Seamus Heaney is not, I think, a difficult poet, unlike, say, his contemporary Geoffrey Hill who chose to guard his word-hoard with dragons of impassable obscurity. But Heaney did select his words very carefully, and that care merits close attention, as in this poem expressing his feelings of resentment at the presence in his countryside of what to him were after all, regardless of what his political sympathies might be, soldiers of an occupying power. That ‘omphalos’, for example – the omphalos (Greek for navel) was a stone at Delphi that in Greek lore had been placed there by Zeus to mark the centre of the world, and is here used by Heaney as a quietly defiant symbol of the farmland on which his own being was centred, and which is here evoked with a bleakly beautiful precision. I am also fascinated by his choice of the word ‘warbling’ in the second line. Quite right for the sound of heavy tyres, but I just wonder also whether Seamus also had in mind some association with the warble fly, a parasitic fly that burrows under the skin of cattle and lays its eggs – maybe he was thinking of these foreign invaders as resembling such parasites, burrowing under the skin of his countryside? Of course, it is easy to get carried away with this kind of thing – when I was young there was a critical work very much in vogue called ‘Seven Types of Ambiguity’, which one reviewer tartly dismissed as carrying the remarkable thesis that the more ways there were to misunderstand a poem, the better it was. Anyway, to the poem….
The Toome Road
One morning early I met armoured cars
In convoy, warbling along on powerful tyres,
All camouflaged with broken alder branches,
And headphoned soldiers standing up in turrets.
How long were they approaching down my roads
As if they owned them? The whole country was sleeping.
I had rights-of-way, fields, cattle in my keeping,
Tractors hitched to buckrakes in open sheds,
Silos, chill gates, wet slates, the greens and reds
Of outhouse roofs. Whom should I run to tell
Among all of those with their back doors on the latch
For the bringer of bad news, that small-hours visitant
Who, by being expected, might be kept distant?
Sowers of seed, erectors of headstones…
O charioteers, above your dormant guns,
It stands here still, stands vibrant as you pass,
The invisible, untoppled omphalos.
I too like the use of the word ‘warbling’.
“to tell” – to tell the inhabitants of the approaching soldiers? “omphalos” – it seems to be the place (as described in lines 7 to 10) and also the community (as described briefly in lines 11 to 14). “untoppled” – as if omphalos was a (untoppled) standing stone?