Academic journal article Estudios Irlandeses - Journal of Irish Studies

Converting to Things Foreknown: Heaney's Marvelous Imagination in "Station Island"

Academic journal article Estudios Irlandeses - Journal of Irish Studies

Converting to Things Foreknown: Heaney's Marvelous Imagination in "Station Island"

Article excerpt

Seamus Heaney says in his "The Murmur of Malvern", a review of Derek Walcott's The Star-Apple Kingdom (1979) that "The best poems in The Star-Apple Kingdom are dream-visions; the high moments are hallucinatory, cathartic, redemptive even" (Heaney 1990: 25). It is also true to say that some of Heaney's own best poems are dream-visions, those which are hallucinatory, cathartic, and maybe even redemptive as well. "Station Island", Heaney's pilgrimage to Lough Derg turned to metaphysical exploration of influence and dream-vision, becomes a primary focus in seeing Heaney's dynamic insight between this world and the spirit world--possibly even a poetic vision of redemption through secular and poetic means. History is transfused with religious significance, Sweeney with Heaney's local priest, and the procession of visionaries with whom he meets appears apparitional, several meetings with the saints who have not died and gone away. Instead, Heaney reimagines them to a life incorruptible on the page. They challenge both the static acceptance and rejection of his Catholic faith. Whatever the ultimate expression of Heaney's faith might be, "Station Island" shows the poet's miasmic marriage of religion and violence, but also how the "decent thing" is so hard to both do and escape.

In Seamus Heaney's forty-four years of publishing poetry, between Death of a Naturalist (1966) and Human Chain (2010), Station Island (1984) is one of the middle two volumes in his large body of work. At the center of this volume in three parts is the title poem, "Station Island" a series of twelve poems occasioning the speaker's visit to the Lough Derg pilgrimage which also serves, as others have noticed, as a veritable modern-day imaginative incarnation of Dante's Commedia, a suitable theme for a poem which traverses the poet's pilgrimage to an island known as "St. Patrick's Purgatory". "Station Island", as this middle piece, holds in tension worldliness and otherworldliness, the earthly and the heavenly, the sensual and the spiritual. We can read it as a kind of poetic Purgatory, a temporal space where these revenental visions function to bring us to poetic purgation through Heaney's "worldliness" and "otherworldliness".

Heaney's poetic imagination is deeply Catholic: his poetic vision is imbued with a communion of saints, a notion that spiritual significance is realized in the physical. Though the most immediate source for the poem is likely Dante, we understand that Dante's vision is intimately tied up with the broader and deeper Catholic imagination. This aspect of Heaney is itself worthy a longer project, but "Station Island" deserves more exploration in its groundedness mixed with spiritual transcendence. In the sacramental view of the material world, grace always moves through earthly things. William Lynch explores the literary religious imagination in his seminal work Christ and Apollo (1960). Apollo symbolizes eternity, expansiveness, or "art as dream" (x), while Christ symbolizes God in the flesh, the finiteness of God as a person, Jesus Christ, and in this book Lynch "juxtaposes Christian definiteness to romantic mythologizing". Lynch's book is a defense of the Catholic--essentially Christic--imagination as it synthesizes the finite and the infinite, particularity and the ideal and how "when we want the unlimited and the dream, we also want the earth" (Lynch 1960: 25). The cognitive allies of the Holy Ghost, Lynch says, are the means by which the intellect pushes through the exitus reditus of being, the descent into the real and shooting up into insight, that realize things in this world in the proper relation to things in the other:

   The finite is not itself a generality, to be
   encompassed in one fell swoop. Rather, it
   contains many shapes and byways and
   cleverness and powers and diversities and
   persons, and we must not go too fast from the
   many to the one. We waste out time if we try to
   go around or above or under the definite; we
   must literally go through it. … 
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