Wednesday, February 10, 2021

"The Haw Lantern" by Seamus Heaney: A Close Reading

Having written a kind of manifesto for 'authentic reading' in my last post, I've decided to put my mind where my mouth is and demonstrate this idea by performing line-by-line, image-by-image close readings of great and good works of art. First up is Seamus Heaney's 1987 poem "The Haw Lantern." It begins:

The wintry haw is burning out of season

Wordsworth once famously demanded, "Milton! Thou shouldst be living at this hour..." Heaney's opening achieves the same effect without directly apostrophizing the elder poet. For here is a line of modern poetry that moves in classic English iambic pentameter, a line that might have been written by Milton or Wordsworth and that echoes back through centuries of English-language verse. In this poem, the form of which suggests an analogy to music theory, iambic pentameter functions as a 'tonic' meter to which the poem always returns after its excursions into irregularity. Here Heaney follows the traditional meter strictly until the so-called feminine ending of 'season,' its extra syllable both portending rhythmic irregularities to come and demonstrating on a formal level the out-of-place quality evoked by Heaney's image. That is, the red hawthorn berry surviving on the bough into winter is formally mirrored by the last syllable's persisting beyond the expected ending of the pentameter line. (In this poem, as I intend to repeatedly show, form is meaning.)

Turning to that image, we see Heaney's 'wintry haw': a hawthorn tree, its skeletal bare branches bristling with spiky thorns and outlined against winter's blank white page. And on those branches hang the pinpricks of tiny red berries that Heaney figures initially as 'burning' things, burning like a torch, a lamp, a bulb--or, to lower our register a bit, like chintzy red Christmas lights. The image is as yet uncertain, but Heaney communicates the incongruousness of a bright color amidst winter's bleakness, an image of survival, of life amidst death. And at the same time, because the word haw can refer both to the berry and the tree, we are permitted, only in this line, a brief image of the entire tree burning, the hawthorn aflame, a converse image of death in the midst of life. This interpretive double image effect, life-in-death and death-in-life like a photo and its negative, is, as we will quickly see, a primary way in which this poem constructs its meanings.

We might also mention (because about great art there is always more to say...) that this image of a tree aflame parallels the archaizing iambic pentameter by bringing to mind works of the literary past, specifically the second stanza of Yeats's "Vacillation": "A tree there is that from its topmost bough / Is half all glittering flame and half all green / Abounding foliage moistened with the dew..." And this image stretches even further back down the centuries, for Yeats (according to the editors of the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry) borrowed it from the Mabinogion, exactly the sort of Yeatsian Celtic appropriation satirized by Buck Mulligan in the first chapter of Joyce's Ulysses: "--Can you recall, brother, is mother Grogan's tea and water spoken of in the Mabinogion or is it in the Upanishads?"... But let us move on.

crab of the thorn, a small light for small people,

From the first line's mildly incongruous feminine ending, we move swiftly into rough irregularity. This line can be scanned as a trochee, an iamb, a strong caesura, and two anapests; only a sole foot and the feminine ending follow the opening line's precedent. And this formal disunity powerfully reinforces the disjunctive meanings on either side of the comma. The phrase "crab of the thorn," with its harsh, forceful, Anglo-Saxon monosyllables, is a typical Heaneyism for 'crab apple of the hawthorn tree' and on a literal level describes the small, blood-red fruits, no larger than a fingertip, 'burning' on the branches. But if we consider more deeply those two emphatic nouns, some very interesting implications can be teased out of the phrase. The crab is of course the zodiacal symbol for Cancer, a summer sign in astrology and therefore "out of season" in this wintry poem. But more importantly, it signifies the disease of the same name. Cancer, the living death, the death that kills with life, via mad multiplication of cells, sounds yet again the death-in-life / life-in-death theme. Furthermore, the text allows us to make a specific diagnosis: in conjunction with the 'thorn' the length and shape of a syringe needle and the nearby fruit resembling blood drops, we can interpret the crab as a symbol of blood cancer, leukemia. And, as it is wont to do in our hors texte reality, this disease will return, with impressive symmetry (Joycean Irish for 'cemetery'), in the poem's penultimate line.
Moving to the 'thorn' now, most interpreter's minds will rush to the nearest baroque church and embrace the crown of the crucified Christ--and my mind is no exception. The crown of thorns pressed down to draw the blood of Christ, symbol of redemption from eternal death and rebirth to eternal life, obviously adheres to the general life-death pattern of imagery established thus far. Thinking along these lines, we might recall the noncanonical Christian legend that Christ was crucified on a tree (in one version, the Edenic Tree of Knowledge). So the red berries on the winter-dead tree, color of life in the time of Christ's nativity, might be read not only as a eucharistic symbol but as symbol for the savior HimSelf, the conqueror of death. And when to this complex of associations we add the conjoined 'crab,' something outrageously blasphemous occurs. The 'crab of the thorn' becomes the 'cancerous blood of Christ.' And Catholicism, it follows, would be the cancer of Ireland--not a light to the world, but "a small light for small people."

