Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

On Transience, Transcendence, and Sublunar Metaphysics: Seamus Heaney's Spirit(ual) Level

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

On Transience, Transcendence, and Sublunar Metaphysics: Seamus Heaney's Spirit(ual) Level

Article excerpt

In Seamus Heaney's poetry, an alleged transition from an early earthy material transience to an ensuing airy spiritual transcendence has been overemphasized. This essay contends that in Heaney's sublunar metaphysics transience and transcendence go hand in hand, so that spirituality is grasped in his alchemical verse in and through materiality.

The Irish poet Seamus Heaney has argued about his own poetry: "there is a phrase, 'everywhere and nowhere,' but I would like the poems sometimes to give the feeling of 'everywhere and somewhere'." These words suggestively encapsulate Heaney's attempt at reconciling the ethereal supra-nature of that everywhere with the concrete, earthy root of somewhere. In other words, the spiritual transportation of the former is only attainable thanks to the launch pad offered by the latter, so that all transcendent perfection (1) is apprehended in transience, (2) is contingent upon a space and time. "That is the kind of poem I would like to write" (Carvalho Homem 29), argues the poet. In the light of this appreciation, the essay will explore what I would term Heaney's sublunar metaphysics, (3) which refers to the permeability between the concrete and the symbolic, the corporeal and the transcendent. In this sense, we frequently witness in Heaney's verse both the spiritualization of the corporeal or the corporealization of the spiritual, often through some sort of numinous revelation transfusing from within the world of the quotidian and the power of imagination.

The Spirit Level illustrates, perhaps better than any other of the author's works, this interconnection of ontological dimensions. The very title of the collection is representative of the duality here analyzed. On the one hand, a spirit level denotes a "levelling instrument for determining a horizontal line or surface, usually consisting of a hermetically-sealed glass tube filled with spirit and an air-bubble, which, when the tube lies exactly horizontal, occupies a position midway in its length" (OED); on the other hand, it also obliquely connotes a vertical dimension in which the levelling of the spirit, a spiritual level, can be traced. Through this quasi-double entendre Heaney playfully steadies a ladder between the materiality and spirituality of words, inviting the reader to set foot on the rung that best sustains their viewpoint. This linguistic ladder of associations, in the words of Pura Lopez Colome (Mexican poet and translator of Heaney's verse), allows him "to reign in all the spheres of meaning" (20, trans. mine). A game is in fact the short poem ("The Errand") from which the volume's title is taken. In it a father tells his son to look for a chimera, something unattainable if not ridiculous in the real world. The boy gets in the game and trumps his father's smile by acknowledging the impossibility of the request. Both father and son, playful imagination and realistic intelligence, embody dual aspects of vision in the game, which, like poetry itself, "is a matter of weighing and balancing imaginings and hard actualities" (Desmond 50):

   'On you go now! Run, son, like the devil
   And tell your mother to try
   To find me a bubble for the spirit level
   And a new knot for this tie.'

   But still he was glad, I know, when I stood my ground,
   Putting it up to him
   With a smile that trumped his smile and his fool's errand,
   Waiting for the next move in the game. (Spirit 54)

The title of the previous volume to The Spirit Level also incorporates this same semantic interaction between the realistic literal and the transcendent connotation: Seeing Things means what it literally means, that is to say, to watch, to observe things in the real world. Nonetheless, this expression is also used to convey the opposite meaning, that is, to imagine something that does not physically exist in the material world. Hence the translation of the volume into Spanish by Lopez Colome with the title of Viendo visiones (literally, seeing visions). …

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