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midnight

midnight midnight appointment in US politics, an appointment made during the last hours of an administration, originally with particular reference to those made by the 2nd President John Adams (1735–1826) in a letter by Thomas Jefferson of January 1811.
midnight Mass a Mass celebrated at or shortly before midnight, especially on Christmas Eve.
midnight sun the sun when seen at midnight during the summer in either the Arctic or Antarctic Circle.

See also burn the midnight oil, Land of the Midnight Sun at land2.

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midnight

mid·night / ˈmidˌnīt/ • n. twelve o'clock at night: I left at midnight | [as adj.] a midnight deadline. ∎  [often as adj.] the middle period of the night: the midnight hours.

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midnight

midnightHamite, samite •marmite • Semite • Vegemite •eremite • Hashemite • Fatimite •chromite • Edomite • sodomite •stalagmite • Elamite • dolomite •Adullamite • dynamite • catamite •Benthamite •termite, thermite •Samnite • sennight • midnight •lignite • selenite • gelignite •kaolinite • Leninite •finite, transfinite •watchnight • fortnight • Sunnite •exurbanite, suburbanite, urbanite •manganite • ammonite • Mennonite •Canaanite • Maronite • bentonite •Irvingite • respite • alexandrite •Arkwright • cartwright • nephrite •playwright • wainwright •wheelwright • millwright •shipwright • copyright • Nazirite •pyrite • eyebright • nitrite • contrite •chlorite • forthright • downright •Fulbright • upright • meteorite •diorite • fluorite •Labourite (US Laborite) • sybarite •Thatcherite • phosphorite • azurite •anchorite • Hitlerite • dolerite •Amorite • Minorite • laterite •Hutterite • birthright

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Midnight

Midnight

Seamus Heaney 1972

Author Biography

Poem Summary

Themes

Style

Historical Context

Critical Overview

Criticism

Sources

For Further Study

“Midnight” is part of Seamus Heaney’s third collection, Wintering Out, which was published in 1972, about three years after the outbreak of civil fighting between Protestants and Catholics in Ireland. In the poem and throughout the volume, Heaney addresses the theme of Irish identity through a series of recurring symbols of Ireland: the wolf and wolfhound, rain, the forest, the bog, and the vestigial Irish language. “Midnight” focuses primarily on the fact that since the incursion of outside interests in Ireland (“the professional wars”), the wolf native to the island “has died out.” To the speaker, this only parallels a number of other ways in which his country has been ravished: the Irish wolfhound, he believes, has been misbred into a lesser breed of dog, the forests have been chopped down and “coopered into wine casks,” and the Irish “tongue,” through centuries of English domination, has been suppressed. In short, the features that form the core identity of the Irish race are either diluted or buried entirely. But in terms of Heaney’s other early work, such suppression is only civilization’s attempt to hide the tribal instinct that leads to cruelty and violence. This is the poet’s explanation for the “troubles” in Northern Ireland, for the “corpse and carrion” in the first stanza, and for his own violent impulse that suggests itself in the last images of “Midnight.” Heaney’s poems do not endorse the violence that has dominated his generation’s experience in Ireland. Rather, the poet attempts to understand it as a primal impulse shared by all humans and exacerbated by circumstances: by loss

and fear, by darkness, by the continual “rain” that sometimes suggests fertility but at other times represents despair.

Author Biography

Heaney is generally regarded as one of Ireland’s preeminent poets of the late twentieth century. His verse frequently centers on the role poets play in society, with poems addressing issues of politics and culture, as well as inner-directed themes of self-discovery and spiritual growth. These topics are unified by Heaney’s Irish sensibilities and his interest in preserving his country’s history. Using language that ranges from, and often mixes, sexual metaphor and natural imagery, Heaney examines Irish life as it relates to the past and, also, as it ties into the larger context of human existence. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1995 for, as the Swedish Academy noted in its press release, “works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past.”

Heaney was born in 1939 in Mossbawn, County Derry, Ireland. The eldest of nine children, he was raised as a Roman Catholic and grew up in the rural environment of his father’s farm. Upon receipt of a scholarship, he began studies at Saint Columb’s College in Northern Ireland and subsequently attended Queen’s University in Belfast. It was at Queen’s University that he became familiar with various forms of Irish, English, and American literature, most notably the work of poets such as Ted Hughes, Patrick Kavanagh, and Robert Frost. Like these poets, Heaney would draw upon childhood memories and past experience in his works. Using the pseudonym Incertus, Heaney began contributing poetry to university literary magazines. Upon graduating, he directed his energies toward both his writing and a career in education. He assumed a post at a secondary school and later served as a lecturer at Queen’s University. As a poet, he published his first collection, Death of a Naturalist in 1966; the volume quickly established him as a writer of significance.

As Heaney’s stature increased, he was able to use his literary works to give voice to his social conscience. Of particular concern to him was the 1969 conflict between Catholic and Protestant factions over religion and national autonomy. Living in Belfast, the epicenter of the fighting, Heaney had a front-row seat for much of the ensuing violence, and his poetry of this period reflects his feelings on the causes and effects of the upheaval. Although he moved out of Belfast in 1972, his work continued to address themes directly relevant to the conflict. After a brief period in the early 1970s during which he wrote full-time, Heaney returned to teaching in 1975 as head of the English department at Caryfort College in Dublin. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, he divided his time between writing, teaching, and reading tours. His subsequent academic posts have included professor of poetry at Oxford University and Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard University.

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

Poem Summary

Lines 1-4

The speaker dates the loss of Ireland’s native identity to the beginning of “the professional wars.” While the idea of war has a literal basis—Ireland’s history, and particularly its recent history, is marked by military and paramilitary struggle—it is also symbolic. In much of Heaney’s work Ireland is characterized in female form: through images of present day and mythical women, through fertility metaphors, and through reflections on ancient Ireland’s goddess cult as revealed through the mummified “bog people” sacrificed in earth-mother rituals. In “Midnight,” the speaker views Ireland’s lost identity as the result not of decay but of ravishment—of the rape that war symbolizes. That it is “professional” war reveals something more disturbing. While violence is as much a part of human nature as of wolves’ nature, professional violence suggests a perversion of the natural impulse, a transformation of violence into contractual obligation and conscious opportunism. When a wolf kills its prey, after all, it does so instinctively. A professional soldier, on the other hand, kills for more abstract reasons: duty, patriotism, and perhaps a paycheck. Yet while this unnatural process takes its toll, there are signs that nature has its way of fighting back. The “corpses” produced by war turn to “carrion,” proving that nature in the end may transcend even the most unnatural human endeavors.

