"Urbanatural Roosting" in the poetry of Seamus Heaney

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Author: Ashton Nichols
Date: Spring-Summer 2016
From: Wordsworth Circle(Vol. 47, Issue 2-3)
Publisher: Wordsworth Circle
Document Type: Article
Length: 3,589 words
Lexile Measure: 1500L

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About this Person
Born: April 13, 1939 in Castledawson, United Kingdom
Died: August 30, 2013 in Dublin, Ireland
Nationality: Irish
Occupation: Poet
Other Names: Heaney, Seamus Justin; Incertus
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Wordsworth's "Composed on Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802" links the energy of his greatest nature poems to England's largest urban space, a relationship that I explored in Beyond Romantic Ecocriticism: Toward Urbanatural Roosting (11-14). The goal of Beyond Romantic Ecocriticism was to overcome one of the surviving Enlightenment dualisms: the long-held distinction between nature and culture, the sense that one "thing" exists in the streets of central London (human culture) while something very different exists in the hills of the Lake District (wild nature). From the perspective of the urbanatural, this distinction is overcome: London is nature (with the same air, the same water, and soil as the wildest wilderness of Northern England) and the Lake District is also culture (at least insofar as the mountains "contain" culture once the first human arrives, once any human speaks or writes about them in any way). The naturalist in Gore-Tex clothing (a petroleum product) traveling to the wild coast of Cumbria in a carbon-belching bus or airplane creates a powerful contradiction similar to the urbanist who claims he has nothing to do with wild nature, all the while eating fresh salmon caught in the North Atlantic and drinking bottled water from the springs of Scotland. These contradictions are resolved by linking the human with the nonhuman, city life with natural life, by acknowledging that the nonhuman natural places and experiences contain the fully human, cultural places and experiences, while the human cultural places and experiences contain the natural. That is what I have called "urbanatural roosting," the subtitle of Beyond Romantic Ecocriticism.

Here in Wordsworth's sonnet is a city of roughly one million people the largest city in the world in 1802, caught at that dawn-moment when the daytime is all anticipation, when the energy of the urban space can only be imagined, not yet physically experienced:

   Earth has not anything to shew more fair:
   Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
   A site so touching in its majesty:
   This City now doth like a garment wear
   The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
   Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
   All bright and glittering in the smokeless air. (1-8)

What is most powerful in these lines is precisely the lack of human agency in the scene. Even examples of human creation or activity--"Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples"--are secondary and implicitly dependent upon the natural power of fields, and sky, and air (the atmosphere).

   Never did the sun more beautifully steep
   In his first splendor valley, rock or hill;
   Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep! (9-11)

Except for the speaker, there is no human activity--which reminds the poet of a completely nonhuman, scene: a rural scene composed of "valley, rock, or hill." The English Lake District comes to mind hut, at the same time, any particular scene in nature, without even the slightest sign of the urban, would not (and could not) be more beautiful than London in this moment captured just before dawn. Any sight of "valley, rock, or hill" in the natural world can lay claim neither to more beauty nor to more calm than this moment experienced in the "heart" of the largest city-space in this human-created urban landscape: "The river glideth at his own sweet will: / Dear God! The very houses seem asleep; / And all that mighty heart is lying still!" (12-14). "Dear God!" recalls a similar construction, one that the poet earlier invoked so powerfully in "The world is too much with us": "Great God! I'd rather be / A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn" (9-10). The pagan sentiment is outworn because creeds come and go, but the sea that ends this sonnet implicitly lasts forever (at least much longer than any creed). There is no magic here; nothing invisible except energy, that is, the physical forces of the material world.

The combination of matter and energy, water and light, houses and gravity, is pulling the tidal river Thames toward the distant North Sea. In addition, "The river glideth at his own sweet will" because the Thames moves without any need for humans or human agency. There is also no personification--or anthropomorphism--here; the river "glideth" solely because of gravity, of a force that holds the world together and also causes this body of water to flow from west to east, from Hammersmith to Wapping. The potential energy of the Thames is turned to kinetic energy by the changing slope of the riverbed and by sea-level all the way out beyond Gravesend into the northeastern edge of the English Channel and the North Sea, reaching all the way to Denmark and Norway. This force of gravity is the one noted by Stephen Hawking as the single force that is most likely to help resolve the current four forces of physics--the "strong force," the "weak force," electromagnetic radiation, and gravity--into the single force of a unified field theory.

Like Wordsworth, Seamus Heaney possesses an urbanatural tendency which reveals that, even in as richly natural an environment as Ireland--from Dublin and Wicklow in the east, all the way to Galway and the Dingle Peninsula in Western Ireland--poetry has the ability to link human and wild, cultural and natural, city space with wilderness space--in ways that teach poets and readers something new about the human connection between both worlds. In his urbanatural poems, Heaney's sensitivity provides access to a world of union, not division, a world where cities are linked to natural landscapes in ways that have been celebrated by poets from Wordsworth to Mary Oliver.

