Week 404: The Underground, by Seamus Heaney

Philip Larkin famously claimed that the ‘myth kitty’ was exhausted, meaning that it was time to give up writing poems that relied on the convenient shorthand of tropes from a shared  classical culture, and one can see that for him this was a necessary part of his literary program of reclaiming poetry for the common reader by rooting it in the accessible ordinary. But centuries of shared tradition are not so easily put aside, and in the right hands, and used in the right way, the myth kitty can still retain much of its old potency. As in this densely woven poem by Seamus Heaney, where we have allusions to Orpheus and Eurydice (‘damned if I look back’), Pan chasing the nymph Syrinx (‘a fleet god gaining/Upon you turned to a reed’), the Persephone myth (the scattered trail of stanza two) and just for good measure a reference to Hansel and Gretel from Germanic folktale.

But these allusions do not supplant the basic human story here, merely add a layer of resonance to it, and that story appears to be one of regret for a more innocent time of young love, and an apprehension that the poet’s wife and marriage have suffered too much from his divided loyalties. Nothing is made explicit, and yet I think the poem can be seen as echoing the reproach that Heaney puts in the mouth of his wife in another poem, ‘An Afterwards’: ‘You left us first, and then those books, behind’.

The result, as so often with Heaney, is a poem finely balanced and finely expressed. It is true that a reader unfamiliar with Orpheus and Eurydice, Pan and Persephone, and possibly these days even Hansel and Gretel, will miss out on a dimension of the poem and may feel excluded by it, but others will enjoy having the echoes stirred for them. Larkin may not have approved, but Heaney too was a reclaimer.

The Underground

There we were in the vaulted tunnel running,
You in your going-away coat speeding ahead
And me, me then like a fleet god gaining
Upon you before you turned to a reed

Or some new white flower japped with crimson
As the coat flapped wild and button after button
Sprang off and fell in a trail
Between the Underground and the Albert Hall.

Honeymooning, moonlighting, late for the Proms,
Our echoes die in that corridor and now
I come as Hansel came on the moonlit stones
Retracing the path back, lifting the buttons

To end up in a draughty lamplit station
After the trains have gone, the wet track
Bared and tense as I am, all attention
For your step following and damned if I look back.

Seamus Heaney

5 thoughts on “Week 404: The Underground, by Seamus Heaney

  1. I had a good laugh when I saw tabbier and tabbiest

    I suppose it is 3 years since I last emailed you

    I hope you are in good health
    Tony K

    • I am well thanks. Yes, some rather dodgy comparatives/superlatives got added to the word list last time round, but that discussion is for another place!

  2. “japped” – stained? A reference to the Japanese flag? In the last six lines the speaker seems to be alone. “Retracing the path back” – retracing their past relationship? “damned if I look back” – condemned (by myself?) if I look back at the past?

    • Japped – no, nothing to do with Japan, it’s from the Scots verb jap or jaup, meaning to splash or spatter, of unknown origin. Very unusual word – you won’t find this variant even in the OED, only jaup, but it is in Chambers.

      ‘Damned if I look back’ – I feel that there is a reference to something private here that Heaney does not want to make too explicit, but in the Orpheus story Orpheus goes down to the underworld to reclaim Eurydice, and through the power of his music is allowed to do so on condition that he does not look back. He can’t resist doing so, to make sure she is following him, and so loses her again. Rilke has an interesting take on the story in his poem ‘Orpheus. Eurydike. Hermes’, but I don’t think it’s one that’s relevant to the Heaney poem.

      • Hi David, thanks for your reply. I looked up “jaups”. I see that Burns uses it in “Address to a Haggis”.

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