Lines 5-8

The poem’s main symbol for the ravishment of Ireland is the loss of Ireland’s native wolf. While at one time “the packs / scoured parkland and moor,” now they are extinct on the island, and with them Ireland has lost a degree of the natural beauty and freedom once endemic to the country. It is important that the last wolf was killed by a “Quaker buck”—the noun here refers simply to a high-spirited young man, and perhaps a dandy—“and his dogs.” While ancient Ireland practiced an elaborate form of paganism, that religion most native to the land was replaced by Roman Catholicism. And while Catholicism has come to be nearly synonymous with Irish culture, the Quaker killer of the last wolf is an interloper, an alien presence on the land. This recalls the “professional wars” of the first stanza, both their violence and opportunism. Even the Quaker’s dogs represent a civilized perversion of nature. Bred originally from wolves, hunting dogs are loosed by man upon their primordial cousins. Just like man, they have become civilized in order to destroy the natural forms from which they have arisen.

In addition to these interpretations, the reader should be aware of another possible symbolic connection between the wolf and Ireland: Wolfe Tone is a figure famous in Ireland’s history of struggle against English incursion. In 1798, Tone led an anti-English rebellion and assisted an ill-fated French attempt to drive the English out of Ireland. Tone was captured by the English and sentenced to hang, but a day before his execution he cut his throat with a pen knife, dying a week later of the wound.

Lines 9-12

The speaker refers to the location of the last wolf’s demise, County Kildare, a region southwest of Dublin and not far from Wicklow, where Heaney lived after leaving the troubled north. Now Kildare is a “scraggy waste”—wasted in the same way the humans in stanza 1 and the wolf in stanza 2 have been wasted. In the fourth line of stanza 3, the speaker reveals the means by which the land has been stripped to desolation. Once wooded, its forests have been “coopered to wine casks” by the same type of opportunists who make professional soldiers. Similarly, the Irish wolfhound—another symbol of the country—has been misbred, “crossed / with inferior strains.” That the original breed of wolfhound was itself a product of man’s design seems to matter little here. In the speaker’s mind it was a purer and more natural form, and its loss is emblematic of the general loss of Ireland’s pureness.

Lines 13-21

The poem’s fourth stanza shifts to the extended images of night and the rain that falls on what is left of Ireland. Sometimes in Heaney’s work rain functions as a symbol of life and fertility. Here, for instance, it falls on the “heather,” helping it to grow, and on the “roof,” which suggests both human design and the human life within the house. The rain “sogs” the “turf-banks” or bogs, which to Heaney often represent both the feculent and fertile quality of the land. But the rain also falls on the dead: the “basalt and granite” outcroppings that have emerged as a result of deforestation, the “bare boughs” of lifeless trees, and the empty dens of the lost wolves. These images of death, combined with the pervasiveness of night, suggest that the “soaking” rain symbolizes despair more than fertility. Gone is the majesty of the ancient forest and wolf. Instead, the Ireland the speaker sees is characterized by “the small vermin / That glisten and scut.”

Lines 22-24

Here the speaker delves deep into his unconscious, to the dark part of his mind brought on by night and suggested by the poem’s title. In this region of fear, anger, and fantasy, forms rise out of formlessness, taking physical shape that can be expressed in poetry. Thus, while the speaker says that “nothing is panting, lolling, / Vaporing,” the nothing he describes is in fact something: it is the wolf, seen not in the objective light of reason but in dream-like terms of the unconscious. The speaker sees the wolf’s breath in the wet air, the animal’s relaxed and indolent manner—a menacing image, but one which the speaker identifies with his own feelings. If the wolf represents the “animal” spirit of Ireland, its buried or ravished nature, then it also represents a part of the Irish poet’s identity. It is the poet’s task to communicate that identity, that experience of Irishness, yet for the Irish poet there is a particular paradox. While Heaney—like nearly every poet in Ireland today—writes in English, his country’s native language is Irish. During the English rule of Ireland, the native Irish tongue was banned from use—the poem’s final example of ravishment. The result was a uniquely Irish brand of English, a sensual and versatile language immortalized in literature by the likes of Yeats and Joyce. Yet to some, the Anglo-Irish language might seem equivalent to the crossing of the Irish wolfhound “with inferior strains:” a civilized attempt to rob Irish poetry of what was once native to it. Thus, like the hunting dogs of stanza 2, the poet’s tongue is “leashed” in his throat, unable to roam according to natural inclination. This leashing seems a violent and disturbing metaphor. In the sense just described, the violence is on the part of civilized man: it is he who does the leashing. In another sense, however, it is the speaker himself who exhibits the violent impulse: the instinct of his own dark and violent side to menace civilized man as the “vaporing” wolf does. In this way, the speaker feels like an animal unnaturally constrained, and it is the constraint itself—the leashing—that points out his opposing instinct. This is an assessment of man’s violent nature that occurs in different forms throughout Heaney’s work. As such, it is one of many attempts on Heaney’s part to understand the reasons for Ireland’s troubles as well as to reconcile the poet’s relationship with the political, psychological and aesthetic realities of violence.

Themes

War and Peace

This poem contrasts the formal wars between the English and Irish in centuries past, in which whole armies ravaged the citizenry, and the continuing sporadic violence between the two groups today. Today’s relative peace is not a time of contentment for the poem’s narrator, however, who mourns the loss of the Irish wolf—representing the fighting spirit of his people—and reveals that his own tongue is “leashed in my throat,” a metaphor for his own apparent fear to speak the words of defiance he wants to say.

The relationship between war and peace, victor and vanquished, are laid bare in this poem. Rather than seek peace between his people and the English, the narrator continues to harbor resentment against them, as well as a continuing hatred that, if given a chance, would erupt into renewed violence. He longs for more violent times, when the Irish fought as fiercely as the wolf, and laments that “[t]he wolf has died out” and only “small vermin” remain today.

Victim and Victimization

The narrator sees the Irish, his people, as the victims of an old historical wrong. This wrong has taken the spirit out of the Irish and resulted in their present weakness. While not stating precisely which historical wrong he is referring to, the narrator makes it clear that it is one or all of the many conflicts that the Irish have had with the neighboring English, who conquered Ireland militarily.

The narrator points out several examples of how the Irish spirit has suffered since they were

Topics for Further Study

  • Write a poem in which you follow the last wolf in Ireland through the countryside, trying to elude its hunters. Where would it hide? What tricks would it know to preserve itself? Include the wolfs thoughts, if you need them to make the action clearer.
  • In what way is this title a lens which directs how you look at the poem? What other title could Heaney have possibly given it? Explain.

conquered. “The wolfhound was crossed / With inferior strains,” he states, referring to the domesticated dog that was bred from the wild Irish wolves who are now extinct. “Forests [were] coopered to wine casks” refers to the destruction of Irish forests to make containers for wine. (The pieces of wood used to form the cask were “coopered,” or held in place with copper bands.)

Strength and Weakness

The poem speaks both of weakness and from a sense of weakness. Throughout the poem, falling rain is a constant image tying together Ireland’s past and present, emphasizing the desolation the narrator feels about his country’s fate. He begins with a rain image of the historical “professional wars” in which the Irish were defeated: “Corpse and carrion / Piling in rain.” He then speaks of the “Rain on the roof tonight” which serves only to make the landscape muddy, the outcroppings of rock glisten, and to inspire the narrator to think of his country’s despair.

