‘Exposure’ by Seamus Heaney is was written in 1975 and included in the poet’s volume, North. It is a ten stanza poem that is separated into sets of four, also known as quatrains. The lines do not follow a specific rhyme scheme. They are composed in free verse, meaning there is no pattern of rhyme or rhythm. This does not mean that the text is without unity though. A number of the end words share similar characteristics, making them half or slant rhymes. For instance, lines three, four, five, six, and seven all end with a “t’” sound.
This same kind of repetition of end sounds can be seen further on in the poem in stanzas six, seven, and eight. There are six lines in a row that end with an “s” sound. There are also a few moments of repetition at the beginning of the lines. This is known as anaphora when a phrase or word is repeated in multiple lines. A reader can take note of this occurring at the beginnings of lines three and four of the sixth stanza and lines three and four of the tenth stanza.
One of the most important themes of this piece is self-image and how that image can fluctuate. In the case of the speaker of this piece, who is most certainly Heaney himself, self-image is of great importance. It is tied up with Heaney’s own sense of worth and abilities as a poet. If he cannot assert himself within the conversation of today, then he is not fulfilling his role.
Summary of Exposure
The poem begins with the speaker describing the weather in Wicklow. This was the Irish town that Heaney chose to move to. It was a self-imposed exile that he later compared to Ovid’s exile from Rome. Together these two poets were trying to work from afar to influence their homes. The speaker moves through different layers of doubt in his own ability touches on moments of heroism and finally concludes with a determination to do what he can to improve the situation his people are in Ireland.
You can read the full poem here.
Analysis of Exposure
It is December in Wicklow:
The ash tree cold to look at.
In the first lines of ‘Exposure’ the speaker begins by stating that the setting is “Wicklow” in the month of December. Wicklow is a county to the south of Dublin, Ireland. The speaker is outside, looking around at the way the cold season is impacting the various plants and trees. Just from these first lines, the tone is set for the rest of the poem. It is solemn, and in parts, truly depressing. The scenery is gloomy, covered in the frosts of winter, and it leeches from the plants into Heaney. The world seems to be against him.
Generally, Heaney is considered to be the speaker of this piece. This is due to its setting (Ireland) and to the turmoil described in the text and how it mirror’s Heaney’s own life.
A comet that was lost
Like a glimmer of haws and rose-hips,
In the second line, the speaker describes a lost comet. It is likely that Heaney saw himself as this comet, sent off course. Through the next lines he describes how he is a part of the wider world, but is still trying to stand out. He is the comet, and it feels like time for him to be “visible at sunset.” This is only the first of a number of contrasts and conflicting opinions of the self that will crop up in the text. Heaney makes clear through the unclear depictions of his own self-image how undecided he was about the role he was playing.
The speaker explains that at “sunset” at the end of his time in exile, he will be seen as “million tons of light.” His personal power as a human being, specifically as a writer, will help him light up the natural scene he is simply living in at this point.
And I sometimes see a falling star.
Husks, the spent flukes of autumn,
In the third stanza of ‘Exposure’ the speaker reveals what it is he is seeking from these lines of verse. The speaker describes how sometimes when he is wandering through his life in Wicklow he sees a “falling star.” This is not something to be relished. The following lines make clear that the speaker knows full well that he too could become one of these falling stars at any moment. This is part of the reason that so much doubt comes into the poem later on.
All that being said, Heaney still hasn’t risen to his full height. In fact, the move to Wicklow has only decreased his confidence. He states that he is a part of the “spent flukes of autumn” very close to the “falling stars” This is the first real piece of information that the reader gets about the speaker. It immediately makes one expect that this person sees himself as being better than the average person. This idea will shift and develop in the next stanzas.
Imagining a hero
Whirled for the desperate.
In order for the reader to better understand the place Heaney sees for himself in the world, these lines ask that one imagine a “hero” who is on “some muddy compound.” The muddy compound is likely Heaney’s own surrounding landscape and the “hero,” Heaney himself. He is suffering and desperately fighting for that which he believes in. These lines present an interesting contrast with the rest. He is somehow able to see himself as both the sufferer, capable of nothing good and the hero whose whole life is devoted to helping others.