If that pair of anapests is interpreted less controversially, as simply yet another visual metaphor for the berries, then the poem descends sharply into sentimentality. A Small Light for Small People could be the caption to a kitschy magazine illustration by some weepy Irish Norman Rockwell. Can't you almost see it? See the pious common folk filing into the humble wooden church in their humble Sunday clothes. Entering among them and doffing his ragged hat, Tommy O'Herlihy removes wellbitten pipe from mouth and remarks in heavy brogue, "Aye, the 'oly Roman Catolick and Alcoholic Church, it's a small light for small people." Such a reading, so easily mocked, is nonetheless possible and probably even valid. It would be a populist political reading of the poem that interprets the berries as symbols of the Irish people, specifically of their persistence under English and Protestant domination, the domination under and against which Irish Catholic identity, in all its provincial sectarian narrowness, was defined. So even the sentimental reading eventually becomes indistinguishable from the blasphemous one. The entire line might be paraphrased, "the cancerous blood of Christ, a small light that keeps the people small."

wanting no more from them but that they keep
the wick of self-respect from dying out,

Aesthetically, the third line seems the poem's weakest and worst: nine words without a single image and not much meaning to communicate--certainly not enough meaning to justify all those marching monosyllables. The line seems to exist mostly to modulate the rhythm into the strict iambic pentameter of the next line. Otherwise there is no justification for not substituting 'only' in place of the clunky 'no more for them but.' But we must remember that we are still in the "small people" part of the poem, hearing the degraded thought-voice of brains drained by religiosity. This is deliberately 'bad' verse, the kind produced by a culture that privileges a narrow, moralistic 'self-respect' above all else. And it's a poor, pitiful self-respect, figured as a wick without a flame that must be paradoxically kept from 'dying out.' For a people as dominated and powerless as the Irish of this poem, even self-respect, the only respect available to these Celtic Rodney Dangerfields, is a candle already dead--or never lighted.

not having to blind them with illumination.

This line is bitterly ironic to the point of sarcasm. Heaney's Irish are no Platonic prisoners released from their cave of shadows to gaze upon the blinding sun. They are in no danger of being blinded by the light of a Church built to the specifications of William H. Gass's description of religion and its allies: "War, work, poverty, disease, religion: these, in the past, have kept men's minds full, small, and careful. Religion gave men hope who otherwise could have none. Even  a mechanical rabbit can make the greyhounds run" (Fiction and the Figures of Life, 272). No illumination is on offer. And there are no recorded cases of blindness caused by light reflected from a hawthorn berry. The only blindness here is formal, deliberate and ironic: note the anapest dropped into the second foot to blind and bewilder the goosestepping iambs.

But sometimes when your breath plumes in the frost

The first word signals a turning, and the change here is fairly momentous. The poem has grown a protagonist--or at least a possessive pronoun implying a protagonist--and the context suggests a stereotypical Romantic nature scenario: a poetic persona (presumed to be male) stands before a natural object, observes it, meditates upon it, and calls upon it to alter his subjectivity, that privileged locus of Romanticism. But before we stuff this poem into our Romantic Criticism trickbag and pull taut the drawstring, we must note the reversal of tradition in that pluming breath. Our 'hero' is breathing out, not in. He is expiring (the death note sounds again), not inspiring the inspirational wind.

it takes the roaming shape of Diogenes
with his lantern, seeking one just man;

The reversal continues. In an act of creation that improves upon Genesis--where Yahweh needed breath and clay to create humble Adam--the second-person persona's expired breath is magically transformed into Diogenes the Cynic doing his proto-performance art shtick. (One of three well-known legends about him. The other two concern his living in a tub and telling Alexander the Great to get out of his light. But he's considerably more than the Jeff Lebowski of post-Platonic philosophy, and the Cynical school he founded is more interesting and important than our modern appropriation of the word as a term of derision would suggest.) These lines argue that Romantic nature, like religion, is a projection of the human mind. Just as the inventors of religions (Abraham, Mohammed, Hubbard) imagine gods, project them outward, suppress the act of projection, then subject themselves to them (I presume the founders acted in good faith, a highly dubious presumption in at least one of those three cases), the Romantics projected their anxieties and fantasies upon the natural world and then congratulated themselves for finding them there. (In my opinion, this is a solid critique of religion but a caricature of Romanticism.)