Beginning with the line “The wolf has died out / In Ireland,” the narrator makes clear his belief that the Irish have long ago lost the fierce spirit of independence symbolized by the wolf. He develops this metaphor further with the line “The old dens are soaking” to argue that the recesses where Irish courage once lived cannot be retrieved. After mentioning the “small vermin” who now inhabit the countryside where the Irish wolf once roamed, he laments that “Nothing is panting lolling, / Vaporing” any more as the wolves once did. Finally, the narrator admits that he himself is no wolf, although he would like to be: “The tongue’s / leashed in my throat.”

Style

Although “Midnight” is written in six four-line stanzas, mere is no rhyme scheme or set pattern of meter. In fact, looking closely at the construction of each stanza and its break to the next, the reader might wonder why Heaney composed the poem in such regular stanzas at all. No stanza except the third, for instance, completes a single sentence: in nearly every case, the thought runs into the next stanza. The poem’s only natural division occurs exactly at its midpoint, between the third and fourth stanzas, when the speaker’s main focus shifts from what has been lost from Ireland (the wolf, the wolfhound, the forests) to the symbolic image of rainfall. But if this is true, then it would seem that “Midnight” is really a two-stanza poem masquerading in six stanzas. The explanation for the poem’s form must lie in its final two images. In the first, the speaker calls to mind the wild wolves that once prowled Ireland’s “parkland and moor”: in their absence, nothing is “panting, lolling, / Vaporing.” The country’s wildness—its nature and its identity—have been stripped in favor of order: the order of civilization characterized by “professional wars” and “forests coopered to wine casks,” but also the order suggested by the poet’s inclination to express his feelings in strict stanza form. Yet the kind of order that leads to poetic form is also akin to the intellectual order necessary to explain and comprehend raw emotions. While the poem’s final image—“The tongue’s / Leashed in my throat”—suggests the speaker’s irrational and somewhat violent frustration with his inability to communicate the sense of loss—the loss of Ireland’s native identity and even of its language—the poem’s form represents his rational attempt to order his emotions, to make understandable the dark side that exists in even the most thoughtful person.

Historical Context

At the time “Midnight” was written in the late 1960s, Seamus Heaney was living in Belfast,

Compare & Contrast

  • 1972: President Nixon normalizes relations with Communist China, bringing to an end a conflict between the two countries stemming back over twenty years.

    Today: Revelations concerning illegal contributions by the Communist Chinese to President Bill Clinton’s re-election campaign have again threatened relations between the two superpowers.

  • 1972: In an effort to stop the increasing violence, Northern Ireland confiscated all privately-owned firearms.

    Today: The IRA still sets off the occasional bomb, such as the one in June, 1996, in Manchester, England, which injured 200 people.

  • 1972: England imposes direct rule over Northern Ireland in response to the chaotic violence.

    Today: Northern Ireland is again ruled independently, with the Republic of Ireland holding a consultative role in governing.

Northern Ireland. At that time, fighting had broken out unexpectedly between the Catholic and Protestant factions living there. The violence between the two religious groups came after a long period of relative quiet and cooperation. Heaney, a Catholic who had never taken a personal interest in the longstanding religious hatreds in Ireland, began to address the issue of Irish violence in his poetry. Where he had earlier written of Irish rural life and folk customs, Heaney began to turn his attention to the causes and effects of violence in Northern Ireland.

The roots of violence in Northern Ireland can be traced back centuries to the religious and political struggles between Catholics and Protestants throughout the British Isles. In the 16th century, English King Henry VIII first began sending Protestant colonists to Ireland to win control of the country from the native Irish Catholics. Establishing plantations in the country, these Protestants then rented back seized farmland to the native Catholics. Attempts to defy this practice were defeated with English military might.

In 1690 a decisive battle took place in Dublin, Ireland, between Protestants loyal to the new English King William and deposed Catholic King James II. After a siege of the walled city that lasted over one hundred days, King James was defeated and the Protestant control of Ireland was complete.

From that time on, the Irish engaged in occasional rebellions against the English, these conflicts often breaking down along religious lines. Especially damaging to relations were the Penal Laws instituted in the early 18th century. These laws prohibited Catholics from running for elected office, buying land or owning horses, or practicing law. These new regulations effectively shut out Irish Catholics from public life. By the late 18th century, only five percent of Irish land was owned by Catholics. The harshness of the Penal Laws eventually led most Protestants to oppose them, and in 1829 the Catholic Relief Act was passed in Parliament, repealing the remaining Penal Laws and restoring Irish Catholics to full privileges.

In 1916, the Easter Rebellion, an armed uprising by Irish nationalists, sought to establish an independent Irish republic. Although unsuccessful, the Rebellion led to a two-year struggle between the Irish Republican Army and the “Black and Tans,” English veterans newly-returned from World War I. This struggle culminated in 1921 with the establishment of the semi-independent Irish Free State. At the same time, six northern counties with heavy Protestant populations were allowed to form Northern Ireland with dominion status, similar to that then held by Canada. The creation of Northern Ireland led to a division among the Irish Catholics in the south, some of whom saw the

Protestant state as a continuing domination by the English. The question of Northern Ireland led to the Irish Civil War between the Irish Free State and its opposition, which was still called the Irish Republican Army (IRA). This war claimed more Irish lives than had died during the struggle with England. By 1923, the Irish Free State had won and the IRA was outlawed. In 1949, the Irish Free State became the Republic of Ireland, an independent country. Continuing tensions between the Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland continue to this day, some of it instigated by extremist nationalist groups conducting bombing campaigns.

Critical Overview

Elmer Andrews cites “Midnight” as one of several poems in Wintering Out that are “imbued with a sense of cultural loss that culminates by appropriating an intensely personal frustration.” Culminating in the final stanza (“My tongue’s / Unleashed in my throat”), the images throughout the poem are ones of cultural “emasculation” created by Ireland’s history of loss and “dispossession.” Thomas C. Foster also comments on the issue of language in the poem’s last image: Like the exterminated wolf and the diluted wolfhound, the Irish language is gone, “surviving only as remnants in the Irish dialect of English and in textbooks.” The note of frustration, Thomas suggests, results from the speaker’s acknowledgment of a simple fact: “No effort, no matter how Herculean, can revive a dead language. The book itself [Wintering Out] is a testament to the triumph of English.”

Criticism

Tyrus Miller

Tyrus Miller is an assistant professor in Yale University’s Department of Compartive Literature and English, and he has published a volume of poetry. In the following essay, Miller provides historical and political context for the words Heaney uses to present the bleak fate of the wolf, wolfhound and, by implication, the unique artistic voice that once reigned proudly in Ireland.

Seamus Heaney’s poem “Midnight” appears in his 1972 book Wintering Out. Both the poem’s title and the title of the book suggest the bleak, pessimistic tone that Heaney will strike in these poems, which reflect the anguishing situation of

What Do I Read Next?

