Elmer Kennedy-Andrew on “Mycenae Lookout” by Seamus Heaney, in Irish University Review: A Journal of Irish Studies [Special Irish Poetry Issue, guest ed. Peter Denman] (Sept. 2009).

[ Source: The Free Library - online; accessed 07.07.2011.]

Let us set aside the fact that such convictions in the mouths of safe, comfortable people playing at crisis, alienation, apocalypse and desperation, make me sick. We must get it out of our heads that this is a doomed time, that we are waiting for the end, and the rest of it, mere junk from fashionable magazines. Things are grim enough without these shivery games. People frightening one another - a poor sort of moral exercise ... We love apocalypses too much, and crisis ethics and florid extremism with its thrilling language. Excuse me, no. I’ve had all the monstrosity I want. (Saul Bellow, Herzog).

Most of us recognize Saul Bellow’s description of the contemporary Zeitgeist - the voguish cynicism, the moral flaccidity, the spiritual deadness, the holding life cheaply: all the hallmarks of another ‘lost generation’. For many who have lived in Northern Ireland over the last forty years or so, the ‘spirit that plagued us so’ isn’t just imaginary. Far from merely playing shivery mind games, many people have known first hand the hard realities of crisis, alienation, apocalypse, and desperation. Seamus Heaney’s “Mycenae Lookout” is a particularly powerful and richly resonant evocation of pervasive evil, a poem born out of personal experience, but personal experience that has been distanced and ritualized. (1) It is a notable poem on purely aesthetic grounds alone. As well as that, however, Heaney, like Bellow, has had all the ‘monstrosity’ he wants. “Mycenae Lookout” is a poem which reacts against the apparently tragic pattern of history and the inhuman assumptions of the current cult of desperation and extremism.

Appearing at the tail-end of the Troubles, when the 1994 ceasefires failed to lead to a durable peace and the killing continued, “Mycenae Lookout”, Heaney tells us, ‘wasn’t a matter of what was happening just then, more a rage at what had gone on in the previous twenty-five years’. (2) What had been going on, in the words of the poem, was ‘That killing-fest’, a phrase which, denying the violence any kind of moral or political legitimacy, immediately signals Heaney’s view of the situation and initiates a grimly compelling investigation of the atavistic roots of political violence. “Mycenae Lookout”, in fact, continues the sustained narrative engagement with the powers of the dark that Heaney had begun in his Scandinavian and Viking poems. In these poems he probes his own deepest fears and anxieties, and interrogates the Irish collective unconscious, the most tabooed knowledges, the wild, demonic energies within the culture. Whatever, for example, the quantum of Catholic nationalist grievance, the main focus of his attention is the frightening bloodlust which the political situation in the North had unleashed, and which far exceeded rational understanding. Drawing attention to the erotic and violent barbarian drives within his own community, Heaney enters the Northem Irish necropolis (‘I am Hamlet the Dane, / skull-handler, parablist, / smeller of rot // in the state [...] corning to consciousness / by jumping in graves’) (3), re-visits the sectarian ‘abattoir’, to investigate the diseased psychopathology of his people, seemingly accursed and fated to an endless cycle of violence. These are poems of the terrorized imagination, and in them Heaney searches for some kind of understanding of a phantasmagorical violence, some principle of order and meaning in the face of death, loss, and personal disorientation.

In “Mycenae Lookout” all this is done through his reworking of classical myth recorded in Homer’s Iliad and dramatized in the first play of Aeschylus’s Oresteia, the Agamemnon. (4) It was a line from this play which, Heaney tells us, ‘kick-started’ (5) the poem, and which he used as epigraph: ‘The ox is on my tongue’. The line refers to the position of the speaker in the poem, forced into silence by the weight of circumstance. The speaker is the watchman in Agamemnon’s house, posted by Clytemnestra to look out for the fires of Troy that would herald Agamemnon’s victorious return home. The watchman, torn between conflicting allegiances, burdened with the gift of prophetic vision, and filled with guilt for not acting to avert the tragic course of events that are about to unfold, is, like other lookouts, watchmen, voyeurs, witnesses, and bystanders in Heaney’s poetry, a figure of the artist - of any of us - silenced by ‘the ox’s tons of dumb / inertia’.

