In ‘The Peninsula‘ Seamus Heaney recommends taking a drive around the Ards Peninsula in order to help overcome writer’s block. The poem appears to suggest that close proximity to the natural world is conducive to creative production, implying that the urban, human world can be stifling and detrimental to the life of a poet.
‘The Peninsula‘ takes the reader on a journey with the poet, during which they encounter nature and tussle with the nature of creativity.
The poem begins with the assertion that the narrator has run out of words and reveals that this absence was the catalyst for the drive around the titular peninsula. Perhaps ironically, the poem then offers a beautiful and lyrical description of the narrator’s surroundings, indicating he was right to go there as they have inspired him and he has managed to find the language he lacked previously. However, the poem’s final stanza makes clear that this epiphany took place over time and that he was only able to conjure the images in retrospect.
You can read the full poem here.
Like much of Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney’s work, ‘The Peninsula‘ displays an intimacy with the landscape of Heaney’s native Northern Ireland. Having launched his career with the acclaimed collection, Death of a Naturalist, in 1966, Heaney’s voice became particularly resonant due to his poems and their relationship to The Troubles. In his 2009 book of interviews, Stepping Stones, Heaney revealed that ‘The Peninsula‘ drew heavily upon memories of real drives he took to the Ards Peninsula in the 1960s with his friend and fellow poet Michael Longley and his wife.
When you have nothing more to say, just drive
For a day all round the peninsula.
The sky is tall as over a runway,
The land without marks, so you will not arrive
The use of the direct address in the first line creates a conversational tone, as though Heaney were offering a fellow poet advice. It is possible that the poem is directed to Heaney himself, who suffered from writer’s block on occasion. The first line is also hyperbolic, as demonstrated by the existence of the poem itself which proves Heaney had much more to say. This hyperbole reflects the manner in which writer’s block can feel overwhelming and eradicate the poet’s confidence entirely.
The simile in the third line emphasizes the scale of the natural world and also evokes the kind of excitement one experiences when they are about to take off in a plane. However, this sense of possibility is juxtaposed by the metaphorical final line, which reminds the reader that there is no destination. This contrast can be viewed as a microcosm of the experience of artistic production, which is both limitless in scope but resists any form of completion.
But pass through, though always skirting landfall.
And you’re in the dark again. Now recall
The second stanza features some of the poem’s most beautiful descriptions of the peninsula at sundown. It focuses particularly on peripheral spaces such as the horizon, perhaps indicating that this is where the poet drew inspiration from. The horizon and fields are also personified in order to lend the natural world a degree of agency, suggesting it is capable of both resisting and acquiescing to the poet’s wishes. Finally, the poet uses the darkness of night to represent the absence of creative spark, reminding the reader that inspiration comes and goes like the passing of night and day.
The glazed foreshore and silhouetted log,
Islands riding themselves out into the fog,
These lines focus on the narrator’s obscured perception of objects out at sea, as shown through the adjective “silhouetted” and the reference to the fog. When read alongside the violent imagery of the second line, this preoccupation with obscurity lends the stanza an almost gothic undertone, as if it were acting as a warning against writing at all, or perhaps simply against resisting writer’s block when it inevitably arrives. The third line’s reference to the birds is significant because it twice mentions the birds’ legs. This reminds the reader that the birds are not flying, which would ordinarily be regarded as their natural motion, in order to show the effects that a lack of creative spark can have on an artist by suggesting they have been robbed of their normal abilities.
And drive back home, still with nothing to say
Water and ground in their extremity.
The use of the imperative verb in the opening line reinforces the notion that the poem is addressed to a fellow writer and is, in some way, intended to be instructional. It is also ironic that the narrator claims nothing has changed and that they are still uninspired given the fact the drive has yielded an entire poem.
The poem’s final lines offer a glimpse into Heaney’s understanding of creativity, which is rooted in the verb “uncode.” This word belies the concept that artists create their art, and instead suggests that poets and writers merely unravel the mysteries that already surround them but are dormant. This interpretation is strengthened by the use of the word “clean” which implies the role of the artist is to polish and uncover the beauty around them.
The landscape is often important in Heaney’s work as it serves to ground the poem in his native Northern Ireland. In this poem more specifically, the setting was inspired by a real place, the Ards Peninsula, which Heaney visited regularly in the 1960s. The decision to refer to it namelessly in the poem implies that there is something about peninsulas more broadly that Heaney wished to explore. Peninsulas extend from the land into the sea and are almost entirely surrounded by water. Heaney could be implying that, in order to restore one’s creativity, a person must put themselves out of their comfort zone and immerse themselves in nature.
The poem features four quatrains, with each line containing roughly ten syllables. Curiously, the poem’s rhyme scheme grows more obvious as the stanzas pass, establishing an ABBA pattern in the final stanza whereas previous ones featured half-rhymes. This development could symbolize the poet’s returning confidence in their own artistic abilities.
The major themes of the poem are creativity and its relationship to the natural world. To Heaney, nature was complex and served to both inspire and frustrate his poetic endeavors. Above all though, nature was a source of restoration for the poet when he went through moments of artistic and personal strife.
In the poem the fog, as it does in real life, obscures the poet’s surroundings from view. Symbolically, this could embody the poet’s frustration as he feels the inspiration he is looking for is close but he cannot see it. The fog also serves to show the boldness that artists possess, as they are able to press forth into the unknown when many others would decide against it out of fear.
Readers who enjoyed ‘The Peninsula‘ might want to explore more of Seamus Heaney’s poetry. For example:
- ‘Docker‘ – A poem that is also concerned with the border of land and sea, but this time one that has been industrialized and robbed of its beauty.
- ‘Storm on the Island‘ – This poem displays the natural world at its most powerful and awe-inspiring, as well as explores the relationship it has with humanity.
Some other poems which might be of interest include:
- ‘Finisterre‘ by Sylvia Plath – This poem similarly explores the human experience through the lens of the ocean.
- ‘On the Sea‘ by John Keats – A sonnet that explores the mystical power of the sea.