  • Another Nobel Prize-winning poet whose work combines elements from his personal experience with the tragic political history of his native land is Polish writer Czeslaw Milosz. Milosz’s collections The Bells in Winter, 1978, and The Collected Poems, 1931-1987, 1988, contain his most representative work.
  • One of the greatest figures in twentieth century literature is Irish poet William Butler Yeats. Yeats was a fervent nationalist whose poetry and plays often reflected his love of Irish folklore and history.

Heaney’s native Northern Ireland at the time. Written during some of the worst years of sectarian violence in the history of modern Ulster, a time when riots, bombings, and police internments became a way of life for the residents of Belfast and other cities of Northern Ireland, Wintering Out represents a kind of poetical hibernation, Heaney’s casting off of inessentials and the reduction of his lines to a naked minimum, in order to continue writing in a bitter and impoverished time. The poem “Midnight,” placed at the middle of the book, plunges this barren landscape of winter still more deeply in darkness.

In sparse, four-line stanzas and harsh, guttural words, Heaney’s poem tells a tale of historical violence, decline, and loss. Already by the first line, the poem signals that it will narrate a stretch of historical time: what has happened “Since the professional wars.” This rather mysterious reference employs an obsolete meaning of the term “professional,” a sense of the word that dates back to an earlier time in which wolves could still be found in Ireland. “Professional” here refers to the profession of faith, so that “professional wars” would designate the European religious wars that followed from Martin Luther’s break with the Catholic Church—the bloody conflicts between Catholics and Protestants that have marred Irish history since the sixteenth century. Heaney’s adjective “professional” both signifies this earlier history, and, through his use of an outmoded sense of the word, at the same time makes this history linguistically palpable. His poetic strategy is not without risk. He ventures an ambiguous word in the very first line, a word which may simply confuse an uninformed or too-hasty reader. But in recalling a superseded sense of the term, he hopes to pull his reader back to the original scene of religious conflict in Ireland, to the source of that legacy of “professional” hatred that has sadly proven so persistent in Heaney’s native land.

This term, however, is intended more to suggest a range of historical connotations than to indicate any single, identifiable event. Of course, Oliver Cromwell’s bloody campaign to subjugate Catholic Ireland to Protestant England in the mid-seventeenth century, an historical event that still makes Cromwell’s name a curse for Irish Catholics, might justly be described as a “professional war,” and Heaney may have meant this early colonial occupation as his primary reference. Nevertheless, the deliberate vagueness at this point allows a penumbra of less explicit allusions to surround the opening lines of “Midnight.” “Professional” in the sense of “vocational” might, for example, remind the knowing reader that the Irish patriot armies of the late eighteenth century were called “The Volunteers”; this faint suggestion would, in turn, become almost irresistible if that reader perceived in the lines that follow the possible pun on the name of the Volunteers’ most famous leader: Wolfe Tone. Heaney’s choice of the adjective “professional” similarly suggests the uneven odds the rebels faced in this conflict. For if the rebellious Irish are the “volunteers,” then the British troops brought in to put down their uprising would be the “professionals.” These wars are the “professional wars,” for to the well-organized victors goes the privilege of writing the history and even of choosing the names by which historical events are designated.

Heaney’s allusion to British occupying armies as “professional” might ultimately extend up to the present in which the poem was written, for in 1969 the British had once again brought in regular troops to put down the fighting between Catholics and Protestants and to suppress the military wing of the Sinn Fein movement, the “Provisional” Irish Republican Army. By the same logic of sound association through which the Irish wolf and the patriot Wolfe are linked, we might also associate the “professional wars” with the on-going “provisional wars” between the Catholic and Protestant paramilitaries in the 1970s. While it is impossible to know how many of these references Heaney explicitly had in mind when composing “Midnight,” his spare, sketchy lines invites the reader to fill in the blanks with relevant associative materials and allows these shadowy meanings to merge into a pattern that runs through long stretches of Irish history.

As the first quatrain continues, the human victimage of the “professional wars”—the “Corpse and carrion / Paling in rain”—finds its symbolic parallel in the decimation of the archaic natural landscape of Ireland, where wolves once roamed and forests blanketed broad swathes of land. Without explicit commentary, Heaney introduces details in the second stanza that hint at the ways that nature was domesticated by the wealthy landowning elites. When describing the wolf-hunt, for example, Heaney writes that the packs “Scoured parkland and moor.” The term “parkland” refers to land that has been enclosed as a preserve, artificially maintained in its wild state, as a privilege of the landowners. It is also, he suggests, the Protestant newcomer who is the ultimate beneficiary of this fenced and broken nature, for it is a “Quaker buck,” not a Catholic lord or prince, who kills the last wolf. If wolf hunting in the Irish wilderness was once a noble privilege of a native aristocracy, the tradition is nevertheless brought to an end by the usurping colonist out on the “scraggy waste of Kildare.” Heaney thus implies an analogy between the hunted wolf and the native tradition of independence, rooted in the landscape and soil of Ireland; both have fallen victim to the settler’s violence.

From the stock of traditional Irish symbols Heaney borrows the image of wolfhound, which along with the harp, the tower, and shamrock is a highly conventional figure for the life and land of Ireland. But if Heaney arranges his poem around a stock image, he also exposes its seamy underside, revealing its present character to be more faded myth than proud tradition. Once the wolves were exterminated, there was, of course, no real purpose for a special breed of wolf-hunting dogs, and hence they too went into decline. By the late eighteenth century the Irish wolfhound was nearly extinct, surviving only in mongrel traces. Nearly a century later, with the rising tide of Irish nationalism at the end of the nineteenth century, patriotic kennel owners sought to reconstitute the breed and contrived to extract a strain that approximated the earlier paintings and descriptions of these symbolically important dogs. These dog breeders were responding, in the terms of their craft, to sweeping nationalist demands to revive Irish culture in all its aspects. This call to restore a lost Irishness embraced the revival of the Gaelic language, the collection and publication of Celtic folklore, the fostering of new Irish theater and the arts, and, indeed, even the breeding of an especially Irish type of dog.

In “Midnight,” Heaney establishes the historical decline of the Irish wolfhound and its somewhat bogus reinvention at the turn of the century as the pivotal image of a process that begins with the extermination of the wolf and ends with the “leashing” of the Irish tongue. The wilderness that had once set the stage for tests of strength and cunning between the powerful wolf and the tenacious wolf-hunting dogs has now become mushy and tame, the proper homeland of small scurrying things and glorified pets rather than fierce, aristocratic beasts. The wolfhound’s strain has been “crossed / With inferior strains,” and the virgin woods have been felled to make the barrels for foreign wine: “Forest coopered to wine casks.” The landscape that Heaney suggests replaces this wilderness remains harsh, composed of sodden bogs and ragged outcrops of rock. The reader’s tongue trips over the lines “Sets glinting outcrops / Of basalt and granite,” since only an emphatic and rather awkward pause after “glinting” will guard against misreadings of “glinting as an adjective modifying “outcrops” (“glinting outcrops”) instead of as a specification of the verb “sets” (“sets glinting”: makes the rocks gleam). This stony and boggy ground betrays the walker to an inelegant stumbling, a metaphor for the inadequacies of the speech of this land as well, the infertile “soil” of its poetry. Just as the countryside no longer throbs with the lush, dangerous life of the forest, of which wolf and hunting dogs are the complementary symbols, so too the natural poetic power of the breath has disappeared: “Nothing is panting, lolling, / Vapouring.”

