Process of a Poem: Seamus Heaney’s Funeral Rites

Image of Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney Portrait bh002411, Bobby Hanvey Photographic Archives, John J. Burns Library, Boston College

A poem greets its reader as a finished project. It resides there on the page, surrounded by blankness, with its line breaks and title. It is as if the poem walked out of the poet’s mind and onto the page in all its completed glory. A glance at the Seamus Heaney Collection in Burns Library shows that this is far from the truth. 

Seamus Heaney, born in County Derry, Ireland in 1939, was one of the most popular and prolific poets of his time. He published 12 individual volumes of poetry, several translations of ancient plays and epics, and a body of critical essays on the craft of poetry. Heaney’s knowledge of and attention to the craft of poetry is always one of the aspects of his mind that surprises me, and that conscientiousness comes across in the manuscript drafts of his poem “Funeral Rites,” which resides in Burns Library. 

Image of Funeral Rites manuscript

Poem, “Funeral Rites,” five manuscript and typescript drafts, Box 1, Folder 19, Seamus Heaney Collection, MS.1986.003, John J. Burns Library, Boston College

“Funeral Rites” belongs to his fourth collection, North, a book that many consider one of his best. North is, in part, Heaney’s direct response to The Troubles in Northern Ireland, and it has two sections. The first, which includes “Funeral Rites,” focuses on the Ancient North of Scandinavia and its Norse Gods, Vikings and bog bodies. Heaney’s art, with its palimpsest of myth and current events, suggests that these ancient struggles parallel those plaguing his own native land. The second section casts off this mythic attitude and stares directly at the situation as Heaney implicitly asks, “what is the role of a poet in a time of tribal violence?”

The first section of “Funeral Rites” presents a speaker, likely Heaney himself, participating in the funeral of a relative who died of natural causes. The second straddles the line between the immanent world and the world of myth, as the speaker hears news of neighbors murdered by other neighbors and wishes that the standard funeral ceremony would suffice. It does not, and a funeral procession for one of these unnatural deaths becomes a serpent snaking its way to megalithic tombs. Finally, the third section enters fully into the realm of myth as the speaker hopes that perhaps these men lay in their ancient tomb like the ancient hero Gunnar whose death went unavenged. The speaker hopes that if vengeance ceases, then the cycle of vendettas will end as it did with Gunnar.

It is a stunning poem that links the pain of the present with the pain of the past, and balances a clear-eyed look at the grief of the present with hope for the future. The poem’s structure of short, tight, enjambed—almost claustrophobic—quatrains resemble the world-serpent and the burial mounds that enter the poem midway through. However, the manuscripts housed here at the Burns show that the poem began its life as a different piece of work.

Image of Funeral Rites draft manuscript

Poem, “Funeral Rites,” five manuscript and typescript drafts, Box 1, Folder 19, Seamus Heaney Collection, MS.1986.003, John J. Burns Library, Boston College

There are five pages of early drafts to this poem. The first page uses the title of “The Funerals.” This title then becomes “Elegy,” and only in the last manuscript page does “Elegy” transform into “Funeral Rites.” Due to these quite linear changes in titles from page to page, I maintain that “The Funerals” is the earliest draft, and it is also the most unlike the final version. 

Perhaps the most striking difference from the working drafts to the completed work is the line length. In all of the manuscript drafts, the poem exists with long iambic lines. These lines then belong to long stanzas that can reach beyond eight lines. This distinction adds weight to Heaney’s choice to turn the poem into those short, snaking quatrains. Through the changes from draft to draft to completed piece, we see Heaney’s attempt to force the form to reflect and justify the content.

These manuscripts show Heaney’s mind work through decisions about what to leave and what to delete. In “The Funerals” manuscript, the first three quatrains are totally crossed out, and none of those lines reappear in the subsequent versions. Yet, there are ideas in those stricken lines that Heaney atavistically introduces into other parts of the poem that had yet to be written when he decided to cut the original lines. For instance, he cuts out a line that uses “shoulder” as a verb, another that mentions “some megalith,” and another which considers rosary beads wrapped around thumbs. All of these ideas make it in, not only to later drafts of the poem, but into the poem itself. Reading through the manuscripts that Burns Library houses, we have the privilege to go beyond a finished artistic product by glimpsing the process that created it.

“Funeral Rites” as it exists in the published world is a powerful poem. Its language is grounded and elegant. Its tone is balanced, and its shape is spartan. When one reads the poem, it is impossible to imagine it existing in any other form, with any different language.Yet it did at one point. These manuscript pages show art as a process, as a craft, as well as a talent. Heaney did not get the poem right on his first go-round, but through painstaking work and attention to detail, all of which can be seen in his edits in these pages, he created a mighty poem.

-Brian Loane, Reading Room Assistant, MA Candidate in the Department of English

Sources:

  • Heaney, Seamus. North. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996.
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