History cannot give us a program for the future, but it can give us a fuller understanding of ourselves, and of our common humanity, so that we can better face the future.” Robert Penn Warren
That quote stopped me in my tracks, appearing as it did in the midst of reports about growing global strife. I thought, wryly, “Well, I can certainly see the writing on the wall.”
Without question it is absolutely necessary that we examine the palimpsest of the past in the present to afford ourselves the opportunity of healing. Only with a greater understanding of our common humanity, as Warren noted, will we have the strength to face our future.
As an artist I made certain choices when I snapped that photo. I chose a severely limited Depth of Field to selectively present this subject and mandate the viewer’s focus. The ‘field,’ in this instance, is the subject of “History”: a chronological record of events describing the life of a person or people. This record may at times contain commentary upon that record and those events.
Among poets of the 20th and 21st centuries, Seamus Heaney’s field of vision consistently guided him in providing penetrating commentary upon the record of the human condition. Indeed, one volume of poetry bears the title Field Work.
At his passing (08.31.13) the New York Times described Heaney as an “Irish Poet of Soil and Strife.” That only scratches the surface. He dug deeper to see farther, and we must also.
Heaney’s esteemed literary predecessor William Butler Yeats posed a question in 1939, the year of Heaney’s birth, that applies to this study; humanity has its history, “but out of what began? …… “A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,/Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,/Old iron, old bones, old rags…” (“The Circus Animals’ Desertion”)
These are, certainly, the milieu of the archaeologist. Archaeological artifacts testify to events executed, buried, and preserved. They were and they are. Contemplate a collection of artifacts; “everything you see is in itself connected to a vibrating sense of history, everything has meaning beyond itself, and beyond your own life.” (Ola Larsmo, “This Is Not a Spade”)
Nobel Laureate William Faulkner, in his Banquet Speech, spoke of “the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths” which are, I posit, the threads running throughout all of time, both recorded and voiceless, that bind us to this “beyond.”
The recovery of ancient ways, buried and preserved, offers a vivid focus for contemplation of the long ago passions constantly emerging in the human psyche, the Universal Soul, propelling events from the past through the present toward the future.
From “Antaeus” at the closing of his first collection of poetry, Death of a Naturalist (1966), on through the poem “Bogland” (1969) and his translation of Beowulf (2008), up to his final collection, Human Chain (2010), Heaney operated in a keen awareness of all these “presences” that have “rolled time’s wheel” for millennia. (“The Riverbank Field,” Human Chain, 2010.)
Heaney’s fellow Nobel Laureate William Butler Yeats once articulated a “Dialogue of Self and Soul.” Heaney, steeped in history, understood this dialogue of self and soul as being a spiritual exercise that often encompassed a dialogue with souls, presences, who have passed on before us.
Raised as a Roman Catholic it is quite possible that, consciously or not, Heaney considered poetry to be an “examination of conscience.” His justly lauded poem “The Republic of Conscience” offers witness to this idea.
“verb, pure verb.” (“Oysters,” Field Work, 1976)
“Our pioneers keep striking/ Inwards and downwards./ Every layer they strip/Seems camped on before/……The wet centre is bottomless.” (“Bogland,” 1969)
Look beyond the surface concerns of a single self. Locate the connections to the Universal Soul.
The horizon is only the limit of our sight and “The whole of life lies in the verb seeing.” Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ.
Barbara Butler McCoy, c. 2016