ACIS Logo The Spectral Pastoral: Seamus Heaney’s Ghosts

In “Ghosts‚” John Hewitt states, ‚”I have no ghosts. / My dead are safely dead.” This paper asks what happens when the dead do not remain “safely dead,” remaining instead to haunt a place with their “abolished voices.” For Seamus Heaney, ghosts are a constant reminder of the trauma of the past, suggesting that history is not static, but part of an ongoing continuum. Places and objects often become haunted, too: “sticky‚” with rich associations or memories.

Heaney’s actual ghosts, as well as his spectral landscapes and objects, disrupt chronotopes as they are caught in a kind of ahistorical time loop, incarcerate forever in their spectral actions, acting as half-living testaments to the ongoing trauma of Northern Irish history. Looking particularly at poems from Station Island and The Spirit Level, this paper will consider the ways in which Heaney’s poetry becomes spectralized. I argue that by using ghostly figures to interrogate violence and to reexamine and represent the past, Heaney is rematerializing the past in the present, acknowledging the inevitable repetition of Ireland’s traumatic history even as he attempts to query and revise that history. Heaney attempts to excavate and interrogate Ireland’s collective memory through conversation with the shades, through sustained engagement with spectral objects, and through manipulation and memorialization of haunted landscapes.

Published on: March 29, 2020