Seamus Heaney, “North”

North (from Poetry)
Seamus Heaney

I returned to a long strand,
the hammered curve of a bay,
and found only the secular
powers of the Atlantic thundering.

I faced the unmagical
invitations of Iceland,
the pathetic colonies
of Greenland, and suddenly

those fabulous raiders,
those lying in Orkney and Dublin
measured against
their long swords rusting,

those in the solid
belly of stone ships,
those hacked and glinting
in the gravel of thawed streams

were ocean-deafened voices
warning me, lifted again
in violence and epiphany.
The longship’s swimming tongue

was buoyant with hindsight—
it said Thor’s hammer swung
to geography and trade,
thick-witted couplings and revenges,

the hatreds and behind-backs
of the althing, lies and women,
exhaustions nominated peace,
memory incubating the spilled blood.

It said, ‘Lie down
in the word-hoard, burrow
the coil and gleam
of your furrowed brain.

Compose in darkness.
Expect aurora borealis
in the long foray
but no cascade of light.

Keep your eye clear
as the bleb of the icicle,
trust the feel of what nubbed treasure
your hands have known.

Comment:

Once, to write was to sing the whole of an age, constructing history, remembering. So if a poet wishes to avoid an act of hubris, she must find the Muse, the divine inspiration of those like Homer, Dante, Milton, who renders their task legitimate. Accordingly, our narrator attempts a return. At “the long strand, the hammered curve of a bay” reside intimations of godly workmanship. That does not suffice, however, as only “the secular powers of the Atlantic” reveal themselves.

Worse, “the unmagical invitations of Iceland” and “the pathetic colonies of Greenland” give no indication of anything that inspired or transpired. The edge of the world has been reached, and the feeling that pushed others to realms beyond seems lost.

Suddenly, a flash of thought. The narrator recalls those “fabulous raiders,” ancestors from generations far removed. Long ago they saw the same as the poet, but forged ahead, conquering sea and land, living and dying by the sword, hoping a few deeds, a few words would confer immortality. It is strange to think they would have anything wise to say, but they are present, even if buried inland. They warn the poet in their glorious crudity: only measured by the sword, their attempt at timelessness resides in a stone ship. “Hacked and glinting,” indeed. They have a marked dependence on poetry.

The ocean both recalls and nearly drowns out the raiders. They slowly emerge for the narrator. First, the raiders are pictured buried. Then, an accounting of mighty, forceful acts:

…Thor’s hammer swung
to geography and trade,
thick-witted couplings and revenges,

the hatreds and behind-backs
of the althing, lies and women,
exhaustions nominated peace,
memory incubating the spilled blood.

You could say they lived like everyone else. In grasping the new, they fell prey to disunity, hatred, and violence. Their revolution ultimately yielded “exhaustions nominated peace,” at best.

We could dismiss them as murderers and thugs. Our poet can’t quite do that. Once, they did explore, being open to geography and trade. As a longship, together they can profess something wiser, perhaps something for anyone hoping to discover and create:

It said, ‘Lie down
in the word-hoard, burrow
the coil and gleam
of your furrowed brain.

Compose in darkness.
Expect aurora borealis
in the long foray
but no cascade of light.

Keep your eye clear
as the bleb of the icicle,
trust the feel of what nubbed treasure
your hands have known.’

The longship’s advice consists of six commands, detailing the poet’s journey. “Lie down in the word-hoard:” the poet should celebrate his command of language, trusting his voice, his experience, his understanding of things. “Burrow the coil and gleam of your furrowed brain:” this declares that the poet’s almost solipsistic musing is worth having and publishing, on its own merits. “Compose in darkness:” you should not want any light, any external justification, for your work. “Expect aurora borealis in the long foray but no cascade of light:” a light peculiar to the journey exists. “Keep your eye clear as the bleb of the icicle:” just as one mineral shines through icy hardness, visualize your end. Craft that perfect image critically, knowing full well mankind will always fall in love with images, regardless of whether there is a poet or not. Sometimes those images will be of godlike warriors, manic and brilliant artists, noble statesmen, struggling writers, wizardly scientists, fantastic athletes, unapproachable lovers. The poet, of all people, should respect but not fall for his own image: “trust the feel of what nubbed treasure your hands have known.”