Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.
So wrote Seamus Heaney in Digging, one of the works in his first published collection of poetry, entitled Death of a Naturalist. That was 1966 – by his death on August 30th, 2013, at 74 years old, Seamus Heaney had published numerous anthologies and received widespread acclaim, culminating in the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995.
His poems largely deal with the hardships he and his family faced during the sectarian strife that ravaged Northern Ireland during the latter half of the 20th century. Heaney came from a poor Catholic family and grew up on a farm in mostly-Protestant Northern Ireland. Neither of his parents cared much for literature, though his mother was well versed in Latin; Heaney, too, would be educated in that holy tongue, and so ingrained would it become that he used it to bid a final farewell to his family. Minutes before his death, ‘doli temeris’ – ‘do not be afraid’ – was with a shaking hand typed into a cell phone and delivered to that of his now widow.
Analyzing the entirety of his repertoire would take volumes, and so I have decided to limit my study to three pieces, all having to do with death: A Dog Was Crying Tonight In Wicklow Also addresses death as an abstract concept through an invented folk tale; “The Early Purges” quietly acknowledges death as a senseless necessity; and “Casualty” depicts death as unnecessary tragedy, supposedly a means to an end but in fact the very end itself. Each piece will be dealt with in a distinct segment of this three-part series on Seamus Heaney’s poetry.
A Dog Was Crying Tonight In Wicklow Also was written in 1992 and first published in the October 1995 issue of Poetry Magazine. The poem was dedicated to Donatus Nwoga, a Nigerian classmate of Heaney’s at Queen’s University in Belfast in the 1950’s. Nwoga passed away in 1991, prompting Heaney to write a narrative poem that integrates aspects of African storytelling. The first two lines – “when human beings found out about death / they sent the dog to Chukwu with a message” – convey a familiarity with East Nigerian legend: Chukwu is the supreme deity in Igbo mythology, who one day sent a dog to tell humanity that if they both bury their dead and cover the corpse with ashes, the dead would come back to life. The dog was too tired to reach the people of Earth, so Chukwu sent a sheep with the same message; unfortunately, the sheep forgot half of the instructions, and only told humanity to bury their dead. By the time the dog arrived to deliver the second half, nobody believed him, and death was permanent.
Heaney’s poem tells a similar tale, albeit reversed: in his poem, humanity sends a dog to Chukwu with a message about death. Recounted in free verse is a tale of woe and disappointment: human beings, rejecting the permanence of death, wanted to be “let back into the house of life.” Natural imagery plays a prominent role in his poem, human souls portrayed as birds “in flock” returning to their bodies – “roosts.” However, literary embellishment is always second to the movement of the narrative – Heaney does not get caught up in metaphor, prioritising the progression of events in his story. The dog, as in the original legend, becomes sidetracked, and a malicious toad approaches Chukwu in his stead. “Human beings want death to last forever,” says the toad, and Chukwu makes it so – Heaney reintroduces the aviary metaphor as Chukwu “saw the people’s souls in birds” flying toward an “obliterated light.” When the dog finally comes to Chukwu, the latter is unmoved, and refuses to “change that vision.”
This poem is exceptional in many respects, most evidently in the sense that it differs greatly from Heaney’s usual style, which is exemplified in The Early Purges and Casualty. It is interesting to note the difference between death in the original Igbo legend and in Heaney’s poem – in the former, eternal death is the result of an accident: the small-minded sheep forgets an important ingredient in the recipe for resurrection, thereby preventing humanity from reviving their dead. Furthermore, when the dog does come to impart the full instructions, the humans do not believe him. In Heaney’s poem, death is the product of a contrived effort by the toad to undermine humanity, and the possibility of resurrection is rejected not by humanity, who desperately wants it, but by Chukwu.
Heaney’s poem therefore treats death as a matter brought about by malicious forces that God, though endowed with sufficient power, refuses to change. Humanity is not at fault; in the original story, humanity perpetuates permanent death by ignoring the advice of the tardy dog. Heaney’s poem relieves human beings of any fault. This sharply contradicts founding Catholic tenets – the concept of ‘original sin’ is based on the weakness and pliability of human beings, which, when manifested in the First Man, brought evil and death to the world. According to Heaney’s lifelong religion, death was caused by negligent humans; according to Igbo legend, humans refused to accept a solution to permanent death; according to Heaney’s A Dog, death continues due to an intransigent God, and humanity can not do, and could not have done, anything to change it.