Heaney’s revisionary use of the wolfhound symbol offers no support to the legends of either faction in the sectarian battles of Catholics and Protestants. It tells no inspiring saga of the undying resistance of Irish Catholics against colonizers and oppressors nor any story of the hardnosed determination of Unionist Protestants to keep North Ireland separate from the Irish Republic that surrounds it. It narrates only a long, depressing bloodletting, which has sapped both sides of vitality and yielded the wild wolfpaths to puny, rain-matted “vermin.” The poet thus resists the temptation to draw spurious strength from political myths, and his poem is accordingly grim and terse. Yet if Heaney’s hard-won distance from partisanship increases our estimation of his sincerity and integrity, our sense of his struggle to avoid simple ideological views of a complex history, his skepticism does nevertheless come at a cost. For by the closing lines of the poem, Heaney has brought the loss of a heroic past back to the personal condition of the poet himself, as he considers how deeply his own language and the sources of his inspiration have been scarred by the historical dilemmas his poem describes. At this point in Heaney’s career and in Irish history, the poet can find nothing positive to say, he can only lament.

The final lines of the poem, indeed, suggest that this poetic loss may strike to the very roots of Irish poetry, and Heaney even doubts whether effective lament is possible for the poet of his age. If he finds himself in the midst of the same implacable violence, chaos, and confusion that throughout Western history has given rise to some of its most profound and moving political poetry—Isaiah, Homer, Sophocles, Dante, William Blake, W. B. Yeats, Osip Mandelstam, Paul Celan—Heaney nonetheless betrays his fear that the situation of North Ireland may not even allow tragic utterance, but rather just an enfeebled grumbling. At the end of his poem, he leaves open a question he implicitly poses to himself and his fellow Ulster writers: must we, as Irish poets, fall victim to the same historical fate as the wolfhound? Are we just second-rate latecomers, squeezing a few drops of poetry from this and that source in a fruitless attempt to compensate for our loss of an authentic cultural wellspring? Is there any way in which we can unleash the wolfs tongue of the Irish past, and speak with the power and energy that the Irish landscape and life once lent our poetry? Heaney’s “Midnight” eloquently testifies to this historical and poetical predicament, but he offers himself and his readers no definite answers. It remains “midnight” as the poem closes, leaving him in an hour of waiting without hope; the pitch darkness in which he finds himself yields no hints of a coming dawn.

Source: Tyrus Miller, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1997.

Mort Rich

Mort Rich is a professor teaching at Montclair State University, and a writer of poetry, as well as articles about poetry, critical thinking, and autobiography. In the following essay, Rich offers his interpretation that “Midnight” equates the forced extinction of the wolf in Ireland with the death of the Irish Gaelic language, suggesting that British influence was the cause of both.

Enacting Paradox: Seamus Heaney’s “Midnight”

In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize, Seamus Heaney said, “In one of the poems best known to students in my generation, a poem which could be said to have taken the nutrients of the symbolist movement and made them available in capsule form, the American poet Archibald MacLeish affirmed that ’A poem should be equal to: / Not true.’ As a defiant statement of poetry’s gift for telling truth but telling it slant, this is both cogent and corrective.”–Heaney, Seamus, “Crediting Poetry—The Nobel Lecture.”

In “Midnight,” Seamus Heaney presents the dilemma of the artist expressing himself in the language of his oppressor. In Heaney’s case, the dilemma is multiple: he was born Catholic in predominantly Protestant Northern Ireland and moved to the Irish Free State to remove his family from the violence of the north. He writes rather than using the more public and political force of speech, and he wears the heavy mantle of international acclaim. While biographical information is not always crucial to interpretation, in Heaney’s case, like that of Yeats (his great predecessor, to whom he is often compared), access to personal and historical facts may make the difference between confusion or a clear understanding of his work. Nonetheless, “Midnight,” like other deeply felt and well-wrought poems, yields most of its meaning through its form, which is the prime source of its emotional power. How, then, can form be understood as a route to interpreting this poem?

Like many of Heaney’s poems, “Midnight” is relatively brief. It consists of twenty-four lines in six, four-line stanzas without end rhymes or a fixed metrical pattern. The first two stanzas each contain a sentence that carries over to the next stanza. This creates a sense of tension between the stanza as a poetic unit and the sentence as a unit of thought. The third stanza ends with a sentence completed, whereas the fourth and fifth stanzas repeat the carry-over pattern of the first two stanzas. The sixth differs from the preceding five; it contains two sentences within its last three lines.

One effect of producing the content of the poem in sentences of varying length, reserving three shorter sentences for the last two stanzas, is an increase of intensity from beginning to end. Longer sentences require more unpacking of syntax than do shorter sentences, and their impact is less immediate than shorter sentences. “The tongue’s / Leashed in my throat” is simple in structure, with no embedded clauses to impede apprehension of the image. However, the nature of the longer sentences that comprise the first four stanzas create a cumulative effect of emotion that prepares the reader for the directness of the last lines.

“Midnight,” the single-word title, sets the tone of the poem by locating the action in darkness, at a pivotal point in the night often associated with mystery and threatening mythical beasts. We may also conceive of midnight as the point of transformation marking both the final moment of one calendar day and the start of another; it is an ending and a beginning. In this ambiguous atmosphere that the title provides, the poem begins, presenting “corpse and carrion” (the dead and their decaying flesh). This may be a reference to the many deadly battles between the Irish Provisional Army and the British Army in Northern Ireland, the latter symbolizing the British government’s presence and power.

The phrase “Paling in rain” implies slow disintegration, and it is against this horrific background that “The wolf has died out / In Ireland.” Since the last wolves were seen in Ireland at the end of the seventeenth century, we need to ask how the past is present. This question is answered in the second half of the poem. But first, the poem presents the death of the last wolf after it is hunted by “packs” of hunters and their dogs (perhaps like the unwelcome British army) that “Scoured parkland and moor.” The statement that a “Quaker buck and his dogs / Killed the last one” is puzzling, since Quakers, who became established in Ireland in the second half of the seventeenth century, profess to practice peace and harmony with the world, not killing. “Buck” implies a young dandy given to hunting to impress the ladies. Combining “Quaker” with “buck” produces an oxymoron, pointing to the paradoxical nature of this poem. That one who avowedly abhors killing “Killed the last one / In some scraggy waste of Kildare” intensifies the act of killing and helps prepare the reader for the atmosphere and claims of the second half of the poem.

