the discovery of these Greek letters in these parts of the landscape serves as an image of the poet's task of discerning significances in nature and in human activity.

Having thus dealt with the two poems which frame the collection, let us proceed within. In the second poem, Terminus, one cannot grasp the full significance of the imagery unless one realises that Terminus here is the Roman god of boundaries. The Romans had a curious propensity for divinising abstractions, or at least what we might regard as abstractions - perhaps generalised features of the world might be a better term (I think of such entities as Rubigo, goddess of blight, or Cardea, goddess of door-hinges) - and Terminus divinises the concept of borders and boundary-lines. Heaney brilliantly extends this concept to take in the feeling that he himself, or at least his poetic persona, has of being on the borderline between nature and culture ('an acorn and a rusted bolt'), or country and town ('a factory chimney/ and a dormant mountain'), and even perhaps, in the final image of the poem, between two traditions ('the last earl on horseback in midstream/ Still parlaying, in earshot of his peers').

The title poem of the collection itself contains a notable image from Classical antiquity, in the person of that formidable character, Diogenes the Cynic, and once again, the image is treated with fascinating subtlety:

The wintry haw is burning out of season,
crab of the thorn, a small light for small people,
wanting no more from them than that they keep
the wick of self-respect from dying out,
not having to blind them with illumination.

But sometimes when your breath plumes in the frost
it takes the roaming shape of Diogenes
with his lantern, seeking one just man;
so you end up scrutinised from behind the haw
he holds up at eye-level on its twig,
and you flinch before its bonded pith and stone,
its blood-prick that you wish would test and clear you,
its pecked-at ripeness that scans you, then moves on.

The story goes (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers, VI 41) that Diogenes was found one day in the market-place of Athens, going about in broad daylight with a lighted lantern. When challenged as to what he was doing, he said he was searching for a real man. Heaney the poet is abashed by the challenge of the haw, shining redly on its wintry twig. From being just a brave little light ('a small light for small people/ wanting no more from them but that they keep/ the wick of self respect from dying out'), the haw becomes more menacing and inquisitory, the lantern of Diogenes, probing and testing. It scans you pitilessly, and then - in a devastating final phrase - 'moves on.' In other words, you have failed the test. You are not adjudged a real man.

Since this poem gives its name to the collection, we may take it, I think, that Heaney intends its imagery to have a central importance. Presumably he wishes his poetry as a whole to act as a kind of lantern of Diogenes, probing our consciousness, and separating out the bogus from the true. It would be as well to bear this in mind as we look at the other poems of the collection.

The next poem, The Stone Grinder, makes use of the story of Penelope weaving her web, or winding-sheet, for Laertes, her father-in-law, and then unweaving it again each night, as a contrast to the stone-grinder, for whom 'what I undid was never the thing I had done':

Penelope worked with some guarantee of a plot
Whatever she unweaved at night
might advance it all by a day.

Me, I ground the same stones for fifty years
and what I did was never the thing I had done.
I was unrewarded as darkness at a mirror

I prepared my surface to survive what came over it -
cartographers, printmakers, all that lining and inking.
I ordained opacities and they haruspicated.

For them it was a new start and a clean slate
every time. For me, it was coming full circle
like the ripple perfected in stillness.

So. To commemorate me. Imagine the faces
stripped off the face of a quarry. Practise
coitus interruptus on a pile of old lithographs.

Why exactly the poet should compare himself to a stone-grinder, if that is what he is doing, I can only conjecture. Perhaps it is his feeling that he is a recipient of any impression the world may throw at him, that he must leave his mind open to receive whatever comes his way, whereas the Penelope figure chooses her own ground, but on the other hand produces nothing original.

The next poem, A Daylight Art, begins from the image of Socrates in prison, setting Aesop's fables to verse because in a dream he had been told 'to practise mousikę and work at it', as he says at the beginning of Plato's Phaedo. This dream had been coming to him all his life, and previously he had always taken mousikę to be philosophy, on the grounds that that was the highest form of mousikę, but now he feels that he had better cover all possibilities by turning to poetry and music in the strict sense:

On the day he was to take the poison
Socrates told his friends he had been writing
putting Aesop's fables into verse

And this was not because Socrates loved wisdom
and advocated the examined life.
The reason was that he had had a dream.