Though the whole poem is focalized through the watchman, it is still a sharply faceted account of violence. Section 1, ‘The Watchman’s War’, is a nightmare vision of the future. One of the memorable aspects of the poem is the way the events of a remote place and time are absorbed into the poet’s own experience, perceptions, and idiom. Heaney tells us how Aeschylus’s line, ‘The ox is on my tongue’, contained for him an important ‘sensory depth charge’ relating to his own childhood memories: ‘The splatter of cow’s feet on the floor of a byre in Mossbawn, the charge of bullocks up the “tripper” of a cattle lorry, the child’s register of the weight and danger of these clattering beasts. Slaughterhouse panic’. (6) These very personal memories are transmuted into the description of the situation of the watchman, giving it a powerful dramatic immediacy: ‘I would feel my tongue / Like the dropped gangplank of a cattle truck, / Trampled and rattled, running piss and muck / All swimmy-trembly [...]’. With consummate skill, Heaney allows private and public, past and present, the classical and the contemporary, the epic and the vernacular, to merge imperceptibly, or play off each other tellingly. Time is on a loop. Imagery of webs and nets is strung throughout the poem. ‘I’d dream of blood in bright webs in a ford’, says the watchman, subtly foreshadowing the moment of Agamemnon’s death (when a net was thrown over the king while he was in his bath).

From the generalized violence of this opening section, with its panoramic perspectives and epic feel of the heroic couplets, we move to close-up in Section 2, “Cassandra”, with its terse, short-lined ‘artesian’ triplets. In the ‘Cassandra’ section, as in the earlier ‘Punishment’, the bystander-poet acknowledges his own complicity in brutality (‘No such thing / as innocent / bystanding’), faces the reality of suffering (‘her soiled vest, / her little breasts, / her clipped, devast // ated, scabbed / punk head, / the char-eyed / / famine gawk - / she looked / camp-fucked’), and recognizes his own capacity for violence and victimizing (‘People / could feel // a missed trueness in them / focus’). But even more disturbing is his awareness of the shocking fact that the sight of the girl’s suffering stirs, not feelings of pity, but violent sexual desire (‘And a result - // ant shock desire / in bystanders / to do it to her // there and then. / Little rent / cunt of their guilt’). This is not the language of conventional understanding of the violence. In section 3, His Dawn Vision, the watchman decries the inadequacy of the existing discourse, referring to ‘Our war stalled in the pre-articulate’, and mocking the politicians and ideologues, the ‘Mouth athletes, / Quoting the oracle and quoting dates, / Petitioning, accusing, taking votes’. What he recognizes is the dark, unspoken erotics of violence that seem to underlie the whole of human history, from Paris’s lustful abduction of Helen which triggered the Trojan War, to Clytemnestra’s ‘love-shout / that rose through the palace like the yell of troops’, to the violation of Cassandra which only excites the bystanders’ violent sexual urges, and Romulus’s ‘amorously’ fratricidal killing of his brother Remus.

The opening line of Section 4, ‘The Nights’ - ‘They both needed to talk’ - would seem to continue the story of Romulus and Remus, but as gradually becomes clear the focus has in fact shifted to Aegisthus and Clytemnestra, the pronominal ambiguity again suggesting the enwebment or interconnectedness of human history. Metre and stanza-form also change again. From the compacted, carefully sculpted rhyming tercets of Section 3 we move to the irregular but persistent rhyme and half-rhyme of the more conversationally discursive nine-lined stanza of section 4, which ends with a powerful expression of the watchman’s anguish: ‘it was the king I sold. / I moved beyond bad faith: / for his bullion bars, his bonus / was a rope-net and a bloodbath. / And the peace had come upon us’. That last line is a bitter irony, for there was no lasting peace: Aeschylus’s trilogy moves on to the next phase of the cycle of violence with Orestes avenging his father Agamemnon’s death by killing his mother Clytemnestra.