The painful situation in Ireland and, by extension, the situation of Irish writers is further symbolized by the reduction of the native wolfhound. The wolfhound is less than a free-wheeling wolf and is further diminished in comparison to the wolf by being “crossed / With inferior strains.” Strains of what is not specified, but the following line implies a non-Irish strain through presentation of an ironic situation. The forests that are “coopered to wine casks” are being sacrificed for money, sold to contain a foreign product. The landscape is exploited, devastated, and killed, just like the wolf. “Casks” may be read as implying “caskets,” a container for something else that has died—perhaps violently. The first three stanzas of “Midnight” vividly present a devastated Ireland. They enact their sense and emotion through sound, a key feature in Heaney’s poetry.

Reading the poem aloud reveals a relatively soft-sounding first line, followed by the clipped harshness of the hard “c” of “corpse” and “carrion,” followed, in turn, by the mournful vowels of long “a” sounds (“Paling in rain”) and long “i’s” (“died,” “Ireland”). Lines 5 through 12 are dominated by repeated hard “c’s” and “k’s,” especially line 12, which requires a slow, deliberate reading to its full stop on “casks,” a harsh word marking the end of the first half of the poem.

The second set of three stanzas seem to present a situation and mood different than the harshness and violence of the first set. The setting and sounds seem more peaceful, with images of “Rain on the roof that “Sogs,” “glinting outcrops,” and “the moss of bare boughs.” However, the harshness gradually returns with repeated “d” sounds in “Drips,” “old dens,” and “pads” as well as with an accumulation of “v’s” in “Retrieved,” “vermin,” and “vaporing.” These consonants, plus the tolling of “ing” four times (“Nothing is panting, lolling, / Vaporing”) that is stopped by a period marking a caesura, warn the attentive reader that something final and unpleasant is coming: the statement “The tongue’s / Leashed in my throat.” The landscape of the final three stanzas, presented by sound and imagery, offers no hospitality except to “small vermin / That glisten and scut”; this is hardly the movement of a wolf that, in its wild magnificence, can pant, loll, and vapor. These actions imply the freedom and intensity characteristic of the life of a committed writer, and without them, the writer/poet is fettered. The difficult sound sequence of “The tongue’s / Leashed in my throat” enacts, if not silence, the degenerative process Irish expression has suffered “Since the professional wars.”

And so the poem comes full circle, and the first line takes on an additional meaning: the persona of the poem is at war with the very language he is using. His native Irish Gaelic, like the Irish wolf, has died out. He is left with only English to express his anguish through images of war, death, waste, and the degeneration of the landscape. Yet, paradoxically, he uses English richly, expressively, and intricately to achieve powerful effects.

As critic Thomas C. Foster has noted, “The prospect of reviving Irish Gaelic will probably remain attractive to successive generations of nationalists, just as it was in Yeats’s time, yet the attraction is based on nostalgia, not pragmatism. The language is gone, as Heaney further reminds the reader with the image of the extinct wolf and the degraded wolfhound in “Midnight,” surviving only as remnants in the Irish dialect of English and in textbooks, and no effort, no matter how Herculean, can revive a dead language. The book [Wintering Out] itself is a testament to the triumph of English.”

In “Midnight,” Heaney tells the truth, but he tells it “slant” as he indicated in his Nobel Lecture by quoting Emily Dickinson. He thus avoids direct political statement, to the dismay of some of his critics. Henry Hart commented that “what critics of Wintering Out objected to was the way Heaney implied rather than declaimed his politics. Heaney approached Ulster’s turmoil from his own oblique angle, a technique every writer employs when facing a well-worn subject.” Heaney’s answer to his critics: “’During the last few years,’ Heaney stated in 1975, ’there has been considerable expectation that poets from Northern Ireland should “say” something about “the situation.’” Heaney’s comment on this demand was that ’in the end they [poets] will only be worth listening to if they are saying something about and to themselves.’ Poetry for Heaney is its own special action, has its own mode of reality.”

Seamus Heaney’s “Midnight,” though written in the shadow of an historical moment, is more universal than that moment. It celebrates, however paradoxically, the ascendancy of language as the primary expression of consciousness.

Source: Mort Rich, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1997.

Thomas C. Foster

The incorporation of mythology and its symbolic representation of it in Heaney’s work is discussed.

In 1917 William Butler Yeats discovered, or was discovered by (agency here is difficult to establish), a coherent mythology, a system of symbols for his subsequent work. The spirit world spoke through his wife’s automatic writing, or at least he believed it did, and the resulting visionary material supplied him with poetic symbols for the rest of his career: interpenetrating gyres, towers, and winding stairs—the Great Wheel of history in which new ages are ushered in by the annunciation of the gods to men.

Such large-scale gifts of informing principles rarely occur; the great mass of poets struggles along piecing together elements of personal mythology without ever receiving a massive infusion of inspiration (a word that is very much suspect in modern culture). Still, occasionally something that no other word in the language seems to describe so well will grace a poet’s career and offer him the possibility of bringing unity (another Yeatsian word) to his poetry. Such an event occurred in 1969 when Seamus Heaney discovered P. V. Glob’s The Bog People.

Glob’s book presents the fascinating discoveries of bodies in Jutland, some of them nearly two thousand years old, of victims of civil executions and ritual sacrifices whose deaths included partial or total stripping, throat slashing, and being dumped into the bogs. The bodies, along with some articles of clothing such as leather belts and caps and the bonds that held them at the time of death, have been preserved by the tannin in the bogs; their effect on the modern observer is eerily magnetic. For Heaney, who in his early poems had often pictured the earth in general and bogs in particular as the storeroom of history, and who had used the digging metaphor so frequently in his work, the discovery of Glob’s book suddenly offered him symbols, ready-made and ideal for the task, to unify his entire vision. In the hanged, maimed, and drowned bodies pictured in The Bog People, Heaney finds the symbols for neighborly treachery, vengeance, and destruction in modern Northern Ireland.

From the beginning of his career, as we have seen, Heaney has been interested in poetry as a kind of digging; the metaphor attracts him for several reasons, chief among them that his sense of place focuses his attention on digging as a central activity in the lives of the local people. They dig their fuel, their food, their graves. In both his first two works, Heaney frequently turns his attention to the act of digging and to the act of writing as a corollary, but he fails to find the goal of all that turning of sod. Occasionally he comes close, as when he describes the potato harvest as a ritual that

Recurs mindlessly as autumn. Centuries
Of fear and homage to the famine god
Toughen the muscles behind humbled knees,
Make a seasonal altar of the sod.

Many of these early poems are quite good in themselves, but as a body they lack the resonance that marks the mature work of a master poet.

Then Heaney experienced the fortuitous coincidence that we would reject as forced in a work of fiction. He closed his second volume with “Bog-land,” in which he marvels at the preservative qualities of Irish bogs where butter keeps fresh for centuries and coal will never form. Later in the same year, 1969, he found Glob, and realized that his mistake had been in looking at the wrong bogs. Irish bogs held many wonders and were personally and locally interesting, with their skeletons of the Great Irish Elk, but the symbols Heaney really needed were being excavated in Jutland.

