Three Monkeys Online

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Dantean Echoes – The influence of Dante on Samuel Beckett and Seamus Heaney

It is this existential interrogation into the divide between life and death, punishment and pity which sets Beckett apart from his beginnings in Joyce. The relentless pursuit of what it means to be damned and accountable is continuously illustrated in the at once pathetic and sharply defined characters. Similar can be said of Seamus Heaney, who, like Beckett, (and indeed, Joyce) sees in Dante a vehicle for personal expression. If Beckett, however, can be seen in the light of the Infernal, (which, for the purposes of this discussion he will be) then Heaney against him is decidedly purgatorial in tone. There is not that airless, claustrophobic atmosphere in Heaney’s poetry. This is not simply due to dramatic differences, such as plays versus poetry, but due to the artistic and personal motivations of the poet and how he chose to use Dante.

“What I first loved in the Commedia was the local intensity, the vehemence and fondness attaching to individual shades, the way personalities and values were emotionally soldered together”
[Pg.45 ‘Envies and Identifications’ by Seamus Heaney – Dante Readings Eric Haywood (ed) (Dublin: Irish Academic Press,1987) ]

Heaney’s attraction to Dante is quite different in its pull toward the vernacular. It is the ‘local intensity’ which inspires Heaney and the way in which Dante could place himself in ‘an historical world yet submit that world to scrutiny from a perspective beyond history’. For Heaney, a poet enmeshed between the mutually volatile worlds of Catholicism and Protestantism, academia and Mossbawn, the way in which the medieval poet could ‘accommodate the political and the transcendent’ was what he admired most. Dante articulated himself with mastery using not Latin but the Vulgare. Heaney identifies with this, and indeed criticizes both Ezra Pound and T.S.Eliot for, in their own identifications with the poet, suggesting ‘that the poem was written on official paper’.

His relationship to Dante can be, I believe, most clearly seen in two of his poetry collections: Field Work, and Station Island. It is in these works that Heaney explores with unflinching honesty his position within the worlds
which he inhabits: his life as an intellectual, his relationship to his home and the ‘Troubles’ and his attitude toward Ireland and its history. In short, it is his own place and self validation that he is seeking, and through Dante, comes a long way towards defining it.

Field Work, written in 1979 sees the first of the more explicit dantean references. It also marks a definitive break with the self -consciously mystical. While volumes like ,i>Death of a Naturalist and Door into the Dark were more rustically enchanted with landscapes of symbolic magic and historically loaded significance, Field Work makes the break and begins the long journey of self confrontation. This is significantly marked with a new elegiac focus. Here we see the first of the dedications to murdered friends: Colum McCartney, Sean Armstrong and Louis O’Neil. The Strand at Lough Beg epitomizes the human pull of loss in the face of senseless tragedy. In memory of his murdered young cousin, Colum McCartney, who was killed in a sectarian explosion, Heaney alludes to the first canto of the Purgatorio and takes on the role of Virgil. Like Dante’s guide, Heaney gathers him up and washes him with ‘cold handfuls of the dew’, lays him ‘flat./ with rushes that shoot green again’, and plaits ‘scapulars to wear over’ his ‘shroud’. the scene is heartbreaking in its delicate rendering of ceremonial rite and the role Heaney has taken on as that person responsible for his murdered charge. There is also, unsurprisingly, an echo of the Inferno (which so typifies Heaney’s treatment of Dante) as McCartney stops behind the poet on his knees with ‘blood and roadside muck’ in his hair and eyes. Like the slime which engulfs the shades in canto III, the shade of McCartney is pathetic and befouled in a violent death. The poet, however, consigns him very unambiguously to Purgatory. It is further visited in Station Island. Written five years after Field Work, the poet has not forgotten Colum. It is in section eight of the twelve poem work that Heaney, through his murdered cousin, holds himself accountable for the way he treated his death. Colum is still a ‘bleeding, pale – faced boy, plastered in mud’ but he is not the silent shade whom the poet washed with dew five years earlier: ‘you whitewashed ugliness and drew/ the lovely blinds of the Purgatorio/ and saccharined my death with morning dew’. This is Heaney at his most honest and this is the poet most faithfully echoing Dante. He is blaming himself for using lyric to access his cousin’s death. Like the pilgrim in Canto V of the Inferno, on hearing the perverted dolce stil nuovo inspired tale of Francesca and then swooning, Heaney recognises his own stile as perverting and ill used in the face of what he is attempting to immortalise. Dante reproves himself again in in Purgatorio (XI) for his own pride in relation to his poetic mastery and recognises poetry’s inability to describe the indescribable vision coming. Heaney recognises that a lyrical funeral rite has no place relating to such an ugly death. The guilt he feels for the way in which he reacted to the physical death of his cousin, years earlier, is also present as the poet struggles to come to terms with his cousin’s words . Heaney was ‘with the other poets’ when his body was being ‘ carted to Bellaghy from the Fews.’ His company ‘showed more agitation at the news’ than Heaney himself, and it is this, along with hiding behind poetry and lyric that McCartney cannot forgive him.