However, in the final section, despair gives way to hope, hope which lies, not in sentimental otherworldly abstraction or mystic symbolism, but in ordinary communal effort, in the image of men working together. Even while the watchman elaborates his vision of the redeemed society, he recalls the well at Athens and the ladder leading down to it which was also the ‘secret staircase’ on which Greek fought Greek. But in a moment of visionary transformation, the ‘treadmill of assault // turned waterwheel’:

And then this ladder of our own that ran
deep into a well-shaft being sunk
in broad daylight, men puddling at the source

through tawny mud, then coming back up
deeper in themselves for having been there,
like discharged soldiers testing the safe ground,

finders, keepers, seers of fresh water
in the bountiful round mouths of iron pumps
and gushing taps.

The imagery recalls the scene at the beginning of the early autobiographical essay ‘Mossbawn’ - the name of the farm on which Heaney grew up:

I would begin with the Greek word, omphalos, meaning the centre of the world, and repeat it, omphalos, omphalos, omphalos, until its blunt and falling music becomes the music of somebody pumping water at the pump outside our back door. (7)

The image of pure water marks a return to the ‘first world’ of childhood, to the elemental, the well-springs of life and art and a common humanity. Though water is an ancient mystic symbol of regeneration whereby the wastelands of history are renewed, in the poem it is not the mere discovery of water which Heaney emphasizes, but the human effort involved in transforming society. The promise of renewal lies in the hearts of the diggers themselves who in ‘coming back up’ found they were ‘deeper in themselves for having been there’. In contrast to the viciousness which the bystanders discover in themselves, the diggers have penetrated to their true selves, and found the true source of their being in communal work and a renewed relationship with sacred nature. Flowing water is Heaney’s recurrent image for the dynamic flow of the spirit which emanates from transcendent being, the pure source, and manifests itself in the dynamic form of lyric poetry, in the poet’s magical transformation of language into art, his summoning of an ideal of harmony and justice against which the actual can be judged. The poem returns to the early identification between workmen digging with a spade and the poet digging with his pen. The text itself represents a principle of form and order which redresses its powerful evocations of the chaos resulting from lust, revenge, and the abuse of power. Heaney ends by leaving us with an image to ponder, a reminder of what the ideal might be. Without insisting, he juxtaposes actual circumstances and the transcendent ideal which, he implies, is what we all long for.

The title of the collection in which the poem appears, The Spirit Level, alludes to the importance of balance, equilibrium, flow, redress. Against the pressure of history and politics, Heaney reasserts eternal values of order, meaning, and beauty. “Mycenae Lookout” is a poem that matters because it demonstrates the audacity of hope, the courage to challenge nihilism and despair, to affirm an unquenchable human spirit in the face of death and destruction. It is a poem with the power to do good, to encourage, and to heal. This power derives from the poet’s faith, not religious faith in any conventional sense, but faith in a transcendent, ethical order of being which is anterior to, independent of, our-all-too fallible human models of reality and meaning. Countering the contemporary distrust of the word, the poststructuralists’ rejection of the possibility of truth and meaning, Heaney reasserts the metaphysics of presence. His poem is informed by belief in a transcendent metaphysical order which is pre-literary, pre-rational, and ultimately mysterious. In an age obsessed by the historical corruption of language and dominated by the corrosive influence of cultural relativists and postmodern sceptics, Heaney refuses to give up on the possibility of truth and meaning, however difficult they may be to come by. He re-works an old-fashioned vocabulary of the sacramental and the mystical which he first absorbed through his Catholic upbringing and education. “Mycenae Lookout” is a great poem because it succeeds in making that faith real and convincing (at least for the duration of the poem), even for readers who may not think of poetry in terms more usually associated with religion - as redemption, solace, healing, redress, transcendence. “Mycenae Lookout”, Heaney himself has said, was expressive of ‘a rage for order’. (8)

