Learning to Love the Absolute Other in the Poetry of Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley

By Madeleine A. Gallo
2018, Vol. 10 No. 10 | pg. 1/1

Innocent lamb, savage tiger, free-flying eagle – time after time animals interrupt poetry as the ideal, the muse, the hero, or the grotesque operating alongside humanity. In tracking animal imagery throughout contemporary Irish poetry, we may run the risk of imposing a perhaps unfair anthropocentric epistemology onto these poets. Although at times poets like Seamus Heaney or Michael Longley endeavor to convert animals into something more humanlike, or something that exists merely at the mercy of mankind, what lies beneath this original uneasiness is anguish over the fact that they as men cannot reach the same type of reality outside consciousness that animals can.

The Otherness these two poets perceive in their relationship with animals is the same Otherness reflected back at them as poets living in an age of Civil War in the twenty-first century. Condemned by the English, the Irish became aliens in their own lands and essentially lost their identities. Not only were Irish animals killed or tortured by the English, but Irish citizens themselves were often depicted as apes, pigs, or dogs in English political1 cartoons and literature (Kirkpatrick Foreword xi). This distinction from the natural order by Englishmen aligned the Irish metaphorically with animals and inspired them to search within that oppressive "degradation" for something positive. Loving animals for what they are opens the possibility for poets to love themselves for what they are as well; Heaney's consciousness and acknowledgement of his inability to ever "fit in" has allowed him to ask in "Badgers" the essential question (32-33): "How perilous is it to choose / not to love the life we're shown?" Like the badger, Heaney is both subservient and rebellious to his fellow man – yet he understands the peril and courage behind discarding his farm background in order to pursue poetry as a proud Irishman, unlike the badgers that mindlessly kill one another. Similarly, Michael Longley's backward evolutionary process from man to bird allows him to establish himself as a poet dedicated to preserving and encouraging art despite its ultimate position as an inert mental construct always working parallel to reality – always in the hope that even artifice might inspire real, beautiful change.

"I sickened, turned, and ran," writes Seamus Heaney in "Death of a Naturalist" when the speaker beholds the mystical frogs of his childhood turned to frightening "slime kings" seeking vengeance (31). Of course the frogs have not truly undergone any transformation – the speaker's sudden failure to grasp their magnificence as he once had results in his own symbolic "death." The direct evolution from beholder of natural beauty to artful voyeur, horrified and repulsed by the grotesqueries of the body, is not so simple a transition for Heaney. "The Early Purges" focuses on a moment in which six-year-old Heaney watched another boy drown kittens, only for Heaney to become desensitized to the fear that this event originally evoked as he grows older. Now, upon observing an animal's death at the hands of man, Heaney merely "shrugs" ("The Early Purges" 18). Furthermore, he excuses these deaths as natural: "'Prevention of cruelty' talk cuts ice in town / Where they consider death unnatural / But on well-run farms pests have to be kept down" (21-23). The conflict between youthful wonder at natural beauty and the adult's recognition for the necessity of killing is unsettling. Helen Hennessy Vendler suggests that the animal is a sort of "alter ego" for Heaney that allows him a sense of liberation he cannot find as human. But if the animal is but an "alter ego" to man, it is not one with which Heaney can easily come to terms (91). Heaney's confession to keeping frogs in jars as a child mirrors future poems in that perhaps his wonder toward animals has always been inclined toward an obsession with attempting to control and understand something beyond human rationale – an obsession, at times, even eroticism, that manifests into a certain type of envy for animals whose existences are based on "be" rather than "seem," and whose lives deeply intertwine with culture and a natural order separate from mankind.

Although Heaney's animal poems can be found throughout his various collections and therefore do not represent a chronological timeline from youth to adulthood, he often opens poems with the innocent wonder children feel upon beholding nature. In "Death of a Naturalist," the young Heaney first becomes infatuated with the young frogs who can "tell the weather" by their skin color (20). They hold an almost supernatural power over him given their ability to "burst" from "fattening dots" into agile, swimming creatures (14-15). Once the initial wonder wears off, however, feelings of fear consume people when they recognize that they do not possess the ability to understand animals fully – or worse, when they first begin to distance themselves from the natural world animals inhabit.

