Seamus Heaney's The Peninsula Analysis

The Peninsula

Introduction

Seamus Heaney’s “The Peninsula” encourages the reader to drive along the coastline “when you have nothing more to say” and discover the “land without marks”. After seeing the “ploughed field” and the “whitewashed gable”, you can drive “back home” in the “dark again” with the memories of the journey, such as the “glazed foreshore” and “leggy birds”, fresh and clear in your mind.

The opening line implies something has happened but all the relevant thoughts and arguments have been voiced and there is “nothing more” to add to the conversation or debate. The adverb “when” suggests these situations are unavoidable.

There are many reasons why you might have “nothing more to say”, such as an ill-tempered disagreement, a quiet moment of reconciliation, an exhausted philosophical discussion, or when no further explanation is needed. Although the phrase could apply to a huge range of emotions, such as grief and joy, Heaney is probably referring to writer’s block.

The poem is a self-conscious attempt to “uncode all landscapes” and clear his mind of the well-worn symbols and their tired definitions so he can look at the world with a “clean” perspective and a reinvigorated poetic voice.

Context

In an interview, Seamus Heaney mentioned he wrote “The Peninsula” after “getting to know the countryside around Belfast” with his companions, Michael and Edna Longley, when they drove around the coves and long bays of the Ards Peninsula, enjoying the low-lying hills and salty air.1

They also visited the grave of Louis MacNiece, the highly-regarded poet who is buried in Christ Church Carrowdore, and discussed the importance of his poetry in their lives.

In this case, the second-person pronoun “you” might be continuing a dialogue with the Longleys and he is urging them to “just drive” and explore the landscape whenever they feel like they are struggling with their writing.

Setting

A peninsula is a stretch of land which is almost completely surrounded by water but remains connected to the mainland. The setting’s circularity is conveyed by the suggestion that “you will not arrive” which implies there is no final destination and you can only “pass through” the landscape. This is reinforced by the enjambment separating “you will not arrive” and “but pass through” because the poet is forcing the reader beyond the natural stop of first stanza and straight into the next. Inevitably, you will have to “drive back home”.

Of course, “arrive” denotes the conclusion of a journey. However, the verb could also suggest some sort of success, setting up the interpretation that the drive may not result in a moment of inspiration but it will provide some clarity. Heaney, who was a scholar of classical languages, is also playing with informal Latin word arripare, which meant to reach land. This nautical joke is continued in the way roads around the coastline are “always skirting landfall” so you will journey around the edge of the peninsula and never seem to “arrive”.

The setting is a useful signifier for a character’s desire for a momentary escape from their problems because the peninsula will not allow for a total break, but it can provide a fresh perspective when you “drive back home”.

Structure

“The Peninsula” consists of four stanzas with a loose abba rhyme scheme. The end rhyme in the first and fourth lines are quite obvious, such as “drive” and “arrive”, but the sounds in the enclosed lines are not so identical. You will hear the echo If you sound out “hill” and “gable”. The same is true for the sibilant “rags” and “legs”.

Heaney is using the traditional stanza structure to reinforce the circular journey “all round the peninsula”. However, the uncertainty of the rhymes suggests there will always be a delightful surprise round each corner. The internal rhyming of “say” and “day” is also unexpected and playful.

This movement is also encoded in the use of enjambment which forces the reader to the next line. For instance, there is a natural pause at the end of the first line but the preposition “for” keeps us reading by extending the sentence. Heaney also carries the reader smoothly from the first stanza to the second “so you will not arrive” but just keep on driving.

Tone 

The poem seems to begin with a weary tone: “when you have nothing more to say”. However, the imperative “just drive” suggests a sense of confidence and determination. The speaker also tells the audience to “recall” the landscape in the second verse and then “drive back home” in the final verse.

Heaney inspires us to overcome our own obstacles. The direct address, including the use of imperatives and second-person pronouns, helps create this motivational tone. In the same way the poet is now able to “uncode all landscapes” because the physical journey around the peninsula was a starting point for his new linguistic journey, you also need to experience the world before you should write about it.

