‘Summer 1969’ was written during the Ulster riots of 1969. Heaney was in Spain rather than Ireland during this period and therefore had to decide whether to return and involve himself or not. The poem explores themes of conflict and legacy. These play out as Heaney considers the life and actions of prominent Spanish figures like Francisco Goya. As well as what would happen to him if he were to stand in the face of history and urge it on, as Goya did.
This poem takes the reader to Spain where Heaney looks at his country from a distance. He speaks directly about Spain, what it was like there at the time, and how it compares to Ireland. The poet expresses his indecision over whether or not to travel back to Ireland or stay where he is. The final stanza includes descriptions of famous paintings by Francisco Goya who took an active role in his country while it was in trouble.
‘Summer 1969’ by Seamus Heaney is a thirty-four line poem that is split into four stanzas. The first contains fourteen lines, the second: five, the third: thirteen, and the fourth: two. There is an average of ten syllables per line but so standard rhyme scheme unifies the text. That does not mean the lines are without rhyme though. There are examples of half-rhyme throughout the poem.
Half-rhyme, also known as slant or partial rhyme, is seen through the repetition of assonance or consonance. This means that either a vowel or consonant sound is reused within one line or multiple lines of verse. For example, “heart” and “charged” in the last line of the poem, and “cool” and “Shootings” in lines one and two of stanza three.
Heaney makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Summer 1969’. These include but are not limited to, alliteration, enjambment, and allusion. The latter is perhaps the most important technique at work in this poem. An allusion is an expression that’s meant to call something specific to mind without directly stating it. The poem is filled with allusions to the Troubles in Ireland, the Spanish Civil War, the painter Francisco Goya, and his painters, as well as other Spanish figures. These are all used to create an image of Heaney’s mind and the various possibilities he was contending with.
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “Constabulary covered” in line one of the first stanza and “try to touch” in line one of the second stanza.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For example, the transition between lines two and three of the first stanza, as well as that between lines thirteen and fourteen of the first stanza.
Analysis, Stanza by Stanza
In the first stanza of ‘Summer 1969,’ the poet explains that he was in Madrid, Spain while the Ulster riots were happening. He was uncomfortable in a way during this time that was very different from the discomfort that his fellow Irishmen and women were experiencing. He was under the “bullying sun” while the “Constabulary covered the mob”.
The constabulary is a reference to the mostly protestant Royal Ulster Constabulary. He also mentions “Firing into the Falls”. This alludes to a specific road that runs through west Belfast in Northern Ireland. It is connected to the republican communities in Belfast. Its mirror is Shankill Road.
His life was simple in comparison. He was spending days reading James Joyce in the heat, worrying about the smell of the fish market. The evenings in Madrid were different. They were lighter, darkness took over in the form of “dark corners” and “Old women in black shawls”. There was a brief respite from the heat. Heaney spent time visiting with friends during this period. Their conversations included discussions of recent Spanish history. This brings up negative imagery that taps into all human senses.
The second stanza of the poem is only five lines. It includes the words of two of his friends. They tell him to “Go back [and] try to touch the people”. He should take an active role in his country. But, not everyone was in agreement. A second friend, in contrast, brought up the life and death of Federico Lorca, a playwright from Spain who was killed at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War. This could be Heaney’s fate if he went back to Ireland.
They experience the riots in Ireland from a distance. They played out on TV as if a fictionalized drama.
The third stanza moves to a new location. Heaney travels to Prado Palace for a “cool” retreat. There, he can see the painting “Shootings of the Third of May” by Francisco Goya. This, Goya’s most famous painting, is a reflection of the emotions Heaney was experiencing at the time. It shows the execution of a man by firing squad.
In the next room, he sees his “nightmares” on the “palace wall”. There are “Dark cyclones, hosting, breaking” and the painting of “Saturn / Jewelled in the blood of his own children”. This is another Goya painting, known as “Saturn Devouring His Son”.
The final image is that of “that holmgang / Where two berserks club each other to death / For honour’s sake, greaved in a bog, and sinking”. These complex and powerful images allude to the cycle of death, revenge, and violence that is going on in Northern Ireland at the time that Heaney was in Spain.
The last two lines of this piece refer to Francisco Goya himself. He “painted with his fists and elbows”. This compares him to a matador who has a red “cape”. Rather than dye, this cape is “stained” and stands in a representation of his heart “as history,” the bull, “charged”. He stood in the path of history, urging it on and facing it down. This connects to Heaney’s own plight and the decision he has to make. Will he be like Goya and stand in the face of history?