It is very important, for himself and for those represented by the falling stars that he does not fail to take a voice in his poetry. The “desperate” throw of the stone makes an immediate connection to the story of David and Goliath and therefore a feeling of hope at overcoming great obstacles.
The following lines reveal the speaker is much more doubtful of his role in the world than he initially wanted to admit. Heaney questions how he got to this point in his life.
How did I end up like this?
And the anvil brains of some who hate me
The speaker expresses his sorrow over his position in the fifth line. He asks the reader a rhetorical question, wondering why he ended up “like this?” These lines refer to his physical, mental, and social position in Wicklow as an exiled poet. He is not yet the person he wants to be due to the constraints of the time.
In these moments of anger and disappointment, the speaker thinks of his friends. He misses them and thinks back on those happier times when beautiful, colorful, and well-developed people were there to help him. There were also those with “anvil brains” who hated him. This takes one back to Heaney’s own self-doubt. These people he references could be critics, those who do not believe in his potential as a poet.
This second group who had “anvil brains” were considered to be ignorant in some way. Perhaps of how to live in the world or who the speaker is as a person. But these are facts that the speaker himself is still dealing with in ‘Exposure.’
As I sit weighing and weighing
For what is said behind-backs?
In the sixth stanza, the speaker reveals that his days are often spent “weighing and weighing” his worth. These lines also include a reference to his “responsible trisita.” This unusual word describes a collection of elegiac, poetic lines. They were composed by Ovid while he was exiled from Rome and contained his pleas to return to his home. This addition to ‘Exposure’ forces a comparison between the speaker and Ovid. They are both at a distance from their homes, although Heaney’s exile to Wicklow was self-imposed.
Rain comes down through the alders,
And yet each drop recalls
In the seventh stanza, the speaker leaves his own head for a moment and returns to the environment which was discussed in detail in the first few stanzas. He takes note of the “Rain” that “comes down through the alders” and how it seems to speak as it hits the landscape around him. Its “voices” were “low” and “conductive.” These lines clarify the previous. Informing a reader conclusively that it is raining and that is why the alders are dripping. There seems to have been some kind of a change in the way the speaker is seeing and understanding the land.
That being said, he is still attributing his own emotions to what he sees. This keeps the tone in the same solemn place it was from the start. The rain brings to his mind all the times that he let himself down, it also reminds him of better times though. The fourth line is enjambed, forcing a reader quickly down to the eighth stanza.
The diamond absolutes.
And thoughtful; a wood-kerne
The speaker explains in the eighth stanza of ‘Exposure’ that he was reminded of “The diamond absolutes” of his life. These appear to be things that are much more uplifting, those that cannot change depending on the political or social environment. Perhaps they are successes that he had previously and that cannot be taken away from him. The main “absolute” that the speaker, and perhaps Heaney himself, is concerned with is his ability to speak.
He states that he is not “internee nor informer.” This means that he is not anyone’s prisoner nor is he a reporter on the times. Heaney state that he is only who he is. A writer, an “йmigrй,” meaning immigrant and someone who is “thoughtful.” His life is fuelled and directed towards his goal of being a real voice for his people in Ireland.
Escaped from the massacre,
Every wind that blows;
In the ninth stanza, the speaker remembers the terrible events that have occurred around him. Many of these seem to be connected to people he knew. This has resulted in survivors’ guilt. He has escaped from the “massacre” and found sanctuary in the woods. It is interesting to note how the speaker states that he is “Taking protective colouring / From bole and bark.” This is a reference to the bark and trunk of a tree. These are the allies who in the end, in moments of terror, he clung to.
Who, blowing up these sparks
The comet’s pulsing rose.
In the final four lines, the speaker concludes the text and reemphasizes the importance of his role. He is meant to be a kind of arbitrator within his people. The lines, and the idea of blowing up “sparks’ and missing the “once-in-a-lifetime portent / The…pulsing rose” of the comet speak to the still present separation between the speaker and his ideal self, as well as those he wants to help.