Within ‘The Ministry of Fear’ Heaney explores themes like coming of age, memories, and Irish sectarianism. The mood is contemplative and calm throughout, even when the poet delves into darker moments of his youth and their larger connection to the social and political climate in Ireland at that time.
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The poem begins with the poet referencing Patrick Kavanagh’s poem ‘Epic’. He uses the allusion to monuments and significant moments in one’s personal history, and wider societal history, to introduce his own upbringing. Heaney takes the reader to his grammar school, St Columb’s College, and describes what it was like when he first arrived there. Rather than speaking broadly to an intended reader, Heaney directs his words to Seamus Deane, a close friend of the pet’s who also attended St Columbus.
The two began writing around the same time, but Heaney notes that Deane’s writings were far advanced. He admired his friend’s eloquence and compares it in verse to his own initial attempts at poetry and prose.
Broadening the poem beyond his own history, Heaney begins to discuss how he came to understand the perceived differences between Protestants and Catholics in Ireland. Even as a young boy, he found his Protestant peers to be more eloquent than he was. The memories take him into a recollection of summer and the times he spent with girls in the back of his car. These were joyous times, but also fearful ones.
The climactic moment of the poem comes at the end when he is interrogated by police officers and he has some of his papers confiscated and read. At least one of those belonged to Deane and Heaney takes note of how Deane’s complex and advanced writings were indecipherable by the price officers. The poem concludes with Heaney referring to the oppressive atmosphere at this time. They lived under a “ministry of fear” that never quite let them experience true freedom, safety, or peace.
You can read the full poem here and more Seamus Heaney poems here.
‘The Ministry of Fear’ by Seamus Heaney is a sixty-four line poem that does not make use of a specific rhyme scheme. Additionally, the lines range in length, and as a reader will notice at specific points in the text, appear broken. One word like “Fair” will appear by itself at the end of the line and then be followed by another single word, in this case, “Enough” on the next line.
It is also important to take note of the dedication and comes before this poem. Heaney dedicated this particular work in the series of Seamus Deane. Deane was an important figure in Heaney’s life. The two attended St Columb’s College together and Deane went on to have a successful academic career. Like Heaney, he gained fame in Europe and abroad and dedicated himself to history, fiction, and Irish life.
There are additional details about Deane’s life and his relationship to Heaney within the poem. They will be addressed within the analysis.
Within ‘The Ministry of Fear’ Heaney makes use of several poetic techniques. These include alliteration, simile, metaphor, enjambment and caesura. The latter, caesura, occurs when a line is split in half, sometimes with punctuation, sometimes not.
The use of punctuation in these moments creates a very intentional pause in the text. A reader should consider how the pause influences the rhythm of one’s reading and how it might proceed an important turn or transition in the text. For example, in line two which reads “In important places. The lonely scarp,” the period marks the end of the reference to Patrick Kavanagh’s writings. Plus, the sudden stop emphasizes the line itself.
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, “boots from beyond” in line twenty-eight and “light left” in line forty-nine.
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. There are several examples within ‘The Ministry of Fear,’ these include the transitions between lines one and two as well as fifty and fifty-one.
A metaphor is a comparison between two unlike things that does not use “like” or “as” is also present in the text. When using this technique a poet is saying that one thing is another thing, they aren’t just similar. For example, in lines twenty-eight through thirty in which Heaney depicts himself as a pair of hobnailed boots, referring to his country upbringing.
A simile is a comparison between two unlike things that uses the words “like” or “as”. A poet uses this kind of figurative language to say that one thing is similar to another, not like metaphor, that it “is” another. There is an example line forty-eight as Heaney compares his fingers to “ivy on [a woman’s] shoulders”.
In the first lines of ‘The Ministry of Fear’ Heaney makes reference to Patrick Kavanagh, an Irish poet born in 1904 and who died in 1967. He spoke on many of the same topics as Heaney himself. The phrase “live in important places” comes from Kavanagh’s 1938 poem ‘Epic’. From there, Heaney jumps into his own life and experience. He refers to “St Columb’s College” that he attended along with Seamus Deane. He “billeted” or lodged there for six years. Heaney recalls how during that period he “overlooked” Bogside, a neighbourhood in Derry, where Seamus Deane was born.
The experiences of attending college opened Heaney’s mind and allowed him to explore “new worlds” he hadn’t known about, physically and historically. One such physical place was the “dogtrack”. He recalls the yelling at these events and the hare that was sent ahead of the greyhounds to start the race.
In the next lines of ‘The Ministry of Fear’, he expresses the homesickness he felt when he first moved there. He couldn’t even eat. The separation felt like an exile and he threw the biscuits he couldn’t stomach over a fence. There is something untoward about this action, allowing him to recall the specific month and year. It was an “act of stealth” he says, one that he wouldn’t have wanted anyone else to see.
The next lines trace Heaney’s path from the first school to Queen’s University in Belfast and then Berkley in California. They were different, in a more sophisticated way than the St Columb’s College.
He spent his time at these places writing, “Dabbling in verse” and seeking out a place to publish those works. Heaney recalls the envelopes he’d send out his writings in and the different sizes they came in.
Next, he speaks about Deane again. He addresses him as “you,” bringing up how Deane was the first to write poetry and Heaney was baffled by the way he tore pages from his wire spine book. In the next lines, he contrasts the way Deane wrote at that time, freely and beautifully, to the way he wrote.
Heaney recalls how he tried to “write about the sycamores / And innovated a South Derry rhyme”. The use of the word “tried” makes it clear that these were attempts but not successes. He depicts himself, through an extended metaphor, as someone in “hobnailed boots” who did not grow up in a world of fancy universities and poetry. He was walking “all over the fine / Lawns of elocution”.
There is a transition in the thirty-first line of ‘The Ministry of Fear’ as Heaney recalls learning about the divide between Catholics and Protestants in detail. Some of the children, the “students from Protestant schools” spoke with better diction than the Catholic students, of which he was one.
Heaney directs questions toward his intended listener, Deane. He asks him if he recalls the “Inferiority / Complexes” and the way they used to worry about being less than those around them.
Heaney goes back in his memory to the first day he spent at St Columb’s College. The “leather strap” came out and went “epileptic” on the students. He can still remember the sound of it and how they bowed their heads. Despite the terror of these moments, Heaney did not reveal his true feelings to his family. His letters home shied away from the truth. They were “not so bad”.
Heaney continues to describe his life during this period, perhaps skipping forward in time. He depicts his youthful lust and the times he spent with women in the ”kissing seat of an Austin 16”. There is a lovely simile in line forty-eight as he compares his fingers to “ivy on her shoulders”. There is also freedom in these lines that had yet to exist in the poem.
Lines 50 -58
As soon as this freedom is introduced it is taken away when he has to head “back for home”. The “summer’s / Freedom” suddenly dwindled in the air, “night by night”. He had to go back to school to continue his studies in the fall. There is one moment, he adds in at this point, in which his fumblings in the back of his car were found out by policemen.
Heaney uses a metaphor comparing them to dogs to depict their behavior as they circled the car “snuffing and pointing / The muzzle” of the gun. Unlike an encounter earlier on in the point, he gives his name clearly to the police officer.
This police officer then proceeds to read his “letters at the roadblock”. One of these pieces of paper contained some of Deane’s writings that were beyond their understanding. To these men, they read like hieroglyphics. Ulster may have been British by these officers did not understand anything of “The English lyric”. In a powerful concluding statement, Heaney adds that the atmosphere during this time period was like “the ministry of fear,” although at the time they hadn’t “named it”.