The Beautiful Peninsula 

Heaney argues the mesmerising peninsula is a source of tremendous inspiration because it offers the traveller the space to think and dream without the stress of deadlines. There is a sense of freedom in the description of the “sky is tall as over a runway” and the fact the “land” has no “marks”. Nothing is going to stop the speaker from exploring the world.

Consider the use of personification in images “horizons drink down sea and hill” and “the ploughed field swallows the whitewashed gable”. By presenting the “horizons” and “ploughed field” consuming other aspects of the landscape, Heaney is suggesting the world is alive and full of energy. He is also being invigorated by the peninsula.

In the Dark Again

The poem shifts to “dusk” in the second stanza and “you’re in the dark again”. No longer able to see the world, we have to “recall” the “foreshore”, “that rock”, the birds, and the “islands” in the lough. However, the memories are so vivid we will have no trouble picturing each moment.

Heaney plays with images of light and darkness. Of course, “dusk” is the darker part of twilight, but there is also the dark soil of the “ploughed field” compared to the “whitewashed gable” wall of the house, and the “silhouetted log” against the gentle shine of the “glazed foreshore”.

This serenity is juxtaposed with the violence of tide breaking over “that rock” and the “islands” which appear to be “riding themselves out into the fog”. The poet clearly appreciated the wonderful and varied beauty of the peninsula.

He is also having great fun with language. The word “log” obviously refers to a tree trunk sitting beside the water, but it also denotes an official record of events and experiences during a voyage on a ship or aircraft. “Stilted” is ambiguous as well. At first glance, Heaney is comparing the birds’ thin legs to stilts. The word also means to speak in a stiff and awkward manner. Perhaps, the poet is making a joke in these images about his own clumsy writing – “rags” is still used informally to mean jokes.

Although the exaggeration is a little absurd, the final line of the third stanza seems straightforward with the “islands” being covered in “fog”. However, is the “fog” referring to the confusion he felt at the start of the poem?  

The lines are certainly open to interpretation. That’s the point. By going on the journey around the peninsula, you are now able to “uncode all landscapes” and create fresh meanings in your own writing.

Themes

If you are writing an essay on “The Peninsula”, the theme of journeys will give you a solid framework to analyse the poem. Perhaps you could compare it to Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” or “Into My Own” and explore how the speakers recognise the importance of journeys to their own progress and self-discovery.

Nature is always an important theme in Heaney’s writing. Think about the poet’s relationship with the landscape. Does the beauty of “The Peninsula” shape his understanding of the world and his identity?

Comprehension Questions

  1. Suggest why Heaney chose the peninsula as the setting for this poem.
  2. Why might the speaker have “nothing more to say”?
  3. Suggest why does Heaney juxtapose the open “sky” with the “land without marks” in the next line?
  4. What does the phrase “so you will not arrive” suggest about this journey?
  5. Why did Heaney use enjambment between the first and second stanzas?
  6. What is the tone of the phrase “always skirting landfall”?
  7. Explain the personification of the “horizons” and “ploughed fields”.
  8. What antitheses are contained in those two lines?
  9. How does the adverbial “now” and Heaney’s command for the reader to “recall” the landscape help locate the reader on this journey?
  10. What does the metaphorical “glazed” suggest about the foreshore?
  11. Following on from the previous question, how is this reinforced by the description of the “silhouetted log”?
  12. Is the line “That rock where breakers shredded into rags” violent? What is the metaphor in this image? What impact does the determiner “that” have on the reader?
  13. Why is the line “Islands riding themselves out into the fog” surprising?
  14. What is the difference in the silence between the first and last stanzas?
  15. Explain the revelation of “things founded clean on their own shapes”. Why does Heaney reduce the images of the journey to the more abstract “things”?
  16. The poet offers two extremes in the final line: “water” and “ground”. What might this antithesis represent?
  17. How does the structure of the poem support the writer’s message?

1 O’Driscoll D (2008) “Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney”.

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