His third volume, Wintering Out (1972), contains the first of his poems about the bog people, “The Tollund Man,” about the victim of ritual sacrifice to the fertility goddess. Heaney is explicit about the connection in his own mind between that sacrifice and some that are closer to home:

Taken in relation to the tradition of Irish political martyrdom...this is more than an archaic barbarous rite: it is an archetypal pattern. And the unforgettable photographs of these victims blended in my mind with photographs of atrocities, past and present, in the long rites of Irish political and religious struggles.

The blending also makes its way into the poem itself:

I could risk blasphemy,
Consecrate the cauldron bog
Our holy ground and pray
Him to make germinate
The scattered, ambushed
Flesh of labourers,
Stockinged corpses
Laid out in farmyards,
Tell-tale skin and teeth
Flecking the sleepers
Of four young brothers, trailed
For miles along the lines.

The sudden coincidence of discovery and necessity blends the image of the Tollund man into a powerful symbol of men sacrificed to inscrutable forces and to the community’s needs, and turns the poet’s statement around: the atrocities, past and present, become not merely modern barbarities but modern versions of an archetypal pattern.

That he sees the Tollund man within a larger framework of sacrifice is made obvious in the connection to both the current reference to the four young brothers and to the 1798 slaughter of the Croppies, from whose pockets, as he tells us in “Requiem for the Croppies,” the barley they carried sprouted in August. What he cannot see, however, is the renewal that may grow out of the contemporary violence. While it may indeed follow that modern sacrifice may engender the movement symbolized by Kathleen ni Houlihan, the dream of a unified Irish Republic, the poem refuses to make that leap. The reference echoes something of Eliot’s fear of sterility in The Waste Land, in which the poet asks, ironically, regarding the corpse buried in the garden, whether it has sprouted yet. In each case, the poet fears that the fertility ritual may fail, may not even apply, in the modern world.

While the poem does not follow Eliot’s masterpiece in other respects, there is a corollary movement in looking beyond the boundaries of the immediate society for a working mythology that will enable the poet to understand and interpret that society. If the Tollund man is joined with not the mistress of Irish republicanism but with the Norse goddess of fertility, he is nevertheless transported out of this life in a fatal, clearly sexual, embrace:

She tightened her tore on him
And opened her fen,
Those dark juices working
Him to a saint’s kept body ...

Clearly, this fertilty myth is much darker than that of, say, Osiris, in which the priestess of Isis took human lovers as surrogates for the dismembered god. The short companion poem, which Heaney also pairs with this one in his Selected Poems, entitled “Nerthus” after the goddess, reinforces the sexuality of the ritual, with its description of a forked ash stick, “Its long grains gathering to the gouged split.” Both the “gouged split” and the opening of the fen are suggestive of female genitalia, thereby making explicit the specifically sexual nature of the entry of the male body into the bog.

Yet there is something more going on here than simply recalling an archaic ritual. The bog’s juices are “dark,” hinting at not only vaginal secretions (which themselves remain hidden, dark) but at a deeper mystery behind that surface level of meaning. The waters of the fen do not devour their victim; rather, they turn his form into a “saint’s kept body.” This pre-Christian pattern flows into a Christian, specifically Catholic, form of belief: his body, turned into a relic of worship (Heaney promises to make a pilgrimage to Aarhus to see the corpse), becomes holy because his sacrifice, like that of the Christian saints, was for the causes of belief and community. Implicit in that connection is the question of the saintliness of more recent sacrifices. In the final third of the poem, Heaney discovers a sense of kinship with the people of Jutland, another Northern race, despite the strangeness of language and custom:

Out there in Jutland
In the old man-killing parishes
I will feel lost,
Unhappy and at home.

Again the local reference sneaks into the discussion through the word “parish,” which, like the saints mentioned earlier, introduces a Catholic element into the poem. He will feel at home, one may surmise, because the six counties of Ulster have become the new man-killing parishes. The poet finds in the Tollund man, in the bog people generally, a visual and historical analog to the current Troubles.

While this discovery does not translate into a controlling metaphor for the book—that must wait until North—scattered throughout Wintering Out is evidence of a new approach to poetry, a heightened sensitivity to the historical and political implications of many of Heaney’s interests and preoccupations. The emphasis on land and digging, for instance, remains, although it yields up new insights. The Tollund man, Heaney notes, was discovered by turf cutters, who have moved from simply being a personal point of reference in “Digging” to offering a perspective from which past and present may be observed.

One of the outgrowths of that sense of perspective is the interest in language in the book. “The Wool Trade,” with a Stephen Dedalus revery on pronunciation as its epigraph, concentrates attention on the sounds of language, the texture of words like the texture of cloth. The poem is a kaleidoscope of vowel sounds, in particular, with a line like “To shear, to bale and bleach and card” calling attention not only to the possibilities of play among vowels but to pronunciation differences between dialect groups. These differences highlight cultural, religious, and political distinctions with which the Northern Irish must contend: the merchant class, those who would go to the Netherlands and trade with men with “soft names like Bruges,” were Scots-Anglo-Irish Protestants, those who raised the sheep and spun the wool and wove the cloth likely to be “native” Catholics. The sounds “hang” to be examined, studied, even admired in “the gallery of the tongue.” Throughout the volume he emphasizes speech patterns and, as Blake Morrison notes, images of the tongue: “the river tongues” in “A New Song,” “the swinging tongue” of Henry Joy McCracken’s body in “Linen Town,” “the slab of the tongue” in “Toome,” “the civil tongues” of “The Last Mummer.” The poet’s position in all this proliferation of speech, then, must necessarily be that of listener, and Heaney also presents numerous images of himself listening. If he will but keep his ear in “this loop of silence” long enough, he says in “Land,” he will eventually pick up “a small drumming.”.... In “Oracle” he connects the two functions of speech and hearing, “small mouth and ear / in a woody cleft...”

The issue of language use—what one speaks and how one speaks it—appears in a variety of poems in the volume. In “Traditions” Heaney sets up the opposition, to which he adheres in later work, between masculine, rapacious England and feminine, ravished Ireland. The Irish “gutteral muse,” he says, was long since “bulled,” the term charged with sexual violence and massive, brute force, by England’s “alliterative tradition,” a reference to the alliterative poetics of Old English and early Middle English verse. Tradition, he further notes, repeats the violation and “beds us down into / the British isles.” Ireland, no matter how she may protest, cannot escape the conspiracy of geography and custom. Here the reference gains impact from Heaney’s subsequent career, for in the 1983 pamphlet An Open Letter, he energetically, if humorously, objects to being included in an anthology of British verse, noting, among other things, “the name’s not right.” Later, after noting evidence of the Elizabethan invasion—diction, archaisms, references to Shakespeare’s Henry V and Spenser’s State of Ireland—and of lowland Scots words “bawn” and “mossland” (a canny use of his childhood residence), he cites Leopold Bloom, who responds to the question of nationality “sensibly,” in Ulysses:”’Ireland,’said Bloom, I was born here. Ireland.’” Bloom, of course, is the ultimate outsider, a Jew of Hungarian ancestry with no claim to native status, no connection to Irish heritage or language. He speaks in English, naturally, as does everyone else in the novel, as does Heaney, and this is the point: however much one may feel the ignominy of speaking the conquerors’ language, English is not merely the mother tongue but the native tongue of modern Ireland, just as the English literary tradition also forms, like it or not, a major part of the Irish literary landscape. The facts may prove distasteful; they are, nevertheless, undeniable...