Heaney's own life illustrates the shift from a largely natural agrarian world to a modern industrialized one dominated by urban society. As he noted in an interview, his childhood began in a world where the family "still plowed with horses, lit the fire in the morning, carried water from wells." Yet, "In very quick time, all of that changed," as the transformative decades of the 1950s and 60s, even in the wilds of rural Ireland, pushed families like the Heaneys toward a much more urbanized world: water from a tap instead of a back-yard well, food from market stalls instead of the kitchen-garden, and whiskey from the legal off-license instead of from the family still. This same opposition was represented in the difference between Heaney's father and his mother: the two of them, representing, respectively, as he has said, "the cattle-herding Gaelic past and the Ulster of the Industrial Revolution" (Nobel). Once in college, Heaney noted, his writing life began partly in order to help him deal with these dramatic changes, among others, to help him "to make sense of a life in that time." It is clear that this tension between the nonhuman elements of a richly rural childhood and the urbanized, Anglicized, and even Americanized elements of his life in Northern Ireland--and then especially his life in the south after he moved to the Republic in 1972--created at least part of this tension that is so often reflected in his lyrics.

In "Death of a Naturalist," for example, the young child finds a lesson, albeit a terrifying one, first in the "warm thick slobber / Of frogspawn," and later in the adult frogs themselves: "gross bellied ... mud grenades, their blunt heads farting." This is one of the first lessons in which the world of wild nature is brought indoors, captured in "jampotfuls," on "window-sills at home, / Or shelves at school." And there in the schoolroom the lesson comes, about the "daddy frog" and the "mammy frog" and the still secret but implicitly horrifying story of how he "croaked," and then she "Laid hundreds of little eggs and this was / Frogspawn." The "vengeance" for which these "angry frogs" at the lyric's end are gathered is somehow sexual, or somehow an emerging sense of sexuality, and the young boy knows that, no matter how knowledgeable and human he is becoming thanks to school, these are still the "slime kings," and the boy is so connected to their world that even the "fattening dots" of "frogspawn" speak to him in some way before they develop. Their message is about growing biologically, and their lesson is about the combined beauty and terror of one generation giving way to another, or that the same generation that assures that the birth of one generation also assures the death of another.

Later in the poet's developing consciousness, water wells come to represent a simple and perfect example of human culture interacting with nature, but interacting in a way that does not damage the natural world but only draws sustenance from it, as in the stone-lined Irish wells of "Personal Helicon." Here is a poem that shows how the poet draws inspiration from the natural world, a natural world that reflects back not only images of itself but more importantly images of the poet: "When you dragged out long roots from the soft mulch / A white face hovered over the bottom ... my reflection." But this reflecting well is not just a mirror of the poet's identity; it is also a pure and direct source of poetry, since some wells give back not images, but music: "Others had echoes, gave back your own call / With a clean new music in it." As an adult, however, the young poet has had to leave most of nature for culture, to give up his close connection with these often nonhuman scenes within natural wells: "Fructified ... ferns and tall / Foxgloves." Now, there is a problem; to play around among these human-dug and fashioned natural scenes "Is beneath all adult dignity."

For Heaney, the concept of "roosting," which I link closely to urbanature, is one of almost equal poetic power and imaginative energy. Roosting is the idea that humans need to live on the earth in a way closer to the way that animals and other living things live, employing their environments for their own benefit without harming those same environments. So a bird makes a nest by bringing sticks, in the case of large bird--say, an eagle--huge branches, from distant locales to the place where the nest will be built and fashioning a living space that can be small or can be massive: "The largest recorded bald eagle nest, located in St. Petersburg, Florida, was 9.5 feet in diameter, 20 feet deep and weighed almost 3 tons" (Eagle Center). These same birds leave large piles of guano (their waste material) at the base of such nesting sites, fecal matter that will fertilize the surrounding soil without harming it in any way. In a similar way, human beings always have a generational choice: to live on the home-site they choose more gently, without harming their environment in any way, or to ravage the natural world around them, polluting the soil, and the water, and the sky with inorganic chemicals--or improper organic compounds in the wrong place--that can damage the landscapes around them, and even the wider world, forever.

