notes on Seamus Heaney’s Singing School

(en route to Tarrytown, NY) The son of a Catholic farmer in Ulster, with an education and an extraordinary gift for language, Seamus Heaney knew oppression and he knew art. Oppression came in many forms and layers–the Unionists and British representing only two of the oppressors–and it demanded active, bodily resistance: joining his people in labor, suffering, or even violence. The art meant moving away from all that in several respects: away from physical objects into words, away from the laboring poor into the middle class or even the global elite, away from Ulster to places like Spain and Oxford, and away from his Irish roots into English literature.

Heaney’s “Singing School” explores this profound tension by means of six short autobiographical scenes from his own education. At the risk of distorting the poem, I’d suggest that each scene presents different oppressors and teachers.

First, the epigraphs are quotations from two of Heaney’s teachers, great poets who wrote in the oppressors’ English language. Wordsworth was an Englishman but a liberal revolutionary. He invented a style of elegaic memoir (in natural-sounding formal verse) that made Heaney’s work possible. Yeats was originally a Protestant Irishman, one of the oppressors, and the quoted passage recalls his childhood hatred of Heaney’s people. But Yeats became a nationalist bard, and he provides the poem’s title:

Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

Stanza 1: The oppressors are the teachers at St Columb’s College (Catholic priests) and the police. Heaney’s teachers are the modern Irish poets Seamus Deane and Patrick Kavanagh, and surely, James Joyce, whose Portrait of the Artist infuses the stanza.

Stanza 2: The oppressor is the constable, hence the British government. The teacher is Heaney’s silent father, teaching not to sing but to work with one’s hands and keep truths hidden.

Stanza 3: The oppressor is the Orangeman marching through Belfast (but showing weakness as he struggles with his drum). The teacher is the crowd, teaching the rhythms of hatred.

Stanza 4: The oppressor is the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the British government. But Heaney’s problem is that he is no longer directly oppressed. His career has liberated him to live in Madrid, much as Joyce lived in Paris and Trieste. (“Rivering” is another Joycean echo). Heaney’s teachers, as he struggles with guilt and exile, are Joyce, Lorca, and Goya.

Stanza 5: The main teacher is Heaney’s mentor, the short-story-writer Michael McLaverty, who invokes Katherine Mansfield and “poor Hopkins”–referring to the English poet exiled unhappily to Ireland. In this stanza, oppression recedes as McLaverty encourages Heaney to improve the world by describing it. He has permission to be a poet.

Stanza 6: I think nature is the main teacher here–and also Ovid, whose “Tristia” were songs of exile. Yeats is again an inspiration. The stone hurled by Republican revolutionaries that recurs through “Easter 1916” may be the stone in Heaney’s poem:

Imagining a hero
On some muddy compound,
His gift like a clingstone
Whirled for the desperate.

The oppressor is still political–Heaney has escaped from a “massacre”–but political oppression has become more abstract and general now that Heaney lives in Wicklow (in the Irish Republic). Not only a Catholic from Ulster but almost any thoughtful person could feel “I am neither internee nor informer.”

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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