The poem has also now, importantly, transported us far from Ireland, way beyond Romanticism, centuries before Christianity, to the world of ancient Greek philosophy. Heaney, whose poetry is replete with images of excavation, is digging down to the foundations of the Western mind and finding them as insubstantial as a cloud of breath.

so you end up scrutinized from behind the haw
he holds up at eye-level on its twig,

And yet this breath cloud intimidates. The anything-but-regular rhythm of these lines registers the force of its intimidation. It intimidates 'you,' that is, you and I, the readers. Only now, in the ninth of this poem's thirteen unlucky lines, do we come upon a personal pronoun. And it strikes us like a needle, a thorn. It fixes us, like the scrutinizing eye of Diogenes, ascetic judge of his foolish fellow men. We, not some Heaneyish persona, are the targets of his gaze. We--no, let's cut the self-protective plural pronoun bullshit and say what 'we' mean(s)--I, I am shaken by the thought that all my best ideas, all my intellectual constructs, all my close readings of poetry, are but anxious projections designed to protect my mind from the reality of a world of wintry death. I am the berry that persists on the tree, unaware that winter is all around me.

and you flinch before its bonded pith and stone,

Heaney's reversal of Romanticism is now complete: the gazed-upon object has become the gazing subject, the Romantic subject its gazed-upon object. This is the signature movement in artworks typical of the period that I, in an earlier post, have called "fifth wave" or anarchist modernism (1960-1996). (This period is more commonly and less rigorously referred to as 'postmodern.') In works of anarchist modernism, the object strikes back, heretofore repressed and objectified voices capture the means of narrative production and twist them back upon themselves. All hierarchies dissolve, all rules are broken, anything can happen. Think of the works of Toni Morrison, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Robert Crumb, Samuel Delany, Ursula Le Guin, Julio Cortazar, Thomas Pynchon, Raymond Carver, Kenneth Anger, Robert Altman, so many others... Back to the text: At this point in the poem, I react fearfully to the material reality of the berry, its sour chewable pith, its toothbreaking stone. Here is a hard reality my mind cannot pass beyond, cannot project into airy abstraction. The image is so solid that it draws the rhythm back to its iambic tonic. This is the poem's crisis point, its equivalent of the moment in Wallace Stevens's "Auroras of Autumn" when the poet opens his door upon the flaming Northern Lights. I see the burning berry, this Romantic lamp that has turned around to blast my eyes, and I am afraid.

its blood-prick that you wish would test and clear you,

The poem (or is it my mind?) here retreats from material reality back into symbolism. I fear this, too, and it is an interestingly multivalent fear. On one level, I am anxiously hoping for Diogenes' approval and fearing its opposite. A little lower, this is the relapse of cancer in the life of the text, the bloody prick of the needle for the blood test that determines life or death. Even deeper, the "blood-prick" is Heaney's mock-Anglo-Saxon kenning for an erection, and its association with a test in this 1980s poem, brings inescapably to mind the reality of AIDS, a disease that turned semen, fluid of life and ecstasy, into an agent of death.

its pecked-at ripeness that scans you, then moves on.

Animals have fed here, birds have pecked at the berry, taken ripeness from ripeness. But it offers me no nourishment. My blood-prick / pecker, plunged into the ripe pith, would strike only testicular stone--a fruitless mating. (Would a reading that presumes a female 'you' end differently? Is such a reading even possible?) At this endpoint of anti-Romantic reversal, the former object has so fixed the Romantic subject that the subject remains motionless and the object moves. Imagine Wordsworth standing fixed in midair while Mount Snowdon traipses off to the local pub, and you can appreciate the outrageousness of Heaney's image. To use an archaic word the poet would have liked, the end of the poem leaves me 'astonied.'

And this, again, is an image of death. Human beings die, decay, petrify to stony bones, but the natural world moves on. Heaney's poem reverses the Romantic reification of nature by emptying out human subjectivity and granting nature the privileged agency that it has always, in reality, possessed. In so doing, he leaves the reader ('you' and I) in that world of death in which we have always obliviously existed.

This is a deeply disillusioning poem, much stronger medicine than it initially seems. Beginning with an image of stubbornly persistent life, it ends in the omnipresence of death. A Hegelian-minded totalizing interpreter might see a classic triad underlying the work: life as thesis, death as antithesis, and the synthesis not Christ but cancer. Sickness (leukemia, AIDS) is the death in life, the life in death. Such a reading might even convincingly argue that the berries symbolize, say, cancer patients persisting in life while disease gestates death within them. A different, more immanent or intrinsic reading might interpret the 'you' as the poem's reader and the poem as a demonstration of the impossibility of its own interpretation. But I think we should resist these hermeneutics. They are too neat, even antiseptic, and, because they are academically authorized readings, they violate the spirit of a  poem so burningly 'out of season,' a work that anarchically overturns traditional hierarchies, that breaks through our carefully constructed intellectual illusions. We should respect the spirit of the poem and leave it where it leaves us (and where it begins), in that world of death. Death as a consciousness of nothingness that drains the meaning from all human action. And death as Wallace Stevens's "mother of beauty"; death as the only ground against which the figures of life become visible.


Unknown said...

A superb reading--brought out that chill in the poem that Dickinson said was one of the signs of poetry. Did you know that Vendler and Heaney were close friends: I find the hard to imagine, and am happy you left the formalism aside as your reading deepened into death, the mother of death.

Unknown said...

Fascinating and enlightening, from structure to imagery and allusion to the era, a profound exposition.