The prospect of reviving Irish Gaelic will probably remain attractive to successive generations of nationalists, just as it was in Yeats’s time, yet the attraction is based on nostalgia, not pragmatism. The language is gone, as Heaney further reminds the reader with the image of the extinct wolf and the degraded wolfhound in “Midnight,” surviving only as remnants in the Irish dialect of English and in textbooks, and no effort, no matter how Herculean, can revive a dead language. The book itself is a testament to the triumph of English.

Even in poems not specifically about language, the issues involved in English use arise. In “The Other Side,” for example, the neighbor’s speech is “that tongue of chosen people.” The neighbor stands at the stream’s edge, surveying the Heaneys’ property, and his pronouncement, “It’s poor as Lazarus, that ground,” stands as a judgment on not a single farm run by one Catholic family, but on the entire Northern Irish minority. In part 2 the man, in the midst of a religious discussion, notes that Catholics, in sharp contradistinction to his Presbyterian people, “hardly rule by the book at all.” The heavy reliance on direct, personal reading of the Bible among Protestant sects becomes an identifying feature: “His brain was a whitewashed kitchen / hung with texts, swept tidy / as the body o’ the kirk.” That final line further distances neighbor from neighbor, with its Norse-derived Scots “kirk,” a word a Catholic would never apply to his church. The orderliness, moreover, of the man’s mind stands in contrast to the Heaneys’ way of life, with its fallow ground, its “moss and rushes,” its muttered litanies. Indeed, in part 3, the man hesitates in deference to rosaries being said in the kitchen before knocking at the door.

Clearly, he, too, feels himself an outsider, and it is at that level that the poet, who has been in some danger of reducing the man to a cultural stereotype, finds common ground. In the “now” of the poem, a time of family grief, the man stands “in the dark yard,” tapping his blackthorn “shyly, as if he were party to / lovemaking of a stranger’s weeping.” And in a sense, of course, it is a stranger’s grief, for he never knows his neighbors any more than they know him. His uncertainty, so unlike his earlier assured pronoucements, his uneasiness, brings Heaney to his own dilemma:

Should I slip away, I wonder,
or go up and touch his shoulder
and talk about the weather or
the price of grass-seed?

The first fact about this man, after all, is not that he is a Protestant, but that he is a neighbor. It is the second fact, with all its attendant complications,

“And the unforgettable photographs of these victims blended in my mind with photographs of atrocities, past and present, in the long rites of Irish political and religious struggles.”

—Seamus Heaney

that interferes with interactions that both speaker and subject would maintain on the basis of the first. We are social beings, and one of our basic drives is to accommodate ourselves to accidents of geography; though the occupant of the next farm or the next quarter acre be a member of a group we mistrust, our initial instinct and desire is to maintain civility. Intercourse between the two in this poem takes place not in the rhetoric of the Paisleyite or the Provos, but in the language of the commonplace, weather and grass seed, safe trivialities.

The poet’s sensibility struggles within itself to the point of paralysis, ultimately desiring to do the right thing while being unable to discern what the right thing might be; entertaining simultaneously the urge to withdraw and the urge to act. That romantic removal of the poet from the realm of praxis, which Anne Stevenson in her essay on Stations traces in a line from Wordsworth by way of Joyce and Kavanagh, is a position we have seen before in his work and one which will occupy a greater place in the books that follow Wintering Out. Here, though, it is complicated by a host of contradictory feelings, chief among them the polarities that this man, who is so very other, so alien, remains all the while a fellow Irishman. The book carries other such reminders. The lone member of the rebellion of 1798 mentioned by name in the book is Henry Joy McCracken, executed in Belfast for his role as leader of a Protestant uprising in County Antrim well after the main rebellion had been quashed. Heaney’s sensitivity to the common ground between his side and “the other side” effectively prevents him from wholeheartedly taking sides, despite Paisley-run Protestant Telegraph’s characterization of him as a “well-known papist propagandist.” If Heaney’s sentiments are firmly with the minority, he nevertheless recognizes that Protestant and Catholic alike are victims of historical circumstance.

These political and linguistic concerns, while they occupy a majority of the book, do not comprise the entirety of it. Wintering Out contains a second part, which, if the first anticipates North, looks even further ahead, to Field Work. The more personal and immediate concerns of part 2 reflect a continuing, if largely heretofore undeveloped, aspect of his work. Heaney’s forays into love poetry have been brief and not altogether successful. Throughout his early books, his voice lends itself most readily to uneasiness, anguish, unpleasantness; the transition to happiness, satisfaction, or love pledges occasionally becomes too great a leap...

Strangeness is a key to much of Wintering Out—the past, the sea, the moon, the other sex, the underground. More than either of the earlier volumes, it explores the alien as a necessary component to understanding the familiar, the male to understanding the female, the past to understanding the present; nevertheless, it remains a transitional book, a bridge that makes a subsequent arrival possible. Heaney arrives at a full realization of the possibilities in North, one of the most powerful works in contemporary poetry.

Source: Thomas C. Foster, “Growing to Maturity: Wintering Out and Stations,” in Seamus Heaney, Twayne, 1989 pp. 31-46.

Sources

Andrews, Elmer, “’Wintering Out,’” in The Poetry of Seamus Heaney, Macmillan (London), 1988, pp. 48-81.

Andrews, Elmer, “The Gift and the Craft: An Approach to the Poetry of Seamus Heaney,” Twentieth Century Literature, Winter, 1985.

Foster, Thomas C, “Growth to Maturity: ’Wintering Out’ and ’Stations,’” in Seamus Heaney, Twayne, 1989, pp. 31-48.

Foster, Thomas C., Seamus Heaney, Twayne, 1989.

For Further Study

Hart, Henry, Seamus Heaney, Poet of Contrary Progressions, Syracuse University Press, 1992.

Hart examines Heaney’s delineation of personal and political crises and his representation of psychological and imaginative forces in his work.

Heaney, Seamus, “Crediting Poetry—The Nobel Lecture,” The Nobel Foundation, 1995.

Andrews, Elmer. The Poetry of Seamus Heaney: All the Realms of Whisper. London: Macmillan Press, 1988. Andrews analyzes Heaney’s poetry and identifies its primary themes through the 1985 collection Station Island.

Foster, Thomas C. Seamus Heaney. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1989.

A general study of Heaney’s life and work.

Hildebidle, John. “A Decade of Seamus Heaney’s Poetry.” The Massachusetts Review. Vol XXVIII, No. 3, Autumn, 1987, pp. 393-409.

Hildebidle describes Heaney’s exploration of both personal experience and Irish history in his poetry.

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