This is one of my favourite Seamus Heaney poems. It’s from his 1969 collection, Door into the Dark. I think the key to understanding the poem is the Eleusian mysteries practised by the ancient Greeks. The man in the poem is basically giving the role of the corn goddess, Demeter, to the woman, though she doesn’t know it. It’s a measure of how much he loves her but she is mystified.
I think a knowledge of the Classics helps to understand much of Heaney’s poetry.
The Wife’s Tale
By Seamus Heaney
When I had spread it all on linen cloth
Under the hedge, I called them over.
The hum and gulp of the thresher ran down
And the big belt slewed to a standstill, straw
Hanging undelivered in the jaws.
There was such quiet that I heard their boots
Crunching the stubble twenty yards away.
He lay down and said, ‘Give these fellows theirs,
I’m in no hurry,’ plucking grass in handfuls
And tossing it in the air. ‘That looks well.’
(He nodded at my white cloth on the grass.)
‘I declare a woman could lay out a field
Though boys like us have little call for cloths.’
He winked, then watched me as I poured a cup
And buttered the thick slices that he likes.
‘It’s threshing better than I thought, and mid
It’s good clean seed. Away over there and look.’
Always this inspection has to be made
Even when I don’t know what to look for.
But I ran my hand in the half-filled bags
Hooked to the slots. It was hard as shot,
Innumerable and cool. The bags gaped
Where the chutes ran back to the stilled drum
And forks were stuck at angles in the ground
As javelins might mark lost battlefields.
I moved between them back across the stubble.
They lay in the ring of their own crusts and dregs,
Smoking and saying nothing. ‘There’s good yield,
Isn’t there?’ –as proud as if he were the land itself–
‘Enough for crushing and sowing both.’
And that was it. I’d come and he had shown me,
So I belonged no further to the work.
I gathered cups and folded up the cloth
And went. But they still kept their ease,
Spread out, unbuttoned, grateful, under the trees.
Here are some musings on the differences between Irish mythology and Greek mythology.
Anyone familiar with James Joyce’s Ulysses will probably know that Joyce used Homer’s Odyssey as a structuring device, hence the title. In doing this, was Joyce proposing a hybrid culture? A kind of Greek and Irish civilisation, if you will? With the Greeks providing the form and the Irish the content? With this in mind, I’d like to compare and contrast Irish and Greek mythology. I will focus on the differences because, well, it wouldn’t be a hybrid culture if there were none. Celt and Greek have a lot to learn from each other.
The first major difference is imagination. Greek mythology possesses a universal imagination whereas Irish mythology is often more particular and local. But let’s bring in Joyce again here and consider what he said about his art: in the particular is contained the universal. Irish mythology bristles with imagination. It is often strange and bizarre. See the description of Cu Chulainn’s warp spasm in the Tain. Some critics characterize the myths as ‘childish’ because of this uninhibited imagination but they are wrong. This small mindedness is typical of those who don’t know the importance of a healthy imagination no matter what your age is. Greek mythology doesn’t have this unrestrained, liberated character. It doesn’t have the same imaginative and emotional exuberance. What it does have, however, is a tremendous clarity and insight into the human condition. It is easier to decipher the meaning of the Greek myths. Irish mythology is more enigmatic. It doesn’t give up its secrets so easily.
Another major difference is expression of national character. Irish mythology is a national treasure for all Irish people. It speaks with an authentic Irish voice. Reading the Tain or the Book of Invasions is like looking into a mirror. I don’t know of any other literature that expresses what it is to be Irish so well. As for what ‘Irish’ is, that is a question not easily answered. You’ll just have to take my word for it. It is even more hard to say what the character of the Ancient Greeks was but I would guess that it involved clarity of mind and being philosophical.
Greek mythology has a longer history than Irish mythology. Homer’s Iliad was written around 700 BC whereas the earliest version of The Tain we have dates from around the later part of the 11th century AD. Because of this, writers have been writing about the Greek myths for a far longer time then they have the Irish myths. The Classical Tradition is strong but the Irish or Celtic tradition has come on over the last couple of centuries through writers such as Lady Morgan, Synge, Yeats and Heaney. Perhaps the finest examples of the Celtic tradition are found in the early poetry of Yeats, especially his collection, The Wind Among the Reeds. To my mind, the best of these poems are as good as any poems written in the Classical Tradition.
So what of this hybrid of Irish and Greek culture that Joyce seems to be proposing? What of this meeting of Celt and Greek? Well, it is clear that they have a lot to learn from each other and a lot the agree on. So it is a friendship well worth cultivating, I would say.