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Literature Stage 3 Heaney Orals

Irish literature has had a tendency towards representing Ireland as raped woman. This feminisation of Ireland has a history in the Aisling tradition of Irish poetry. Seamus Heaneys Act of Union, from his 1975 book of poetry, North, challenges this dominant nationalist idea through his manipulation of the sonnet form to complicate Northern Irish nationalists views of their history. A study of this poem reveals the close interconnectedness of form and content in coming to understanding of its meaning. The sonnet form is conventionally associated with love poetry, yet Heaney has adopted it to construct a sexual union that is violent with possible rape connotations. The first stanza of this poem details Britains attraction towards Ireland in a sexual way. Heaney begins the poem with many pauses to exaggerate the sudden suspensions: To-night, a first movement, a pulse,. The poet uses three apostrophes in the first line in order to build up suspense and tension to create a foreshadowing effect on an event about to take place. Other than the beginning of the poem, this first line also represents the sexual arousal between the couple. Following on, the Heaney employs many sexual languages to enhance the imagery he wishes to present regarding this sexual relationship: a bog-burst,/A gash breaking open the ferny bed paints a vivid image of this hyped-up energy about to explode. By using the word bed, it evidently displays the poets intention in trying to incorporate sexual desires and a sexual atmosphere in this poem. Heaneys use of persona is particularly interesting in that it is a personification of both England and Ireland, and it is through this persona that Heaney complicates the nationalist view of colonisation as a rape. The phrase Your back is a firm line of eastern coast/And arms and legs are thrown beyond your gradual hills is a clear description of Irelands geographical location on the map. The positioning of the two also subtly implies their relationship: Irelands back facing Britain, as if trying to run away to escape Britains grasp. The audience are also able to distinguish the gender roles of these two countries through Heaneys descriptions: the firm line and gradual hills fits upon Ireland as a female persona. He then reveals Britain as the persona: I caress the heaving province where our past has grown. The personal pronoun shows Britain is speaking of caressing the heaving province, subtly implying that Ireland is pregnant with their child. The offspring that represents their troubled relationship is Northern Ireland, which reminds the audience of the political outcomes of this connection. While the Heaney describes Ireland with feminine features, he uses dominating masculine descriptions to describe Britain: I am the tall kingdom over

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Literature Stage 3 Heaney Orals

your shoulder/That you would neither cajole nor ignore. Words such as tall and kingdom have strong and dominating connotations and thus, personify Britains dominance over Ireland. There is nothing Ireland can do to block out or ignore the Britains presence. Furthermore, it presents an image of aggression and supremacy, reflecting the reality of this relationship. This also delicately brings out the Heaneys standing point towards this political issue. Although he wrote Act of Union from the point of view of Britain, he illustrates the nation as a dominating sexual being which forces Ireland into something she never wanted. He deliberately portrayed Ireland as a feminine character to show her vulnerability and lack of defence. The structural division of the poem as two sonnets presents a cause and effect, action and aftermath connects Northern Irelands perception of itself with the Troubles, which was at its peak at the time of the poems publication. The Troubles was a period of ethno-politicalconflict in Northern Ireland which spilled over at various times into England, the Republic of Ireland, and mainland Europe. The duration of the Troubles is conventionally dated from the late 1960s and considered by many to have ended with the Belfast Good Friday Agreement of 1998. The period from 1970 through 1972 saw an explosion of political violence in Northern Ireland, peaking in 1972, when nearly 500 people, just over half of them civilians, lost their lives the most devastating period in terms of loss of life in the whole conflict. This epcoh occurred just before the publication of Act of Union and would have been influential in Heaneys writing of the poem. Heaneys occasional departures from the conventional meter of the sonnet form serve to draw attention to the conception of a feminised Ireland at the mercy of male violence. By turning Ireland into an ideally pure, weak, and passive woman, it has served two different, though complementary, purposes. On the one hand, it usually helped Irish men to apply idealised images of Ireland to many flesh-and-blood Irish women. So many Irish women were transformed into mythical, bodiless, idealised, and motherly figures confined in a straitjacket of purity and passivity. On the other hand, the transformation of the Irish land into a myth of femininity often allowed Irish men to keep an illusionary perception of their national identity, which was actually being taken away from them by the English colonisers. Seamus Heaneys ambivalent poem Act of Union, from his 1975 book of poetry North, challenges the dominant nationalist idea that Ireland is often represented as a raped woman through his manipulation of the

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Literature Stage 3 Heaney Orals

sonnet form to complicate Northern Irish nationalists views of their history.

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