No doubt we all have our favourite Seamus Heaney collections (and while ‘Collected Poems’ are very satisfying and serviceable, is there not an excitement that a ‘Collected’ can never quite replace about reading a poet’s collections as they come out?). For me, it has to be ‘Field Work’, which I think shows the poet in his prime, in full relish of his mastery. This week’s choice is a relatively simple lyric from that collection, compared with some of the complex and demanding (but very satisfying) poems that it contains. I have to say that I’m not too sure about the image in the first line. It seems to me that a girl would need to be wearing an awful lot of lipstick in a lot of unusual places to look anything like the berry-laden rowan trees I’ve seen. But I do like the second stanza. Appropriately for an Irish poem, the last line echoes the answer given by the legendary hero Fionn mac Cumhaill, who when asked what he thought was the best music of all said ‘The music of what happens’.
A rowan like a lipsticked girl.
Between the by-road and the main road
Alder trees at a wet and dripping distance
Stand off among the rushes.
There are the mud-flowers of dialect
And the immortelles of perfect pitch
And that moment when the bird sings very close
To the music of what happens.
I found this quote online: “… And in his closing line, he [ Heaney ] recalls the legend of Finn Mac Cool, who challenged the warriors of the Fianna—accomplished poets, all—to name the finest music in the world. The music of the lark over Dingle Bay, suggested one. The laughter of a young woman, suggested another. The bellowing of a stag, suggested a third. No, replied Finn Mac Cool. The finest music is “the music of what happens.” “
Yes, there are various versions of this because the tales of Finn and the Fianna belong as much to the Scots Gaelic tradition as to the Irish. There is a rather charming Scots Gaelic one in which Oisean taxes his father Fionn with having no music in his soul. Finn answers ‘I have music in me that you do not hear, because my music is the best music in the world’. ‘Prove it’, says Oisean, so Finn goes away to the island of Staffa and sets up the basalt columns there at the edge of the sea that make a musical sound as the tide comes in, and Oisean is forced to concede: ‘Uill, ’s e an ceòl as fheàrr anns an t-saoghal air fad a th’ ann, le cinnt, oir ’s e ceòl nàdair a th’ ann.’ (Well, that is the best music in all the world, for sure, because it is the music of nature).
“… that moment when the bird sings very close /
To the music of what happens” – this was Heaney’s goal (as the bird) when he wrote poetry? I like to think that “the music of what happens” is simply the unfolding of events (in the natural world or in human affairs).
Not quite the way I’ve always taken it – I thought it was particularly about those moments when you feel a oneness with nature, when you are part of the song, as it were, rather than a discordant outsider. What the French writer Romain Rolland calls an ‘oceanic feeling’.
Hi David, “very close / To” is ambiguous? Apparently Heaney said in an interview: “So I used it [Fionn MacCool’s answer about the best music in the world] as the basis for a little declaration about poetry”. I think he was talking about “Song”.
I’d love to know what you think about his choice of ‘mud-flowers’ AND ‘Immortelles’ in the second stanza – seems very cryptic?
Good question, Kier. I must admit I don’t know quite what Heaney had in mind here. ‘Mudflower’ is a name for various kinds of plant, some of them low and creeping, and ‘immortelle’ for various flowers which bloom for a long time, such as Helichrysum. But I think Heaney is saying something like ‘you get human speech in its different forms, springing like flowers from the local terrain in the form of dialect, or in a more exalted register, enduring over the centuries as poetry endures by virtue of its ‘perfect pitch’, its consonance with observed reality, but nothing really beats these wordless, Zen-like moments when everything seems distilled into one birdsong’. You could see it as similar to the quiet evening moment in Edward Thomas’s poem ‘Home’, when the thrush sings ‘his last song, or last song but one’, and from a labourer’s shed ‘the sound of sawing rounded all/That silence said.’
But I am by no means confident in my interpretation, so if anyone has any better ideas…
I’m really glad I asked, thank you for taking the time to write such a detailed reply! For what it’s worth, I’ve certainly got a lot from what you’ve shared and your intepretation feels like it rings true to the poem for me. I find it I’ll be sure to check out the Thomas poem too.
Regarding “the music of what happens”: In “Fosterling” (published in “Seeing Things” in 1991) Heaney seems to say that he wants to turn away from “poetry / Sluggish in the doldrums of what happens” and make a point of seeking out “marvels” (things that exist only in imagination?).
I think you could be reading that poem a bit wrong, Chris. As I see it, it’s not about turning away from ‘the music of what happens’ towards marvels that exist only in the imagination, it’s about learning again to use the true office of the imagination, which is to see the marvellous in the actual. Remember those exact words from Glanmore Sonnet, VII: ‘It was marvellous/And actual’. That sums up a lot of Heaney, I think. When he speaks of ‘Poetry/Sluggish in the doldrums of what happens’ I don’t think that is meant to be a repudiation of a general principle, just of a personal phase in which he sees himself as having got a bit bogged down by a ‘heaviness of being’, maybe related to the political pressures he felt, and the escape from which, back to the clarity and lightness of a more childlike vision, he is now celebrating.