Seamus Heaney, The Republic of Conscience (questions for a discussion)

Below is the text of Seamus Heaney, “From the Republic of Conscience,” which was commissioned by Amnesty International and published on Human Rights Day, 1985. The text is from David Pierce (ed.), Irish Writing in the Twentieth Century: A Reader (Cork University Press, 2000), p. 1033. It makes an excellent stimulus for reflecting on your relationship to the political world, ideally in conversation with peers.

Seamus Heaney, The Republic of Conscience

What literally happens in the poem? What is the plot?

Why do the immigration authorities show the narrator a picture of his grandfather and ask him for his traditional cures and charms?

What would it be like to have citizenship only in the Republic of Conscience?

Where do the salt and seawater that they hold sacred (and use for writing) in the Republic of Conscience come from originally?

Why is lightning good and fog, bad?

What shows that the Republic is “frugal,” and why is it so?

Why were the visitor’s arms different lengths when he arrived?

What is the significance of the Republic’s “sacred symbol,” the boat?

I think the language of the poem is beautiful, and it describes beautiful things. What is the relationship between aesthetics and conscience? Can you have a conscience and not appreciate beauty or express yourself beautifully? (Does it matter that this statement is a poem?)

What does the visitor think about power? Is the Republic of Conscience actually an anarchy?

What does it mean that the ambassadors are never “relieved”? Is that a good thing for them, or a bad thing? (or both?)

Are you a dual citizen of the Republic of Conscience?

(One final note about this poem, which is generally free of specialized vocabulary. Apparently, curlews are impressively migratory birds, traveling across continents and oceans. The Call of the Curlew is also the title of a novel, which I do not know, by Taha Hussein.)

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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.