Seamus Heaney’s “The Peninsula”

Seamus Heaney: A Life in Works

A link to Seamus Heaney’s Nobel Prize Speech

The Peninsula

When you have nothing more to say, just drive
For a day all around the peninsula,
The sky is tall as over a runway,
The land without marks, so you will not arrive
But pass through, though always skirting landfall.
At dusk, horizons drink down sea and hill,
The ploughed field swallows the whitewashed gable
And you’re in the dark again.  Now recall
The glazed foreshore and silhouetted log.
That rock where breakers shredded into rags,
The leggy birds stilted on their own legs,
Islands riding themselves out into the fog.
And then drive back home, still with nothing to say
Except that now you will uncode all landscapes
By this; things founded clean on their own shapes
Water and ground in their extremity.

A poet uncodes and translates the extraordinary in ordinary events, places, people.  In this case, Seamus Heaney gives us an opportunity to imagine the West Coast of Ireland.  We’re invited to pause and meditate in silence upon natural beauty–when we have nothing more to say–as if we’ve run out of steam or have run out of things to say.  We’re invited to proceed beyond words unto worlds of imagining, of sensory delight and simple pleasures.  We’re invited to drive along the coast, perhaps like the invitation to drive in W.B. Yeats’s “Who Goes With Fergus?” not in an automobile or brazen cars, but a flight of fancy:

Who Goes With Fergus?

Who will go drive with Fergus now,
And pierce the deep wood’s woven shade,
And dance upon the level shore?
Young man, lift up your russet brow,
And lift your tender eyelids, maid,
And brood on hopes and fear no more.
And no more turn aside and brood
Upon love’s bitter mystery;
For Fergus rules the brazen cars,
And rules the shadows of the wood,
And the white breast of the dim sea
And all dishevelled wandering stars.
Who will go with Fergus, the exiled King of Ulster?  Who will reclaim strength and dignity in light of love’s bitter mystery?  In a similar fashion, Heaney’s poem emphasizes spiritual exile, wandering unto beautiful realms, the mysterious journey on the outskirts of lived experience, such that we will not arrive but “pass through” the light, forms and shapes of landscape, seascape, the frame of earth and sky with their elements. By “passing through” and never arriving at a destination, we’ll eventually turn back, returning whence we came, following different steps, employing different stepping stones, shaped by new memories, because we have been exiled from intelligible speech and conceptual frameworks.  We have been shaped by scenes and images–and having been shaped now mold the shape of future experience, the template of escapades and wandering unto yonder extremities.

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