Caesar now, or Herod or Constantine
or any number of Shakespearean kings
bursting at the end like dams

where original panoramas lie submerged
which have to rise again before the death scenes-
you can believe in their believing dreams.

But hardly Socrates. Until, that is,
he tells his friends the dream had kept recurring
all his life, repeating one instruction:

Practise the art, which art until that moment
he always took to mean philosophy.
Happy the man, therefore, with a natural gift

for practising the right one from the start-
poetry, say, or fishing; whose nights are dreamless;
whose deep-sunk panoramas rise and pass

like daylight through the rod's eye or the nib's eye.

Heaney, fully aware, I think, of the ironical aspect of Socrates' statement (Socrates has after all no serious intention of becoming anything other than a philosopher), adds his own touch of irony by professing, at least, to envy the poet, or fisherman, who has never been afflicted by doubt as to his true vocation. Are we to conclude that the poet Heaney has occasional twinges of uncertainty as to whether he should have been a Lough Neagh fisherman? If so, we can be sure that he is no more likely to act on them than was Socrates to declare himself a poet manqué, and deny his true vocation. If I am right about this, though, where does that leave Norman McCaig, to whom the poem is dedicated? Is he, perhaps, being lightly teased?

We move past some excellent poems with no Classical dimension, Parable Island, From the Republic of Conscience, and Hailstones, to a poem that I wish I could be sure that I understand, The Stone Verdict. There is just one Classical image in it, that of the god Hermes as a stone pile, but it is plainly important to the whole poem:

When he stands in the judgement place
With his stick in his hand and the broad hat
Still on his head, maimed by self-doubt
And an old disdain of sweet talk and excuses,
It will be no justice if the sentence is blabbed out.
He will expect more than words in the ultimate court
He relied on through a lifetime's speechlessness

Let it be like the judgement of Hermes,
God of the stone heap, where the stones were verdicts
Cast solidly at his feet, piling up around him
Until he stood waist deep in the cairn
Of his apotheosis: maybe a gate-pillar
or a tumbled wallstead where hogweed earths the silence
Somebody will break at last to say, 'Here
His spirit lingers,' and will have said too much.

I understand that the hero of this rather enigmatic poem is actually the poet's father, a man of notable taciturnity, and as such it is indeed a moving tribute to him. The image of Hermes as god of the stone heap, with the stones piling up round him, is a striking one. Heaney is here making use of a rather obscure piece of aetiological lore, which he confesses to me that he actually derived from W.K.C. Guthrie's The Greeks and their Gods (p. 88), though it comes ultimately from the Etymologicum Magnum (s.v. hermaion ): 'When Hermes killed Argos, he was brought to trial by the gods. They acquitted him, and in doing so each threw his voting-pebble (psęphos) at his feet. Thus a heap of stones grew up around him.' It is fascinating to observe the poet's imagination at work on data such as this. The hero of the poem stands accused of something, perhaps of the conduct of his life in general, but he is acquitted, by a verdict silent as his own silence.

I move on now to the poem in honour of Robert Fitzgerald, the Irish-American poet and translator of both Iliad and Odyssey, whom Heaney would have met in Harvard before his death. Heaney elegantly turns to Fitzgerald's honour the story in the Odyssey of Odysseus and the test of the arrow and the axeheads, which was used to defeat the suitors of Penelope:

The socket of each axehead like the squared
Doorway to a megalithic tomb
With its slabbed passage that keeps opening forward
To face another corbelled stone-faced door
That opens on a third. There is no last door,
Just threshold stone, stone jambs, stone crossbeam
Repeating enter, enter, enter, enter.
Lintel and upright fly past in the dark.

After the bowstring sang a swallow's note,
The arrow whose migration is its mark
Leaves a whispered breath in every socket.
The great test over, while the gut's still humming,
This time it travels out of all knowing
Perfectly aimed towards the vacant centre.

Here the image is magnificently adapted to the poet Fitzgerald's own artistic achievement, aiming unerringly at the ever-receding centre of things, and thus penetrating the bottomless depths of psychic reality. The comparison of the row of axeheads to the entrance of a megalithic tomb is striking, as is the allusion - if I am not being too clever here - in the comparison of the arrow to a swallow, to Athena's presence in the hall during the slaughter of the suitors in the form of a swallow (Od. 22. 239-40).