In Heaney's case, his early poems are often about a world--a world now increasingly lost--in which human beings lived in a very balanced--roosting--way with the rural, agrarian life around them. In his 1975 volume Stations he published "Nesting-Ground," a prose poem (a paragraphed lyric) in which he notes the combined attraction and fear associated with the nesting holes of the birds known as sandmartins: "The sandmartin's nests were loopholes of darkness in the riverbank. He could imagine his arm going in to the armpit, sleeved and straitened, but because he had once felt the cold prick of a robin's claw and the surprising density of its tiny beak he only gazed." This non-lined poem has the beautiful Heaneyesque ability to invoke the human and the nonhuman at the same time, in the same lines, in a way that is at once fearful and deeply satisfying: "As he stood sentry, gazing, waiting, he thought of putting his ear to one of the abandoned holes and listening for the silence under the ground" (81). This careful ground-based listening is a repeated trope in Heaney's lyrics, as in Glanmore Sonnet "IV," "I used to lie with an ear to the line / For that way, they said, there should come a sound / Escaping ahead, an iron tune" (1-3). As with the birds, however, this hidden deep sound from the ground never came; indeed, the poet "never heard that," which is to say, the "iron tune / Of flange and piston pitched along the ground" (). "Always, instead, / Struck couplings and shuntings two miles away / Lifted over the woods." Here, the sound does not come from the hidden, mysterious, natural space but rather from the railyard over the woods and far away.

Robert Langbaum, in an important early essay in his own career, "The New Nature Poetry" (1959), pointed to just this urbanatural connection between nature and culture in the poems of Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, Robert Frost and others (D. H. Lawrence, Ted Hughes, W. S. Merwin, and still more). In "one of the very best passages of modern America's nature poetry" (125), Wallace Stevens captures the moment when each reader can discover a new truth, now not so much a religious as a psychological truth, "an inevitably re-emerging religion of nature at the source of things" (126): "At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make / Ambiguous undulations as they sink, / Downward to darkness on extended wings" ("Sunday Morning"). The poem ends, not with the "modern cosmopolitan lady"--read the "urban" lady--but with a flock of birds "in the isolation of the sky." What is "new" about this poetry is the end of the old religion of Christianity and the rise of a "nature" that is tied to human psychology, and that human life in a culture, in a society, with a family, or alone is always part of the roosting that we came from and will inevitably return to once our urban life has ended. It was only seven years after Langbaum first published "The New Nature Poetry" in The American Scholar, when Heaney began writing and publishing those poems--urbanatural and otherwise--that would lead eventually to his becoming the first Irish Nobel Prize winner since W. B. Yeats.

In Heaney's "Widgeon," a lyric dedicated to fellow-poet Paul Muldoon, poetry emerges precisely out of Langbaum's new version of nature. The subject of the poem--a third person "he"--finds the organic voice box of a "badly shot" widgeon: a small duck-like bird, the Eurasian widgeon (Anas penelope). The "he" of the poem then responds to this find in a very surprising, and yet very poetic, way. Having found the duck's larynx, "like a flute stop / in the broken windpipe--," he suddenly puts it to his own mouth and creates a new sound: music? song? poem? The "he" of the poem then "blew upon it / unexpectedly / his own small widgeon cries." These cries are as natural a sound as there can be, and yet, the breath that makes these cries comes from a person who has found the damaged body of the bird in the first place. Here, in eight short lines, is an almost perfect blending of human and nonhuman. Heaney finds a way to embody a natural event that is fully human--the air from human lungs--and fully nonhuman (the widgeon's windpipe), to produce a sound that is like a poem: a human voice creating a fully "natural" sound. So, where does this blending of human and natural leave Heaney and his readers?

Heaney ends his Nobel Prize speech with the image of a roosting bird and the site where human life and the natural world intersect once again. He cites W. B. Yeats's legendary "Meditations in Time of Civil War," with its "famous lyric about the bird's nest at his window [in the famous tower at Thor Ballylee] where a starling or stare had built in the crevice of the old wall" (Heaney 427). Here he sites the way Yeats "began to associate the sight of a mother bird feeding its young with the image of the honeybee, an image deeply lodged in poetic tradition and always suggestive of the ideal of an industrious, harmonious, nurturing commonwealth:

   The bees build in the crevices
   Of loosening masonry, and there
   The mother bird brings grubs and flies.
   My wall is loosening; honey-bees,
   Come build in the empty house of the stare [starling].

This poem, Heaney says, helps us explain the way that poetry can become one of the human creations that best "satisfies the contradictory needs which consciousness experiences at times of extreme crisis, the need on the one hand for a truth-telling that will be hard and retributive, and on the other hand the need not to harden the mind to a point where it denies its own yearnings for sweetness and trust" (429). Retributive hardness and a yearning for sweetness and trust: so where is it that "nature poetry" takes us? To both places, in both directions--to "hard sweetness" or to "retributive trust"?--and along the way it is "equal to and true at the same time," like the similar poetry "which William Wordsworth produced at a corresponding moment of historical crisis and personal dismay almost exactly two hundred years ago" (429).