Heaney’s feelings about writing and poetry are complex. What is interesting, is that, more so than either Joyce or Beckett, Heaney’s oeuvre is characterised more by his uneasiness with his vocation than by particular stylistic traits.

“there is indeed some part of me that is entirely unimpressed by the activity , that doesn’t dislike it, but it’s the generations, I suppose of rural ancestors – not illiterate, but not literary. They in me, or through them, don’t give a damn”
[p.2 , Seamus Heaney: The Making of the Poet by Michael Parker. Macmillan] ]

According to Helen Vendler in her book on Heaney, the relationship between the poet and Joyce is characterised by a similar uneasiness in their relationship to their Irish subject matter. It was ‘one of intimacy paired with detachment, an affection modulated by scorn�. This ‘intimacy paired with detachment’ can certainly be witnessed throughout Heaney’s poetry where he describes his subject, and most especially that of his native surroundings such as Mossbawn and Glanmore, with a consistent edge of discomfort. He might have been a farmer, a schoolmaster, or something useful yet chose to be a poet. According to Heaney, the feeling that he never quite had the right to enter the poetic tradition never went away, and this bound up with an environment which, according to Michael Longley fostered an innate ‘distrust of verbiage’ and ‘down to earth realism’ was the fragile poetic foundation on which Heaney stood. The poet’s consistent feelings of inadequacy both as writer and Ulsterman are what especially distance him from Beckett. Perhaps this is less so with Joyce, who like Heaney, struggled all through his life and literary career with the sometimes oppressive notions of nationhood and the right way forward as regards artistic expression. This is illustrated with extraordinary candour once again in Station Island, where, in section twelve, the pilgrim steps off the island and is greeted by none other than the shade of Joyce. The atmosphere is pregnant with significance both for the Lough Derg sequence, and beyond into the poet’s personal literary consciousness. It is the twelfth poem in the sequence and is marks the end of the poet’s pilgrimage on the island, which, as a location itself, is loaded with history and penitential mythology. On stepping of the Island, it is Joyce who greets him. He is ‘Like a convalescent’ as he takes his hand ‘fish – cold and bony’. The shade is most reminiscent of Dante’s Virgil, who holding an ash plant (a symbol of paternal authority) confronts Heaney. He chides Heaney for ‘raking at dead fires’, and stubbornly holding on to a sense of linguistic inferiority or fragmentation in relation to the English literary tradition. He also reproves him for placing himself on a pilgrimage which is not his own. He suggests that the poet is holding onto a useless sense of Catholic guilt, ultimately encumbering him when he has more important matters to deal with. ‘This peasant pilgrimage’ and ‘subject people stuff is a cod’s game’. Joyce urges the poet to ‘Keep at a tangent./ When they make the circle wide, it’s time to swim/ out on your own and fill the element with signatures on your own frequency’. It is a kind of rite of passage that the poet must undertake. He must free himself from the intellectual oppression under which he has placed himself. The symbol of Joyce acts as the release, who with his previous hook as ‘cunning’ and ‘narcotic’ is giving him permission to ‘Let go, let fly, forget’ and to simply ‘write for the joy of it’. Heaney must expiate himself from the bonds of parochialism, misplaced obligation cultural or otherwise and swim out on his own.

It is through the agencies of both Joyce and Dante that both Irish writers f
ind their voice. But what is it about these great men that hold such a grip over these writers? Both Irish and somewhat uncomfortable about it, Heaney and Beckett have sought influences outside the immediate in their cultural contexts. Although they owe a debt to Joyce, both also hold a debt to Dante, who is quite outside the realm of Irish culture per se. why Dante beyond Joyce? Is it simply a case of finding a great poet who epitomizes the European epic tradition in order for them to establish their literary credentials outside the narrowing definition of ‘Irishness’? Or is it a more profound link which points to a deep affinity with an artist capable of, as Heaney suggests accommodating ‘the political and the transcendent’. Dante perhaps offers a way through Joyce and all that he represents as father to the Irish canon, and beyond to the other side, where writing is not determined by political or cultural paradigms.


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