The next poem of some interest - though marginal - from the Classical point of view is Grotus and Coventina. Coventina is one of those numerous river or spring goddesses of Roman Britain (Celtic, of course, rather than Roman), to whom dedications are found scattered about the country in the vicinity of sources of rivers. The poet wittily connects a memory of seeing an inscription by one Grotus recording the dedication of an altar to the goddess Coventina with an earlier memory of the electric pump in his yard going dry and needing priming. There is perhaps also, acting as a link between these two memories, and giving them, together, a deeper significance, an appeal to someone, perhaps his wife Marie, often the recipient of poems like this, to renew his poetic inspiration, which has temporarily dried up: 'I'll be Grotus, you be Coventina.'

Finally, there is the ingenious short meditation on Wolfe Tone, and specifically on his death in prison in Dublin after the failure of his expedition, cast in the first person:

Light as a skiff, manoeuvrable
yet outmanoeuvred,

I affected epaulettes and a cockade,
wrote in a style well-bred and impervious

to the solidarity I angled for,
--and played the ancient Roman with a razor.

I was the shouldered oar that ended up
far from the brine and whiff of venture,

like a scratching post or a crossroads flagpole.
out of my element among small farmers -

I who once wakened to the shouts of men
rising from the bottom of the sea,

men in their shirts mounting through deep water
when the Atlantic stove our cabin's dead lights in

and the big fleet split and Ireland dwindled
as we ran before the gale under bare poles.

What is of interest here in the present context is an ingenious use of the Odyssey once again, this time Teiresias' prophecy to Odysseus in Hades in Book XI (119-134), instructing him as to how he is finally to propitiate the god Poseidon. He must walk inland (from the mainland opposite Ithaca, necessarily) with an oar over his shoulder, until he meets someone (a 'small farmer') who does not know what an oar is, and takes it to be a winnowing-fan. Then he may erect the oar on a barrow raised in honour of Poseidon, and perform sacrifices to the god. The exact purpose of this curious exercise is not made clear in the text, but it is presumably intended to spread Poseidon's worship inland, in areas where he was previously unknown. Certainly it is designed to take Odysseus entirely out of his element, which is nautical, and so humble him, and it is this aspect of the exercise which catches Heaney's fancy.

Even so, Wolfe Tone sees himself as properly a naval captain in the service of France, but now reduced to the status of an anonymous prisoner, stripped of all emblems of rank and any moral support, among uncomprehending peasants. And so he kills himself (note the allusion to the traditional Roman manner of committing suicide). Odysseus, of course, survives his experience, and comes home safely, to die 'in sleek old age', but that does not negate the force of the image.

This has been a rather scrappy survey,(3) perhaps, but it is, I hope, sufficient to fulfil the purpose which I enunciated at the outset. That is to show that, even in this age of fragmented consciousness, where the traditional bases of European culture, the Bible and the Classics, are less and less a part of the intellectual baggage of the average writer or reader, a first-class poet such as Seamus Heaney can still draw on classical themes in an original and stimulating way to further his poetic purposes. This surely is to the credit both of the poet himself and of the enduring value of the Classics.


1. 'Antaeus and Hercules: Some Notes on the Irish Predicament', in The State of the Language, ed. Leonard Michaels and Christopher Ricks, Berkeley/Los Angeles/London, 1980, 553-9.
2. This article, it should be said, first saw the light as a talk composed in the immediate aftermath of the publication of The Haw Lantern in 1987, and never published. On the whole, it seemed better to leave it in its original form, since an updating would necessitate radical recasting, to take note of Heaney's subsequent work, such as Seeing Things (1991).
3. I note also in passing what seems to be an exuberant use of the Greek word for wealth, ploutos, in the poem 'The Summer of Lost Rachel': Whenever showers plout down/ On flooding hay and flooded drills. But this may for all I know be an old Ulster dialect word!

COPYRIGHT: All material published in Classics Ireland is copyright. Responsibility for, and ownership of, copyright remains with the author of each article.
© Classical Association of Ireland :