This discomfort most often first manifests in humanity's attempt to convert animals into something relatable through the imposition of anthropomorphic qualities onto them. Heaney devotes the majority of the poem to attempting to study the frogspawn – he keeps pots of young frogs on "window-sills at home, / On shelves at school" in order to observe their transformations from specks to tadpoles ("Death of a Naturalist" 12-13). He listens to his teacher classify the sexes of the frogs and number the amount of eggs a female lays from the safety of a classroom (15-18). These endeavors to understand the frogs ultimately collapse into the moment in which the speaker sees the frogs as "obscene threats" in their own domain (29). No longer in his windowsill as harmless specks, but "poised" and "farting" like grenades on the bog, the frogs are displaced from the comfortable, domestic space that the speaker inhabits and thus become alien to him (30).

Once alienated, Heaney seems to offer little hope at ever returning to someone who can weep over the murder of drowned kittens. The speaker of "Vision" imagines himself destroyed by an army of lice in his hair that "gang up / Into a mealy rope /And drag him, small, dirty, doomed" to the nearby river (2-4). Forever after this moment he is "cautious" of the riverbank fields (6). Years later he stands in the same place and watches eels slithering by like "hatched fears" (11). Afraid, he sees the landscape merge with the eels as they seem to move it like a "jellied road" (15). These eels, flowing as a line, become symbolic of the lice chain that the speaker feared as a boy: "Time / Confirmed the horrid cable" (19-20). Against their fluidity the speaker appears frozen and distanced from the eels and, furthermore, the landscape. He has lost his place in the world as a natural entity the moment he sees himself as isolated. Eels appear more frequently than any other animal in Heaney's work. He plays off the ideas and symbolism associated with eels for other poets like the Italian Eugenio Montale, whose "Eel" describes the cultural power emblematic of the eel. It is an animal that has managed to survive for eons, and Heaney's inability to connect with and discomfort toward this animal therefore signifies a greater fear that he is removed from his culture and dislocated from the natural order.

This fear and distancing from animals is interlaced with, and perhaps derives from, man's eventual recognition that his discomfort is but a product of a sort of animal envy, or the desire to coexist naturally with the environment from which humans are always excluded. The speaker, imposing human qualities onto the frogs once more, believes that they will seek revenge on him for his prior caging of them: "I knew / That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it" ("Death of a Naturalist" 33). Again, Heaney demonstrates anxiety over the unknown that animals represent. For a poet who claims, "All I know is a door into the dark," he cannot fathom what exists beyond that door ("The Forge" 1). Frogs, lice, and eels are already blend with the darkness because they inhabit the sort of primal truth that ironically supersedes scientific or poetic knowledge. They are thus already one with the cultural immersion that Heaney continuously seeks through both literal and metaphorical digging.

Perhaps no poem better summarizes Heaney's envious desire to evade the consciousness of man and escape into the raw reality of animals than "Peninsula." Here Heaney presents himself as fully removed from nature, possessing nothing but the power to "pass through" (4) the landfall, rather than "arrive" (5). He beholds "The leggy birds stilted on their own legs, / Islands riding themselves out into the fog" (11-12). The juxtaposition of these lines creates an image of the birds themselves becoming the islands that disappear into the fog. No longer are the birds, like eels, moving the land – they are the land. Animals fuse with nature in such a way that men must leave behind wonder or horror in order to accept that they, unlike the birds, will never fully become one with nature:

. . . drive back home, still with nothing to say

Except that now you will uncode all landscapes

By this: things founded clean on their own shapes,

Water and ground in their extremity. (13-16)

The most a man can do is discover the tools necessary for reevaluating reality. As a poet, Heaney must embrace the gap between words and experience to which he is always prisoner. As a man, he must bridge the gap between humanity and nature. Life that has nothing to do with human conception of it, despite man's attempts to contain and classify it, is more powerful than human thought. Animals transcend the rationality which people forever seek. Heaney further extends this envy even to potential eroticism, comparing his wife to animals like skunks and otters. For Heaney, the animal at times becomes a "vague presence, disturbing, nightmarish, suggestive of libidinous impulses both generative and violating, its stark animality revealed in exaggerated particulars like a fetish" (Tobin 40). While the link between wife and beast might seem disturbing or even insulting, Heaney's love for someone he can liken to an integral, natural component of nature is significant. Of the skunk, Heaney writes, "And there she was, the intent and glamorous, / Ordinary, mysterious skunk, / Mythologized, demythologized" ("The Skunk" 17-19). She has managed to avoid humanity's attempts to confine her, but this time Heaney is not struck with fear. Rather, he is enthralled with her to the point of seeing his wife in her nightly visits.

