Lit-Blogging: Yeats’ Epikalupsis in Heaney’s “Two Lorries”

January 22, 2009

[Note: I’ve found myself doing a good deal of quick little informal online responses to readings for class this quarter (the response paper is dead and gone / It’s with O’Leary in the grave) so hopefully no one will mind when, from time to time, I hyperlink them up and toss them onto the site for all to see: especially when I’m otherwise swamped and have neither time nor mental stability for writing a new post.  This was supposed to be a discussion of Seamus Heaney’s poem in light of Yeats; rather, it turned almost more into a discussion of the 20th century in light of Yeats.  And “epikalupsis” is more or less the opposite of apokalupsis, from which we get “apocalypse.”]

In Yeats’ poems during and after World War I, the Irish War for Independence, and the Irish Civil War (and, toward the end, seeing World War II on the horizon), he presents the image of world in which some destructive energy has been unleashed: the loose falcon and beast slouching towards Bethlehem in “The Second Coming”; the disturbing stone-hearted “terrible beauty” of “Easter 1916”; literal sounds and visions of war in “Meditations in Time of Civil War”; some sort of daimonic-demonic force freed again, neither true to the Greek conception nor the later Christian evolution of it, but rather some curious halfblooded monster-child of the two whom Yeats saw “lurch[ing] past, his great eyes without thought / Under the shadow of stupid straw-pale locks, / That insolent fiend Robert Artisson” (“Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen”).

Yeats sees an age of non-apocalypse, in which the only thing uncovered is uncertainty brought on by terror; the only veil torn back was what our knowledge consisted of. In Ireland, the daimon of this age manifested itself not merely in war, but in civil war-it seemed as if Yeats’ worries about too long a sacrifice were prescient. And so reading Seamus Heaney’s poetry, particularly “Two Lorries” in light of Yeats becomes, in its way, a cyclical act, the reader thinking, I’ve seen this show before.

Then one looks at the date of Heaney’s poem: 1996, describing the 1993 bombing of the Magherafelt bus station, realizes that in 1998, two years after Heaney’s work was published, deaths related to fighting in Northern Ireland-an ongoing blend of Irish Independence/Irish Civil War-would triple; watching the film Michael Collins on St. Patrick’s Day at age nine, not knowing why crying, while one’s father worries Ireland is about to destroy itself; how even now it sometimes seems unnatural that Ireland should be at relative peace: and it seems that Yeats’ “image out of Spiritus Mundi” was accurately chosen: the sphinx does not terrorize by all-consuming apocalyptic conflagration, but by presence-it positions itself outside the city walls, rather than storming them, is content to terrorize from afar by the occasional killing.

So it is in the only mode available that Heaney describes Magherafelt: past and present, dream and reality blurring into one another. A difficulty remembering whether his mother-already dead-was or was not one of the victims. And such fear implicit in the question: “but which lorry / Was it now?” There is a reason he becomes as a child again in its wake, hoping for his mother: not a reversion to innocence, but incomprehension, no answer in sight to a sphinx’s riddles and understanding less with each passing event.

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