Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Seamus Heaney - Funeral Rites

A look at how the language in Heaney's poem contemplates the futility of violence, past and present.
Copyright Janet Cameron

This poem reveals the poet consciously seeking an answer to a modern-day problem on two distinct levels, his own remembered past and that of antiquity. It could be read as a cry for the return of traditional Catholic ritual and ceremony, eroded by modern-day life and not so greatly valued by Protestant tradition. It seems Heaney is trying to establish unity of some kind, between Catholic and Protestant belief from a much older tradition, that of stone-age religion.
Funeral Rites begins realistically and personally in the first instance, and is a memorial to Heaney's past, dead relatives. Since the poem compares the natural and consoling ritual of death in the past, it is, essentially, an historical insight, for example: "the dough-white hands / shackled in rosary beads" with the present day lack of ceremony, "the coffin lid / its nail-heads dressed / with little gleaming crosses."  The following lines: "Dear soapstone masks / kissing their igloo brows," are a reference to Eskimo culture and, also, to soapstone, which was a soft stone with a bluish tinge, used in Viking times.
The Absence of Ritual
Further allusions in Part II include: "I would restore / the great chambers of Boyne, / prepare a sepulchre."  This is a reference to stone-age tombs, and Heaney seems to be hinting that society discourages the natural human need for ritual to help to allay grief. The Vikings knew better. For Heaney, no Christian ceremony would satisfy both Catholic and Protestant, so the dead must be offered up to an older deity than Christ. He remarks on the "purring family cars" and "muffled drumming" which evokes further associations of ritual.
From Futility to Resurrection
In Part III, the poet speaks of the futility of seeking vengeance: "the cud of memory / allayed for once, arbitration / of the feud placated." The final three stanzas refer to resurrection, as Gunnar, "who lay beautiful / inside his burial mound," and eventually  "...turned / with a joyful face."  Gunnar was a mythological hero, also known as "Gunther".  Through Gunnar, the poem, manages to combine Christian and Pagan resurrection, through a portrait of a hero joyful in death, unavenged yet happy. For both Gunnar and  Heaney, there is something great, fitting and, indeed, joyful, about an honourable ending.
A touching, historical insight has been spelled out for us, and tells us that revenge achieves nothing, only an endless cycle of violence. Humankind needs to seek beauty, as Gunnar sought beauty, and not revenge.
Heaney, Seamus, "Funeral Rites" North, Faber and Faber, 1993.
With acknowledgement for several allusive, handwritten notations in my second-hand copy by an anonymous author, duly verified.

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