A rich body of mythology and literature has grown around the Celtic ritual known as the Feis of Tara or “marriage of sovereignty”—ancient ceremonies in which the future king pledges to care for the land and serve the goddess of sovereignty. Seamus Heaney, whose writing has attracted the overwhelming share of critical attention directed toward contemporary Irish poetry, has engaged this symbolic tradition in some of his most significant—and controversial—work.
Seamus Heaney and the Emblems of Hope explores Heaney’s use of the family of sovereignty motifs and redresses the imbalance of criticism that has overemphasized the theme of sacrifice to the detriment of more optimistic symbols. Moreover, Moloney reviews the development of the marriage motif in Irish poetry from the ninth to the twenty-first centuries with a focus on Heaney’s adaptations from The Frenzy of Sweeney and The Midnight Court and on the work of such poets as Kinsella, Montague, Boland, and Ní Dhomhnaill. Karen Marguerite Moloney examines the central role that Heaney assigns the Feis of Tara in his response to the crisis of Ulster and to the general spiritual bankruptcy of our times, showing in his verse how the relationship of the male lover to the goddess—particularly in her more repugnant guises—serves as prototype for the humility and deference needed to repair the effects of English colonization of Ireland and, by extension, centuries of worldwide patriarchal abuse.
Through close, sustained readings of poems previously overlooked or misinterpreted, such as “Ocean’s Love to Ireland,” “Come to the Bower,” and “Bone Dreams”—poems that Irish feminist critics have deemed flawed and distressingly sexist—Moloney refutes views that have long stood unchallenged. She also considers the direction of Heaney’s more recent poems, which continue to resonate to the twin demands of conscience and artistic integrity.
An impeccably researched and immensely readable work, Seamus Heaney and the Emblems of Hope reveals that Heaney’s poetry offers a reverence for archetypal femininity and Dionysian energy that can counter the sterility and violence of postcolonial Irish life. Moloney shows us that, in the tradition of poets who preceded him, Heaney turns to the marriage of sovereignty to encode a message for our times—and to offer up emblems of hope on behalf of us all.