Possibly then the shrug that Heaney offers while justifying the need to kill animals for orderly farm life amounts to his shrugging at the impossibility of ever absconding the social constraints that have limited him as a human being. This acceptance further allows him to at least embrace the allure of animals from a distance. Poetry becomes his attempt to transcend both the violation of nature that people constantly perpetuate and also work beyond human restriction. When he desires to become "verb, pure verb" in "Oysters," he seeks to rise above the horror of the millions of the oysters destroyed at the hands of man, but also to create a poem that can fulfill the animalistic duty that he as a man cannot – to exist on extremity, on culture, on land, on action alone (25).

While Heaney certainly questions the life he has been shown and often displays doubt over his own poetics or position as a man ostracized from nature, he also knows and accepts that he cannot thrive at the same type of the career as his father; nor will he stifle his Irish pride. Ironically then, Heaney finds the most peace with himself when not despairing over his inability to identify with animal existence, but rather when he asserts his humanity and accepts his position as an isolated man outside the barbarism of badger-like warfare. Daniel Tobin believes that harnessing "the unconscious energies" that link man and animal "constitutes the culture-creating power of human beings, a power epitomized in poetry, the power that distinguishes human from animals" (42). Only when Heaney accepts this difference and potential power can he see himself as a being who possesses the consciousness and thereby choice to sometimes reject the primal world and barbarous lifestyle by which he grew up surrounded, and, as he writes, "that could have been my own" ("The Badger" 38).

If Seamus Heaney seeks to expose the unknown and discover himself by digging through the ground, swamps, and bogs, his contemporary Michael Longley takes to the sky in his own quest for poetic revelation. Unlike Heaney, Longley was born to English parents who moved to Belfast during World War II and did not school him in any religion (Longley "Vitality"). His own Otherness is thus differentiated from Heaney's in a sense, and his animal poems focus more on the ability to embrace many different territories or modes of being. Longley often relies on birds or other winged-animal imagery to express his fascination with creatures that seemingly transcend human reason and limitation. However, Longley urges people to grow beyond this initial desire to analyze animals in human terms and instead appreciate them for their own unique existences. The bird becomes a metaphor for the writer, and this connection is a long withstanding one in Irish tradition. One of the first known Irish poems, "Cumhthach Labhras An Lonsa2" is an anonymous lyric that dramatizes the sorrowful connection the speaker feels with a blackbird that, like him, has suddenly lots its lover and children (Robertson 67). Longley's poetry, however, demonstrates his personal progression as a poet surrendering his early theoretical, metaphorical analyses of birds to that of a more observant, image-based approach. This step toward admitting human restraint against the bird's seemingly supernatural power emphasizes Longley's eventual acceptance that, although birdsong will perhaps always trump human mimicry, such replication carries its own unique inspirational power.

Initially in Longley's career, his observations of birds are laced with a profound desire to make an elevated, figurative meaning of birds and the possibilities that wings and flight-based existences allow. "The Osprey" reveals his captivation by the "inextinguishable" sea bird that navigates both land and water (9). Longley is highly focused on birds' "unamphibious two lives," or their capabilities of blending the boundaries of earth, sky, and water. Although the sky may be the osprey's "proper element" (it does not possess the webbed feet or oils necessary for living in water), it is still able to venture into this realm and pluck trout from the sea (4). In "Swans Mating" the narrator wishes that his lover had also witnessed the mating ritual between two swans, the ceremony of which he has beheld was "a marriage and baptism" (6). He craves the swans' "heraldic moment" (5) in his own relationship – a ritual that is "nearly a drowning" but also beautiful because of its risk and obliteration of geographical limitation. Longley's own subtle confession of human restraint can be discerned within these poems – people are forever confined to merely wishing that they could be like the osprey or swans and rise above what appears physically possible. The poet, in a sense, is no different than the osprey or the swans – forced to delve into an unfamiliar, potentially dangerous realm in order to excavate meaning. Words like "marriage" and "baptism," however, are strangely anthropomorphic terms for an animal relationship and represent Longley's early struggle to appreciate birds without imposing his own humanity upon them.

