Seamus Heaney and Sinéad Morrissey are prominent modern Irish authors who address the past and the present in their poetry; they combine personal experiences, historical events, and stylistic devices to bring the reader closer to the themes they explore. Both of them focus on emotional experience as the mirror of the history of Northern Ireland.
Seamus Heaney was born on 13 April 1939 in Northern Ireland, in County Derry. Since his childhood, Heany has been examining the world from an unusual angle that combined reflections of the modern and past, ethereal experiences, Northern reticence, and reserved calm. Naturalism and artistic imagery help Heany transform artwork in poetry, visions into words (Corcoran, 2012, p. 262). The device Heaney has often used is called ‘ekphrasis’ – a colourful description of a scene or a work of art. His poem To a Dutch Potter in Ireland is a perfect example of ekphrasis, where poetry and pottery, as well as art and history, are shown in a relation to each other (Corcoran, 2012, p. 262). The distant history is the World War II that the potter lives through, while ‘Heany’s history’ is the Gulf War from the year 1991; this interweaving of events is “joining poet to potter, potter’s voice to poet’s, poet to poet… in a celebration of what an art… might offer” (Corcoran, 2012, p. 262). Another device that Heany uses is an absent addressee (see A Pillowed Head, The Tollund Man, Personal Helicon, etc.) The talk with an absent addressee is also determined by the tense used – it is often the past tense that transmits the reader a feeling of a bygone history, pictures the event as a long-gone but nostalgic at the same time:
“And then later on I half-fainted
When the little slapped palpable girl
Was handed to me;” (Semino, 2014, p. 163).
The time in the poem is not only used to create the right mood, but it also serves as an indication to the narrator’s perception of the situation, and emotions he is bearing in himself (Semino, 2014, p. 164). The deixis in Heany’s poems does not only build up the context but also transmits the emotions of the narrator (maybe the author too) to the reader.
Another stylistic device that is prominent is intertextuality. Intertextuality includes specific figures such as allusions to and quotes from other works of art; it is a typical feature of both modern and postmodern texts. Heany’s work was influenced by the poetry of modernism, and intertextuality is present in many of his poems: for example, The Spirit Level is both an allusion to a sculpture and Yeats’ poem Sailing to Byzantium (Corcoran, 2012, p. 262). The poem Summer 1969 includes references to other art, Shootings of the Third of May and Saturn Devouring his Son by Francisco Goya; these paintings correspond with the horrors of history Northern Ireland had gone through (Corcoran, 2012, p. 262). Corcoran notices that Heany has also reflected his own image in his poems, thus adding a postmodern feature to his work; the portrait was made by Edward McGuire and later revisited by Heany in the poem A Basket Of Chestnuts where Heany uses an alternative composition to compare writing and painting in a certain tension (Corcoran, 2012, p. 262). The alternative composition is used by the poet in his other works, e.g. when the time of the narration is different to the time of the event in a poem and serves as a foil to the past or the future.
In conclusion, Heany uses different stylistic devices such as ekphrasis, change of deixis, allusions, and references to the works of art to create a special ethereal or nostalgic atmosphere, or to mourn the historical events, especially those that concern the history of Northern Ireland.
Sinéad Morrissey was born on 24 April 1972 in Portadown, but her family moved to Belfast. She studied in Dublin, travelled to different countries including New Zealand and Japan, but eventually returned to Belfast (Heidemann, 2016, p. 56). When she was a young adult, she wanted to escape Belfast and never return; the controversy between this wish and her initial return is examined in the poem Finding My Feet where her feet are a metaphor for her changing wishes and desires, her calm and restlessness (Heidemann, 2016, p. 162). Among the figures Morrissey used in this poem, the metaphor is of utter importance. One foot is the reflection of her introversion; the other depicts her wish to escape the dull surroundings (Heidemann, 2016, p. 162).
It is clear that Morrissey is not describing her feet, but her never-ending desire to find both an escape and a home. To resolve the inner conflict, the narrator finds another space where her love for home and desire to travel may exist together in peace (Heidemann, 2016, p. 162). The author stresses out that such longing for a journey, sometimes not even a real one, is common for the post-Agreement literature of Northern Ireland; Heidemann assumes that such ‘motion in mind’ helps modern poets to reconfigure the restrictions in society and poetry that spread through modern Northern Ireland (Heidemann, 2016, p. 163). This movement in space could also serve as a metaphor for breaking the conventions of poetic forms that fix the poet’s words firmly in the ‘ground’ (Heidemann, 2016, p. 163). The metaphors that Morrissey uses reflect not only her conflicts but also the conflicts her land is opposed to.
An example of combining the history of Northern Ireland and poetry is the poem Thoughts in a Black Taxi where Morrissey reflects on her childhood in Belfast as a non-Catholic and non-Protestant. She was both “insider and outsider in Belfast” (Maklew, 2015, p. 149). Morrissey grew up during The Troubles, the conflict between the Catholic and Protestant citizens of Northern Ireland. Her parents were atheists, so Morrissey could not join any side; her childhood memories blend in the historical process in Belfast, and Morrissey confesses:
“I always walked with my heart constricting,
Half-expecting bottles, in sudden shards
Of West Belfast sunshine,
To dance about my head” (Maklew, 2015, p. 146).
Morrisey describes Belfast in other several poems such as In Belfast and Tourism where Belfast’s image does not correspond with a city appropriate for tourists but rather “a city… making money”; the poem In Belfast stands by opinion that the legacy of The Troubles is an important heritage of Belfast and is inseparable from it (Maklew, 2015, p. 146). Morrisey focuses on the past and the present intertwined and explores it through a wide range of metaphors.
Both poets use childhood memories and the past to explore the relations between humanity and the world; While Heaney is more focused on recalling the world art to depict historical events or his private experiences, Morrissey uses history of Belfast as the basis for her poetry, or she reflects on her personal background and describes it with different kinds of metaphors. The poets use vivid images and allusions to capture the memories of the past and the present and transmit them to the reader.
Corcoran, N 2012, ‘Modern Irish Poetry and the Visual Arts: Yeats to Heaney’, in F Brearton & A Gillis (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Modern Irish Poetry, Oxford Univerity Press, Oxford, pp.261-266.
Heidemann, B 2016, Post-Agreement Northern Irish Literature. Springer International Publishing, Cham.
Marklew, N 2015, ‘This is Our Splintered City’, in J Clapp & E Ridge (eds), Security and Hospitality in Literature and Culture: Modern and Contemporary Perspectives, Routledge, London, pp.143-156.
Semino, E 2010, Language and world creation in poems and other texts, Longman, London.