In the lyric "Postscript," the last poem in Opened Ground: Selected Poems 1966-1996, Heaney offers one final example of nature and culture interacting in a powerful way but, as is so often the case in his work, nature is in the ascendant, and yet human culture is still required to give the poem its fullest meaning. The poem begins matter-of-factly: "And some time make the time to drive out west": the unstated "you should" is clearly understood between "time" and "make," and the rising force of the single syllables in perfect iambs gives a powerful sense of something eventful about to happen. Driving out west requires a car, perhaps the ultimate image of urbanity (see Cotton Seiler's Republic of Drivers), and yet from the first line to the penultimate line, every detail is purely natural: ""the wind / And the light are working off each other," the ocean "is wild / With foam and glitter," and, in one of Heaney's most beautiful couplets anywhere--"the surface of the slate grey lake is lit, / By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans."

The subject then becomes the viewer who, by viewing this scene, has had a complete experience. That is why the poet says " Useless" [again the "It is" is understood] to think you'll park and capture it / More thoroughly." The "thoroughly" is the perfect word choice here--more vital and complete than "fully" or "completely." The urban world has been invoked again with "you'll park" and it returns in a powerful way in the final lines:

   You are neither here nor there,
   A hurry through which known and strange
      thongs pass
   As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
   And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.

The poem ends with this description of the "You"--also the implied speaker of the poem--who has had this experience and is telling you to go and have it as well. The image of the wind coming at the car sideways evokes the unstated image of the car door blowing open, but the unspoken door--a way of opening--becomes also the image of the human heart--blown open by the wind as well. The new "open[ness]" of this heart means now open to experience, open to the natural scene, and open to the possibility of new emotional attachments. The last line ends with a rare metrical amphibrach (unstressed-stressed-unstressed), a lyrical foot that leaves the poem just as "open" as the description of this scene has been, a perfect way to close a collection of thirty years of poetry writing.

"Postscript" is a poem about what nature can do for poetry and what poetry can do for human beings. Repeatedly, in Heaney's verse, the reader sees how such nonhuman natural details are linked with the details of human culture; the poet finds numerous ways to show how dependent humans are on precise details drawn from natural surroundings and how socialized ways of living emerged out of, or still rely on, nonhuman objects, places, and powers that are essential to our very existence. Even in his more political poems, Heaney develops continuity between the natural and the human that helps to explain how Irish citizens--in both Northern Ireland and The Republic--might still have killed each other during the second half of the 20th century, not so much for politics or for religion as for the much wider "complicities and conflicts of tribal belonging" (Weiner). In summary, however, Heaney's widest conclusions are ultimately not about death but about life. They are often as much about nature as they are about culture; or rather, they are about versions of culture that are always mediated by nature, about an urban world always circumscribed by a nonhuman world that each human being came from and will return to, just like a roosting bird born into a nest in a tree and then falling from that tree--or another tree--and returning, in death, to the rich earth that once gave it life.

Ashton Nichols

Dickinson College


Bate, Jonathan. Romantic Ecology: Wordsworth and the Environmental Tradition, Routledge, 1991; --. The Song of the Earth, Harvard. Univ. Pr., 2000; Burris, Sidney. The Poetry of Resistance: Seamus Heaney and the Pastoral Tradition, Ohio Univ. Pr., 1990; Eagleton, Terry, "Hasped, and Hooped, and Hirpling," A Review of Beowulf, trans. by Seams Heaney, London Review of Books (October 11, 1999); Heaney, Seamus. Opened Ground: Selected Poems 1966-1996, Macmillan,1998.; --. Nobelprize.org. [From Les Prix Nobel.] The Nobel Prizes 1995, Editor, Tore Frangsmyr ,1996; --. The Guardian. "The Triumph of Spirit, 11 Feb. 2006; Langbaum, Robert "The New Nature Poetry." American Scholar, 1959, Rpt. in The Modern Spirit, 1970; Moura, Tiago. "Striking a Balance: An Interview With Seamus Heaney" NewsHouse, April 13, 2010; September 23, 2015; National Eagle Center. Wabasha, MN. October 12, 2015; http:/ / www.nationaleaglecenter.org/eagle-nestingyoung. Nichols, Ashton, Beyond Romantic Ecocriticism: Toward Urbanatural Roosting, Palgrave, 2011, ppr. 2012; O'Driscoll, Dennis. Stepping Stones: Interviews With Seamus Heaney. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008. Seiler, Gotten. The Republic of Driveis: A Cultural History of Automobility in America. Univ. of Chicago Pr.,2008; William Wordsworth, Ed. Stephen Gill. Oxford Univ. Pr., 1990; Weiner, Joshua, "Seamus Heaney: 'Casualty'," Poetry Foundation, October 14, 2015, http://www.poetryfoundation.org/learning/guide/182158

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A460573838