Longley's first desire to escape the human compulsion to make meaning out of what is already meaningful by its own nonhuman standards is most evident in his early poem, "The Ornithological Section." Unable to obtain the "heavenly" status of birds, humans resort to becoming taxidermists who preserve the birds' dead bodies as mere reminders of what people themselves can never be (1). The stuffed corpses, despite possessing no vital organs, have "held their equilibrium / So perfectly, so many years" (5-6). In death, manipulated by human hands into majestic positions, the birds illustrate the "frozen augury," the omens, and prophecies that people impose upon them (19). When people look upon the dead birds, they imagine a past when these birds flew and swam, spanning shores and lands across the globe, "heading for the future, / By some deep need of ours conveyed" (23-24). This "deep need" is the same need the speaker in "Swans Mating" desires for his lover and himself – to "fuse all hope with what we know" and shed off the desire to evaluate and understand the world rather than exist in it for the sake of simply existing (30). By stuffing and positioning the dead birds at all, people merely create false representations of what they imagine birds to be – perhaps no different than a poet creating a poem that potentially serves as artifice mirroring reality. When Longley writes, "We come as ornithologists – As taxidermist we depart," he easily might have replaced "taxidermist" with "poet" (41-42). How does a poet, like the sea bird straddling the zones of land, sky, and water, balance reality and artifice without becoming a traitor to one or the other? Longley suggests that people cannot depart from their urges to "recognise the tattered skins," (46) but pushes people, or poets, a step further – to appreciate birds, "entitled from the start / Who take their places, make their stand / Where science ends and love begins" (47-48). The poet's job for Longley thus seems to move beyond scientist to lover – a transformation evident in his later, image-based poems.

"The Bat" reflects this shift toward imagism when the speaker yields his attempts to understand a bat caught in the ballroom and decides instead to leave the animal to die on the floor. A couple has come to make love secretly in the ballroom but instantly becomes distracted by the presence of the bat – who, for one, represents "singlemindedness, sheer insanity" (12) and "centuries measured in bat droppings," (15) and for the other "long fingers, anaesthetizing teeth" (18). Both speaker and lover attempt to classify the bat – either through tales of snakes that devour it in midair or by its strange appearance that resembles a "sky-mouse" (17). However, the speaker's lover eventually suggests that they abandon the bat altogether, leaving it "Suspended between floor and ceiling" (20-21). Longley again focuses on the animal's power to encompass floor, ceiling, and the realm between. Only now he allows his lover to convince him to abandon the bat rather than further his investigation, and he makes no moves to preserve the bat's dead body. The bat, he seems to realize, will live and die regardless of human interference, much as war, tragedy, politics, and beauty will persist despite the existence of poetry. The speaker, or Longley, thus moves toward accepting a reality in which both the bat and the lovers, or reality and poet, can coexist without one diminishing the other. The final image is that of the bat dropping, presumably dead, to the center of the ballroom floor. This morbid ending, the bat's blindness, and Longley's shift in portrayal of the poet as a beautiful, free-flying bird to a trapped, frantic, unpleasant creature suspended in an "in-between" stagnant room parallels his continued struggle (throughout the third volume) with identifying the poet's exact place as an interpreter of reality.

Although Longley never quite gives up on his elevated language (and at times anthropomorphic) metaphors when describing animals, his last collections evince a tendency toward allowing the images to speak for themselves rather than exploring the symbolism in anything but subtle, implicit terms. "Two Pheasants" recalls "Swans Mating" in that the speaker describes the pheasant that has just watched its mate die under a car tire as having left a "catastrophic wedding reception" (1). Quickly, however, Longley moves from relating the pheasants to bride and groom to what they actually are – two "white neck-ring[ed]" birds with "red wattles" and "coppery tails" (7). Human comparisons are no longer necessary in detailing the surviving pheasant's suffering because its own beautiful, yet bestial appearance leaves a greater impact upon the speaker than his own metaphors.

