Seaums Heaney’s Limbo

Many things are well qualified to break the human heart: the wide natural world and its cruelties, the wider universe and its utter indifference.  And as if those weren’t quite enough to be going on with, human beings are, of course, rather good at driving each other to heartbreak.

We do it with our banal everyday cruelties; we do it with our indifference.  And we do it perhaps most often, and most horribly, with our faiths.

Show us how, Mr Seamus Heaney:


Fishermen at Ballyshannon
Netted an infant last night
Along with the salmon.
An illegitimate spawning,

A small one thrown back
To the waters.  But I’m sure
As she stood in the shallows
Ducking him tenderly

Till the frozen knobs of her wrists
Were dead as the gravel,
He was  minnow with hooks
Tearing her open.

She waded in under
The sign of her cross.
He was hauled in with the fish.
Now limbo will be

A cold glitter of souls
Through some far briny zone.
Even Christ’s palms, unhealed,
Smart and cannot fish there.

We focus here, of course, on the drowned infant: a victim of infanticide carried out to spare the mother and her family shame.  But Heaney’s thoughts, and ours are entirely with the unnamed ‘she’ and the terrible choice she was driven to by ‘The sign of her cross.’

Heaney, of course, is full of sympathy for her.  How could he not be?  And how can we not be?  She is ‘Ducking him tenderly’: of course she is, and the act is ‘Tearing her open’.  The use of the bestial term ‘spawning’ is perfect: it reminds us of the salmon, but it throws into acute relief the notion of illegitimacy.  We don’t want to think of a child as ‘spawn’, but we seem rather more able to accept the notion that a child can be illegitimate.  How can a child be illegitimate?  How can any human creature be, because of the circumstances of its birth, illegitimate?  From the Latin, legitimare: ‘lawful, in line with the law’.

One thinks immediately of Edmund, from King Lear:

Why ‘bastard’? wherefore ‘base’?
When my dimensions are as well compact,
My mind as generous, and my shape as true,
As honest madam’s issue?  Why brand they us
With ‘base’? with ‘baseness, bastardy – base, base’ (I.ii.6-10).

Of all the foul dogmas of the Roman Catholic Church the two that get my goat more than any others are the notions of illegitimacy and Limbo.  Contrary to some popular opinions, the Catholic Church has yet to scrap Limbo: the Vatican document of April 22, 2007: The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die without Being Baptized, expresses merely a hope, not a dogma.

They’re still at their altars telling believers that if a priest doesn’t sprinkle some water on a child which subsequently dies it will quite probably languish forever, denied the presence of god.

Note how Heaney expresses this notion, in the final stanza: ‘Even Christ’s palms, unhealed,/Smart and cannot fish there.’  Not even the fisher of men will be able to intervene.

The almost bland simplicity of this poem is what really electrifies me.  Could there be a more laconic opening than ‘Fishermen at Ballyshannon’?  It could be going anywhere.  And we’re reminded of it by the almost-but-not-quite rhyme of ‘Ballyshannon’ with ‘salmon’.  The images of water, of the sea, of course, serve a dual purpose: they’re leading us towards the allusion to Christ as a ‘fisher of men’, but they also remind us of baptism.

And who drove this poor frozen girl to kill her child rather than endure the contemptuous ostracism of her community which would attend on raising him?  The answer is easy:  Et unam sanctum catholicam et apostolicam ecclesiam.

A remark of Emile Zola’s comes to mind: ‘Civilisation will not attain to its perfection until the last stone from the last church falls on the last priest.’


3 responses to “Seaums Heaney’s Limbo

  1. Excellent post. Is this poem from “Bog Land”? I’m not sure. Religion as such isn’t as overt a theme in SH’s work from what I understand, but thee are numerous Irish poets who have explored the tensions inherent in religion, rural life and Ireland. Patrick Kavanagh’s “The Great Hunger” is the classic one here; if you’re not familiar with it, Misha, I think it’s right up your alley…

    • I’m not, as a matter of fact – I’ll be hunting it down shortly.

      I’ve got this one in the ‘Opened Ground’ edition of his collected poems, but the contents page reliably informs me that it first appeared in ‘Wintering Out’ (1972).

      Loved your three-part-post on Ghosts and Gothic Ted, by the way – I’ll get to more direct comments on your site as soon as I clear the back-log of emails I’m fighting with right now.

  2. Cool. Glad someone read it — I had a lot of fun writing it. More on gothic soon, I imagine… I started reading “The Monk” this week, and I wrote up a few pieces on some short stories we were assigned.

    Settle in for an extended read here… it’s not a short one!

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