19 pages • 38 minutes readSeamus Heaney
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“Act of Union” is a poem by renowned Irish poet Seamus Heaney; it was published in Heaney’s fourth collection, North (1975). The poem, which is in the form of two sonnets, functions at two levels. On the first level, the male speaker describes the pregnancy of a woman carrying his child; at the second level, the poem is an allegory of the fraught relationship between England and Ireland—especially concerning what were known as the "Troubles,” which began in Northern Ireland in 1968 and over the following decades, led to sectarian strife during which thousands of people died. The poem is one of a number Heaney wrote in response to the Troubles.
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Seamus Heaney is considered one of the most prominent poets of the 20th century. He was born into a Catholic family on April 13, 1939, in County Derry, Northern Ireland. His parents were farmers and he was the eldest of nine children. In 1957, Heaney enrolled at Queen’s College, Belfast, where he studied English language and literature. He graduated in 1961, after which he acquired a teacher’s training diploma from St. Joseph’s College of Education in Belfast. In 1963, he became lecturer in English at St. Joseph’s. In 1965, he married Marie Devlin; they had three children.
Heaney published his first poetry collection, Death of a Naturalist in 1966. It won several awards, including the Geoffrey Faber Prize. In the same year, Heaney became Lecturer in English at Queen’s University, Belfast. Three years later, his second collection, Door into the Dark, was published. In 1972, when the sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland was raging unchecked, he left Queens University and moved to a cottage at Glanmore, in County Wicklow, Ireland, to work full time as a writer. He published Wintering Out the same year. Three years later, his fourth poetry collection, North—which includes “Act of Union”—was published. It won the Duff Cooper Memorial Prize.
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In 1976, Heaney moved to Dublin, where he was head of the English Department at Carysfort, a teacher training college. His collection, Field Work, was published in 1979. In 1981, he became visiting professor at Harvard University, and three years later he was elected Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory, Harvard. He taught at Harvard until 2006. His collection, Station Island, was published in 1984. In that same year, Heaney’s translation of an Irish epic poem was published as Sweeney Astray: A Version from the Irish (1984). Other poetry collections included The Haw Lantern (1987) Seeing Things (1991), and The Spirit Level (1996). From 1989-94, Heaney was Oxford Professor of Literature.
Heaney won the Nobel prize in Literature in 1995 “for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past,” as stated by nobelprize.org. In 2000, his translation of the epic Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf (2000) appeared, followed in 2001 by the poetry collection Electric Light. District and Circle (2006) won the prestigious T.S. Eliot Prize for poetry. Heaney’s final poetry collection was Human Chain (2010). He also published literary essays, and his Finders Keepers: Selected Prose, 1971-2001 (2002) was awarded the Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism.
Heaney died on August 31, 2013, in Dublin, following a fall outside a restaurant.
Heaney, Seamus. “Act of Union.” 1975. Poem Hunter.
In the first sonnet of the two sonnets that comprise this poem, the male speaker references pregnancy and the movement of the fetus in the womb. He likens it, in Lines 2 to 4, to rain falling on a bog that leads to a flood. In Line 5, the speaker refers to the woman’s back, suggesting she is lying down with her back to him. He caresses her belly and refers to himself as lying behind her.
Woven into this description of a man lying next to a woman whom he has impregnated is an allegory of England’s imperial relationship with Ireland. The title, “Act of Union,” suggests both the act of sexual intercourse and a specific historical event, the Act of Union of 1801, which was passed by the British parliament, in which Ireland was incorporated into Great Britain to create the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Thus, the woman’s body is presented in terms of the geography of Ireland, with her back as the eastern coast and the man as the “tall kingdom” (Line 9) of England as it appears on a map, stretching further north and south than Ireland. The speaker acknowledges that Ireland is “half-independent” (Line 12): a reference, at the allegorical level, to the fact that Ireland is divided into the Republic of Ireland—an independent country—and Northern Ireland (also known as Ulster), which is part of Great Britain. The final lines of the first sonnet contain a reference both to the growing fetus and, in the allegory, to the consequences of England’s imperialism regarding Ireland.
The second sonnet continues the twin narrative of pregnancy and political allegory. The woman is experiencing the pain of childbirth; the baby pushes hard in the womb, like a battering ram growing more insistent, now able to act on its own. The speaker hears the baby’s heartbeat and metaphorically refers to it as a “wardrum [sic]” (Line 17) gathering force. The speaker sees no way in which the woman can fully restore her body, which bears the marks of childbirth and must endure the process's extreme pain. In terms of the allegory, the unruly, rebellious baby is Ulster, or Northern Ireland, which is the product of the long mingling of England and Ireland, with England as the imperial male power and Ireland presented as the put-upon female. Ulster is rife with conflict and also presents a threat to England. The speaker sees no solution to the problem.
By Seamus Heaney