The final poem in Longley's Collected Poems is naturally dedicated to a bird, but also to Longley's grandsons and seemingly future generations of poets who will write after his death; here he confidently blends bird and poet and art and artifice until he himself is almost indistinguishable from the wren. He writes to his grandsons, "A day here represents a life-time, bird's-foot trefoil / Among wild thyme" (4-5). The juxtaposition of these lines serves to subvert Longley's earlier metaphors in which he employs bird symbolism as an attempt to understand human life. Thus human life becomes a means of understanding birds, whose power to fly and sing and exist without restraint has clearly always seemed superior to the limitations of humanity. The speaker observes the hare and raven, which become intertwined with visions of his grandsons until he believes that these creatures live joyously for one another – not to be frozen as stuffed bodies on the wall, but dancing and drinking together (9). The speaker himself becomes transfigured into the knothole of a tree:

I want you both to remember me

And what the wind-tousled wren has been saying

All day long from fence posts and the fuchsia depths,

A brain-rattling bramble-song inside a knothole. (15-18)

The knothole, a measure of age, and the wren's song emerging surely signify the poet's own song rising from the aging Longley. In a poignant final move, Longley does not ask his grandsons to remember him, but rather the wren's song, "the whooper swans," and the "Saharan Wheatear" (13-14). This cry for the elevation of nature over humanity becomes Longley's ultimate shift away from anthropomorphism in his recognition that birds themselves are the true artists, and in a sense, that the poet's voice has always been a mere attempt at representing the simple, wondrous beauty of animals. That Longley should be remembered as a wren is thus the highest honor a poet might achieve. He says in an interview, "For me, celebrating . . . birds is like a kind of worship" (Longley "Vitality).

While Yeats never quite chose between an immortal life as a golden bird in Byzantium or an ephemeral existence in a decaying human body, Heaney's "Redress of Poetry" suggests that a stenciled drawing of a bird on a windowpane still possesses the power to alter a real bird's path of flight (285-285). Longley seems most confortable in accepting that whatever bird he represents through poetry will always be the stenciled one, but he is optimistic in his hope that this emblem might still influence his grandsons or future poets to hear the truth within the artificial. The "celebration" of birds that he calls for suggests a love for the other that does not subsume the self. Longley appears confident in his admission that "good poems . . . [make] people more human" because they cannot be anything but human. (Longley "Vitality"). Yet the bird remains the model for poets – the transcendent trespasser of all boundaries capable of the metamorphoses that Longley cherishes.

Jacques Derrida borrows from Nietzsche when he writes that man is an animal "lacking in itself," or a "promising" animal that longs to possess the unashamed visionary power of the nonhuman (Derrida 372). Man is the only creature humiliated by his own nakedness, the only being that attempts to fill the gap between what is human and what is not, and the only creature who labels both frog and bird as "animal" seeking to deprive unique Otherness of its singularity and extremities. Yet, we must not forget that humans are still "promising." An animal's perspective is that of "the absolute other," and its gaze, for Derrida, allows him a glimpse into the "absolute alterity of the neighbor" (Derrida 380). Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley, in attempting to peer through the eyes of their animal neighbors, have perhaps seen their own human forms reflected in the Other's gaze. While immersion of self and Other may prove forever unobtainable, they have attempted to unveil the most human parts of themselves and to uncover these parts without shame. Whether through frogs, birds, Catholics, Protestants, Irish, or English, both poets seems to reach for the moment in which alien eyes can perceive each other without fear and, more importantly, relish their difference.


Derrida, Jacques. "The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow)." Translated by David Wills. Critical Inquiry, vol. 28, no. 2, 2002, pp. 369-418. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1344276. Accessed 28 April 2018.

Heaney, Seamus. Finder's Keepers. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002.

Heaney, Seamus. Opened Ground. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1998.

Kirkpatrick, Kathryn, and Borbála Faragó. Animals in Irish Literature and Culture. Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

Longley, Michael. Collected Poems. Wake Forest University Press, 2007.

Longley, Michael. Interview with Krista Tippett. "The Vitality of Ordinary Things." On Being. https://onbeing.org/programs/michael-longley-the-vitality-of-ordinary- things. Accessed 29 April 2018.  

Robertson, D. W. "Cumhthach Labhras an Lonsa." Uncollected Essays, 2017, pp. 67-69.

Tobin, Daniel. Passage to the Center: Imagination and the Sacred in the Poetry of Seamus Heaney. University Press of Kentucky, 2015.

Vendler, Helen Hennessy. Seamus Heaney. Harvard University Press, 2000.


1.) Kirkpatrick notes that while some political terms bestowed upon the Irish, such as "Celtic Tigers" were relatively heroic, others (such as P.I.I.G.S.) were used to mock Ireland (and other nations') failing economies (Foreword xi).

2.) "It is Sadly the Blackbird Calls"

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