Seamus Heaney's District and Circle was published in 2006. I bought it soon after publication and was overwhelmingly impressed by it, thought it his best. There were three reasons for that, or so it seems to me now. One reason was that it contained the poem, The Tollund Man in Springtime. Heaney's fascination with the bog people (which I share) is well known, and this imaginative extension of them into modern everyday life was an absolute delight. The second reason was the inclusion of the poem Höfn about a melting glacier. The third and maybe most significant reason for my enthusiasm was the District and Circle poem itself. I admired pretty much the whole collection, but these were the highlights. I have to say, though, that the collection did not get under my skin. I did not enjoy it to the extent that I had thought I would.
In April I reviewed Dennis O'Driscoll's biographic interview with Heaney (here). Foolishly perhaps, but enthusiastically too, I did so before I had finished the book. Later their conversation was to turn to a more detailed discussion of Heaney's books, how he came to write some of the poems and his thoughts about various aspects of the writer's craft, his own methods of working and many other fascinating areas. One of the books discussed at some length was - you've guessed it! - District and Circle. Inevitably this sent me back to the poems and now, maybe with more distance from the current political and environmental problems under discussion, I found the read altogether different, still as impressive, but now far more enjoyable.
Let me take my big three one at a time: here they are , discussing The Tollund Man in Springtime, O'Driscoll first:-
"The Tollund Man in Springtime", too, seems to relate to contemporary conditions.
A quarter-century after I had written The Tollund Man, The Tollund Man in Springtime imagines the Iron Age man who had been found preserved in a bog in Jutland coming-to in his display case in the museum and coming out to walk "like a stranger among us" in the new world of virtual reality and real pollution, a world of violence and polluted public speech.
Then after I had resurrected him and set him on his way through the "virtual city", I had the idea of sending him down into a London tube station, and that eventually produced two sections where he was back underground, going into the tunnels and then riding along in the hurtling train. But I came to feel that in these bits - and especially in the episode where he meets the busker - there was something more specific and autobiographically weighted than in the other sections, so my instinct was to detach them and make them a separate unit.
After which they plunge straight into the title poem, which is actually a poem of five sonnets.
Was any thematic link intended between the title poem of "District and Circle", the "separate unit" to which you refer, and the London underground bombings of 7 July 2005?
The figure who speaks in the five sonnets is at a remove from the people among whom he finds himself . This is partly because I am remembering the other, younger person I was when I first journeyed on a London tube train; somebody who was much less at home, more anxious and 'out of it' than I would come to be later on.But the feeling of unease is also there because the figure in question is haunted by all kinds of new awarenesses; awareness of the potential danger of a journey nowadays on a London tube train and awareness of the mythical dimensions of all such journeys underground, into the earth, into the dark.
The double sonnet was there in May 2005; but after the July bombings, a poem called District and Circle was going to have to bear additional scrutiny. So I added one section, then another, then a third. Not particularly to do with the atrocity, more an attempt to convey the actual experience of an ordinary journey by tube, which almost always has something oneiric about it. When I had the Tollund Man meet the coin-collecting busker at the entrance to the station, it wasn't intended to suggest a mythic parallel. In the first instance it was a direct reportage, a recollection of something that happened and keeps happening - not just to me, but to everybody who travels by tube in London. Inevitably, however, the classical echoes were going to be heard, and the underground/underworld/otherworld parallels come into play.
Finally, speaking of Höfn:
"Höfn" too, with its melting glacier, could be included among the environmentally aware poems in District and Circle.
Liam O'Flynn and I were in Iceland for a performance of our "Poet and Piper" programme, flying in a small propeller plane from Reykjavik to Höfn in the south-east, and we crossed over this stony grey scar of ice. The original "cold star" couldn't have been scaresomely neuter. I felt a wild primitive fear that the plane would go down and we'd perish in the absolute frigor of the place. But then when we landed at our destination, we learned that the ice is actually melting. As "a child of earth", I've rarely felt more exposed.
Time, I think, to give you a few extracts from the book I'm supposed to be reviewing!
This, then, the second of the six sonnets comprising The Tollund Man in Springtime
Scone of peat, composite bog-dough
They trampled like a muddy vintage, then
Slabbed and spread and turned to dry in sun -
Though never kindling dry the whole way through -
A dead weight, slow burn like lukewarmth in the flue,
Ashless, flameless, its very smoke a sullen
Waft of swamp-breath... And me, so long unrisen,
I knew that same dead weight in joint and sinew
Until a spade-plate slid and soughed and plied
At my buried ear, and the levered sod
Got lifted up; then once I felt the air
I was like turned turf in the breath of God,
Bog-bodied on the sixth day, brown and bare,
And on the last, all told, unatrophied.
And here the first sonnet from District and Circle
Tunes from a tin whistle underground
Curled up a corridor I'd be walking down
To where I knew I was always going to find
My watcher on the tiles, cap by his side,
His fingers perked, his two eyes eyeing me
In an accusing look I'd not avoid,
Or not just yet, since both were out to see
As the music larked and capered
I'd trigger and untrigger a hot coin
Held at the ready, but now my gaze was lowered
For was our traffic not in recognition?
Accorded passage, I would re-pocket and nod,
And he, still eyeing me, would also nod.
And finally, finally, an extract from Höfn
I saw it, ridged and rock-set, from above,
Undead grey-gristed earth-pelt, aeon-scruff,
And feared its coldness that still seemed enough
To iceblock the plane window dimmed with breath,
Deepfreeze the seep of adamantine tilth
And every warm, mouthwatering word of mouth.
Two reviews for the price of one, I suppose, but I have tried to show both the depth and beauty of District and Circle and the degree to which Stepping Stones sheds light on this, and, indeed, on Heaney's other collections.