What is especially satisfying is the care Heaney takes to avoid letting the rage for order turn into mere self-indulgence or wishful thinking. The transcendence which the poem finally affirms is rooted in earthly realities, in history, in communal experience, in an inclusive human vision which takes the poet beyond tribal and nationalistic pieties, beyond ideology, beyond the oppositional calculus of ‘us’ and ‘them’. The poem in fact continues the poet’s development of a de-territorializing aesthetic (in the collections after Seeing Things, 1991), to replace his earlier re-territorializing aesthetic (in Wintering Out, 1972 and North, 1975) concerned with ‘bedding the locale’ (9) and ‘restoring the culture to itself’. (10) The re-territorializing aesthetic responds to conflict and division, a sectarian landscape: the de-territorializing aesthetic implies a more inclusive vision than anything envisaged by nationalism, Irish, British, or any. That phrase ‘finders, keepers’ is transformed, divested of its connotations of crowing possessiveness and used to refer to those who devote themselves to the work of discovering and conserving natural resources for the good of all. The attraction of classical myth is that it liberates Heaney from a sectarian politics of Catholics and Protestants, it creates aesthetic distance from the difficult facts of everyday life and grants him larger perspectives on present realities. We may all be creatures of our history, but not entirely so, for there persists in poems such as “Mycenae Lookout” a belief in an essentially spiritual human nature, a residuum of self which is defined by the choices a person makes, and which, in the drive towards individuation and self-consciousness, is constantly involved in adjudicating between the claims of ‘home’ with its social, historical, political, and religious pressures, and the desire for personal freedom, inclusive consciousness, and transcendence.

Equally, Heaney’s mature vision marks a move beyond the kind of transformation that is available only to the special individual, the elite sensibility - the poet, for example, who seeks to preserve integrity and personal freedom by separating himself from community and turning his back on the world of history and politics to reach that point imagined in “Casualty”: ‘As you find a rhythm / Working you, slow mile by mile, / Into your proper haunt / Somewhere, well out, beyond [...],’. (11) In the terms proposed by “Mycenae Lookout”, transcendence is achieved not in some imagined realm ‘Somewhere, well out, beyond’, but within the democracy of ordinary communal activities and relationships. If the earlier poetry invoked ‘a placeless heaven rather than a heavenly place’, (12) “Mycenae Lookout” rebalances the actual and the ideal, envisioning a new place which is not just ‘all idea’ but one which is generated out of the memory of the old place in better times, transformed by an act of communal re-imagining into a vision of a hopeful future.

“Mycenae Lookout” may thus be seen as a meeting ground of the earthly and the transcendent, a point of intersection between demoralizing historical reality and the suggestion of spiritual possibility, a liminal space between what is and what might be, or can be, or ought to be. It is testament to Heaney’s belief in the power of poetry to redress the imbalances of the times, the excessive demand of tribal solidarity, the debilitating effects of political failure. And it is by asserting its own autonomy that poetry can offer this redressive healing. By re-centering the ideal, the transcendent, the poet shows a way through the impasses of history and reminds us of the ultimate mystery of human existence. By insisting on its own values, poetry refuses to take sides in the immediate conflict and resists the rigid monoliths of ideology. It foregrounds instead a belief in the flowing and redemptive power of the imagination, the ability of language and form to confer meaning and suggest the mystery of the transcendent ideal. Heaney compares the writing of poetry to Jesus’s writing in the sand when the woman taken in adultery was brought before him by her accusers:

The drawing of those characters is like poetry, a break with the usual life, but not an absconding from it. Poetry, like the writing, is arbitrary and marks time in every sense of the phrase. It does not say to the accusing crowd, ‘Now a solution will take place,’ it does not propose to be instrumental or effective. Instead, in the rift between what is going to happen and whatever we would wish to happen, poetry holds attention for ‘a[s] space, functions not as a distraction but as pure concentration, a focus where our power to concentrate is concentrated back on itself’. (13)

The poem occupies the in-between ground where the actual (‘what is going to happen’) meets the ideal (‘what we would wish to happen’). It is not partisan, and it does not blame or criticize, but creates the space where we can imagine an alternative scenario founded on notions of co-operation, work, fellowship, and inclusiveness. The poem, that is, works to release us from the tyranny of what is, from the merely conventional, the rational, the law of the tribe:

The achievement of a poem, after all, is an experience of release. In that liberated moment, when the lyric discovers its buoyant completion and the timeless formal pleasure comes to fullness and exhaustion, something occurs which is equidistant from self-justification and self-obliteration. A plane is - fleetingly - established when the poet is intensified in his being and freed of his predicaments. The tongue, governed so long in the social sphere by considerations of tact and fidelity, by nice obeisances to one’s origins within the minority or the majority, that tongue is suddenly ungoverned. It gains access to a condition that is unconstrained and, while not being practically effective, is not necessarily inefficacious. (14)

“Mycenae Lookout” ends on such a moment of liberation but only after the hard work of the diggers has been done; only then can the poem begin to establish the ground of hope for the future. The poem finally expresses a hard-earned optimism, a deeply rooted confidence in humanity and some sense of a fundamentally beneficent creative force - despite the watchman’s earlier suspicions that the gods had withdrawn. The uneasy, disrupted, episodic narrative of the watchman’s inner drama, shifting through five different sections and a range of stanza shapes, line-lengths, metres, and rhyme-schemes of varying degrees of formality and complexity, comes to a close with his acquisition of a loose, informal, mellifluous style of long, open vowel sounds, variable line-lengths and flexible patterns of assonance and consonance in place of predictably recurring end-rhyme. Ultimately, the voice we hear is a truly inclusive voice, freed and controlled at the same time, capable of transcending the subjective and the immediate, the parochial and sectarian, the merely accepting and the profoundly sceptical. In the end, it is not merely acceptance and resignation that Heaney settles for: the climax of the poem is a triumphant proclamation of new visionary possibilities, an assertion of the perennial human capacity to imagine a better world. For me, such wonderfully invigorating and challenging writing, radiating the best elements in the spirit of this time and place, constitutes a poem that matters.


“Mycenae Lookout” is included in the following collections by Seamus Heaney: The Spirit Level (London: Faber and Faber, 1996); Opened Ground: Poems 1966-1996 (London: Faber and Faber, 1998).

1. Seamus Heaney, “Mycenae Lookout”, in The Spirit Level (London: Faber and Faber, 1996), pp.29-37.
2. Dennis O’Driscoll, Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney (London: Faber and Faber, 2008), p.350.
3. Seamus Heaney, “Viking Dublin: Trial Pieces”, in North (London: Faber and Faber, 1975), p.23.
4. The poem is dedicated to Cynthia and the late Dmitri Hadzi, Harvard friends of Heaney. Dmitri Hadzi was described in the New York Times obituary notice as ‘the sculptor who modernized the mythic’ (New York Times, May 18, 2009). Hadzi was Emeritus Professor of Visual and Environmental Studies at Harvard, his sculptures include “Pillars of Hercules”, “Apollonian Libation”, “Thermopylae” at the John F. Kennedy Federal Building in Boston, and “Omphalos” in Harvard Square.
5. Stepping Stones, p.350.
6. Stepping Stones, p.350.
7. Seamus Heaney, ‘Mossbawn’, in Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968-1978 (London: Faber and Faber, 1975), pp.17-27 (p.17).
8. Stepping Stones, p.350.
9. Seamus Heaney, “Gifts of Rain”, in Wintering Out (London: Faber and Faber, 1972), p.25.
10. Seamus Heaney, ‘Feeling into Words’, in Preoccupations, pp.41-60 (p. 41).
11. Seamus Heaney, “Casualty”, in Field Work (London: Faber and Faber, 1979), p.30.
12. ‘... [I]t was not so much a matter of attaching oneself to a living symbol of being rooted in the native ground; it was more a matter of preparing to be unrooted, to be spirited away into some transparent, yet indigenous afterlife. The new place was all idea, if you like; it was generated out of my experience of the old place but it was not a topographical location. It was and remains an imagined realm, even if it can be located at an earthly spot, a placeless heaven rather than a heavenly place’. Seamus Heaney, ‘The Placeless Heaven: Another Look at Kavanagh’, The Government of the Tongue (London: Faber and Faber, 1988), pp.4-13 (p.4).
13. Seamus Heaney, ‘The Government of the Tongue’, in The Government of the Tongue, pp.91-108. (p.108).
14. Seamus Heaney, “Nero, Chekhov’s Cognac and a Knocker”, in The Government of the Tongue, ppxi-xxiii.

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